Juggling the needs and schedules of three bands sounds daunting, but to hear Chris Carrabba tell it, it's a necessary part of his creativity, with each band benefiting the others. After reaching success with Dashboard Confessional in the early 2000s, he rejoined the reactivated band Further Seems Forever in 2010, and debuted the Americana and folk-influenced Twin Forks in 2013. All three bands have new albums in various stages of completion -- new Dashboard and Twin Forks albums are "pretty close to done," while a new Further Seems Forever EP is "in gestation" -- and Carrabba has been performing live with multiple bands, sometimes within days of each other.
We spoke with Carrabba backstage before a show in Michigan in the midst of a spontaneously-arranged Twin Forks tour, and discussed the way his various bands create a positive feedback loop for his writing, his preconception-smashing Axl Rose experience, and why he gave Kiss albums to his aspiring drummer nephew.
AllMusic: What's the particular itch that Twin Forks scratches for you?
Chris Carrabba: With this band, I embrace my earliest influences, the stuff I listened to when I was really young. When I first picked up an acoustic guitar to start doing Dashboard, I avoided those influences, because I wasn’t good enough to honor that template, and it took me a while before I felt like I was. And once I felt like I could have something to say well, and a way to write well using those mile markers, I felt excited about doing it. And this band has its own camaraderie and that's important to me.
AllMusic: When you're writing, do you immediately know where each song will land?
Carrabba: Almost always. There’s a style of storytelling to each of the bands that I’m in, so it doesn’t so much always stem from the melody or the strumming pattern or the melodic information from the guitar, it often has to do more with where the story is coming from and what the story is saying. I almost always know the correct answer for which band it’s for, but I don’t always know. I recently looked at the pile of songs and said, “That one’s in the wrong pile.”
AllMusic: Do you find that you carry yourself different physically in the three bands?
Carrabba: I absolutely do, and it’s derived from my bandmates. In Further Seems Forever, those guys are physical giants, very big dudes, so most of my stage presence is about trying not to get crashed into or crashed between these giant guys. I’ve had my ribs broken onstage from headstocks of their guitars, and I’ve been knocked off the stage by them. In Twin Forks, there’s a bit of an infectious ease that permeates the physicality of what we do that borders on dancing. In Dashboard, I’m tethered to the mike because they’re very wordy songs, and I feel like I don’t move, but then somebody will show me a video and I’m bouncing around like crazy, so that’s the tension built up within the song that’s coming out physically. But I physically manifest something different while interpreting the songs with each band.
AllMusic: With as many commitments are you have, are you still able to do impulsive things with your career?
Carrabba: My calendar is mapped out pretty far ahead, but I’m absolutely able to be impulsive. This tour is a reflection of that, we were all in my basement, hanging around, talking about what’s coming up, and we realized we all had a hole in the schedule at the same time, and we thought about recording music together, and I said, “We could go on tour,” and that was just two and a half weeks ago. Now we’re on tour. Is it the best way to promote a tour? Probably not, but it’s not as adventurous, you have to have some adventure. It was more about, “Let’s go out together and chase the muse a little.”
AllMusic: Has your creativity been impacted by the recent political climate?
Carrabba: I’m just coming out of a mourning period, and the disbelief that I had was really deep. Watching the reality of this new climate has been stifling for me as a writer, because I have so many things to say, and often times, when I have so many things to say, I don’t know where to start, and that can create a bit of a writers’ block for me. I am influenced by the state of society as a writer, and I have a theory that no matter what, everybody thinks a guy’s writing about a girl and a girl’s writing about a guy whenever they hear a song, and that’s really not the case with so many songs. What they seem to be on the surface isn’t what they are underneath.
When I’m being reactive as a writer, I’m waiting to find out what’s underneath. I hope what it looks like on the surface isn’t what it’s like underneath, because the surface just looks arcane. I hate to be hyperbolic, but it’s a frightening time for people that are socially progressive, and for a society that fought hard for many, many decades to be socially progressive, and to have equality be part of the big stamp of being American. It’s never finished, the civil rights movement isn’t finished, so there’s still going to be challenges for everything. It’s not like there weren’t going to be challenges for gay folks or people who are trans. No matter who had won, the challenges were going to remain, but we had made a societal leap in understanding each other, and the door came down quick.
AllMusic: A decade ago you had said you would regularly buy as many as 10 albums a week, have you kept up that pace?
Carrabba: When I’m making a record, I swear off new music, because I don’t want to get sucked into that fruitless hunt for trying to be contemporary. I’ll only listen to songs or bands that have already clearly influenced me, because they’re already a part of how we sound and part of me as a writer. The moment I’m done with a record, I’m on a major catch-up, and I love it, because it’s a huge reward for a music collector like me. I loved the first Frank Ocean record, but I won’t let myself buy the new one yet, because I’m not done with my record. Not that I’d sound like Frank Ocean, but it’s just an example. I’m almost finished, and I’m so excited. I buy the vinyl and don’t open the plastic on the outside. I have my neat and clean record collection, and then I have records piled on top of my piano and on top of my record player, all these new records I can’t listen to, and that keeps me motivated. “Here’s the carrot at the end of the stick.”
AllMusic: You've also spoken about how your mom helped nurture your musical appreciation from a young age. Have you been able to pass that down to the next generation of your family?
Carrabba: One of my nephews was starting to play drums, and they get really into bands they see on tour with me, like they just love Saosin, but you have to be a great drummer to pull that off, and he’s going to be one day, but there’s some fundamentals in between. So I gave him a Kiss record, and I’m not super into Kiss, but the drummer of Burning Airlines told me that if anybody wants to play drums, they just have to learn by playing with a Kiss record, so I bought two or three Kiss records for them, and lo and behold, he can play through whole songs now, which is the first step.
AllMusic: Is there one album session you especially wish you could have witnessed?
Carrabba: I think there’s been enough recreations of the Pet Sounds sessions that I feel like I’ve seen it, especially with Love & Mercy, but some years ago, I would have said that.
I can think of three: any Fugazi record, I’d be mystified to figure out how those songs become songs, because their level of composition is elite, and I wonder, do they write it in a garage, does it happen in the studio when those four guys are together? Is it a combination of them? And the Pixies records, you can pick any one, I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall. With the oddity of what’s happening on almost every song, I’d have loved to have heard them respond to the producer, who was probably saying, “That’s not a good idea,” and to hear them say, “No, it’s a great idea, and we know, because we’re the Pixies.” I have to imagine someone was trying to straighten out their songs, and if they had succeeded, they wouldn’t be the Pixies that we know. And probably Weezer’s blue record, that would be the other one, because it seems like Rivers was, and still is, a craftsman that’s unparalleled when it comes to songs, but the vision he had, and I’m assuming it was his, was so specific, that in my imagination, he was running the show, not Ric [Ocasek]. I doubt that’s true, but I’d have loved to have seen that for myself to see what was going on.
AllMusic: My answer would be Chinese Democracy, but that would have had to be a big chunk of my life.
Carrabba: I hope Tommy [Stinson, former GNR bassist] writes a book about it. He got to do that great solo record in what was probably a 10,000-dollar-a-day studio because Axl just didn’t show up that month or whatever. I remember we were rehearsing next to Guns N’ Roses, and they invited us in, and it dispelled everything you'd heard. This was during the Chinese Democracy thing, when it was at the height of, “Axl’s a shut-in, Axl’s a weirdo, Axl’s mean,” all these things, and he just was like, “Hey, what are you doing?” “Oh, we’re rehearsing.” “Us, too! Come in!” And we came in, and they played, and it was pretty incredible.
AllMusic: Have you ever tested someone's taste by playing an album for them and watching their reaction?
Carrabba: Yeah, shamefully, probably every girlfriend I’ve ever had. There’s something telling about it. Guys are peculiar animals; I don’t know that we know how we feel all the time and know what we need from someone else so that we can feel a certain way when connecting with people. But somehow music does that for us, it makes you feel like, “This is who I am,” whatever record that is. If you play that for somebody and they don’t get it, you’re like, “They’re never going to know who I am,” or they just have terrible taste in music, which is also bad. But just as my cousin Sal and stepbrother and people turned me on to music, it was also a girlfriend who turned me on to Fugazi, and she literally changed my life in one listen. “Oh, I’ve been doing it wrong, this is what it’s supposed to be, this is what music is supposed to be,” and she might have been testing me. I passed that test, I guess.
AllMusic: When you're writing, do you have to narrow your focus to one band until you finish?
Carrabba: I’m able to divert my attention, I’ve found that one feeds the other, like live shows and recording. We used to make sure that halfway through recording a record, we’d go on tour, so we’d come back and know for sure, not from road-testing the songs, but we’d hear them back and know whether they were going to work, because we’d just been with the audience intimately. We didn’t bat 1.000 on it, but we got a good feeling about it, and more often than not, we felt that what we wrote next was the most pertinent to the moment. The same is true with bouncing between the bands, because it’s the same singer and that makes it seem similar, but to me, they’re very, very different. Getting a good song out of one band does carry over, you carry the excitement over to the next one. And I’m not using one to get to the other, but it’s also pretty good when you bottom out on a song on a project and can say, “I’m going over there, I’ll try that.”
AllMusic: Having made such emotionally-driven music over the years, your fans seem especially eager to tell you what your music has meant to them. Have you had the chance to be that fan with any of your musical heroes?
Carrabba: I try to tamp it down a little. Like when U2 took us on tour, I didn’t jump right out of the box and say, “Hey, when I heard Boy…” and go into it, but one night we started talking about music, and I was able to say what any fan would hope to say about a band that they loved to the band that they loved. I’ve had some absolutely incredible moments with my musical heroes. That in and of itself is the reward for the work I’ve put in. The career is the real reward, but like how other people want to buy fancy cars and stuff, I feel like the brass ring is that I’ve gotten to meet my heroes and say thanks and find out that they’re just regular people who are kind of awesome.
AllMusic: Were there any particular times when you felt you'd really gotten through to someone and shared a moment?
Carrabba: I was talking to Bono about becoming obsessed with Joshua Tree, and it hit me at a time in my life when I needed the record, it made so much sense to me, a burgeoning singer, starting to figure out what melodies are, what composition is, and he just looked at me and was like, “This is why I wanted you on tour,” and I was like, “Why?” and he said, “Because you write songs the way you want songs to be written, and when we were making that record, so many people told us it needed to be like this or like that, but we knew it needed to be like what it was.” And I was like, “Wow, I just got a turnaround compliment while I was giving one from one of my biggest heroes.”
AllMusic: "Block out the noise" sounds like good advice, but following through on it is difficult.
Carrabba: It can be, and I haven’t always been able to block it out. I failed at it a couple of times, there’s a record and a half where I’d say I tried to believe that it was foolish to be so cocky, and I should listen to people with years and years of track records to prove that I would benefit from following their instincts. I don’t necessarily think that I did. Perhaps I didn’t follow them well enough, or perhaps I was too eager to follow them, I’m not sure.
AllMusic: Does it bother you, knowing that music is out there?
Carrabba: It puts me in a weird position, like how we all are with certain bands, where you love a band up to a point, and then they make a record that doesn’t resonate with you and you just decide, “I like their old stuff better.” I’m in that weird position where I like my old stuff better, but recognizing that fact and having that inform my writing now is a really important revelation. The progression of music as a writer is about forward momentum and growing, otherwise, what’s the point? I have an audience that wants to hear the songs I’ve written already, so I can just do that. If I want to write songs, there’s got to be growth, there has to be depth, but I had to go back and figure out, “Where was this fork in the road, and what if I had taken the other fork?” I’ve gone back and done it, I’m chasing it up the other path, and I really feel connected to the songs I’ve got now in a way I haven’t felt with all of the songs on the last couple of records.