"...I was this kid with an acoustic guitar playing all these hardcore shows, so I’ve always set myself up for failure."
IT'S BEEN NINE YEARS SINCE THE LAST DASHBOARD CONFESSIONAL ALBUM. WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO COME BACK?
“Back in the day we toured 200, sometimes 300 days a year, and we did that for about a decade. We never really had mainstream radio success, but what we did have was this agreement with our audience that their expectations would be met. Their expectation was that when we went onstage, when I was up there, I was going to give it everything I had. We finished [our last] tour and it was the first time I felt like I couldn’t go any deeper. Maybe if we were a different band and we had radio success or what have you, or if we weren’t a niche band and didn’t have such an incredible audience, it would’ve felt different. We simply felt that we were in danger of phoning it in, so we decided to walk away. We trusted, or I guess hoped, that it would still be there when life experience brought us back to connecting with the songs as deeply as we had before. Needless to say, it was an unpopular decision with our accountant and our record label at the time, but it was what was necessary for us to be able to move forward.”
SO WHAT HAPPENED WHEN YOU WALKED AWAY?
“We took some time and I did my Twin Forks project, the other guys did side-projects, I did a Further Seems Forever record, I did solo work… I didn’t stop making music and I didn’t stop touring, I just stopped touring as Dashboard Confessional. I went back and played the clubs and the basements of the world, and the backyards of the country, and reconnected on a much more individual, personal level. All of a sudden I found myself writing again, and I found myself writing what I knew were Dashboard songs. So the songs came first, not a whole lot but maybe one or two. We spent a lot of time together even when we weren’t doing the band, so we talked about it and decided to do a show. The show was incredible, so we did a tour, and the tour was incredible. We did a few more, and it was an extraordinary time, but now the songs were demanding to be written, although not by anybody but me. The first two records (‘The Swiss Army Romance’ and ‘The Places You’ve Come To Fear The Most’) were made in almost total anonymity, and here I was being able to work privately on this music with nobody pressing me to finish it, and nobody suggesting how songs should sound. I was able to make a record in my basement again, and that record is ‘Crooked Shadows’.”
YOU'RE SEEN AS A FIGUREHEAD OF THE EMO MOVEMENT. DID THAT LEGACY PLAY A PART IN YOU COMING BACK?
“I don’t think it was a reaction to knowing that people connected with my band, but I certainly felt good knowing that the songs I’d already released continued to have life through people sharing them with their friends, or newer bands being influenced by what we’d done. I’m pretty removed from the trappings of stardom, so I think what I connect with is people. That could be someone who comes to my show because they connect with my music when they’re in their car, or it could be because there’s some young superstar that I influenced, and I don’t think one carries more weight than the other. I feel very fortunate that I took some leaps of faith in my career and they’ve generally been received well. Not everything I tried was and certainly there was a backlash against our whole scene that I believe was probably somewhat deserved, but I think everybody did better by being brought down a peg.”
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY BEING BROUGHT DOWN A PEG?
“I think that the scene was born out of a purity; out of likeminded fans with a likeminded ethos and likeminded work ethics. Everybody had a similar approach to what they were willing to reveal in their songs, even if sonically they were taking different approaches. I don’t know if casual listeners can understand the relationship between say, Dashboard Confessional and New Found Glory, because sonically we’re pretty different bands, but we grew up just a few streets away from each other. We came up with the same ideals and ethos, and we worked together. As time went by, newer bands rode in. It seemed like hair and makeup was as important as the idea behind the song, and that was something I didn’t connect with. When done at its best you got something like My Chemical Romance blazing a trail and hanging their hat on a rung that was only occupied by a band like Queen, and I thought that was glorious. That it came out of our scene, of our circle of friends, was just incredible. The part that I didn’t connect with was when certain bands started to use their songs as a platform to brag, and to talk about how much money they had or how wonderful they were. That’s when I checked out. When I say we got knocked down a peg, I think it’s maybe a better choice of words to say we got knocked off our perch a little bit. We weren’t played on the radio - we were kind of whipping boys who were made fun of.”
YOU'RE SOMEONE WHO'S SEEN IT ALL, INCLUDING ACHIEVING PLATINUM ALBUMS. YOU'RE COMING BACK INTO A MUSIC WORLD THAT'S FAR REMOVED FROM THE ONE YOU KNEW. YOU DON'T HAVE TO DO THAT, SO WHAT'S PUSHING THE DECISION?
“I do have to. That was what I was waiting for, this feeling of absolute urgency. When we came back and were doing those first reunion tours, we felt a special connection to our songs that we’d stopped playing. The songs were communicating differently to me and probably to the audience as well, or maybe I was responding to their new take on these old songs. I can’t really tell, but it did kick in that desire, to have new stories to tell.”
'CROOKED SHADOWS' COVERS A LOT OF NEW GROUND SONICALLY - WAS IT A CONSCIOUS DECISION TO KEEP PUSHING THE DASHBOARD SOUND FORWARDS?
“The idea was one of, ‘What would I have done musically if this was my first record, and I had all these things to say and I had all these instruments at my disposal?’ This interest in certain sonic palettes that I have now - am I beholden to the sound that I had before? Is it necessary that I express myself with the tools that I have in hand, as if I’d never made a record before? I think I felt that I could do a few new things and get away with it. I’m pretty sure I could make an acoustic record and people would lose their minds, and it almost feels like a bit of a cheat to me right now. I need the mystery and a little bit of, ‘What happens if I add some other elements in here?’ You’ve got to hear somebody discovering something in a song. The songs themselves, lyrically, are a discovery in and of themselves. I think the music should follow suit.”
IS IT IMPORTANT TO KEEP PUSHING THAT ENVELOPE, ESPECIALLY WHEN BANDS FROM YOUR SCENE AND ERA ARE DOING ANNIVERSARY TOURS LEFT, RIGHT AND CENTRE?
“I think it’s important to me. I can’t speak for anybody else - I’m going to some of those shows because I love those records - but that’s just not where am I right now. I just have to be where I am, and that’s it.”
YOU WORKED WITH CHRISSY COSTANZA ON 'JUST WHAT TO SAY' AND RECENTLY APPEARED ON ALBUMS BY THE LIKES OF NOTHING,NOWHERE.. IN TERMS OF STAYING RELEVANT, IS IT CRUCIAL TO NOT BE BOUND BY GENRE CONSTRAINTS?
“I think that’s been important to me from the beginning. I think the genre I’m from is an outlier - we’ve always operated like everyone is welcome and everyone is invited. We often put bands that don’t make perfect sense on our bills for the same reason that we’ll invite Chrissy to sing with us. In my youth I might’ve thought of it as a crutch, or as something you do when somebody wasn’t able to write on their own. Now I look at it as a much more difficult thing - it’s a difficult process and really rewarding when done right. When nothing,nowhere. asked me to collaborate, there was no question that I was going to do it because I think so highly of him. He’s probably my favourite artist of that kind since The Streets, so it was a big honour to be invited to do that.”
WITH THE FUTURE ALL ABOUT DASHBOARD, HOW DO YOU PLAN ON FITTING THE PAST AND THE PRESENT TOGETHER?
“It’s been my experience that the record you make as a live performer works backwards - you have the record you made recently and then you have the songs that have lived for some time. Those songs can’t live the same way forever because you drive yourself mad playing them exactly the same way for years and years, night after night, but what makes them new is starting to apply the sonic palette from wherever you are today to the songs that you had from before. I try to remember the melody is king, it has its place and you can push it to a certain point, but it must be recognisable. Other than that I feel like you can change the dynamic around it quite a bit.”
DO YOU FEEL LIKE THERE'S A LOT OF PEOPLE TO WIN OVER AGAIN IN 2018?
“It’s funny that you use that term ‘win over’ - that’s what I do every night. I know I don’t write conventional pop songs and that I started out in a really unconventional way in that I was this kid with an acoustic guitar playing all these hardcore shows, so I’ve always set myself up for failure. All you can do is try to win the crowd over, win the listener over, and prove that the songs have power.”
This interview is taken from Issue 236 of Rock Sound.
'Crooked Shadows' is out now via Fueled By Ramen.