Monday, March 28, 2016

Interview: Chris Carrabba of Twin Forks and Dashboard Confessional (February 17th, 2014)

Last week, I got the chance to chat with Chris Carrabba (of Dashboard Confessional and Further Seems Forever fame) about his new band, Twin Forks. During the interview, Carrabba opened up about his long-held aspiration to pursue folk music, the slow and steady formation of the new band, an upcoming tour with Augustana, his current feelings about his other musical projects, his opinions on the modern mainstream folk resurgence, and his friendship with Butch Walker. (Note: Click here to read my review of the new Twin Forks record. In addition, you can find Twin Forks on Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, and on their own website by using the search term "Twin Forks Music" in a Google search.)

Craig Manning: First of all, love the new record, really pleased with how that turned out. How did the Twin Forks project come together initially? What influenced your songwriting direction?

Chris Carrabba: Well the band came together…let’s see, let’s just retrace this correctly. Well, I had these songs that I wanted to record – some covers and some originals. The covers were mostly folk stuff I’d grown up listening to and some outlaw country stuff. I ran into Ben, I was playing a Dashboard show at the Troubadour, and Ben had played a few nights before, so the Bad Books guys all showed up.

I asked Ben, who I knew was a producer, if he’d help me out with this stuff. So I started working with Ben on these covers, and then he had to go out and tour with one of the 1,500 bands that he’s in, and so then I got a friend, a guy named Jonathan Clark, to help me with the covers record. So that was the impetus. And these guys hadn’t met, but what they had in common was they had these indomitably positive attitudes, which I found incredibly infectious.

So we worked on these covers [for the 2011 album, Covered In The Flood], and then I started thinking. Ben was still on the road, and Jonathan and I started talking, “Well what could be next?” And I had a lot of Dashboard stuff begun, but maybe not…I wasn’t sure how I was feeling about all that. And at one point he said, “Well why are you…” You know, we had just done all these covers, and if I’m left to my own devices, just sitting around making music, playing music, what I end up playing is stuff from my earliest influences, like Townes Van Zandt songs or Steve Earle songs. I play a lot of, like Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan, just the stuff that as a kid I was exposed to that helped me learn to play guitar and compose. And…he said, “Why are you afraid to do what you love?”

That was a really profound kind of question that I didn’t have an answer too. So that was the first seed planted for going back to my earliest roots. And then, I have a…there’s a composer in San Francisco, her name is Dawn and she’s a mentor to a lot of bands, legendary promoter. One of the things she does is called “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.” So at this point, I’ve begun writing what I guess would have been a Chris Carrabba record, so like, a pretty delicate…like Nick Drake, Alexi Murdoch kind of record. A lot of finger picking, very understated. I thought it was very charming. It felt really good. And she invited me to play this Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. And it was under my own name, there was no Twin Forks, there wasn’t anything. And in the course of this, Ben had come back from his tour, so it was now the three of us working together, and as soon as we started playing together, there was this really magical spark.

But here I’ve got Jonathan, who’s really busy, me in a band that’s really busy. I got Ben, who’s as busy as anybody I know. And so we just kept saying to each other, “We’re not a band, we’re not a band.” So when we got the opportunity to do the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, we said “What a great thing. We can kind of go up there and pretend to be a band and have like a weekend of exciting role play,” or something. (Laughs) So we walked onstage saying “We’re not a band” and we walked offstage saying “We’re a band.” Something happened on that…in the course of that show that just felt radical, like something was changing.

So we came back, and one of the things that we realized was that those small and delicate songs that I wrote, while I loved them – still do – what I loved more was when we played some of the covers that had that boot-stomping thing that really let Ben and John shine. And so we came back and I just began writing from there, where that’s the kind of music I was developing. I’d write a song in the afternoon, we’d listen to it in the late afternoon, and then we’d get in the room together and play it live. So what you got was a really fresh and new song and a really reactionary approach to recording it. And we’re in the same room and there’s all this mic bleed, and I was thinking we were doing demos until we listened back and we though “Oh yeah, that antiseptic thing we’ve all been taught to do in the studio is not going to represent this band well.” This band needed to be represented by the the messy stuff of making the record too.

CM: Yeah, it’s really more organic sounding than the later full-band Dashboard stuff.

CC: Yeah, because the more there is on the line – you know, bigger labels, bigger expectations – there’s a feeling that there’s a way to [make a record] that’s really specific. And that’s like everybody in a different room. Like, “You’ve had your time to play together, now everybody go into a different room and play separately.” And that has its place, and some great, great records are made that way. I don’t know what ones are and what ones aren’t, but like, if you were to tell me that – just to pick one out of the hat – a Killers record was made separately with everybody in the room, I would say there’s no drawback to that, because the power was what was captured. Or Say Anything, another one that has more chaos in it. If you were to tell me that [all the band members] were all in different rooms, I’d say “So what,” you know? It’s not a hard fast rule as long as the power is captured. I think for Dashboard, on the last record or two, sometimes we captured the power, sometimes we didn’t. That’s only my opinion. With Twin Forks, [the different rooms thing] just never would have resonated. It would have been this really clean, maybe forgettable thing. Or sound. The songs I think would still have power, but the sound of it would maybe not have as much.

So then, once the record was done, we started thinking about what would be cool as far as extra instrumentation, and Ben played the drums, and John and I played pretty much everything else on the record. And then we were…looking for that last bit that would make it just right, and I had all these great idea for harmonies, and I would have John or Ben sing the harmonies on the record, or I would sing them – which I never really like to do that, then it sounds like what I call “wall of Chris,” which I don’t really care for that.

And so we thought about Suzie because she had done the cover record with us and she’s such a lovely girl. Well…that’s too small a statement, but she really is…her positivity is on par with what I described from those other two guys, you know? Collectively, those three have like, rays of sunshine hanging out of their ass. You can’t bring them down. Sometimes, the work of being in band…being in a band is the best. It’s work though. Nobody really wants to know that. You don’t want to know how sausages are made, right? But a lot of it can wear you out, can bring you down, can bring me down. Not these guys.

So all of that being said, that was the final piece of the puzzle. We invited Suzie to come down and sing. I mean, first thing we did was play together, and it was like, “Oh yeah, there’s no question here.” And then we began to record that stuff and it was just…I’ve rarely had such an ease with decision-making. So anyway, that’s how the band came together, and then we did the one show about a year ago and…man, I just can’t believe it. I can’t believe I get another chance in the batter’s box.

CM: The album has been billed as along the same lines as the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, and other modern folk bands. Folk in general has been able to recapture a place in the mainstream as of late. Were you inspired by the way that listeners seem to be opening up their ears to these older, more traditional styles of music again?

CC: I am now, that’s for sure. Without a doubt. When I began doing it, those bands existed, but they were on the climb. They were just being introduced to the world. I think I’d heard that first Mumford song a couple of times, and I was like, “Wow, that’s it, they got that right, really exciting, love the song.” But I didn’t expect that to work at top 40 radio. I didn’t expect what I was doing to work at top 40 radio. I’ve made a pretty great career out of being on the fringe, being a niche artist. I’ve had some good showings of almost getting some radio recognition, some top 40 success if you will, but only really come close to it. “Stolen” did pretty well on the radio. But generally speaking, I think my whole career was made in a niche scene, and that’s just what I expected with Twin Forks. I thought it would be an even smaller niche.

I’m going to repeat myself here, so if you see this in other interviews, forgive me, but it really is something I stand by with these bands: the Lumineers, the Avetts, the Mumfords, and what have you. Those bands write hit songs. I find it really lucky for me that they are interested in the same kind of instrumentation that I find really interesting. But I think all of those bands write these songs that are powerful hits songs that are just plain hit songs. They’re just incredible. They transcend the style in which they’re played in. [The bands] could have written them as piano ballads, or as the post new wave kind of stuff. But they happened to choose the kind of music and style that I’m so drawn to and that I love so much. I think there would have probably been a period before those bands were on the radio where if a song came on the radio or on Spotify or in a friend’s car that had a mandolin in it, it would be like an immediate skip track or change channel [for mainstream music listeners]. It would have been off-putting. But [the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons] have made it inviting to people to stay on that station, stay on that song, stay with it for a minute, and then if the song’s good, they stay with it.

That’s a really lucky thing for me. I will admit to still being a bit shocked that that actually happened. I think we’re really lucky because I think there was a minute that I though, “If they’re doing that, then we can’t do that.” And then I thought to myself, “Well, it took me a long, long time to get to a place to do this, and I’m here now. I’m not going to run to some other setting because another band exists that does this well.” Because, to be frank, Bob Dylan did it well; Paul Simon did it well; the Eagles did it well. So I thought, “There’s room for us.” I still believe we’ll be a niche band. It would be great [to hit it big] but I don’t have any designs on top 40 radio. All I know that I get to do what I love, and thanks to those bands, people might give it a full listen instead of a 20 second listen.

CM: You guys released an EP last fall, and I think a lot of people sort of thought that was going to be the extent of the project. Did you always intend to drop the EP to gain interest and then go ahead with the full length shortly after or what?

CC: The full-length was done, and it wasn’t about building interest, but an excuse to get on tour. Because we’d found a record deal and it was like, “Well the record can come out in January,” and we were like, “Next January?! Is there any way…anything, just to go on tour?” Because I think I’ve made no bones about my draw to the touring world, it’s just where I feel most centered. So they let us do the EP. They kind of just said “If you’re expecting a lot of promotion for an EP, let’s temper the expectations, but if you want to put this EP out and just go on tour, you absolutely have our blessing. And when it comes time to release this record, it will be our time to shine. The label’s time to shine.” But [the EP] was never intended as the be all and end all, and it wasn’t really intended as a thing to stoke a future fire. For me, it was a means to an end to be out in front of people.

CM: How did you choose the songs from the album that did and did not make the EP? I was really interested when I heard the full album, because even though it’s half the same songs, I think it has a completely different mood and personality and pacing. You saved a lot of the slower, more balladic tracks for the LP, and the EP was more of the more upbeat, handclap stuff. Was that a conscious decision? Were those the songs you wanted to play live, so they got on the EP?

CC: Probably, probably so. We didn’t put all the hand-clappers on the EP. There’s still a few that we saved for the record. But that’s the piece of the band that I think encapsulates the identity of the band more than anything else, so that’s the choice that was made.

CM: Listening to this record compared to some of the Dashboard stuff, I think there were definitely folk stylings sort of creeping in on the last few records, specifically with the acoustic version of Alter the Ending and on the second half of that record with songs like “Even Now” and “Water & Bridges” and “Hell on the Throat,” I think those were sort of moving in the style that you’re doing with this. Were you already sort of thinking about writing folk songs back then, or was it just what you were listening to and it was a subconscious thing.

CC: I think it was a little subconscious in that some of those influences were just coming out happenstance. Because I wasn’t…as I mentioned to you, I hadn’t quite had that epiphany yet that I was allowed to make that kind of music, that I was going to allow myself to make that kind of music. Interesting that you say that, because I haven’t really thought about that, but I totally agree with you. Like specifically “Hell on the Throat.” That’s pretty much just a folk song. And now that I think about it, especially the acoustic version of “Water and Bridges.” The style of that, the structure of that is a folk song. Interesting, interesting. Sometimes you do things subconsciously before you are consciously aware that the path is there.

CM: Speaking of Alter the Ending, I think come November, it will have been five years since that album came out. Dashboard Confessional hasn’t released an album this decade. What’s the status of that project? Is it done? Is it indefinitely on hold? Do you have plans to record another Dashboard album at any point in the near future?

CC: I love Dashboard. I love my bandmates so much. You know, it’s family. And of course I love those songs. Those songs defined my life, and I don’t mean that the songs themselves chronicled my life, I mean the fact that those songs existed in the world gave me a life that I wouldn’t have lived otherwise. I have every intention of being in Dashboard again. I don’t know when is right. I’ve felt at times since Alter the Ending that it was something I should push real hard for, before maybe interest ran out – I mean the band’s interest – or we just slipped into that forgotten pile of record collections. But neither of those are really the right reasons to make records. The right reasons to make records is cause you…you must make the record. That’s the way you feel. So I’m waiting to feel that way. And I know I will again. But for the time being, that’s how I feel about Twin Forks. And to the degree I hadn’t felt about Dashboard in a bit.

CM: Also sort of on the subject of Alter the Ending, I think comparing that album to this one is interesting because that was, more than I think anything else you’ve done, like this big, bombastic pop production. And you worked with Butch Walker on that, and I just need to ask about him because I’m a huge fan of his work, both as a…a producer and a singer/songwriter and definitely as a live performer. How was the comparison between working with him on this big pop album and then turning around and making this organic, sort of backwoods folk thing? And who produced this record? Was it self-produced by the band?

CC: Yeah, the band produced it, probably in this order: John and then me and Ben tied. We all know how to run the gear, we all know how to structure songs, and we all know how to listen to our gut about what’s right and wrong, so we just did it ourselves. Working with Butch…it’s funny you should bring it up, because I was just texting with Butch this morning about unrelated stuff and non-musical stuff. Just shootin’ it, you know? And I’m a fan of his in exactly the way that you just described that you’re a fan of his. So getting the opportunity to work with a guy like that was a big, big deal for me. And we ended up being kindred spirits and having a real friendship.

There’s no kind of record that Butch couldn’t make. So if I had showed up with songs like [the Twin Forks songs] and said, “can you make a record like this,” you’re telling me Butch Walker couldn’t make the record? (Laughs) The guy’s…there’s very few in his class. But he also, I think, was just…well I’m similar to him in a lot of ways. I’m a writer like he is. I’m a performer like he is. I understand how to work the engineering end of records like he does, and I understand production like he does. There were a lot of times while making that record with Butch that he would turn to me and say, “You can do this.” You know? It’s great to have mentors out there. I’ve spoken about it before. Butch is a good friend, but he’s also a mentor, you know? Like, throwing in little things like that while making a record that had a lot of expectations from the label we were on, that had a definitive style expected…you talked about…did you call it pop, or sleek or something like that?

CM: Yeah, sort of bombastic was what I said.

CC: Yeah, I don’t know. The label had a big…had an opinion in a more…they vocalized it more than they ever had for that record. And so that’s the kind of record we set out to make having been given the marching orders. It was kind of exciting. It was kind of a challenge, like “Can you do this?” “Yeah, I think I can. I think I can do that.” And I’m sure it was reactive to like a couple of the demos I took them that were pretty fully formed and probably sounded like that and they got excited and were like “Yeah, this is it, this is what we want.”

So half the record I did with Adam Schlesinger [of Fountains of Wayne] who’s a real pop guy, and Butch is a rock…guy…believe it or not, though, what he writes…

CM: Oh yeah, he’s definitely a rock guy. (Laughs)

CC: You know, he’s really famous for writing Pink songs and Avril Lavigne songs, but if you ever listen to a Butch Walker song, it’s a rock song.

CM: Yeah, definitely.

CC: So…I can’t remember your actual question, but yeah, I don’t know that Butch decided that’s the style of the record that we were going to make, or I did, or the label did, or we all did. But it is the only one like that that I made, I think.

CM: Definitely. So you’re going on tour with Augustana, right? That’s what’s next?

CC: Yeah, we go to Europe…we go to SXSW, then we go to UK and Europe, and then we come back and do the Augustana tour.

CM: What can fans expect from that tour? Is it going to be all Twin Forks stuff from the new album? Is it going to be a mix between Twin Forks and covers? Are you going to throw in any Dashboard stuff?

CC: I think Twin Forks and covers and Dashboard stuff is a pretty reasonable expectation. I think that, especially when we open for people, they don’t necessarily know who Dashboard was, or they might not know. But in this case, we hosted Augustana, I don’t know, four times or something? So a portion of that audience that came to know Augustana on tour with [Dashboard] will be aware of my other band.

I’m not opposed to playing Dashboard songs. I’m more excited, I’ll be honest with you, to play Twin Forks songs, but I’ve always had – since we started doing this – my own marching orders to myself have been to go out and play Twin Forks songs. And the most I can hope for is that the audience will give Twin Forks a chance to be Twin Forks. And then if I feel like…it’s not about winning [the audience] over, but I feel like if I’ve been given graciousness…like, it’s really hard for me to say no when someone calls out a Dashboard song. It’s a real kindness to allow somebody to grow. To be a fan, become a fan, or just be there to support the challenge of it all. But it’s just really hard to say no when somebody then says, “Play this song I love,” because they’re saying “Play this song that I LOVE,” you know? It’s not like they’re saying “Play this song that…my girlfriend knows!” (Laughs).

But we are really excited to go out with Augustana. It’s been really cool that, so far, two bands that we helped, in whatever small way that we could, established themselves as career touring artists – City and Colour and Augustana – have both turned around and given my new band an opportunity to open for their crowd.

CM: A question from someone on the site: in 2012, you reunited with Further Seems Forever for the first new album in eight years. Was that reunion a one-off kind of deal, or could you see doing another reunion a few years down the road?

CC: Yeah, that’s one the easiest for me to say yes to. Let me re-state that, within the band, it’s easiest for me to say yes to doing the band, because I’m the only one whose job is music. Everybody is really desirous of doing that band. We really enjoy each other. We love each other. We’re talking about childhood friends, you know what I mean? It’s like family. And there’s not really a day or week that goes by where we’re not in contact, and we’re not even in a band together. They’re the most brilliant and funniest guys I’ve ever known in my life. They’re excellent musicians. I’ve seldom been as rewarded through friendships or musical collaborations as I have with these guys.

So my answer is that I really hope we do a lot more. I do understand that it’s going to be less often than any of us would like. I mean, people were patient to wait the eight years the first time, so if they can be a little bit patient along the way as we look for our next opportunity. I don’t know what we would do, I don’t know if like…I’m not sure if people…we toured so little on Penny Black that I’m sure there’s still plenty of places we could go. I mean, people want to hear the old stuff anyway, that’s just the way it works, so I’m not sure that we would make a new record before we toured. I just want to play with those guys in front of people. If it’s up to me – and it might be, I don’t know – I’d like to do shows and tours before another record. I think everybody wants that too, by the way, but it’s a moving target.

CM: Speaking of reunion tours, a few years back, you did a belated 10-year anniversary tour for Swiss Army Romance. And now, I think A Mark, A Mission turned 10 last year. Did you think about going out on the road and doing a few shows to sort of celebrate that?

CC: No, I didn’t think about that. When I did the Swiss Army Romance tour it was because I had talked to so many fans who are still fans from that earliest, earliest stage. And they asked…it was more a foregone conclusion for them that we would be doing something to honor [that album]. And my intention was to go out there and celebrate like, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it, what a great milestone in my life.” But then I realized, this fanbase, in a way that maybe doesn’t happen very often, popularized this band and gave me a career through their own hard work. So I decided to do that Swiss Army tour [as a thank you].

And then the Places anniversary came, and the Mark, A Mission anniversary came, and I look at it and I think, “I’d love to play that record straight.” I’d love to play an audience that wants to hear it. But then I feel a little like…I did that once for Swiss Army, and it just feels like…I don’t know, a money grub? To go out and do it again and again? To do it once was this great thing. To do it every time I have an anniversary sounds a little bit opportunistic. And I thought that outweighed the charm of doing it and I thought it outweighed the positive reaction the idea would get from the fanbase. It felt a little bit disingenuous, just to me.

And then of course, I second guessed myself when I saw some other bands I love go out and do some of these records that I love, and I watched the show, and doing this “I know what this means to them” audience because it means that to me when I see X band do X record. But…it might have been different if we were a full-time band who had released records every year of this decade. Like you said, we haven’t done something this decade. I probably would have done it then, because it wouldn’t have just the one thing we were doing. But that’s the piece of it that made me feel like, “This probably looks like I’m just trying to pay my rent.”

CM: So what’s next for Twin Forks? I mean other than the touring, are you still writing songs for this project and do you see making another record?

CC: Yes and yes. You know, when you stumble upon it – the right thing for the band – the songs begin to form an identity. And everyone in this band, they all seem to think that I stumbled onto the template of the identity of the band really early. And so they literally got out of my way, they left me in a room alone and sat in the next room until I said, “Hey, come check this out.” And now I think they really understand the difference between a folk song that’s great and a Twin Forks song that’s great. So I’m really excited to see what [kind of songwriting] Jonathan brings to the table or what the other members of the band bring to the table, but I’ve already begun writing too.

CM: So do you see Twin Forks being your full-time thing for a while, or are you just going to just sort of keep following your inspiration wherever it leads?

CC: I don’t have any indication that my inspiration going to lead anywhere but Twin Forks for the time being. I don’t know that I’ll feel drawn to Dashboard the way I feel drawn to Twin Forks right now. But it would be really unfair to this fanbase that’s been just sort of waiting [for Dashboard] to make a record just so they can have one, as opposed to because I feel called to do it. And that sound’s way loftier than I intended it, but I think you know what I mean. So yeah, Twin Forks is my band. It’s not my side project. It is my band, and it is my band to the degree that I’ve committed myself to it with everything I’ve got.

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