Chris Carrabba’s new project Twin Forks sees the Dashboard Confessional frontman discover the freedom to write music inspired by his first influences – and the bandmates to bring his songwriting to a new level.
‘Oh, man. I don’t know what to say,’ that’s the moment I realised confessing I was “like, just your biggest fan” might not have been the most professional move of my career. Luckily, I’d already racked up a long conversation with Twin Forks founder, Dashboard Confessional frontman, and sometime Further Seems Forever vocalist, Chris Carrabba, to somewhat offset it.
You see, it’s quite easy to be awed by a man who is responsible for one of the most criminally underrated post-hardcore albums – FSF’s The Moon is Down – and then went on to create the pop-rock acoustic behemoth that was (and potentially still is, as Chris has put them on hiatus) Dashboard Confessional. Originally consisting of just Chris, an acoustic guitar and a multi-track recorder, it was a combination of his first two LPs, Swiss Army Romance and The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most, that saw Chris garner a devoted and passionate fanbase. Dashboard became the first artist without a platinum record to appear on and record an MTV Unplugged album. Chris’ confessional lyrics combined with some mind-boggling tunings created a perfect storm: catapulting Dashboard to mainstream success and putting Chris at the forefront of what was, at this point, a burgeoning ‘emo’ movement. Dashboard’s MTV Unplugged album would later go platinum.
Over the next decade, Chris would tweak with the Dashboard formula – experimenting with various band sizes and instrumentation, while always keeping a core group of musicians around him – and continue to rack up success, with three gold albums paying testament to that.
So it was something of a surprise that Chris decided to put Dashboard Confessional on hiatus following the release of a covers album in 2011 – which featured the three musicians who would go on to form Twin Forks.
It was just before the release of Twin Forks’ debut album that I was able to chat to Chris. The new LP sees Chris and his new bandmates swap the confessional style of his previous acoustic work for something altogether more celebratory and it slots more neatly into the nu-folk category than anything Chris has previously been associated with. Was it a case of wanting to try something new after feeling constricted writing in Dashboard’s framework? ‘I didn’t [feel constricted] for a long time,’ he replies. ‘But after so many records it’s hard not too. At the beginning it’s sheer adventure, and the fanbase was on the ride with me and they really gave me the go ahead, as long as the songs had amount of heart in it that I put into my earlier work, they wouldn’t necessarily care if it was just me, me in a trio, or me playing an electric guitar. What they were listening for was the heart. But then when I sat down to write the next record [after Alter The Ending] a strange thing happened, I’d just about finished the record – I only had to do some overdubs and mix it – but the main drive and the backups all got erased. So I had a few days of depression over that, but then buckled down to apply myself to do the work again. Now I know I’m not lazy, so doing the work over again wasn’t a problem, but the fact that I didn’t feel the burning passion to get to it and get it done made me think: “Wait a minute, maybe that wasn’t the right record for right now for me.” And that’s when I started to do stuff with a very gentle Travis picking style. So when I was playing stuff in that style I thought: “OK, so it’s a Chris Carrabba record, I get it.” And the reason I thought of it as a Chris Carrabba record is because I was out to satisfy myself first and maybe, in the end, only have satisfied myself.’
Despite Chris’ realisation that he was making a ‘Chris Carrabba record’, it’s not a solo project, and Twin Forks is a supergroup of sorts, with Ben Homola [drums], who has played with Bad Books, Manchester Orchestra and Brand New, joining Jonathan Clark [bass] and Suzy Zeldin [mandolin/vocals] of the Narrative. Chris is clear that it’s a group project too, and credits his band members for reinvigorating his songwriting. ‘Being in a band is hard, it’s hard work and it’s hard to stay positive all the time. And I thought that I know all these people individually, is it possible that I could put them together and the positivity would not be diminished? That seemed unlikely. And more unlikely still, could it be amplified? So, I took a run at it and it was amplified. It was incredible.’
Though Travis picking may have made some fleeting appearances in Dashboard songs, Chris’ playing was more defined by strumming than any other method. So was the move towards Travis picking a conscious decision for reinvention or just a natural progression? ‘It’s a progression. I’d had an elementary grasp on Travis picking for a long time having grown up on that music. I knew how to play it at a very basic level, but there were songs that I heard along the way that just seemed impossible to me. It really got me that one person could do that, and I really wanted to be able to do it, too. On stage or not, it didn’t matter. I just wanted to have that experience. I worked diligently at it, but to really delve into it, it’s a really, really deep thing. I also knew that if I radically changed my approach to how I write on the guitar – which wasn’t to say that I wasn’t going to strum again – I figured it would give me an inroad that would instantly lead me to a different place than the kind of playing I did in my previous band. It wasn’t the directive when I started learning it. It wasn’t “learn it so I can write differently,” it was just “learn it so I can love it”. But it did lead me to something really new and special. In the past year I’ve been working on bluegrass flatpicking to the same degree and it’s really broadened my playing.’
Chris, despite his measured tones, is infectiously enthusiastic about Twin Forks, and this enthusiasm is evident on many of the songs on the album. While Chris is keen to point out that his work on Dashboard was ‘cathartically joyous’, he admits that playing and recording with Twin Forks is more celebratory.
‘While my bandmates in Dashboard are among the best players I’ve ever known and certainly among the best people I’ve ever known – they’re family to me at this point – I would not necessarily say that they… well, I don’t know for a fact how they felt about certain emotionality in certain songs. They’re not the sort of people who discuss that stuff much. It just so happens that the people in Twin Forks discuss it openly. And that leads to how we handle it on stage.’
‘In this band, it’s this weird attitude of how little can we do with our instrument, but how much can we pour out of ourselves to improve the song. And that’s really the reason we decided to record it live. I said: “Guys, if we do this live and someone does something I like I’m going to cheer it. I can’t not.” The record was produced by Jonathan, myself and Ben and one of the things Jonathan said was: “So what if you’re going to clap and cheer and whistle? What’s the worst that’s going to happen?” So we allowed ourselves not to have this sterilised environment that you often get, and need, when recording. The first time we were recording with Suzie there was a moment that made me go “Woo” – you can just hear her laugh… and it’s on the record. It’s my favourite moment on the whole thing. It symbolises to me that Jon was right, it’s not about being pristine, it’s about giving an honest portrayal of what the record’s about.’
Jonathan Clark’s advice may also have inadvertently led to creation of Twin Forks’ sound in the first place: ‘When I was labouring over the decision – when I thought there was a decision – about what stylistically represented where I wanted to be next and we were just sitting around playing guitar together in someone’s back yard Jonathan turned to me and said: “Why don’t you just do that? The only thing you ever play when you just have a guitar in your hand is like folk music or outlaw country music.” I said I didn’t know and he just said: “Maybe you ought not be afraid of that” – and that was a big wide door being opened for me.’
The most important thing about advice is that you’re in a position to accept it, and I ask if Chris he would have had the confidence to make the most of the advice 10 years ago. ‘No, I wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t have had that confidence – and to illustrate that I could talk about the early days of Dashboard. What I did, and I think this was conscious, is I started working in reverse order of my influences. So I’d just been in a real math-rock band and the next thing before that was post-hardcore, like Quicksand, and punk rock like Green Day and Face to Face. And I think I emulated those kind of melodies and emulated that bass drum groove with my right hand on the guitar, and that got me away from sounding like a folk musician, even though it was just me by myself on the first Dashboard record, so I was attempting to be the whole band with my right hand. It was important for me that people couldn’t recognise my influences. And even for me, if I thought it sounded too much like Townes van Zandt I’d stop writing that song. I thought if people could trace it back to post-punk or post-hardcore or pop-punk at least I was doing something new and inventive with that. Now, as a seasoned played, I understand a very simple rule that worked for hundreds of years, all the way from the first rock and roll record through folk music, modern pop and hip-hop, and that is there is a template, and your job is to excel within it. I think I was too worried about the template being identified than to even worry about whether I was excelling within it. Now I look at it like this is a template and it’s my job to excel within it, and in that attempt will be where my unique voice shows through. It was liberating to learn that. I feel liberated even just repeating it to you right now. I don’t have a guitar in my hand to prove it, but there’s so much freedom. This is my job and I get to do it and all I have to do is do it well – so well that I’m excelling within the parameters of a time honoured tradition, which it turns out is even harder!’
One thing that makes Chris’ job easier is his acoustic guitar collection – which is populated mostly by C.F Martin & Co. models. This came as something as a surprise to me, having seen Chris wielding Gibson acoustics most famously on his Unplugged appearance. ‘I was endorsed – and still am for electrics – by Gibson for Dashboard. They’re a great company and they treat everyone so well; I had no real designs on leaving. It wasn’t like I was on the hunt or anything. But some years ago I was making a record with Daniel Lanois [2006’s Dusk & Summer]. Daniel is a genuinely incredible producer, and there’s something mystical about this guy. Just in the middle of tracking stuff it was like a light bulb went off and he went into this cupboard – and this guy’s got guitars and guitars and guitars. He pulls out a Martin 0-18 parlour guitar and just said: “I got it.” He put it in my hands and it was an emotional moment for me. I know I open myself up to jokes when I talk like this, but we recorded with it and when we finished I just said: “This is it. We’re done for today, Daniel. I have to have one of these guitars.” So we went into town and we hunted down a guy he knew who was selling a 1970 Martin 0-18 and I bought it for what I know now is a steal. It’s my main guitar now and it became my main guitar even though I was endorsed by Gibson. I never broke my endorsement agreement, so I didn’t play it on TV, but I recorded everything on it and I played it at every show… and it looks that way. It’s beat up and torn down, and it doesn’t quit. It has seemingly an infinite amount of songs in it.’
‘I followed it up by buying more Martins. I bought a 1968 00-18 with a single neck pickup. I really use it more as an acoustic and once in a while I throw it through an amp and it sounds unwieldy and hard to control in the greatest way. I also bought a late-30s 0-17 and then I figured that’s great, I’ve got an arsenal of every Martin I might ever need, but I was out on tour with Dallas Green [City & Colour] who’s endorsed by Martin, and we were trading guitars and he said: “Look at this custom one I had built”. I’m not usually big on custom stuff, but I looked at Dallas’ version and it was beautiful. And I thought there’s something more to discover here. So, I think between two or three friends who were at Martin just happened to mention to the people at Martin how much I loved my guitars; and I know people at Martin had been asking about my guitar because it’s a rare one – not in numbers, but it was when every neck that came off the line could have been slightly different, so they had a lot of questions about it. The real appeal of that 0-18 is its neck – that’s what people respond to. So they invited Twin Forks up for a visit, and I think they were just curious to look at my guitar. But somewhere along the line, I think they saw how clearly passionate I am about that guitar and the brand, so before I got there they had offered me an ambassadorship. And it’s a company that makes you feel so important in what they’re doing. It sounds so corny, but it’s based on the fact that it’s had six generations of family ownership, and everyone there feels like they’re part of the family.’
With the Martin ambassadorship under his belt, does this mean we should be looking forward to a Chris Carrabba signature model?
‘The funny thing was they sent me this book and they said they wanted me to have a new Martin, but all I wanted was to be able to play my Martin on TV. I have the guitar, and I’m proud of it. That guitar is my sound. So no signature model, but I am getting a custom shop one and I’m going to keep it understated. I’m building it on the body of a 00-18 and they’re going to replicate the neck from my guitar by hand. I was considering doing a split panel back so I could get more volume out of it, but they told me that doesn’t normally work with small bodied guitars. So they came up with a different bracing that might give it the volume. The funny thing is I read the book they sent and I found out that the 1968 00-18 that I’d been flying around the world with for years and just beating up every night was one of only 564. So I was terrified to pick the damn thing up. I mentioned that to Chris, my rep at Martin, and he said that Chris Martin [IV] loves nothing more than knowing that his guitars are out there actually being used, so I took it back on the road with me. I figure if the head of the company says that and mine gets destroyed, someone there will fix it for me.’
Twin Forks’ eponymous debut album is out now. Visit www.twinforksmusic.com or keep up to date with the band on Twitter @TwinForksMusic.