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Chris Carrabba and Adam Lazzara on surviving the emo boom and overcoming fan nostalgia

Graphic: Nick Wanserski (Photos: Getty Images)
Graphic: Nick Wanserski (Photos: Getty Images)

This summer Dashboard Confessional and Taking Back Sunday, two bands synonymous with the emo boom of the early-to-mid ’00s, will tour together on the reactivated Taste Of Chaos tour. Although both were born out of the ’90s punk and hardcore scenes, they came to prominence as the word “emo” was becoming part of the mainstream consciousness, resulting in records that would nearly top the Billboard charts and playing venues as illustrious as Madison Square Garden. The price of that success was being the subject of great ridicule and now being viewed as mere nostalgia acts (though they’ve never stopped making new music). Despite the ups and downs, both bands have soldiered on, survivors in a scene that burned bright and caused many to flame out. The A.V. Club spoke to Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba and Taking Back Sunday’s Adam Lazzara about how they’ve weathered those storms and come out the other side.

The A.V. Club: How did you two get paired up for the Taste Of Chaos tour this summer?

Chris Carrabba: I started coming up with ideas for tours last summer while on the Third Eye Blind tour. Which was a great tour, but I really wanted to tour with bands and friends from our scene. So I started reaching out, talking to people about who might be interested. About the same time I played the Taste Of Chaos festival, and it was great. Remember, I thought you were going to be there? I was super psyched.

Adam Lazzara: Yeah. I texted you and you—

CC: You were like, “I think you mean somebody else, dummy.”

AL: It was funny because I got the text, and my immediate thought was, “Oh, shit, did I miss something on the calendar?”

CC: Sorry, dude! Anyway, so we went there, and it was run so well and it was just great in terms of how the audience was. And I was like, “This is awesome.” Just as I was going down the road of booking my own tour, they came to me and were just like, “Would you be interested?” They did it as a stand-alone festival last year, and it was a success. They thought maybe now is the time to strike while the iron’s hot. And that’s how they became involved with the tour.

AL: Yeah, for us, we probably came a little bit later. We did a Taste Of Chaos tour that was just international—and this was 2006, probably. So we were familiar with the family—they share a lot of Warped Tour folks, too. So we were familiar with the people, and then it just so happened that it worked out great for us. We’d just finished up in the studio, so we were looking for something to do this summer. Every so often the stars align. Then I was surprised—it was a funny thing, thinking about it. I remember first getting the call about it and after getting off the phone thinking, “Man, I can’t believe we’ve never toured with Dashboard Confessional in all these years.” So that was a big bonus to doing the tour.

CC: I thought the same thing, too. You know that you guys were at the top of my list when I was thinking about what tour to do.

AL: You’re just saying that.

CC: I’m not. You always do this kind of shit. Don’t ever pay him a compliment.

AL: I was just trying to make you laugh.

CC: Well, you failed. No, it is kind of crazy to me that we’ve never toured together, but, you know, I’ve seen you guys play so many times. We played some festival dates together. We all get along and even share some crew guys that we’ve worked with. So that’s one thing that I was looking forward to also. There’s a spirit of camaraderie within our scene in general. Then, specifically, I just know that—I think it’s pretty evident that every band on this tour are really like-minded guys. And I think it’s going to be really a blast.

AVC: How long have you two actually known each other?

CC: I bet you don’t remember when we met, but I know.

AL: Well, I know exactly when we met. The first time, one of the first times we talked, actually, you played this show at this place in Chapel Hill in North Carolina—Local 506. I had a demo, and it was what later became our first record, like, five songs off the first record. I had been living in New York for a while, and I had come down, actually, to finish my high school diploma, which is the funny thing. And then you happen to be playing during that trip that I had made back down to North Carolina. So that was probably the first time that we talked. It worked out, though, because we had mutual friends.

CC: I can’t remember if this was before or after that, but I was out with New Found Glory and Midtown and Hot Rod Circuit, and we played Club Krome, or whatever it was called before Club Krome. I think that was the show. It was in Jersey—I could be confusing the place. But you gave Chad [Gilbert, New Found Glory guitarist] that demo.

AL: Oh, yeah, I gave it to Chad.

CC: It wasn’t too long after that that I was like, “I like this guy’s hustle.” And the demo sounded pretty good. When I went to see you guys the first time, I went to see you probably like three months after that somewhere, I think in Long Island. I don’t know if there were lineup changes or—didn’t you guys switch instruments or something like that? From that demo?

AL: I had just started singing for the band. So basically, I was just yelling and hoping the notes were right the whole time. I think it was more one of those Long Island shows they would do where there’d be like 10 or so bands on it, so it would be an all-day thing even though it wasn’t supposed to be an all-day thing.

CC: Like at The Zoo, or something?

AL: No, it was right after The Zoo, but it was a similar type place, you know, like some kind of VFW, right around that. So anyway, right around that time, I switched from playing bass to just singing, and then, not knowing what to do with myself.

CC: I remember having listened to the demo and knowing that you played an instrument. I don’t remember now if I knew you played bass or guitar, but I knew you played something. I remember vividly thinking to myself, like, “Wow, somebody in that band was smart enough to tell that guy to put down whatever he’s holding so he could embrace the audience with his arms.” Because you have charisma, you know, I was like, “Wow this might be our scene’s first star.” Like, actual star. Anyway. I remember that vividly. I was like, “This band’s probably going to be the biggest band in the world.”

AL: Well, thank you for saying that. I’m blushing. You can’t see it, so I had to tell you.

AVC: How was it coming out of that DIY punk and hardcore scene to, just a few years later, playing arenas?

AL: I think that I’m still a punk kid trying to make music. That core never changes. The thing that does change, and this just happens, I think—it’s like Bob Dylan said, “You change with the times or you sink like a stone.” All of a sudden, you’re on this bigger stage, and there’s more people interested. But then it’s just a matter of adapting, and that’s something, for our band, I feel that we always did. Some of our first tours were with really heavy, almost borderline metal bands. When you’re going to different places and trying to express yourself but also keep the audience, it’s kind of a natural thing that you learn how to navigate. But, Chris, I’m curious to hear what you have to say about that.

CC: I think that I agree with all that you said there, especially who you are in the beginning if your roots are like our roots. That kind of scene gets its claws in you and stay there. I don’t know what it is about that sense of belonging to that scene that defines you so specifically, and kind of forever, but I think it’s unique to that scene.

AL: I grew up going to shows in High Point and Greensboro and Winston-Salem in North Carolina. These aren’t big cities, but it was the first time I showed up and I felt, “Oh, man, I finally found my people.” Then, of course, it was at an age where you’re real young and everyone in my school—there’s no one that I related to. And then I finally found it. And then, of course, you’re holding onto it for dear life.

CC: Yeah, and it holds onto you. Similarly, I moved like crazy. I think I went to—I think I went to 13 different schools between kindergarten and high school. And so, you make friends, but you kind of know you’re going to be gone soon, too. You feel this alienation. You don’t feel like you’re being left out, but you kind of feel like—I don’t really know how to put down roots, because what’s the point? But then you find this music and this scene, and it is home.

Like Taking Back Sunday, I was playing with these extremely heavy bands, but just with an acoustic guitar. It was very strange for some people, and I think some people were put off, but some people were really impressed—obviously, or I wouldn’t have a career. But that’s only because that was the scene that I knew. I find it funny that I played a coffee shop for the first time in my life last year. Now everybody thinks I must have come up playing coffee shops. But my band Twin Forks played a coffee shop in Canada, and I almost didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to wreck the curve, you know?

I think that the other part of your question is, like, growing from the basements all the way to the arenas and all that. I think if you were in a band—and it’s probably more common for any band that plays an arena the most common way is that a band comes out, they get a big hit single, everybody knows them instantly, and they go into arenas and play these giant shows. The way it worked for Taking Back Sunday and Dashboard and just about every band in our scene that did well was that we kept working, kept touring, kept booking shows ourselves—for ourselves, for other bands, and together with other bands—and climbing up the ladder of clubs and theaters and then maybe amphitheaters and then arenas. It was linear. It wasn’t like you jumped through the middle steps—at least for me. So I kind of just took what I did on the last run, on that tour, and figured out how to keep that. It was more about keeping that bit, for me, than just figuring out how to do bigger gestures, which is important when you get into those arenas. But also figuring out, this is probably, maybe, important because my music can be—there’s moments in my music that get real small. In an arena, I’m not sure that’s what is expected. So it was about never forgetting what worked on that last tour. Because it wasn’t years before. It was, like, months before. You just did it, and then you went to the bigger place, and you tried to hold onto that while knowing obviously that your skill set’s got to grow in this new dynamic.

AVC: How do you deal with it in 2016? You’ve both gone on making music, but there are probably people who still want it to be what it was in 2003.

AL: I think the hope with a lot of it is that the people coming to the shows, you still feel that sense of community and belonging that we were just talking about. Also you would hope that they would be interested in how you’ve grown and what your next move is. Going into any tour, that’s the hope. But I feel like when you start to really get into that, the only thing you can have control over is just—do the best that you can do. Make the best music that you can, and keep your wits about you. So that’s just how we approach most every tour.

CC: I think there’s an obvious parallel there to what Adam and I were talking about as our own draw into the punk rock scene and how that stays with you, that sense of belonging. It has to do with the music, and it has to do with the culture. A little bit has to do with who you were, but it continues to be about who you are. I think to say there’s no factor of nostalgia being at play here would be disingenuous. There’s some, for sure. I mean, I go see bands I loved years ago, and still love, because I embraced them so deeply at that time. And I will still be excited about their new music, some of it even more than their old music. But it is all a springboard. It’s been a springboard out of that initial connection that I had with them. But I learned a lesson as we were going through our career, and it kind of echoes Adam’s statement there, that all you can do is the best that you can do. Unless you’re preternaturally gifted at knowing what people are going to like. You just know what you like. And I think I’ve been—I know Taking Back Sunday’s been successful at this—but I’ve been very lucky that my fans have liked what I happen to like at that time. But not every time. Not every time. My fans really like my first, second, third, and fourth records. There’s a combination of not really liking my fifth and seventh and also not knowing they exist because it’s one of those things—at some point, you’re involved in a music-selling machine that may or may not have done a good job.

AL: At least for me personally, one of the reasons why my favorite bands become my favorite bands or my favorite songs become my favorite songs is because it’s there at exactly the right time in my life. I think it goes into this bigger thing of—there are certain lessons as you’re growing that you’re just not ready to learn, and so you’re not going to get it, and you’re going to have to keep going through those trials and tribulations until it finally clicks with you. And then so, looking at the years gone by of putting records out consistently, there’s going to be times where certain people just haven’t gotten there yet or certain people have already passed there. But things are very likely going to come back around. And it’s so true, certain things, even though they’re not maybe as immediate as others, some things just need a slower burn. It’s like making an omelet. You’ve got to sometimes keep the heat down a bit.

CC: You know, it’s funny, Adam. That brings to mind that Nirvana went through this unbelievable, unprecedented radical shift in the culture that they ushered in. And they did it because they were so fucking good on every level, and it was so, so very different at a time when things needed to change. Then it got so popular—they got so popular—that there is the diminished quality of copies of copies of photocopies. Bands come out until you get, like, Creed. Which I don’t really have an opinion on, but I think they’re the touchstone for that. But that was temporary. I’ve really noticed now how many young bands are coming out that sound so much like Nirvana. They’re wearing Nirvana T-shirts, and they’re playing the Jag-Stang guitars. Somehow it became, like, I don’t know if it became embarrassing to listen to Nirvana. Probably never. But it was cloudy for a minute.

AL: There definitely were folks that were too cool for school. It’s like when the mainstream fully, fully embraced them. For the people that had been following it for so long, they almost felt like it was stolen away from them. Even though it’s still there.

CC: That feeling of possession. It’s of deep importance for those bands and where you are in your life. It’s a little silly when you think about it, that we need that. I’m foolish enough to need that, too. I want it to be my band and my friends’ band. I don’t love it when guys that might have, I don’t know, beat us up—not literally, but you know that analogy—embrace that stuff. So I watch these younger bands. They don’t know. Honest to god, I don’t think they know who Creed is. And so they don’t know about the quality reduction. They just know Nirvana is the fucking best.

AL: And they are.

CC: Yeah. They’re coming out to try to be influenced by them in a completely noncommercial way, which is what happened with the imitators of Nirvana then, right? And it’s this incredible wellspring of good music coming out because people are influenced by Nirvana. I don’t know if that’s happened with our scene to that degree because nobody in our scene—I don’t think anybody in our lifetime, probably—was as important as Nirvana. But I do think that Adam made a point about how, basically, the smaller group of music fans are going to build a band up, and then it’s going to get taken from them and get really massive. And then the slings and arrows come out. The same people that loved it then hate it. They also do this thing that’s weird: They pretend they never didn’t hate it. I’ll never get that. And I’ll be the first to admit that, like, when Green Day got popular, that was my problem that I didn’t like them anymore. But I never pretended that I never liked Green Day. That’s crazy. That’s one factor I know I’ll never get, because I know for a fact some people—I will name no names—but I know for a fact, I’ve seen myself and my band be just torn apart by a guy in a story who I happen to know for a fact was thrilled at my show and gave me his demo and wanted to play with us and then, you know—adulation and whatever. It seems disingenuous. But I think we’re on the other end of that now. I think people are bored with hating on our scene now, and they’re just like, “Well, I like it. That’s cool enough for me.”

AVC: You both endured some vicious hatred there for a while because of the whole emo thing. Do you feel like you’ve come out the other side, where people no longer view this as a trendy thing?

CC: I feel like we just stayed the course. I’m not an idiot. We got really lucky that people loved our music so much that they made it popular. It wasn’t record labels or radio that made us popular. It was these fans. But then we got big. “We” being the whole scene. And I think the scene stayed for a long time, the general level of quality stayed pretty high. I don’t know if there was a diminished quality that made people start to turn on our scene. I truly think it was just that it was popular. I can’t believe this, but there’s a period where I was a famous person. That’s shocking to me. It’s weird on every level. I mean, it’s nice to get stopped and have a handshake and maybe sign something, which happens all the time still, and it makes me feel great. And yeah, I’ll never have the answer as to what made people turn on us. I think that it will happen and does happen to every genre that gets popular. And those that were pure-hearted in their endeavors to begin with and stayed that way end up okay in the end.

Pearl Jam is a huge band—none of us were ever as big as that, but they’re just one that comes to mind. When’s the last time Pearl Jam was an important piece of popular radio? Yet they’re still an incredibly important band. Do you remember how much people hated Pearl Jam in the middle arc of their career? It was totally uncool—and it sucked! Because it was like, “Oh, shit, I guess I’m that nerdy. I really like this band.”

AL: Man, we just went to see them two weeks ago and they played Ten from front to back, which was pretty rad. But we went, and it’s like a basketball stadium, and the place was packed. They didn’t do the thing where they cut off half the room and hide the back seats. It was completely in the round. Just to see them, after all those years—well, one, to be there as a fan—was this incredible thing. But then to see all those people, all there, enjoying the same thing at the same time and then knowing the history, it was one of the most inspiring evenings I’ve had in a really long time.

CC: I don’t know if either of us will ever be Pearl Jam, but I think we’ve weathered the storm somehow. People are always going to hate on us, just like people are always going to hate on something. But it’s not clickbait-worthy anymore to dog on the emo scene, because it’s an old joke now. But that doesn’t mean that you are ever going to convince somebody that didn’t like you to like you now. There’s somebody out there that hasn’t heard you yet, and they might like you, and I think now—like in the beginning—you knew that they were going to have the freedom to make that choice. Now they’re going to have the freedom—I mean freedom from judgment from other people—to make that choice.

AL: Like you’re saying, there’s just that focus on it for so long. I remember during that time, because I was like—I never considered us an “emo band,” you know? Even though, yes, that’s the place where we came from, but then the place where I came from is this fast punk-rock or hardcore music. So even during that time, you would read a story or review or something that somebody had written. I remember meeting it with a lot of confusion and just being, “Why does it have to be this thing? Can’t it be more than that?” Not on a grander scale but, “Why does it have to be pigeonholed like this?” There’s so many great bands, and there’s a lot of great songs coming out. I felt like people should hear this, you know? Not just from my band. It was a shame, because then, no matter what you were doing, this is just what people had labeled you.

CC: What if you wrote the best song you ever wrote? What if you had a Beatles-worthy song during that time? But if you were part of that scene, no one was going to hear it. That’s the truth of the matter.

AL: It was crazy.

CC: Just like Adam, I didn’t consider myself an emo kid. I consider myself a hardcore kid. Clearly, what I played as music didn’t reflect that. But if anybody knew me or ever rode in a car with me, they’d know what songs I was putting on. In the beginning, I was really uncomfortable with the term “emo,” because I thought it predated us.

AL: It was Cap’n Jazz.

CC: Yeah, Cap’n Jazz. Sunny Day Real Estate. Obviously, Rites Of Spring is noted as the first emo band, but I don’t know if that really counts. They happened to be emotional, and they were different than punk, but they were punk rockers, so I don’t know. I don’t know who were the first. But there were bands that we would refer to as emo bands with reverence. Sunny Day was my favorite band. I even thought Weezer was, because you couldn’t quite figure out if they were pop punk or what they were. And then they put out Pinkerton, and that kind of defined a certain subset of music, and that got called “emo,” which I don’t think Rivers [Cuomo, Weezer vocalist-guitarist] likes very much. In the beginning it felt like this was a co-opted term. It didn’t apply to us. How could they be calling me that? I’m not Jeremy Enigk. I could never be him. Then later on, Dan Hoerner [Sunny Day Real Estate guitarist] would be in Dashboard Confessional for a while, so that made things a little weirder. People definitely called us “emo” at that point. “Well, here’s the original guy.”

AL: There you go. Two and two makes four.

CC: Look at this bill that’s going out. This is reflective of that scene at the time. There are parts of Taking Back Sunday and Dashboard Confessional that sound alike. There are songs we have that sound right on the same mixtape and all that stuff. But I think we approach music differently. We deliver music differently. We might sing about some of the same subject matter. We might strain our voices in a certain way, where certain inflections are the same. Certain motifs are the same. But generally speaking, the bands of the time that were being called “emo,” we were a scene that was working together, even though a lot of us sounded so different from each other. I think if we all sounded the same, it might have been a different tag they put on us. The thing that we had in common was that we were singing or speaking honestly about how it felt to be who we were at the time. I think that we were a unified scene. We didn’t call ourselves anything. I don’t remember being, like, “Hey, you guys want to go to the emo show?” These are things that didn’t ever occur to us: “I put together this great emo lineup for this next show.” It just wasn’t part of my vernacular or thought process.

But now I’ll say, I’ve kind of had a wake-up call with that term. When it occurred to me that that term became—I get what the press was doing. They needed a word to talk about the scene that was a collective that didn’t really sound the same. And it worked. It did the thing. But then people started making fun of it, years later. After personally celebrating it, they made fun of it. Then what I realized was, the people that cared about it, that care about all this stuff, they did call it emo. And they said it with pride. Or it was neutral. It was just, like, “This is the thing we love. And it’s these emo bands.” So that’s when I kind of re-embraced the term if I were to describe my own band. I will actually do that now, because I realize that the people that listen to my music without snark, with a complete absence of snark, probably call it emo. And if that’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

AVC: Would you say a similar thing, Adam? Do you feel it’s been reclaimed or is it something you still don’t think fits?

AL: Well, going back to the Nirvana reference that Chris was making, that was great. There’s this thing of—they were called a “grunge” band. But you don’t hear anybody saying, “Oh, man, have you listened to that grunge band Nirvana?” I like to think that after a certain amount of time, that tag will fade away. Folks who embrace the whole, like, “I’m a grunge rocker,” they have since dropped the “grunge” part of that title. I feel like they’re just a rocker. You know, this is heavy, guitar-based music. I’ve said this for a while, like, you would use the term to give your friends a hard time. You say things like, “Oh, you’re so emo.” And then, all of a sudden, you wake up one day and, like Chris was saying, there’s people that claimed it or wore it like a badge.

With the way that Chris just put it, it does make me rethink my answer to the question a bit, because I’ve never looked at it like that. I feel like there’s a point to where, with any kind of label, it’s going to put up walls or draw boundaries. I’ve always tried to stay as far away from that as I can. It’s because then that’s what makes for narrow minds if it’s not a large space to move around in. As you grow older and have experienced more things, the blinders start to come off, and then all of a sudden there’s all these new musical influences that start to play a role in what you’re creating. Because you’re lucky to go, “This is amazing. I get to create music for people and for myself.” So I still feel a little leery of any kind of label or anything like that. Again, that’s for me personally. If people want to call us an emo band, then by all means. If they’re listening to our band, they can call it whatever they want. Just so long as they’re getting something out of the music. Something like I’m getting out of all the things that I listen to.

Here’s another way to look at it: I’m a huge fan of this guy named Cory Branan. And I know Chris is, too. But what would you call him? Because some people call him country—he’s Southern, yeah, but he’s not country. And then he’s not quite—there’s enough to make it on the edge of rock ’n’ roll. But then, with the subject matter and some of the decisions he makes sometimes, I like to think that that would put him kind of close to the same—somewhere in the periphery of where we are, you know? But to call him just one of those things, I don’t think would be fair, because he’s this larger-than-life artist. So, with that in mind, that’s why I try to stay away from the word “emo.”

AVC: Do you ever feel like people just want you to be who you were back then? They want you to be 20-year-olds forever?

AL: I think there’s a bunch of people that want that. I remember it was a couple years ago, and it was, like, the 10th anniversary of our first record. I would see things on the internet like, “Why can’t they sound more like this? Why do they sound like they do now?” It made me think how sad would that be as a man—or just for me—to still be in that same place? If you think about any other kind of recording artist you know or like—Pearl Jam, that Chris brought up earlier—imagine if they were still writing Ten over and over and over again. That’d mean after a while it would start to sound disingenuous. All that’s to say I feel like, through the years, you can just do the best that you can do and hope that either folks are growing with you or the ones that were growing faster than you, hopefully your paths collide again somewhere along the way.

CC: Do people expect or desire me to be who I was? I think those reside in two different places. I think there’s the live thing and the recording thing. It’s obtainable live to be that to them again, because I’m revisiting the songs. Somewhere inside, I’m still the guy that wrote that song. It sounds like a time machine sometimes. For the moment you can be transported back to who you were through that song, just like the listener can be. The singer’s not excluded from that moment, I don’t think. I feel they get that desire fulfilled at a show, at least once or twice during the course of the set—if not more. If they’re wishing for you to sound like you sounded then or if the question is, “Oh, man, why can’t they be that band any more?” The answer is they can’t. You just can’t be who you were.

AL: I’ve seen too much, man.

CC: In general, I think people become better people as they grow up. They become fuller, more complete people. One thing that bands have on their first record that is evident is searching, right? So I think the only way to satisfy that desire, if it can be satisfied, is to not stop searching. That’s all I can do with regard to if that’s a desire that I’m supposed to fulfill, which I don’t think I am. But it is a desire, and it can only be fulfilled if our paths cross again, like Adam said. And I am continually on a path of searching. So it’s not impossible.

The fact that we both made records that were so different as our careers went along and were embraced for quite a long time, there’s a point at which you diverge from your past records. I don’t know why that is. Then it seems that bands come back to a sound that they had. And it’s not by design, but by where you are at that point. Because just like your past comes back to haunt you, it comes back to inspire you, and it comes back to inform you. Maybe sometimes it comes back to be songs. And for a minute, you could catch one that will appeal to that portion of the crowd that wants you to be who you were. I do think, on a personal level, one thing that’s unique to our scene is the accessibility we’ve all provided to our audience to interact with us, and that’s not gone away. I think that’s something that we know. Look, man, we can’t hit it out of the park for the same people every time. Maybe sometimes you can, but not every time. But we can continue to be accessible and kind and interested in the people that are listening to us. All you can do is the best you can do.