Chris Carrabba -- the one-man acoustic emo-rock army known as Dashboard Confessional -- is exhausted on this steamy February night at Orbit in Boynton Beach. He has just completed The Places You Have Come To Fear the Most, his second album in nine months. And he's weathered a controversial switch from major-label farm club Drive-Thru to the red-hot indie imprint Vagrant. If that weren't enough, tonight he kicked off the second half of a yearlong 285-date tour. Leaning against the wall, Carrabba manages a wan smile when asked to account for his success. "I don't know, man," he replies. "It was all just an accident."
As Elvis Costello, Carrabba's musical hero, once sang, "Accidents will happen." But while Carrabba's transformation from singer-guitarist of the obscure Boca Raton emo-punk band the Vacant Andy's to indie-rock icon can be traced to a three-song demo of which he taped only three copies three years ago, his breakthrough is no mere accident. Dashboard Confessional is the harbinger of an angry acoustic revolution. With his matinee-idol looks and tattooed flesh, Carrabba is an emo-punk Trojan horse who attracts backpack-wearing girls and tough guys with his dazzling smile and indie cred, then slays them with brittle melodies and tough-love tales. In a Dashboard Confessional world, boys do cry -- and that's perfectly OK.
In September 1998 a then-23-year-old Carrabba showed up an hour early to his job as a Boca Raton elementary school administrator. With time to kill before the bell and his guitar in the office, he knocked out three acoustic tunes. "It felt natural," he says. A week later Carrabba entered the studio and recorded the three songs. Suspecting no one would want to hear a punk-rock singer belt out folky material, he made only the three tapes: one for himself, one for his mom, and one for Amy Fleisher, owner of Miami's Fiddler Records, who immediately expressed a desire to sign Carrabba. Not wanting to give up the rock just yet, Carrabba demurred and instead joined Pompano Beach emo-punk band Further Seems Forever as its lead vocalist. With a large local following and growing national visibility, Carrabba saw his profile raised, but he was left creatively unsatisfied. So he picked up his acoustic guitar and banged out his frustrations, amassing an album's worth of material in a year. Though Fleisher protested, he kept the music to himself. "She nagged me constantly to record or play out," Carrabba recalls, "but I really thought no one would be into it, which didn't help my stage fright any."
In January 2000 Fleisher finally persuaded Carrabba to perform at Blue Note Records in North Miami Beach. To avoid the conceit involved in billing himself as a solo artist, Carrabba came up with the name Dashboard Confessional for his solo act. The new moniker was an allusion to the line "On the way home/This car hears my confession" in his song "The Sharp Hint of New Tears." Carrabba explains, "I never wanted this project to be all about me. I always conceived it as being a band, with the audience playing a part." After Dashboard Confessional wowed the 100 fans who gathered at Blue Note, audiotapes of the show eventually ended up on Napster for all the world to download.
Emboldened by the reaction, Carrabba entered Fort Lauderdale's Wisner Studios two months later and recorded Dashboard Confessional's debut album, The Swiss Army Romance. Comprising nine songs running less than a half-hour, The Swiss Army Romance combines the intensity of the first Ramones album with the kind of lyrical bite last heard on the Replacements' Let It Be. Carrabba's angelic tenor wraps bittersweet, lost-love anthems ("Screaming Infidelities," "Living in Your Letters") around a nihilistic title track that damns the object of his affection: "You're dying to look cute in your blue jeans/But you're plastic just like everyone." Carrabba's percussive, acoustic-guitar style blasts as if the instrument were plugged in halfway through this brilliant playa-hating rant: "So get out your fake eyelashes and fake IDs/And real disasters ensue/It's cool to take these chances/It's cool to fake romances/And grow up fast/And grow up fast."
Soon demand for The Swiss Army Romance was far outstripping Fiddler Records' supply. Unable to afford a larger pressing, Fleisher licensed the record to MCA subsidiary Drive-Thru for a November rerelease. Carrabba left Further Seems Forever after completing his vocal tracks for the band's debut album The Moon Is Down and went on a national tour with Coral Springs heroes New Found Glory. Carrabba was shocked to discover kids in every town singing along to his songs, even though his CD was all but unavailable. "Napster definitely helped me get going," he affirms. Furthermore, any remaining fear that Carrabba's acoustic anthems wouldn't go over in an amplified-rock setting were put to rest: "I was relieved that the punk and indie kids liked my stuff, because I am one of those kids, and I wouldn't know who else to sing to."
While Carrabba's artistic vision was sharply focused, other problems arose. Early this year Carrabba defected from Drive-Thru (which angrily threatened litigation) for California indie label Vagrant. "I don't know why there's such bitterness on [Drive-Thru's] end," Carrabba states. "I wasn't signed to anyone; it was strictly a business decision." Stephanie Reines, co-owner of Drive-Thru, has only one thing to say regarding Swiss Army Romance: "As much as I love that record, I'll never be able to listen to it again." Both parties distanced themselves as fast as possible from Romance, which quickly withered on the vine. Drive-Thru stopped supplying independent distributors with the record, thus making it unavailable in mom-and-pop stores where the majority of Dashboard Confessional's fans shop. Carrabba has taken it one step further, his Dashboard Confessional Website not even mentioning the album.
Carrabba spent the first three weeks of 2001 writing material for his Vagrant debut, The Places You Have Come To Fear the Most. He drafted Vacant Andy's bassist Dan Bonebrake (nephew of DJ Bonebrake from X) and Mike Marsh (drummer for Miami pop-punkers The Agency) to back him on the road and in the studio. Adding a rhythm section freed Carrabba to experiment with both guitar intricacies and vocal harmonies, but despite this newfound latitude, the prevailing musical direction of Fear the Most is minimalism. The opening tune, a minor-key lament entitled "The Brilliant Dance," is scarcely more than one guitar riff and Carrabba's falsetto. The haunting "This Ruined Puzzle" allows a cello and double-tracked vocals to evoke empathy with a sad-sack protagonist, then descends to a pulse, leaving Carrabba to ask breathlessly: "Does he ever get the girl?" The less melancholy "Saints and Sailors" and "The Good Fight" prove that Carrabba hasn't abandoned the upbeat tempos and major keys of The Swiss Army Romance. Marsh's fluid drum patterns bounce merrily along while Bonebrake's understated bass lines solidly anchor Carrabba's guitar to sweet melodies and sour lyrics such as, "This is where I've had enough/And one should never feel the way that I feel now/A walking open wound/A trophy case of bruises/And I don't think I'm getting any better."
Immediately after completing the album in February, Carrabba took Dashboard Confessional back on the road with no end in sight. While this grueling schedule has prohibited Carrabba, Marsh, and Bonebrake from keeping homes in South Florida, it has paid dividends: The Places You Have Come To Fear the Most has sold more than 40,000 units from reporting chain stores alone. Next month Carrabba and his bandmates embark on their first-ever headlining tour. After taking a deep breath, the singer-songwriter reflects on his good fortune: "I wanted to play the music I believed in with the musicians I wanted to play with. The music is brutally honest. It's not wimpy. That's why people respond to it."
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