By Miriam Di Nunzio
You can’t talk emo culture without certain bands immediately rolling off the tongue: Jawbreaker, Sunny Day Real Estate, Death Cab for Cutie, Alkaline Trio, Rites of Spring—and, of course, Dashboard Confessional, whose lead singer, Chris Carrabba, became the unofficial poster boy for the genre, characterized by emotional, hardcore punk and “confessional” lyrics. When Carrabba sang “I’m reading your note over again / There’s not a word that I comprehend /Except when you signed it / ‘I will love you always and forever,’ ” a generation of music fans felt his guitar-driven angst.
“The genre existed 10, 15 years before we came along,” Carrabba says, explaining his love/hate relationship with that “poster boy” moniker. “There were these really great bands already on the scene, The Get Up Kids, Alkaline Trio. I honestly didn’t feel like it was mine to use.”
It was Carrabba and company’s emotionally charged catalog that made them one of emo’s biggest success stories, drove them to relentless recording and touring, and, ultimately, a four-year hiatus. Their triumphant return in 2015 at Chicago’s Riot Fest music festival was an awakening of the spirit, Carrabba says.
“Riot Fest brought us back,” Carrabba says of the Florida-born band he has fronted for 17 years. “When we walked away we were tired and just exhausted from gunning it from the word go. We were playing 300 shows a year happily and giving everything we could. But you sacrifice a lot of your life for the moment because you know the moment is fleeting. We can take it as it comes, or we can make every moment the best moment, and that’s what we chose to do. It was toward the end of our last tour that I had this feeling we were just on the edge of phoning it in due to fatigue. We never had a radio hit. Then Spider-Man 2 hit [with the Dashboard single “Vindicated”] and MTV moved the needle. But our fans were not there to hear this three-and-a-half minute song. They were there to hear this catalogue we had, and there was no way we were going to deliver anything but our best shot. And suddenly it just felt like we couldn’t do that anymore. We just had to stop saying yes to doing shows and making records.”
Their 2009 release, Alter the Ending, would be their last until the January 2017 release of the four-song EP Covered and Taped. It was a fresh start on many fronts, including a lineup change and a new spring/summer tour. But there would still be plenty of emotion onstage and off, especially for Carrabba, who just days before his late-June chat with Ravinia magazine suffered the passing of his beloved uncle, Angelo Carrabba, at age 96.
“I think I’m a good person with or without my uncle,” Carrabba says quietly of the man who helped raise him since he was 3 years old. “But I don’t think I would know anything about real character. Or the measure of a man. He stepped in to teach me all of that. He had time for me and my brothers even though he had five kids of his own.
“He was a widower who never had a minute for himself,” Carrabba continues, his voice gently cracking with emotion at one point. “I remember coming back from school and getting in the car and heading to his house, where he’d made me a big bowl of pasta and then sat down and asked me about my skateboarding tricks—skateboarding was my passion at the time. He learned the names of all the tricks I did. He’d ask me about school, and if I was having any trouble he’d always say, let’s figure it out together.”
Carrabba also praises his mother, who worked hard to give him and his siblings as normal a life as possible. “My mom was pretty aware of ‘it takes a village,’ ” Carrabba says. “She did what she could. She was a single mom in a house full of boys. It was not easy. So, yes, she had a lot of help. We were wanting for nothing. Because of her hard work and love we never knew we were poor. Because of our loving extended family, we never knew we were never loved [by our father]. My dad was nice but he had his own desires in life and it didn’t include us. So he and our mom divorced when I was young. That was that.”
Music became a powerful way for Carrabba to express all sorts of emotions, tackle a world of subjects, and discover his life’s journey. He would initially front a band called Further Seems Forever, at the same time working on a “side project” called Dashboard Confessional.
“When we first started out, we thought we were indie,” Carrabba says of Dashboard, whose original lineup, in addition to Carrabba, included Scott Schoenbeck on bass, John Lefler on lead guitar/piano/backing vocals, and Mike Marsh on drums/percussion. “This was the band I’d dreamed of since I was a teenager,” the 42-year-old singer/songwriter says excitedly. “I wanted to be in a band with Scott since I was a teenager. He was in The Promise Ring, for Christ’s sake! I saw them in a club and remembered thinking that maybe he was the best bass player I’d ever heard.
“And these genre labels had all sorts of different definitions to them,” Carrabba continues. “Indie was a big umbrella—you could be punk, hardcore rock. It was basically stuff that was self-released, that wasn’t commercial, or released under a known label. We actually favored the word ‘indie.’ The people who began calling us emo were the kids who started to like us.”
That love affair between the band and their fans was quickly apparent with the 2000 release of The Swiss Army Romance, the album which would ultimately spawn one of their biggest hits, the 2002 single “Screaming Infidelities,” and also inspire the band’s name (take a listen to the lyrics of “The Sharp Hint of New Tears”). Five more studio albums would follow, including The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most in 2001 and Dusk and Summer in 2006.
After years of relentless touring and recording, the band took a much-needed hiatus, Carrabba says. It resurfaced in 2015 with two new faces: Armon Jay on lead guitar/backing vocals and Ben Homola on drums/percussion, replacing Marsh and Lefler, who departed for other projects. “I’ve watched some of my friends make the mistake of leaving a band. But I view the move as a mistake from the vantage point that isn’t theirs to see. I hope they don’t regret it as much as I think they’re going to. Me, I want to die at this desk. I don’t want a golden watch at the end of my tenure. I don’t want tenure. I don’t want to be the old, lazy guy with the woolen jacket.”
In a surprise move this past January, Carrabba and company released Covered and Taped, an EP of four covers: “Sprained Ankle” by Julien Baker, “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber, “Using” by Sorority Noise, and “Sex” by 1975. Carrabba chalks up the project to one word: “downtime.”
“I was bored. I don’t sit around playing my own songs when I’m bored, but I love to play songs by other folks that I really love. And I really love these songs. The first one I recorded was ‘Love Yourself.’ I had just succumbed completely to this song. I don’t have a real deep knowledge of Bieber’s catalogue, but he’s irrefutably mega-talented in a way. He’s like this fantastic host of a party that I’m not invited to. It’s the party going on adjacent to my building and I didn’t get what was going on over there until I heard this song. I’m a sucker for a song that’s boiled down to its bare bones but deeply evocative of its underlying emotions. And the song is funny, too. There’s real humor in it.
“And then with ‘Sex,’ when I first listened to that record there was this sonic onslaught. It’s so swirling and kinetic. The 1975 are unparalleled. There are few bands now that I wish I was in if they would have me,” Carrabba says with a chuckle. “How can they be equal parts The Killers and Joy Division and Nirvana? They’re simply among the best ever.”
Carrabba adds that he has dozens of songs written for the band’s next project, though he’s noncommittal on a time frame for a new, full-length album. For now, it’s all about the new tour, which also features The All-American Rejects as openers and arrives at Ravinia on August 15.
“If the right lyric is coming, you get the [expletive] out of the way and you let it out,” Carrabba says of the songwriting that has sustained him and Dashboard Confessional. “You’re either gonna get lucky or you’re not with a song. How lucky were we as a band? Far more often than we deserved. And that’s what keeps us out there. It’s a total joyous occasion for us up there on that stage. We’re celebrating just how lucky we’ve been.”
Miriam Di Nunzio is the entertainment arts editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, covering music, theater, and pop culture.