INTERVIEW: Chris Carrabba (DASHBOARD CONFESSIONAL)
Emo music emerged long before the demand for straightened dark fringes and lashings of eyeliner became its mainstay - tracing its roots back to the late 1980s, emo dramatically swept into the mainstream in the early 2000s, and one of the key bands responsible for the genre's commercial success was none other than Dashboard Confessional.
Starting life as a side-project for lead singer and guitarist Chris Carrabba, the band swiftly established themselves in the alt-rock scene before pulling off the underdog story of the year in 2002 beating the likes of The Strokes, Norah Jones and The Hives at the MTV Video Music Awards. Alongside fellow rockers Jimmy Eat World, the continued sales success for Dashboard saw emo become a distinct marketable outing - and the rest was history.
Frontman Chris Carrabba's heart-rending lyrics and compelling vocals defined a generation and a genre, and nearly two decades on he still approaches his work with a disarming level of humility and genuine passion. There is not an ounce of pretension or affected entitlement with Carrabba, a quality that has no doubt maintained the continued adoration from fans, both new and old. And just before Chris and the band embark on their Aussie tour this week, the softly-spoken frontman took a few moments to talk success, rockstars and how some so-called foolishness sparked a genre revolution.
TIANA SPETER: Hi Chris - I have to say, I'm not-so-secretly so excited to be speaking to you today, Dashboard was definitely a huge part of my teen years!
CHRIS CARABBA: Thank you so much, what a nice thing to hear!
TIANA: What I find fascinating especially is that not a lot of bands can say that they almost single-handedly brought a genre into the public eye, you guys are up there as one of those rare success stories that broke the emo into the mainstream back in the day...and you're still actively involved in the industry...
CHRIS: Yeah, I think we were lucky to be a part of something and to still be part of it!
TIANA: You're still labelled as being one of the most influential for emo, what was it like having such a big rise so quickly, did you know you were onto something special?
CHRIS: Well, I knew I had something special with Dashboard. I definitely knew it was something special. I didn't know it would become something popular. It did, and that surprised the hell out of me! I'd been in several bands before, one of the bands I was in as I started Dashboard was pretty successful (Further Seems Forever) in the indie world, and I thought that was like the pinnacle and I felt really satisfied with how far we'd gotten, and thinking maybe if that was as far as I ever got in a career in music I would've been happy with that. But Dashboard gave me something else, it was something that I had only done once before and that was when I was invited into this community of bands that I grew up around - it was a real inclusive kind of place and Dashboard just became less about the band and more about the community of us connected through these songs.
TIANA: There is always such a raw honesty with your songs, there's something about it connecting and making you feel like perhaps there's other people out there who get what you're going through. They have this huge pull to them.
CHRIS: There were bands that I listened to like that, and probably was unconsciously emulating to a degree...some that I was consciously emulating to a degree as well (laughs). But I think I know that feeling other people seem to get about my music - cos I get it too from other bands, that I'm not in, they seem to just be able to say what I've got on my mind and maybe I don't know how to verbalise it or even understand it til I've heard it from them.
TIANA: Speaking of other bands, in those early days there were a lot of other bands bubbling away in that genre that weren't as successful at the time as you...were you guys just more "doing your own thing" or were there other bands in the same vein as you that you were on your radar?
CHRIS: Well there were a batch of us that were working together, we just played shows constantly together, we were building something that was unrelated to the music business, I guess, as we had no idea that we could be on labels or that we could have lengthy careers, but we did believe in each other, like Saves the Day and The Get Up Kids to name a couple. And some bands at the time made it further than us, some bands didn't make it as far as us, but we'd carved out our little corner of the music scene. And I think it was really based on...well, I really enjoy a good rockstar, you know? But there's often a definitive line of demarcation between the audience and the band. And...well, I'm not a rockstar, just a guy who writes songs and I wanted to connect with people not by being bigger than life but by choosing in every way to remain on the same plane as everyone else. And be approachable, be inviting - I wanted people to sing along, I wanted people to feel like it was fine to sing along, and I wanted the bands I played with to feel like we were in this together and I certainly was invited by bands much bigger than me to be a part of their thing. And all of this stuff that we did, none of it would've happened if any of us had been anything less than fearless, I think. Maybe the level to which we embraced this idea might constitute some foolishness I think, but then a surprising thing happened and that was that it word got out and around and people started to kind of believe in this idea that a band could be not just the people in the band and you're listening to it in isolation but maybe you could be a part of it in a bigger way than you might otherwise think you'd be able to.
TIANA: You call it foolishness, but it inspired so many other people to do it too, and that's a pretty brave and powerful thing...
CHRIS: (laughs) I guess so! But if we were wrong...we would've definitely been fools (laughs). We were right, thank goodness, and thank goodness for our fans. I don't know very many other music scenes where the commonality between the bands is the relationship that they have with their audience. There's a lot of things that success can be based on and measured by, but the most obvious ones, the things that seem to be most broadly appealing to somebody who picks up a guitar for the first time or finds the cool leather jacket and imagines wearing it somewhere and being cooler than they are (laughs). I just figured, I was only gonna be as cool as I am, and that's it. So maybe I ought to just be me, you know?
TIANA: Well it's nearly two decades on and the songs are still resonating with people, so I think you're doing pretty good on the cool scale.
CHRIS: I gotta say, I wouldn't trade it at all. I wouldn't trade it.
TIANA: And Australia are getting to see you this week, it's the first time you've been out here in five years, what are you most looking forward to coming back out here?
CHRIS: Well this time I'm most looking forward to the fact that I'm doing it with my bandmates, last time I was just solo. And I like that I'm lucky that I get to experience the variation between one and the next, that I get to experience the music just with an acoustic guitar and then other times to get the power of the whole band that also happen to believe in the songs as much as I do, which is unusual to some extent. That, and also reconnecting with our fan-base there. You know, you're not easy to get to from here (laughs). And if long gaps go on between when we've been there and when we get there I think people could mistakenly think that we don't care about that, and that is one of the reasons we've announced these shows so close to when we're playing. I was looking at the calendar saying "if we don't go now, it'll be another year again before we can go". I'm excited because of the response we've got from the audience there about us coming back, I'm really eager to start the trip!
TIANA: And lucky last question - you sing in a band called Dashboard Confessional, what's the one band or song you'd confess to listening to in secret, or that might surprise your fans?
CHRIS: Secretly....(laughs) I think it might be surprising to people how much I love Metallica. Maybe that would seem out of left field for people who listen to my music. Metallica...I just put on those records and I'm in a place that I love to be.
TIANA: That is just awesome. Thank you so much for your time, and can't wait to see you in Australia!
CHRIS: No problem I really enjoyed talking with you.
Dashboard Confessional will be hitting the east coast this week for their Australian show, more info below:
BY TIANA SPETER