Chris Carrabba is juggling his attention between two things: my voice on the telephone (thousands of miles away from his Seattle hotel room), and the NBA playoffs on ESPN. Asked whom he favors to win this year, Carrabba — former skate-boarding phenom, ex-camp counselor and current frontman for emo outfit Dashboard Confessional — voices his unwavering support for the Lakers.
"Oh, but I'm coming off as a total jock," he self-consciously chuckles, after a lengthy discussion of what makes L.A. his favorite this year. The Lakers are actually a little bit like his band — both are polarizing forces between their fans and detractors, with the burdensome role of "chosen ones" placed upon them, and both have stars with more hype than they could possibly live up to in person.
It's doubtful that anyone could mistake Carrabba for a jock, though his clean-cut Johnny Footballplayer appearance is augmented only by his affinity for black T's and the inscrutable maze of tattoos covering both arms to the wrist. His music, similarly, is popular to the point of making MTV's Total Request Live seem like his own pet project, but is off-kilter enough to earn Carrabba opening spots on past tours with the indie rock elite (see Beck, Weezer). More recently, Dashboard filmed an episode of MTV2's Album Covers where they performed R.E.M.'s Automatic For the People in its entirety — with Michael Stipe joining them.
Further proof of the Carrabba enigma: He's linked to a genre of music whose DIY ethos shuns the light (and presumably, increased cash flow) of commercialism, yet his tour is sponsored by Honda Civic. Oh yeah, and his new song "Vindicated" appears prominently in this summer's soon-to-be blockbuster, Spiderman 2.
So of course people feel pretty divided about this guy.
"I think that's great for me, though," he says, adding, "Personal music should be polarizing, or it's not personal." He offers to crowds (most of them adolescent females, notably) a conduit for their own catharses, a series of shout-along mantras signifying love and loss. Such themes, sung in easily understood lyrics with impossibly catchy emo hooks, are often set to somber, acoustic tones and backed by a full band.
It's a band whose that's names are mostly unknown, even to Dashboard's fans (for those who're curious: bassist Scott Schoenbeck, guitarist John Lefler and drummer Mike Marsch). Carrabba's career was built on his own impassioned stories. Audiences, if not the band members themselves, already knew this. "I made it clear when [the band members] signed on that this is how it is," he says, referring both to the burden of his singular stardom and the difficulties of rehearsing a new, full-time group. Carrabba reckons that as they continue touring and recording together, fans will eventually see Dashboard as more than just a vehicle for its star.
To that end, Carrabba says he chose the name Dashboard Confessional over his own as a means of shifting emphasis away from himself, but, he concedes, it's his story being told onstage. He feels like the tide of attention is changing, if only a little. The full band's been together for two years now, and their reputation, Carrabba feels, is built more on their live performances than any of Dashboard's recordings. The three full-lengths — from Carrabba's solo guy-with-a-guitar debut The Swiss Army Romance to last year's more muscular A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar — have involved more collaborators with each effort. But Dashboard still can't shake Carrabba's long shadow. Just like Carrabba himself cannot shake, say, Honda's long shadow.
Regarding the sponsorship, he says, plaintively, "I'm not looking for world domination. Sometimes our own fans don't agree with the things we do. But these are free thinkers, not blind devotees. I love Spiderman. Are some people going to be bummed that it's a big-budget movie?" he asks rhetorically. "I'm not."
But even if Carrabba says his audience is made up of free thinkers, many continue to see him as a big brother, a compassionate role model who — despite his good looks, charisma and knack for songwriting — is still a gawky, confused kid like the rest of them. His legion of fans sings every lyric, fervently mouthing every word of another guy's troubled relationships that they identify with. Carrabba has become, for better or worse, the rock equivalent of the Lakers' Shaq or Kobe, an involuntary role model whose fans see the best parts of themselves in him.
So how do comments like "I don't care about pleasing anybody" come from a man whose fans would buy magazines his photo graces, contents unseen? The short, if only, answer: He never asked for it in the first place.
"I've been successful to this point because," he says calculatedly, "what I find artistically gratifying just happened to have resonated with a fanbase. Those two tastes can be divergent at any time."
So, while Carrabba takes the attention seriously, he doesn't feel he's taken it for granted. "I've been lucky that what challenges me happens to be in line with a certain group of people," he says. "And that doesn't make them fans of me, but fans of 'it.' I just happen to be the one doing it."
Carrabba offers stories of his early career when, after leaving popular south Florida emo act Further Seems Forever to work on Dashboard, he became the most unpopular kid on the stage. It was a time, he says, when unsheathing an acoustic guitar was an invitation for ridicule. "I felt like saying, 'before I show you what you're going to criticize, you've already formed your opinion,'" he says.
It's near blasphemy, I know, to compare another musician's career with Dylan's, but — in however small a way — the two singer/songwriters share some similar circumstances. Dylan achieved fame among kids (many who are now Dashboard fans' parents), before "plugging in" and playing to that same crowd's jeers. Carrabba unplugged and had to start rebuilding his fanbase from the ground up. What's more, both have accepted their roles as rock stars, and make no apologies for it. Just check out the new Victoria's Secret commercial featuring the cadaver-esque Dylan's cryptic smile. Or the new Spiderman movie, for that matter.
Contact Music Writer Mark Sanders at 941-9067476, or mark.sanders@ weeklyplanet.com.