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True Confessions

It's a steamy February night in Boynton Beach, Florida, and Chris Carraba is exhausted.

Carraba, the one-man, acoustic emo-rock army professionally known as Dashboard Confessional, has just completed The Things You Have Come to Fear the Most, his second album in nine months. He's also weathered a firestorm of controversy over his decision to switch label affiliation from major-label farm club Drive-Thru to red-hot indie Vagrant. If that wasn't enough, on this night he kicked off the second half of a 285-date, yearlong tour. Leaning against the Orbit nightclub's wall for support, Carraba manages a wan smile when asked to account for his surprising success and replies: "I don't know man, it was all just an accident."

As Carraba's musical hero Elvis Costello once sang: "Accidents will happen." But while Carraba's ashes-to-phoenix rise from singer/guitarist of obscure Boca Raton, Florida, emo-punk band The Vacant Andy's to indie-rock icon can be traced to a three-song demo he made three copies of, his breakthrough is no mere accident. More likely, Dashboard Confessional is the harbinger of an acoustic punk revolution.

With his matinee-idol looks and tattooed flesh, Carraba is an emo-punk Trojan Horse, drawing in the backpack chicks and tough guys with his dazzling smile and indie cred, then slaying them with his haunting acoustic melodies and tough-love tales. In a Dashboard Confessional world, boys do cry -- and that's perfectly okay.

In September 1998, a 23-year-old Carraba showed up an hour early to his job as an elementary school administrator. With time to kill and his guitar in the office, an inspired Carraba knocked out three acoustic tunes before the school bell rang. "It felt natural." Carraba recalls.

A week later Carraba entered the studio and put the three songs to tape. With little confidence that anyone would want to hear a punk-rock singer belt out acoustic material, Carraba made three copies: one for himself, one for his mom and one for Fiddler records owner Amy Fleisher. Fleisher, who had released a single for The Vacant Andy's, was duly impressed and immediately wanted to sign Carraba's new project.

Not wanting to give up the rock just yet, Carraba instead joined emo-punk band Further Seems Forever as their lead vocalist. With a large local following, several regional tours and a record deal with Seattle indie Tooth & Nail records, Further Seems Forever raised Carraba's profile, yet frustrated his creativity, as he had no say in the band's songwriting. So he picked up his acoustic guitar and banged out his frustrations, amassing an album's worth of material in a year's time. Still, he kept his music to himself, over the vehement protests of Fleisher.

"She nagged me constantly to record or play out," Carraba 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 Carraba to open for Vagrant artist Saves The Day at Blue Note Records in North Miami. Not wanting to bill himself as a solo artist, Carraba came up with the name Dashboard Confessional, an allusion to a couplet ("on the way home/this car hears my confession") in his song "The Sharp Hint of New Tears."

"I never wanted this project to be all about me," Carraba states. "I always conceived it as being a band, with the audience playing a part." Dashboard Confessional wowed the 100 emo fans gathered at Blue Note, and audio tapes of the show spread like wildfire, eventually ending up on Napster for all the world to download.

Emboldened by the reaction, Carraba entered Fort Lauderdale's Wisner studios two months later and recorded Dashboard Confessional's debut album, The Swiss Army Romance. With nine songs clocking in at 27 minutes, The Swiss Army Romance combines the musical intensity of the first Ramones album with a lyrical bite reminiscent of the Replacements' Let It Be. Carraba'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 /You're just like everyone." Carraba's percussive acoustic guitar blasts with so much passion that you'd swear someone plugged him in halfway through this brilliant player-hating rant.

To promote the album, Carraba received Further Seems Forever's blessing to open their spring 2000 shows with a Dashboard Confessional song. Soon the demand for Dashboard Confessional CDs was far outstripping Fiddler Records' supply.

"I sold all of the 800 Dashboard CDs I had in three weeks on the Further Seems Forever tour," Carraba recalls, still shaking his head in amazement. "When we got back in May, Fiddler pressed another 1,000 and it was gone by June."

Unable to afford larger pressings, Fleisher licensed the record to MCA subsidiary Drive-Thru for a November re-release. Carraba realized the time was ripe to pursue Dashboard Confessional full time and left Further Seems Forever after completing his vocal tracks for their debut album. At the same time, Dashboard Confessional hit the road for eight weeks with South Florida homeboys and Drive-Thru pop-punk heroes New Found Glory. Carraba was shocked to discover kids in every town singing along -- despite the fact that his CD was unavailable. "Napster definitely helped me get going," Carraba affirms.

Furthermore, any remaining fears that Carraba's acoustic rock wouldn't go over in a punk rock setting were put to rest. "I was relieved that the punk and indie kids liked my stuff," Carraba says. "Because I am one of those kids and I wouldn't know who else to sing to."

By Thanksgiving, Dashboard Confessional had five months of solid touring under its belt, Drive-Thru/MCA re-released The Swiss Army Romance to great fanfare, and the label's promotional machine pushed the record all the way up to number 16 on CMJ's college radio charts.

Yet, there was little joy in Mudville. Dashboard Confessional was still without a recording contract, as he had a handshake deal with Fiddler, and it was Fiddler -- not Carraba -- who had an agreement with Drive-Thru. When Drive Thru's offer came in December, Carraba rejected it and followed Fleisher to California independent label Vagrant, where Fleisher was newly installed as head of A&R. In a bizarre reversal of the music industry's normal contractual squabbles, Drive-Thru asserted that they were used and betrayed, and angrily threatened litigation in response to the defection, while Carraba coldly maintained a party line.

"I don't know why there's such bitterness on [Drive Thru's] end," Carraba states. "I wasn't signed to anyone. This was strictly a business decision."

Stephanie Reines, Drive-Thru's co-owner, says, "As much as I love that record, I'll never be able to listen to it again."

With both parties distancing themselves from it as fast as possible, The Swiss Army Romance went from 60 to zero in less than a month. Drive-Thru cut its losses by ceasing to supply independent distributors with the record -- thus making it unavailable in the mom-and-pop stores where the majority of Dashboard Confessional's fans shop. (MCA continues to distribute The Swiss Army Romance to chain stores.) Dashboard Confessional has taken it one step further, not even acknowledging the record on their Web site's discography page.

With the fallout from the Drive-Thru debacle still fresh, a bewildered Carraba spent the first three weeks of 2001 writing material for his Vagrant debut, the ponderously titled The Things You Have Come to Fear the Most. Desiring a fresh start, Carraba drafted Vacant Andy's bassist Dan Bonebrake (nephew of X drummer DJ Bonebrake) and Mike Marsh (drummer of Miami pop-punkers The Agency) to back him up on four tracks and serve as a live backing band. Now with a rhythm section to keep time, Carraba was free to experiment with both guitar parts and vocal harmonies.

Despite these new-found freedoms, the prevailing musical direction of The Things You Have Come to Fear the Most is minimalism. The opening tune, a minor-key lament entitled "The Brilliant Dance," is scarcely more than one riff, utilizing only a falsetto and a slight crescendo for song parts. The fourth track, the haunting "This Ruined Puzzle," makes great use of a cello and vocal harmonies to evoke empathy with the song's sad-sack protagonist, then decrescendos all the way down to a pulse.

Immediately after completing The Things You Have Come to Fear the Most in February of this year, Dashboard Confessional hopped back on the road for a series of tours which currently has no end in sight. While this grueling road schedule has made it impossible for Carraba, Marsh and Bonebrake to keep homes in South Florida, it has paid huge dividends. According to Soundscan, The Things You Have Come to Fear the Most has sold more than 40,000 units from reporting chain stores alone. In addition, the album rose to No. 23 on CMJ's college radio chart, proving that the band didn't need major-label support to get airplay.

After completing its current tour of duty as the main support act for the "Vagrant Saves America" tour in September, Dashboard Confessional will begin its first-ever headlining tour -- with Seville, Bonebrake and Marsh's side project slated to open. Fiddler recently released The Drowning EP, a repackaging of the three-song demo that started Dashboard Confessional's improbable career.

Carraba reflects: "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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Tom Bowker