Onward Chris' Soldiers

He knows what you're thinking, this Chris Carrabba fellow. He knows you've seen his video on MTV, the one where he gets in the fight with the actress playing his girlfriend and she leaves the apartment and he stares forlornly into the camera. He knows you've heard his band, Dashboard Confessional, and have probably made up your mind about it, and him--that you've read the countless magazine articles about him and wondered how so many people can become so impressed with someone who's really just whining about his love life (which can't be that bad, anyway, considering his perfect hair and the girls who show up at his shows).

"That's not really a talent, right?" he admits with a laugh, on the phone from backstage at some arena in some city where he'll open for Weezer in a few hours. "But I think that the songs are crafted well, so you've gotta listen to it in order to appreciate it. So there's something there. Otherwise I'd just be a poet."

That's debatable, but Carrabba's got a point about his songs: The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, Dashboard Confessional's second album, has been appreciated by more than 200,000 listeners since its March 2001 release, a number that suggests there is something going on in that whining that's resonating with a sizable portion of America's youth. What is it? Depends on whom you ask.

Some admire the music's simplicity--mostly Carrabba and his vigorously strummed acoustic guitar, occasionally accompanied by unobtrusive bass and drum parts. Anemic or no, it is a refreshing counterpoint to the expensive digital productions that clog Top 40 radio (or whatever's left of that these days), and when Carrabba pairs the stripped-down instrumental approach with his painfully earnest lyrics about girlfriends who leave (and, amazingly, that's it), the context can actually make him sound like some tattooed prophet of truth. Or at least a guy who really means it.

"That kind of depresses me, that that quality in music is so unusual that it's press-worthy," Carrabba says of the uniqueness of what he's doing. "That someone can be honest about their feelings." Gauche, perhaps. But there's something about "Screaming Infidelities," Places' omnipresent lead single, that kind of makes you see what he means. "I'm cuddling close to blankets and sheets," Carrabba sings prettily over an anodyne chord progression. "You're not alone and you're not discreet/You make sure I know who's taking you home." Is it emo? Unquestionably. Is it kind of embarrassing? Yeah, a little. Is it catching on? Incredibly.

"The way that it's grown has been very word of mouth," Carrabba's quick to explain. "We kind of grew, as far as room size, with that word of mouth. So it never felt so unusual. Now there's this influx of people, but it was very slow and steady--there'd be 50 people one time through the city, and then we'd be through the next time and there'd be 75 or 100, because everybody had told somebody to come. So it was a very slow and steady thing. I mean, we're a touring act; it doesn't seem like a big influx of new people because we've gotten a lot of press or play on MTV, because it's been proportionally equal to the incremental growth."

Nothing unusual there, in relation to the hundreds of bands that slowly build a following by crisscrossing the country's network of clubs. But Dashboard isn't playing clubs anymore; it's playing venues like the Smirnoff Music Centre and playing to thousands of kids every night, many who famously know every word of every song. How'd that happen? Carrabba's not really sure.

"Something neat has happened with our band," he says. "Everyone brings friends that are like-minded to the shows, so we can play bigger and bigger venues while maintaining the level of intimacy we're used to, because the vibe hasn't changed. It's not like all of a sudden there's just a bunch of people that don't really get it. You just feel the energy from the friends there to see you."

Some of those friends live in high places and have the power to attract other friends. Dashboard just became the first non-platinum-selling band to play MTV's Unplugged, a factoid you wouldn't necessarily pick up on by watching the swaying masses huddled around Carrabba on the show, who look at least as devoted as Lauryn Hill's faithful and way more interested than Alice in Chains' flock.

"It was amazing," Carrabba says of the experience. "I loved it. It was almost romantic, like I fell in love with doing that. And it wasn't like, 'Hey, you're gonna do this,' and then we were there. It was a pretty amazing way of coming about, where some people that worked at MTV became fans early, early on, before the idea of making a video was even a possibility, and Alex Coletti, the producer, specifically saying, 'It would be so amazing to have you guys make an Unplugged one day. The way you do your show is what I've been trying to do with my Unplugged show, and it would just be great to see that happen.' This is when we were playing for 100 people, too. And Alex came through with it, which is awesome; he kept talking to us for about a year about doing it, and it came about. He's a risk-taker, and it worked. It paid off for him, I think."

For Carrabba, too, undoubtedly. Dashboard Confessional's at the top of the emo heap, with only Jimmy Eat World for company in terms of media exposure and mainstream popularity, and the prospects for the year-old Places still look pretty bright. Carrabba's typically understated in his reaction to his success.

"It's a trip," he says of the last 15 months. "I don't really know how else to explain it, because I don't feel like we are leaders of emo or whatever. There's still so many people that I look to as the leaders, and I don't think we've reached that point. It's strange for me personally to have people say that. But then again it's also flattering."

He knows what you're thinking, but he's pretty sure he can change your mind.

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Mikael Wood