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Dashboard Confessional’s Long Road Back

Emo icon Chris Carrabba opens up about the devastating motorcycle accident that derailed his career — and a secret new album he made before the pandemic hit

Chris Carrabba can remember everything about the day his bones shattered.

It was June 6th, and the musician was riding his motorcycle near his home outside of Nashville. He knew the road well, and the turn ahead — pitched dangerously for how tight it is. He knew to slow down when he reached the tricky part.

He didn’t know, however, that a car had crashed there just hours before. There were bits of wreckage and gravel on the spot where it was pulled out of a ditch. “And thats what I hit,” Carrabba tells me. “Or basically hydroplaned on. I went straight into this ditch. There’s no guardrail or curb. It’s just straight to the ditch.”

Carrabba — best known as the founder and lead singer of the trailblazing emo outfit Dashboard Confessional — remembers throwing himself off the bike. He remembers being in mid-air, about to land on his back, and seeing the bike shoot up the other side of the “V”-shaped trench and pitch backwards. He remembers that resigned moment: He saw it coming and knew what was about to happen, but was powerless to stop it.

But it wasnt the landing that broke his shoulders and ribs — it was his bike when it landed on him. “I said out loud, ‘Motherfucker!’ And then the bike bounced off me.” Unbeknownst to Carrabba, his shoulders were broken in several places — one of them dislocated — and various muscles had been severed. But he was in shock. He felt none of that, beyond a little ache.

The ditch Carrabba landed in. Image via @dashboardconfessional/Instagram

Miraculously, a Good Samaritan who happened to be an EMT  insisted on calling an ambulance. Carrabba was still conscious, oblivious to the damage. “At first, I thought it was broken ribs,” he tells me. “I didnt really think I was that injured.” But upon arriving at the hospital, he learned his injuries were severe. Hed need numerous surgeries and months of rehab.

On June 11th, Carrabba informed fans of the accident on Instagram. Even then, he remained lucid; he was engaged enough with current events to affirm his support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Carrabba had planned to spend most of 2020 on tour, celebrating Dashboard Confessional’s 20th anniversary — an occasion that has been marked by a vinyl reissue series. The pandemic ruined that plan. And now, after returning from the hospital, Carrabba couldn’t even play guitar at allBut by early September, Carrabba had begun the grueling work of relearning the skill that was his livelihood and identity for more than two decades. A songwriter known for his frank emotional vulnerability — as defined by Dashboard classics like “Screaming Infidelities” and “Vindicated” — Carrabba has continued sharing glimpses of his progress with fans directly. 

An update on Carrabbas Instagram from September 6th: “Today I can barely bend my arms, let alone lift a guitar. It was worth it.”

In a recent conversation with MEL, the emo icon spoke at length about the immense challenges of regaining his musical skills, as well as the secret new Dashboard Confessional album he made before the pandemic and his involvement in a new canned wine called Canvino (the subject of a million emo wine puns on Twitter)

Tell me what the process has been like — relearning how to play music after your injuries. Has it been a huge effort for you these past months?

Relearning how to play guitar after having sustained so many injuries was this daunting task. The first hurdle I faced was actually starting. Because I knew I’d lost the ability. It took a friend — my friend Fred Mascherino, who used to be in Taking Back Sunday and is in the Color Fred. He’s a masterful guitar player. He said, “What if we just did some guitar lessons? How long do you think you could play for?” I was like, “I think I could play for about five minutes before my arms give in to serious pain. Maybe.” He goes, “Well, I’ll give you five-minute assignments.”

What began as five minutes has grown and grown over time. I play constantly in this serious pursuit of trying to regain this thing that was so integral in my life. Not just as my job. It was a source of joy for me. There’s a bit of it that is my identity. And I lost that. I lost a lot of things in this accident. But I wasn’t willing to lose that for good.

I didn’t realize you were conscious throughout the whole thing.

Yeah, I was conscious the whole time. The trauma started for me when I got to the hospital and understood the concern. Even in the ambulance, the main EMT suggested, “I think maybe you might have dislocated your shoulder.” And that was it. But when I got to the hospital, it was pretty apparent that I was in dire straits, and the sheer number of people in the ER operating room was enough to give me pause and say, “Okay, my life’s changing here.”

You underwent numerous surgeries from that point?

I did. When I’m able to go back and visit that hospital staff and say thank you, after COVID, I wonder if I’ll be able to feel the trauma hit me there. Because I didn’t feel it. It felt very peaceful to go back to the spot where I had the accident. I looked, and there were pieces of so many different cars in that ditch. It’s just a spot. It just happens to be a very dangerous spot, unfortunately. 

How long after the accident did you start to play again?

I started about two and a half or three months after the accident. It might have been a little earlier. I know it was sooner than my doctors would have liked.

Did your doctors know you’re a professional musician? Did they know who you were?

Yes, and they were very considerate of that when making decisions about how to put my body back together. My injuries were extensive, and they were to both sides. I broke both shoulders in multiple places and I lacerated the muscles — the biceps and the deltoids — on both sides. The muscles being severed — this is just my guess — is probably why I lost that ability to play music temporarily. Muscle memory was kind of gone now that they were re-draped and sewn back in a different place.

My doctor took almost twice as long in each of the surgeries I had and kept the incision spot a lot smaller than he might have. And in other cases, [he] used, say, a plate instead of a screw, because they were trying to give me as much mobility as possible. They realized my job didn’t happen to be at a desk. They were vigilant knowing what I was trying to get back, and I credit not just my doctors, but my physical therapists, who worked daily, weekly and monthly with me. Really, I’m indebted to these people. 

Was there a moment when you worried that you would never be able to play guitar again?

Absolutely. I stayed up many, many nights worried I’d never play guitar again. The first couple times I tried, my best friend, Dan Bonebrake, who used to be our bass player in Dashboard, came up to take care of me while I was going through this. Of course, when we’re together, we play music. There were a couple times I just gave into the temptation, and we tried to play. And nothing was happening. I couldn’t hold the pick right. I couldn’t depress the strings. If I go to play a note, my finger wouldn’t go to the right place. It just felt like, I know how to do this in my mind. But my body no longer knows how to do this. To sit with my best friend and play music as we’ve been doing for a lifetime, and not being able to do it — that was a blow to my spirits as I was recovering. That made me put the guitar down — in a healthy way. Because the last thing I wanted was to allow myself to believe this was permanent. 

You mentioned you started playing in five-minute increments. Were you learning chords and scales from the very beginning?

I never had lessons [before], but I’ve been self-studying for my whole life. So it was interesting to take lessons with a person. The things I was learning were, like, very basic C-major scale. All the way up the neck and back. All the modes. That was the first thing Fred gave me. As a student, what it felt like was, You know this. This should be easy.

But he changed all the fingering of the way I did it. I always play the modes diagonally. He had me play them horizontally. He was understanding that I used to do this one way. So if I went to do it that one way, I was going to get really frustrated that it didn’t happen. But if he gave me a new way to do it, I wouldn’t expect to know how to do it right away.

Because you were playing it on different strings than usual?

Yeah, I was playing them on different places on the neck. And then it kind of became musical after a while. Shortly after that, I started reaching out to guitar players that I really look up to and asking for lessons — Sammy Boller, Yvette Young and a handful of others. Acrobatic, melodic, really challenging stuff. I take four to five lessons a week now, and I practice for four to five hours a day. In the last couple of weeks, I can comfortably say I’m as good as I was before the accident.

That’s amazing.

You know, it’s such a victory. But it’s given me this real desire to be better than I was. Because it almost seems like not enough just to come back just as good. Like, to have to put in all this work to just be: “Yeah, this is where I was before my body was all broken.” 

So look, I’m in a place where, physically, I’m still far away from being where I was before the accident. And I’m starting to accept that maybe I won’t ever be there. But in terms of a musician — at least as a guitar player — I can’t tell you how therapeutic it is to know that I can lean into that. Maybe I’ll never be able to use my arms quite the way I used them before. And I probably won’t have many days left in my life where I’m actually, truly pain-free. But I can sit down and forget about it now. Because that’s what playing guitar does. It just kinda tunes out the world. Including the stuff that’s going on inside.

What was the first Dashboard song you relearned how to play after the accident?

I have a hunch it was a song from an EP from a long time ago [2001] called “So Impossible.” It’s not a terribly difficult song to play. But you do have to muscle the strings just right.

Have you been able to write new songs since the accident?

I’m sure I’m able to. I have kind of been resisting it, though. Songs, to me, come as they come. But I feel most connected to my songs when I feel like I’ve struck that beautiful thing of, “Oh, this is somehow a shared theme. A shared experience. A universal theme.” I love when I hear songs like that.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: There is no record for people I could write right now that’s like, “Hey, remember that time there was COVID and then we broke our shoulders in a motorcycle accident? It took us a year to become a person again?” That’s not a record I want to write!

The last Dashboard album came out in 2018, and that was your first album in almost a decade. Do you anticipate there being a new Dashboard album in less than nine years?

Yes. There is one.

Oh, you’ve already recorded one?

I just thought I’d be on tour this year, like everybody else.

So you’re holding it until after the pandemic? What’s the plan?

The plan is to read the tea leaves, I guess. I guess I’m holding it till after the pandemic. But I’m also holding it because I’m living with it — and what if it’s not the right record to put out?

2020 was our 20th anniversary. We had the reissues. We had excessive amounts of touring booked. We had a sold-out tour that was just incredible — the one we actually did get to do. The excitement level in the audience was palpable. It was just a very beautiful start to the year. It kind of all came unwound in a lot of different ways.

But yeah, I have a record that feels like the record I’ve wanted to make for probably 15 years. And it finally happened. There’s no burning urgency for an artist like me to have to get something out just because there’s space to fill. There’s time. I have a large catalog and people like to listen to that music. And I think they’ll be there for a new record when I feel the timing is right for it.

Dashboard’s fans are extremely loyal. 

And that’s a glorious thing. One thing I didn’t want to do was make them wait after having made them wait when I went on hiatus. I was not gonna do that again. I thought I was so far ahead of the curve, making this record in secret and not hyping it. I’m not doing a campaign to get people hyped on this thing. I was almost hesitant to answer your question. But yeah, there certainly will be no eight-year wait. I feel like there may be another few months.

You’ve been reissuing your first few records on vinyl. What has it been like revisiting that material 20 years later?

Some of it’s a trip where you realize, “Oh shit, I got that right!” As good as I think I’ve gotten through years of gained wisdom, those early moments were special because I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.

When you re-listen to The Swiss Army Romance now, do you feel like you got it right? Or do you cringe?

Of course I cringe a little bit! Have you ever heard your own voice even when you listen back to an interview? We’re not any different, singers. Especially when you’re talking about how I sounded 20 years ago, as a pretty green, relatively new singer — I mostly screamed in the bands I was in before that. I had a long way to go. But I hear somebody that’s displaying a whole lot of honest intention on those records. I might not love the tone of this little one section in my voice, or maybe I would have written a lyric differently today, but I still think I got it right. I think the guy observing it now is probably wrong.

Twenty years after the fact, you can see your influence in a lot of major pop and rock musicians today. From Taylor Swift to Kacey Musgraves, you have a lot of fans who’ve gone on to big things in pop music.

Yeah, but you know, some of it is because they’ve told me. I don’t think you hear your own influence on somebody else when you hear somebody.

You’ve never experienced that?

I’m not able to hear it. I am after they tell me. I seldom listen to a song and go, “Oh! That person must have listened to me.”

Taylor Swift has spoken your praises many times. You’ve even performed for her personally.

Yes! I was thinking about the oddity of my career. Of doing things most of the time against the grain. A few times, playing the game as requested to abject failure, in my opinion. I did things that were aimed where my gut went, which was left of center. And the people it influenced are like this new generation of emo and indie-rock, which I think is just powerful and really potent, really honest, really brave. But also, how is it that these superstars took from what I did and were able to find a way to make that  the biggest music in the world? Obviously, I say that knowing I’m just a piece of one of their many influences.

When you were recording 2000’s The Swiss Army Romance, did you ever imagine the music would spread this far and wide?

We pressed a thousand copies. And I never expected to sell those. So, no.

Recently, you’ve also been involved as a partner and investor in the launch of a canned wine called Canvino. How did that come about? 

I like wine. [Laughs] We were in Napa. And I was thinking a lot about wine. Then, shortly thereafter, I was on a boat and somebody had a bottle of wine and it fell and broke. I thought, “This doesn’t really belong here on a boat, this glass bottle.” I started thinking about whether or not canning wine was decent for the quality. The more research I did, the more I found out it was, and I found a company that was doing it well. I started to get a relationship with them, and their winemaker, Susy Vasquez, who I think is incredible. They’re making wine in a sustainable way. 

I don’t know if you saw, but some people on the internet were coming up with puns on wine and Dashboard songs.

[Laughs] I thought of them. And I intentionally left them alone to see if anybody would come up with them, and there are some good ones.

“Screaming Zinfandelities”!

That’s good! “Vino-cated”? I like that one, too. 

Aside from relearning guitar, how have you kept yourself occupied during this long recovery? Have you picked up any new hobbies or ways to pass the time?

The time commitment I’m having to give to rehab alone is intense. And then to throw these hours and hours of playing and singing over it has been all-consuming. If nothing else, it’s been a glorious distraction from the other heaviness of the year, with COVID and the political climate. I am someone who happens to have a lot of hobbies. I’m really eager to be able to get to do them again soon.

Like what?

I make hats. I like to work with leather, making various things. I like sewing, strangely. I like working with my hands. I work a lot on my car. I worked on my motorcycles for a long time. COVID was the first time in my adult life where I had every third-hand engine that was just sitting around my garage operable at the same time. The only new motorcycle I had was the one I crashed.

I can tell you a few bands I’ve been listening to a lot. First Aid Kit — no pun intended — has been a big part of my daily listening. I’ve been going back to bands that were really important to me from earlier times, like Lifetime and Braid and the Jazz June, the Promise Ring, things like that.

Do you anticipate playing any shows either virtually or in-person in the coming months?

I need to play a show, really badly, to feel like I’m the person I was. We’re planning a livestream. And we’re planning tours, and hoping the vaccinations are adopted widely and that we can go back out on the road.

Do you miss it?

I miss it terribly. I’ve been forcing myself to play through the pain, and I had the startling discovery that my voice had fatigued quite a bit as I lay prone for months on end. So I worked my way up from a few songs a day to playing and singing 20 a day because, even though there’s nobody to play to, I want to exercise that muscle.