Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba: Why I Love Sick of It All | Revolver

Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba: Why I Love Sick of It All

Singer-songwriter on discovery, early shows and lessons learned
sick of it all GETTY 2018, Mark Horton/Getty Images
photograph by Mark Horton/Getty Images

Sick of It All are true NYHC pioneers, and at the heart of the band stand the Koller brothers: vocalist Lou and guitarist Pete. On Tuesday, August 4th, Post Hill Press will publish The Blood and the Sweat: The Story of Sick of It All's Koller Brothers, a no-holds-barred autobiography of the two siblings from Flushing, Queens, who came to spearhead a movement. The book (which can be ordered now via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Generation Records and Coretex Records) features commentary from family, friends, bandmates past and present, and peers such as Gary Holt (Exodus, Slayer), Kurt Brecht (D.R.I.) and Barney Greenway (Napalm Death). It also includes a foreword from someone that many may consider an unlikely source: Dashboard Confessional bandleader Chris Carrabba. Read it exclusively, one day before the book's release, below.

I was in high school and I was super into heavy bands. Of course, this was in the pre-Spotify era, so you had to wait around for somebody to tell you what records to get. I had this friend who worked at our small local record shop, and he hated to clean the store, so, if I came in around closing time and vacuumed, sprayed the counters, and took on his less glamorous duties, he would give me a couple of records as pay. I did the work and got the records, but he insisted on picking them for me. He would play me what he was going to give me while I worked cleaning the shop, and he would play it loud.

I remember him playing this one record and thinking to myself, "I need to hear this whole thing. I just have to hear this." So, I took my sweet time cleaning that place and listened to the whole thing. I was absolutely floored, but played it super cool. My friend handed me my two records when I finished cleaning, but neither was the one he had spun while I was cleaning. I was bummed, but I didn't want to give it away that I was nerding out so hard, so I just let it go. Turns out, it was a pre-release copy of an album he received from one of the record labels. I hounded him for a few weeks until I thought he was tired of the record, and finally, he gave me the promo — without mentioning that it was coming out only a few days later. I could have stopped begging and just waited for the regular copy, but he kept me hanging so I would keep cleaning the bathroom, which was no easy feat in that store. Now I had the record, and I became obsessed with it. It was Sick of it All's Scratch the Surface .

At my school, nobody knew about hardcore bands. I didn't know anything either, but I wound up talking to one of the older guys I skated with after school and he told me it was their third album. I went straight to the record shop for the first two.

Fast forward a little bit, and Sick of It All is coming to play in Fort Lauderdale. I have long since forgotten the name of the venue, but it had an upstairs room called "The Attic."

So get this. My band was picked by the local promoter to open for them. The band I was in predated me, but by the time my best friend and I joined, it had evolved, or devolved, depending on your taste, from a prog-rock band into a kind of post-punk thing, and then it became closer to post-hardcore; something like Jimmy Eat World meets Hot Water Music, even though I don't think we'd even heard Jimmy Eat World yet. We were beyond psyched to play the show, and didn't think it was that odd for us to be playing with hardcore bands, because in Florida, there were so few bands to begin with that genre overlap was very common at shows.

Even though we weren't a straight-up hardcore band, we had a draw that the promoter thought would work for this show. It was going to be the biggest show our band would play to date, but it wouldn't have mattered if we were going to be playing for two people. All we cared about was that somehow, through some exceptional turn of fate, we were going to be opening for our heroes, Sick of It All. I think it was probably the band's biggest show that we would ever play, and it was sold out in advance of us being asked to be on the bill. The pressure was huge. We practiced our asses off and then we practiced some more.

The day of the show was finally here. The other guitar player and I show up, and then, we wait. We wait for our rhythm section, the Bonebrake brothers (their real last name is Bonebrake). I'm still confused as to why we didn't name the band after them. Anyway, we wait for them to show up ... and they never do! The promoter tells us if we don't play, we'll never get another show. Ever! Having no idea what to do, the two of us idiots just go up and play our most rhythm-section based songs. I played guitar and my other guitar player, John, had his guitar in one of the Bonebrake brothers' cars, but he had somebody's bass in his car, so that is what he played. I don't think he'd ever played bass once before that night. We were just terrified, and, I'm going to be real honest here, it wasn't good! Let's just leave it at that. We played just long enough to have not killed ourselves with the promoter, but we'd definitely embarrassed ourselves. We were thinking, do we even want to stay around and see Sick of it All now that we've had our lowest moment? So, we're walking off stage and Lou Koller comes over and says, "Hey, what happened?" I said, "The rest of the band didn't show up." He said, "But you played anyway?" I didn't go into it having been do or die for our fledgling band in our fickle and political music scene. I just said, "Well, yeah," and he just replies, "FUCKING AWESOME!" In that moment, it didn't matter that we weren't good — it mattered that we stood up and did what we were there to do. That struck me hard and has stayed with me all these years since. I think Lou saying something positive to some kid he had never met before was one of those moments for me where a seed was planted and a root would soon take hold. Lou let me feel like I was part of it for simply being there and following through. He made sure I felt included, even though I was so aware of how small my part in that evening was.

To this day, I have this relationship with my audience that is based on community. There's no real division between me and the audience. That stems from my experience in the hardcore scene, and is exemplified by this guy I looked up to then and now, who just saw me fail miserably and made me feel part of something anyway. I mean, I can draw a direct line from then to when I began doing, I guess what you could call the singer-songwriter thing that I do. What most people would think to do is go play coffee shops or the like, but that wasn't my network, and those weren't my people. That show opening for Sick of it All was scary. I had to play up there with these heavy bands, to a room of tattooed dudes — and this isn't like tattooed now, this is tattooed THEN. What I was about to embark on as a kid with an acoustic guitar in the hardcore scene wasn't as scary as having to play without a band right before Sick of it All. But, I did just that, and got an attaboy from Lou that night, so I figured, fuck it, I can do this. I had to deal with something similar just recently. I was about to do a show, and something about it just didn't sit right with me, but I HAD to do it. I remembered, just be you. Do what you do without compromise, and you'll either sink or float, but it will be uncorrupted. Those are all things I took from that specific instance, and from that scene in general.

Some years later, Dashboard is starting to do well. I had only just stopped playing solo, and began having a band. It was one of our first times playing in the U.K., at either Reading or Leeds, and I ended up sitting on a road case somewhere backstage. Pete Koller — who I didn't know, but was still a devoted fan of — just randomly came and sat next to me, and started chatting. I don't think he knew who I was, but I guess I looked like a hardcore kid. So, we're chatting, and I told him, "I would have to kick myself if I didn't tell you how important your band is to me." He was very, very gracious. He began asking me about my band for a really long time. I asked him a few things, and he'd give it some thought, then gave me a little direction here and there. I think back to that conversation now ... At that point, I really hadn't ever been in a band that was popular long enough for me to dispense advice to anybody. In the coming years, when I was in that position, I remembered how gracious Pete was with his time, and always tried to make my best effort to talk to whoever the new kid is, and listened to that kid in the same way I was listened to. I don't know that I have great advice to give. I don't know that I have ANY advice to offer, but I can listen the way that he listened to me. I don't know that it will have the same impact that my experience with Pete had on me, but if it can, it's worth doing.

sick of it all LIVE PRESS 2020, Silvy Maatman
photograph by Silvy Maatman

We sat there on that road case for a bit, and one of the Gallagher brothers walked by. I didn't care. They just don't hold that place for me. I was chatting it up with one of my heroes, and I was keenly aware that I was going to remember this moment.

There is a way Lou and Pete carry themselves. It's with a genuine kindness and an inviting manner most wouldn't expect. That scene in New York has this incorrect reputation whereby people are unapproachable: tough, mean, too cool, whatever. That's not real. What's real is that they deserve respect for being pioneers, and building a scene that would spread across the nation and the world. That scene was and is inclusive. In fact, what people like me and you really learned from that scene is that you must connect with EVERYBODY to make it work. Then there's the ethos and the dedication of DIY that permeates it. Sick of It All took that ethos and spread it through hard touring and incredible, timeless music.

I appreciate that Lou, Pete and every member of Sick of It All, past and present, have been so good to the fans, to the younger bands, and younger musicians around them. They realize that if they bring about a strong, healthy new generation, it's good for them, too. The way that they conduct themselves is beyond reproach. They seem to feel lucky that you like them, and believe me, I know bands that carry themselves as if you're supposed to feel lucky to have ever heard them. I have to believe that it takes a lot of effort to maintain a career the way they have, and they still somehow appreciate every moment. Every moment seems to be: We can't believe we're able to do this, even if it's for the 10th time. They're still surprised by almost everything that happens for them. That's not a PR thing. That's genuine. That's Lou and Pete.

blood sweat book cover sick of it all