Interview

“Screaming Infidelities” At 20: Dashboard Confessional Reflects On Emo’s Breakthrough Anthem

It’s after midnight in the early days of the new millennium and Chris Carrabba is wide the fuck awake. He hasn’t been getting much sleep lately — especially not at nighttime.

Like a handful of his Southeast Florida skate and surf world comrades, the 24-year-old aspiring musician primarily lives out of his van, only occasionally borrowing a couch or indoor shower from friends with more stationary setups. Right now he’s posted up in a nondescript parking lot within earshot of both the beach and downtown; when the vehicle’s doors are pulled open, like they are tonight, Chris can just make out the sounds of the warm winter ocean, of the Fort Lauderdale dive bars creeping towards last call.

At one point he grabs hold of his acoustic guitar, a fickle instrument that’s notorious for refusing to keep itself in tune. Frustrated, Chris begins twisting on the budget pegs until they start to stay put while he strums — inadvertently initiating his first-ever experiment with nonstandard tunings. He continues fumbling around, eventually ekes out a couple of unfamiliar-sounding chords. And then he starts singing.

He sings about a recent heartbreak, still raw. He sings about circumventing old haunts and a baffling breakup letter. He sings about the reminders of how things used to be, both literal and hypothetical. He sings about drinking too much, about turning nocturnal, about listening to depressing songs on a loop. About wishing he was anywhere, with anyone, making out.

While the lyrical details stay true to the story of the split, Carrabba’s voice — pained, pretty, a little desperate — sounds saturated with a less specific ache, a larger kind of longing. Maybe he’s feeling a more generalized dread, a fear that the world is coming unglued around him, a sensation heightened by not only the loss of a romantic routine, but also by a string of personal blows, including a close friend’s unexpected death. When he sings he sounds like he wants something back, something slippery and nebulous and tough to articulate.

That’s more or less the origin story of Dashboard Confessional’s turn-of-the-century tearjerker “Screaming Infidelities,” a song that wound up playing a key role in emo culture’s progression from niche haven for dustbowl post-rock to the patron genre of Gen Y melancholia. The track, which turns 20 this week, also helped cement Carrabba’s reputation as a true-blue master of the brokenhearted singalong. “What a fucking surprise that was,” Carrabba, now 44, told me recently over the phone from his home in Nashville. “I still don’t know how to write songs that make people sing along,” he said. “If I try, I inevitably fuck it up.”

And yet the singing began at the first-ever string of Dashboard shows, which happened not long after Carrabba wrote “Screaming Infidelities” in his van. Back then he saw the project as a perishable outlet for his hyper-personal acoustic solo stuff, a foster home for songs that didn’t align with the sound of Further Seems Forever (the relatively noisy five-piece for which Carrabba also sang and played guitar). But thanks to home-burned CD-Rs and a little file-sharing website called Napster, budding fans learned every word, from the song’s ripped-from-life opening — “I’m missing your bed, I never sleep” — to the titular, slow-sung kicker — “Your hair is e-v-e-r-ywhere / Screaming infidelities, and taking its wear.”

“I was knocked dead,” Carrabba explained. “That’s where the whole I’m gonna stop and let them sing thing started; it was a shocked response. It wasn’t like, Yeah, I got this, I’m gonna pull back and do this move. It was like, What the fuck. If they had stopped singing the first couple of times that happened, I wouldn’t have known what part came next.”

The Swiss Army Romance, Carrabba’s 11-song debut as Dashboard Confessional, was made quickly and cheaply with some help from Florida producer James Paul Wisner. “We recorded out of my second-floor apartment,” recalled Wisner, who said he sensed that Carrabba was the “real deal” straight away. “There was very limited space — I had Chris crunched in the corner with the guitar and a microphone,” he said. “Screaming Infidelities” is the LP’s opening track, a fittingly pensive and stripped-down intro to the heavy-hearted collection.

The album technically dropped on March 1, 2000 via Fiddler Records, who’d previously put out music by Carrabba’s pre-Further Seems Forever pop-punk band Vacant Andys. But when the songs started catching fire, Amy Fleisher — Fiddler’s tastemaking founder and one of Carrabba’s most trusted pals — sold The Swiss Army Romance rights to Drive-Thru Records, confident the Los Angeles label would be better equipped to handle the demand (the original Fiddler pressing was limited to 1,000 copies). “This was my best friend,” Carrabba explained of Fleisher’s decision. “She had my interests at heart.”

After the sale, Carrabba seriously considered joining the Drive-Thru roster in a long-term context. “But then I saw the contract and it just didn’t seem right,” he said. “I decided there was another home that would be better for me.” He wound up making a deal with Vagrant Records in December of 2000. According to Carrabba, Drive-Thru responded by halting distribution of The Swiss Army Romance. “They decided they were going to shelve it,” he told me.

In his excellent 2003 book, Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, And Emo, Andy Greenwald does his best to break down the whole debacle, cataloging a series of rage-inciting phone calls, mismatched retellings, and an alleged revenge campaign. (“We were fucked and we wanted to fuck him over,” Drive-Thru co-founder Stefanie Reines is quoted as saying.) When we spoke recently, though, Carrabba reflected on the decades-old ordeal with a kind of water-under-the-bridge tranquility. “They were just stunned, just hurt — [and] communication was bad on both ends,” he said. “I don’t imagine they were out to ruin me or anything like that.”

But 20 years ago, when he was in the thick of it, Carrabba fretted over losing the songs on Swiss Army, two in particular: the addictively self-conscious “Again I Go Unnoticed” and album opener “Screaming Infidelities.” It felt like if those songs disappeared, “the identity of the band would be gone,” he explained. And so he cut two tracks from his already-written second album and went about re-recording those Swiss Army highlights with help from Florida friends Mike Marsh and Dan Bonebrake. “I didn’t overthink it,” Carrabba said. “The lesson that taught me was that there can always be more than one version — and maybe there should be.” (There are two iterations of love-struck fan favorite “Hands Down” too.)

Carrabba’s update on “Screaming Infidelities” managed to sound bigger and slicker without sacrificing any of its scorned vulnerability. The guitars were still acoustic but he added drums, a more climactic coda, and, maybe most notably, it was recorded in a stepped-down key. “I don’t want to demystify this terribly, but the truth is I forgot my capo and when I tried to tune up the guitar the strings started to break,” Carrabba said. “It was a utilitarian choice, like, Shit I forgot the thing.”

Although the new “Screaming Infidelities” appeared second on the tracklist of Dashboard’s sophomore full-length — The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most, which dropped via Vagrant in February 2001 — it was chosen as the lead single. “It was put to me this way, and I like to think of it this way too: This song is a terrific invitation to see what the rest of the record is about,” Carrabba told me. “And I thought, I don’t know if that’s what singles are. But I liked the idea of that, that it’s just an invitation. And if you’re not drawn in, that’s OK. But if you are, then it’s effective.”

Next up was the music video. Carrabba starred in it, and the finished product was split between a loose breakup narrative and full-band performance footage — the kind of clip that they don’t make much anymore. Already a success within a specific corner of the indie rock world, one populated by sad and hopeful soft-punks who spent a lot of time on messageboards, the video had Dashboard flirting with a different kind of momentum. The song was featured in an MTV movie about heroin addiction starring Aaron Paul and Summer Phoenix; in April 2002 Carrabba filmed a now-iconic Unplugged set in the TRL studio; and by mid-May, “Screaming Infidelities” had reached #22 on the Billboard Alternative charts.

“I started getting invited to those events radio stations put on,” Carrabba told me. “I remember vividly there was one show with a very eclectic bill, and I was suddenly in a room with Wayne Coyne and Chris Martin. The conversation kind of spun around to [“Screaming Infidelities”], and they all knew the song and had things to say that surprised me. It was not the center point of our conversation, it was just a blip in a dressing room. But I remember thinking, Well that’s fucking weird.” Later that summer, the video won a VMA. It nabbed the fan-voted “MTV2 Award,” a category that in 2002 also included Norah Jones and the Strokes. “That felt really gratifying because we were a band focused on our relationship with our audience,” Carrabba explained. “Through the video the fan-base grew — but it grew to just more of the same like-minded people.”

CREDIT: Mark Mainz/Getty Images

In Nothing Feels Good, Greenwald describes “Screaming Infidelities” as the “strangest hit single in quite some time,” and I can’t really disagree. The hooks are demure, you can’t dance or mosh to it, and its lyrics were famously misconstrued by skeptics as self-indulgent and spiteful. So why did it click? Maybe it was something simple, like the way it offered a much needed antidote to Y2K’s trademark bubblegum, which by that point had burned-out like an old Yankee Candle. Maybe it’s that it was both angsty and accessible — coffeehouse music for young people who liked to pour a little bourbon in their latte.

But if I had to put Howard Ratner-style money on it, I would wager that its success had to do with how “Screaming Infidelities” created a community around itself. It’s a sad-ass song about listening to sad-ass songs and, for reasons that will never make sense to everyone, hearing it at full volume made us feel better. Maybe some listeners had actually been romantically spurned, like the protagonist of the song. Maybe they really lost sleep, curled up at night with bottles of booze. (Carrabba clarified that “beast” was slang amongst his friends for not only Miluwake’s Best beer, but basically “any alcohol that we could afford.”) But I think a lot of us were bummed out about our own personal shit, freaked-out and lonely and haunted by something that for whatever reason we struggled to articulate. And so we squeezed into these little venues and we sang about someone else’s breakup at the top of our lungs and mostly off-key until our teen-aged voices cracked and our eyes got wet.

“I would start [“Screaming”] and, out in the audience, arms would go around each other,” Carrabba said. “There was a moment being shared in front of me, like, He’s playing the one. This is the one that he invited us in with! The sing-a-longs were happening already, they certainly sang along to every song — but that was remarkable. I felt closer to the audience at that moment.”

“I think anyone can relate to it on a visceral level,” said the country singer Ruston Kelly, 31, who tapped Carrabba to sing harmonies on a slowed-down, borderline ghostly cover of “Screaming Infidelities” released in late 2019. “[When] I was discovering what love and heartbreak were, Dashboard was a soundtrack to understanding,” Kelly said. “[Carrabba’s music] made me feel part of a community where these emotions were shared and understood.” If you listen close enough you might also detect echoes of Carrabba’s style in work by some of indie rock’s current stars — from Snail Mail’s raggedy voiced love songs, on which she stacks-up unassuming hooks like Lincoln Logs; to Tomberlin’s magic hour dream-folk, the way she spins radical honesty into gorgeous, all-acoustic anti-anthems.

Last month, Carrabba self-released The Best Ones Of The Best Ones, a 20-track compilation of career highlights; “Screaming Infidelities” is its opening track. “I think it’s the one that brought us further than any other into people’s lives,” Carrabba said. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand exactly what people connected to, or why.” He paused, then spoke a little bit softer. “I’m almost afraid to dig for the answer myself, for fear of losing it.”

Two weeks after our chat, Carrabba left Tennessee for a long tour in celebration of the new collection. Before we hung up I asked him if it had ever been difficult to play “Screaming Infidelities” over and over. “That night in the van was immediate catharsis,” he said. “[Performing it] wasn’t being dragged back to this sorrowful place that I had to relive, it was an invitation to go back to this place that freed me completely. It was an invitation to let myself let it out.” And so for three and half minutes every night he returns to that parking lot by the beach, singing and strumming and clinging to the hope that this thing he wants back, this mixed-up and intangible and always-changing thing, isn’t gone — not forever, not really.

CREDIT: Dave Bean