This is an interview I had the privilege of conducting with Anberlin singer Stephen Christian following their set at Anaheimís House Of Blues.
Howís the tour been going? Has it been a lot of fun so far?
A lot of fun. This is one of the coolest tours. I like all the bands. Iíve gotten to know the guys in Metro Station real well. Mae, weíre former labelmates with from Tooth & Nail, and theyíve gone on to bigger and better things. Then Motion City is just awesome. Theyíve been doing this for years. They know the formula and theyíre just so good at it. So Motion Cityís just great guys. A couple of them are really outgoing, so we hang out a lot. Some of them are into Kid Robot, which is like a Japanese toy store, and they take me around and go like "this is cool," just to hang out. But yeah, good guys. Really nice guys.
You guys just had the b-sides/rarities album come out a couple weeks ago. How did that come about?
You know what, it was contractual. We didnít want to do it at all. Iíve never bought a b-side record in my life and felt like it was almost a rip-off. I love my fans too much. I donít want to slop something together just to make some money for Tooth & Nail, for me or whoever. So to be honest, I hated it. I hated the idea. It actually started out as a Greatest Hits, and we were like "Dude, whatever. Weíre not over. Weíre not done with."
Yeah, Tooth & Nail seems to do that a lot.
Yeah, dude. Theyíre good. I was like "Okay, can we please do a b-sides?" So we finally convinced them, and I was like "Do we mind if we do 18 songs and a DVD? We have all this footage from throughout the years." And theyíre like "Yeah, yeah. That sounds great, that sounds great." Then a month before it was released, it got chopped down to 12 songs and no DVD. We were like "You got to be kidding me." Weíre off the label, so it feels like they donít really care. At moments it feels like they almost donít care about us or our fans. We finally had to take the DVD and chop it up into seven webisodes and put it on youtube. So itís youtube.com/anberlin, and thereís seven of them. I just uploaded one a couple hours ago, so I think thereís only two left to complete the seven. That was supposed to go with the b-sides record.
With it, we finally got them back up from 12 to 18 songs because we were just so furious. We were like "You canít rip us off. We still have ties with you guys. We still want to push these records that you put out for us." I donít know. It just felt like they didnít care anymore. Itís sad. As soon as we left, they were more invested in the money that could be made instead of the lives that they could have touched. So it was sad. But anyway, b-sides is just a collection of stuff that didnít get on records. Itís stuff that if you were an avid fan, you would already have.
Yeah. I already had about half of it.
See. That drives me nuts. I donít expect, and I hope you donít, to pay like 10 dollars to get these songs that were just slapped together. You already have the best ones. Whatever you have were the best ones.
Do you now regret any of them not making the records?
I mean yeah. I wish I could go back in time and on Cities I really wouldnít want a few songs. I would want "Haunting" on, just because I had no idea of the response. That was one of those songs that I wrote and was like "I donít think people are going to like this." I just felt like it didnít fit the mood, and I felt like we shouldnít have put "Mathematics" on Cities. I love the song. I absolutely love the song. I think itís dark and tells an awesome story, but I think people just didnít get it and donít like it. I donít know. So we shouldnít have put that one on. I donít really like "Alexithymia," and thereís one other one I was thinking about the other day that I wish I didnít put on. Iím trying to think, doggone itÖ "Mathematics"Ö Anyway, those two. And "Alexithymia" seems to be a curse for us. Every time we try to play it live, something goes wrong. It was a bad song, so we stopped.
You guys are going to be working on some new stuff and recording pretty soon, right?
Yeah. Weíre already at 10 songs. Hopefully, weíre going to take off the holiday after this tourís done, go back into the studio probably February 1 and work with an awesome producer named [canít be officially announced yet].
Yeah. Weíre actually going to meet him tomorrow for the first time. The contractís not signed, but heís already fully committed. Weíre going to hang out with him tomorrow, give him the idea for the overall picture and show him the first 10 demos. Weíll keep writing through the holidays and hopefully when we walk into the studio Februrary 1, weíll have like 20 songs together.
Now you guys have only worked with Aaron Sprinkle before, right?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean we never really had the opportunity to work with any other producers, not that we would have. I love Aaron Sprinkle. Heís just an amazing guy, and we all talked about maybe going back on the fourth record to him ó not for old times but just because heís almost like a sixth member. Heís that entwined. I know [our new producer] is going to do an amazing job. Me and him have had incredible conversations and heís just a solid, solid dude so far. Heís a very songs-oriented producer, and Iíve never had that. Aaron Sprinkle is a music mastermind genius, but his first main career wasnít a producer. [Our new producer] worked with [artist] in the Ď70s and Ď80s. Then he stretched out on his own and did some fabulous stuff. So weíre just excited to work with him.
Thatís cool to hear. What kind of stylistic direction are you guys taking with the new stuff?
Itís still all over the place. I donít think that we can all settle on one thing. The one thing I can say is that Christian now being in the band from Acceptance brings back a lot of the riff stuff from "Readyfuels" and "Feel Good Drag." That kind of like heavy, riff stuff. So I think thatís really going to push Joey to take what Christian writes and make it his own. Make it Anberlinís. So itís going to be really cool to see. I think the direction that Iím kind of aiming at lyrically is going to be more like Cities than any of the other two. As far as sonically, I think itís going to be a cross between "Dismantle. Repair." and "Paperthin Hymn." Kind of right there. Like not too intricate that you lose it, that you get lost, but a little more likeÖ
Like epic sounding, kind of.
Yeah, epic. I guess thatís what I mean. Anberlin ó we havenít changed at all. Nobodyís going to be like, "Whoís this?" "Oh, itís Anberlin." I mean, duhÖ Thereís no way. Itís going to be very, very distinctive.
You guys are also on Universal for this one. What made you decide to go to them?
I think several factors really. With Tooth & Nail, I believe that thereís a glass ceiling. Itís like you can go so far and then you kind of have to stay there. The thing is that when we assessed on staying at Tooth & Nail, we could have had another five-year career. Everythingís stable. We just sell to this market that they have a niche in. But I think thereís a moment in everyoneís life where itís this do or die moment. You have this one chance. I mean do you jump off the train and try to save the day? Do you go out and create some art that you donít think anybodyís ever seen before? Do you quit your day job and go back into television or producing movies? Who knows when that moment is for you? But you kind of have to decide. I think that for us, this was like hereís Universal, whoís just begging for the opportunity. Iím talking like hounding my manager everyday since before Cities came out. We were like "Wow. These guys really want us. Why not take the risk?" And what if it flops? Letís say we only sell 10,000 of the next record. You know what? Iíve had some of the best years of my life. Iíve had so much fun. Iíve got to tour with some amazing bands and live out dreams that I never thought in a million years would be possible. So itís like why not just take the risk?
On top of that, we wanted to do like a Tooth & Nail/Virgin thing, as far as a major and a development. We wanted Tooth & Nail to stay with us because we love the people there, but Virgin just wouldnít have us. Hereís all these other major labels just hounding and then they were just like "Hey listen, thereís no singles on Cities." Universal said, "I want to buy it. Thereís five deep on that CD. Weíll buy it." And Virgin was like "No. Not only are we not going to push it, but weíre not going to sell it." It was just kind of like "Dude, are you trying to slaughter our careers? Weíve worked this hard and suddenly you just put the nail in the coffin." So we love Tooth & Nail. I love their passion. Some of my best friends in the entire industry are at Tooth & Nail Records ó in life, not just in music ó but there comes a chance when you have to step out on a limb, go out and see what the rest of the world has for you.
Thatís kind of weird because Virgin just had a lot of success with The Almost.
Yeah, they did.
So thatís kind of weird that they didnít like you guys.
I agree. I think they also had a lot ofÖ I mean Underoath sold awesome. If Underoath would have wanted to have been on the radio, they could have. They would have been huge. I donít know. They just have a lot of integrity. So they just went with other bands.
Now Christian is from Acceptance, and when they made the jump to the majors, they werenít met with the best of results. Has he been able to bring any advice to the situation?
Oh absolutely. I think he was a great balance of like "Hey, hereís what labels are going to do. Hereís what theyíre probably going to say." But actually in the end, Christian was quite ó I canít put words in his mouth ó but I think he was quite surprised at how supportive Universal was, and how they were like "Listen. This isnít going to happen." He was like "Wow. I didnít even know because I didnít even tell them that." They were already saying "Listen. This isnít going to happen. Itís not like if you sell under this then youíre gone. Weíre not going to drop the ball. Weíre not going to leave you hanging." So that was really like okay, calming us down. So that was really cool.
In addition to Anberlin, you have your side project Anchor & Braille. Can you describe that a little bit?
Itís just songs that Iíve sat down and wrote that I knew Anberlin couldnít portray or translate. Thereís a couple songs, like 4 or 5, that Anberlin has taken and made their own, but these are songs that either lyrically or sonically felt like I donít think these are in the vein of Anberlin. I think Anberlin is more of like Foo Fighters/Jimmy Eat World fast rock ó stuff like that ó whereas Anchor & Braille is very much like Sigur Růs, Ryan Adam-ish. Just kind of more in that vein and stuff like that. Iím not comparing myself to them. Iím just saying that kind of genre-ish.
Now when is that supposed to come out?
You know what? We have no idea. I think that my manager agreed with the label on this that Anberlin has to be the primary focus until Anberlin drops the record. Then we can all focus on Anchor & Braille. Until then, I donít want to get my head in the clouds.
Youíre also something of a writer and have your first novel coming out next year. Whatís the deal with that?
I donít know if Iím a writer. Is there a pseudo-writer out there? Iím a tryer. I donít know. We have a lot of down time on the road, so instead of playing video games all the time, I try to pick up writing and stuff like that. I donít know if itís a short story or a novella, it depends on how itís bound I guess, but itís going to come out in February/March of next year is the tentative date. Itís called The Orphaned Anythingís. I donít have a lot of press for it or anything like that, but I do have myspace.com/theorphanedanythings.
Yeah. I read the first chapter. It was pretty sweet.
Hey, thank you. Thanks very much.
So whatís the plot of the book?
I think the plot is kind of likeÖ Well, actually the line "Thereís more to living than being alive" was in the book and was almost translated over into a song. Youíll hear a lot of lyrics off Cities from stuff in the book. Itís about the monotony of life and trying to get out of the sludge and the cyclical world that we put ourselves into. Such as this girl emailed me the other day at Modesty, and she was just saying how she looks back ó sheís 25 now ó and sheís at a desk job. Sheís not married yet but she still has this boyfriend, and one morning she just woke up and was like "What am I doing? This was never what I wanted to do." I told her that there was a quote that says, "The road to hell is a slow and gradual one." Iím not saying sheís going to hell by any means, but Iím saying that I think you make real small justifications and you let little details go. Itís just little things. "Well, I donít really need to do this." Or "I can put off college until next year." Or "I would take this film job but it doesnít pay nearly as well as this job at Kmart." After a while, in three or four years, youíve made all these justifications. Here you are in the thick of life, and youíre just like "This is not who I wanted to become." So I guess thatís what itís about ó about self revelation, turning your life around and going "You know what? There has to be something more than just this."
Now over the last several years, thereís been a huge uprising of Christians in the mainstream music market. Back in the day, it was like P.O.D. and Switchfoot, and then this year itís been Paramore and OneRepublic. How exciting is it to be right in the middle of that?
Itís great. I think for most of us, we donít go in there and go "Iím a Christian, so I should get into a band and try to save the world." I think for most of us, itís almost a calling. Like a burden. Like "Hey, this is what I really want to do with my life." Itís cool because we can set a lot of different examples for not only the listeners but other bands. We can go "You know what? You really donít have to do this and participate in the stereotypical rock Ďní roll." I think you can see the seeds of that were planted with like maybe MxPx, P.O.D. or Switchfoot. I think you can kind of see them now whereas a lot of bands are getting behind a lot of causes. You never saw Guns ĎN Roses doing a charity event, believing in an organization or funding a well in Africa. But now you see everything from Fall Out Boy to Cute Is What We Aim For to Paramore to Thrice. Everyone takes up a cause. Itís just unreal. All these people trying to be a positive light, and itís really cool seeing the fruits of that coming out of our scene.
Do you have any theory why youíve seen the mainstream respond to this so well?
What do you mean? Iím sorry.
Like have you seen any reason why the mainstream is more accepting of Christians and "Christian Music," and are more responsive to it now than they were back in the day?
Well, I think itís just desensitization. I think when the first bands came out, everybody was like "Christians in a band! Christians in a band!" But now you have everything from U2 to Paramore to Copeland. You canít even name the amount of bands that have Christian members in them. I just think itís like theÖ How do I explain this in better words?... Itís just not a big deal anymore. Itís just over. No one talks about it anymore. Itís just like "Oh, okay. Big deal." Thereís tons of people in it. I think that over time, people have just gradually become like "Oh, uh-huh. Good deal."
The band has written its fair share of love songs, but you arenít afraid to delve into those deeper issues, be it spiritual of philosophical stuff. Is there a favorite area you like to write about and do you find it difficult to balance both aspects?
No. If I could have any goal in lyrics, it would be to teach a life lesson. Whether out of failures or out of successes. Out of life or death or hate or whatever it is, to hopefully better peopleís lives. I donít want every song to be "Girl, I want to hold your hand Ďcause youíre pretty," and I donít want every song to be like "Well, the third law of thermodynamics states that everything is in the process of decay." What? I donít want to hear that. I want a medium where I can relate to that, I can absorb that and I can apply that to my life. I think thatís the area I love the most.
What is your approach and philosophy to writing lyrics, and how are you able to incorporate your faith without it coming off as preachy or something like that?
Well, I donít sit down to avoid the word "God," avoid the word "Jesus" or something like that. Thatís never my intention. I know this is going to sound creepy, or whatever you want to call it, but a lot of times when I sit down to the music, it already talks to me. In other words, if you have this fast paced song, like "Dududududududu," youíre not going to be like [Sings] "Girl, your eyes are blue, yeah, and so is the sky." So it already kind of gives you like a "Well, this is the direction where itís going in my head." Then I usually journal. I try to journal everyday, it doesnít work out so well, but I keep this little black notebook with me. If lines or something inspires me, whether out of a book, a film, or just life or someone says something ó like my grandfather was the one who told me "Never take friendship personal." I was like "Wow." It stuck with me for like a year. I hated that quote because it was like "Dude, thatís just sad." But then when you have people completely turn their back on you and despise you, itís kind of like "Ah, yeah. At moments it feels like that. You can never take friendship personal." Itís little things like that. So when I sit down to hear the song, Iíll flip through my journal ó the front is where I do like my "Write One Today" ó and Iíll flip it over where itís all lyrics, one-lines or something like that. Usually when I hear the chorus, I can translate some of those words into that chorus, and then I start to write the song around that. Then I go to the pre-chorus. Then I go to the verses ó start with one then two.
Last week, the music community was a little shaken up with the passing of Casey Calvert [guitarist for Hawthorne Heights]. Were you able to get to know him at all?
It killed me. It crushed me. I can tell you the time, the place, even the city we were in. Minnesota. It was right in the afternoon. I had just walked in the bus after coming in from the mall, and one of my friends from Bayside called me. I just didnít move. We had been on tour with Hawthorne Heights three times, and Casey ó ask anybody who has ever toured with them ó was the first one to get off the bus, the first one to hang out with you and the first one to hang out in the backroom. He was just hilarious. Always a kid at heart. Like we would go and find these Kid Robot toys together ó those same ones ó and stuff like that. He was just the greatest guy. It was so funny because I had just gotten a new phone and, no offense to the rest of the Hawthorne Heights guys, but his was the only number I put right away in my phone. I knew that if I was going to talk to one of them ó talk or see where theyíre at in the country, like most bands do. Like "Where are you at today?" "Oh, Minnesota." Or wherever. ó He was the first one I put in my phone. And I had just gotten the phone like days before. I think everybodyís going to have their own "Casey story." For us, I donít think anyone else treated the band better, the other bands on tour, even our staff or anything like that. He was definitely the nicest, most friendly, most outgoing guy in Hawthorne Heights, and maybe in the entire music business.
I read your blog from time to time ó I try to keep updated on it ó and you seem to be pretty knowledgeable on a wide variety of subjects. With the New Year approaching, what do you see as the big issues facing not only the music industry aspect but also our country as a whole?
Wow. I mean obviously the elections are coming up. I think thatís one area Iím definitely going to tackle as soon as I process it out and get more data. As far as politics is concerned, I really wish we had an election where you donít have to choose from the lesser evil. Why canít you choose for someone that you love and are proud of to have in there? Iím not saying Iím going to enact it, but Iíd love a third party, or something like that, so we have a little more of an option. A little more of a choice as far as who we put to represent the most powerful country in the world to go out there, whoís going to take me and you and everybody, go to a different country and speak before thousands of people. Itís just scary. Itís like why we do we have to choose between I hate him and I hate him less, so Iím going to vote for him? I wish it was different. I wish there were two awesome candidates, and youíre biting your nails at the last second at the polls with who youíre going to vote for. So itís just a concern that is going to face us next year, since we do elect a president in í08.
As far as the music scene, I think people are, in the next two years ó Iíd say definitely within the next three years ó are going to have to come to terms with themselves and start to either justify, admit or change as far as downloading music illegally. In the beginning, I think we all had the attitude of "Down with the man. Down with the big corporations. If I burn this CD, what does it matter? Itís one CD." Well, now itís to the point where some people are suggesting that if youíve sold one CD, thereís three out there that have been burned. Thatís great for the consumer, but the problem is that in the end, itís going to eat them. Youíre taking money away from the corporations, which takes money away from the bands, which means they canít sign as many bands, which means the local band that you start or this other guy starts is not going to get signed. Instead of me being able to sign 30 bands because weíre Tooth & Nail or some indie label or major ó I donít care who you are ó we canít sign 30, we can only sign 10 now because thatís all I have the budget for. So I think that thatís really going to have to be addressed very shortly. With the consumers, itís like a reality check.
There was a really cool label in the late Ď90s called Deep Elm. They put out a lot of really cool bands like Mineral and Appleseed Cast ó a lot of bands like that. I just read an interview where he said the year that burning CDs became ó not okay, but you had the accessibility to buy a machine that burns ó his sales dropped 50 percent. And thatís why heís declaring bankruptcy now. Heís like "Iím the little guy. Iím the small guy. I was the one fighting for the consumer, signing these real indie cred bands. Iím not trying to sell them out or anything like that." But heís like "If Iím closing my doors, itís going to work its way up." Now itís going to go to the bigger indies, then itís going to the massive indies like Vagrant and Tooth & Nail, and then itís going to climb its way to the majors. I think itís just crazy. Like when is it going to stop? We have definitely seen it. Our contract, the way that we signed it with Universal, has encompassed so much more of our life besides just our CDs. Now we have to branch out and give them a part of merchandising and live showsÖ
Part of that 360 thing.
Oh, yeah. And you know what? The consumer doesnít care. 360 doesnít mean anything less to them. I just know that at the end of the day, Iím the one who has to suffer, and then we have to work twice as hard. Itís not that any one of us are rich. None of us own a house. I just moved out probably four months ago. I just bought my first car last year in October. This was before Universal, so it wasnít like we signed and got a million dollars. This is after saving up for all these years. Itís like if this is whatís happening to us, and weíre one of the bigger bands on Tooth & Nail, then what about the little guys? Theyíre still living with their parents. Theyíre meagerly getting by. Well, this is going to eat them alive. Now theyíre going to have to go get day jobs because their CD canít get pushed as much, or they may just get dropped. Like before, I think if you donít sell 15,000 or more than youíre dropped. But now whatís it going to be? 50,000? We canít afford it. They just canít afford it.
Do you see bands moving towards self-releasing it on their own?
I mean maybe butÖ Well? Thatís really hard. Sure itís easy to do. You can all stick it up on iTunes or whatever. Youíre going to maintain the audience you have. Letís say youíre like The Barenaked Ladies or whatever. They did that. I think 3 Doors Down did that, I believe. What happens is you maintain the fan base and then it slowly starts to dwindle and dwindle, like it did for 3 Doors Down and Barenaked Ladies. So you can self-release it, but your album sales are going to slowly dwindle. You canít be a starting band and self-release it. Youíll gain no new fans. No one will hear of you. iTunes is going to put you out. Best Buy wonít carry you. So sure, you can do it. You can make decent money. But unless you were already selling 10 million records, youíre not going to survive. So somethingís going to have to change. I donít know what it is. I have no suggestions. I really, really donít.
Is there anything else youíd like to add?
I think we covered pretty much everything. Maybe the end of the world even. Thereís nothing we havenít, so this was awesome.