Stephen Christian of Anberlin
Anberlin (Stephen Christian on vocals, Joeseph Milligan on guitar, Deon Rexroat on bass, Christian McAlhaney on guitar, and Nathan Young on drums) hit the music scene with a force with their debut album Blueprints for the Black Market. Quickly amassing a loyal following and touring with the likes of My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy, the stage was set. Citing the importance of pleasing their fans and not their critics, Anberlin followed up their first album with Never Take Friendship Personal. Their sophomore album was a rock n roll amalgamation of intensity and high energy, something that came quite naturally for them.
Fast forward to 2007 and their latest release – Cities. Some say the band has matured, others feel that they have just perfected what they were always good at – infectious songs with lyrics we can all relate to and the raw live chops that are primed and ready for fan-filled arenas. And although it doesn’t always happen this way – it couldn’t happen to five more deserving guys.
Currently out on tour in support of their latest release, fans are eating them up and returning for more night after night. Lead singer Stephen Christian sat down with us to talk about the band, it’s evolution, and his personal aspirations and hopes for the future.
Interviewed by: Lexi Shapiro | April 2007
So, you recently posted a long, cathartic blog entry on The Modesty Guild about your feelings regarding the public’s views on artists “selling out.” It seemed as if it were something that you’ve been wanting to say for quite a long time. Have you ever felt pressure, whether from fans, producers, whoever, to change your art to conform to a different standard?
Well, I just felt very scared about what critics had to say, especially in the beginning. I would try to read anything and everything I possibly could on what people were saying about our music because it’s your art – you’re really curious, and you’re really scared at the same time. You wonder what people think of you. So, I was really thinking about conforming the music around their opinions, but then I realized that it’s not about the critics, because at the end of the day it’s YOU you have to live with. It’s not their opinions. And, honestly, I’ve been through the whole Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and not once have I seen a monument or an exhibit dedicated to critics. It’s about the music. It’s about the people in the music industry. It’s not about the critics.
You don’t even read them anymore?
If somebody shows me one, or if my manager forwards me one, I’ll read one occasionally. I’m long departed from the time when I googled “Anberlin sucks” or “Anberlin’s horrible”. And now, I just don’t care anymore. I think the real determining factor are mediums like iTunes, where the fans can write in – and THAT’S what matters. That’s who I look to and go, “Ok guys, you still on board with Anberlin? Or, have we done too much?” But, I don’t care about somebody who sits behind a desk and actually makes money to put down other people’s careers and passions and dreams.
When we listen to the radio, we hear songs that we can instantly say are “classics,” but it’s been hard to discern or find many of those in our generation of music. Do you feel that modern-day music is heading in a positive or negative direction?
Both. Five years ago it was boy bands and people that were manufactured. They had all their music written for them and they’re all just marketing ploys, but now I’m glad that it’s people who write their own music. It’s just a whole reinvention of people going more towards bands and less towards put-together groups. So, that’s a positive. There’s tons of negatives but I like the direction it’s going in. I’m glad that Indie is the new Rock. Indie is the new Pop. So, I’m content with where it’s at. The problem I have is not so much with the industry but with the fact that we don’t have albums anymore. The fact is that everybody just wants that single, the really cool song off the new blank-and-blank record, and I’ll download that song on my iPod, but nobody cares about the album. And I wish that we’d return to Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. You would listen to the whole record. It wouldn’t be like you just downloaded Pink Floyd’s single, because obviously they didn’t have that then. They didn’t have that many singles. They tried to make complete albums. So, I think that we’ve lost that art of albums and now we are just songs.
That actually leads me to another question I had. To get this question out of the way, because every artists’ views vary, what is your opinion on file sharing and the free exchange of music on the internet?
People think “oh, down with corporate whores. Down with these big-time record labels. It’s not hurting the band, it’s just hurting the labels.” But, I was just reading on AbsolutePunk yesterday that the music industry is down 17.7% from last year’s 1.14 million sales in the first quarter of this year. And, if you looked at a chart over the last five years it’s steadily gone down. It’s just because people are burning music, and you have to understand that it may not appear like you’re doing much harm to any bands right now, but major labels aren’t going to sign bands anymore. They’re going to narrow it down to just the eight or nine artists that are selling like a million, like Ne-Yo and Justin Timberlake and rap artists that are selling the million, and they’re going to start avoiding bands like Thrice. They sold 300,000 records, which is a lot, but they’re going to get dropped, because they understand that they can’t make money off these guys anymore because they need to make the major label last. So, people are starting to kill the music industry. And, what’s it going to be in twenty years? It’s not going to be like this where you have thousands and thousands and thousands of bands that are touring all the time, because there’s going to be no place for them, there’s going to be no home. Nobody’s going to start a record label if they don’t think that they can make money to feed their family.
Nobody’s going to start a record label if they don’t think that they can make money to feed their family. You’ve got to realize that buying a record is much like voting for a politician. I don’t know what the biggest band in the world is right now, but let’s use Coldplay as an example. Well, hypothetically, if everyone burned the next Coldplay record, they would get dropped. And if they got dropped, then they couldn’t tour. And if they didn’t tour, nobody would…it’s this whole cycle. When we go in to the studio, wherever we put our next record out is going to look at our previous album sales and go, “Well, you’re only worth this much, so you can only go with this producer” or “You did really good, so you can go with this producer” or “We’ll give you this kind of tour support so you can go and tour.” So, it’s a vote. If you like the band and if you burned the CD and it’s one of your favorite bands, then go out and buy it. You’re doing the band a disservice by not buying the record, not because “they see a lot of money” because, they don’t. But, they get more opportunities, such as, if you sold more records you could go out on more tours or you could get on tour with bigger bands or you can ask for tour support so you can have gas in the car or the van or whatever to get to the next show. So if you like the band and you burn it, then go buy the record. And if you didn’t, then just break it! Something like that, I don’t know. At first, we loved it. It was like, “Ah, burn all of our records” but after a while it’s just like, you’re killing us. We’re slowly just dying, just because we can’t do the things that we wanted to do.
So, even though people think that it only affects the corporations, the bands, themselves, really do feel a loss.
Oh, at the end of the day they absolutely feel a loss. They either get dropped by their label, or their next record everybody complains, “Man, the last record was so good. It sounded so much better.” Well, it’s because they couldn’t afford that producer anymore because they didn’t sell as much.
Aside from Anberlin, obviously, what bands do you feel currently bring hope for the future of music?
Tons. That’s a really good question. I really like Jonezetta. I really like Bayside. They’re on tour with us right now. I think they’re incredible bands. I’m trying to think of some really up-and-coming bands…I see the future of Rock and Roll being bands like Pheonix, from the UK, really solid bands, really well-written music. I love the pioneers. I love My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, and I love the people that are just pushing this whole genre ahead. And, I love The Rides. So, thank them for those, they’re great. There’s a bunch of bands, a list, Blonde Redhead and Mew, and bands like that are really what I’m into, that I really hope that Rock and Roll starts to emulate.
Anberlin – Cities
It’s common knowledge that you’re deeply involved in charity. Can you tell me about a particularly moving or life-changing experience you recall from when you were in India or Haiti or during another charitable experience?
We were in Haiti and we had gone to a particular village named Meno, and they have not seen white people there for like 150 years in this particular village. So, what they remembered, or what they knew is that white people enslaved them. All they know is that we’re going to steal them, or we’re going to hurt them, or lie to them, or that we’re white devils. But, instead, we came in with open arms and gave to the community and helped them plant, and helped them with different chores around the community, and taught in their schools, and hung out with the people, and got to introduce ourselves to a whole bunch of different villagers. Well, on the last day, it felt like it was out of National Geographic or something. They built a huge bonfire. Everybody in the community brought food. And this one villager stepped forward, and with tears on his face, just streaming down, and he said, “Generations are going to hear of your kindess, and generations are going to hear that white people are kind.” And that meant the world to us, because it just felt like, wow, we can transform people’s minds and opinions, and that we aren’t all bad. There are some of us out there still love them and care about them, and that they’re not forgotten.
And, that’s what really makes it all worthwhile.
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Your music and postings on The Modesty Guild have served as an inspiration to many, both spiritually and emotionally. Who in your life do you consider to have done that the most for you?
Well, MOST would be my father. He’s supported me in my life time and time again. But, I have a plethora of influences ranging from people who did great humanitarian work like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights activists. The list goes on. But, then, philosophers like Blaise Pascal. There’s Ayn Rand – lot of my inspiration comes from literature, like Philip Yancey and Brennan Manning and Ravi Zacharias. I’m always looking for different inspirations and I hope to inspire one one-thousandth as many as someone like Gandhi or Jesus Christ.
What one artist, living or dead, would it be a dream for you to work with?
Paul McCartney or John Lennon would be amazing. I would love to do something with Johnny Marr. I think that would be a dream-come-true. He’s the guitarist for The Smiths. I think that’d be a really cool collaboration. I’d have so much fun with that. I would love to do something with Radiohead. Radiohead would be such fun. Just get up on stage and create, or get up into a studio and create, or even just to watch the process of creation
What do you want to leave on the world as your legacy?
For me, I guess that ‘the world is not centered around ourselves.’ It’s not all about us. It’s about us as a community, us as a people, us as the world. And, I hope that Anberlin not only leaves a legacy of inspiring other bands or listeners to create bands, but maybe that we also inspire them to help make the world a better place. You don’t have to go to India to help change the world. You can be in your own community and you can work in a soup kitchen or work in an orphanage, anything like that. Just inspire other people. When you leave the earth, not to just lay in the ground, but hopefully that you rest in the hearts of men, as well.
Have you ever considered just walking away from it all, the music industry, that is?
Absolutely, time and time again. Especially in the early days, because what people don’t understand is that there is NO money in the music business. Even if a band has a bus like we do, it doesn’t mean that they have money. It’s hard. There was even a time even on Modesty once that I wrote a resignation letter. I was like “I’m done. I’m so out.” And I took it down like, a month later, just because I realized that anything worth having is worth fighting for, and I really wanted to fight for it. But I still live with my parents. I JUST bought a car like two months ago.
What kind of car was it?
It was a Land Rover, actually. It’s an old one. I’ve always wanted a Land Rover. There’s just no money in this. There was a time that we were stuck out in California and that we had no money. We had to call our parents and have them wire us money just to get back. And, we were in Washington DC once, and we all had to haul around a stove, because we didn’t have any heat in the crack-house we were staying in. We had times where per diems, which is money for food each day, was two dollars each. And we would go and get three tacos for lunch, because they were three for ninety-nine cents, and then three tacos for dinner, and that’s all we could sum up. There’s been times where it’s been hard and it just gets to you, month after month after month of not making ends meet. My credit cards are still maxed-out, I have a horrible credit rating right now, and all these little things. But, after two or three years of pursuing something and fighting for it…I can’t even imagine what Vincent Van Gogh went through. He only sold one painting in his whole life, and that was to his brother. But, here, you work so hard at something that you love so passionately, and you see no fruits of your labor. And Van Gogh died before anyone gave him notoriety, which is cool for us, because we at least get to see fans come to our show. Van Gogh never got to see that.
Just don’t cut your ear off.
Yeah, and give it to a prostitute. No, no I don’t think so. There were moments where is just felt so much easier, like it’d be a relief to have walked away, but I’m glad we stuck through it. I’m glad that passions and brotherhood kept us going.
On your new album, Cities, the song “Adelaide” speaks of the heartbreak associated with a breakup. Have you ever gone through an absolutely heart-wrenching break-up with someone? If so, how did you make it through?
Absolutely. I dated this girl for two years. We broke up a year ago, December, and that was just heart-wrenching, and I was in Australia. I just couldn’t move. I felt frozen, and tears were just falling off my face, and I couldn’t stop sniveling like a little kid. And even a year later I’ll think about it, and I’ll just get…. A year later I saw her, this past December, and I just, I was just…so crushed. But the good thing about it is that being an artist, and being a musician, you can take that pain and you can write it down and you can sing it in your lyrics, and you can kind of get that across.
So every night it’s like a catharsis on stage?
Absolutely, for different reasons, and different nights it’s a different catharsis. Like, last night we sang “(*Fin)”, the lost song on our new CD, and someone that was in the song was at the show. And it was hard, but after we hugged, and it was just like “that was for you.” He was one of the abandoned souls that I had talked about in the song. And here he is, tears in his eyes, and I just got to hold him, because his dad abandoned him. It’s not just cathartic for me, it’s cathartic for people that can either relate or that the song’s about.
Do you feel that the material on Cities is your best to date?
Absolutely, bar none, bar bar none. But, it makes me excited for the next record too, because it feels like each record we’ve kind of built on top of the last. So, I’m excited for the next one.
How do feel that you have grown between this album and Never Take Friendship Personal?
I think the two biggest things were musicianship and confidence. The most improved player would be Nate, our drummer. I think he’s just phenomenal. He used to be a great entertainer and a very solid drummer and now he’s an amazing entertainer and an amazing drummer. I think that was the biggest change as far as musicianship. All of us got more improved at our instruments, and I think that I even have a better vocal range now. But, on top of that I think confidence is the biggest because I think now that we realized that we CAN write songs, and we CAN do this, and we ARE proficient at it, and we DO know our instruments inside and out, whether it’s vocals or bass or whatever. So, I think that was the biggest change.
And lastly, to end on a lighter note, tell me about a crazy experience you have had on tour.
Man, this was two tours ago, and it’s six in the morning, and I’m in my bunk and we’re all sleeping. And, I hear brakes slam. Well, if the brakes slam that means one of two things: you’re either dead or you’re about to be. Especially in a bus! I hear something, and I think I’m dreaming, and then I hear our bus driver go “MOTHERF’IN TURKEY, MOTHERF’IN TURKEY.” And I was like, “What’s going on?” I think I’m dreaming. I’m just like, “What the heck?” So I just lay there, “I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming or something.” And I hear our guitar tech, and he just walks back, and he’s like “Nope. It’s a motherf’in turkey.” And I’m like, “WHAT is going on?!” So, I get up, and I walk out, and in our front lounge is glass and feathers everywhere, just like, floating feathers and glass everywhere. What had happened was: a turkey was trying to beat us across the road and at the last second jumped and went through the front windshield of our bus, and glass and turkey feathers were everywhere. The crazy thing is, the turkey’s just sitting in the front of the lounge.
He’s perfectly alright?!
Perfectly alright! An he hops down the stairs, stands there for a little while, and runs into the woods, and that was it. It was insane. So we had to drive the rest of the way with the bus driver in sunglasses and a hat just trying to make it, because all the wind was in his face the whole time. So, it was pretty funny and we had a laugh about it later. We got it all on videotape except for the initial shattering of the glass.
You NEED to post this videotape on YouTube.
We should. I think it’s up on toothandnailtour.com right now, but we should get those and post them up on YouTube, for sure.
Definitely. I want to see that.
For sure. You got it.