Encore with Stephen Christian of Anberlin
Sometimes a musician inspires us so much, we have to interview them twice! Such is the case with Anberlin frontman Stephen Christian who never ceases to amaze us.
A lot has changed in the world of Anberlin since we last met with Stephen. Most notably the band has ended their time with Tooth and Nail Records and has signed with major label Universal Republic Records in hopes of taking their music to the next level and introducing themselves to a wider fanbase. It wasn’t an easy decision for the band who had forged friendships and loyalties with Tooth and Nail but in the end they felt it was a risk they were willing to take. The future looks bright.
The band released their B-Sides album “Lost Songs” on November 20th. The album includes 18 tracks that cover early demos, cover songs, and lost favorites.
The band is currently out on tour with Motion City Soundtrack and Mae ripping up stages everywhere with their high energy, unparalleled live show. Stephen recently took some time to talk to us about the band, their new B-sides album “Lost Songs”, and the exclusive scoop on his upcoming book.
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette | November 2007
Let’s start with talking about the B-Sides album “Lost Songs” that was released this week. It includes some acoustic tracks and some lost songs, can you give us any insight into how the song selections came about?
Actually it all started because Tooth & Nail wanted us to do a greatest hits album. We felt that we had just signed to a major label and our careers weren’t over so we didn’t want to put out a “greatest hits” album so we convinced them to go with a B-sides. I personally hate B-sides albums, I’ve never purchased one, I don’t get it. If they are B-sides there’s a reason they are B-sides, they weren’t special enough to be on the A-side! It’s so funny to me. So we asked if we could make a DVD to go along with it because we had been recording stuff for four years now and we just wanted to add that in there. We convinced them to go from 12 songs to 18 songs to make it worthwhile for the fans. The powers that be decided that we didn’t have enough budget to do the dvd so that’s why on our Youtube chanel we’re posting seven webisodes which is the dvd chopped up.
Oh so those webisodes were the actual dvd?
Yes, it’s the dvd that was suppose to be packaged with the “Lost Songs” B-sides album. So the songs are just a collection of things we’ve done throughout the years from AOL Sessions to the three songs we sent to Tooth & Nail to get signed (Readyfuels, Driving, Everywhere in Between). They are the original demos. Some of the songs are from Joey and I going back into the studio when we got off of our Europe tour with Paramore about 2 months ago and did a few acoustic songs (Cadence, Dismantle.Repair). We’ve included the covers that we’ve done throughout the years and just kind of hard to find stuff.
So you just released a video for Unwinding Cable Car and it’s really thought provoking and I think it will leave fans questioning things about themselves which is always positive. What was the inspiration behind the video and how did that all come together?
As far as the lyrics go, I always wanted to write lyrics that weren’t trite or just “hey baby I want to hold your hand” or “you’re pretty”. I always wanted to write more intellectual lyrics, not over people’s heads but I love when people think, I love making anything thought provoking whether it’s a blog or a song or a poem. I think Socrates says “The unexamined life is not worth living” and I think I stuck to that. I just felt that with this song that it lended itself to be a little more artistic and creative. We didn’t have a big budget so we had to do a low budget film. Instead of trying to make it look as best as possible we decided to go back in time and find a videographer who could do this style, this 8mm kind of grainy feel. We found this guy named Andrew David Watson out of Philadelphia and he had done some short films. I believe one was titled “Identity” and we watched it and thought “That’s it, that’s exactly what we want!” The music in the background was Sigur Rose I believe, but we wanted something that felt like that, that was questioning life and young decisions that we’ve made. It just felt right. It felt perfect for the song, especially the lyrics about how powerful words are and not giving up and at the end eventually finding hope. It was like a puzzle piece and at the end it just came together to create this video.
Watch Anberlin video for The Unwinding Cable Car
I know it wasn’t meant to be taken entirely in a literal sense but I wanted to turn the tables a little bit and ask you one of the questions in the video: If you could do it all over again, what would you change?
Oh my gosh. There’s tons, just tons. I could do everything over again. I don’t know, teach myself “who cares what other people think.” I wish I was born without that mechanism, to not care about what people think. Especially coming up in high school, there’s always that question of identity and “Oh no, am I popular, am I not, what’s my social status?” And no one told me that the day you graduate high school you never talk to these people again, ever. I wish I could just go back in time and tell myself that. Honestly, you will keep up with one or two of these people maybe. It’s not even that, it’s just – who cares! I was so concerned with everything surrounding me that I didn’t take time to focus on the things that really mattered like reading and literature, writing and studying guitar. If I had spent as many hours playing piano as I had worrying about what my next outfit was going to be I’d be a prolific pianist, I’d be world renowned! That’s high school.
Also, just not worrying about what people say about me. Just doing the best I can. Throughout high school my guidance counselor said that my grades did not lend themselves to going to college and I would never make it. She always suggested vo-tech. Pretty much just labeling me and saying “here’s your job, here’s your application. Have fun working at mini-mart.” Finally I did what she said. I got out of high school and I got this menial job at an amusement park and I would mow lawns and pick weeds. One day I started to look around and thought, I’m not like these people, I like reading and I enjoy life and I want to go experience the world and I feel like I love to study things that I enjoy. I may not enjoy algebra but I enjoy philosophy and psychology. These people were concerned about beer and catfish and I just felt like that wasn’t me. So I went back to college and four years later graduated in 2002 with a degree in psychology and a minor in philosophy. For my whole life people were telling me I couldn’t do it, and I believed them. I believed that I couldn’t make it, if I had it all over to do again, I’d probably burn down the guidance office..
I was going to say, she sounds like she needs a good punch to the gut!
I know, it’s so funny. I was that quiet and shy guy in high school and I would keep to myself and I wore all black. I didn’t talk to anybody, instead I just should have been like “who cares” and went off and had the time of my life and not worried about what anyone else said or thought or did. I should have believed in the things that were right and good in me and care less about other peoples opinions. And that’s just the beginning! I could talk forever about things I would do over! That’s the first thing that popped into my head.
Cities was a little different from your previous releases – it seemed a lot more introspective and I think the song connect a lot more, where fans are able to reach out and grab them and identify with them more. What do you attribute this to or was it just the results of your songwriting “maturing” from album to album? The dreaded maturing question!
I don’t think it was maturity from album to album, if you go look at Blueprints to Never Take.. they’re very similar in content. I think Cities was more of a guinea pig experiment to see how invested the fans were into Anberlin. It just seemed like before people were just waiting for the hook. That’s why in A Whisper and a Clamor there’s a line about being so tired of writing songs that people hear but no one listens to, no one hears what’s really being said. I felt like this was the time to go inside myself and find out what’s really going on behind the scenes. I felt that whoever you are, no matter what race or age or sex, I think that we all go through the very basic same things in life whether that’s love, hate, family, beliefs or whatever it might be. I just wanted to dive onto those topics, what could we all relate to? Whether it’s depression in Hello Alone or drug use in Godspeed or battling it out with God in Fin, whatever it is I feel that they are topics that everyone can relate to and really feel a part of. It was an experiment because I honestly did not know if the fans were going to like it. This was my heart on sleeve, devil and demons in head kind of record. I’m just glad that I lived to not regret that. An analogy I can make is with Weezer, here is Rivers Cuomo coming out with their second record Pinkerton that was all very heart on sleeve-ish as well and the critics just ate him up -“this sucks, this is the worst thing, no one wants to hear this crap.” And he vowed that he would never write a record like that again. Now people say that it’s the best record that Weezer ever did but he lived to regret the record and hated it ever since because he felt that people didn’t understand it. That was a little scary for me reading those things, I went back and tried to read all the interviews he did after the album came out and people just tore him up. I’m glad that people not only accepted Cities but appreciated it. The whole goal of it was to delve into the psyche and the feed the shadows and at the end of the day find out that there is hope out there. There is a better life out there for you, if you pick yourself up you can make it in this world, I don’t care who you are. That’s the underlying them of the album and I think that is where the connection was made.
What’s the general writing process for the band? Is everyone involved? Lyrics first, music first?
I think its a little bit of both. I try to go off every day and write a little bit as far as lyrics go in a journal or just a word or phrase. Joey writes the majority of the music. He sits in the back lounge and just comes up with different songs. He’ll put them on my ipod and I’ll write melody lines around that. After that’s taken place we hand it off to the rest of the band to add in their perspectives. We really don’t write as a group, we tried it a few times and it just didn’t work out too well and we felt like if the wheel’s not broken, why fix it. That’s just how we work, what Paul was to John in the Beatles Joey is to me so I think we work really well together. He already has my voice in mind when he’s writing songs, so it really works.
The band was picked up by Universal Republic Records in August, can you tell us what factors lead you to a major label vs. staying with Tooth & Nail?
I think in everyones life there has to be a moment of taking a leap of faith, kind of jumping off of the cliff. I think there’s just that moment in everyone’s life. For us, it came when we went to resign with Tooth & Nail. We could stay with Tooth & Nail and it would be safe, we could sell some records, do the same tours. Honestly, major labels right now are a sketchy place to be in. You see a lot of people who are signed to a major label and then you never hear from them again; the album gets scrapped or A&R gets fired or the label folds. Whatever the case may be, major labels are a gamble these days but you know what it was our time. If we fail and this next record just bombs I’ll look back and think that being in Anberlin was some of the best years of my life, I loved it. But, that’s what we have to do. Anberlin is in a predicament now where we’re either going to blow up or implode. We’re either going to get a lot bigger or this will be the death of us, and that’s just a risk we’re willing to take. With Tooth & Nail, what they bring to the table is passion, loyalty, friendship and they bring grassroots and that is a beautiful place to be in. What they can’t do unfortunately is get your music out to a general audience. People around the country, unless you’re in a particular scene or you read a particular magazine or website you’ve still never heard of Anberlin. When you create art you want to be able to show it to people who will actually appreciate it but if they’ve never heard of it or can’t get their hands on it, how do they know if they like your painting or not. That’s just the same thing with us, the glass ceiling was that they could never get our song played on the radio, they could never get a video played. I loved them, I believe in Tooth & Nail but there just comes a time when you hit that ceiling. It’s just crazy to think that we sell tons of records the first week and we outsell bands on the covers of magazines yet we still cant get played on the radio, we can’t get a video on air. Even internationally we can’t tour internationally as much as we want because they won’t distribute our record there. It was just time. Even though it hurt and we never wanted to leave Tooth & Nail, we tried to work out a deal with different labels with Tooth & Nail but it just didn’t work. It’s not about the money. It’s about the passion and following your dreams and we felt like that’s what we needed to do.
Okay, tell me one random thing or one little known fact about each of your bandmembers.
Oh wow. Deon, if I have to analyze him is OCD. I love him to death my bunk is right next to his bunk and there have been nights where it will be like three in the morning and Deon will be crawling into bed but he sees crumbs outside his bed so he goes and gets the vacuum to vacuum them up. It’s hilarious, his whole little area has everything in place. This is awesome, one time I asked him to borrow socks and he said “I would loan you some socks but I have equal number of socks and underwear so I can’t loan them out. I was in shock. Are you kidding me? I love that guy.
Joey Milligan enjoys being on the bus. The bus is his house, you will not find him wandering the streets. Nate and I will go to a coffee shop every day and just wander around. Joey will go into the coffee shop, grab his coffee to go and head back to the bus. He perpetually loves dvds and video games, he just loves being on the bus. I love it because you always know where Joey is. He’s not hard to find.
An unknown fact about Christian – well obviously everyone knows he use to play in Acceptance and he is the happiest most positive guy. We should just call him Mr. Brightside. He could find a positive in anything. You could say “Hey man, your mom just got shot.” and he’d be like “Oh, well, Im sure she’s in a better spot!” or “Well I’m sure the guy had a reason for shooting her!” I love it. He’s on happy pills.
Let’s see, Nate use to love ska music. We always rag him for it. When he was like 11 it came down to whether he should play the trumpet or the drums and he chose the drums even though his parents wanted him to play the trumpet.
A little fact about me – I am the absolute absentminded professor. I love to go read and I love mental challenges but I have the worst memory. I can’t remember peoples names, I have a calendar on my computer that has everything I have to do each day and where I need to be at what time. Not only do I have a calendar but I have to have my tour manager remind me of everything. My brain is scattered. I love putting my irons in 52 different fires. I have Faceless International, I’m writing and publishing a book, I have Anberlin, I have Anchor & Braille, I have Modesty Blogspot, all these things kind of collide, my life is so frantic that I need fifteen people to remind me of everything. I’m not detail-oriented, I can tell you where I want to be in ten years but I can’t tell you where I’m suppose to be in ten minutes.
I think we need to get you some professor glasses..
Yeah I need glasses and a professor outfit.
You started a side project called Anchor & Braille with Aaron Marsh of Copeland and a bunch of other great musicians, can you tell us how that sort of came into play and what the vision was?
When I write songs whether it’s on piano or guitar, I sort of thumb through and figure out who it’s for. Is it for Anberlin, if its not, what do I do with them? Here I had about 15 songs that I knew that Anberlin would never use. I can’t explain how I knew that, it’s just a feeling, Anberlin is this way, and this is another way. Aaron Marsh had been doing some producing in Lakeland, FL and we both had Christmas off. I love working, I hate sitting around the house for weeks on end so I called Aaron and asked if he would produce my stuff. I said I’d get some local musicians and just make it a little project. He loved the idea, so two years ago this Christmas we came together and recorded my stuff. He’s an awesome producer, a fantastic guy, he took my songs and thus came Anchor & Braille – a lot of musicians and Aaron Marsh behind the console. It turned out great, we don’t know when it’s going to come out, I’m still looking for a label. We’ve had some interest but now that Anberlin is on a major label there’s a lot of red tape involved. So right now I really want to focus on Anberlin and make sure our next record is the best ever, and until that happens I want to put Anchor & Braille on the backburner. Even though it’s been on the backburner for two years I feel like I want to do what’s best for Anberlin right now.
I want to talk a little bit about your involvement with humanitarian efforts and non-profit organizations. In world of disposable stars and such excess, you make it a point to really give back to the world around you and become involved with many different organizations. For people who don’t really know how to reach out, can you tell us about some organizations they could get involved in and what would you say to people who think that they as an individual can’t make a difference?
I think the first place people can check out is a website called dosomething.org. It just shows you lists of places in your area that need help. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, at 14 years old you can volunteer at the YMCA for a program called READ where you go in and read afterschool to kids who live in socially or economically unstable environments where their parents have to work all the time. There’s Habitat for Humanity which is one of my absolute favorites. You are not only helping the poor in your community but it’s also improving your community, making it a better place to live in. Giving kids a chance to live in a house rather than a car or a cardboard box and you not only get to meet them and participate in their lives but you get to help build their house. Even if you don’t know anything about construction you can go there and paint or sand, or be a runner. Whatever it is, there’s just ways to get involved. If you don’t have a lot of time but you have a little bit of money there’s always WorldVision where you can sponsor a child. I sponsor a child and they send you letters and you can write them back and get involved in their life. Also I think education is a huge key, get involved in websites like To Write Love On Her Arms, Lowerca.com, Faceless International, our site talks about human trafficking and what you can do to get involved. You can write to your senator and tell him that human trafficking is a problem and that you want to see some solutions for it. Little basic things like that. I think that if everybody in this world just helped one person, this world would be completely and drastically changed for the better. Just find one person in your life and get involved, I think this world would be absolutely changed for the better. And let me give you one illustration as far as people thinking that they can’t help. A young boy was walking on a shoreline and stumbled upon thousands and thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore. As he’s picking them up one by one and throwing them back in the ocean this old man comes up and asks him why he would even try because there’s no way he could possibly save all the starfish. The boy looked at the old man and said “You know what, I can’t save all of them, you’re right, but I can make a difference in this one’s life” and he throws the starfish into the ocean. The old man then bent down and picked up a starfish himself and threw it in. In other words, you can’t save the world. None of us are Jesus. Not too many of us are going to have a life like Ghandi or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. where we change civilizations or world history but you can make a difference in one person’s life and to that one person you could be their world.
You brought To Write Love On Her Arms on tour with you and everywhere I go now I see people wearing TWLOHA tshirts, but I have to wonder if it’s just a trendy thing or people are actually getting involved and seeing the value of it. Having had them on tour with you, do you think that people are actually getting it?
You know what, it doesn’t matter. It is a trend, it’s absolutely a trend. I don’t think every person out there wearing the t-shirt is a social advocate for change. I think they saw that their favorite band wearing one and bought one. But you know what, even if they are not social advocates, it plants the seed for change or makes them at least think that maybe there is a way they can get involved. I’m happy with that. I’m happy with seeds being planted. For example, major papers give out their newspapers on college campuses because they feel like if they can hook you when you’re young you’ll hopefully subscribe when you’re older. It’s the same way with the tshirts, maybe right now they aren’t all out for social justice but maybe the seed is planted and even if they aren’t taking action now, maybe in five years they will. I’m really good friends with Jamie from TWLOHA and I feel like I hear the stories firsthand of the change that is happening. Even though people may buy the t-shirts to be trendy, the money they are giving to the organization is helping someone who really needs it. The money helps someone who is hurting and cannot afford help and Jamie can help them out. The people that are being helped are real.
Your live set is pretty unparalleled when it comes to an energy and intensity level, do you guys have any pre-show rituals to get you going?
Oh tons. The first thing they do when they tell us it’s 30 minutes to show time is shut everything off and have everyone leave the bus so it’s just the five of us and then oddly enough we turn on Slipknot. We have a playlist we go through each night with songs from Slipknot, Andrew W.K., System of a Down, songs like that..which is so funny because none of us really listen to that kind of music but it seems very appropriate right before taking the stage. I do warm up drills and Christian and Nate stretch. Then right after that we huddle together and pray for the show, and we put our hands in and whoever is left of Joey has to pray and then after that they have to say a word and we all yell it. It’s usually something like FOOTBALL or OKLAHOMA or OMAHA. We just think of random words like COTTAGE CHEESE, we’ll name different kind of cars, whatever we look around and see that’s what we scream.
You kind of mentioned something earlier that I wanted to ask you about and now I’m really excited. Your blog is amazing and so inspiration and I was going to ask if you ever had any inspiration to write a book but you mentioned that you are writing a book?
Actually I’m done. I found a publisher and everything and it should be out in February or March of Next year. It’s called “The Orphaned Anythings” and it’s kind of a pseudo memoir but based fictionally on a character named Ayden from Seattle and it’s kind of just going through his life and some of the same concerns and a lot of the things that happen to him in the book are things that happened to me under this character. I do have a MySpace for it where I give updates and I posted the first chapter of it.
How did I miss that?
I’ve tried to keep it very grassroots. This is actually the first time I’ve talked about it in an interview. I’m trying to keep it low key because I didn’t want it to seem like a publicity stunt because it’s my lifelong dream to publish a book. I’ve been working on it for 4 years – two years to write it, two years to edit it. It’s been a long process and I even got some of the lines for Anberlin songs from the book such as “there’s more to living than being alive” which is a line from the book and I translated it into lyrics.
Well congratulations, I can’t wait to go read the first chapter! Okay, last question and I have to ask you this just because I really value your thoughts and views – what are your opinions so far on the upcoming presidential election and do you have any early favorites?
I want to say that I’m a Republican but honestly I’m not too impressed by the field. I’ll tell you what, I really like Obama. Maybe he doesn’t match up with all of my views per se but I love his flagrant honesty, he just tells it like it is. The other day I was reading a manuscript of sorts where a housewife asked him “Hey is there any way that we can get social security?” He started out with the usual politician response of something to the effect of “Yes, you have a hard job, I appreciate you, I feel like my mom worked harder for me than I work at my job.” you know, the typical politician type response. But then he went on to say “But to be honest, it will never happen, don’t let anyone tell you that it’s going to happen because it won’t. The financial ramifications would be catastrophic and we’d have to double taxes to support it. I’m not going to lie to you and if anyone says differently they are flat out lying to you.” And I was like..oh my gosh, an honest politician? What planet do you come from? Other than that, I respect him as an individual, I’ve read parts of his book. I think I would feel so calm and relaxed to have going around the world representing me and my country. I would feel so proud to have such an articulate speaker, such an intellectual representing me. So right now it’s Obama for me. I know it’s crazy and as soon as my parents read this they’re going to freak out. I just don’t think there are a lot of Republicans out there that I agree with. I hate that in the last few elections I’ve had to vote for the lesser evil. I don’t want that anymore, why can’t I have a choice. If it was my way, I’d like to have five parties, or at least just for…even just THREE. A few more options for people that are going to lead the free world country, one false move of our stock market and other people start to crumble. Why do I have to pick the lesser of two evils right now. I can’t stand Hillary Clinton, I loathe her. I feel like she wakes up in the morning and reads the poll in USA Today to figure out what kind of cereal she’s going to eat. Oh the majority of Americans like Lucky Charms, I think I’ll have a bowl of that. Why don’t you grow a backbone! She lays with whatever the populace says, she has no theories of her own, it’s all just what other people tell her is the popular decision. If I could have anyone run for office I think that I would love Condoleezza Rice to be my president.
Me too! Condi is my my girl!
Yeah I would like Condoleezza as my President and Colin Powell as my Vice President. I would be honored and devoted and absolutely enthralled. Condoleezza Rice is my vote. I actually got to meet with her cabinet when I was going to Calcutta, India. Condoleezza was the nicest lady, I didn’t get to meet her personally but she wrote her secretary an email helping me out. She’s done so much for human trafficking, it’s ridiculous and she gave me a pile of information. I was so honored. I was so swelled with pride when I got to India and I got to sit in a press meeting with a foreign ambassador and the India government was saying how thankful and grateful they were because 4/5ths of the budget to run the human trafficking was funded by the United States and Condoleezza Rice. I am so thankful for her conviction. So yeah, there ya go, there’s my presendential nominees.
Sounds good to me, I have a book recommendation for you, check out Condi vs. Hillary.
Wow, that sounds cool. I have one for you too check out, it’s C.S. Lewis vs Freud. It’s awesome. It’s set up like a debate, they take passages from each and it sounds like they’re going back and forth.