Lead singer Stephen Christian goes in-depth about starting work on the band’s major label debut, music industry struggles and label issues, trying to teach life lessons through lyrics, and predicts what the biggest hurdles will be going forward for both the industry and our country at large.
How’s 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. I’ve gotten to know the guys in Metro Station real well. Mae, we’re former labelmates with from Tooth & Nail, and they’ve gone on to bigger and better things. Then Motion City is just awesome. They’ve been doing this for years. They know the formula and they’re just so good at it, so Motion City’s 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 didn’t want to do it at all. I’ve 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 don’t 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. We’re not over. We’re not done with.”
Yeah, Tooth & Nail seems to do that a lot.
Yeah, dude. They’re good. I was like, “OK, 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 they’re 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.” We’re off the label, so it feels like they don’t really care. At moments, it feels like they almost don’t 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. I just uploaded one a couple hours ago, so I think there’s 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 can’t rip us off. We still have ties with you guys. We still want to push these records that you put out for us.” I don’t know. It just felt like they didn’t care anymore. It’s 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 didn’t get on records. It’s 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 don’t expect, and I hope you don’t, 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 wouldn’t 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 don’t think people are going to like this. I just felt like it didn’t fit the mood, and I felt like we shouldn’t have put “Mathematics” on Cities. I love the song. I absolutely love the song. I think it’s dark and tells an awesome story, but I think people just didn’t get it and don’t like it. I don’t know.
So we shouldn’t have put that one on. I don’t really like “Alexithymia,” and there’s one other one I was thinking about the other day that I wish I didn’t put on. I’m trying to think, doggone it. “Mathematics”… 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. We’re already at 10 songs. Hopefully, we’re going to take off the holiday after this tour’s done, go back into the studio probably February 1 and work with an awesome producer named Neal Avron.
Yeah, we’re actually going to meet him tomorrow for the first time. The contract’s not signed, but he’s already fully committed. We’re going to hang out with him tomorrow, give him the idea for the overall picture, and show him the first 10 demos. We’ll keep writing through the holidays and hopefully when we walk into the studio February 1, we’ll 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. He’s just an amazing guy, and we all talked about maybe going back on the fourth record to him, not for old times but just because he’s almost like a sixth member. He’s that entwined.
I know Neal is going to do an amazing job. Me and him have had incredible conversations and he’s just a solid, solid dude so far. He’s a very songs-oriented producer, and I’ve never had that. Aaron Sprinkle is a music mastermind genius, but his first main career wasn’t a producer. So we’re just excited to work with him.
That’s cool to hear. What kind of stylistic direction are you guys taking with the new stuff?
It’s still all over the place. I don’t 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 that’s really going to push Joey to take what Christian writes and make it his own, make it Anberlin’s. So it’s going to be really cool to see. I think the direction that I’m kind of aiming at lyrically is going to be more like Cities than any of the other two. As far as sonically, I think it’s 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 like…
Like epic sounding, kind of.
Yeah, epic. I guess that’s what I mean. Anberlin, we haven’t changed at all. Nobody’s going to be like, “Who’s this?” “Oh, it’s Anberlin.” I mean, duh. There’s no way. It’s 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 there’s a glass ceiling. It’s 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. Everything’s stable. We just sell to this market that they have a niche in. But I think there’s a moment in everyone’s life where it’s 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 don’t think anybody’s 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, here’s Universal, who’s just begging for the opportunity. I’m talking like hounding my manager every day since before Cities came out. We were like, “Wow. These guys really want us. Why not take the risk?” And what if it flops? Let’s say we only sell 10,000 of the next record. You know what? I’ve had some of the best years of my life. I’ve had so much fun. I’ve got to tour with some amazing bands and live out dreams that I never thought in a million years would be possible. So, it’s 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 wouldn’t have us. Here’s all these other major labels just hounding, and then they were just like, “Hey listen, there’s no singles on Cities.” Universal said, “I want to buy it. There’s five deep on that CD. We’ll buy it.” And Virgin was like “No. Not only are we not going to push it, but we’re not going to sell it.” It was just kind of like, “Dude, are you trying to slaughter our careers? We’ve 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, in life, not just in music, 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.
That’s kind of weird because Virgin just had a lot of success with The Almost.
Yeah, they did.
So that’s kind of weird that they didn’t like you guys.
I agree. I think they also had a lot of… 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 don’t 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 weren’t 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, here’s what labels are going to do. Here’s what they’re probably going to say.” But actually in the end, Christian was quite, I can’t put words in his mouth, but I think he was quite surprised at how supportive Universal was, and how they were like, “Listen, this isn’t going to happen.” He was like, “Wow. I didn’t even know because I didn’t even tell them that.” They were already saying, “Listen, this isn’t going to happen. It’s not like if you sell under this then you’re gone. We’re not going to drop the ball. We’re not going to leave you hanging.” So that was really like, OK, 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?
It’s just songs that I’ve sat down and wrote that I knew Anberlin couldn’t portray or translate. There’s a couple songs, like four or five, that Anberlin has taken and made their own, but these are songs that either lyrically or sonically felt like I don’t think these are in the vein of Anberlin. I think Anberlin is more of like Foo Fighters/Jimmy Eat World fast rock, stuff like that, whereas Anchor & Braille is very much like Sigur Rós, Ryan Adam-ish. Just kind of more in that vein, and stuff like that. I’m not comparing myself to them. I’m 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 don’t want to get my head in the clouds.
You’re also something of a writer and have your first novel coming out next year. What’s the deal with that?
I don’t know if I’m a writer. Is there a pseudo-writer out there? I’m a tryer. I don’t 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 don’t know if it’s a short story or a novella, it depends on how it’s bound I guess, but it’s going to come out in February-March of next year, is the tentative date. It’s called The Orphaned Anything’s. I don’t 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 what’s the plot of the book?
I think the plot is kind of like… Well, actually the line “There’s more to living than being alive” was in the book and was almost translated over into a song. You’ll hear a lot of lyrics off Cities from stuff in the book. It’s 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, she’s 25 now, and she’s at a desk job. She’s 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.” I’m not saying she’s going to hell by any means, but I’m saying that I think you make real small justifications and you let little details go. It’s just little things. Well, I don’t really need to do this, or I can put off college until next year, or I would take this film job but it doesn’t pay nearly as well as this job at Kmart.
After a while, in three or four years, you’ve made all these justifications. Here you are in the thick of life, and you’re just like, this is not who I wanted to become. So I guess that’s what it’s about – 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 there’s 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 it’s been Paramore and OneRepublic. How exciting is it to be right in the middle of that?
It’s great. I think for most of us, we don’t go in there and go, “I’m a Christian, so I should get into a band and try to save the world.” I think for most of us, it’s almost a calling, like a burden. Like, hey, this is what I really want to do with my life. It’s 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 don’t have to do this and participate in the stereotypical rock ‘n’ 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 ‘N 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. It’s just unreal. All these people trying to be a positive light, and it’s really cool seeing the fruits of that coming out of our scene.
Do you have any theory why you’ve seen the mainstream respond to this so well?
What do you mean? I’m 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 it’s 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 can’t even name the amount of bands that have Christian members in them. How do I explain this in better words? It’s just not a big deal anymore. It’s just over. No one talks about it anymore. It’s just like, oh, OK. Big deal. There’s 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 aren’t 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 people’s lives. I don’t want every song to be, “Girl, I want to hold your hand ‘cause you’re pretty,” and I don’t want every song to be like, “Well, the third law of thermodynamics states that everything is in the process of decay.” What? I don’t 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 that’s 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 don’t sit down to avoid the word “God,” avoid the word “Jesus,” or something like that. That’s 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,” you’re 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 it’s going in my head.”
Then I usually journal. I try to journal every day. It doesn’t 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. Like my grandfather was the one who told me, “Never take friendship personal.” I was like, “Wow.” It stuck with me for a year. I hated that quote because it was like, “Dude, that’s just sad.” But then when you have people completely turn their back on you and despise you, it’s kind of like, “Ah, yeah. At moments it feels like that. You can never take friendship personal.” It’s little things like that.
So when I sit down to hear the song, I’ll flip through my journal. The front is where I do like my “Write One Today,” and I’ll flip it over where it’s 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. 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 didn’t move. We had been on tour with Hawthorne Heights three times, and Casey – ask anybody who has ever toured with them – 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. We would go and find these Kid Robot toys together, those same ones, 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, talk or see where they’re at in the country, like most bands do. Like, “Where are you at today?” “Oh, Minnesota.” He was the first one I put in my phone. And I had just gotten the phone, like, days before. I think everybody’s going to have their own Casey story. For us, I don’t 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, I try to keep updated on it, 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 that’s one area I’m 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 don’t have to choose from the lesser evil. Why can’t you choose for someone that you love and are proud of to have in there? I’m not saying I’m going to enact it, but I’d 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, who’s going to take me and you and everybody, go to a different country and speak before thousands of people.
It’s just scary. It’s like why we do we have to choose between “I hate him” and “I hate him less, so I’m going to vote for him?” I wish it was different. I wish there were two awesome candidates, and you’re biting your nails at the last second at the polls with who you’re going to vote for. So it’s just a concern that is going to face us next year, since we do elect a president in ’08.
As far as the music scene, I think people are, in the next two years, I’d say definitely within the next three years, 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? It’s one CD.
Well, now it’s to the point where some people are suggesting that if you’ve sold one CD, there’s three out there that have been burned. That’s great for the consumer, but the problem is that in the end, it’s going to eat them. You’re taking money away from the corporations, which takes money away from the bands, which means they can’t 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 we’re Tooth & Nail, or some indie label or major – I don’t care who you are – we can’t sign 30, we can only sign 10 now because that’s all I have the budget for. So I think that that’s really going to have to be addressed very shortly. With the consumers, it’s like a reality check.
There was a really cool label in the late ‘90s called Deep Elm. They put out a lot of really cool bands like Mineral and Appleseed Cast, a lot of bands like that. I just read an interview where he said the year that burning CDs became – not OK, but you had the accessibility to buy a machine that burns – his sales dropped 50 percent. And that’s why he’s declaring bankruptcy now. He’s like, “I’m the little guy. I’m the small guy. I was the one fighting for the consumer, signing these real indie cred bands. I’m not trying to sell them out or anything like that.” But he’s like, “If I’m closing my doors, it’s going to work its way up.”
Now it’s going to go to the bigger indies, then it’s going to the massive indies like Vagrant and Tooth & Nail, and then it’s going to climb its way to the majors. I think it’s 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 shows.
Part of that 360 thing.
Oh, yeah. And you know what? The consumer doesn’t care. 360 doesn’t mean anything less to them. I just know that at the end of the day, I’m the one who has to suffer, and then we have to work twice as hard. It’s 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 wasn’t like we signed and got a million dollars. This is after saving up for all these years.
If this is what’s happening to us, and we’re one of the bigger bands on Tooth & Nail, then what about the little guys? They’re still living with their parents. They’re meagerly getting by. Well, this is going to eat them alive. Now they’re going to have to go get day jobs because their CD can’t get pushed as much, or they may just get dropped. Like before, I think if you don’t sell 15,000 or more, then you’re dropped. But now, what’s it going to be? 50,000? We can’t afford it. They just can’t afford it.
Do you see bands moving towards self-releasing on their own?
I mean maybe, but… Well? That’s really hard. Sure it’s easy to do. You can all stick it up on iTunes or whatever. You’re going to maintain the audience you have. Let’s say you’re 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 can’t be a starting band and self-release it. You’ll gain no new fans. No one will hear of you. iTunes is going to put you out. Best Buy won’t carry you. So, sure, you can do it. You can make decent money. But unless you were already selling 10 million records, you’re not going to survive. So something’s going to have to change. I don’t know what it is. I have no suggestions. I really, really don’t.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think we covered pretty much everything. Maybe the end of the world even. There’s nothing we haven’t, so this was awesome.