Anberlin frontman Stephen Christian discusses his long-in-waiting side project Anchor & Braille, how it first got started, writing songs to make you feel and have a conversation about, and what it’s been like to see Anberlin breakout into the mainstream.
Dude, Anchor & Braille is here now!
Yes, I’m ecstatic. I couldn’t be more happy.
I hear it’s been like five years in the making. Somewhere around there.
Yeah. Basically, it was an idea five years ago, playing around in little house shows and stuff like that. I must have already gone through like a record of material, just because I couldn’t stand it. Everything changes, and there’s so many different songs. There’s so many different band members. By this point, I must have had at least 15 different people come onstage with me. Now it’s finally to the point where it’s like, all right. I know the songs. I love the songs. I’m excited that it’s finally coming out.
So when did this officially start?
You know, it went through a whole bunch of different names. Originally it was Denver, then it was Juniper Trust, then it was just Stephen Christian, and then it was Anchor & Braille. So, four different prototypes of it. I’m going to say I definitely remember playing a show in 2002.
So this was even before Blueprints then?
Wait, that can’t be right. Yeah, it is right. That’s right. I wrote “Cadence” for kind of like a side project, and then that went on to go on Anberlin’s first record Blueprints. Yeah, actually, what am I thinking? In 2002, I wrote “Cadence” for a side project thing, and “Foreign Language.” So, yeah, you’re right. It’s been a long time. Sheesh. None of those early conceptual songs ended up on this record, but I’ve been trying to write and do my own thing since then.
How did you come up with the Anchor & Braille name?
Well, the whole idea behind this is there’s so many bands that I listen to, but I don’t just listen. I feel it. Sigur Rós is one of those bands. Mogwai, Rachel’s, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Something to that effect, where you listen but you’re like, “Oh, my God.” You’re totally taken aback. You feel it.
That’s the whole premise about this record. I want people to not just listen to the music but feel it, whether it’s lyrical content or musical content. Anchor is the songs and Braille is how you feel about them. That’s why the record is called Felt. It’s how you feel. How the songs make you feel.
I really like the artwork you picked out. What are those things hanging down from the antlers?
Thanks! I found these wooden, kind of like antler ears, like deer ears. Somebody had hand carved these antlers. You can see it on the back of the album. So I took them, painted them and put some white string around it. I made it for my girl. I made her a jewelry case, so she could hang necklaces on it. She loved it. Everybody that comes over is like, “Please make me some.” I’m like, “I can’t whittle antler ears. I found them. I bought them at some flea market in the middle of Kansas City, or something like that.”
So then I was taking a picture of my room and things that were in my room. I had this hanging bookshelf, and there were vases and books on it. All that, everything around my room, got added into the artwork somehow. I sent it to Invisible Creatures, and they developed a whole album based on things lying around my room. It was a lot of fun to do. So, they came up with the deer antlers with the jewelry hanging down.
I interviewed Aaron from Copeland a couple weeks ago and he was telling me how you originally went in and recorded a scratch guitar and vocals, and then he would strip the guitar and work the song around that. Is that pretty much how it went?
Yep. Well, basically, I came up with the skeleton. The musicians, like Jon Bucklew, Louis Defabrizio, Anna Becker and everybody who played on the record, were the body. Aaron added the soul. He added all the stuff surrounding the record. It was cool to see me walking in with a complete song, what the musicians did with it, and what Aaron did with it. It was just cool, like a giant collective. It’s almost like a Broken Social Scene of the South.
That’s why I couldn’t write Stephen Christian on the record because there’s people like Jon Bucklew, who played drums tonight. He added so much to the record. For instance, “Steps in a Dance,” the last song we played, was going to get scratched from the record. It was just me and a guitar, and it sounded horrible. It was so bland. Then he came in and was like, “Dook, dook-dook, dook.” I was like, “Ahh, it’s the best song ever.” It turned out with all the musicians adding to it. I couldn’t just name it me.
Is it cool that you actually get to play instruments onstage now?
Yeah, but it’s nerve-wracking. You have so much to concentrate on, like broken strings and stuff like that. I’m just not used to it, so it freaks me out, you know? You have to concentrate on remembering the lyrics, and singing it right and playing an instrument. You’re just like, “Oh, my God. It’s too much. I’d just rather freakin’ jump off the stage and have everybody else sing.” It’s a lot more intellectual. You have to work a lot harder.
When did you first pick up the guitar and piano?
Well, I must say I’m horrible at both. I picked up all four chords in high school guitar lessons. My mom always forced me to take piano. I would play piano, and then I would show a teacher what I wrote and she’s like, “Don’t write anything! You’re supposed to stick to learning the chords and stuff like that.”
Writing wise, how did you come up with these songs and how would you say they differ from Anberlin?
When I sit down to write, period, basically I punch it out on a piano, keyboard or guitar. Depending on the lyrical content, and also depending on how slow or the tempo of it or the chords, I know what song is going to what project. When I wrote “Breaking” for Anberlin, I sat down and played it on the piano and worked out the chords. I was like, “This is definitely not a moody, coffee house kind of song.” You know what I’m saying? It’s upbeat and a little more spirited, so I’m like, “This is definitely an Anberlin song.” Then I’ll go sit down at the piano and write “Blur,” almost sultry-esque sounding, and I’m like, “Anberlin cannot pull this song off.”
Usually, I’m right, like “The Haunting” for instance. That was originally an Anchor & Braille song, and I don’t feel like it ever fit with Anberlin. They’re like, “Dude, please give us that song. We love it. We want it.” I’m like, “Great. Let’s try it.” And then it didn’t end up making Cities because there’s something in it that just doesn’t fit. Maybe lyrically, it’s a little more unstructured and very simplistic. That’s just not Anberlin’s style, so I kind of knew that.
It’s a great song, though.
Thank you very much. It turned out all right, but I felt like if people had just trusted me in the band. I’m like, “I know guys. It’s not going to work out as well as you’re imagining in your head.” It’s fun to play “Haunting,” and stuff like that, but it’s just different in the fact that I knew it never was an Anberlin song.
Lyrically speaking, is there a commonality that these songs share?
Not at all. It feels like Anberlin is for more of a mass appeal and Anchor & Braille is more for 15 people sitting around a coffee shop. Even lyrically, Anchor & Braille deals with topics that I kind of try to stray away from with Anberlin, such as people that have fallen to drugs or sexuality, or stuff like that. Topics that I want to address, but it’s like trying to tell your kid about sex or a big topic like drugs. You’re not going to talk to them when they’re six. You’re going to wait a couple years. You’re going to hang out.
It’s not that I feel like Anberlin is any less mature and can’t handle those topics. It just feels like I’d rather Anberlin be more of a motivational speech, like, “You can do it! Let’s get out there and win.” Anchor & Braille is almost like the one-on-one time, like “Hey, man. What are you really going through? What’s the hardships?” The things that you don’t want to talk to just anybody about.
You call them best friends because you talk to your best friends about things that you’re dealing with. But then you go on MySpace or Twitter, and you’re like, “Dude, I just ran into…” You know what I’m saying? So, it kind of feels like that. It feels like Anberlin’s not always the best time to exert all your frustrations.
So would you say these are more personal or vulnerable?
Yeah, more vulnerable is a good word. Cities was a very personal record to me, but I think vulnerable is a great key word for Anchor & Braille.
How does it feel to be on the rise and to have hit the big time with Anberlin now?
It feels different. It feels weird. The cool thing is we’ve been doing van and trailer for so many years now that it just feels like we go to the shows and, yeah, there’s a couple more people, but we still see the same faces, you know? That is awesome.
We’re not a one-hit wonder. We’re not a radio band. We’re not an MTV band, or Fuse. We’re these people’s band. You know what I’m saying? You found us on the Internet years ago. We’re still that band, and that’s what’s cool about it. Nothing’s gone to anyone’s head. We’re not all rich millionaires. We’re just who we are. We’re staying the same.
Is it surreal to have had a No. 1 single?
It felt like I could do no wrong for the one week it was No. 1. It was just like, “Ahhh.” It felt so different, like walking on clouds. It was a lot of fun.
Have you started thinking about the next record at all?
We’ve talked about it, but this record hasn’t even been out for a year yet. We’re all like, “Dude, that took so much out of us.” Nate once said it was the first time that he ever felt like he clocked in for work because it just was that ominous of a task. So, the next record we’re definitely going to go to Seattle because we feel at home there.
You recorded all three from Tooth & Nail in Seattle, right?
Yeah, and then we recorded this one in L.A. We love L.A., because I lived here during that process, but we feel like Seattle’s home. It felt so much easier, and creativity just rolled, you know? So, we want to go back there and bring a producer up there.
Would you want to work with Neal Avron again?
Absolutely. He was incredible. I’ve never worked so hard. He brought the best out of every song. Now, it all comes down to the suits. Does he have time? Who’s he in the studio with around that time? We don’t know when, but we’re guessing that maybe we’ll go into the studio next June/July, but that’s totally a guess. We have no idea.
So next you’re going to be touring in the fall with the All-American Rejects and Taking Back Sunday.
Yes, and then we’re trying to do a headlining in October. Everybody on our message boards, and every time I see anybody, is like, “Dude, I can’t believe you’re not headlining this fall.” It’s like, “Whoa! You guys got to calm down. We don’t tour like twice a year. We tour like 9, 10, 11 months a year.” People are so funny. They’re like, “I can’t believe it.” I’m like, “There’s a lot of time in between July and November.”
They’re also like, “What? You’re touring with Tacking Back Sunday again?”
Well, it’s all different markets. That one was an A run, meaning like New York and all that. This one’s all like the middle of nowhere. We’re playing here in L.A. again in a couple of weeks. Definitely people are going to get their fill. It’s just like, “Be patient, man. We haven’t announced everything yet.” People are definitely going to be pleasantly surprised. It’s going to be a great tour.
So Kyle has been with you guys for a while now, and I noticed he’s in the new promo shots. Is he a member now?
We would love it, but honestly the music industry 10 years ago everybody was loaded. All the labels were throwing money. Now, it’s just different. No one sells records anymore. It’s hard. None of us really make money, so it’s hard to bring someone else in.
I’m living with a roommate. I can’t afford to live out on my own right now. Same with some of the guys. One of them is still living with his parents. Just because you hit No. 1 on a chart doesn’t mean people buy records. It means more people go and download your album for free illegally.
So, we can’t. We would love to have Kyle. That’s why we want to include him in everything, but financially we’re not at a place where we can buy a new car. You know what I’m saying? It’s not anything like that. We would love it. Some day, Lord willing, if “Breaking” does amazing, and then we push another single and it does amazing, and people start actually buying the record, then for sure Kyle’s going to have a steady job. But for now, he lives here in L.A. and has a part-time job because we can’t pay him, you know?
So I was thinking since you have him and Christian…
Yeah. Who’s next?
You need to convince Jason [Vena, singer of Acceptance] to do a duet.
There you go. I definitely like that guy. Jason’s a good, solid dude. He’s great. He’s off in Seattle working on his own small business.
When you guys record in Seattle, he’ll be just down the street.
That’s true. I’ll give him a call. “What up, man? Get over here.”
So real quick – Woodwater Records. How did that come about?
Well, Woodwater is my imprint label from Universal. Basically, Universal came to me and said, “You can’t go anywhere else, but if you want to start your own label, you can.” I was like, “Yes! Heck yeah!” So, I’ve been looking to sign some new artists. I’d really like to sign somebody like a Patrick Watson.
I don’t know. I tour so much. I try to write as much as I can, and then I work with Faceless International, this nonprofit, so it’s not like I can devote a lot of time to the label. It would have to be somebody that totally blew my mind. Somebody that I was so passionate about that I was like, “OK. Yeah, man. If you want to do this, let’s do this.”
Is there any more progress on your second book?
Actually, yeah, it’s basically done. I’ve got to go back and reedit it myself, and then I want to get an editor for the first time, which was something I didn’t have on the first book. So I have to get an editor, and after that comes then, yes, absolutely.
Is this the memoirs one?
No, it’s like short excerpts. I want to team up with an artist or a photographer, so every other page is art. The memoirs one, I think that one’s going to be like a year in the making. There’s just so many small stories. I have them all in paragraphs, but now I have to expound. Nobody wants to just read a paragraph, you know?
So, is Anchor & Braille going to be around for a while?
Absolutely, man. If it’s anything like this tour, I hope it’s around for as long as it possibly can. It’s just so fun and so different. I love small, intimate atmospheres, where you can actually meet the people you play in front of instead of playing in front of thousands of people and then just go, “Have a good night.”
I never get to meet any of you now. That’s what’s hard about being with Anberlin. The bigger the band gets, the bigger the chasm between you and the audience. That’s why I feel Anchor & Braille brings it back down to the level, where it’s just like, “All right, let’s talk. Let’s hang out.”
I know a lot of these songs are older. Have you written more songs since then?
Absolutely, yeah. Like I said, these songs have been done for a couple years now. At least a year and a half, two years. So, yeah, between that time and now I’ve definitely written a lot that I’ve set aside from Anberlin.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press