Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman and Anberlin’s Stephen Christian converse about musical inspirations, writing when depressed, and not wanting to be placed in a box.
Stephen Christian: Dude, I had better, more exciting job interviews than that show last night.
Jon Foreman: Really? Dude, I’m so sorry, man. I feel guilty.
Stephen: You should because it’s your mistake. Tonight better make up for it.
Jon: I hope so, man. I didn’t even know what you were talking about. The first time I got your text, I was like, “What do you mean?” I walked out during a couple of your songs and it looked like everyone was into it. I thought, “He must be kidding.”
Stephen: No, dude. You know, these shows have been awesome, but last night, for whatever reason, I felt like the crowd was like…
Jon: Dang it.
Stephen: You shouldn’t feel guilty. It’s not your fault. We should have given them all caffeine.
Jon: That’s what they needed. Maybe they had had too much of that earlier.
Stephen: They were done. They crashed. Shoot, that stinks. But, no, it was still fun.
So when did you guys hear about each other’s bands? Can you remember?
Stephen: That’s a good question.
Jon: That is a good question. I remember hearing about you guys, maybe it was either from Jamie from To Write Love on Her Arms, who’s going to be here tonight, or it might have even been… There’s a bunch of Florida bands that I heard about at the same time because there was kind of a scene.
Stephen: Yeah, there was for a quick second.
Jon: Yeah, there were three or four bands, and one of them we toured with. I’m trying to place it.
Jon: We toured with Copeland, but there’s another one.
Stephen: There was Copeland, Underoath. There was kind of New Found Glory, Dashboard Confessional.
Jon: It was a band the drummer from Copeland played in before.
Stephen: Denison Mars?
Jon: That’s it! Denison Mars. We were on tour with Noise Ratchet and Denison Mars.
Jon: Here’s the random thing – they broke up on that tour, sent the drummer home, and then Copeland on another one of our tours sent their drummer home and had him come out and replace that drummer.
Stephen: So random. His name was Randy, I think, the drummer for them. So funny.
Jon: So I feel like he finished a different tour than he started.
Stephen: That’s great. That’s a lot of drama right there.
Jon: Yeah, it’s all Florida.
Stephen: There you go. Sorry about that.
Jon: So that’s how I first heard about you guys, was through that scene.
Stephen: My friend took me to one of your shows in Nashville at a real small church. Dude, this was back in the day. It had to be 2003 or ‘04, maybe even earlier. Maybe 2002 or something like that. I was in Nashville just randomly and she was like, “Hey, some of my friends are playing a show. You should come check it out.”
Jon: Is that band mom’s related?
Stephen: No, they used to run in the same circle in Atlanta but moved to Nashville, so maybe it was Atlanta. It was either Atlanta or Nashville. I just came to your show, but I think I had known about you before. For whatever reason somebody gave me Legend of Chin. When did that come out?
Stephen: Holy crap! That would make sense because I got it in community college. That was the first time I had seen your name, and then I went to your show and that’s when it went all together. That’s hilarious. That came out in ’97.
Jon: That came out on cassette. Cassette and CD.
Stephen: That’s awesome.
Jon: We were all concerned with the second one. We were like, “Really? You sure you’re not going to put it out on cassette? A lot of people are still buying cassettes.” They’re like, “No, trust us. CD is the way of the future.”
Stephen: Seriously, by the time our next record rolls around, people will be like, “You sure you’re not going to put it out on CD?”
Jon: Oh yeah, no one buys them anymore. I don’t know what is going to happen next. Spotify and MOG and Rdio.
Stephen: You just upload it to Spotify and you’re done.
Jon: Pretty much. That’s how I listen to every new record I want to hear.
Stephen: Yeah, I just listened to Ryan Adams on that. Did you hear that this morning?
Jon: No, I haven’t heard that.
Stephen: It’s really good. He went back to his old ways.
Jon: Like first record or like Whiskeytown?
Stephen: No, not like Gold or Rock N Roll. Like Whiskeytown, like 29. Did you ever listen to 29?
Jon: Not too much. That’s the problem with him. He has so many records. I feel like I’m not a true fan because I can’t ever keep up.
Stephen: He does. There was one year where he put three records out.
Jon: That was the year I lost. I bought the first two, and the third one I was like, “I’m sorry. I have to remember who Radiohead is for just a second and then I’ll come back.”
Stephen: Easy Tiger was really good.
Jon: I like that one. That is the best CD name I’ve ever heard.
Stephen: But it was a horrible CD cover.
Jon: It’s a bad cover, but the title, Easy Tiger, I remember thinking, “What a freakin’ awesome name for a record.”
Stephen: I love the husky. I loved everything about it, except for his stupid watch. I was like, “Dude, that’s so high school.” Anyway, it’s a good record so far. I’m only six songs in.
Jon: Is that the one where his watch is 4:20?
Stephen: Yeah, I was so bummed. I thought that was the cheesiest thing ever.
Jon: Maybe it just happened to be 4:20. Maybe they snapped the photo and were like, “Dude, that’s so funny. It is actually 4:20.”
Stephen: Bullcrap. No way.
Jon: Just coincidence. Total coincidence.
Stephen: Yeah, a total coincidence. He smokes weed, and yet 4:20…
You are two of my favorite lyricists and I have a quote when I interviewed [Jon] earlier that I thought I’d bring up here about songwriting. [Jon] made the comparison about oysters and pearls, where you say, “You have a piece of sand that gets in the oyster’s shell, and over time the oyster just keeps putting more and more material into the sand until it becomes a pearl, but the beauty was created by an irritant. That’s what I feel like songs are. They’re just an attempt to come to terms with pain.” I was wondering, Stephen, is that how you feel about songwriting as well?
Stephen: That’s awesome, man. Did you come up with that?
Jon: He says I did. I don’t remember saying that, but I feel that sometimes.
Stephen: I think the cool thing about being a musician is that other people have other ways of getting out and coming to grips with terms, whether it’s a psychologist or psychiatrist or things like that. For me, my escape, especially through hardship and stuff like that, is to write it out, whether that’s an internal battle. It’s funny because sometimes I’ll be singing a song I haven’t sung in years and it’ll take you back to this memory, or take you back to that moment of triumph or pain or whatever the case was you were going through. It’ll flood you back to that memory. It’s more, for me, therapeutic than anything else. But yeah, that’s right on.
When you guys are writing songs what would you say your most unusual inspiration that you picked up from would be?
Jon: Hmm, unusual. The crazy thing about songwriting is anything can make an amazing song. That’s almost the curse. The moment you figure that out you start to look under the rocks and go, “Is that a good song? No, that’s a piece of gum.” There’s that element of wonder. We were talking about this the other day. You have to have that wonder, that element of wide-eyed, childlike wonder, that says life is wonderful, even pain. To find pain worth writing about you almost have to, not cherish it, but you have to say this is somehow worth my time. This is worth me thinking deeply about and investing a melody into uncovering it.
Stephen: But have you ever felt in some ways distant from human beings because you have to be a grand observer?
Jon: I feel like it’s a way for me to enter into it, because I almost feel distant to begin with. A lot of times I start by feeling ostracized like I don’t really fit it, so my way in is the song where I can observe and actually be like, “I’m one of you guys. We’re all in this together.” I hear what you’re saying. Sometimes it can be a distancing device. Do you feel that?
Stephen: I do in some ways. I’ll have a conversation with somebody, and my mind will already wander to putting their story down and write it through with the conversation. That’s bothersome, especially with really close relationships. They have to preface it with, “You’re not going to write a song about this,” or something like that. My brother actually said that to me. “Please do not write about this.” I was like, “OK.” [Laughter] Sometimes it takes the pains of the world to really inspire. We have a whole genre called the blues dedicated to depression, a bad storyline. We don’t have some subgenre called joy or happiness.
Jon: I only write when I’m depressed.
Stephen: I write better when I’m depressed.
Jon: See, I just don’t even bother [laughter]. When I’m happy, I don’t even bother. That’s not completely true, but it’s mostly true. Happy songs, for me, I’ll have a happy song and I’ll have to write a bit of darkness for the bridge or something. It just doesn’t feel honest if it’s completely sunshine and bluebirds.
Stephen: I get it. Have you listened to the band the National?
Jon: Yeah, yeah.
Stephen: So he says that the majority of his songs are super happy, it’s just he sings them with such a monotone, bass voice that you think they’re depressing. You’re automatically like, “I want to kill myself.” Really, he’s like, “No, they’re about my kids and about how great life is. I love my city of New York. I love my wife.” One was about walking in the park with his kid and wishing that his kid was older so they could have a conversation, but he sings it with such depth that it sounds like it’s desperation.
Jon: Maybe that’s why tenors have to write sad songs.
Stephen: That’s true. That’s a good lyric, though.
Jon: Johnny Cash can sing happy tunes. [Sings in deep voice] “Everything’s fine down here.”
One thing I’ve noticed about [Jon] in particular is that as you’ve grown older you have written more sociopolitical commentary songs. Stephen, you’ve done that a little bit as well, with “The Resistance” and “We Owe This to Ourselves.” Is that something you guys have found easier to write about and more relevant as you’ve gotten older?
Jon: Yeah, I think as you begin to be aware of the larger story of history unfolding around you and the idea that, wow, this is a moment in history we have right now, you begin to think, “Wow, I need to write about this instead of writing about the history of your angst in junior high.” Those are the first songs you write, like man, I feel so angry at my teacher! Then you begin to see that maybe I can channel that into something a little bit more positive than just being angry about homework. Actually saying, “Well, this situation’s going on in Uganda right now. It’s happening right now. What better way to talk about it then in a song?” That was, for me, the thing that I realized. You can say whatever you want from stage, but no one listens unless you sing it. You can say whatever. “Oh yeah, let’s bring backpacks for the homeless,” which is what we’re trying to do tonight for homeless kids, but the moment you say that’s what the song’s about, then people actually listen and go, “Oh, I connect with that song.”
Stephen: I think that goes for love songs, too, because love was your world at those early stages. It was this foreign concept and you’re always trying to find it, and now love is just a part of your world. Like what he’s saying, the older you get, the more your world expands. Before, as you were saying, high school is here and all this matters so much, and then after a while you see it’s just a part of a whole. Love is awesome, but boyfriend-girlfriend relationships don’t make up the sum of the whole as much as they did in the early days.
Jon: Love has gotten bigger.
Stephen: Love has gotten bigger. Yeah, I didn’t mean love, I meant relationally.
Jon: No, I mean it like that though, the idea that you begin to redefine love. I’ve heard it said that justice is what love looks like in public. Suddenly, love becomes a much larger entity than making out with your girlfriend on Saturday night. You know what I mean?
You both have followed similar career trajectories, in that you started out in the Christian market and then blossomed into bigger and better things from there. Have you talked about that at all, if your experiences were similar in that way?
Stephen: We have had a lot of similar experiences.
Jon: We’ve never actually talked about that.
Stephen: We haven’t, really. Didn’t you write a paper on it one time that was really, really good? It wasn’t the Huffington Post. Maybe it was Relevant. I liked everything you were saying in it. I just don’t think that it defines us as musicians. We’ve worked really hard, not to get out of the Christian background, but we’ve worked really hard to be the best musicians we can in whatever genre people are going to subject us to. I don’t care what genre they put us in. That’s not our decision or choice. It’s not our responsibility to define ourselves. It’s our responsibility to be the best Anberlin we can be. I don’t know. It used to bother me. It used to bother me so much that immediately lazy journalists would just go to Wikipedia and their first question would be, “So…” Or the subhead title would be: “Christian Alternative Rockers Anberlin Are Going to be Showing Up at Your Town.” I was just like, “Wow, there you go. There’s my little box.”
Jon: I think that’s what everyone wants in journalism is a handle. They want to say, “Steve Jobs,” and then four or five words, and then maybe a date of birth and a date of death. There’s his entire life in a one-liner. If you’re Steve Jobs’ wife or daughter, you’re like that does not define him as a man. It’s the same thing as a band. For me, it feels like, especially when you attach the mystery of faith to the commercial element of selling rock ‘n’ roll, it feels like you just tore the fangs and the claws off of this thing that is vital and fighting. With rock ‘n’ roll, it has to have teeth. For me, the moment you attach any form of box around it, it takes it to the zoo. It says, “Oh, look at the cute little tiger.” But at the same time, you do get to the point where you’re like, “Oh, whatever. They’re going to say what they want and we’re going to keep playing rock ‘n’ roll.” The people that understand it will understand it, and the other people won’t. On a good day, I could care less.
Stephen: On a good day [laughter].
You both have done some solo project work. Does that help you with your regular bands? Do you think that makes them stronger, to have these offshoots for your other creative energies?
Stephen: For me, yeah, absolutely. Anytime you can write and get the creative process moving I think is only advantageous for songwriting. The more bands I can co-write with in different genres or whatever, it’s just fun for me because it’s stepping out of yourself to write something different. With my side project, it’s very melancholy. It’s very piano-driven and stuff like that. It’s the antithesis. Even lyrically, I try to be as diverse as possible, simply for the fact of developing to be a better writer for Anberlin. And, it’s just fun. It doesn’t have the seriousness and the consequences. If you make one bad record, who knows?
Stephen: Yeah, there’s no expectations. It’s a lot less. People aren’t calling and overseeing the whole process. “OK, send me a song.” It’s more like if you write it, you like it, you just record it.
Jon: We’ve got a running joke in our band. I’ll play a song for the guys and they’re like, “That is a great song for your solo EP [laughter]. I love that song. You should put it on your solo stuff. Never play it for me again.” But yeah, it’s the same thing. We were talking about hobbies yesterday. Music was our hobby, and now it’s our day job, but it’s still our hobby. I feel like the solo stuff, the side projects, all that is a way to continue to love music in a way that has no consequences.
I want to go back to the beginning. At what point did you realize this was your calling and what you wanted to do. Was there a moment where that crystallized for you?
Jon: No. Was there a moment for you?
Stephen: Is this what we’re supposed to be doing? No, I didn’t mean to do this. Mine was not intentional. I had a job lined up coming out of college with a non-profit out of Orlando. I was set, man. It was awesome. I thought that’s what I was working on. I was developing this program to expand internationally with this particular charity. It was going to be awesome. A month before I graduated, my boss took me for a car ride and was like, “I just feel like there’s not a place for you here.” It was so weird. He never told me why he was firing me, but he fired me a month before. Then a month after I graduated was when we got the contract and signed with Tooth & Nail. It was one of those things where it was my hobby and it was accidentally on purpose. I’ll never know why he fired me. I thought I was doing so good, too. It was so weird.
Jon: You graduated from college. See, I was in the middle of college. I was trying to finish college and do the music thing at the same time, and the professors didn’t like it. You’re gone a lot, trying to call in and get tests and fax things back and forth. Remember fax machines and all that? We had a really good tour lined up, and I’m like, “I’ll do this one tour and then I’ll go back to school.” Then another tour added up, and a couple years later you’re still touring. I don’t think there was ever a point where I thought, “Oh man, we’ve made it. We have arrived.” There’s never a point. You’re always like, “There’s U2. There’s Led Zeppelin.” You always feel like you’re this baby band that’s still trying to figure it out.
Stephen: I think the day you think you have made it is kind of your end. You put your feet up on the table and just are like, “Oh, I’ll just coast this one out.” It’s just downhill from there.
Jon: Yeah, totally.
So what do you guys have lined up next after the tour?
Jon: We’re going to Europe.
Stephen: [Laughter] That’s awesome. When do you go to Europe?
Jon: We go pretty much a week after this tour ends.
Stephen: Oh, my gosh. That’s insane. We’re just writing this fall and then in January we’re heading off to Asia. It should be fun.
How about your solo projects? Are those still in development?
Stephen: I’m going to record this fall while I’m home on my break. Hopefully that’ll be out, who knows when? As soon as possible.
Jon: That’s going to be a good one.
Stephen: With Dave Elkins. Do you know Mae?
Jon: I do, yeah.
Stephen: He’s going to be producing it.
Jon: OK, that’s cool. I’ve got Fiction Family lined up. It’s pretty much all ready to go, we just have to figure out when to release it. Actually, we’re thinking about maybe, I haven’t talked with Stephen about this, but what if we do another Switchfoot-Anberlin tour and Fiction Family opens? Think about it.
And Anchor & Braille.
Jon: And Anchor & Braille. Yeah, there it is.
Stephen: That’s a lot of singing in one night.
Jon: Yeah, but it’s the low stuff. Johnny Cash doesn’t have to work very hard. He can be melancholy and you don’t even know it.
Stephen: Maybe that’ll work for our summer tour next year. I’ve got to talk to you about that. I’ve talked to a few bands, not talked with them, but it’d be interesting. We’re already talking about doing this again because it’s too much fun. It’s really good.
Jon: It’s good to be able to walk into any dressing room on the tour and just have a good time.
Stephen: That’s true.
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk