Lead singer Stephen Christian discusses Anberlin’s final album Lowborn, the excitement of the first two records, how being in the band taught him not to be scared to fail, and why leaving behind a legacy of responsibility is important.
How’s Warped Tour treating you so far?
It’s good. It’s totally different than I remember. It feels like everything has changed, which is good. Warped Tour is more streamlined. The bands are definitely heavier, and it’s not as hot as I remember it being last time, so it’s pretty good. I’m excited.
So this news of you guys ending is bittersweet, and it seems like this was a decision you didn’t rush into or take lightly at all. Can you walk us through what happened with all of that and if this is something you’re at peace with?
The decision was actually made in the U.K. in February of 2013. I started to feel that I was withdrawing. Not from individuals or the music or the fans, or anything like that, but I felt some type of shift and change. I didn’t feel the same. It wasn’t my sole motivation in life. The time wasn’t right to tell all the guys, but it was heading in that direction. Little did I know that a couple of the other guys also felt the same way.
We’ve been a band so long and we’re such good friends that we don’t want to let the other person down. At this point, we’re brothers. I don’t want to hurt them. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but by the time October rolled around, it was just time. I sat the guys down. We started talking and realized we were all in the same place. We all just felt like it was time.
It was hard. We were all torn up and emotional about it. It felt like, wow, this is crazy. Something we’ve worked so hard and so long on was coming to an end. But like you said, it was bittersweet. It was bittersweet that, yes, things are coming to an end, but we were closer than we thought. We all felt the same way. That’s kind of how we came up with the decision.
I mean, we all have our different reasoning. We’re not all the same. Some people want to start new ventures. Some people want to start new projects. Everybody is different, but at the end of the day we were all in the same boat, as far as we have had some of the best years, if not the best years, of our entire lives wrapped up in this band. It is bittersweet.
Reunions and doing reunion tours and all that is very much all the rage these days. I was just talking to Nate and he thinks that this really is it for you guys and you won’t be going down that road in the future. Is that your opinion as well?
Yeah, absolutely. I have no problems with that for other bands, and I don’t mean to speak negatively about other bands that do that, but for me it kind of takes away. It takes away from the legacy and the memory that you have in your head. I will never be able to match that again. In 10 years, I don’t want to come back and people go, “Aw, man. He used to move around. He used to sing better 10 years ago.” I don’t want to ruin whatever people perceive of their band that they really enjoy.
To me, I can totally see doing something like playing an acoustic show in 10 years or a one-off. Something like that, where it’s for our families or for us as the band to get together, but I don’t ever, ever want to tour again. I don’t ever want to tour again as Anberlin in any type of long-term capacity.
I can totally see doing one or two shows in our lifetime, but I don’t know. I feel like it takes away from us announcing this is our last year, these are our last shows, and then to come back? It’s a little deceptive. It’s manipulative to the fans, and I always try to put them first.
How much of a trip is it to be back at Tooth & Nail for your last record?
It’s not at all. For me, it feels very cyclical. It feels like this is where we should be. We didn’t part ways with Universal on bad terms. They said, “Hey, we still want to release your record.” We explained that this is our final record, and it just didn’t sound like they were excited about that. Obviously, at any label when you say you’re going to break up, they were a little bit like, “Well, we’re really not going to push your record that hard, because you’re obviously breaking up.”
We’re all still good friends with Brandon Ebel and everybody at Tooth & Nail, and when he heard that he was absolutely excited. He was like, “Please let me have this project. Let me have this record. I’m going to put passion behind it.”
We’ve always been the type of band where you can’t put a price on passion, so this just made sense. It made sense for us to go back home to where we started. There were never any negative feelings with Tooth & Nail. They knew exactly why we were leaving to go to Universal, and Universal understands exactly why we would want to go back with Tooth & Nail. Everybody was happy at the end.
Can you say anything about why the record ended up getting that one-month delay?
We did sign a contract to put out Devotion with another record label, and then due to legal… Yeah, that’s about it. It wasn’t our decision. It’s nothing against Tooth & Nail. It’s not even Universal. It was just lawyers who don’t understand the music business, and paperwork and numbers and all that stuff. It was emotionless and whatever.
It was just a bad situation all around. We were told one thing, and then when it came down to it, lawyers got involved. I don’t want to talk bad about anybody. There’s no point in really perseverating anymore than saying it was way out of our control and just didn’t need to happen.
You knew Lowborn was going to be Anberlin’s last album and you’ve talked about how that impacted your approach to writing some of the lyrics. Do you think knowing it was your last one made it easier or more difficult for you to write?
It made it more exciting. One of my favorite records growing up was the Beatles Let It Be record, simply because I was always so marveled at the fact they could know it was their last record, and still not only write it together, but also put out such great music on their final one. In no way am I trying to compare myself to the Beatles, but it was freeing.
It was freeing to know, to be able to look at each other in the same room and not be upset or mad, or have some kind of chip on your shoulder that this guy screwed you over by breaking up the band. It’s not like that.
For us, it was all freeing because no longer did we feel like we had to force ourselves to make a single, or we had a label breathing down our necks about what we’re going to do next. It was very let’s do what we want. You like that song? Let’s try to write to it.
Lyrically, it was very freeing because there was a lot stuff I wanted to, not get off my chest, but to be able to say to the fans one last time, like I did in “Atonement” or “Harbinger.” I think it was absolutely freeing. There was no negativity involved at all.
What was the final song you ended up writing?
The last song I wrote was, um, what is it called? I don’t know the name of it. I’m trying to think. Shoot, I don’t have it in front of me… “Dissenter.” “Dissenter” was the last one. The reason being, and this is the honest truth, I had no idea it was on the record. Christian sent that song to us right at the end, and because it was so crazy and sporadic I just put on a distortion pedal, picked up a book that I was reading, and started screaming lyrics from the book into it.
Since we all recorded in different places – Nate was in Atlanta, the rest of the guys were in Lakeland and I was in Franklin, TN – I wasn’t there when they were recording. I was there in the beginning, but I didn’t know that song was actually going on the record. When the demos finally got to me, I was like, “Are you kidding me? You guys liked it that much?”
I was in the midst of singing, so I wrote the lyrics within 24 hours of recording it. To me, I kind of wanted to do that simply because – well, first off you can barely understand what I’m saying, so it didn’t matter – but also I enjoy the fact that here was an opportunity to be as punk rock as it gets. Just write what you feel, write what you’re thinking, and then go and sing.
In all of that, the majority of it is one take, and that’s what I wanted as well. I wanted it to be whatever comes out, keep it. I’m not worried about harmonies. I don’t care if it sounds pretty. If I’m off speed, if I’m off rhythm, just go. Really, I think only the singing part at the center is the only part we did more than once.
How did you like working in three different locations and working with Aaron Sprinkle again?
I didn’t like it, personally. Knowing this was our last record, I wanted to be with the guys. I wanted to hang out. It wasn’t like I wanted to be there for creative input or output. I just wanted to be in the same room as my friends. Just laugh, play video games, and do the stupid stuff you do in the studio, because those are some of my favorite memories.
My favorite memory in Anberlin total, looking back at the 12 years, was the time we wrote Never Take Friendship Personal in Seattle and recorded it. It was such a great time. It was so carefree and so much fun.
But I understand why. It is our last record, and everybody got to choose who their favorite producer was. “Hey, I really loved working with Matt Goldman.” Nate thought he produces the best drum sounds in music, so he went there. The rest of the guys wanted to self-produce on a record, because they had never gotten a chance to do that, so they did that with Aaron Marsh.
At this point, four records deep, Aaron Sprinkle and I are basically the same unit, the same mindset, so I went with Aaron Sprinkle. I get the ideologies of it all, but for me I wanted to hang out with my good friends.
One song I wanted to ask about on the record briefly is “Hearing Voices,” which I particularly loved the lyrics to. How did you come up with those?
Undertones of my faith have always been a consistent throughout the seven albums – the recording process, writing process – of Anberlin. For me, it just felt right. It felt right that I could speak my mind about my faith and still be able to make it some type of poetry where people can relate, where people who may be without hope or may feel lost in this world.
I just felt, for me, it was another way to say, “Hey, here’s what I believe and here’s what I’ve found.” That’s kind of where I got it.
A few weeks ago you started a Tumblr and wrote all the lyrics out for all the songs Anberlin has done and wrote brief explanations for them, which I’m sure was a nice trip down memory lane for you. Did anything in particular strike you while you were doing that?
It did because I think what was so amazing about it, and I think I wrote it somewhere on the Tumblr too, is that going through these lyrics, I never wrote out of a base of this will sell records or someone will like this pretty chorus. I always wrote out of a place of this is what’s happening to me. This is what I’m going through.
It was really cool to be able to go through the early records and feel what I was feeling and remember exactly where I wrote that song. Put myself back in that moment and remember the people, these characters that come in and out of life, watching them, and being able to tell their story and tell my story, and the connection between it all. It was incredible.
It was something I always wanted to do, but when I listen to other bands with ambiguous lyrics, like a Radiohead or a Jimmy Eat World, I always feel like I love the song and I almost enjoy the mystery of it all. I almost enjoy not knowing what they’re talking about, trying to decipher these codes. But for me, those songs are already ingrained in people’s lives. There have been years of mystery, and it was OK to pull the curtain back and reveal what was going on.
I still tried to be a little bit ambiguous. I didn’t say names and I didn’t say places, or specifics or anything like that, but I tried to give people a general sense of the direction that I was aiming at. It was a lot of fun and it did transport me into a different time-place-era, just being able to go back and read through those songs.
Yeah, I thought it was a really cool thing for you to do.
Honestly, we’re playing a show in Australia and we’re doing just Never Take Friendship Personal. So we were going back, listening through all the songs. “Audrey, Start the Revolution!” I haven’t played in four years, so I was going back online, reading through these lyrics on lyric blogs, and I was like, “Oh, this is bad.”
In some ways, I kind of just wanted to redeem myself, so people didn’t read that and go, “He’s horrible.” At least it will make sense to some people now was the underlining objective.
I thought it would be cool to revisit a couple of the older albums real quick. Your first album was Blueprints for the Black Market, which came out in May of 2003. A lot of times with a band’s first record, you don’t know what you’re doing and are just learning on the spot. Is that how you were on that one, or did you have a vision going in and were able to execute it?
Oh man, we had no idea what we were doing. No clue. We had no idea about the industry. Oh my gosh. We were so naïve, so innocent. It was like running with our head down. We didn’t know what direction. We didn’t know if there was going to be a wall. We were just going to run at it as fast as we could.
I remember we had nine songs written for the entire record when we got to Seattle. Aaron Sprinkle used to do these solo shows, and he was playing Cure covers. He just happened to play “Love Song,” and that’s why we put it on the record. We were like, “Hey, why not do that one?” That’s how much we stumbled into luckily being able to tour and to travel and to somewhat succeed.
It was some of the best times, though, just because we were so passionate about what we were doing. We were so hungry. Like I said, running towards a brick wall.
Do any songs on that record stand out to you?
I think, for me, “Readyfuels” would be a standout track. That was the first time, and I’ve only done this a handful of times, where I put my own song on repeat over and over again because I was in shock that it was good. We were these kids from a small town, and how we stumbled onto being able to write music, I still don’t know.
It wasn’t like one of our friends was like, “Dude, you’re really good. You can really write a song.” It wasn’t like that. We had nothing. We had nothing to bounce an idea off of. We weren’t local heroes or local celebrities, or anything like that. When we wrote that, I was in a little bit of shock. Like, wow, we’re actually writing rock music, as opposed to some punk rock band in a garage, singing lyrics about who knows what.
I think that was the standout track because it gave me the confidence that, yes, I can write. Yes, we can do this. We can song write. So that’s why it would be the standout track.
Then two years later in 2005 you did Never Take Friendship Personal, which is probably when a lot of fans started to discover you and you began to pick up some steam. You mentioned that was your favorite experience, doing that one. Why was that the case and what do you remember about that time that made it so special?
It was just the four of us. It was Deon, Joey, Nate and I. We were the only ones in the band at that time. We had already become so close because of proximity, because of time spent on the road. Not that we were successful by any means at that point, but we felt like there was momentum. That’s the best way to phrase it. We just had complete momentum in our direction.
We felt a buzz. We felt excited. I didn’t feel the pressures of a sophomore slump because I was still so naïve. It wasn’t like Brandon Ebel was calling me and saying, “What’s the single on this record? I got to hear it right now.” It wasn’t like that. It was more of an excitement to write.
For me, everything was still so new and fresh. I was able to explore. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m trying to think of the best terms. I was just alive. I was completely alive. It felt like it was the first time in my whole life where I felt confident and able to do something, and yet be so entrenched.
When people say something like they knew where they were supposed to be, or when people say they knew she was the one or something to that effect, I finally felt that. I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be in life, after years of aimless searching and wandering.
Everybody goes through that phase. They graduate college and they’re like, “What am I supposed to do now?” Or they graduate high school and don’t know what they’re going to major in college. Everybody wanders around aimlessly at some point in their life. I felt like that had been my whole life up until that moment and Never Take Friendship Personal.
I felt like this is where I’m supposed to be. This is it. This is what I’m supposed to be doing, and that’s an amazing feeling. It’s a freeing feeling that you rarely ever feel in your entire life, where you know exactly where you’re supposed to be. It just felt like the entire world had come together to inspire, to help me, and to help us as Anberlin. That’s the feeling. I was just overjoyed.
Would you say “Paperthin Hymn” is the song you have played the most live over your career?
That’s a good question. Yeah, I guess if you would calculate it all, “Paperthin Hymn” would be the most. Definitely the most consistent, because we still enjoy the song because the fans still enjoy the song. I think that would probably be the No. 1 song most played.
I know, especially on those first two records, you started out in the Christian/indie market, which then took a few years for you to break out of that label. Looking back, do you think starting out that way helped or hindered you more?
I’ve always gone back and forth, but I want to say in the long run it absolutely helped us. I feel like a major label would have tried to rush us into the spotlight immediately. I’ve seen so many bands where their first record is huge and then they spend the rest of their career trying to crawl back to their one found glory. That, to me, is more of a curse.
Sure, that may have sold a lot more records. We could have sold a million on our first record, hypothetically. Who knows? I’m just saying it shortens a career by far, whether that’s inner band turmoil, whether that’s pride and arrogance, or whether that’s people are just tired of the fad.
I’m so happy 2010 was the biggest year in our career. That’s such a blessing to be six years, seven years deep into your career, and then finally having the biggest year in your life. I don’t think I would curse a big first record on anybody, and therefore I’m really glad we signed with an indie where we could actually develop fans and become friends with our fans.
Everyday at Warped Tour, it’s “I’ve been following you since day one,” or “I remember your horrible ‘Readyfuels’ video.” Stuff like that. That’s awesome. I don’t think if we would have pushed out on our scene and blown up through marketing dollars and sold a lot on the first record, I don’t think we still would be a band today.
So post-Anberlin, what are your plans? I know you just finished the third Anchor & Braille record. Do you plan on continuing that? What else do you plan on pursuing?
Man, there’s so much. I think I’m always going to be somewhat a part of the music world, I just think I’m going to be more on the outside of it. I just signed a deal with Word Publishing in Nashville to start songwriting when I get home.
That, to me, is exciting. I can still be involved with the process, but I’m not going to be the one onstage. I’ll still be free to live a life without touring. I think I’ll be on the outside of music, but I don’t think I’ll be pursuing it to the full extent that Anberlin has.
So you’re going to be writing for other people then?
Interesting. What genres do you want to do?
I’ve already done some. I’ve done everything from country to pop to rock. I’ve done it all. It’s a lot of fun. It’s so challenging, because I’ve only basically written for Anberlin and Anchor & Braille for 12 years now. So, it’s been fun. I’ve had a few small successes. It’s been good. So far, so good.
Will you be doing any touring with Anchor & Braille?
I don’t think so. If I do, it’s going to be down the road. One of the reasons that we’re leaving the band is because with Anberlin we tour 225-plus days a year. After a while, you just long for a little bit on the other side to see another angle of life.
For me to get off the road, and then turn around to get right back on, doesn’t seem logical or viable. Maybe a few festivals here and there, but as of right this second I don’t think I’m going to pursue it full time.
Looking back over the 12 years and everything you’ve experienced with Anberlin and the guys, how do you think that has changed you as a person?
Oh man, the list would be so long. First and foremost, I’m just not afraid of failure anymore. I feel liberated and confident enough that I’m going to go out there for the rest of my life and attack everything I do and pursue everything I do.
Before this, I was just so timid. I was that quiet kid in high school who really had no friends, and stared at my feet as I walked because I felt so unconfident. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I didn’t know my place. I didn’t know where I was in this world. Anberlin completely gave me the confidence to pursue anything in life.
For instance, I wrote a book, and it’s horrible – The Orphaned Anything’s. It’s not good at all, but I did it simply for the fact that in the back of my head it was something I always wanted to do. I started a nonprofit. I’ve been pursuing life with both hands. I want to try everything. I want to go out and explore this world, but I don’t think I would have had that ability if it wasn’t for the other guys, for Anberlin, for the experiences that I’ve had.
I think number one is the confidence to pursue anything and everything and not be scared to fail anymore. I just don’t care. I’ve had so much success in the long term, and I’m not trying to say it in any monetized way or the amount of CD sales. I’m saying it by the fact that I went out and I’ll be able to tell my grandkids one day “Hey, follow your dreams” and really mean it, and then say that I did.
I went out, had this crazy pipedream, and I just pursued it with all I had. Look at the places I got to go, and look at the people I got to meet, and look at the opportunities that I had, simply because I just wasn’t scared to fail. I hope I’ll be able to pass that on to other generations.
So, last question. You’ve mentioned talking about legacy before. What do you think Anberlin’s legacy will be and what would you like it to be remembered as?
I think my legacy is going to be responsibility. That sounds anticlimactic, but I’m saying responsibility in the fact that I hope that we’ve shown other bands that your time onstage is limited. You have no idea how many months or years you’re going to be a band, and for the most part you’re probably only going to be a band for three or four years. Maybe, if you’re lucky, three or four years.
Utilize that time to give. Whether it’s charity, or whether it’s being a positive influence on the people around you, or whether that’s just bringing other people up. Everybody has a responsibility. I don’t care if you paint your face white and scream about death, as long as in the real world you’re helping out through activism. I don’t care what you believe in, whether it’s to fight illiteracy or homelessness or sex trafficking. Pick a cause and be responsible for the short time.
Like I said, we’ve been a band 12 years. In terms of a band, my God, that is so long. Other bands may not have this opportunity to be a band this long, so while you still have a platform, while you still have ears listening, make sure with that time you’re responsible. Be proactive on any type of cause or something that you believe in. Give hope.
How would I want it to be? I think that’s how I would want it to be. I think only time tells your legacy, whether you stayed out or whether your music inspires other bands to pick up a guitar. Something like that. I’m not sure. I think that’s for time to decide and not me.
We got to play a show with the 1975. The singer was so stoked to be able to talk to us and meet us because he had been a fan. That, to me, is so humbling. Even being out here on Warped Tour, talking to fans, and they are like, “Man, I have loved you forever.” That means the world. Again, only time is going to tell if you still have a long lasting influence down the line.
Part One with Nate Young
Part Three with Christian McAlhaney
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk