With Anberlin's sixth studio album being a reunion with the band's original producer Aaron Sprinkle, many feel as though the Anberlin they grew to love has returned to form. JesusfreakHideout.com's Roger Gelwicks got a chance to chat with the band's front man Stephen Christian to talk about their album Vital, the songs on it and the journey the band has taken up until this point...
This interview took place on: 9/25/12.
Yeah, it's one of those moments in life… Our manager texted us all, "Have you checked your email?" So we check our email and the Smashing Pumpkins manager reached out to us and I just couldn't believe it! I was calling everybody I knew. It's one of those moments in life that is so surreal. And I'm looking forward to watching them every night on stage. It's a dream come true, for sure.
Stephen: Wow. We started out as "bandmates" and then we moved into being "best friends" and then we moved into being a "band of brothers," and I think that's what we are right now! That's what I attribute our longevity to: just the friendships within the band. It's not a business plan or a company. We didn't just sit down at a table and decide "what genre should we be?" or "How much money should we make?" It wasn't about that. It was like, "what should we do this weekend? I don't know; maybe we should just play around?" It wasn't a strategy. It was just a bunch of friends getting together in a small town trying to figure out the best way to get out. And that's where our music came in. We have a love of music that we share. I mean, the dynamic has definitely changed. You gotta think that in ten years that we've moved. We have one in San Diego, one in Austin, I'm in Nashville… so literally we're all separated by miles but we spend so much time together that we don't skip a beat. We all feel like we're family now. We're all still here and we're all still together and we're all really good friends!
Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. And we've seen that. But when you become - I don't want to say successful, but a full-time touring band - when it's all you do for a career, when you have the worry about money and you have "band talks"… I mean, we've cried. But those are common themes throughout with the band, and it's all about how you approach it. I think you have to sit down as a band and talk about what matters: "does music matter, or do I matter?" And that's one thing I can say about the band: we definitely have our priorities in order. If one of us is becoming prideful or arrogant, one of the guys is like, "Alright, man, we gotta take a step back." I mean, we've had band members kicked out because of their priorities, whether it be sex or drugs or pride or treating the band like it doesn't matter to anybody else. And that's ridiculous. That's not why we're in it; we've never been in it for those reasons. But that's definitely one of our priorities: maintaining us being human and being accessible and just being friends and being who we were.
Stephen: Yeah, I mean, we're not saying we don't struggle. I mean, there was a moment when we were touring for Never Take Friendship Personal where I was starting to feel it, like "alright, I'm better than you," or, "I'm cool," or whatever the case may be. I struggled and I felt that. So I had to call my best friend Seth and be like, "Look man, I don't care how you do it, I can't tell you, but you gotta come on the road with me. You have to get out here." And you surround yourself with people who really know you, inside and out. There's no deceiving them. You surround yourself with people who know your core, you're not going to get away with much. It was really cool and right around that time we were working with World Vision and he got a job with World Vision, and everybody got along. It was great, and he absolutely kept me in line and he kept me accountable. But I just want to let people know that we are striving to be better and be accountable to each other. So that's who we are as a band.
Stephen: The reason that we originally got away was not because of a feud or a fight, or even a personality. It wasn't about that. The primary reason was that we did not want to regurgitate a record. We wanted a progression, and we didn't want to rehash the past. That's not what we wanted. So we went with Neal Avron of Linkin Park and Yellowcard. He's an incredible producer, and we learned so much from Neal. He is a mathematician of a producer: the hardest working man possibly in the music industry. I've never seen a music producer work harder. And he's like a machine. And I had never had a music producer who sat down with you during songwriting and go line by line with every lyric and talk like, "What are you trying to do here? What are you trying to say?" And that was just incredible to hear and to learn and be challenged. And Brendan O'Brien… talk about a lifetime of experience. He is just a "mecha" of a producer in that world. And working with him absolutely built our confidence up. Then we sat down with people and said, "Ok, do we work with Brendan O'Brien or Neal Avron, or do we work with a new producer?" And then we kinda came back to this conclusion that we learned so much from Neal and Brendan who honed our songwriting and gave us the confidence to "be" Anberlin. "Why don't we take this back to the originator and see where that takes us?" And everybody was stoked on the idea and we talked to Aaron was he was like, "this is absolutely perfect timing." And even now he's a better producer than when we worked with him at first. So he's a better producer, we're a better band, we're better writers, and it was just one of those perfect moments in time where we were like, "we're ready." And it was like going back home. It was relaxing. He just settled in and we could just "be" Anberlin. So it was absolutely incredible. He was incredible to work with, and I'm so happy we made that decision.
Stephen: I was our primary songwriter up until New Surrender - and even New Surrender had Joey Milligan - and Christian McAlhaney was the primary songwriter for Dark Is the Way… And now on this record we have Joey, Christian, Nathan Young on drums is writing, I'm writing, and at the end of the day, I had literally sixty-five songs to sift through and see which ones were going to go on the record. So now it's not a contribution of one, but many people in the band writing. So as far as songwriting was concerned, that was the biggest change.
Stephen: I feel like experimentation would be the key. We were trying for something different than Dark Is the Way…. We've never had a female sing on our record, and on this one we had three females. We've never had a choir - well, actually we did once [on "(*Fin)" from Cities], but we used YouTube for the choir. We just decided we were going to try everything. If it doesn't work, we'll just get rid of it, but why not try it? So somebody was like, "what if we put a trumpet in there?" And I'm like, "I don't know if a trumpet section would work on an Anberlin record," but we're like, "We might as well try. And if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but why not try?" So we had our friend Josiah help us out, and we we're like, enamored, like, "Yep, that needed to go right there." I mean, who would have thought? And even electronically we experimented. And the background really added to the "aura" of the record, for a lack of a better word, and it just added a "feeling." And a lot of it comes from the production of Aaron Sprinkle. He really showed up and took us over the edge.
Stephen: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that's what any band should do. They shouldn't make the same record over and over. I mean, why would anybody buy the second and third record? Every band should change, but they shouldn't evolve beyond recognition.
Stephen: For me, well, not just for me, but for people in the band, instability is our stability. We're basically gone for ten months a year. We miss the anniversaries, the birthday parties, the graduation ceremonies, everything that everyone else thinks is mundane or monotonous or just "no big deal," we miss all that. The problem with that is that we miss some epic moments of our lives. For me, I was on my way to Brazil last year and I get a phone call from my dad, saying, "Son, your grandfather is dying. He might pass away while you're in Brazil; we just don't know." So I rerouted my trip to go spend the day with him. He wasn't totally there; I don't know what transpired in his mind and was probably kind of a blur. So then when I was in Brazil I got another phone call that he had passed away. For me, ["Innocent"] is one of those songs that I felt like I needed to write to venture to do something every day. Today could be your last, and you gotta hold onto those true seconds that you have. Live carefree! It's an incredible world we live in, and not every day should be taken for granted.
Stephen: My brother has two small children. I look at them and I see the innocence. Absolutely, we live in a fallen world, but I think to myself, I am so much more intelligent than these little children. I mean I'm not saying I'm smarter than anyone else; I'm just stating the fact. They don't know the real world yet. They haven't read literature; they haven't gone to school yet. And I view them as so innocent and beautiful. And I think to myself something about human frailty. Yes, we are fallen and yes, we are sinners. And yes, they're going to fall. But there's a sense of hope, and I think that God looks on each of us as good that way. And that's so poetic, you know? I'm not negating the fact that we're all sinners and we fall short of the glory of God, but I do realize that God cares about every single one of us, even when we are so naïve.
Stephen: It's so funny about the initial shock. People tweet me, "Oh I can't even buy your record because of that song." I think it's rather expected, even if it's from Christians. It's one of those things where people should explore it lyrically on their own, and they should really read the lyrics. It's about a relationship that I was close to. The relationship involved being attracted to the other person, but the deeper the relationship got, the more the chasm appeared with personality or character, or whatever the case may be. "God, drugs, and sex don't mean a thing, do they now, do they now?" For me, those are three major topics, and sure, they are heavy topics, but they summarize the depth of the relationship. Such as, if God doesn't mean a thing in the relationship, you know, it's over. And if they're so nonchalant that they aren't even posing the question, it's like, "oh, drugs are no big deal." Then it's over. And with sex, the other person has a viewpoint, and the other is nonchalant like it's no big deal, then the relationship is impractical. I'm charging the listener to take a look into their own lives and realize, "hey, what do I believe about these topics? And what do I encounter in these relationships? How much am I willing to compromise? Am I willing to compromise on God? Is my relationship with God going to suffer because the other person doesn't believe?" Or is it a nonchalant relationship with God? It's something I witnessed firsthand, but I wanted that tension when people first hear it, and I wanted people think about it. "What do I believe about God?" "Where do I stand on sex and modesty, and everything that goes along with that?" "What is my stance on drugs and alcohol?" And if people are having trouble with that [because of the song's title], that's between them and themselves; they've got to figure that out on their own. And if they're not even going to buy the record just because of the song's title, it's like they don't want to even acknowledge that these things exist! If we refuse to be challenged, we simply don't hear about these topics, and it's happening everywhere around us. And instead of facing it or coming to conclusions, we bury our heads in the sand. And that's avoiding reality, even though that's what it is. The reality of it all is that you'll face even greater adversity in your life. And if that song title is offensive, you're in for a shock of a society of modern day America in 2012.
Stephen: For a couple of reasons, we wanted the antithesis of Dark is the Way…, and we wanted a vibrant, alive feeling to it. And that word was Vital! We talked it over as a group, and we came up with things like vital signs. And there's something about that image [on the final album cover] that seems so alive about it. We knew exactly what was happening in that photograph, and it was absolutely incredible. Nathan Young discovered it; he loves photography and loves art. And we were all like, "Yep, that is the summation of the record right there."
Stephen: I love it! And again, people were like, "That's so sexual," and I'm like, "What the heck?"
Stephen: I'm asking, "Have you ever been to the beach, sir?" *laughter*
Stephen: The cinematographer is incredible. His name's Dustin, and he lives in Florida, and he is absolutely unbelievably talented. And I love watching documentaries. I love seeing the moments of animosity, the moments of inspiration, and everything in between. It's kind of like a movie, a fly on the wall. It's almost not documentary-style, but more on the emphasis of cinematography. And honestly, it's a short movie. It's been submitted to many, many film festivals, so we'll see where that goes. The director just believed in it that much. We love it; we think it's all we imagined it to be, and the cinematography just puts it in a different category than just a typical band documentary where you have a whole bunch of interviews in random locations. But there's really not much to say, and there's not much plot, but it's one of those amazing films. I really enjoyed it. I think that Nate had really great ideas for it, and I think Dustin got it in a way that was possible.
Stephen: No, that was it, man. Thanks so much. That was really in-depth; I appreciate it.
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