Anberlin: Frontman Stephen Christian Discusses Art and Faith
Florida rockers Anberlin have been together for just over a decade, and what a ride it's been. After starting out small with Tooth & Nail Records and experiencing great success with Blueprints for the Black Market and Never Take Friendship Personal, they soon were playing on the Warped Tour and found themselves signing with Universal Records. Four of their albums have charted in the Billboard Top 20, they have scored a number one Modern Rock single with "Feel Good Drag," worked with major record producers, and toured around the world. It would appear that life has been pretty good for them.
Perhaps more interesting, however, is that Anberlin is one of a rare number of bands -- Switchfoot, Mute Math, P.O.D., and Flyleaf among them -- to move from the Christian music industry into mainstream success.
For years they fought against being labeled as a "Christian rock" band because of the assumptions -- right or wrong -- that the phrase encourages. But that tension has slowly decreased in recent years, and now the band is more at peace with its situation than ever.
Lead singer Stephen Christian spoke on the phone about how the band has grown and evolved throughout the years, what helped to make their latest release so fresh and invigorating for him, where the inspiration for their music comes from, and what the intersection of art and faith looks like for bands like Anberlin.
Up on the Sun: What was the songwriting and recording process like for your most recent record, Vital?
Stephen Christian: Vital was different from previous releases for a couple reasons. One was that our drummer, Nathan Young, started writing songs for us. Typically, the writing process is just Christian (McAlhaney) and Joey (Milligan), our two guitarists. They submit their musical ideas to me. I'll write the lyrics, give them to everybody and then everybody decides on the songs. This time, Nathan submitted three songs and they all turned out to be amazing. It gave us a spark and added some fresh air to this record.
The other major factor was teaming up with Aaron Sprinkle again, who produced our first few records. We'd worked with Neal Avron and Brendan O'Brien on our last two, and they are unbelievable award-winning producers, but we felt like we had learned so much from them that it was time to go back with Aaron. It had been five years and it felt like it was time. It felt like a homecoming. Our pre-production experience in Seattle was phenomenal. In 10 days not only did we pre-produce the entire record, but we had already begun working on two songs, so it was like we picked up where we left off.
How much of the content is autobiographical and how much is observational? I think it's both. I try not to rehash old ideas or old music because I feel like each record is a snapshot of whatever progression I've gone through or the world has gone through in the previous two years. Whether it be the Egyptian Revolution or families, friends, and relationships, it's a quick snapshot of whatever's happening in the world around me. I think the majority of it is autobiographical, for sure, but that doesn't discount what's going on in the world around me.
How does your faith influence your music, and what does that intersection between art and faith look like for you? You aren't sending shout-outs to God in your songs, but faith-related themes have been present throughout your discography.
Undoubtedly. It goes well beyond music in the fact that it's a part of my DNA. If I was a doctor, I'd still be a doctor who has his faith. I don't think I can separate it from who I am, so whatever career I would have picked, it would have been incorporated some way, somehow. It absolutely helps my songwriting. Not only do I feel like there are so many analogies that can be drawn out of religion, but that was the foundation for me playing music. As a kid, my grandmother took me to her Baptist church and I heard different hymns and melody lines, choirs singing, and the like. All of that was crucial to the foundation of teaching me music and learning music theory, so a lot of it has to do with my past experiences with the church. I can't separate it or not sing about it, not talk about it, not feel it, because it's a part of me. It's a part of my everyday life and it definitely comes out in my writing.
You started with Tooth & Nail before getting out of the Christian music ghetto and going mainstream. Has the band's approach to music and songwriting changed much in the decade or so that you've been together?
Absolutely. I would hope that any band that's been together this long would change for the better. I think we've definitely grown as people, as fathers, as friends and as songwriters. It's given us a lot of good life experience to be able to grow and mature in those areas. Sleeping in vans at rest stops when it's freezing cold or playing shows to four people, all the way to having the opportunity to write with people like Butch Walker. So I think life has given us the opportunity to mature and to progress and evolve for the better in these past ten years.
Anberlin is scheduled to perform Monday, February 25, at Club Red in Tempe.
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