Guitarist Christian McAlhaney compares his experiences in Anberlin and Acceptance, remembers first joining the band and fitting in right away, recalls working on Dark Is the Way and Vital, and clarifies why being a touring musician can be simultaneously joyous and difficult.
Anberlin is the second band you have been a part of that is ending, with the first being Acceptance, but this has a much different feel and vibe than that one did. How do you compare the two experiences in your mind?
It’s sad for everyone, making a life change like that, but it feels like the right thing. Even in Acceptance, I think it was the right thing, honestly. The difference is the way we’re going about it. In Anberlin, I really appreciate and admire the game plan we came up with to end, whereas Acceptance we just kind of ended and that was it. There were no final shows. There was no anything. We just broke up and that was it. We just let people know.
The way Anberlin is going about it is doing a final year, doing a final record, and really being able to say thank you and goodbye to everyone who has supported the band for a long time, and even for ourselves. Do you know what I mean? It’s nice to not just implode. The way Acceptance went about it – it was different for me, because I went on to keep playing music – but for some of the guys in Acceptance, there wasn’t closure. It was just like, “Man, we should have played some more shows.”
We can end Anberlin truly feeling like we lived every moment until the very end by putting out a final record and touring the world one last time. Knowing that we’re breaking up, I think this makes every day a little bit more special when that’s always on the horizon.
It seems, at least on the outside, label difficulties probably played a little bit bigger role in Acceptance breaking up than with Anberlin. Is that something you think is true?
Well, yes and no. There’s the same frustrations every band has on any label, honestly. Acceptance went through just as much as Anberlin has gone through. It’s not always going to be good. Acceptance had such a small run. I think some people had unrealistic expectations for putting out one record. At the time that Acceptance broke up, we weren’t a big band.
It’s weird now, after the fact, that people hold Acceptance on such a high place, because when the band was around we weren’t this hyped band, drawing crazy people. Towards the end, we starting getting better tours and getting a little more exposure, but for many years we couldn’t get tours. We couldn’t even get on Warped Tour for a long time. I think we did it once and it was because some band had dropped off, so we did Warped Tour for a couple weeks.
To answer your question, we went through the same kind of label frustrations in Acceptance that Anberlin has gone through, and honestly I think every band goes through them. It’s just business. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. On a long enough timeline, you’re going to go through some label issues.
Honestly, Universal was great for Anberlin. They got Anberlin to a place we had never been before, being on the radio and having a No. 1 single. They were always good to us. The nature of that business is to churn out bands. They can’t always have just bands they like.
You need to make them money, and I think that’s every label. If you’re not making labels money, then you might need to find a different home. There’s a lot of different factors that played into Anberlin’s decision to break up, for sure.
You recorded Lowborn in three different sections, recording guitars with Aaron Marsh in his studio, so at least you weren’t by yourself and had a couple of the other guys around. How did you like that experience?
Honestly, for me, it’s not the ideal recording situation. That’s just how it turned out. We wanted to do a final record but it’s a weird place to be, knowing you’re only going to be touring on that record for six months. We tried to be very frugal in how much we spent on the record, and I think that played a big role in why we did things separately. We wanted to self-produce it and then go with either friends of ours or people we knew we’d be comfortable with to get the sound that we were trying to get.
It was a weird experience not having the five of us during the recording process. When Stephen was doing vocals, no one was in Nashville with him. The four of us were in Atlanta, so when Nate was doing the drums, we were doing preproduction as we went.
It was a little odd not having the vocalist there to tweak some of the songs we had written, and with the melody ideas and whatnot it was kind of a guessing game, but I think it turned out great. I think the final record is really good. It’s a progression from Vital. It wasn’t b-sides we hadn’t used or thrown together. It was all new music that we busted ass to do.
The whole experience was very quick and very different. We were used to all being together, us all living together in an apartment or something. This time we were doing guitars in Lakeland with Aaron Marsh. Anberlin started in Winter Haven, which is right by Lakeland. They’re like neighboring cities. Joey was staying with his parents, Deon and I were staying with his parents, and Nate would drive from Tampa. It was kind of weird, recording from home, but it was good. It was fun.
As you mentioned, this record seems to be a pretty natural continuation from Vital. It’s not as aggressive as that one, but it embraces the same dark, ‘80s mystique that also was evident on those three songs you did on Devotion. What was it like writing this one and did you also see it as a continuation of sorts?
Like I said earlier, it was a weird headspace to be in. Before we had decided to break up, when you go into record or write a record, you’re trying to build and you’re trying to grow. You’re trying to further your business until you record your next record. You’re trying to make your best product and most inspiring songs, because you’re going to be touring for another few years. It definitely was a weird headspace, writing for a record that you knew was only going to be out a few months before you broke up.
It was also tough, knowing it was your farewell, so you wanted it to be amazing because it’s the last thing we’re leaving with people. All the music that we’ve ever done, or anyone’s ever done, will always outlive them. You want it to represent you the best that it can for the rest of your life, so when you look back on it, you can go, “Yes, that was amazing. I’m proud of that. I gave it my all.”
I don’t know if we really tried to do anything different. I think with every record, you’re trying to write the best songs you can. It’s not usually that planned out, like we’re going to write this kind of style or this kind of song. We just write a bunch of songs and then pick the best ones, and they usually make a cohesive record for us. Some heavy, some a little more arty.
We started dabbling a lot more in the atmospheric, with pads and keys and electronic stuff. I think it was a natural progression. There’s still some heavy songs. I guess it’s not as heavy as Vital. I just listened through it on our bus the other day, on our drive with a bunch of our crew that hadn’t heard it yet. It’d still say that half the record is rocking songs. Maybe they’re not as riffy or tuned down to B like some of the songs were on Vital, but I think it’s a great record, honestly.
So I thought we’d take a trip down memory lane here. You joined the band in 2007. Do you remember how long it was after Cities was out?
I think Cities came out while I was touring, I’m pretty sure. I was on a tour when they called me. After Acceptance broke up, I moved to L.A. I was working as a songwriter and as a touring musician. I got some random gig and was touring with this chick that was on some reality music show, kind of like American Idol. It was like a rock and roll American Idol, so I was on a tour with her.
Anberlin had called me months before and said, “Hey, we might need you.” Then they called me again and said, “We definitely need you.” So I actually dropped off that tour. While I was on that tour, they sent me Cities to start learning songs. I think it was while I was on that tour Cities came out, or it was right before. I can’t remember.
What do you remember about joining the band? Was it a natural fit right away? Did it take some getting used to?
No, it was uncanny how natural it felt, I think for me and for them. When I went out to do the Cities tour, at first I was just a fill-in musician. They just needed a guitar player. Then I think it was only a few weeks into the tour, they were like, “You just want to be in the band?” It was really seamless.
To me, Acceptance and Anberlin came from the same kind of sound. It was a seamless transition for me. Even performing and writing, I didn’t have to change my writing style because I felt like we were brother bands from opposite ends of the country.
Not that the guys in Acceptance weren’t great dudes, but it was a pretty tumultuous band. We definitely fought a lot, which led to some of the reasons why Acceptance broke up. With Anberlin, I was so pumped and so happy. I almost had this epiphany, like touring can be like this? You guys get along. You don’t fight after every show. You guys just have fun. You know what I mean?
Not that Acceptance was fighting all the time. It was just different. It felt right, I think, for me and for the other band members.
On the first three records before you joined, Joey was the primary songwriter. What’s your relationship with him been like, working and writing with him? Is that something you also just clicked into right away?
Yeah, we kind of hit the ground running. Cities had only been out a little when when we started talking to majors. Originally we wanted a major to pick up Cities and push that, because we felt like that was a great record. Universal didn’t really want to do that, so we started writing for New Surrender pretty early on after Cities came out.
He and I just clicked. The way they wrote was kind of the same way Acceptance wrote. Joey and I would write, either ideas or full songs or verse/chorus, and then we’d send that to each other, or to the band or to Stephen, and build from there. It was good. Like I said, it was seamless, honestly.
I thought I’d ask about a couple of the other records. Your fifth record, Dark Is the Way, Light is the Place, came out in September 2010. I guess you could say that was your arena rock record for the band. You worked with Brendan O’Brien, who helped you achieve a bigger, more expanded sound. What do you remember about that process? Is there anything that stands out about making that record?
I can vividly remember we were on tour with Taking Back Sunday. I think we were in West Virginia, playing at the college. I’m walking around town, getting some coffee. We had been debating producers. We didn’t know who we wanted to go with. We loved Sprinkle, but for some reason majors always want some big name attached. To me, Sprinkle was much more talented than a lot of people I could think of.
So anyway, we didn’t know who we were recording with. Our manager calls me and was like, “Hey man, what do you think about Brendan O’Brien?” I was like, “Why? Why would you even say that name? Is that even an option?” He was like, “Yeah, I’ve been talking to his manager.” That was a mind-blowing moment for me because that dude is a legend. He’s one of the best rock producers out there.
I remember going to Nashville to write individually with Stephen, and then we were going to meet with Brendan and go over songs at the studio. Everything about that record was pretty surreal. It was a really cool process. Brendan was intimidating in name but totally friendly in person. He’s a fun guy and made recording a fun place to be. He’s a great producer.
It was definitely a quick record. We flew through that record, but it was an amazing experience. I’m happy to have worked with someone like that. It was definitely intimidating, because for us he’s done AC/DC or something, and here I am fumbling around with the guitar.
The whole process was great. It wasn’t too stressful. If anything, New Surrender was pretty stressful, just in the fact that was the first record at the label. It felt like on Dark Is the Way, we were a little more comfortable with how to go about being a band on a major and a little more comfortable songwriting together as a band. I’m super proud of that record. I think it’s great.
The record after that was Vital, which you’ve talked about a lot in the past. Is there anything that really stands out about that one in your mind?
What would stand out on Vital? On every record, it was never planned out. Like, let’s do this. The conversation was always, “Yes, let’s push ourselves and grow.” You never want to put out the same record twice, and those kinds of concepts.
On Vital we were looking around at the landscape, and it was weird to us listening to alternative radio and no one was rocking. No one was bringing the rock. On that record, we were focused on writing some unique and rocking songs. That was a big part of the writing process, getting at least the majority of the record to be rock.
It was also a weird thing for us. For some reason when we’d play the songs we’d written and recorded from all the records live, we’d constantly get these comments like, “You guys are so much heavier live.” We really wanted to try and capture whatever that was that was going on live that was making people say, “Wow, when you’re live you’re much heavier than you are on record.”
We were like, “Well, we’re just playing the songs from the record the way we recorded them.” On Vital we were really trying to capture whatever that energy was that people were talking about. That was definitely something we talked to Aaron Sprinkle about.
Is there a song in your mind that stands out that you’ve done that you debated and fought over the most, or took your the longest to get right?
You always kind of butt heads a little bit in the studio. The creative process in a group of dudes is a weird dynamic to have. In talking to other bands about how they write and how they record their records, honestly in Anberlin we work pretty smoothly together. Stephen and Joey definitely butted heads a lot on Cities. I wasn’t there for that, but that’s what I’ve heard. I think some of that’s on the DVD.
Since I’ve been in the band, we’ve never had any yelling matches or argued super hard. There’s been some awkward moments where Joey and I will disagree on how something should be done or played. It will kind of get awkward and we’ll have to talk it out. I think as a whole, we write and work together really smoothly. By the time we get into the studio and we have the demos done that we’re going to record, we’re all pretty much on the same page.
A big reason we did this last record, producing it ourselves, is we felt like that for the past two records. When Joey and I and Nate, whoever writes the song, when we demo songs out, they’re pretty much finished. I don’t know how other bands write. Maybe it’s just an acoustic and they write a melody, but when we demo songs, they’re like finished songs. We’ll put in big drums in Pro Tools and it will sound amazing.
To me, our demos sound better than the recordings I did when I was in a band in high school. Generally when we get into the studio to record them, they’re all mapped out and planned out. You’ll definitely add some things and add layers, all that kind of stuff, but it’s rare we get into the studio and are disagreeing about stuff. It’s usually before that, usually in the writing process. I don’t like that melody. Can we not put those synth lines in there? It’s rare in the studio, for sure.
Looking ahead to this fall tour that you’ll be doing for the final time, have you started playing around with what setlists you’ll be doing?
Yeah, I think in the fall we’re going to play close to two hours. It’s always been tough with this band, because we have so many records now at this point. They’ll be a lot of old songs. We’re doing a show in Australia where we’re playing Never Take Friendship Personal from front-to-back, so maybe we’ll throw a lot of those songs into the set. We’re trying to play songs off of every record.
We’ve actually even debated whether we’re going to play any new songs live. I don’t know. It just seems weird. It seems weird to me if I’m going to see a band that I’ve loved for however many years, a decade, on their farewell tour and they play a bunch of new songs. I don’t know if I’d be pumped about that. I think I’d want to hear all the old stuff that drew me to them in the first place and that I grew up on. I’m not sure, but as of now there are no new songs in the set. But, that could change.
The thing about this year is once we left for Warped Tour, we’re pretty much gone for the rest of the year. We rehearsed before that for a few days. We had to rehearse the Warped Tour set and then we had to rehearse the headlining set. It was a lot of songs. Since I’ve been in the band, we haven’t played some songs. There are songs off of Blueprints I never learned. There’s some Anberlin songs I just don’t know how to play, so I had to learn a bunch of old songs. It was fun, though.
For a long time, we’ve generally been playing the same-ish kinds of songs live, plus the new songs. You play your older fan favorites, and then you throw in new songs. There were definitely deep cuts that I had to learn, especially for playing Never Take from front-to-back. I think we might be doing a Cities show, too, in some market. I can’t remember. I think that may have been a surprise, but yeah, it’s a pretty extensive setlist. Two hours is a long time.
What are your plans post-Anberlin? Anything in particular you plan on doing?
I think I’m one of the few guys in the band that wants to keep being in a band and touring, doing that kind of thing, so I’m going to keep on keeping on. Deon and I are the only guys who want to keep playing and keep touring, so him and I have been talking about starting something. I think we’ll try and focus on getting a new thing going.
Looking back on the seven years you have been in Anberlin, what would you say your most joyful moment has been and the most difficult moment you can remember?
From the moment they asked me to be in the band, it’s been pretty epic, honestly. I feel very blessed and very grateful to have been able to have done this in two different bands now. Most musicians and kids growing up who had dreams and aspirations of being in a touring band, I’d say for 99 percent of them it doesn’t work out. It doesn’t pan out. For me to have done it once in Acceptance – toured, been on a label, put out records – that’s an amazing, amazing thing. To do it twice, and even on a bigger scale with Anberlin, I feel extremely blessed.
The whole run has been very joyous to me. I’ve gone to places I never would have dreamed of going. If I wasn’t in a band, why would I have ever been to Moscow, or to Beijing? Most of the places I’ve traveled to around the world have been awesome. There’s been so many amazing experiences and amazing opportunities, so many memories. The records we recorded, the producers we’ve worked with, the music we made – I can look back at this time, and this band, and be very proud and feel very blessed to be able to have done what I’ve done with these guys.
To end things the way that we’re ending them, I’m happy about that, too. It’s bittersweet for me, because I don’t want it to end. These are my best friends. We’ve spent every moment together for years. It’s going to be weird. Even when we take long breaks, it’s always on the horizon when I’m going to see them again.
It’s like, OK, we have however many months off, but then we have this show, or then we’re going to go on tour, or then we’re going to record this record. It’s going to be weird when this all ends to not really know, because we don’t all live in the same state. Just a few of us do. I don’t know when I’m going to see Stephen and Joey again. Nathan, Deon and I live in Florida, so I see those guys all the time. I think that’s going to be the weirdest thing.
The most difficult thing? The same things that I’m grateful for and I’m joyous about are also difficult. Being in a band is a weird life choice that honestly I don’t think most people could handle. People look at what we do and have a lot of assumptions and a lot of ideas of what they think that is, but I can almost guarantee you it’s not that. It’s a tough job. It’s a weird lifestyle to live that I don’t think most people could handle because you’re gone all the time.
I’m not complaining. I’m never going to complain about anything I’ve been given. The only thing I complain about is people’s perceptions of what I do. It’s not like we woke up one morning and we were in a successful band. No bands are like that. You work really hard and sacrifice a lot for so long to get here.
Most of my career in Acceptance I didn’t make any money. I was living at home in my late 20s, making no money, but people would think, “Oh, you’re a rock star. It’s so glamorous.” It’s like, yes, it’s great. It’s an amazing life, and I feel blessed to be playing shows. It’s more than most people can say, but it’s not easy. It’s not like people trip and fall into success. It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice and brutal schedules.
I tell this story all the time, because it was so vindicating for me. I would get off tour and I’d be in Seattle, hanging out with some friends. Not really complaining, just kind of venting. Like, “Man, we had to do this. I didn’t sleep for three days.” Whatever. My buddy would always bust my balls and be like, “Oh, boohoo. Poor dude, you’re in a band.”
Years later, and this is when I’m in Anberlin now, he randomly gets this gig to be the personal assistant of some singer from a pretty big band. It was so randomly because he went to law school. Anyway, he goes on tour with this band and calls me a week into it and is losing is mind. He’s like, “Dude, oh my God. I was here and then we had to take a flight here. Then I didn’t sleep and we had to get on the bus. Then we went here and then we went here.” I’m like, “Yeah, welcome to touring! What do you think I’ve been doing for the past 10 years?”
It was so vindicating to me, and he quit. He couldn’t do it. He was like, “I can’t live like this. My wife is upset that I’m gone. This tour is supposed to be this long, and this is just a week. I can’t handle a couple months.” It was so vindicating to me. The point I’m trying to make is it’s difficult. It’s not an easy lifestyle. It’s an amazing lifestyle, and it’s such a blessing, but it’s not easy. It’s not this party. It’s not Mötley Crüe, or whatever people assume that being in a band is. It’s rarely that. It’s just a lot of hard work.
I think the same things that are extremely joyous are the same things that are difficult. Living in a hallway or in a van, spending 24 hours a day with the same people, it’s like having four wives, honestly. You spend so much time with people, you know every idiosyncrasy of every person. There are things that annoy you about them. It’s a weird spot to put five dudes together for years at a time nonstop. There is no alone time.
I’ve been asking this question to the other guys, but how do you think being in Anberlin has impacted and changed you as a person?
Everything you do in life has some sort of an impact on you. Everything you go through teaches you lessons, and you learn from that. It’s the same thing with being in band. Seven years for me is a long time. That’s your high school plus half your college career. I think you grow as a person as you get older.
Being on the road, you learn a lot. Being in close quarters with a small group of people, you learn how to work well in groups and communicate. Like anything in life, you live and you learn and you grow. Your experiences have an impact on who you are and your life view. All that kind of stuff.
One final question. Looking to the future and to legacy, what would you like Anberlin to be remembered for?
I don’t know. We’ve had a pretty decent career. We’re ending things still loving each other. A lot of bands get to a point. Like I said, it’s a difficult thing, living with five people all the time and five different personalities. I can see and I can empathize a lot of times when bands end up imploding and hating each other.
The legacy is the music, our character and the way we’ve always carried ourselves as a band. What we stood for, the way we’ve treated people, the way we’ve treated each other, the way we’re ending the band is a testament to how we respect each other. I hope that always shines through, that we were standup dudes just trying to make the best music we could.