Stephen Christian talks about the fragmented process of making The Quiet Life, getting back to a family vibe with Anchor & Braille, the instability of being a musician, and what to expect on Anberlin’s upcoming album, Vital.
I’m still pretty shocked about that shooting last night. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it.
Yeah, I have. That was insane. That was just mind-blowing. I don’t understand people like that. That’s crazy.
Puts a little damper on today.
Yeah, it does. What goes through people’s minds? I have no idea. I’m sure there’s going to be more said about it, and maybe we’ll get some kind of additional information, but it doesn’t matter what we learn. I don’t care if you were abused as a kid. I don’t know. There’s no reason for that. It’s just crazy. A three-month old, dude. That just makes me want to choke him. If you were bullied by some high school bullies, go beat them up. Don’t walk into a movie theater and freaking shoot up a three-month old. Thank God that I’m not God because I would just smite people like thunderbolts. That’s why I’m not Him.
I guess it shows that we do need a Dark Knight out there.
For real, yeah. It’s crazy, too, because people thought it was a part of the movie at first, so that’s what’s insane about it. Everybody just sat there and was just like, “Oh, cool. Gunshots. That sounds real. Oh, smoke. Wow, 4D. This is awesome.” That’s just crazy to me.
Anyway, real quick before we get into the Anchor & Braille stuff, you did the first Anberlin acoustic tour last month. How did that go?
Oh man, it was awesome. We’ve already talked about it and we definitely want to do it again on the West Coast. For us, it was to a point where we’re at the end of a record cycle and we didn’t want to tour on that record, because the new record’s done and we’re so excited about playing that. For us, we just wanted to be challenged as musicians. We didn’t want to go play another tour where we did the same exact thing. It was like, “Why not try something absolutely different, way out of our element?”
It was cool. People who had seen us six or seven times were like, “Man, that was our favorite time ever seeing you. I can’t believe you guys pulled that off.” For us, it was invigorating as musicians to be able to relearn our instruments, strip them down and make use of our talents in different ways. It was awesome, man. I don’t know if you’ve seen videos, but we had violinists with us at times. We had an auxiliary percussionist come out with us and just play xylophone and stuff like that. We had a great time on it.
Yeah, I definitely want to catch it when you hit the West Coast, whenever that will be.
Yeah, absolutely. Probably next year around this time, I would assume. I have no idea.
This record is now your second record as Anchor & Braille, so you had some experience of doing it with Felt before. What did you learn from doing that record that you were able to carry onto this one?
I feel like I’ve gained confidence in myself, as far as playing instruments. Felt was the first time I had ever played anything. In Anberlin there’s two much, much better guitarists than me, so I never really attempted to try anything. I write the music on piano and guitar, but I never played live. I feel like as a musician, it definitely challenged me to get better. Honestly, putting Felt out was like a grand opening breath experiment. It was one of those things, like, is this even going to go over?
By the time the record came out, I was so empowered by Anchor & Braille to just have fun. Anchor & Braille is why I got into music in the first place. Do what you love and love what you do. Write for the sake of music. Don’t write for anyone else, just write to write. I feel like that’s what it’s taught me. At the end of the day, you’re the one who has to live the rest of your life within those records. Everybody else will buy it and like it, or hate it, or whatever the case may be. They’ll find a new band, but you are going to be living with these records for the rest of your life.
Just to feel free and liberating in the writing process and the performing process, that’s what Anchor & Braille has taught me, to live comfortably within the music that you write. In order to do that, you’re going to have to write exactly what you love. I feel like that’s the overflow of this record right here.
Looking back at Felt, you can definitely feel Aaron Marsh’s influence on that record, and then this one you worked with a couple of different people. What was this experience like compared to the first one?
They were both very similar, as far as the recording processes. Both of them were done in-house in a basement. It was a very laid back atmosphere. I love Aaron Marsh as a musician and a producer, everything like that. One thing that Anchor & Braille has done is when I was living in Central Florida, I was obviously working with Aaron Marsh, and it was really cool to be able to absorb local musicians into the recording process. Louis from the Kick and Jon Bucklew from States, all these other local Central Florida musicians were absorbed into the writing process, into the recording process.
Since I’ve moved to Nashville, it’s the same difference. I’m here working with Micah and Kevin. I’ve absorbed local musicians, local bands, to come in and help me with the project. Whether it’s Andrew from Civil Twilight playing a guitar part, or we had somebody come in and play lap steel from a band called Brother Leather here. It’s just one of those things where I absorb the local culture and their musicianship and record that way. Even though it’s kind of been the same, where it’s a home studio feel in a basement with just my songs, it’s definitely taking on the local culture as well, and to adapt that into the recording process.
This record also was originally written all over the place in little bits and pieces. How do you think that impacted the final record?
It is kind of funny. The most Brit pop sounding song was actually written in the U.K. on a double decker in the rain, which is as ironically England as you can possibly get. Then in my house here, I’m putting together random beats, so it’s like taking on the Nashville, minimalistic approach to songwriting.
You can hear that in other songs, like “Hymn for Her” is basically me and a piano. The patchwork art of it does come into play, yet when you have a good production team, like Kevin and Micah, they have a way of making all the songs seem seamless. They flow right through. When you have a great production team, it totally works.
One of your goals when you first started Anchor & Braille many years ago was you wanted it to have that coffee shop vibe and make it feel like a conversation between a small group of people. Is that still something you wanted to continue on with this record?
Absolutely. Tonight we’re playing a house show in Nashville, TN for 30 people. The cost of admission is 100 percent going straight to food. Our friends are going to feed them. Coffee, you can bring your own wine or whatever you want. They’re going to sit on the floor and me and Micah are basically just going to play through the record, explain the songs, and hang out and talk.
That’s the allure of this for me, that closeness and intimacy that music can bring. I’m not going to stop that. I still want to play in coffee shops and small settings, stuff like that, just because I feel like that is the whole vibe of Anchor & Braille. This was never meant for large stages and 15-foot barriers. This was meant for just those close settings.
Are you going to be able to tour a lot on this record, or are you going to have to start doing Anberlin stuff again pretty soon?
Yeah, sadly I got to do both at the same time. Even recording Anchor & Braille, I would wake up in the morning early, come to Micah’s house, record for a few hours, then leave to go record Anberlin. It’s definitely a juggling act, but I’m going to make it work. I’m going to tour the next three weeks on Anchor & Braille, then with Anberlin go to Brazil, Australia and then the U.K., and then come back home for the release of Anberlin’s record. That will take us through December on Anberlin. Then in January Anchor & Braille is going to go back out, and then in February Anberlin’s going to do their huge headline tour.
It is a juggling act. Back and forth I’ll be touring every month, from here until obviously late spring next year, but honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the duality. I love the beast that both of them are. I love the machine and the raw energy that Anberlin is, and I love the still calming effect and the local show feel of Anchor & Braille. I love both of them. If I can just stay on tour like this, switching on and off, I think I could tour the rest of my life.
Is it easy for you to switch between the two, or do you have to get yourself into a different mindset for each one?
It’s definitely a mindset thing, for sure. As cheesy as it is, everything from the equipment we bring out to what I can wear. With Anberlin, I don’t want to wear a suit jacket. It’s just a different feeling. It’s almost like a vibe, like somebody else is in the room feeling with both of them. It’s definitely a different mindset for every single one of them.
As far the lyrical content, the last record was fairly melancholy and a little intense in places. How do you think the lyrics on this one stack up with those on Felt?
This whole record was written over the last three years. People change in three years. It’s just life. Any given three years of your life, you’re going to be a different person when you look back. I feel like this record doesn’t stick with the same themes. Whereas Felt was a little more poetic, this one is a little more revealing and a little more internal without being melancholy.
There’s songs about everything, from the most romantic song to the positive, you can do it kind of thing. I think it’s all over the place. It’s very broad, but I think the information is just a memoir of the last three years of my life. The biggest, epic moments and the deepest hiding songs. I think it definitely is all over the place.
So I thought I’d ask about a couple songs real quick. The first one is one you’ve already mentioned, “Hymn for Her,” which is a really beautiful song and I think every single guy can relate to. How did you come up with that one?
It’s actually perhaps one that not everyone can relate to, or very few people can relate to. If you listen to it one time through, it’s basically a romantic love song and stuff like that. During the recording process, we discovered the guy in the band that’s with me, Micah, his wife was pregnant. They were all playing around with whether it’s a girl or it’s a boy. Basically, Micah wants a girl.
That song is actually written for Micah. He can’t wait for the sleepless nights where only the bottle calms the little beast. The little beast was his unborn daughter. It was basically a song written about being so excited and the anticipation of someday having a child of your own.
Another song I wanted to ask about is “Kodachrome,” which has a little bit of a different production feel. I really love the chorus as well, where you say, “All you have are your memories and this could be your last.” Can you talk about how that song got written?
One thing I love about Radiohead is they always have this curveball on the record. They have this one song on the record that doesn’t fit with everything else, but then again it does because it brings everything else to light. For this, that was this song on the record.
We wanted something that could almost be like an agitator on the record. The whole goal of this record was to make you listen to every single note in anticipation. That’s why there’s random instrumentation. Like I said, there’s everything from lap steel to trumpet to clarinet. It’s just all over the place. We did that so that even the second, third, fifth listen, you’re still exploring the record and still finding things new.
With “Kodachrome,” I was thinking about how we as humans are the summation of our memories. We as humans, all we have are our memories. If you took that away from us, if you took away the knowledge of the past or took away the experiences that we had, and you just started fresh today, you would be out of life. You’d be out of a career, perhaps out of a relationship. There’s so much to our brain and there’s so much to our memories.
For me, that song was just about the mind, about the memory and about all the things that have happened in your past. With this song, it’s more or less talking about those dark secrets and those dark areas that you don’t really share with many people except for your best friend, and yet those experiences still evolve you and make you who you are, whether good or bad. That’s where the chorus came from.
The last song I wanted to bring up is also the last song on the record, “Before I Start Dreaming.” It’s a really nice song and I love how the strings come in there at the end. Can you talk a little about that one?
That song is basically about how one of the most intimate things you can do, with either a lover or best friend or confidant, is to share your dreams. For me, I took an evaluation of my life, like who in my life would I share my dreams with? Who’s out there because I have a band’s name attached to my first name in their phone? Is that why we’re friends? Is that why you treat me like this or that way? I don’t want to be like that.
In my life, I want my family, and then a few close friends, and really invest in them. That song is about drawing a dividing line and saying, “Are you going to dream with me? Are you going to listen to my dreams and encourage me, or are you just here as a prop in the corner?” That’s what that song’s about.
I remember you saying last year you were planning on working with Dave Elkins from Mae on this record, which obviously didn’t happen. What went into that not working out?
He’s here building a studio and really trying to establish himself in Nashville as a great producer. The problem with Anchor & Braille is Anberlin, and vice versa. Without Anberlin, Anchor & Braille wouldn’t exist. The thing is, I could never commit to anything. I cannot say, “OK, block me off from May 15 to July 15 to record a record.” The thing with a producer, especially with one getting established, is they have to block off times so they can give time to other musicians.
With this project, Anchor & Braille, it was recorded at 9 at night until 2 in the morning. Some days it was 8 a.m. to 11. It was not recorded at a solid time, it was recorded all over the place. It was basically working around like, OK guys, I have a fly out. I’ll be back in four days. We’re going on tour for the next two weeks. I got to go to Seattle for preproduction on Anberlin’s next record.
I could never commit an exact amount of time with Dave. Knowing that we still wanted to work together, because he’s such a close friend, we wrote a song together called “Carefree.” I don’t know where we’re going to put it. It’s not going to go on the record, it’s just going to be one of those songs that we’re going to give away in the future. It just didn’t work out time-wise, but I still admire him as a producer and as a writer, and still got a chance to work with him on the record.
Earlier this year, I remember seeing a tweet where you said you were working on the album you thought might end up defining your career. Were you thinking it was this one, the new Anberlin one, or both?
I think it was Anberlin. I love the Anchor & Braille record, but as far as trying to define a career that hasn’t even begun is a little difficult. I told the rest of the guys that I don’t know how many interviews I’m going to do for Anberlin on this record. For me, this is the record I want fans to hear about it first. I want them to be able to be like, “Holy crap.” I don’t want to get out there and be my own marketing trumpeter and do 54 interviews about this record. I feel like this record might define our career and I don’t want to jinx it, so I was definitely talking about Anberlin.
Also with this new record, The Quiet Life, you’re back on Tooth & Nail for the first time since Cities. You’ve been a little critical about the label in the past about how they’ve continually rereleased the Anberlin records. Can you talk about how you ended up working with them again?
Honestly, Tooth & Nail is another duality in my life. I love some of the people that work there, but I hate the business side of it. Any label that you sign to is going to have a business part, and I understand that. I have absolute admiration for Brandon Ebel, or I obviously wouldn’t sign back there with Anchor & Braille.
For me, the whole project of Anchor & Braille is about just good times. I love this music. I love the guys that I’m touring with. The whole thing is just for fun, so I felt like if there’s one person out there that I would trust with Anchor & Braille on a friend level, it’s John Frazier, who works at Tooth & Nail. For me, it was just one of those things. It was a way to reconnect with a great friend in John Frazier, who is an ingenious music director and producer. He is amazing.
So when thinking about other labels, and when other labels were approaching me, I didn’t want to hear, “Oh my gosh. We’re going to blow this record up. It’s going to be so awesome. We’re going to get you No. 1.” I don’t care about all the hype about what you think my record is going to do. Honestly, I just want you to be like, “Hey man, I really like your music. I dig it. Let’s just see what happens. Let’s have a good time with it.”
When reviewing all the offers for Anchor & Braille, I felt like Tooth & Nail was home. It’s where we got our start. Without Brandon Ebel, I wouldn’t be talking to you on the phone today. I not only owe them a lot in my career, but I also view them as friends. That’s what Anchor & Braille is all about, and I wanted to go back there.
I don’t know if it’s for more than one record. It’s a licensing deal for this record. I have no idea. If John is still at Tooth & Nail when the next record comes out, we’ll reevaluate. It was one of those things where Tooth & Nail and the family I have built there fit right with Anchor & Braille and what I’m trying to do with it. Looking at the roster, I do not fit with any of those guys. The other bands he has, I don’t know how Anchor & Braille even fits. I just know that I fit with the people that work there.
It’s kind of weird now because all the bands that were with you and Anberlin are not there anymore.
I know. Yep, true.
Another thing you’ve seemed to be doing a lot over the last year or so are guest vocals, like you did that song with Number One Gun that just came out this week. How do you like doing that and singing on other people’s stuff?
I like it. I just feel honored when people ask me to sing on their record. I think it’s the coolest thing, especially because a lot of times it’s people from different genres or different tastes in music or different stylistically. For me, it’s just fun. It’s fun to creatively go and write with a process and with the person who’s creating the song, and to be in their band for a few seconds in life. It’s a lot of fun. I don’t know. For me, it’s a way I can help in any small type of way. So when people ask me, I’m super humbled and honored that they would think of me. I love doing it.
You played a new Anberlin song on the acoustic tour. Can you talk about that song, what the name of it is and how it fits into the record?
Yeah, absolutely. The song is called “Type Three.” Basically, for me it’s a song about my childhood and the disorder I had growing up. It felt like this was the time to put it on a record. The music was perfect. The music was absolutely fitting for what I wanted to say. Even though the album is probably the most aggressive we’ve put out, this kind of song was the one that was more down tempo. It was more in the feel of that whole acoustic run.
It’s very hard to translate very heavy songs into acoustic guitars, and on top of that we didn’t want to translate a really heavy song into acoustic and have that be the first perception of the band’s new record. We were like, “How about we just take a very chill, mild song and translate it. That way people’s expectations are still exactly where the record is going to be when we release that first single.”
Do you have an idea when the first single will come out?
Rumors are like in the next two weeks, but I have no idea. I believe, I’m just speculating, that it’s right at August 1. That would be the first initial push with a song called, we just changed the title last week, but it’s called “Self-Starter.”
And then the record will probably come out in October then?
Yep, mid-October is what we’re looking at. But again, it’s kind of the label’s call.
You’ve been saying this record is the one you’ve done that feels most for the fans. Can you talk about what you mean by that?
Well, honestly when you sign to a major label, there is so much to take into consideration. We had just gotten off Cities and gotten off an indie label, and now we were on a major label. That period of time, the whole New Surrender time, for me was absolute chaos. My life was in utter shambles. I wrote a lot of those songs in New Orleans because I could not feel inspiration anywhere I went, so I just ran away for a while.
In that chaos I had people saying, “Oh, Cities, that was the best.” So I have all the fans saying basically that this next record better be amazing. Then I have the band saying, “Hey man, are you done writing the songs yet?” I have a new major label record calling me saying, “Hey, no pressure, but if this record fails, it’s your fault.” With that pressure, I want to say I wrote robotic. It was more like, this is what I feel’s expected of me. This is what I’m going to put out. So, that was New Surrender.
I looked back at New Surrender, and I was so angered with where I was mentally that I wrote Dark is the Way, because for me that was absolutely for me. I wanted that dark, almost rebellious, middle finger to the rest of the world, because I was going to write an Anberlin record for me. This is what I want to hear, so this is what I’m going to write. The balance of those two is this next record, Vital. I’ve got my head clear and it’s like, OK, this one is just for the fans.
My favorite part of any show is when everybody is in utter chaos. There’s bodies on top of bodies. There’s people in the front row screaming, where I can see the veins in their neck at me. That’s what I want and so that’s the record I felt Vital should be, is one with the fans. This is the record I want them screaming back at me every time we play live.
So this album isn’t as dark lyrically as Dark is the Way was?
No, it’s not. Definitely, definitely not.
What was it like working with Sprinkle again?
That was incredible. That was part of the reason that it balanced me and shifted me back to where I needed to be. We started our record in Seattle, WA where it all began, so I’m wandering the same streets I wandered for Blueprints for the Black Market. I’m sitting at the same coffee shop I took pictures at for Never Take Friendship Personal.
For me, it was absolutely cathartic to be back working with Sprinkle. The whole process just felt like home. He was the original sixth member of Anberlin, and it felt like we all picked up where we left off. We went and got coffee, talked about music, listened to Elvis Costello records. It just felt like, oh, I’m home. I’m back. Let’s do this. I can do this with an absolute clear head.
One of the things you’ve said about this Anchor & Braille record, which goes along with the title, is you’ve found the only stability for a musician is instability, and you’re constantly out there searching for The Quiet Life. Can you talk about how you’ve arrived at that conclusion?
Again, the only stability I have is instability. I love what I do and I do what I love. I can’t imagine a better life, but that leaves no room for this quote-unquote “American Dream,” this quiet life, this peace of mind that I hear so much about but I’ve never experienced. It feels like that inevitable search a lot of artists or musicians or people go through. People want to know, “Oh man, what’s the plan for my life? What’s next?” We’re all the same inside, because we have no idea. Very few people I’ve ever encountered are doing exactly what they want to be doing and are exactly where they need to be in life.
For me, it’s one of those challenges for people to sit back and look at all you have. You may not live the quiet life. You may not have everything that you’ve ever wanted or needed, whatever the case may be. You may even still feel like there’s this internal struggle of “I don’t know what’s out there for me.” But in the moments when you’re hanging out with your friends on the back porch, or going to a show and losing yourself in the music, those moments can be quote-unquote “home.” Those moments can be the drug called peace of mind, whatever that may be for you. It’s being able to find the moments of absolute solace in the midst of a hurricane. I think that’s what the whole record is about, finding that inner solace.