Lead singer Stephen Christian discusses writing Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place as a contradictory, coming-of-age record, working with producer Brendan O’Brien, the pressure-filled trials of New Surrender, and the weird side of Anberlin.
I heard you just got back from Europe.
I actually got back at midnight last night. Yeah dude, I am so jetlagged right now, but it was awesome. I had never been to Sweden, Holland or Germany, so it was really cool to hang out in those cities, meet new people and play shows in front of people who had never seen us live or anything like that. It was awesome, man, really awesome.
So are you back home in Nashville right now?
Yeah, I’m back home in Nashville, and I take off tomorrow. I’m going to head off to Paris and Rome. I’m excited to get away one last time. The next break that Anberlin is going to get is not until next summer, so I figured if not now, when?
There’s two more weeks left before the new album is released. How are you feeling right now?
Nervous. Excited. It’s one of those things where I’m really happy that the album hasn’t leaked. Our last album leaked 90 days before it came out, and this one hasn’t. But in the same token, I cannot wait for friends, family and fans to hear the songs. I’m excited to hear what people think about it. I hope they’re as excited as I was to make it to hear it in completion.
With this album I think the first thing you can tell right off the bat is you were aiming for a bigger sound, and you kind of get in touch with your inner U2s on a couple tracks. What was that process like?
It’s nothing we set out to do. It was something that happened naturally with Brendan O’Brien because he pulls that from you. He makes Bruce Springsteen sound like the biggest in the entire world. He has a way of making it sound massive, but really it’s not like we layered the guitars 15 times like we did on New Surrender. He just has a way of making minimalism sound epic.
One of the first things Brendan did when I met him was he was like, “Hey, come here. I want to talk to you in the studio.” He sat me down and was like, “Listen, I know you can sing. I know you can. It’s somewhere in there. I’ve seen you live, so I know you can do it. We just have to put that down on tape. We have to put that on a record.” So it’s not like I set out to try, Brendan just pulled it from me. He would stop in the middle of a take and be like, “This isn’t it. I want you, I need you to sing.”
It was awesome, man, because I felt like for the last few records I revolved around the music. It wasn’t about me. It was about the music and spending a lot of time on that. This time he came back and was like, “Listen, we’re going to revolve the record around the vocals.” And he did. I feel like that’s how it shaped up that way to sound that mammoth and that big.
How would you compare O’Brien’s style with Neal Avron and Aaron Sprinkle?
I feel like Neal Avron is a mathematician. He’s very concise and conscious, like an engineer. He’s very calculated, and it’s awesome because nothing gets by him. There’s not a note that is wrong, there’s not a measure that isn’t calculated out, and it’s incredible.
I feel like the polar opposite of that is Aaron Sprinkle. He’s very free and careless. Not careless in a bad way, but very much just like, “Let’s be reckless and let the record take shape on its own.” Whereas Brendan O’Brien is like the perfect combination between the both of them. He understands song structure. He’s shaped many bands’ sounds and careers. He knows the calculations of it, but he also knows that without the heart and without the soul, this won’t be a timeless record. It will just be a sterile old record.
Another thing I noticed is quite a few of the songs are more simplistic in structure, especially the choruses, and there’s a lot of repetition on songs like “Closer” and “Depraved.” Was that intentional?
No, it wasn’t calculated. It was kind of an experiment for me. I’ve never done that. I’ve never had it where it was only a single word. It actually didn’t dawn on me that the chorus was only one word on “Closer” until after the record was done. Then it hit me because I was like, “What did I just do?” But it turned out great. The chorus wasn’t intentionally like that, but then Brendan came in and was like, “OK, here’s what I want to do and here’s what I want it to sound like.”
As far as “Depraved” is concerned, see what happened was Nate, our drummer, sent it to me. I never thought it was going to go on the record. I felt like he just wanted me to put lyrics to it to goof off and he was just experimenting with writing music. I was like, “Great, I’ll try it.” So I basically sat down at the computer and sang whatever came to my head, whatever it was. Then I rerecorded it, and that was the whole song.
I don’t know if that was intentional, to record the same lyric over and over, but I did whatever the song felt like. I’ve only done that one other time on the end of “(*Fin)” on Cities. It just turned out so well, and I loved it so much, that I thought, “Why not do a whole song with me singing along to whatever comes to my mind?”
Do you think “Depraved” was at all influenced by your work with Faceless?
I’m sure it was, but again it was kind of one of those things about whatever came to mind. Listening to that song after it was done, I totally can see that. I can totally see the influences of Faceless came out in that.
I’ve read “Poem on His Birthday” a couple times, which is where you got the album title from. I really like it, although I’m not quite sure I understand everything it’s talking about. I’m curious, what do take out of that poem?
It’s not just that poem by Dylan Thomas. I think it’s the entire collection of works by Dylan Thomas. He’s such a contradiction. Everything is a contradiction. In that poem he hates God and doesn’t know if he believes if there’s an afterlife or heaven. Then in the next poem he’s like, “Oh, I love God.” In one poem he’s like, “I hate life. I’m going to kill myself.” Then in the next poem he’s like, “Life is all we have. Let’s appreciate it.”
I felt like that was the perfect way to describe Anberlin. Our music at moments is heavy, and I don’t mean like distortion metal, but it just feels heavy and sobering. Then the lyrics come, and it’s hopeful or it’s painful. There’s so many contradictions inside the record that I felt like this was the perfect title. Even the song “Impossible,” our single, is about it’s impossible to love or leave. It just felt like it matched up so well with the record, with the lyrics and even the music, that it only seemed right I cite Dylan Thomas as the album title.
I know the first three records were centered around the “man vs.” themes, while the last one was more about everyone and outward looking. How does this one match up with those?
It doesn’t. In the back of my head, that was always supposed to be a trilogy. Those three were always supposed to have central themes like that. New Surrender was honestly one of those moments in life where the pressure came down so much that there wasn’t time for soul or meaning. It was just kind of there.
On this record, I felt completely in my element. I feel like for this one I wanted to write a coming-of-age novel in the form of music. I wanted to write, like, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I wanted to write like that on a record, so that’s what this one was supposed to be themed. Every song could be a story in itself that could come out of the pages of a novel, especially songs like “Down” and a few other ones, but “Down” in particularly. It’s about the struggle with life, and feeling normal and trying to figure out what this world really is all about. It’s definitely just a totally different genre than the other three.
A lot of the songs are antagonistic and you talk about betrayal in a few of them. Where did that kind of come from?
I think, again in life, it’s not always perfect. Your friends and those you love are not always going to be perfect. At the end of the day, we’re all just human, so for me it happened with a family member. “To the Wolves” is actually about a family member who completely took some of my beliefs, and who I am at the very core, and completely obliterated me. They trashed who I was, who I wanted to be, what I was doing with my life, and completely decimated me. For me, that song is about friends or family who turn their back and alienate and destroy you, using words or whatever means.
I didn’t make that really obvious in the song. I wanted to make it a little more broad so that other people can relate. Again, it’s going back to the coming-of-age book where people are going to hurt you. Your family is going to put you down. They’re going to torment you, make fun of you, abandon you. That’s what that song is and where that abandonment and betrayal comes from.
Have you noticed if people’s perceptions of you have changed since you’ve quote-unquote “made it big?”
I don’t know. To me, it’s actually the same. I don’t feel like we’ve made it big. I think people look at a radio chart and go, “Oh my gosh, they’re massive.” If you came to an Anberlin show three years ago and you came to one now, I don’t think you’re going to notice many differences. Sure, the songs have changed, but the people are still there. They’re still singing along and we’re still hanging out after the show.
I don’t own a mansion. I’m not driving a freaking Jaguar or anything. Nothing has really changed for me. Maybe the perception’s changed, but we as people haven’t. We’re not out there raging, and smoking crack and cocaine. Who we are has not changed. So it’s hard for me to perceive that other people think of us different when I know in my heart we’re just the same five guys from some small town in Winter Haven, Florida. We’re just trying to make music and do what we love. Maybe the perception has changed, but I don’t think we have.
As far as the cover goes, I would definitely say it’s the most striking cover you have released thus far. Is there any particular symbolism in it?
For me, the symbolism actually goes along with the song “Closer.” When you look at that cover, if you really look at it. If you really study it and not just glimpse at it, or look for a sticker or a bright font, but if you really look at it, it makes you feel something. Whether you hate it or you love it, there’s something in there, and that’s why we wanted it. Every cover has been done. Every music video – they’ve all been done. Nothing is shocking. Nothing is surprising. Nothing makes you feel anything. It’s all gimmick and hype.
For us, we just wanted to go back to as simple as possible. Here’s a piece of canvas, and a guy with a pencil and that’s it. Yet he derives such like, dude, that horse is falling. There’s going to be a moment of ending. You feel angst. You feel impatient. You feel what’s going to happen next, you know? It felt like the album. We went back to our basics. All we were concerned about wasn’t flash or hype or shock. We went back and we just wanted somebody to feel something. I think that’s where we derived the cover from.
It seems like you’ve mentioned writing a lot over the Internet or over long distance. Was that like what most of the writing process was like for this album?
Absolutely, I think 99 percent of it. Christian goes off to a cabin outside of Seattle by himself. I usually lock myself in my room. We all have our little areas of domain where we feel space and feel inspired. We’ll usually record in GarageBand, or a Pro Tools rig or something like that. Then they’ll email it to me. I’ll put it on my iPod and I’ll wander around.
If I’m on tour, at home – whatever the case may be – I try to sit there and write preliminary lyrics to it. Then I’ll go back and develop the idea more and develop the songs. We keep sending them back and forth until we have about 25 or 30 songs. We took those to Brendan O’Brien, showed him all the songs, and he picked out the 15 that he liked. We set out to do that, and we ended up recording 13. For us, that’s how the writing process goes.
Will the three b-sides be released as bonus tracks?
Yeah, they’re all going to be released. One of them is on Amazon, one of them is on iTunes and then Best Buy has one, I believe. There’s actually four. We just recorded a song in Sweden about a week and a half ago, so that one will be on the Amazon.com one.
I also noticed this was the first time recording without doing a cover song.
Yeah. When we started doing covers on Blueprints, we walked into the studio with only nine songs. We had to do a cover song. So from there, we enjoyed it. For me, I enjoy cover songs because it was a way to immortalize or expose our fans to my heroes. Bob Dylan, Morrissey and the Smiths, the Cure and Depeche Mode – those are all bands that I look up to and think are the greatest.
I remember one time we had just done the Cure cover. One of our fans had wrote us and was like, “Dude, I was at the mall the other day and this horrible band covered one of your songs.” It was actually the Cure version of it, and it was just like, “No, c’mon.” It was awesome. We would joke about that for years. Every time the Cure version would come on, we’d be like, “Oh dude, what a horrible cover of our song.”
For us, it was a way to expose our fans to music that’s more than ours. We absolutely admire Bob Dylan, and hopefully through our music somebody got to listen to him, bought Blonde on Blonde and found amazing music.
Do you have a favorite cover that you’ve done?
Oh, man. For me, I think it was Bob Dylan’s cover. I don’t know why, it just strikes me. It was a great way to interpret his song. We did it for this compilation that was all Bob Dylan songs and everybody else tried to do it acoustic. I felt like we did it as Anberlin would do it if we wrote the song. I think it translated really well, so I think that would be my favorite.
I’ve heard you talk about “Impossible” and how at the beginning you weren’t sure it was even going to make the album. What was that process like, where it ended up becoming the first single?
I got to go back. New Surrender, like I said, felt very stoic. It just didn’t evoke anything for me. I was under so much pressure. I was under so much stress. I even at one point left everything behind and went to New Orleans for a couple weeks. I was like, “Forget it. I can’t do this. I can’t record this record.” There was so much stress.
So what we did when we were recording “Impossible,” there were a few key elements in it, like some of the backgrounds, the beginning part and some of the tones on the guitars that the demo had, that when we started to record with Brendan he cut up and some of the guys didn’t want it.
So when we got to Brazil about halfway through the record, I went to Christian, who’s the primary songwriter, and was like, “Listen, Christian. I don’t want to put it on the record. It has no soul. It’s lost, and I don’t want anything that doesn’t feel on this record. I don’t want anything that doesn’t have some sort of depth to it. I feel like ‘Impossible’ has been cut up and chopped up to make this sterile single, and I don’t want it. I don’t want it on the record.”
From Brazil, Christian called Brendan O’Brien back in the States and was like, “We got to do something. We have to. We can’t lose this song. Everybody loves it, but Stephen’s going to vote it out. He just doesn’t want it.” He was like, “I’ll think about. You guys think about it. We’ll come back and put our minds together and do this.” So we came back and we added different tones on the guitar. We wrote an entire intro. We just made it into the song that I had envisioned.
Ironically, we didn’t even know it was the single. We thought “We Owe This to Ourselves” was going to be the single, or “Closer” could have been the single. We had no idea. We sent it to the label and the label was like, “Dude, ‘Impossible.’ This is it.” It was just amazing because that was a song where I was like, “Eh, I think it’s going to be gone.” Between Brendan and Christian’s creativity, and the rest of the band adding in, it turned out to be, well, the single.
The video is probably the weirdest thing the band has done. What are those silver balls exactly?
Oh man, I can’t even tell you. I don’t even know. They’re all CGI. Not all of them, but a lot of them are CGI in there. In some of the scenes they’re little BBs, like for a BB gun, and then for other scenes they were CGIed in. For us, yes, it’s weird for sure. The thing is, like I said about the album cover, everything’s been done. We didn’t want to go in and be like, “We want to make another video where we all pretend like we’re playing our instruments, put flashing lights on us and it’s like a live thing.” We were done with that. We didn’t want a story. We didn’t want some, like, guy meets girl and girl rejects guy. He runs through a maze and he finds her. We wanted no storyline. No live action playing shots with all of us in a room with flashing lights.
We just wanted cinematography. That’s all we cared about, so that’s how we approached it. We were like, “You can write whatever story you want, but we really want to be in your video and we want it to be all about the cinematography.” That’s why we rented slow motion cameras, which were like 18 grand a day to rent for one day. We just recorded for hours and hours on slow motion film. It was awesome. It was a great experience.
Honestly, what are music videos expect for YouTube notoriety? Even music television channels don’t play music videos anymore. I remember one time Acceptance spent $350,000 on one video, and it was just like why? Why not rent an awesome camera, hang out, record and see what happens. And that’s what we did. It’s definitely weird. It’s definitely different, but it was all intentional. It was all like why? Why play the same game that’s been played over and over for no reason? No one really watches music videos much anyway, so why not do what you want instead of what people come to you with?
I will say that “Paperthin Hymn” is still one of my favorite videos.
Thank you. I love it, too. That’s a great one, and I love “Unwinding Cable Car.” We just found an art student in Philadelphia, Andy Watson. He did that and it turned out great. Even with “Paperthin Hymn,” we got rejected by MTV and Fuse because they said we were too in between genres. We weren’t emo, and we weren’t rock. We were in this limbo state, and when you come up with a video like that, they were just like, “We have no idea what to do with that.” So it was never aired on television.
You’ve mentioned New Surrender quite a few times. If you could change one thing about that album, what would it be?
I would have pushed back the record. I would have waited because I felt like we rushed so much. There was just a magnitude of pressure. I mean, a magnitude like I’ve never felt. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys once went crazy, grew a beard and hid in a closet for years, and that’s exactly what I felt like. I was lost. I had such mass expectations coming off of Cities, but I didn’t want to write Cities again because it had already been written. If I’m going to buy a band’s record, I don’t want the same songs rehashed. I want something new and creative.
So I have all the Cities critics and the fans who loved that record on my back. Then I had the expectations from a major label. My A&R called me and was like, “If this album doesn’t succeed it’s your fault, not Anberlin’s fault. It’s yours Stephen. It’s all on you.” Then I had the rest of the band be like, “Hey man, what’s wrong? Why aren’t you writing songs?”
I had the huge fans, the label, management – all this pressure riding on my back. I just felt like it was hurried and rushed. I felt like we put the best songs that Anberlin could write on that record, but we didn’t put the best songs for an album. One song sounded like this, another song sounded like this, and we just threw it all on one record. I felt like it was a compilation CD, not an album. Thank God that this record was nothing like that. The experience was better. Everything was just better. The songs were better, so that’s why I’m really looking forward to this one.
I remember you talking about how on that record you rewrote “Said and Done” 15 times or something. Was there anything like that on this record where you had to redo a song a bunch of times?
No. I literally rewrote “Said and Done” 17 times, and it still didn’t make it on the record. I hate that song to this day. I just hate it. It’s probably the worst Anberlin song of all time. Again, it sums up the differences between the records. That record was the hardest I have ever worked. Whenever you overthink something, especially when it comes to art, it loses form. Art is supposed to be chaos. Art is supposed to be creative. That’s the whole beauty of music and painting. It’s supposed to be an expression of how you feel, not cold, calculated, systematic and by the numbers. I’m not an accountant, I’m a musician.
That record was so calculated that I felt like it was lost in translation. It could have been so good. I mean, it could have been amazing. There’s tons of fans who still think that’s the greatest record we’ve ever put out. That’s awesome, and that’s so great, but for me personally, comparatively, this record was flawless in the fact that it didn’t feel like I was calculating anything. I wasn’t doing science or chemistry, I was creating music. That’s the big difference.
The last time I saw you was on the Anchor & Braille tour last summer. How do you think that tour and album went over? Are you pleased with how that all went down?
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t like it when bands start to get all arty, and creative and weird, and change their sound. It kind of ruins the band for me. It’s not why I like your first record. It’s not why I bought your records to begin with, you know? For me, these were songs that were going to make Anberlin that band. If we put these on a record, people would be like, “What is this? Why is Anberlin writing songs like this? It makes no sense.”
So I wanted to go and start my own side project for a number of reasons just to get out those songs. I wrote those songs and I didn’t want to just throw them away, but also because I felt like it helped me keep writing. It forced me to keep writing and keep the creative process flowing. Yeah, it was great. It did exactly what I wanted it to do.
I didn’t want Anchor & Braille to blow up. The intention was not to make another band, it was just to do a side project in between moments. In between when Anberlin was not touring, Anchor & Braille could be. The people who found the record really loved it. A lot of people were like, “It’s not Anberlin,” and it never was supposed to be. It was supposed to be something fun to do that was another creative outlet.
How far along are you on writing the second album?
I have four or five songs, but again Anberlin is my focus. When Anberlin started to write, that record took a backseat. I’m in talks with a label right now, and I’m hoping to get that locked up. As soon as that ends, I know the producer I want to work with. I’ve already talked to him. So as soon as Anberlin’s like, “All right, we’re going to take a break. We’re going to take a breather.” I’m going to jump back in the studio and get that second record out.
Will Aaron Marsh still be involved?
I don’t know. That’s kind of up to him. He’s been really involved in producing bands there in Central Florida. He was very intricate. He was very much a part of this process of producing the last record. It depends on if he has some free time and what he’s doing. As far as producing, I don’t know. I have some other people in mind.
It was great for the time. Aaron being a part of it was awesome. He’s an amazing writer and musician, and he has my all-around respect. But it goes against the nature to have him produce the next record because that’s what Anchor & Braille is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be creative, and working with different instruments and different producers and different musicians. I kind of want to keep it in that same vein by mixing it up on every record.
So what is the latest on your next book?
I wrote a book for my mom last Christmas. I found a journal of my grandfather’s. It was a 30-page journal about his life. I took it and made it into this story, and developed characters and all this stuff. I’m not putting it out because I don’t feel like the mass would appreciate it. I don’t feel like people want to hear about my grandfather, so I’m beginning to write another book. I’m only like 30 pages in, so I have quite some time to go. Hopefully, I’ll get a lot of chances on this next tour to sit down and continue to write.
I remember you saying at one point you were working on a Modesty book. Is that still in the works?
The Modesty book is done, I just don’t know if I feel like it’s complete yet. I still want a lot more posts in there, and I would love to find an artist to collaborate with. I would love to find a painter or a photographer and take my Modesty, mix it with their art, and then put it out like that. As soon as I find an artist that I really believe in and that I really want to get some exposure out there, I think then that that’s the next step for Modesty.
You have your big tour coming up here pretty soon. What are you going to be playing and what can we expect on that?
I think it’s going to be the best headlining tour we’ve ever done for tons of reasons. First off, I’m a huge fan of both the bands we’re taking out, Civil Twilight and Crash Kings. I think they’re incredible musicians, great writers, and something totally unique to people that know Anberlin. It wasn’t predictable that we were going to take bands like that out. So I think it totally adds something for fans of Anberlin to come and be like, “I’ve never heard of either of these bands, and they’re both absolutely mind-blowing.” That’s what I’m looking forward to.
Also, this will be our first time to actually have a full-on production. The other tours have been great, but we’ve just put up a few lights here and there, and a banner and that was it. This is the first time there will actually be a light show. We’re taking out a lighting guy, so that feels awesome. It’s another creative outlet to engage with the live show.
So the bands are going to be great, and hopefully our show will be the best ever. We’re putting so much into it from little things, like we’re going to do auxiliary percussions. We’re going to mix up the set list every night. There’s not going to be two nights that are going to be the same. So all of this combined looks like it’s going to be the best tour of our lives.
I heard you’re going to be playing a song or two off of Blueprints.
Yeah, we are. I’m really voting for “Glass to the Arson.” I really like that song. That was my pick, but I heard somebody voted “Naïve Orleans (Acoustic)” in. Again, we’re going to mix it up every night, so I’m definitely looking forward to playing those.
It also seems like you haven’t played a lot of New Surrender live yet. Will you be throwing in some of those songs that you haven’t played before?
Yeah, absolutely. I really want to play “Blame Me!” Some of the tracks, even off of Cities, like “No Mathematics” and stuff like that, I really want to throw in some of that. People are going to be like, “What? This is amazing.” I really want to play “Haunting” and stuff off our b-sides. I definitely want to mix it up.
What I don’t want is to play only stuff off the new record. I feel like if I’m going to see a band, I don’t know your new songs, so why would I come to your show? You’re going to play, and I’m going to stand there. That’s our favorite part of an Anberlin show, seeing people singing along. It means the world that people care enough to have listened to your music so much that they know every word. So we’re definitely going to focus on songs that not only people can sing along to but songs off our first four records, five if you include our b-sides.