A Bittersweet Goodbye: A Conversation With Anberlin’s Stephen Christian

This interview originally appeared on NewReleaseToday in November of 2014.

On a rainy Nashville evening in October of 2014, I sat in the back lounge of Anberlin’s bus across from Stephen Christian. In middle of Anberlin’s final tour as a band, Stephen was energetic and warm, refreshingly present in his answers to my questions. The moment, like Anberlin’s career, was immortalized in my mind.

Anberlin began as a cornerstone band in Tooth & Nail’s heyday, gaining their footing with sophomore release Never Take Friendship Personal in 2005 and becoming a genuine force to be recognized with 2007’s magnum open Cities. A major label stint began with New Surrender, leading into the brooding Dark is the Way, Light is a Place and electronically experimental Vital. With the beginning of 2014, they announced their forthcoming disbandment– a year long process capped by final album Lowborn (once again with Tooth & Nail) and a farewell tour.

In this conversation, Stephen Christian reflected on the closing chapter, Lowborn, and Anberlin’s indelible mark on alternative rock (and on him).

So if we could start with talking about Lowborn a little bit: from what I understand, you guys used quite a few different producers on this, and of course you went in knowing it was your final record. Did that contribute to it being a different creative process than on your other records?

Absolutely, simply because we knew that we were absolutely, 100% liberated to do whatever we wanted. It wasn’t like we had managers breathing down our neck, or the label contacting us saying “what’s your single going to be?” It was very carefree.

It allowed me to write lyrics about how much being in the band has meant to me, thanking the fans and then also saying goodbye to them. On no other record could you literally call out fans and be like “this one’s for you!”

Knowing it was our last record, we literally couldn’t care less if it sold one or one million copies. We were just done. That was very liberating.

And yeah, we went to three different producers because everybody got to choose where they wanted to go. Our drummer worked with Matt Goldman in Atlanta, because he felt the best drums he’s ever gotten were at Matt Goldman’s. The rest of the guys wanted to self-produce because they never really got a chance to before, so they worked with an engineer named Aaron Marsh in Lakeland, who used to be in Copeland.

I went with Aaron Sprinkle because I’ve done four records with him and we are very comfortable together. We work really fast and really effectively together. It was a great experience.

Regarding the creative process in general, you guys have both ridiculously strong lyrics and ridiculously strong melodies. How does that work in the writing process? Which one informs the other? Do they happen at the same time?

Man, as cheesy as this sounds, I feel like when the guys write the music, they send me the songs and it’s almost as if the songs sing to me. And I know that sounds so cheesy and arty, but it’s not, I’m being serious. You could literally hand me a song right now, and a melody line would just come.

I definitely always write lyrics that are very personal, very much “hey, this is what I’m going through in life right now, I’m not going to hold anything back.” So I think the amalgamation of the two, with the free flow of thought and of melody and then what’s happening in my life, quickly formulate into lyrics and melody.

I’ll send it back to the guys and they can tell me what they think, if they like it or not. But for the most part, it’s pretty synonymous.

So as you’ve had this opportunity to tour the world knowing that you’re saying goodbye to places– which is a pretty unique experience for a band– has there been a specific moment you could pinpoint where you thought “man, I’m going to miss this?”

I think in London, that was our first major, big show where it hit me. We were walking off stage, and I remember looking back at the crowd, who was just in a frenzy– one of the best shows of this tour so far. And looking back, I was looking at people’s faces and wondering to myself “I wonder if I’ll ever see these people again.” You know? “I wonder if I’ll ever stand on a stage in London ever again.” I think that was a big moment for me.

Have you found that fans in general “get it?” Do they feel like the record is a fitting goodbye? Are they responding to that well?

I think they get that this is not only the last record, but I think they get that this is goodbye. And I think they’re very appreciative. Even the people who aren’t moving at our show, you can see them absorbing it. Usually at shows, there’s hundreds of camera phones. But at these shows, there are very little. People do it like once during the show and then that’s it, because I think they’re kind of like “I’ll never have this experience ever again. It’s not gonna come again.”

Honestly, we as Anberlin will never play another show. It would have to be such grandiose circumstances to change that, somebody sick, or something that’s just overwhelming that we couldn’t say no to. But I think it would take away from the legacy that we built, or tried to build anyway, as Anberlin, and I think it would take away from these shows if we were like “2018 we’re going to do a reunion!”

To me, it’s fine if other bands do that. But for me personally, it would take away from the mystique and the gravity that these shows have. And I feel like if fans heard “oh, they’re going on another tour,” they’d be like “really? That show meant so much. I was going to remember that show, and now? It’s just another show.”

So for me, it’s gravity, and I want to keep that gravity in place.

Which makes a lot of sense. What is the legacy Anberlin has left in your life? We talk a lot about the kind of mark it’s making on the fans. But what are you personally taking away from this experience?

Man, I would have to sit down at a computer and just write a list. Off the top of my head: how to write better. How to write songs. How to interact with other people, how not to deal with other people. Business-wise, and spiritually, and mentally and emotionally– I think there’s just a grandiose list.

I am who I am today because I was in this band, for better or worse. But then again, I don’t think I would go back in time. I don’t know how much I would change, because again, I am who I am, and I’m so blessed and fortunate to be standing right here tonight in front of this crowd because of all those happenstances. And I don’t know if I went back in time and changed one thing, if the course would just veer, and what would be different.

So it’s hard to regret. There’s a song called “Birds of Prey” on this record about that, about how you think “oh, I wish I could change things.” But you wouldn’t be the person that you are today if it wasn’t for the failures and successes that you had in the past.

If you could choose one song as you’re looking back to be remembered by as Anberlin, that you hope sticks with people, which one would you choose and why?

I think “Paperthin Hymn,” for more than one reason. Not just lyrically, but I feel like the summation of all our music is built into that song. It’s melodic, but rock. And it’s thought-provoking, and yet has undertones of faith. And I think that’s the synopsis of the band as a whole.

To highlight a song from the new record, “Hearing Voices” is another one of those songs that’s quintessential Anberlin. Could you just talk a little bit about what was going through your head as you were writing that?

For me, I don’t hear God in an audible voice. Some people do. Some people go on top of mountains, and they can feel the earth tremble or lightning or whatever. But for me it’s the still, small voice, it’s that peace inside of “OK, God’s with me, Jesus is with me.”

I just follow the peace, wherever that is, wherever that leads. If it says “hey, it’s time to leave the band,” I follow. I just fumble after blindly, because as humans we’re just so flawed and full of failure. And so for me it’s about that still small voice, about hearing the voice of God in my own way.

To wrap this up, what’s next for you? Are you going to keep going with Anchor & Braille?

Anchor & Braille for me is a passion project. I love making music that’s very not me, but that I’m into, that I enjoy. But that’s not my future. I’m going to finish out making a record for Anchor & Braille, but next for me– for about two and a half years now I’ve really longed to do a praise and worship record. That for me is where my heart is, where my soul is. I just feel like that’s the next thing for me.

I’m so excited. And whether I tour, or take that seriously or whatever, right at this second it doesn’t matter. You know, the overflow of the heart, that’s what the mouth speaks. And I think that’s where I’m at with that.

Stephen Christian released his solo worship record, Wildfires, in 2017; you can find it here.

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