The Gramercy Theater is packed, seemingly beyond capacity, on a freezing cold night in New York City. Wrapping up the last of the tour shows on the East Coast, tonight’s set is vastly different. Cities, Anberlin’s third and arguably darkest record, is played in its entirety. Roughly 40 minutes long, the set ends and tears start to flow from the audience.
Frontman Stephen Christian reemerges to inform the audience that Never Take Friendship Personal is his favorite record, and the band would now be playing it front to back. The room erupts.
Later, the evening would be capped off with “Ready Fuels,” and Anberlin will vacate the stage in exchange for the sidewalk outside the venue. It’s hard to say which occurrence is more chaotic, the show itself or the gaggle of passionate fans that overwhelm the band on the street. As each member emerges, an orderly line forms in front of them for photos and autographs, with the exception of the 34-year-old singer who is mobbed. “You have no idea how much your music means to me!” is heard on repeat as he graciously snaps photos and gives hugs.
One month prior…
With a final farewell medley and one hand in the air, Christian shares a final thank you as Anberlin says goodbye to Portland, Oregon for the last time. Most of 2014 has been one giant bow, a victory lap for one of the most well-respected and prolific bands of the last decade. From indie obscurity to ushering in a new era at Tooth and Nail records to the major label rat race and back again, Anberlin is finally ending it all on their own terms.
Entering the tour bus on a rainy night in October, Christian wraps up a phoner before inviting us to the back. Bassist Deon Rexroat’s now-famous “Born and Bred bulldog show” shirt hangs in the corner, the obligatory laptops and city-specific posters litter the seating area. With roughly six weeks left to go, Christian is visibly allowing fatigue to set in, and he speaks to me as if it’s already over.
How has being in this band shaped you as a person?
Stephen Christian: I think the number one thing, if we’re being honest, is confidence. Coming from middle school and high school, it was tortuous. I was very ADHD and would scrape by with a C- average. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. I think Anberlin opened it up.
Success is very subjective and that allowed me to not care about failing or what people thought, hence my book, The Orphaned Anything. I’m not claiming it’s good, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, for as long as I could remember. You get to a point where it’s like, “Why not? What are the negatives? Who cares?” I wish my grandfather or great great grandfather would have written a book. Who cares if you succeed or fail? At the end of the day, just go out there and live life to its fullest and try everything. Who knows what could happen?
That’s Anberlin. We had no aspirations beyond, “Man, one day it’d be really cool to play a show outside of Florida.” At that time, Squad Five-Oh was the biggest band on Tooth and Nail, and we heard they sold 15,000 records total. We were like, “What do they do with all that money? They are the richest, biggest band we know. They are so huge all over the world.” In my logic, if we could sell five thousand records, that would be the greatest. That was our logic.
The confidence comes when you stop (seeing) your (aspirations) as being so low. I’m not saying we should have been cocky, but we shouldn’t have set limitations. We should just go at it. That’s life. You just have no idea.
We grow up with these subconscious limitations, and, as you grow up, it’s a real freedom to realize those aren’t really there.
It’s sad. People put these limitations on themselves and they don’t understand that they think more about what other people think of them rather than what other people are actually thinking about them
Success fades. Your life is like vapor, so just go out there and try. If you fail, people will say it’s crazy then they’ll forget about it tomorrow. In two years, you’re not a topic of conversation, but you’ll be thinking of your own failures. Over and over. You’re so manipulated by the views of other people. People live under that weight their whole lives.
This is a horrible reference, but there was a quarterback named Todd Marinovich and I just watched his documentary. He won the Rose Bowl in the ’90s, he was supposed to be the Heisman Trophy winner at USC, but he had all this pressure and weight (on his back), he turned to cocaine and heroin. He was in the NFL for a flash, then he was done. In and out of rehab. The rest of his life, he was so jaded by his failures, he stopped living life. It took him a couple decades to realize that nobody really cares; nobody is awake thinking, “I wonder what Todd is up to tonight?” I think we live under the weight of our own failures when no one is putting that weight on us.
Do you think you had that mentality as a kid starting the band?
In high school, I was (definitely) that kid who was put in his place. I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t talk to anybody, and I remember my senior yearbook had, like, four signatures in it. I was the guy who didn’t go to lunch because I didn’t want that awkward, “Which table am I gonna sit at? Forget it, I’ll just wait to eat at home” moment. I was so trapped in my own little prescribed world, I seized up. It wasn’t until I realized I could go live this life that it just opened up.
And you started with Deon and Joey, right?
Deon realized how bad I was at guitar and called Joey asking him to fill in for a couple dates. Then Joey just stuck around.
Where do you think your life would have gone had that not been something you initially pursued?
I could have totally seen myself going into nonprofit work. Even during college I was interning at a Catholic charity in Orlando. They fired me right before I graduated college without any explanation, and then one month later we got signed to Tooth and Nail. My goal was to graduate college then start my work at a nonprofit. I guess life just had different plans. I’m working with Food for the Hungry, and I still try to maintain and give when I can.
The last time you and I spoke was at Warped Tour, and we talked largely about the idea of legacy. Now, a few more months down the road and closer to the end, have your thoughts changed, or are there any doubts about the end?
It’s a beautiful time of life, but, honestly, it’s like returning to where you were as a child, and school doesn’t look as daunting and that playground slide isn’t as tall as you remember it. Things have changed and your life has evolved, and that’s how I feel it would be to go back with Anberlin. I just don’t think the slide will ever be as tall as we remember it. I have nothing against people reuniting, if that’s what they want to do, but our passions have changed and evolved. I’d rather leave it where we’re all getting along as opposed to trying to relive the glory days. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be fun to do another show someday. I can just see some acoustic guitars when we all have kids, and they get to hear what their dads used to do. To tour again, though, it just won’t happen.
Even with Anchor and Braille?
I’ve been doing this now for 19 years and the average of the last 12 years being on the road for 225 dates a year. At some point you’re just like, “I’m making money for a life I don’t get to lead.” I’m providing and it’s great, I enjoy my life, but I’m missing out on real life. I’m missing out on the things that will matter when I’m on my death bed. I love the people that are here in line, and tonight we’re going to have this great connection where they’re singing and someone is crying and they’re going to lose their voice. So I’ll lose mine, but no offense, when I’m on my death bed and someone says, “I’ll give you a million dollars to name that guy or tell me one memory of that night,” I won’t be able to because all the things that matter to me are waiting at home for me. I love A&B; it’s a passion project, and it’s so much fun, but thinking about getting in a van right now? There are a lot of things I’d rather do (laughs).
Six months or a year for now, I wonder if a moment will ever hit you where you’re sitting at home and you wonder if you were meant to be on the road.
I know I’m not meant to be on the road all the time. I’m definitely not saying there are not going to be shows — whether it’s in Nashville with just me and a guitar or whatever. I love performing, but I’m talking about re-hustle and do the whole “starving artist” thing again.
I love shows. I’m still going to write and put out the rest of the A&B songs. I’m still going to be creating around it. Music is going to be a (cornerstone) in my life, but I will never again get in a bus and tour for 225 days a year. Ever (laughs).
Knowing the influence you had on fans, seeing lyrics tattooed, kids singing along, over the years, did you have to re-remind yourself of your position?
As far as feeling the responsibility to keep myself a positive role model, that was always a weight on my shoulders. I understand that life is temporal, so even when we were a young band — like two years into it — we already had that thought: “What if I’m out of this band tomorrow? Two years is all I have on my resume, so now am I going to start sleeping around and doing drugs? Am I going to live for myself, or am I just going to try and work for nonprofits?” Anberlin has always tried to be classy and not talk trash. There was etiquette. A while back, the music market started to take a dip, and we were debating about touring harder. A beer company came to us and offered to wrap our bus and pay us some money, which basically would have paid for the bus and crew for the entire tour and we had to say no. Whatever your stance on alcohol may be, I don’t care, but people are impressionable. If they see me walking off a bus and there is the beer thing — even though I don’t have a beer in my hand and I’m not stumbling — they go, “Well Stephen is a Christian, so why is that bad? I’m going to do it,” and (they’re) 16 or 14 or whatever.
And you probably don’t want to have that conversation a million times.
The conversation is one that if people want to have it, we can, but the conversation of what happens to your life if you start drinking at 16, there’s nothing positive that comes out of that. At all, ever. I just don’t want to have that blood on my hands. I would rather live above reproach, especially in those situations. I understand the platform that God has given me and I’m not going to take it lightly.
Knowing you had very little pressure going into Lowborn, was there a new freedom in your writing?
I have two songs, one about “thank you for the memories” and saying goodbye to the fans, you can’t push that on the radio. A label would be like “You’re talking about fan tattoos. Can you change these lyrics?” That was the freedom of having the last record, being able to write songs to say goodbye, thank fans and just say what I want. It was very freeing. Every record before this one, the normal protocol was you send in your demos, and when you get enough and enough of them sound good, then we’ll record. They’ll open up the budget when they hear the songs. On this one, it was like, just go in the studio. We don’t care. We’re not trying to write singles or make it big. We just don’t care. There were no handcuffs. It was absolute freedom.
Personally, you did a great job of keeping your private life private throughout your career. Why was that important to you?
It’s still important because I feel like prior to ’98, everyone’s life was private. All people had were print articles they could read. Now people want to know every detail of your life. If you put all the lyrics I’ve ever written, from Anchor and Braille to Anberlin, on a sheet of paper that is an autobiography. I haven’t held back anything, from sex, drugs, rock and roll to my insecurities, successes, failures. All of it is just there. I want one safe harbor where I can go and breathe deeply and relax and be at home. I feel like opening up social media to my family and some aspects of my life felt like I was sharing it with the rest of the world.
It’s like having a best friend you confided in, (but) I’ve confided in everybody so I have nowhere to run. My escape is my home, so those four walls are just sacred to me. I can’t do sessions at my house or shoot videos there or take pictures of my family there. To me, it’s just mine. I want one thing that’s just mine.
I spend more time with fans than my own family. If you calculated all the years I’ve spent with the dudes in the band, it far surpasses my own mother, brothers and sister. That’s just crazy to me. Something has to be sacred, and I choose those four walls.
Do you think bands share too much?
I can’t judge because maybe they have other safe harbors or outlets or, maybe, lyrically they hold back or write pop songs and refuse to let themselves out. I can’t judge. Even the guys in the band, some of them don’t care about sharing their own personal lives, and there is no judgment in that. For me, (my home) is just the safe harbor I’ve chosen.
In some of your recent interviews, you’ve been saying you’ve said all you needed to say at this point in time. Does feeling that way give you an elevated sense of peace in terms of ending the band?
Yeah it really does. I can’t think of a lyric or an idea I wish I would have tried to impart to my fans. I did my best to inspire people to pursue their goals and passions in life. I’ve told them about God and peace. I’ve told them we all hurt at times and there is hope. I think those are themes I want to have set in place then walk away. I wasn’t called to be a preacher, but I think we’re all called to be missionaries. I feel like I’ve done that, and that’s the most we can do.
Nate had an interview recently where he said, “The record is for the fans, but there’s something in the record for each one of us as well.”
I can’t say I did it for me, but I did it for the one I love back home. In a song I told her, and she knows where my heart is, “My heart’s where I’m going.” That’s for her. I said my piece and got a lot of stuff off my chest, lyrically. As far as a song, just pure selfishness was “Dissenter.” It was so fun and so liberating. We couldn’t have done that on any other record. That whole song took about 12 minutes to record vocally. It was me and Aaron Sprinkle, it was the last song I ever recorded for Anberlin and it was like, “Let’s just be stupid and have a great time. Amp up the distortion.” I wrote it within ten minutes before we recorded it. It was so punk rock. I wrote the bridge while we recorded it. The whole process, front to back, was maybe 25 minutes. It was just fun.
You went in so many directions on this album that if we didn’t know it was the end, it would just feel like a big teaser for what way Anberlin will go next.
Cool. I like that (laughs).
Do you read reviews on Lowborn?
I stopped caring a few records ago, honestly. I could tell you about reviews from Blueprints that kept me up nights. I can tell you in print, where it was, what they said about my voice. After awhile, it eats at you, and you realize, “Why do I care? I’m having the time of my life traveling the world with people I love. Why am I listening to this? No one else is.” That reviewer only listened to maybe 20 seconds of the whole record, wrote that and then just stuck it up online.
About two years ago, The Black Crowes came out with a record and the reviewer ripped them up. The Black Crowes, on the front of their website, called this guy out because they had only released half of one song. They sent all these reviewers this tease, and the reviewer wrote a full record review. The Black Crowes said, “Just teaching our fans about reviewers. They don’t listen to the records. They are just trying to find a way to feel empowered.”
We’ve had magazines do four or five page spreads on us and then the review was one and a half stars. We’ve called them and said, “We don’t care what you print. You can either do the article on us or you can write the review, but you look stupid. You look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Feel free to put the one and a half star review, but you look asinine.”
Sometimes (critics) have never been in a band, and they don’t know how to construct a song, etc. I have to take it as a grain of salt. I can’t look at reviews, especially of Lowborn. What do I care? I’m not trying to further my career. This was for fun and for the fans. You’re not discovering Lowborn like, “Who is this band?” I’m not going to write it with a single or a reviewer or a label in mind, I’m writing this for Anberlin and their fans and that’s it.
I don’t like writing reviews myself. Someone put their heart and soul and time into this product. Why do I get to judge it?
Hipster websites have made careers trashing people. In some ways, we’re a generation defined more by what we hate than by what we like. We alienate everybody else, and the alienation is what makes it cool. At some point, you’re going to be, like, 40 with no friends and be too cool for yourself. We’re all just setting ourselves up on these little islands.
And it’s funny that the coolness all just stems from insecurity.
Life is just too short to isolate yourselves from other people. Hipsters don’t go to the beach. How do you know you don’t love the beach (laughs)?
Were there ever any moments where you almost called it quits in the past?
Absolutely! Right before NTFP (Never Take Friendship Personal), we were financially devastated. We’d come off long tours, obviously, making no money. I’m digging ditches if I’m not substitute teaching. It would be four in the morning and Deon and I are up digging ditches for his dad’s well business to the point of exhaustion, knowing we have to get in a van the next week and make no money. I’m living with my parents, my cell phone keeps getting shut off, and I have to sell my car. At some point you’re like, “How much longer? It’s been a year and a half.”
We got together and said, “Now what?” Prior to that, when we were in a really crappy band, we had given ourselves one year. At one year, we reassessed and said we’d give it one more year. We were making no money and asking our parents for gas money. We got a $3 per diem; that dollar menu at Taco Bell saved our lives.
Signing to a major (label) was a very stressful time in our lives. In January of ’08, I was just done. We had recorded New Surrender but hadn’t put it out yet, and I was ready to walk away.
Was it the pressure of being on a major label?
That and poor business decisions. The band just didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of stuff. That was the closest I had ever come to quitting. Last February, I was in the U.K., and I was like, “I gotta go. I’m leaving.” Life and stress and finances again.
But I never felt a peace in walking away, so that’s what took me until October to tell the guys I was leaving. Everyone unanimously knew it but didn’t wanna say it. Everyone had been investing in other passions. No one wanted to come together and talk about it, but we finally did and it was the perfect timing. If it would have been a couple months ago, I think there would have been some anger and frustration. Instead, there were no tears and no yelling. It was just, “Great, what are we going to do now?”
At that time, we loved Vital and thought it was a perfect record to leave on. But, thinking about it, if I was a fan and really loved a band, what would I want? So we said one more record and one more world tour and one more stop in all our favorite cities and not so favorite. We wanted to give everyone one more chance to see us and then walk away.
In this time of reflection, what would you say were some of the bigger mistakes Anberlin has made in their career?
Oh man, so many. I can go back and count endless songs I’d love the chance to revamp. Most were business decisions, people I surrounded myself with who weren’t positive influences in my life.
Let’s say Anberlin was coming out today. What would you sidestep?
Maybe if I could go back in time and tell myself anything, I wouldn’t say anything at all. What if it set the path differently?
Surprisingly, a lot of artists will say they have no regrets.
Don’t you learn the most in failures though? I do. When I fall flat on my face, I say I probably shouldn’t have done that, then I do it again. That’s where we draw closest to God, in despair and hopelessness where you throw up your arms and say, “I’m not in control.” Those are the moments where I was closest to God. That’s where you learn grace and love and mercy. I don’t know if I would trade those life lessons because I’ll be able to teach my kids.
And a lot of people would look at your life and your career and what you get to do every day and ask how you could ever give that up for a “normal” life.
I totally get it, but you have to think of anniversaries and birthdays and camping — all the mundane things in life we’ve never experienced. I can’t remember the last time I went surfing or camping. We don’t do that. It’s great, but it’s Groundhog Day. I don’t care if you love what you do, it’s fatigue. You go into a mental state of arrested development and start shutting down. Where you used to read, you watch TV. Where you used to explore the city, you’ve been there.
I totally get why bands do drugs. You tour for so many years and your brain just shuts down. Unless you really take time to work at it and educate yourself or take some online class or bring a professor or pastor out — anything to change up the monotony — your brain just stops. It’s a muscle. People turn to drugs, they’ve got to get outside the bus and themselves, they’ve got to experience something to take themselves away. It totally makes sense to me. That’s why you get drunk to go to sleep. The grass is always greener.
I’m positive there will be days where I’ll say, “Dude, if I could be in Berlin with my great friends and bike around town again…” I’m sure I’ll have those days. What I’ll do on those days is go rent a hotel, lie on the bed and stare at the ceiling and I’m pretty sure I’ll be like, “Yeah, I’m good to go back home” (laughs).
In the end, what sentiment or encouragement do you want to leave to your fans?
If he can do it, I can do it. If he can write a book, I can write a book. If he can be in a band, I can be in a band. I’m a nobody from a 27,000 resident community who sometimes made Cs in high school with ADHD. I hope I can encourage somebody to just try. Better to try and fail than fail to try.
Anberlin was posted on December 20, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by Jameson Ketchum.