Thu, 25 Sep 2008 08:26:00
Anberlin's Stephen Christian is more than just your average vocalist. In fact, he's quite the writer. Christian released his first novel, The Orphaned Anything's, in early 2008, right before crafting what would become Anberlin's most cohesive and catchy offering to date, New Surrender. The record is the band's first on major label Universal, but there's no need to worry because they still rock. The band managed to tap into their essence and hone it into something much deeper on this new batch of tunes. Christian took some time to talk to ARTISTdirect about writing, the band's hometown of Orlando, Florida and much more.
It felt like there was a consistent thread thematically throughout New Surrender. Would you say that's the case?
Absolutely. I remember hearing a quote that said, "Bands shouldn't break up over royalties. Bands should break up about track listings." [Laughs] Until this record, it didn't strike me how agonizing it could be to pick the right track listing. There were songs that didn't make the record that we feel were better than certain tracks that did, but in the grand scheme of it all, those songs didn't work as far as the album's topic and flow. We went back and forth in an agonizing fashion to get everything just perfect.
It's definitely got a real epic feel to it. Do you feel like everything got kicked up a notch?
Absolutely, we wanted to take it there though. We wanted a next level producer, and we got a new guitarist about a year ago named Christian [McAlhaney]. He was from a band called Acceptance. His and our producer's presence definitely contributed to our growth. We put pressure on ourselves to make the best record that we could. Everything combined led to that. It was the next step in the evolutionary process for Anberlin.
You've preserved your identity, but you've grown as well.
I think preservation of identity is crucial. If you were a fan of a band for years, and then they signed to a major label, you don't want to see them change. The last thing you want to do is be unrecognizable to your fans. Fans will say something like, "Oh, did they just put these songs on here to make the record label happy?" We felt like this was completely an Anberlin album. We didn't write this for the label, for a bigger house or for a Jaguar, we wrote this for the Anberlin fans. I think we kept our own identity throughout the process.
“Bands shouldn't break up over royalties. Bands should break up about track listings.”
Where does the process usually start for your songs? Does it begin with lyrical ideas or guitar melodies? How are Anberlin songs usually born?
Well, about 80% of the songs on New Surrender really came out of Jo Milligan and Christian. They would take out their computers and punch out some guitar lines. I would say, "I think it needs work here. I like that verse, but that chorus has to go." Then I'd begin writing melody lines. We would discuss what should go where. Three songs on this record I just punched out on a piano. Joey would listen to the songs and pull it into a song on guitar, and we would make it come to life. It was a great process. I think we've got it down to a science at this stage of our career.
It sounds like it's really organic in terms of chemistry between you guys.
I attribute a lot of that to Christian, I think he's a phenomenal guitarist and has a genius right hand. He has a lot of riffs you wouldn't here prior to this album.
Is the album tied to your book at all?
Not really. The book was written before, so there weren't a lot of things that correlated. But I have taken stuff in the book and brought it in for the record's lyrics.
How similar do you think the two writing processes are for you? It seems like you're essentially telling stories on both.
It's actually weird because you're going to take a story that happened to you and transpose that to a song. You try to sell that story by making a catchy chorus and hooks you can remember. We have many lyrics. As far as writing the book, I think the hard thing is concentrating and writing. I wanted the book so badly that I would write two pages a day. After a year, I was like, "Okay, I'm getting somewhere with this finally."
The brilliant thing about writing lyrics is that you manage to pack a lot of emotion and feeling into a short space.
Thank you very much, man. That's what I try to do with every lyric, getting out themes, emotions or faith.
Where did the title, New Surrender, come from?
I think that the last record was very introverted, a little too introspective. I wanted to address a lot more things. I feel like in everyone's life there's something that they know they should give up or have to give up in order to correct their life. For a kid, it can be television. For someone else, it can be cigarettes or even fear of failure. In each of our lives, we are going through the next step towards our dreams. The definition of the title is going to be different for each and every person.
Sometimes it's even surrendering yourself to your own creative inspirations. That's what you did on this album, you created something very natural.
I feel like it is too. Even though we were in the studio for a lot longer this time, we don't have way overproduced, giant synthesizers raging the entire time or a four-piece orchestra with a the giant choir behind it. We didn't want to do it on this record; we wanted it to be natural. We left certain songs off the record, even for consistency's sake.
It's even more rewarding for younger fans to come across a record like this. It's something they can delve into. Everything is so single-based these days.
Absolutely. I think it's definitely an overall record. I don't think we're caught in one particular genre. We just kind of let it go. Wherever the creativity was, we go. We didn't narrow it down.
It would be cool if you guys played the whole thing start to finish live.
I would love it. It would be unbelievable. I think that's what our records are based on. All my favorite timeless records are like that. There won't be a song I feel like I missed out on.
What's the music scene like where you guys are from?
We were all from different schools, and it seems like that was very influential in and of itself. We never recorded any records in Florida. We always came to Seattle or Los Angeles. There aren't a lot of people to push you or drive you to the next level. Now, it finally has a music scene and burgeoning climate. It's changing. Up until 5 years ago, their only claim to fame was Creed.
"Feel Good Drag" stood out. What's the story behind that one?
The whole underlying theme is talking about going into a relationship that you know is destined to fail. It talks about lies and crush that allow you to go into that relationship but in the back of your head. It's kind of like cheating, like she's dating someone else or you're naïve to how something works. With naivety you just get sucked in. That's the song. There's that underlying story—just being a nice character walking into a relationship.
The last song really blew me away. It's long but it pulls you in.
Yeah. I wanted that song at the beginning to be dry almost dragging and then segue, you know? Epic. Go over your head, and then when you think the song is over, it starts right back again. I think it's a little bit apocalypse, a little bit conspiracy theory, and it leaves you on edge. I enjoyed writing that, one of my favorite songs on the record for sure.
Given that you've got the book out now, would you ever want to write a movie someday?
I don't know. Screenwriters are much different than book writers. With records, I just have to do things to keep the story moving, but screenwriters have to figure out what the characters do, what the set will look like, etc. I would love to try it though.