Anberlin, fronted by unstoppably positive vocalist Stephen Christian, belongs in that former, way-above-average category. Although the group's five-song demo got them signed with the Seattle-based Christian label, Tooth & Nail, it wasn't long before Anberlin was climbing the mainstream album chart with Cities, released in 2007. Their singles "Feel Good Drag" and "Impossible" have also garnered much alternative rock radio airplay.
Anberlin music is filled with spiritual values, without being all preachy about it. It's intelligent stuff: Stephen drops some Blaise Pascal quotes and Sun Tzu references into this interview to help explain how he came up with some of his lyrics.
Anberlin has released five full-length albums since Blueprints for the Black Market came out in 2003. The group's sixth release, Vital, is its third for Universal Republic. It is indeed a lively affair, with high energy tracks like "God, Drugs, and Sex" (graciously deconstructed by Stephen early in this interview) and "Someone, Anyone" jumping out of the speakers.
We spoke with Stephen on the day the Space Shuttle was coming in for landing on its final flight, soon to be a museum piece at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
Stephen Christian: Very good. Very, very good.
Songfacts: Yeah. It's kind of weird, I'm here in Los Angeles, and everybody ran out to watch the space shuttle fly over, because it's landing at LAX.
Stephen: That's right. I forgot that was today. That's awesome.
Songfacts: Well, I wanted to start by talking about the new album and the most provocative song title, which is "God, Drugs, and Sex," which I think covers all of the hot button topics. Can you tell me a little bit about writing that song?
Stephen: Absolutely. I think for me, I guess what it is, I'm sorry, I've never had to answer this question before. This is literally my first interview about Vital and this song title, especially. It seems like we are a generation that is more defined by what we hate than what we love. With the whole culture, it seems it's either "don't like it," or its lukewarm or mediocre.
And so for me, the song is about apathy. This individual in the song that I'm talking about is just another one of an entire generation that just seems to be so meaningless - everything is so meaningless about anything that has to do with God or drugs, and sex also seems so meaningless. It's like, Eh, whatever.
And so that's like a punch in the face. Kind of like, hey, is this all meaningless? Why have you never sat down to think about it? As Pascal, I believe, said - and I'll have to fact check this is in a minute - but he said there's nothing that can't be solved without an empty room and a single chair. He was saying that if you just sit down and think about these things, then you can solve them all. [later, Stephen fact checked himself and found the full quote: "All of man's misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room."]
But instead, I feel like with our current technological advancements, that no one is ever alone, and no one is ever alone in a room and they just refuse to think about it. Therefore, they have no opinion on faith, religion, on where the line is for modesty or not, and sex and drugs, they just never thought it all the way through. So that's what the song's about, just an apathetic people who simply refuse to think anything all the way through.
Songfacts: It's interesting you should mention that, because one of the issues that's been troubling me lately is that we have so much access to information, the assumption is that having information equals knowledge. As if we have all the information, then we already know it. But what you're saying is there's another step. It's not just having the information, it's being able to collate that information and form an opinion. And it seems like there is a generation that knows a lot, but doesn't really know anything.
Stephen: Yes. Absolutely. Just because you have information at your fingertips doesn't mean that you access and learn. It just means that laziness can abound, because if you don't know how electricity actually moves, you can just look it up. But instead of learning it, you just rely on your computer screen.
And this also crosses boundaries into politics, and also, you know, like instead of figuring out for yourself what you believe and who you're going to vote for, you simply turn on the Internet and find out who your friends on Facebook are voting for, and go with the flow, regardless of party. It's like you just sit and listen to what other people say that are investigating or really trying to analyze. You simply go with whoever has the most marketing money on Facebook that day.
Aaron Sprinkle got his start playing guitar in the Christian band Poor Old Lu in the '90s, and has produced a wide variety of artists, from the hard rock of Deftones, to the worship sounds from Jeremy Camp. He produced Anberlin's first three albums, returning for Vital in 2012.
Neal Avron produced the band's fourth album, New Surrender, in 2008. His credits include both rock (Linkin Park, Disturbed) and pop (Sara Bareilles). Stephen describes Neal as a mathematician, but it doesn't take a numbers expert to realize how much it counts to have produced Sara Bareilles' popular single, "King of Anything," which was nominated for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 53rd Grammy Awards.
Brendan O'Brien is best known for producing Pearl Jam. However, his productions for Bruce Springsteen, The Killers and Brandon Flowers solo, have put him safely in the A-list category of producers. He worked on Anberlin's fifth album, Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place (2010).
Songfacts: How was that experience to kind of reconnect as a band with him?
Stephen: Aaron Sprinkle was absolutely incredible. We always felt like he was the sixth member of Anberlin simply because he did the first three records. We were so very comfortable. And actually, the first two records we did, we literally lived at his house in the basement with him. So it was natural.
The problem was that we felt that we had almost hit a glass ceiling. Since we became so comfortable with him, we weren't learning anything new, we weren't growing as musicians. And we had hit the major label where we could access different producers. Neal Avron was incredible, he's a mathematician, he is a genius when it comes to songwriting, and so the fact is we just learned from him. We just grew, and he taught us. We've never, ever worked harder on a record than we did with Neal Avron. It was grueling, it was tedious, but it was so stretching and pushing that we felt like it propelled us as songwriters and musicians.
Brendan O'Brien we felt like was a once in a lifetime experience. He is perhaps the greatest - at least the top two or three - rock producers today. And from him we learned how minimalism is actually exploited and it sounds huge and massive and energetic. You don't need to have 16 layers of guitars going. You don't need to have some soaring guitar, you don't have to be Satriani to make a guitar sound huge. You just have to focus on the minimals and focus on your strength. And that's what we learned from Brendan O'Brien.
And so after being done with those two producers, we realized that perhaps it's time to go back with our original member, our sixth member. We knew that we had grown so much and learned so much from these two other producers, and we applied it using Aaron Sprinkle's ability to, for lack of better terminology, add bells and whistles, the extras. Aaron has this special ability to make you want to listen to the song over and over again because of the intricacies. That's what we felt like Aaron Sprinkle brought to the table. We felt that if we brought our knowledge and his focus, we could create an amazing album, and that's where Vital came from.
Songfacts: Tell me about the first single, "Someone, Anyone." What does that song mean to you?
The irony of it is here I'm admiring a culture and saying, Wow, this is incredible. You have, through simple protests and non violent movements in the vein of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., changed an entire government. But now it seems that the people can only go so far with that. And it was so sad to me to watch as four people died over this recent Youtube video.
And so it's just admonishment to the world as a whole that there are ways to solve problems other than violence.
Songfacts: Well, I wanted to wind things up here by talking about a few of your older songs, if you don't mind.
Stephen: Sure. Absolutely.
Songfacts: And just get a few thoughts on what the songs mean for you guys. And the first one I want to talk about is "The Unwinding Cable Car."
Stephen: "The Unwinding Cable Car" was a song that I wrote in Seattle, Washington. And the message behind it was that there was somebody in my life that had it so very well, so well. But they they couldn't see it. They were basically in such a turmoil to get to the future that they didn't realize what they had in the present. So instead of focusing on that, they focused on this internal self absorbed place that, instead of saying, 'Wow, I live in Seattle, Washington, I have this incredible job, I have these beautiful friends around me,' instead we're saying, 'I'm so scared of the future, I don't know what's going to happen, my life is horrible, I'm in such a dark place.'
And it was just one of those moments where you just need to stop. Just stop everything, take a giant step back and reevaluate your life and what you have now and stop focusing on a future that no one can ever predict. No one can tell you what tomorrow brings, so why worry? Don't worry about tomorrow, you did that yesterday. That's the whole basis of the song.
Songfacts: Do you still enjoy singing "Feel Good Drag"?
Stephen: I do. My favorite part of the entire set is just looking at the crowd and watching them and seeing this whole sea of momentum. And "Feel Good Drag" is one of those songs that will continue to push the crowd into a frenzy. And that's kind of the goal of the music is to make you feel something. And for me, that song still makes me feel.
Songfacts: And tell me about the song "Impossible." Do you recall writing that one?
Songfacts: I read that you are planning to tour with Smashing Pumpkins. Is that a band that was an inspiration to you?
Stephen: Absolutely. Growing up in Central Florida, they were one of the heroes of the town. Especially of my community. When we found out that we had even the slightest opportunity to tour with them, then when nobody said no, we all jumped up - that would be so massive. Just to be sharing a stage with Billy Corgan every night is such an honor.
Songfacts: You know, it's interesting, because he seems like a very spiritual person. I can only imagine the conversations that you'll have?
Stephen: I really do hope to have that opportunity. About a year ago he had an article that came out in Rolling Stone where he was very open about his spirituality and where he was in the world. And I'm very curious as to other peoples' routes on how they got to the place that they've acquired. And I would love the opportunity.
Sometimes there's a chasm between when you get to be that mammoth, to drop your guard to another musician. It will feel like when you're sitting on an airplane, how really deep can you get with the person that you're sitting next to, knowing that you're going to get off the flight in a matter of mere minutes. And the tours usually feel the same way. There's such a demand - interviews here, people there - that at the end of the day it's solitude you hope to have your deepest conversation with, and not a musician that's going to get off the plane in a few hours.
Songfacts: Have you ever covered any Smashing Pumpkins songs in the band?
Stephen: We haven't. We haven't. We usually stick to the '80s. We love Depeche Mode, the Smiths, Cure, New Order and stuff like that. We have yet to explore the '90s.
Songfacts: What Smiths songs do you cover?
Stephen: "There's a Light That Never Goes Out" we just did on this last tour. That's perhaps my favorite song of my favorite band all time. It was such an honor to be able to do this acoustic run and have convinced the guys that, 'Hey, man, let's do this Smiths song.' And they were down, so we did it.
Songfacts: Yeah, I've seen Morrissey a number of times, and that's the song that he tends to end his shows with.
Stephen: That's incredible. I've never actually gotten to see Morrissey. It seems that I'm constantly on tour, and so is he. But our paths have yet to cross. That's a guy I'd love to spend a few minutes with dissecting his brain.
Songfacts: Well, it's been a treat chatting with you, Stephen. I really enjoyed this talk.
Stephen: Yes. You as well, friend. Now get out there and try to spot the space shuttle before NASA is shut down.
January 3, 2013. Get more at anberlin.com.
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