February , 2013
By David Huff
Vital Mission Accomplished
Vocalist Steve Christian Speaks With JAM Magazine
Vocalist Steve Christian is in good place today. His band, Anberlin, wrapped up an extensive tour with the Smashing Pumpkins that introduced the band to a new set of fans they previously didn't reach.With the recent release of Vital, the band's third album for Universal Music imprint Republic Records, the band is now embarking on their own headlining musical adventure to see if their gamble with Pumpkins paid off.
Anberlin's humble beginnings started over ten years ago in Winter Haven, Florida. There, three high school buddies - Christian, Deon Rexroat and Joseph Milligan - formed a nucleus that would take their musical ambitions out of the Sunshine State to the great Northwest. There they would grow and define the sound of Amberlin on the independent label Tooth & Nail. When they were ready for the big leagues, Universal was there to offer them a home.
What the future holds for this band is anyone's guess. Is Vital a defining moment for Anberlin? Steve Christian certainly hopes so. The eternal optimist, he sees the positive everywhere he looks - and for good reason. You don't last in this business for as long as this group has without having the goods. The new world order of music has changed because of the Internet. For bands like Anberlin, who were literally born and grew up through this intense transition, their future is so bright they've got to wear shades.
JAM: In the '60s and '70s, and even into the 80s, music drove the culture. It was the best way to connect to your generation. Today, we live in a world dominated by iPods, music blogs, file sharing, YouTube, you name it. Anberlin sprung to life in the middle of this wired world. What kind of effect has these changes had on your band, if any?
Steve Christian - This technological boom was a blessing in disguise for our band. When we first started out, our MySpace page site got 25,000 hits in three months. Record company executives were thinking, "Who are these people?" For us, the utilization of technology was instrumental in not only getting us signed, but in furthering the band. In the beginning, our first three albums were on an Indie record label out of Seattle, Washington. It was the only way to push ourselves. I'd guess 60 percent of the people who heard Anberlin did so through the Internet. It wasn't like we adjusted to this culture to fit in. In fact we didn't adapt, we were born into it.
JAM: How do you know, or what indication did you have, that Anberlin was a serious band, and not just another set of guys getting together to play music?
Finding the answer to that question, I feel, is like winning the lottery. If you really think about how bands form, unless they are put together, like a quote superstar band, I have no idea. Meshing together different personalities isn't easy. This band was blessed because Deon (Rexroat, bass), Joey (Milligan, guitar) and myself were from the same small town in Florida. It's called Winterhaven, with a population somewhere around 25,000. We started a group there (SaGoh 24/7) that eventually became Anberlin. Honestly, there is no formula that can solve the question you asked. The percentages of actually finding the right people to play with, and make a career out of music, is quite high.
JAM: These days, anybody can make music and post it on the Internet. Maybe finding the right people isn't the key, but the right technology to record your thoughts.
That's true, then again you have to define success when figuring out which of those songs are band driven or just a Pro Tools rig sorting thought different sound effects.
JAM: I think you made a very smart move early on going with Tooth & Nail. I always thought the Christian market had a good handle on how to deal with the Internet before mainstream labels and bands ever figured it out. Did your time with Tooth & Nail serve this band well in preparing Anberlin for the next step, and that was signing to Universal Music?
I think that any Indie label is imperative to a band's growth, even if it is just for one or two records. If you go straight to a major label, they are going to tell you who to be, what to be, who to sound like, what your marketing strategy is going to be, your target audience, etc., etc. They want to fill you with facts, figures and manipulations of what sounds best, who dresses in what way, and how you should look at your photo shoot. So why not figure this all out before you get to that point on an Indie label. They give you the time and the space to find yourselves and develop at your own pace. That should always be a personal decision, not a major label suggestion.
JAM: For the past 25 years, I've heard bands tell me that every time they put out a new album, it's the best thing they have ever done. I want a really honest answer here Steve. What is so vital about Vital that makes you believe this record is going to take Anberlin to the next level, which would be headlining shows instead of opening them?
Okay, here's your honest answer. Say you're a football team going against the state champs. Your team hasn't won a game yet. If you go into that game with the attitude, "Ah, we're going to lose, we might as well not play," then you are doomed to failure. Every single record a musician releases, in their mind, better be their best record to that point or why would you ever put it out. Seriously, why put it out? There is no point in saying this album is going to fall short, we aren't going to sell anything, this isn't going to further our career. If that's the case, scrap the music and start over. Do whatever it takes to NOT release that record.
JAM: You would have scrapped this record if you didn't feel Anberlin had moved forward as a band with this album?
Listen, you have to be confident in this business. You have to be certain that the new record you are about to release is your best record to date. Every time you release an album, you are telling your fans, and the public at large, this is who we are today. On this record, I'm a better lyricist, a more confident songwriter than the last time you heard something new from our band. To me, Vital stands out not because it is Anberlin's quintessential record. For me, it attained the goals we set out to achieve from the very beginning with this project. We had the album title before we even started the recording process. The word ‘vital' became a goal, a mantra, a plaque on the wall we stared at every day to motivate us every day to create the best record possible. Bands don't have the right to choose which albums they release to classify as their best efforts. They should always focus on the business at hand to make that album the best they put out. At the end of the day, it is the fans, not the critics, and not even the band, that decide the fate of a record.
JAM: When Anberlin writes an album, is it by committee or does one person bring an idea to the band and you dissect it from there?
What is so great about this band is everything is a group effort. The drummer wrote a few songs on this record. Joey Milligan and Christian McAlhaney are the primary songwriters, and they are also our guitarists. Joey had a burst of inspiration and wrote 45 songs for consideration. It was insane. Musically he was all over this record. Christian dissected what Joey brought in and combined different songs together. The results were unbelievable. But the process does include all of us at the end of the day, so it is a group effort.
JAM: Lyrics are just that until the music is added later to bring life to the words. How do you know you are creating the right music for the words you've written for any particular song?
To go with your original point, that lyrics are nothing until the song is written, here's the deal. Fans always end up dissecting whatever you say on any given song. No matter what music you perform with those lyrics, take that aspect away, like fans do, and the words becomes poetry. When it comes to composing a song, if the verbal element of the puzzle doesn't fit, and isn't already alive before the music is added, it's going to be dead in the hearts of the listener. They won't be able to relate, they won't be able to say they understand it, this is my life. You have to create a living, breathing prose before it goes to music.
JAM: You seem to place a great deal of importance on the lyrics written for your songs before you ever consider putting that music out for public consumption?
Listen, writing music is definitely a process. What I try to do the best I possibly can with lyrics is this. I observe and absorb the world around me and translate it in my own mind so that I can create these poetic stories. If people get something out of the words I create, then I'm happy. I'll rejoice in that accomplishment that my storytelling has brought some sort of enlightenment to whoever really loves the song. I don't want people to feel they are a docile participant on our records. I want people to know they are absolutely incorporated and central to the record.
JAM: You just mentioned the guitarist wrote 45 songs for the new album. That very same situation may have occurred on past recordings as well. It must be an incredibly difficult process to find the right 12 songs to place on an album. How do you know a song from a past record that didn't make the cut, isn't a right fit for where the band is now?
As pseudo-supernatural as this is going to sound, music sings to me, talks to me. I can listen to the music to one song and tell you if it has any chance for me to write lyrics to it. If not, they are just cast aside. We do not rehash old music. We believe if you're not growing, you are dying. You have to believe you are going to be a better songwriter, a better guitarist tomorrow. Therefore, what you did yesterday is totally irrelevant. The thing that scared me into making that a life goal was this interview I read with Bob Dylan. He was around his mid-30s and he told this journalist that all his good songs were behind him. To me, that quote scared me so bad, I didn't want to ever get to a point as a musician to where I'd ever say anything like that. In fact, the day I quit making music is the day I say all my best music is behind me. I do want to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. I do want to have that hope my vernacular will increase, and my words will not only be heard but absorbed into other people's lives. I have to believe that once we create a song, and we don't use it, then it is cast aside never to be picked up again.
JAM: Labels are now more focused on revenues, not careers. What challenges does that pose to your band in this new environment?
Every band is faced with that dilemma. You are absolutely right. I think that biggest curse that a band could ever have is if their first record was massive. If their first record is huge, most likely you will never ever, ever hear from them again. Their second record will do half as well, and then they will be stated. I really believe in bands starting with a small fan base and growing from there. Work as hard as you can and tour, tour, tour to increase audience awareness and hope that you weren't cursed with the massive success of that first record. To tailgate on your question, it does seem like we are a singles driven society now. The funny thing is everyone kind of complains about that fact, yet what they forget that with the inception of recorded music into our society, everything was singles. Artists weren't focused on entire albums, just singles. That was only brought into light when the record labels realized they could make more money with a collection of tunes on a single LP, or long play vinyl, than just the single itself. If they just recorded six or seven more songs, and placed them on an extended play disc, they would make five times more money. Now that we are going back to a singles society, record labels are going insane because now we are reverting back to the past they thought was all dead and buried.
JAM: As a songwriter, it seems your music is scrutinized even more today than in the past, when you could get away mixing mediocre tunes with strong ones on an album.
I don't think any artist believes the music they put on a record is mediocre, but I do see your point. The Internet is allowing people the opportunity to purchase what they want, and in any quantity, from whatever an artist releases. It's almost funny how it has all come full circle. As a musician, I love the album concept as a whole to be pursued and enjoyed by the listener. However, I am not naïve to the reality that all musicians face today. And, to add insult to injury, if you don't have two or three really good singles on your album, it won't sell as a whole. That's a great challenge for bands to face up to these days. Instead of running around going, "We have two great singles on this record. It's going to blow up. We'll just write superfluous music to fill this album out." Now all artists are put to the test of making a great record with all the songs sounding impeccable. Then the fans will actually purchase the entire record. That's a great challenge for us, a stretch for the label, and hopefully a difficult choice for the consumer.
JAM: Here's the world I grew up in. Bands went into a studio to finish up their album, figure out the running order of the songs, then name of album, figure out album art work design, then decide on the perfect release date. Today, that's not how the world works. Consumers just pull your track up on YouTube and instantly decide whether they like it or not. What kind of pressures does that put on your band, and did you feel it during the Vital recording sessions?
Well, your observations are absolutely correct. I'll always remember this comment a record label executive made to me about the sales results of our first album for them, New Surrender, and the single we released. This was back in 2008. He said, "Man, if this record had been released ten years ago, you all would be millionaires." The times had changed, and it was a new reality for everyone in the business. Even though the market has evolved, that doesn't resolve any of my passion to be a musician or to be the best Anberlin possible can be.
JAM: In this country, you've got American Idol, the X Factor, America's Got Talent, The Voice, etc. But here's the thing about participating, or even winning those contests. You get the instant exposure and fame, but you've got no foundation to build upon before that. None of the people participating in these contests that win it, or even land in the Top Ten, have a background that would prepare them for the grueling road ahead. Anberlin has been together close to ten years now. There's value in that experience, there's value in the education you've learned at the school of hard knocks you graduated from. How do you see that all coming together for the band now?
Well, that school has taught us a lot. Though there are a lot of things I would look back and say those were the wrong decisions, I wouldn't go back and change them simple for the fact this business is a learning process. Anberlin is here today because of all the decisions we made from day one through today. Honestly, I don't know if I'd change anything that got this band to where it is today. I have never wished that our band had participated in any of those contests because I feel we've made genuine connections with our fans and built up a solid base through the music. I wouldn't change that for any amount of money or any amount of instantaneous, yet quickly vaporizing notoriety those shows create.
JAM: In today's impersonal world where everything is available to you with the touch of a computer mouse, customer service is the one thing that is lacking in almost every phase of the music business. I remember interviewing this country artist named Garth Brooks back in 1990. I had no clue who he was, didn't care. But I was fascinated by a story where he stayed up 24 straight hours and signed autographs. I asked him why. He said, "Well, these people took the time out from their busy lives to come see me. For every autograph I signed, every picture I took, that person is going to remember the moment. From that point on, they will purchase my future records, purchase tickets to my concert, and buy merchandise at my show. It is a small price to pay to get a fan for life." Do you understand the philosophy behind his comment?
Absolutely! That connection we have with fans is what sets apart from say ‘80s glam rock bands that envision themselves so much better than their fans. We do stuff like meet and greets, but our favorite thing to do is work with a great non-profit called Down Time. What they do is this. When we come into an area to perform and no pun intended, but if we have some ‘down time' before the show, we'll go work at a local soup kitchen or Habitat for Humanity. We once worked with this outfit, Dare with Care in Boulder, Colorado. We worked with children who have cancer. What we do is get on social media sites, contact our fans and tell them that we are going to be at Habitat for Humanity, come help us build a garden. Come to the hospital and hang out with us as we work with these children and talk to them. Not only do we get to meet our fans, but we introduce them to local organizations to make their community a better place.
JAM: When you see the Smashing Pumpkins go on stage, you know it's about the performance, about playing live. People aren't attending these shows because the ticket prices are high, but because it's the one place they can expect something new, different and real. Does the band understand that making people want to go to an Anberlin show, to experience their own magical moments with the band, is the key to your longevity?
We do, we really do. The fact of the matter is we toured with some heavy, heavy bands when we first started. They were nu core groups and metal bands. What we got out of them was this energy, this raw, raw passion that made every moment not only entertaining, but you felt so absorbed by what was going to happen next. That was one of those key life lessons we learned early on that we have never forgotten. Anberlin has incorporated that spirit that first moved us into every show we play. The fans have caught on to that and anything less from us in concert, they would notice.
JAM: Last weekend I saw a band called Circa Survive. Never heard of them, but their performance completely took me by surprise. Their young early 20's audience, I later found out, started out with this band when they were 13, 14 years old and literally grew up with them. They were singing along to lyrics to some of the most complicated phrasing I've ever heard. Have your fans grown up with you over the years?
Circa Survive is absolutely incredible. Anthony (Green) is a dear friend of mine. We have toured with them several times. That's what is so incredible about our genre of music, us and Circa Survive, is the fact that we were never massive. We were not on these television shows, we didn't buy our fame and notoriety. Both bands started out playing before 15, 16 people, then it grew to 50, then 100. So not only do we NOT take any second for granted, we absolutely have built up a connection and longevity of friendships with people that come to our shows.
JAM: When you are writing music, are you subconsciously aware that you're also writing for the people that have been with you since the beginning and are literally growing with you? I would think that would pose some very interesting challenges for the band.
I think that if you create for anyone else or anything else, whether it's for fame, notoriety, sex drugs or rock and roll, then it is absolutely the wrong motive. You need to write for yourself and the passion within. You have to write because it hurts if you don't. You have to write because you want the world to experience exactly what you are going through and perhaps give them a small sense of yourself. I can't write for fans, and I'm not saying that to offend them. I just cannot place myself in that position because if I end up writing for anything else but the song, I'm writing for the wrong reasons. Also, I'm the one that has to live with the music the rest of my life, so anything less than coming from the heart won't do it for me.
JAM: When you compose lyrics to a song, do you look at it visually as well? I ask that because it seems like everything is going YouTube nowadays. Seriously, I don't even know if radio is still important anymore.
Radio is absolutely important, I really do believe that. The average person doesn't spend all day watching videos. During the day when you're driving to work, to school or running errands, radio is still infiltrating our lives. Whether we see it or not, I think that we are very conscious when we are on the computer and using social media sites like YouTube. This band doesn't sit down to write lyrics to songs with video in mind. Videos are one of those post-record things. That's where you decide which song you like the best to release, then after that we figure out a video. It goes in that order. But if you try to write for any specific medium, it goes back to the last question of ulterior motives which are absolutely false in the light of any musical integrity.
JAM: Listening habits have definitely changed over the years. It used to be entertainment options were limited. You bought the CD's you could afford then play that music to death. And it's not only music that's under attack from the Internet. Newspapers are competing with blogs; TV is competing with YouTube and Hulu. Everything in the entertainment world is changing as it interacts with the Internet. How did Anberlin go about integrating their music, and even the band itself, in this wired world?
Much like the first question you asked, Anberlin was born into this society that is linked through the Internet. We have an Apple product in one hand, and it's connected Wi-Fi in the other. For us, we take full advantage of the tools that are before us. Obviously the one-on-one contact between humans has been diminished by technology, but the upside is I can keep in touch with more people. There are positives and negatives, but this is the world we live in now. To go into a cabin, into seclusion, at this point would be a bit late in the game.