The mythos of the rock star would have us believe that there’s a clear line that runs from those early furtive moments that young men have lip synching along to their favorite records in front of a mirror to actually commanding a stage in front of anywhere from 10 to 10,000 people.
The reality, however, can often be less straightforward and clean, with so many young men and women stumbling into the spotlight as if propelled by a hearty shove. Take, for example, Stephen Christian, lead singer of the powerful emo rock band Anberlin. Growing up in Florida, Christian did spend his free time studying up on the lives and works of our most famous musical icons, but wasn’t dreaming of the day that he could step into their shoes.
“Music was definitely not my first realm of interest,” he says, “From when I was about five years old, I wanted to be a missionary and go around the world. That was my main goal.”
It’s a far cry from the bloviating rockers who claim that music is what they were born to do, but it is a statement that speaks volumes about the humility of a band that knows how fleeting success can be in their business. In fact, most of the members of the group have already been anticipating the day when they decide to hang up their instruments for good.
“Joey [Milligan, Anberlin’s lead guitarist] wants to be a producer, [Drummer Nathan Young] wants to open up a mortgage firm with his dad,” says Christian who himself is looking towards a life of humanitarian work once he tires of his current day job. “I’m looking at websites like idealist.org at jobs and volunteer things happening in my community twice and three times a week, thinking ‘What if…?'”
Although it might seem unusual for a band at the top of their game to think about leaving rock music behind completely but Christian, Milligan, Young, bassist Deon Rexroat and guitarist Chris McAlhaney have to be thinking about the future, especially considering the treacherous waters they are about to navigate.
In a period of lagging record sales and serious cutbacks being made among the major labels, Anberlin took a calculated risk in leaving their longstanding home, Tooth & Nail Records, and signing with Universal Republic. The band issued their latest album, New Surrender, under their imprint last month.
It was a decision made as much to break the band out of their comfort zone as it was out of pure convenience. “We could have had another five year career [with Tooth & Nail] and been comfortable,” says Christian, “and develop this niche market and not take any risks, but we just didn’t like that.” He also cites the departure of a number of people that the band had a longstanding relationship with as further incentive to look elsewhere. “They treated us like gold, but a lot of the passion for our band was leaving due to certain people leaving the company.”
The convenience of signing with Universal comes from negotiations that the big label had with the band and T&N before they went into the studio to record their last album Cities. “They were begging Tooth & Nail to let us go and go with them” Christian remembers, adding that the enthusiasm they had for Anberlin’s music just sweetened the deal. “Here was a major label that has the money and the passion and wants to push the band where we couldn’t go before.”
Right now, the label seems content not the shake the boat too much, letting them stick to the plan that has gotten them from their earliest days playing together in Winter Haven, Florida to doing spins around the country as part of the Warped Tour (the band will be doing their third tour of duty this summer) and having their last album debut in the Billboard Top 20.
Christian says that he, Milligan and Rexroat first met while they were still in high school. “There was a small percentage of our school in this redneck community that weren’t into trucks,” he says, “so you were a musician instead.” He and his fellow outcasts started bands together, often two or three at a time, trading members and instruments along the way.
The three friends were “absolutely inseparable” during this time, according to Christian, playing music and going to as many shows as they could find. It was at one such show that the core lineup of Anberlin was solidified.
“We were at a show and Deon found us and said, ‘You’ve got to come see this drummer! He’s 12 years old and he’s phenomenal.’ Sure enough, he was a 12-year-old phenom named Nate Young.” The three pilfered the youngster as a fill-in for their then band, but “we got attached to him,” says Christian. It was barely a year after that that Amberlin formed and was snatched up by Tooth & Nail and sent to the studio to record their debut Blueprints For A Black Market.
In the whirlwind of years that has followed, the group has made those incremental steps towards success, recording two more albums for their now former label, finding and losing a few guitarists and is now taking those tentative first steps towards the big time.
The first move was to get Anberlin into the studio, but instead of setting them loose with their longtime producer/collaborator Aaron Sprinkle, Universal placed them in the hands of Neal Avron, a music biz veteran who has helped shape albums by the likes of Yellowcard and The Starting Line.
Avron worked with the band for two solid months, not letting anyone, least of all Christian, slide on any part of the process. “This has been the toughest that I’ve ever put my back into. I had to write and rewrite songs something like 12 to 14 times,” he says, “In the last week of recording, Neal came to me and said, ‘I need these two songs rewritten.’ Inspiration isn’t just something you can pick up at the grocery store!”
The hard work evidently paid off as Surrender is the most epic-sounding collection of songs the band has crafted to date, capturing both the furious energy of their live shows and an arena-ready quality that their music has slowly been giving itself over to.
As a lyricist, Christian is following the band’s lead, tackling big themes like world conflicts (with an emphasis on the war in Iraq) as well as the internal conflicts that he deals with on a daily basis. “I tried to do as gut wrenching a job and as challenging a job as possible,” he says, “to write more songs about things that are important in my life and that are heavy on my heart. I wanted the passion of the lyrics to transcend the CD and to try and get the listener to feel the same passion.”
Considering the reaction to the intimate lyrical bent of their last album, Cities, Christian shouldn’t have any trouble with getting the band’s legion of fans tapped into his fervor. Truth be told, it was the reaction of the listeners to that album that pushed him to start digging even deeper lyrically.
“Prior to that record, I thought that people just wanted to hear a certain formula,” he says, “You know, ‘Here’s the themes that are acceptable.’ But the further I got into reading reviews [for Cities], the more I realized that they loved it. They wanted the heavier topics.”
That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering the makeup of much of Anberlin’s fan base – young Christians whose favorite bands often spend their entire careers laying out their spiritual and personal struggles for all to hear and connect with. Or as Christian puts it, “‘Hey, he’s going through it, too. I can get through it.'”
As much as Anberlin tries to embrace their Christian supporters and don’t shy away from talking about their own faith, where they start pushing back is when they start getting referred to as a “Christian band.” Not so much because they view it as a pejorative term, but instead they don’t want their beliefs to be used as a marketing tool to sell their albums.
“For me and the band,” says Christian, “it was selling out. I don’t want to say an abomination, but we couldn’t do it. I would hate to think that someone bought my record because the name of Jesus was put into some bullet point about the band.” At this point, on the precipice of a stint on a major label and potential concerns about crossover success, there might be some discussion on how the band gets classified in the media and in the blogosphere, but it doesn’t concern Christian. “They can do whatever they want. Call us alternative, emo, Christian, whatever. It’s just music labels or genres to help people sleep better at night.”
It’s a refreshing attitude to hear from a newly minted major label prospect, but one that is obviously informed by Anberlin’s understanding that they are ready, willing and able to call it quits if there’s even a hint of rough seas ahead. Until that time, Christian says he will be balancing the joy of playing music with that of working for aid organizations like World Vision and CARE.
He does acknowledge that that there will undoubtedly be a day when one of his loves takes precedence. “It’s like these two dogs are fighting inside of me and the one who wins is the one I feed. I think I’ve figured out how to appease both but if the band is not meeting the needs of fulfillment, on that day I will come to the band and say, ‘I’m out.'”
Rock ‘n’ roll’s loss will be humanitarianism’s gain.