Tony Cummings reports on the latest hit album for Florida's alternative rockers ANBERLIN
With their 'Vital' album reaching number 16 on America's mainstream album charts, clearly the popularity of Florida rockers continues unabated. As well as being a hit with their fans and the critics too have lavished praise on an album which sees Stephen Christian and his bandmates reunited with producer Aaron Sprinkle, the studio whiz who oversaw Anberlin's rise to popularity with their Tooth & Nail albums. JesusFreakHideout wrote, ". . .their sixth studio record is even more rewarding as the quintet's strongest effort this side of 'Cities'," letssingit.com enthused, "The album lives up to its title in every way and should prove essential for old and new fans alike" while Cross Rhythms wrote, "Anberlin have delivered a gem of an album."
Singer and songwriter Stephen Christian spoke to JesusFreakHideout about reuniting with Sprinkle. "The reason that we originally got away was not because of a feud or a fight, or even a personality. It wasn't about that. The primary reason was that we did not want to regurgitate a record. We wanted a progression, and we didn't want to rehash the past. That's not what we wanted. So we went with Neal Avron of Linkin Park and Yellowcard. He's an incredible producer, and we learned so much from Neal. He is a mathematician of a producer: the hardest working man possibly in the music industry. I've never seen a music producer work harder. He's like a machine. I had never had a music producer who sat down with you during songwriting and go line by line with every lyric and talk like, 'What are you trying to do here? What are you trying to say?' That was just incredible to hear and to learn and be challenged. And Brendan O'Brien. . . talk about a lifetime of experience. He is just a 'mecha' of a producer in that world. Working with him absolutely built our confidence up.
"Then we sat down with people and said, 'Ok, do we work with Brendan O'Brien or Neal Avron, or do we work with a new producer?' Then we kinda came back to this conclusion that we learned so much from Neal and Brendan who honed our songwriting and gave us the confidence to 'be' Anberlin. 'Why don't we take this back to the originator and see where that takes us?' Everybody was stoked on the idea and we talked to Aaron was he was like, 'This is absolutely perfect timing.' Even now he's a better producer than when we worked with him at first. So he's a better producer, we're a better band, we're better writers, and it was just one of those perfect moments in time where we were like, 'we're ready'. And it was like going back home. It was relaxing. He just settled in and we could just 'be' Anberlin. It was absolutely incredible. He was incredible to work with, and I'm so happy we made that decision."
So had the recording process changed since the band's Tooth & Nail days (2003-2007)? Responded Christian, "I was our primary songwriter up until 'New Surrender' - and even 'New Surrender' had Joey Milligan - and Christian McAlhaney was the primary songwriter for 'Dark Is The Way. . .' And now on this record we have Joey, Christian, Nathan Young on drums is writing, I'm writing. At the end of the day I had literally 65 songs to sift through and see which ones were going to go on the record. So now it's not a contribution of one, but many people in the band writing. So as far as songwriting was concerned, that was the biggest change."
Stephen felt that it was the experimentation evident on 'Vital' which made it such a unique contribution to the Anberlin catalogue. "We were trying for something different than 'Dark Is The Way. . .' We've never had a female sing on our record, and on this one we had three females. We've never had a choir - well, actually we did once [on "(*Fin)" from 'Cities'], but we used YouTube for the choir. We just decided we were going to try everything. If it doesn't work, we'll just get rid of it, but why not try it? So somebody was like, 'What if we put a trumpet in there?' And I'm like, 'I don't know if a trumpet section would work on an Anberlin record,' but we're like, 'We might as well try. And if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but why not try?' So we had our friend Josiah help us out, and we we're enamoured, like, 'Yep, that needed to go right there.' I mean, who would have thought? Even electronically we experimented. And the background really added to the 'aura' of the record, for a lack of a better word, and it just added a 'feeling'. A lot of it comes from the production of Aaron Sprinkle. He really showed up and took us over the edge."
Stephen spoke to the mindequalsblown website about the lyric focus of 'Vital'. "With 'Dark Is The Way. . .' I think I really was entrenched in poetry. I think that that was kind of my, I don't want to call it my 'Blue Period', but more like my 'Poetry Period', I guess, for horrible lack of better words. This time, I think I was influenced, but I definitely didn't make as many alliterations and I didn't draw so much from poets. I think what I did is basically be brutally honest with myself and be brutally honest with the people who are going to listen. I think the main inspiration with that was another poet, Charles Bukowski. He basically was one of the people that I read who really challenged me to be utterly and completely honest and not hold anything back. I think that's why I think he was one of the main inspirations behind the songs like 'God, Drugs And Sex'. I think that the current world climate is another thing I was taking into consideration. I mean, 'Someone, Anyone' is a song about how inspired I felt after the Egyptian revolution took place. I hoped that the entire region of the Middle East, and the rest of the world, including the United States, took note that peace can come from more than just a weapon, it can come from non-violent protests. So, I basically absorbed the world around me, interpreted it, and then put it to lyrics."
Stephen spoke about the keyboard-driven direction of some of the songs on 'Vital' and also the surprising introduction of guest vocalists Julia Marie and Christie DuPree. "I enjoy the experimentation with other instruments, but especially the fact that we, as Anberlin, have never done that. You know, we tour with a keyboardist and yet we don't use electronics. It's kind of ironic. And you know, we'd never had a girl sing on our record before. And so, we have these songs on our record where a female vocalist appears. You know, when you're coming to your sixth record, you've got to do something, we have to break out, we have to try something new, we have to experiment, and we have to progress. We're not just rehashing the same record over and over and over again. . . I don't know if we'll ever have this type of electronics on our records again but, for now, it's exactly what it needed to be. And I felt like it wasn't the forefront. Like, we don't have a song that's just me and a computer. You know, it's more like I want everybody involved, but I want electronics on top. I have to do it with this sense I enjoyed finding a new sound and finding a new beat, and kind of growing around that.
"So, yeah, it was definitely deliberate, and definitely something that we walked into the studio already having pre-planned. But, there was one song in particular called 'Innocent' that made the record, actually, and we had too many songs that were similar to that one. We had one called 'Unstable', it's going to be the iTunes b-side, and then 'We'll Have To Speak'. We felt like those three kind of sounded similar, so we had to pick one to go on the record. Well, Aaron Sprinkle got his hands on it and really came up with this epic-sounding chorus. So that was the only thing that wasn't pre-planned that was electronic. We felt it so took the song to the next level that it was inexplicable how much that song stood out from the other two, and that's why that one made the record. So, there were moments where the electronics were more a surprise to all of us, but other than that, I believe that we came in with the notion that this was where we wanted to head, just for this record."
For a band known to be Christians some eyebrows were raised by the inclusion on 'Vital' of the song "God, Drugs And Sex". Stephen commented, "It's so funny about the initial shock. People tweet me, 'Oh I can't even buy your record because of that song.' I think it's rather expected, even if it's from Christians. It's one of those things where people should explore it lyrically on their own, and they should really read the lyrics. It's about a relationship that I was close to. The relationship involved being attracted to the other person, but the deeper the relationship got, the more the chasm appeared with personality or character, or whatever the case may be. 'God, drugs and sex don't mean a thing, do they now, do they now?' For me, those are three major topics, and sure, they are heavy topics, but they summarize the depth of the relationship. Such as, if God doesn't mean a thing in the relationship, you know, it's over. And if they're so nonchalant that they aren't even posing the question, it's like, 'oh, drugs are no big deal.' Then it's over. And with sex, the other person has a viewpoint, and the other is nonchalant like it's no big deal, then the relationship is impractical.
"I'm charging the listener to take a look into their own lives and realise, 'Hey, what do I believe about these topics? And what do I encounter in these relationships? How much am I willing to compromise? Am I willing to compromise on God? Is my relationship with God going to suffer because the other person doesn't believe?' Or is it a nonchalant relationship with God? It's something I witnessed firsthand, but I wanted that tension when people first hear it, and I wanted people think about it. 'What do I believe about God?' 'Where do I stand on sex and modesty, and everything that goes along with that?' 'What is my stance on drugs and alcohol?' And if people are having trouble with that [because of the song's title], that's between them and themselves; they've got to figure that out on their own. And if they're not even going to buy the record just because of the song's title, it's like they don't want to even acknowledge that these things exist! If we refuse to be challenged, we simply don't hear about these topics, and it's happening everywhere around us. Instead of facing it or coming to conclusions, we bury our heads in the sand. And that's avoiding reality, even though that's what it is. The reality of it all is that you'll face even greater adversity in your life. And if that song title is offensive, you're in for a shock of a society of modern day America in 2012."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.