Anberlin frontman Stephen Christian is always searching for answers. His religious faith is so strongly intertwined in his personal DNA that it is integral to his lyrics, but rather than be overt about it, he cloaks many of his lyrics in metaphor to make them accessible to a wider audience. He acknowledges that humans inevitably search for something, be it their hunger for knowledge or desire for money, things either substantial or superficial, and he believes that that search seems to be more about acceptance at a younger age and becomes more about truth and getting to what is real as one gets older. He believes that latter theme will probably surface on the rest of the albums and certainly rears its head on their sixth and latest album, Vital.
If that sounds heavy, it is, but Anberlin craft catchy tunes to wrap around such lofty lyrical ideas. The Florida group is currently headlining a U.S. tour with support acts Paper Route and All Get Out while having a blast performing their intense music to fans. They are playing music they love with bands they love. “I just can’t complain,” declared Christian. “It’s a good life.”
Upon its arrival, the last Anberlin album, Dark Is The Way, Light Is A Place, was the group’s most fully realized album, taking the band’s aggressive emo approach and injecting with melodic ’80s pop rock sensibilities. The new Vital has elements of that amalgamation while also drawing on the freneticism of the group’s earlier work, even sporting a metallic energy in spots. The music is as emotionally potent as ever. Christian sees Vital as a natural progression for the band.
“[Our fourth album], New Surrender, was the first record that we put out on Universal, and we were under immense pressure to please our fans,” recalled Christian. “We had just come off Cities, and here we were on a major label, which was obviously breathing down our neck for the greatest record of all time. There was so much pressure, and I feel that looking back at those days there were a lot of songs written for other people. We tried to please so many people—all our fans, the label, ourselves—that the whole record felt like it was a wash and felt lost within itself.”
Thus, Dark Is The Way… turned into “a complete rebellion to that—screw the world, we don’t care what anyone else thinks or says, we’re doing this for ourselves—and I feel like Vital is a return to who Anberlin is and was,” mused Christian. “The return of an identity. I don’t want to say that we ever went through an identity crisis, I think we went through a moment of, ‘Who are we making music for?’ I think Vital is a return to realizing that we’re making music not for ourselves or for our label or for numbers or any other reason but because we’re passionate about music, and our favorite moments of being in a band are those moments standing on stage with our fans screaming along. I think Vital is a direct reflection of longing to just be up there on stage, standing there with everyone singing along in unison.”
What those loyal disciples are singing along to are very personal ruminations and confessions coming from the singer, a strong example on Vital being “Type Three.” Christian says that the song is a summation of himself, as if looking in a mirror and taking note of what he sees. “There have been a lot of moments in life right where I feel like I’ve been misunderstood or I didn’t understand myself, so this is kind of a blatant autobiography. Each section is a little bit more biographical than the last.”
The song was inspired by a test he had learned about from author Chris Heuertz, who the singer calls a soul-searching modern philosopher. “He told me about this test that anybody can take, and at first it sounded like a cheesy Cosmo test, but it turned out to have been invented by Jesuit priests in the 1970s,” said Christian. “It’s called an Enneagram [test], and you explore yourself through where you find your vices and what you allocate as sin or not. It was really interesting because this test almost nailed me. I felt like these were exactly the things I deal with.” There is a line in the song “Type Three”—”I have my reasons for the vices I embrace/A world of treasons, I’m their only escape”—that puts that test into words for the singer and allowed him to explore what he has been and will be struggling with.
When asked what he has most struggled with in his life, Christian offered a broad-reaching analysis. “If you’d asked me that question five years ago, I would’ve said fear of the future because living in a band is the most unstable career choice I feel that you can make. It’s not like if you work hard, it’s inevitable that you are going to get this and this and be able to do this and this or that my band is going to survive this amount of time. Your [success is] dictated based on the musical preferences of somebody else. I think now I feel like I struggle with the fear of a lack of legacy. Am I doing enough to inspire? Am I doing enough to be able to give enough that I can influence people to then in turn give and inspire?”
Given his and the band’s past missionary work and involvement with organizations like Habitat For Humanity and Build With CaRe, Christian finds it important to stay involved with social causes while on the road, even though it is not often easy to do so. That is a struggle in itself.
Further proof of Christian’s personal evolution can be found on the synth-driven ballad “Innocent,” which was very hard for him to write and the most personal one on Vital. “Maybe I wrote it slightly out of guilt,” the singer admitted. “About two years ago we were heading to Brazil, and we had been on the road for about a month and a half knowing full well that my grandfather was really sick. They brought him in for an operation, and he was coming out, and they didn’t know if he was going to make it or not. I was on my way to Brazil flying out of Dallas airport. I drove over to Longview, Texas, about two and half hours away, and I don’t know if my grandfather saw me or not, I don’t know how cognizant he was with the medication he was on, but I made the decision to go to Brazil rather than staying by his bedside. When I was in São Paulo, he passed away.”
That moment really made Christian reflect upon much he had sacrificed to be in a band. He gave up anniversaries and birthdays and what many might perceive as the mundane moments of life that others might treasure. “You lose a lot of friends and connections that you had spent your whole life developing, but you do it for the sake of music,” he explained of his artistic passion. “That was one of those first moments in my life when I was taken aback. I just miss my grandfather’s moments. I missed the funeral. I missed being there for my father, who was so close to his father. I invited my father to be there when I recorded the song because I just wanted him to know that in my heart that I still was there for him and that in my heart my grandfather was worthwhile and valued and loved. We’re all so shortsighted. Then suddenly life starts to get long sighted and you realize there is a future, and I am responsible for every decision I’ve made subsequently from my past. All that is still on my shoulders, it’s not going anywhere.”
Anberlin will play at Irving Plaza in NYC on March 20, The Trocadero in Philly on March 22, and The Chance in Poughkeepsie on April 12. For more information, go to anberlin.com.