When you start out rattling the basement walls with your friends, there are no expectations beyond a gig, beer, and maybe some girls. But if you're good, that can change quickly, and it's a challenge not to lose your head in the whiplash. Anberlin frontman Stephen Christian became familiar with this hazard when they jumped to Universal Republic following the success of their third Tooth & Nail album, 2007's Cities.
"People think, 'We made it!' Or 'We're on a major now, we finally don't have to do anything' — which is literally the opposite," says Christian. "I would have people from the label call me and say, literally, 'Hey if this record fails, it's your fault. Don't look at your band. Don't look at your manager. Don't look at your label. Look at yourself.' That's why I grew a beard and ran away to New Orleans before New Surrender."
The group's Universal debut, New Surrender, proved to be a commercial success for the Florida emo-inclined rockers. While previous albums had been recorded by the more punk-inclined Aaron Sprinkle (MXPX, Emery), new producer Neal Avron (Fall Out Boy, New Found Glory) polished away much of the grit giving the album a modern rock-ready veneer befitting its ballad-heavy content.
The group swung in the opposite direction for 2010's follow-up Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place, a hard-hitting and surprisingly bleak album for such a generally positive band. The album also yielded the crossover hit "Impossible," which simultaneously climbed the U.S. alternative, rock, pop and Christian charts.
"Dark Is the Way came out of a rebellion against New Surrender," says Christian, who's back living in his native Florida. "We felt like New Surrender wasn't totally Anberlin. We were going to do a record that we wanted to do, and not one that the label wanted or the fans wanted. Whatever the case might've been, we were pleasing ourselves and putting our own plastic bag on our head and attempting to breathe."
Christian and his bandmates had minimal ambitions when they first got together more than a decade ago in the sleepy retirement community of Winter Haven, Florida.
"We come from a very small town and there was really literally nothing to do," he recalls. "Packing a place out by having, like, 35 people there was huge. That was our weekend. Playing in a band seemed like our only escape and the only way to get out. And never in a bazillion years would we ever have thought we'd even cross the state line."
"But I can tell you it was a driving motivator," adds Christian. "You can look around and realize after a few years of living in a small town that the people that graduated ahead of you, the people you used to look up to, are still there, doing the same thing and going to the same places. And you have a choice to make."
Not that it's always easy. While touring in support of Dark Is the Way, the band was scheduled to fly to Brazil. Christian received a call from his father that his grandfather might be on his deathbed. He flew that night to Dallas to see him, but he had to leave for Brazil the next day. Upon arrival, he got the news that his grandfather had died.
"It hit me really hard on many levels — obviously the relationship between him and I — but deeper than that. I'm in a job where my only stability is instability. I miss weddings. I miss anniversaries and here I've missed my grandfather's funeral — just the guilt that comes from all that and choosing passion over family."
Ultimately, Christian reconciled himself to the sacrifice. "If I didn't believe in my music, if I didn't love the guys I was with, I wouldn't have gotten on that airplane to Brazil," he says. "Something has to be said for just being in love with what you do and who you do it with."
Last October, Anberlin released its third major-label album, Vital, a back-to-basics collection that reunites them with their original producer. Since he'd helmed the band's first three albums, there was already a natural chemistry there, and they quickly found themselves picking up where they'd left off.
"You almost have a language," says Christian, "and that language is built on trust, and that trust on the longevity of the relationship."
The singer has also become enamored with the forthright style of the late poet Charles Bukowski, who became a cult hero thanks to books like Notes of a Dirty Old Man and What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire. "I have my reasons, for the vices I embrace," he sings on "Type Three," a song he says was inspired by reading the gruff writer's raw, uncensored prose.
"Sometimes you come across literature that challenges the way you write, and that for me was Bukowski. He takes what other people think or feel and just writes it down. There's no social graces." says Christian. "When I wrote [previously] I would scratch something out because I thought it was too personal or too poignant, and now I would just leave it."
Of course, hindsight is 20-20. "If I could go back in time," muses the singer, "I would tell Stephen to let the suits be the suits, let everyone else handle the suits, and you just remain in love with music. Because that's what it's all about."