July 16, 2020 Interview – Stephen Christian of Anchor & Braille and Anberlin
Some musicians seek fame and cash, and others simply could not exist without their art. When a creator is sincere, it shines through in their work: whether that’s crafting undeniably catchy Rock-n-Roll songs, belting out danceable, sensual Indie Pop, or using their passion and drive to motivate others. Then there are men like Stephen Christian who do it all: vocalist for Emo Rock outfit Anberlin, author of the one-man band Anchor & Braille, as well as a campus pastor in Florida.
Christian’s varying passions keep him a busy man, but one who rarely lacks in creativity. His latest release under the guise of Anchor & Braille, entitled Tension, arrived in late May via Tooth & Nail Records. Delving into all the intricacies of the album, Christian recently sat down to discuss his favorite song on the LP, working with Producer Chad Carouthers, what’s next for Anberlin, plus much, much more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in music for over two decades now. What has all this time taught you about yourself?
Stephen Christian – Oh man, that is an incredibly deep question. I think the number one thing that it taught me was that no matter your background—no matter how educated or uneducated, how rich or poor—the key to my personal success, people can apply it to their lives, is simply being determined. You’re just persistent and you just fight, and work as hard as you can. With a little bit of luck I think that you can achieve just about everything. That sounds like a motivational speech, as far as, like, “If you wish on a star, kids,” but it’s not that. (Laughs)
I want to make sure that people understand that I grew up in a very poor family, and I was not that smart. I had straight C- grades, I failed the SATs. I just wasn’t a good student, so my whole upbringing I thought, “Man, I’m a failure. I’m never going to get a good job, I’m never going to be able to do what I want. What am I actually going to do?” Even to the point that my 11th grade guidance counselor was like, “Hey, if you work hard you can probably get a job as an auto mechanic.” Not that there’s anything wrong with those skills, but she didn’t even believe in me that I had the talent or ability to get through a vocational school.
I felt like I gave up on myself around the age of 18, 19 years old. I just thought, “Man, I’ve really got nothing to offer this world.” Then I realized that I was in love with music, and I was in love with the creation of music and the business aspect of it. Everything about it was so exciting and invigorating. I doubled down: I lived with my parents, I sold my car ‘cause I couldn’t afford the insurance. I took odd jobs—digging ditches and stuff. I just did whatever I could, and I realized that, through tenacity and hard work, no one was going to tell me no.
I had to overcome my own fears of failure, feeling incompetent and less than. I just powered through all of that, and now that I look back I think that’s the biggest teacher: that nothing can stop me. I know nothing about how to build my own website; I can’t code worth crap. However, I believe in myself enough that I know that if I just sat down and read a few books, and really studied and really worked hard, I feel like I could build a computer from the ground up. I know that’s a horrible analogy, but it’s kind of how I look at life—How bad do you want it? How much are you willing to sacrifice to make it work? That’s something I didn’t know about myself a few decades ago.
Cryptic Rock – That’s a wonderful way to be. Do you think it would have totally changed your life if there had been a compassionate educator at your school that said grades aren’t everything?
Stephen Christian – Yeah, no one told me that—or maybe society didn’t tell me that. You know, that’s all you’re surrounded by in high school is grades and what college you’re going to go to, how far behind are you and what are you not good at. What are you going to major in? You’re supposed to know, “Oh, I succeed at this!” It’s just funny how many life decisions are made between the ages of 17 and 23. For a lot of us it’s who are you going to marry, what are you going to major in? Figure out the rest of your life! Dude, I was an idiot at 25, let alone 19.
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Isn’t everyone, though?
Stephen Christian – Yeah! To those people that are 19 that are like, “You weren’t a jerk!” Wait ‘til you’re 35 and you’re going to be like, “Oh my god!” But that’s okay, because we all fail, we make mistakes; we give ourselves grace, we pick ourselves back up, we move on, and we learn. The only way that you’re a failure is if you don’t learn from your mistake. So, to my 19-year-old self: give yourself grace, go at it with all your heart, and it’s okay to fail. Who cares? In the end it’s all going to work out.
Cryptic Rock – We probably could go on forever about this, but obviously we are here to discuss your latest album under the guise of Anchor & Braille, Tension, which was released on May 22nd. There is a lot of love, passion, and positivity on the album, so, to ask the obvious, why title it Tension?
Stephen Christian – Man, well, first off, when I named it, this was back in January. (Laughs) When we had finished the record, I had no clue that there was literally going to be every type of economic, racial, cultural—I had no clue 2020 was out to get us! So, for me, it was almost tongue-in-cheek. The first single is called “Dangerous,” and yet nothing on this record is dangerous. It was actually supposed to be carefree and light-hearted and, like I mentioned in other interviews, for the audience to take a deeper breath.
It actually all worked out because the tension you think that the record is going to create only assists in alleviating the second you get into it. I should have called the record “Escape”—or maybe “Catch & Release.” (Laughs) I just had no clue 2020 was going to pummel us in the throat, but it is what it is.
Cryptic Rock – None of us were prepared for 2020! (Laughs) So with each Anchor & Braille release, you have evolved your sound. With Tension, we see you exploring a soulful EDM vibe coupled with sophisticated Pop sensibilities that create a very chill and relaxing collection. Did that happen organically or was this a sound that you intentionally wanted to explore?
Stephen Christian – I think it’s all of the above. For me, when you listen to an Anchor & Braille record, it’s me being 100% myself. I can’t fake it! I don’t have a record label to impress, I’m not trying to make it on the radio, I’m not even trying to make it big or famous; it’s just me being me. So it’s a little bit of what I’ve been listening to and a lot of what I’m writing—the songs that are created in my head. I hear them and how I want them to sound, what I want them to feel like, and the lyrics. It’s basically just straight from my mind out into the world; those songs are just me, and there’s no better way to explain it.
For years, music was such a pressure point for me because there was so much attached to it. There was livelihood, there was family, there was tour, there were friends. There were fans that I felt like I didn’t want to let them down. There’s record labels and there was a payroll of 16 people. There’s so much that goes into being an artist that people never see, and the professionalism was choking out the passionate musician in me.
Anchor & Braille was kind of that sigh of relief, that moment where I could just be myself and not have to worry about all that pressure that had mounted. There wasn’t anybody relying on me, there wasn’t anyone breathing down my throat telling me, “This better succeed or the failure is all on your back.” So this new Anchor & Braille is as if an author is hearing the story in his mind and he’s writing it onto his computer. I think that’s exactly how this album is for me: it’s just straight from my brain and out. (Laughs) That’s as close as you’re ever going to get to putting wires in my head and listening to the songs that play.
Cryptic Rock – Can’t the same be said for all of the best music? It is authentic, you can tell that it’s authentic, and it is not somebody writing what they think will make them money.
Stephen Christian – Absolutely! That is exactly why Anberlin stopped five years ago. I felt, man, if I start to phone this in, I’m going to be a phony; everything that I hated about the industry I would become. Before we got to the point where we were just touring to tour to make money—we didn’t want to do that. If I’m not going to give 100% every night, then I’d rather give zero. So, absolutely. You’ve absolutely got it right!
I can guarantee from this side of being out of the music industry as my full-time job, we, as Anberlin, gave 100%. We gave everything we could, every sweat and tear, all of it. Everything we did we gave it all. Then, at the end, it just kind of took it out of us. Even that last show that we played—Anberlin played our last show in Orlando, Florida—at the end I collapsed to the floor. It wasn’t out of some type of theatrical presentation, it was simply I was exhausted. I was so tired I could have literally just curled up and fallen asleep right there. If everyone was quiet, I probably could have gotten a solid 12 hours in. I was sick and exhausted, because we gave everything we had.
Cryptic Rock – Anberlin is and was a great band. To get back to Anchor & Braille, let’s discuss a few tracks more specifically. Perhaps you can offer up some insight into the writing, recording, or anything noteworthy behind a few of the tracks. The first one we selected is the opener, “No Ordinary,” which has this dancey, almost Sade vibe to it.
Stephen Christian – Whoa! I like that. Yeah, the comparison is awesome—she crushes. It wasn’t meant to be like that at all. It was just one of those things where I was sitting at my kitchen table, it was late one night, and everybody was asleep in the house. When I heard that melody, that melody line just hit right away, and that’s actually my favorite song on the record. Maybe subconsciously that’s why it is, because, ah man, this is like Sade. That’s rad! Thank you!
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) You’re welcome. And “Tethered”?
Stephen Christian – That was actually the first song we ever wrote, Chad Carouthers and I; we were just goofing off. He’s a well-known songwriter in Nashville, and he’s just kind of breaking into the production world. So we were together writing songs, and we had no agenda; we were just like, “Let’s write whatever.”
We were songwriting and suddenly he went, “Can I play you this other stuff that I’m messing around with?” He played me that beat and some of that music on there, and within fifteen minutes we created that song. It was so natural and so effortless. This was about a year and a half ago, but it was so effortless that I was like, dude, we’ve got to hook up; we have gotta make a record together.
That’s kind of where the inception of our friendship came from. If it wasn’t for that one songwriting session back in Nashville, Tennessee, I’m not sure that this record would have been produced by him—or even sounded as good. He crushed it, I am so excited! Every twist and turn that he created, it was so perfect. Even to the point where “Madness,” that chorus sounded nothing like that until we got into the studio and he was like, “You gotta change it, we’ve gotta make it better. What about raising it here, what about giving it more of an ‘80s vibe?” He’s an incredible producer and that song brought us together.
Cryptic Rock – Okay, next song is “Slow Motion.”
Stephen Christian – When I create a record, there’s a little movie trailer that goes through my head and it allows me to think through, okay, what is the scene in the movie which I’m creating? For instance, Songs for the Late Night Drive Home is always just that: in my head I was thinking about driving through a city and what music would I want to put on; that’s the theatrical trailer in my head. For this record it was just a scene, ironic because of COVID now, where people were just hanging out inside their house by themselves—or maybe with a close friend and they’re goofing off and dancing to this music. That’s the scene I was trying to create.
My brother, he cannot dance for anything; he is the worst dancer of all-time. Whenever we would go out to a club or something, he would take his hand and just kind of wave it up and down and that’s it. That’s his only dance move. He would just stand there and do that, and I was like “You’re the worst!” (Laughs) So that’s what I was envisioning: my brother just standing there, trying to look cool but not—bouncing his hand up and down. (Laughs) I was like, dude, this would be that song playing in the background, and my brother’s just standing there stupid. (Laughs) That’s kind of where I went with the song, to just try to create a groove where people can goof off.
Cryptic Rock – Well, there you go. For the video you can shoot your brother moving his hands. (Laughs) Okay, the last song is “Closer & Farther”?
Stephen Christian – We wrote this song called “Circle,” and it did not make this record. It sounded way out of place, and it sounded way too Anberlin for this record. Imagine trying to stick an Anberlin song on here, it just, it wouldn’t fit. It was a little dark, so we cut the song. And [Chad] was like, “Can you please go back and try something else? Go search through everything that we’ve done and figure something out.”
The next morning I woke up and started playing around on the keyboard and goofing off. Usually you come up with a chorus first and then you wrap the verses around that chorus. This was atypical, and I started the verses first because I like that pattern, that tempo or rhythm to how the vocals are sung. So I just started writing all the verses and then the chorus just hit me after. That’s not typical, but it was a lot of fun to put together. I wrote that the morning that we recorded that vocally.
Cryptic Rock – It came out great and it’s one of my favorites on the album. Do you have a favorite lyric on the collection?
Stephen Christian – Oh man. It would have to be in “Closer & Farther”: “Who are we really when no one’s watching and no one’s around? / If character falls in the dark, does it ever actually make a sound?” I like the line about dancing and laughing on the outside, but on the inside it’s a painful existence.
So the song is about just dropping masks, and I think we all carry them at all times; it’s just time that we start taking them off. It would make us better humans; all of our relationships immediately would get better. If people didn’t like us for who they really saw, you probably shouldn’t be in that relationship or that friendship to begin with. I think that’s kind of the moral message of “Closer & Farther.”
Cryptic Rock – That is definitely one of the songs that contains the most sage wisdom. Now, to move onward, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if there are any plans for Anberlin in the near future?
Stephen Christian – Absolutely! We know we want to record as soon as possible. We don’t know when that is and the album is not done—it’s not even written yet. Also, we don’t know when we’re going to tour next. I think we’re going to put out a record and tour probably, if I had to guess, it would be summer of 2021, but I literally have no clue.
Cryptic Rock – Understandable. Sadly, it’s hard for anybody to make firm plans anymore. So on a non-music note, I recently discovered that you are a pastor, which did not shock me. As someone who has to provide his congregation with inspiring and hopeful messages in these troubled times, is there anything that you’d like to share with fans on how to weather the storm that is 2020?
Stephen Christian – Man, it has been insane as far as the division that 2020 has brought us. You would think, you know, with World War II the country got closer. There’s a lot of moments where—even Kobe Bryant’s death—we all stopped for just a split second and we felt closer; we were all grieving together. 9/11. With huge tragedies we’ve seen our nation come together, and it feels like why is 2020 so polarizing?
We just suddenly split into all these factions. What political party? What religion? What color? What creed? We are suddenly segregating ourselves and it’s time for us to just drop our guards and stop. The Bible says to love your neighbor as yourself, and whether you believe in God or not, I think this is a message for everyone: just treat your neighbor as you would want to be treated.
Systemically, the media and social media have been so polarizing, and so much a part of fueling this fire where you’re suspect of everyone. It’s time to stop, relax, and maybe turn that stuff off. Just start with your neighbor. When you’re at the grocery store, start with that person. Let somebody in front of you. Don’t yell when they cut you off. Just little things to make a difference. What if everybody changed just one person’s life in America? What if everybody just stopped and worked on one person—said I’ll get you groceries. How can I help you? You need a laptop? I’ve got an old one—here. Your kid is homeschooled now? Here you go!
Just try your best to change one life in this lifetime. Man, we could alienate the noise and get back to what makes us Americans—or not even America, just humans. It’s not an American problem, it’s a human problem. Let’s evolve into becoming great humans and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Cryptic Rock – Sadly, there’s been such a shift in values and there’s this entitlement that stops people from even wanting to help someone else.
Stephen Christian – Yeah. I’m not even sure what that is, because I didn’t feel that ten years ago or even eight years ago. Then suddenly there are so many battle lines, but they’re fictitious battle lines. When you look at a map of the United States, you see state lines but that’s because someone told you that there’s states; there is no actual line, it’s just one solid country. We’ve built these imaginary state lines in our heads that just don’t exist. Europe is all one, and yet they’ve drawn countries and borders. It’s the same with every continent, every country. It’s time to erase the imaginary boundaries and just say we’re human—and love one another again. It’s just time!
Cryptic Rock – It’s actually past time. Okay, last question. If you are a fan, do you have any favorite films in Horror or Sci-Fi?
Stephen Christian – I love Sci-Fi. Obviously Star Wars (1977)—I’m sure everybody says that. In honesty, I like anything like Black Mirror: anything that can make you think or give you a twist on life, whether that’s A.I. or stuff like that. That stuff is so intriguing to me, because it all feels like they’ve already thought out multiple endings to the human race. There’s a kind of vantage point and their creation is always so incredible. Stuff like that always captivates me.
Cryptic Rock – Okay, the million dollar question is: Did you like the Star Wars prequels?
Stephen Christian – No. (Laughs) I love Rogue One (2016) and my favorite is The Empire Strikes Back (1980). As far as Episodes I, II, and III, I never want to see them again ever. I even tried to go back within the last year, I tried to go back and watch them and they’re unwatchable. I’m sorry to any fans of I, II, and III, I just can’t do it. Jar Jar Binks, every time he comes on I cringe; I just want to choke myself. So I can’t do it, but these new ones are giving me a bit of a glimmer of hope.