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talk new music, touring, and more
october 16, 2012
Stephen Christian, Christian McAlhaney, and Nate Young of Anberlin

(Michelle Tiu / Neon Tommy)

Rock bands Anberlin and Smashing Pumpkins performed Sunday night at the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City. Both bands had the crowd jumping up and down in place, nodding their heads and pumping their fists in the air.

The five-piece Anberlin kicked off the night with a mix of classics from their previous albums, such as Feel Good Drag and Paperthin Hymn as well as songs such as Someone, Anyone and Self-Starter,” off of their new record Vital, which comes out today.

Headlining band Smashing Pumpkins played their latest album Oceania in full before going back to old classics like Cherub Rock and “A Song for a Son.”

The members of Anberlin was kind enough to speak with me today about their sixth album Vital as well as share funny stories about touring and more (when they weren’t busy eating cheese and crackers, of course!)

So I saw you guys last night and you did a great job. What's it like touring with Smashing Pumpkins?

Nathan Young [drummer]: It’s insane. I mean, it’s crazy, you know? As soon as we got asked, I remember just how pumped we were. I mean, [they’re] just such a huge band, so to be able to be on tour with them and play with them is crazy, for sure, so we’re pumped.

Stephen Christian [lead singer]: We were all pretty big fans of the band coming into it beforehand. It’s one of the coolest experiences as far as touring with another band that we’ve ever had.

You guys played at the Gibson last night, but you’ve been all over the world. What’s your favorite place to visit or perform?

Deon Rexroat [bassist]: We’re really fond of Australia – all of us. That was the first place that we ever went like outside of the country so it’s kind of been endearing to us every time we go back, but I love – the first time we ever played in Japan, I was blown away because it was in the top five list of places that I wanted to go in the world so it was rad.

Stephen: I don’t know. I love exploring so I love all the new places we get to go like the Philippines and Singapore and we got to go to China and Russia for the first time last year. That was just crazy – wonderful experiences, so any place new is my favorite.

Are there any crazy tour stories or anything?

Stephen: Besides Russia and paying off the government so we could get through?

Deon: Yeah, we basically had to pay a guy to go “They’re good” and then he walked away so that they wouldn’t like take our gear or something.

Nathan: We have crazy stuff happening a decent amount – I mean, nothing like insane, but we just got held up at the border before the first show of this Smashing Pumpkins tour and we almost didn’t make the first show because our driver had a record that he decided not to tell us about, so that was fun.

What do you guys do when you're not on tour?

Nathan: On my off time, I’m still like thinking about music. I can’t get away from it. I mean, we all do other stuff – in the winter, I hunt.

Deon: I build furniture.

Christian McAlhaney [rhythm guitarist]: Ride motorcycles.

Stephen: I tour with Anchor & Braille – it’s a side project.

Is that [Anchor & Braille] kind of like the same style of music [as Anberlin] or completely different?

Stephen: No, it’s like real sissy.

Christian: It’s really good. It’s like mellow.

You’re releasing Vital tomorrow. How would you say your musical style has changed since your last album [Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place] or even your first album [Blueprints for the Black Market]?

Stephen: I mean, leaps and bounds off of our first album. I think that we’re all better musicians. I think we’re better songwriters. I think we’re a lot more confident in who we are as a band, you know? Like if you really listen to Blueprints, our first record, it’s a very scattered record. It’s really all over the place, you know? It’s kind of like – it’s taken us this much time to kind of hone in who Anberlin is. I think Vital is a good summation – at least a good definition – of who Anberlin is.

Is there any significance behind Vital as the album title?

Stephen: I think so. I think the premise of it was kind of conceived before the album even was in studio. We were just kind of full of energy, full of life. I think that was kind of the goal of the whole record, so Vital was more like a goal for us and not – we weren’t trying to be pretentious in the fact that we felt like “This is going to be our most vital record of all time.” It was more like a goal or something that we put before us and I think we accomplished it with the energetic songs and the feeling behind it all and the emotion of it all.

How was it working with Aaron Sprinkle again? This would be your fourth album with him?

Nathan: It was great. You know, just going back to him – I think we immediately were more able to not over-think stuff and really be able to try a lot because we were so comfortable with him and we already knew him, you know? We didn’t have to go through that phase of like getting used to him, even as a person. So I think when we went into it we were just all so excited to try just anything. None of us were nervous or holding anything back. We were able to just kind of go for everything we could think of and he adds a lot too. He’s just really good with the little stuff – the kind of extra special things that make up the song, so it was great. We were super pumped.

Christian: Because we knew him and all worked with him before, we just hit the ground running. I mean, there’s like a – when you work with someone new, there’s kind of like a feeling-out period where it’s just like “Who does what?” Instead of that, we were just like, “Okay, let’s do the thing. Here’s the songs, let’s get going.” It was really just comfortable and natural.

You’re all super involved in the songwriting process. What usually comes first – the lyrics or the instrumentals? Or is it totally random?

Stephen: Music, absolutely.

Christian: Music for the song, but you’re [Stephen] writing – he’s constantly writing lyrics.

Nathan: Or at least ideas for lyrics, yeah.

Christian: But the concept or the idea of it will start with the music first.

You’ve [Stephen] said that “Someone, Anyone” was inspired by the protests in Egypt before. What exactly about the protests inspired you?

Stephen: It was just inspiring to watch a group of people get together like a – from a culture that is stereotypically violent, you know? And just to watch as they’ve – it feels like they’ve progressed to a point where they can peacefully, conceivably change their entire country. Over just – it was in such a short period of time with such little violence and it was inspiring for the rest of the world, you know? I just – I never would’ve foreseen that happening to Egypt and then obviously from there, it became kind of like a cultural shockwave throughout that entire part of the world and still even today, like on the front cover of L.A. Times, Syria is going through this kind of growth process and I feel like they’re in such a struggle right now because the leader doesn’t want to give up control because he sees what’s happening with the rest of his community. It was incredible to watch as young people got together and began to protest and change for the better without immense bloodshed. So that was really inspiring and the song is loosely based on that.

Do a lot of your lyrics come from major world events like that or is it more based in everyday life?

Stephen: More everyday life. I think that was just one of those moments in our life time that it was just kind of, whether we know it or not, has changed the course of humanity, you know? I mean, slowly – and obviously they’re not done yet. There’s a lot of changes that still need to happen, but it was really cool. I think that that’s going to kind of inspire other countries, other communities, other parts of the world to realize that they can change without picking up a gun.

On your [past] albums, you’ve had themes like Man versus Man, Man versus World, and stuff like that. Would you say that Vital has that sort of overarching theme to the lyrics?

Stephen: No, not really. I don’t feel like it has that big of an overarching – I think that there’s no real one concept lyrically for this record. I think it’s more or less just a cultivation of everyday life, kind of like a grand observer of everything that’s happening, whether it is world current events that are happening across the country or across the globe or whether it’s something that’s just so minute as something that happens to an immediate family member, so it’s scattered abroad and not such a grand concept.

What songs from the new album are you guys most excited to play live?

Christian: All of them. It’s like a new child you just kind of dote over. I mean, they’re the newest songs so we’re just kind of really excited to play them all. I mean, we’re only playing four on this tour, but I mean we’ll be headlining in a few weeks from now.

Stephen: I would love to hear what “Desires” sounds like live. I think that’ll be fun to play.

Nathan: Because we’ll for sure play these four [“Little Tyrants”, “Self-Starter”, “Other Side”, “Someone, Anyone”], I’m guessing. And then add maybe two or three? Which one do you wanna –

Stephen: I don’t wanna talk about it. No, “Self-Starter” is awesome. It’s my favorite one to play live right now.

Nathan: Oh, I thought you were about to say, “‘Self-Starter’ is awesome, but…”

Stephen: But… Just the way you play drums on it. I just…

Nathan: Careful!

Christian: They’re all pretty fun right now, just because they’re so new and now it takes you a while to kind of get used to playing them live too. Just, you know, when do I switch my pedal and when do I sing? That kind of stuff and now we’re hitting the stride, we’re five, six shows in. Now it’s just starting to feel great.

Yesterday, Smashing Pumpkins played the entire Oceania album. Have you guys ever done that?

Christian: I would love to do that.

Stephen: Really? Your new record?

Nathan: Yeah, but right now? I think that’s cool for them but they’re the kind of band that I think can fully do that, but for us I think to do that –

Stephen: I think if it’s a super old record, it looks gimmicky, you know?

Nathan: I honestly don’t ever wanna do that. It would be fun as a dude in the band, but I think that our fans – what makes playing live fun is the fan interaction and to have them just be like “Okay.” You know, that wouldn’t be fun to me.

Christian: And then if you’re playing an old album, you’re almost like conceding that that’s like your best album.

Nathan: You know, Cities [when] it has like a ten-year mark, we’re not gonna do – I’m not dogging bands that have done that by any means. I think for some bands, it’s great. Sometimes it fits their vibe, but for us – because I’d like to think that we’re more than a record, even though a certain record is a fan-favorite or not.

Stephen: Because it’s admitting that your band is not growing – it’s reduced to one record whereas like I’m so proud of the fact that we’ve been around for six records, you know? That’s just incredible to me.

From all of your albums, which songs do you enjoy [playing live]?

Nathan: Honestly, for me, “Feel Good Drag” is still one of my favorites. Every time it starts, I go, “Yes!” Isn’t that crazy? We play that the most and we’ll play it until we die, but I think I’ll be pumped every time and “Pray Tell” for me, I miss that one – we’re not playing that one on this tour.

I love that song ["Pray Tell"].

Nathan: Thank you. I mean, isn’t it dumb that we’re not playing it?

Stephen: Don’t encourage him.

Nathan: That still is one of the best songs live, for sure, but we decided not to play it. We’re playing it on the fall tour actually.

Stephen: I still love – I mean, I love “Self-Starter”. It’s new but I still –

Nathan: You still love it? After all of these five shows?

Stephen: I know that I’ll enjoy playing it for years. There’s something about that song that I really enjoy.

Christian: Uh… I don’t know.

Stephen: Usually we tell Christian what to like so this is just –

Christian: I always liked playing “Dance, Dance [Christa Paffgen]” but I mean, we don’t even play that that often. It’s just a really vibey song. It’s just dark and [there’s a] kind of jam section that we don’t normally do.

You guys have covered a variety of artists, from Bob Dylan to Radiohead. What other songs would you guys wanna cover?

Stephen: Man, that’s a good question. We haven’t even talked about – are we ever gonna cover other songs?

Nathan: I seriously think that we’ve covered – no pun intended. I mean, we’ve done like, what? Ten?

Stephen: We could probably come out with a whole covers record.

Christian: Beatles!

Stephen & Nathan: No!

Nathan: When bands cover the Beatles, it’s like the worst, right?

Christian: But like an obscure song and just totally do it our own way, I think, would be – if we really did a good job of covering a Beatles song, that would just make me feel awesome.

Stephen: Really? I don’t think I’ve ever heard somebody [be] like “Wow!” Maybe once. Fiona Apple did “Across the Universe.” That was really good. Other than that though, I don’t think I could say – But I still wouldn’t mind doing Bryan Adams, like maybe for an acoustic set? That’d be fun.

What has been your favorite cover?

Nathan: “Mother” [originally by Danzig] is my favorite.

Christian: It’s pretty different.

Nathan: That’s why I like it.

Stephen: I think live True Faith [originally by New Order] was pretty great and I loved Crowded House. I liked that because that felt really unique and we only did it in Australia and –

Nathan: Not true.

Stephen: Not true. We started doing it in Australia and that was fun. Maybe I just liked it because it was something new.

Christian: But everyone in the crowd knew every lyric to that song.

Stephen: Yeah – or at least the chorus. Everybody knew Don’t Dream It’s Over.”

Christian: I like “Mother”. Just because it’s a song you wouldn’t expect us to cover. It’s pretty far out there, like Danzig, and the way we did it, acoustic, was different.

You guys played Springfest earlier this year at USC. What was that like?

Stephen: That was awesome.

Christian: That’s where we met Monsters Calling Home. We took them out on tour.

Do you enjoy performing at college campuses? Is it like a different energy?

Nathan: Depends on how much they’ve been drinking.

Stephen: It’s very sporadic because everybody’s there to socialize and not really watch bands, you know? But I like it because usually we play with a whole bunch of people from different genres so it’s really cool as a spectator to watch. I mean there was a hip-hop act and then Monsters Calling Home, which is more folk, so it was really cool just to kind of watch the different genres.

Are there any new artists [or albums] you guys have been listening to lately?

Christian: ChairliftMacklemore. I’ve been listening to the new Converge record [All We Love We Leave Behind] that just came out.

Stephen: I’d say who I’m listening to, but Nate would make fun of me so I’m not gonna say it.

Nathan: What is it? Like LMFAO or some crap like that?

Stephen: Come on.

Nathan: Who is it?

Stephen: I’m not saying.

Nathan: I’ll tell you if you stop taking such big slices of cheese so the rest of us could have some.

Stephen: I’m gonna order another one. This is on Universal. I really – you’re gonna laugh and it’s fine. I kind of rather enjoy – maybe because everybody hates her so much, but I like Lana del Rey. I really like that record [Born to Die]. Her lyrics are so weird and ambiguous –

Nathan: That’s because she didn’t write them.

Stephen: I’m sure she didn’t, but I mean, it’s the same reason I like Nico. I mean, they’re – maybe that’s why I like her, because she parallels Nico so much from the Velvet Underground. Her life and everything like that, but I kind of like the song Video Games.” I think it was a good message and a cool song and I don’t care who wrote it, I still like it.

Nathan: That new Grizzly Bear record [Shields] I’ve been jamming [to] a lot. I like that record a ton.

First album you ever bought?

Nathan: Starflyer 59. Which you’ve probably never heard of. I bought their record called Gold and I saved up for it – eleven dollars.

Christian: I can’t remember. I remember at the time, I was buying – I can’t remember what my first album was, but it was probably some grunge, like Nirvana or Tool or Metallica or something of that sort. I remember my parents didn’t want me to listen to that kind of music so I would buy – my friend’s dad owned a CD shop – and I would hide all my CDs in a shoebox in my closet and I would buy T-shirts there too and hide them in my closet and then wear them to school underneath a flannel. And then I’d take my flannel off at school.

Stephen: Well, my parents wouldn’t let me listen to a lot of music, so I did one of those BMG CD clubs and my first batch was like Pearl Jam‘s TenToad the Wet Sprocket, and – I got Ozzy Osbourne and they made me send that one back and Toad the Wet Sprocket. I guess it cussed on there, but I just liked the single. I didn’t even – it’s funny because you can take that as long as you don’t find Pearl Jam, it’s fine.

Nathan: I remember when I borrowed In Utero [by Nirvana] from my neighbor and hid it in my underwear drawer. My mom found it and I was just so bummed.

Christian: Got a naked baby on the front.

Nathan: No, no, wrong album. That’s Nevermind.

Christian: So In Utero is the weird stick figure.

Nathan: No, In Utero is the angel.

Christian: By Soundgarden right?

Nathan: Oh my God, we really know our music history.

Christian: I’m sorry.

First concert?

Stephen: My first concert was a local band called Syrup in Winter Haven and they really put me on a trajectory to play music because I thought they were incredibly great. It’s like a hardcore band – but that wouldn’t be considered hardcore back in the day.

Christian: Yeah, mine was an MXBX-slash-hardcore show.

Nathan: Mine was some weird underground hip-hop – I was really young – with my brothers. I think it was called A-1 Swift or something.

If you could perform or record with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

Nathan: Paul McCartney.

Christian: Jesus.

Stephen: I’d love to do a record with Johnny Marr. I think it’d be fun – at least to like have him play on song or something. He’s so tasteful and one of my heroes. He seems really cool.

Nathan: Dave Grohl. I think he’s just so good when it comes to like rock and our genre. It’d be crazy to work with someone on that.

What kind of music would Jesus do?

Christian: The best.

Stephen: That’s so broad.

Christian: You’d just hear it and no matter what, you’d be like “This is the best.”

Nathan: Hip-hop, probably.

Christian: Did Jesus produce this record?

Nathan: Oh my God.

This story originally appeared on Neon Tommy.

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