Anberlin singer Stephen Christian realized early on that there are two paths in life: One leads to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll; the other, to salvation. Christian, a humanitarian, chose the latter.
"I looked at those two roads, and the one that feels better is so temporal," he says via phone. "Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll - that's awesome for now. But what is your musical legacy in that?"
Even though Anberlin has been on the scene for only six years, the Florida band (Christian, guitarist Joseph Milligan, bassist Deon Rexroat, drummer Nathan Young and guitarist Christian McAlhaney) has already released four albums, debuted in the Billboard Top 20 with last year's Cities and made the switch from indie label Tooth & Nail to major label Universal Republic. Their latest album, New Surrender, wasn't made to keep their new bosses happy. With its socially conscious lyrics, sardonic but genuine love songs and rallying cries of resistance, New Surrender proves that Anberlin isn't a band that will let success go to its head.
"As far as in comparison to the other records, I don't feel like we changed our sound," says Christian,"Because to me, I can't stand it when bands alter who they are in exchange for, like, 'Oh we're on a major label. We're popular now,' or 'We're huge so we can do whatever we want.' And then they completely alienate their fans by becoming something they're not. I just feel like we took Anberlin, as far as songwriting, to the next level." As a small part of Florida's eclectic music scene (which includes bands like Underoath and Copeland), the members of Anberlin would filter between other bands.
In 2002, Anberlin secured its lineup and signed to Tooth & Nail. A year later, they released Blueprints for the Black Market and began the cycle of non-stop touring that keeps them on the road 10 months out of the year. Christian says Anberlin is a "blue-collar band." It's worked its way up by building friendships, writing durable music beyond the one-hit wonders and staying low on the radar.
After the success of Cities, the band emerged from the underground. The album sold 34,000 copies in its first week and netted the band mainstream publicity. Still, the success was short-lived. When Tooth & Nail was bought by EMI, Christian said the "hierarchy at EMI" didn't believe in Anberlin and had no desire to promote a new record.
"They honestly said Anberlin could never write another single if they tried," says Christian, still sounding a bit dumbfounded.
Although he's quick to point out that it wasn't the fault of lower-level label people, Anberlin's reasons for staying with an indie in the first place - friendship, loyalty and passion - were gone once EMI stepped in. "In a weird way, it felt like a betrayal," says Christian. "We had developed all these great internal relationships with Tooth & Nail, and then an outside entity [comes in] that doesn't know how hard you've worked, that has no idea of your back story or where you came from, or how many years that you've been with the label, how many records … all that seems to be washed away. None of that counts, and all they care about is the number of sales. That's all they care about."
While losing label support indeed sucks, it actually worked out OK for Anberlin. Turns out, says Christian, Universal Republic wanted Anberlin before Cities even came out. After being courted by the label, Anberlin signed in August 2007. After Cities, expectations were high for Anberlin's next album; signing to a major label raised the bar even higher. Sure, Cities brought the band new fans, but New Surrender had to show everyone Anberlin could do it again and do it better. Like all of Anberlin's music, New Surrender is full of powerful lyrics, guitar-driven songs and a healthy dose of pop-rock appeal. However, the album also reveals a more socially aware band. That's apparent from the opening song, "The Resistance," and "Burn Out Brighter (Northern Lights)," which urges people to be a little less selfish.
"This country was founded on so many great principles, but somehow we've gotten away from thinking revolutionary and thinking about freedoms and about giving and stuff like that," explains Christian. "I feel like, as a culture, not actually as a world, we need to get back into helping everyone."
Ever since he was a kid and his parents took him to Mexico City to hand out food to poor people, Christian has volunteered around the world - promoting AIDS awareness in Kenya and educating people in India about human trafficking. Whether or not New Surrender will have the same durability that Cities dooes remains to be seen. But it's definitely the band's best album.
Lots of groups say it's all about the music, the fans and the message, but when Christian says it, you actually believe it. It's a philosophy that Anberlin embraced six years ago, and from the looks of the band's career, it seems to be working.
"I think the age of the rock star is over," says Christian. "I think nobody wants somebody that's going to be up there onstage spitting on the crowd and coming out whenever they feel like it and taking people for granted. Just be real."