On Nov. 26, 2014, Stephen Christian and the band Anberlin were roaring through their final gig. The group had been on a steady album/tour grind since forming in Florida in 2002, and the intense cycle had taken its toll. Their passion had become their profession, and the stress of financial and personal responsibilities to family and business associates had become overwhelming. For Christian, it was harder to be away from his wife and family for so long.
“We just had so many extracurricular passions that proceeded to take the place of what Anberlin once was for all of us,” Christian tells Billboard. “The final blow was those last two years of touring. It just was grueling and heart wrenching. I remember at the last show, I just collapsed in Orlando on the stage. I’m not like that. That’s not me. It felt like we were prize fighters and we had won the belt and that was it. The match was over. I just felt exhausted, man.”
As planned, they broke up.
Since then, the band members have pursued their individual dreams. In May of 2015, Christian started to work in ministry at a church in New Mexico, then “moved to this incredible church” in Clearwater, Florida that is close to home. Guitarist Joseph Milligan became a full-time producer at Suedehead Studios and Orb Studios in Austin, Texas, and Christian says he recently was working with members of Blue October. Drummer Nate Young started a coffee roaster business with his brother-in-law Tim McTague called Kingstate. They are opening up their first brick and mortar coffee shop in Tampa, Florida soon. An avid motorcycle buff, guitarist Christian McAlhaney is the finance manager of Euro Cycles of Tampa Bay, and he founded a Southern rock band called Loose Talk with bassist Deon Rexroat, who has been doing graphic design as well. “It’s a really good project,” says Christian of Loose Talk. “They’re not into the touring grind, they’re just in it for a good time.”
Christian also worked on music from his “passion project” and alter ego Anchor & Braille, which mutates based upon what he is listening to. Whereas the previous album was “more on the Ryan Adams side,” 2016’s Songs for the Late Night Drive Home was more electronic because he had been listening to groups like M83. His 2017 solo album Wildfires resulted from writing songs for other people for a year and a half, and rather than let them languish in the vaults he collected and released them.
Wildfires is more pop than the music of Anberlin, and the lyrics are more overtly religious. While Christian never divorced his faith from his main group, he maintained a delicate balancing act. “I realized that I had to speak for five different individuals in the band who may not share that same faith,” the singer explains. “So for me to come up there and sing about our lives as a collective, I wanted to be authentic and real. I wanted to make sure that was translated on Anberlin records. No one ever said you can’t write faith-based lyrics or you can’t do this. They just said do what you want.”
He viewed them as a band, not a Stephen Christian-led group. “This is five individuals who have sacrificed everything and we’d come under the one name, Anberlin,” he says. “I still wanted to be authentic with that, and I think that’s why we stayed away from religious festivals as much as we did. We never played churches. I don’t remember ever going on tour with an overtly religious band outside of Switchfoot and Relient K, even though I don’t think they would call themselves overtly religious either. We definitely stayed true to that. For me, it’s like a piece of artwork. I wanted everybody, no matter what faith or creed or color or race or religion, to be able to look at the artwork and say, ‘This is what I see. This is what I experience.'”
Life experience became important to Christian and his bandmates. Stepping away from the group ultimately became a necessity for everyone. The Anberlin frontman was struggling with lyrics near the end of their tenure. Repeated songs about life on the road were not cutting it. He recalls Bob Dylan saying in his mid-thirties that all his best songs were behind him.
“At that point, I see what he was saying,” recalls Christian. “It’s not that you have any less talent or creativity or desire, it’s that you haven’t lived real life. It always reminds me of that movie Groundhog Day. I felt that’s what my life had become. I lived vicariously through the other family members and through friends who got to experience things like, for better or worse, funerals and graduations and weddings and divorce and life and all these things. I felt like life is just passing me by and I’m not there to experience it.”
The Florida quintet hit their commercial and artistic apex in 2010 with their fifth album Dark Is The Way, Light Is A Place, a Billboard 200 top 10 release that deftly married the freneticism of mainstream emo with the melodiousness of ’80s rock. Their seventh and last album Lowborn in 2014 continued their evolution with some more contemplative moments and songs that spanned the simmering romanticism of “Stranger Ways” through the Nine Inch Nails-like aggression of “Dissenter.” But it seemed like they had said what they needed to musically and lyrically.
Working in ministry has been fulfilling for Christian and imbued him with a new outlook on his fans. “Let’s be honest, when I was in Anberlin, when I would look out over the crowd I would see numbers,” he says. “I’m not necessarily talking about money. More like, how many people showed up to the show?” He could recall seeing familiar faces from time to time and hearing fan stories about their troubles, but he admits he could sweep those from his psyche once he was back on the bus.
“Working in ministry, you stop seeing numbers and you start seeing stories,” says Christian. “People are hurting, man. It’s nothing new, but I didn’t realize it on this grand scale, like this person has just lost their job. There’s a guy that I work with right now and both his father and his father-in-law are dying of cancer. Within a ministry, you can be there for people, even if it’s something so simple as going to the hospital to pray with them or provide for their family or bring food or whatever the case might be.
“What I want to drag back into Anberlin is the fact that I do care about people at the end of the day,” he continues. “I have different eyes now. When I play these Anberlin shows these people mean something. Whether we don’t share the same space, whether they never step foot into a church, it doesn’t mean I should care any less about their lives and their well-being and who they are. This is a deeper sense of caring.”
He also cares deeply about his bandmates, and he does not call this tour a reunion. “It’s reconciliation, it’s not even a reunion,” clarifies Christian. “We don’t even know if we’ll do anything past this summer. But for me, there were a lot of hard feelings, and it wasn’t something that we wanted to advertise. No one screamed at each other. No one yelled. There were no lawsuits. It’s nothing like that. Roads diverge in the woods. You all get older. I couldn’t understand their plight in life, and they couldn’t understand my plight in life. We slowly grew apart. We were high school friends put on a bus, seven, eight, nine months a year. You just slowly try to find your own world. You’re living feet away, you just do. That last year, I didn’t want to tour like that. I really wanted a tour in a different way. Let’s take it in. Let’s tour less and really focus on having fun more. The rest of the guys, for a positive reason, wanted to see the world as well as make some money before saying adios. I totally respect that, but it led to a lot of brutal touring.”
The singer notes that he was the only one at the time with children, so he could not really express to his bandmates what that was really like. “Telling them that I missed my kid’s first words, I missed their first steps, that didn’t mean anything,” he admits. “Now they have kids and it’s like, ‘Oh, got it. I can see this now and it’s very, very clear.'” But he confesses that he also put walls up with his bandmates, high school friends with whom he had survived the rigors of touring and financial hardship in the early days.
“For me to sit there and go, ‘You’re alleviated from my life,’ it’s not only immature, but bitterness is cancer to the soul,” confesses Christian. “So I just started calling people and apologizing: Hey, this is what I did, this is my part in this. I am so sorry, I love you. We have gone through it all. We have seen the mountain tops, we have felt the valley of the shadow of death together. We’ve lived through family members dying and reconciliations of other family members and marriages and all that. We’ve lived that and done that together, sitting side by side, spending holidays in the middle of nowhere together. So how is it we can just so quickly divorce? I just want to start apologizing for my part.”
In the middle of 2018, Young told his bandmates that Underoath had asked Anberlin to play a show with them at Christmas. That initial conversation (and booking) blossomed into many “what if” possibilities extending from that one show to touring to new music. But they reined it all in to focus on what mattered: Being together again. “What made us happy about being in the band?” muses Christian. “For me, it was camaraderie. It was just those times on the bus where we’re all watching Band of Brothers or late nights out goofing off, just the five of us in the middle of nowhere. Those were the best times.”
The band kicked things off this year with a recent Australian run of five shows in late May. Starting on June 10, they return to the U.S. for a 25-date run. Five of them are already sold out.
Christian is elated to return to Anberlin “with a revived passion.” This is on their terms with nobody breathing down their neck. “This feels so liberating,” he exclaims. “For the first time in probably eight years, I’m actually looking forward to a tour. We have already talked about quality of life. Sometimes you need to walk away and take time out or a break or a vacation so that life can talk to you. I think that money has a way of slaughtering the muse. It’s not just money – it’s responsibilities and mouths to feed. So many different dynamics are such a quick killer to the muse. And once she feels betrayed, it’s not easily accessible for some time. I just feel that sense of energy and electricity back in the air. That’s something that I haven’t felt in a long, long time.”