In the following interview, conducted before their show at the Wiltern in Los Angeles, Switchfootís Jon Foreman and Anberlinís Stephen Christian converse about musical inspirations, writing when depressed and not wanting to be placed in a box.
Stephen: Dude, I had better, more exciting job interviews than that show last night.
Jon: Really? Dude, Iím so sorry, man. I feel guilty.
Stephen: You should because itís your mistake. Tonight better make up for it.
Jon: I hope so, man. I didnít even know what you were talking about. The first time I got your text I was like, ďWhat do you mean?Ē I walked out during a couple of your songs and it looked like everyone was into it. I thought, ďHe must be kidding.Ē
Stephen: No, dude. You know, these shows have been awesome, but last night, for whatever reason, I felt like the crowd was likeÖ
Jon: Dang it.
Stephen: You shouldnít feel guilty. Itís not your fault. We should have given them all caffeine.
Jon: Thatís what they needed. Maybe they had had too much of that earlier.
Stephen: They were done. They crashed. Shoot, that stinks. But, no, it was still fun.
So when did you guys hear about each otherís bands? Can you remember?
Stephen: Thatís a good question.
Jon: That is a good question. I remember hearing about you guys, maybe it was either from Jamie from To Write Love On Her Arms, whoís going to be here tonight, or it might have even beenÖ Thereís a bunch of Florida bands that I heard about at the same time because there was kind of a scene.
Stephen: Yeah, there was for a quick second.
Jon: Yeah, there were three or four bands, and one of them we toured with. Iím trying to place it.
Jon: We toured with Copeland but thereís another one.
Stephen: There was Copeland, Underoath. There was kind of New Found Glory, Dashboard Confessional.
Jon: It was a band the drummer from Copeland played in before.
Stephen: Denison Mars?
Jon: Thatís it! Denison Mars. We were on tour with Noise Ratchet and Denison Mars.
Jon: Hereís the random thing: they broke up on that tour, sent the drummer home, and then Copeland on another one of our tours sent their drummer home and had him come out and replace that drummer.
Stephen: So random. His name was Randy, I think, the drummer for them. So funny.
Jon: So I feel like he finished a different tour than he started.
Stephen: Thatís great. Thatís a lot of drama right there.
Jon: Yeah, itís all Florida.
Stephen: There you go. Sorry about that.
Jon: So thatís how I first heard about you guys, was through that scene.
Stephen: My friend took me to one of your shows in Nashville at a real small church. Dude, this was back in the day. It had to be 2003 or Ď04, maybe even earlier. Maybe 2002 or something like that. I was in Nashville just randomly and she was like, ďHey, some of my friends are playing a show. You should come check it out.Ē Maybe it was Atlanta. It was either Atlanta or Nashville. I just came to your show, but I think I had known about you before. For whatever reason somebody gave me Legend of Chin. When did that come out?
Stephen: Holy crap! That would make sense because I got it in community college. That was the first time I had seen your name, and then I went to your show and thatís when it went all together. Thatís hilarious. That came out in í97.
Jon: That came out on cassette. Cassette and CD.
Stephen: Thatís awesome.
Jon: We were all concerned with the second one. We were like, ďReally? You sure youíre not going to put it out on cassette? A lot of people are still buying cassettes.Ē Theyíre like, ďNo, trust us. CD is the way of the future.Ē
Stephen: Seriously, by the time our next record rolls around people will be like, ďYou sure youíre not going to put it out on CD?Ē
Jon: Oh, yeah, no one buys them anymore. I donít know what is going to happen next. Spotify and MOG and Rdio.
Stephen: You just upload it to Spotify and youíre done.
Jon: Pretty much. Thatís how I listen to every new record I want to hear.
Stephen: Yeah, I just listened to Ryan Adams on that. Did you hear that this morning?
Jon: No, I havenít heard that.
Stephen: Itís really good. He went back to his old ways.
Jon: Like first record or like Whiskeytown?
Stephen: No, not like Gold or Rock N Roll. Like Whiskeytown, like 29. Did you ever listen to 29?
Jon: Not too much. Thatís the problem with him, he was so many records. I feel like Iím not a true fan because I canít ever keep up.
Stephen: He does. There was one year where he put three records out.
Jon: That was the year I lost. I bought the first two and the third one I was like, ďIím sorry. I have to remember who Radiohead is for just a second and then Iíll come back.Ē
Stephen:Easy Tiger was really good.
Jon: I like that one. That is the best CD name Iíve ever heard.
Stephen: But it was a horrible CD cover.
Jon: Itís a bad cover, but the title, Easy Tiger, I remember thinking, ďWhat a freakiní awesome name for a record.Ē
Stephen: I love the husky, I loved everything about it, except for his stupid watch. I was like, ďDude, thatís so high school.Ē Anyway, itís a good record so far. Iím only six songs in.
Jon: Is that the one where his watch is 4:20?
Stephen: Yeah, I was so bummed. I thought that was the cheesiest thing ever.
Jon: Maybe it just happened to be 4:20. Maybe they snapped the photo and were like, ďDude, thatís so funny. It is actually 4:20.Ē
Stephen: Bullcrap. No way.
Jon: Just coincidence. Total coincidence.
Stephen: Yeah, a total coincidence. He smokes weed and yet 4:20Ö
You are two of my favorite lyricists and I have a quote when I interviewed [Jon] earlier that I thought Iíd bring up here about songwriting. [Jon] made the comparison about oysters and pearls where you say, ďYou have a piece of sand that gets in the oysterís shell, and over time the oyster just keeps putting more and more material into the sand until it becomes a pearl, but the beauty was created by an irritant. Thatís what I feel like songs are. Theyíre just an attempt to come to terms with pain.Ē I was wondering, Stephen, is that how you feel about songwriting as well?
Stephen: Thatís awesome, man. Did you come up with that?
Jon: He says I did. I donít remember saying that but I feel that sometimes.
Stephen: I think the cool thing about being a musician is that other people have other ways of getting out and coming to grips with terms, whether itís a psychologist or psychiatrist or things like that. For me, my escape, especially through hardship and stuff like that, is to write it out, whether thatís an internal battle. Itís funny because sometimes Iíll be singing a song I havenít sung in years and itíll take you back to this memory or take you back to that moment of triumph or pain or whatever the case was you were going through. Itíll flood you back to that memory. Itís more, for me, therapeutic than anything else, but yeah, thatís right on.
When you guys are writing songs what would you say your most unusual inspiration that you picked up from would be?
Jon: Hmm, unusual. The crazy thing about songwriting is anything can make an amazing song. Thatís almost the curse. The moment you figure that out you start to look under the rocks and go, ďIs that a good song? No, thatís a piece of gum.Ē Thereís that element of wonder. We were talking about this the other day. You have to have that wonder, that element of wide-eyed, childlike wonder, that says life is wonderful, even pain. To find pain worth writing about you almost have to, not cherish it, but you have to say this is somehow worth my time, this is worth me thinking deeply about and investing a melody into uncovering it.
Stephen: But have you ever felt in some ways distant from human beings because you have to be a grand observer?
Jon: I feel like itís a way for me to enter into it because I almost feel distant to begin with. A lot of times I start by feeling ostracized like I donít really fit it, so my way in is the song where I can observe and actually be like, ďIím one of you guys. Weíre all in this together.Ē I hear what youíre saying. Sometimes it can be a distancing device. Do you feel that?
Stephen: I do in some ways. Iíll have a conversation with somebody and my mind will already wander to putting their story down and write it through with the conversation. Thatís bothersome, especially with really close relationships. They have to preface it with, ďYouíre not going to write a song about this,Ē or something like that. My brother actually said that to me, ďPlease do not write about this.Ē I was like, ďOK.Ē [Laughter] Sometimes it takes the pains of the world to really inspire. We have a whole genre called the blues dedicated to depression, a bad storyline. We donít have some subgenre called joy or happiness.
Jon: I only write when Iím depressed.
Stephen: I write better when Iím depressed.
Jon: See, I just donít even bother [laughter]. When Iím happy, I donít even bother. Thatís not completely true, but itís mostly true. Happy songs, for me, Iíll have a happy song and Iíll have to write a bit of darkness for the bridge or something. It just doesnít feel honest if itís completely sunshine and bluebirds.
Stephen: I get it. Have you listened to the band the National?
Jon: Yeah, yeah.
Stephen: So he says that the majority of his songs are super happy, itís just he sings them with such a monotone, bass voice that you think theyíre depressing. Youíre automatically like, ďI want to kill myself.Ē Really heís like, ďNo, theyíre about my kids and about how great life is. I love my city of New York. I love my wife.Ē One was about walking in the park with his kid and wishing that his kid was older so they could have a conversation, but he sings it with such depth that it sounds like itís desperation.
Jon: Maybe thatís why tenors have to write sad songs.
Stephen: Thatís true. Thatís a good lyric, though.
Jon: Johnny Cash can sing happy tunes. [Sings in deep voice] ďEverythingís fine down here.Ē
One thing Iíve noticed about [Jon] in particular is that as youíve grown older you have written more sociopolitical commentary songs. Stephen, youíve done that a little bit as well, with ďThe ResistanceĒ and ďWe Owe This To Ourselves.Ē Is that something you guys have found easier to write about and more relevant as youíve gotten older?
Jon: Yeah, I think as you begin to be aware of the larger story of history unfolding around you and the idea that, ďWow, this is a moment in history we have right now,Ē you begin to think, ďWow, I need to write about this instead of writing about the history of your angst in junior high.Ē Those are the first songs you write, like ďMan, I feel so angry at my teacher!Ē Then you begin to see that maybe I can channel that into something a little bit more positive than just being angry about homework. Actually saying, ďWell, this situationís going on in Uganda right now. Itís happening right now. What better way to talk about it then in a song?Ē That was, for me, the thing that I realized. You can say whatever you want from stage, but no one listens unless you sing it. You can say whatever. ďOh yeah, letís bring backpacks for the homeless,Ē which is what weíre trying to do tonight for homeless kids, but the moment you say thatís what the songís about then people actually listen and go ďOh, I connect with that song.Ē
Stephen: I think that goes for love songs too because love was your world at those early stages. It was this foreign concept and youíre always trying to find it, and now love is just a part of your world. Like what heís saying, the older you get, the more your world expands. Before, as you were saying, high school is here and all this matters so much, and then after a while you see itís just a part of a whole. Love is awesome, but boyfriend/girlfriend relationships donít make up the sum of the whole as much as they did in the early days.
Jon: Love has gotten bigger.
Stephen: Love has gotten bigger. Yeah, I didnít mean love, I meant relationally.
Jon: No, I mean it like that, though. The idea that you begin to redefine love. Iíve heard it said that justice is what love looks like in public. Suddenly, love becomes a much larger entity than making out with your girlfriend on Saturday night. You know what I mean?
You both have followed similar career trajectories, in that you started out in the Christian market and then blossomed into bigger and better things from there. Have you talked about that at all, if your experiences were similar in that way?
Stephen: We have had a lot of similar experiences.
Jon: Weíve never actually talked about that.
Stephen: We havenít, really. Didnít you write a paper on it one time that was really, really good? It wasnít the Huffington Post. Maybe it was Relevant. I liked everything you were saying in it. I just donít think that it defines us as musicians. Weíve worked really hard, not to get out of the Christian background, but weíve worked really hard to be the best musicians we can in whatever genre people are going to subject us to. I donít care what genre they put us in. Thatís not our decision or choice. Itís not our responsibility to define ourselves, itís our responsibility to be the best Anberlin we can be. I donít know. It used to bother me. It used to bother me so much that immediately lazy journalists would just go to Wikipedia and their first question would be, ďSoÖ,Ē or the subhead title would be, ďChristian Alternative Rockers Anberlin Are Going to be Showing Up at Your Town.Ē I was just like, ďWow, there you go. Thereís my little box.Ē
Jon: I think thatís what everyone wants in journalism is a handle. They want to say, ďSteve Jobs,Ē and then four or five words, and then maybe a date of birth and a date of death. Thereís his entire life in a one-liner. If youíre Steve Jobsí wife or daughter, youíre like that does not define him as a man. Itís the same thing as a band. For me, it feels like, especially when you attach the mystery of faith to the commercial element of selling rock Ďní roll, it feels like you just tore the fangs and the claws off of this thing that is vital and fighting. With rock Ďní roll, it has to have teeth. For me, the moment you attach any form of box around it, it takes it to the zoo. It says, ďOh, look at the cute little tiger.Ē But at the same time, you do get to the point where youíre like, ďOh, whatever. Theyíre going to say what they want and weíre going to keep playing rock Ďní roll.Ē The people that understand it will understand it, and the other people wonít. On a good day, I could care less.
Stephen: On a good day [laughter].
You both have done some solo project work. Does that help you with your regular bands? Do you think that makes them stronger, to have these offshoots for your other creative energies?
Stephen: For me, yeah, absolutely. Anytime you can write and get the creative process moving I think is only advantageous for songwriting. The more bands I can co-write with in different genres or whatever, itís just fun for me because itís stepping out of yourself to write something different. With my side project, itís very melancholy. Itís very piano-driven and stuff like that. Itís the antithesis. Even lyrically I try to be as diverse as possible simply for the fact of developing to be a better writer for Anberlin. And itís just fun. It doesnít have the seriousness and the consequences. If you make one bad record, who knows?
Stephen: Yeah, thereís no expectations. Itís a lot less. People arenít calling and overseeing the whole process. ďOK, send me a song.Ē Itís more like if you write it, you like it, you just record it.
Jon: Weíve got a running joke in our band. Iíll play a song for the guys and theyíre like, ďThat is a great song for your solo EP [laughter]. I love that song. You should put it on your solo stuff. Never play it for me again.Ē But, yeah, itís the same thing. We were talking about hobbies yesterday. Music was our hobby and now itís our day job, but itís still our hobby. I feel like the solo stuff, the side projects, all that, is a way to continue to love music in a way that has no consequences.
I want to go back to the beginning. At what point did you realize this was your calling and what you wanted to do. Was there a moment where that crystallized for you?
Jon: No. Was there a moment for you?
Stephen: Is this what weíre supposed to be doing? No, I didnít mean to do this. Mine was not intentional. I had a job lined up coming out of college with a non-profit out of Orlando. I was set, man. It was awesome. I thought thatís what I was working on. I was developing this program to expand internationally with this particular charity. It was going to be awesome. A month before I graduated my boss took me for a car ride and was like, ďI just feel like thereís not a place for you here.Ē It was so weird. He never told me why he was firing me, but he fired me a month before. Then a month after I graduated was when we got the contract and signed with Tooth & Nail. It was one of those things where it was my hobby and it was accidentally on purpose. Iíll never know why he fired me. I thought I was doing so good too. It was so weird.
Jon: You graduated from college. See, I was in the middle of college. I was trying to finish college and do the music thing at the same time, and the professors didnít like it. Youíre gone a lot, trying to call in and get tests and fax things back and forth. Remember fax machines and all that? We had a really good tour lined up and Iím like, ďIíll do this one tour and then Iíll go back to school.Ē Then another tour added up, and a couple years later youíre still touring. I donít think there was ever a point where I thought, ďOh, man, weíve made it. We have arrived.Ē Thereís never a point. Youíre always like, ďThereís U2. Thereís Led Zeppelin.Ē You always feel like youíre this baby band thatís still trying to figure it out.
Stephen: I think the day you think you have made it is kind of your end. You put your feet up on the table and just be like, ďOh, Iíll just coast this one out.Ē Itís just downhill from there.
Jon: Yeah, totally.
So what do you guys have lined up next after the tour?
Jon: Weíre going to Europe.
Stephen: [Laughter] Thatís awesome. When do you go to Europe?
Jon: We go pretty much a week after this tour ends.
Stephen: Oh, my gosh. Thatís insane. Weíre just writing this fall and then in January weíre heading off to Asia. It should be fun.
How about your solo projects? Are those still in development?
Stephen: Iím going to record this fall while Iím home on my break. Hopefully thatíll be out, who knows when? As soon as possible.
Jon: Thatís going to be a good one.
Stephen: With Dave Elkins. Do you know Mae?
Jon: I do, yeah.
Stephen: Heís going to be producing it.
Jon: OK, thatís cool. Iíve got Fiction Family lined up. Itís pretty much all ready to go, we just have to figure out when to release it. Actually weíre thinking about maybe, I havenít talked with Stephen about this, but what if we do another Switchfoot/Anberlin tour and Fiction Family opens? Think about.
And Anchor & Braille.
Jon: And Anchor & Braille. Yeah, there it is.
Stephen: Thatís a lot of singing in one night.
Jon: Yeah, but itís the low stuff. Johnny Cash doesnít have to work very hard. He can be melancholy and you donít even know it.
Stephen: Maybe thatíll work for our summer tour next year. Iíve got to talk to you about that. Iíve talked to a few bands, not talked with them, but itíd be interesting. Weíre already talking about doing this again because itís too much fun. Itís really good.
Jon: Itís good to be able to walk into any dressing room on the tour and just have a good time.
Awesome. The way the interview is structured, I feel like you would just let them talk like best friends for a while and then randomly jump in really fast to try to steer the convo a different way. Like after each question, the two forgot you were there. Hilarious.