In the final part of our interview special, guitarist Christian McAlhaney compares his experiences in Anberlin and Acceptance, remembers first joining the band and fitting right in, recalls working on Dark Is the Way and Vital, and clarifies why being a touring musician can be simultaneously joyous and difficult.
Anberlin is the second band you have been a part of that is ending, with the first being Acceptance, but this has a much different feel and vibe than that one did. How do you compare the two experiences in your mind?
Itís sad for everyone, making a life change like that, but it feels like the right thing. Even in Acceptance, I think it was the right thing, honestly. The difference is the way weíre going about it. In Anberlin, I really appreciate and admire the game plan we came up with to end, whereas Acceptance we just kind of ended and that was it. There were no final shows. There was no anything. We just broke up and that was it. We just let people know. The way Anberlin is going about it is doing a final year, doing a final record, and really being able to say thank you and goodbye to everyone who has supported the band for a long time, and even for ourselves. Do you know what I mean? Itís nice to not just implode.
The way Acceptance went about it Ė it was different for me, because I went on to keep playing music Ė but for some of the guys in Acceptance, there wasnít closure. It was just like, ďMan, we should have played some more shows.Ē We can end Anberlin truly feeling like we lived every moment until the very end by putting out a final record and touring the world one last time. Knowing that weíre breaking up, I think this makes every day a little bit more special when thatís always on the horizon.
It seems, at least on the outside, label difficulties probably played a little bit bigger role in Acceptance breaking up than with Anberlin. Is that something you think is true?
Well, yes and no. Thereís the same frustrations every band has on any label, honestly. Acceptance went through just as much as Anberlin has gone through. Itís not always going to be good. Acceptance had such a small run, I think some people had unrealistic expectations for putting out one record. At the time that Acceptance broke up, we werenít a big band. Itís weird now, after the fact, that people hold Acceptance on such a high, because when the band was around we werenít this hyped band, drawing crazy people. Towards the end we starting getting better tours, and getting a little more exposure, but for many years we couldnít get tours. We couldnít even get on Warped Tour for a long time. I think we did it once and it was because some band had dropped off, so we did Warped Tour for a couple weeks.
To answer your question, we went through the same kind of label frustrations in Acceptance that Anberlin has gone through, and honestly I think every band goes through them. Itís just business. Sometimes itís good and sometimes itís bad. On a long enough timeline, youíre going to go through some label issues. Honestly, Universal was great for Anberlin. They got Anberlin to a place we had never been before, being on the radio and having a No. 1 single. They were always good to us. The nature of that business is to churn out bands. They canít always have just bands they like. You need to make them money, and I think thatís every label. If youíre not making labels money, then you might need to find a different home. Thereís a lot of different factors that played into Anberlinís decision to break up, for sure.
You recorded Lowborn in three different sections, recording guitars with Aaron Marsh in his studio, so at least you werenít by yourself and had a couple of the other guys around. How did you like that experience?
Honestly, for me, itís not the ideal recording situation, thatís just how it turned out. We wanted to do a final record but itís a weird place to be, knowing youíre only going to be touring on that record for six months. We tried to be very frugal in how much we spent on the record, and I think that played a big role in why we did things separately. We wanted to self-produce it and then go with either friends of ours or people we knew weíd be comfortable with to get the sound that we were trying to get.
It was a weird experience not having the five of us during the recording process. When Stephen was doing vocals, no one was in Nashville with him. The four of us were in Atlanta, so when Nate was doing the drums, we were doing preproduction as we went. It was a little odd not having the vocalist there to tweak some of the songs we had written, and with the melody ideas and whatnot it was kind of a guessing game, but I think it turned out great. I think the final record is really good. Itís a progression from Vital. It wasnít b-sides we hadnít used or thrown together, it was all new music that we busted ass to do.
The whole experience was very quick and very different. We were used to all being together, us all living together in an apartment or something. This time we were doing guitars in Lakeland with Aaron Marsh. Anberlin started in Winter Haven, which is right by Lakeland. Theyíre like neighboring cities. Joey was staying with his parents, Deon and I were staying with his parents, and Nate would drive from Tampa. It was kind of weird, recording from home, but it was good. It was fun.
As you mentioned, this record seems to be a pretty natural continuation from Vital. Itís not as aggressive as that one, but it embraces the same dark, 80s mystique that also was evident on those three songs you did on Devotion. What was it like writing this one and did you also see it as a continuation of sorts?
Like I said earlier, it was a weird headspace to be in. Before we had decided to break up, when you go into record or write a record, youíre trying to build and youíre trying to grow. Youíre trying to further your business until you record your next record. Youíre trying to make your best product and most inspiring songs because youíre going to be touring for another few years. It definitely was a weird headspace, writing for a record that you knew was only going to be out a few months before you broke up.
It was also tough, knowing it was your farewell, so you wanted it to be amazing because itís the last thing weíre leaving with people. All the music that weíve ever done, or anyoneís ever done, will always outlive them. You want it to represent you the best that it can for the rest of your life, so when you look back on it, you can go, ďYes, that was amazing. Iím proud of that. I gave it my all.Ē
I donít know if we really tried to do anything different. I think with every record, youíre trying to write the best songs you can. Itís not usually that planned out, like weíre going to write this kind of style or this kind of song. We just write a bunch of songs and then pick the best ones, and they usually make a cohesive record for us Ė some heavy, some a little more arty. We started dabbling a lot more in the atmospheric, with pads and keys and electronic stuff. I think it was a natural progression.
Thereís still some heavy songs. I guess itís not as heavy as Vital. I just listened through it on our bus the other day, on our drive with a bunch of our crew that hadnít heard it yet. Itíd still say that half the record is rocking songs. Maybe theyíre not as riffy or tuned down to B like some of the songs were on Vital, but I think itís a great record, honestly.
So I thought weíd take a trip down memory lane here. You joined the band in 2007. Do you remember how long it was after Cities was out?
I think Cities came out while I was touring, Iím pretty sure. I was on a tour when they called me. After Acceptance broke up, I moved to L.A. I was working as a songwriter and as a touring musician. I got some random gig and was touring with this chick that was on some reality music show, kind of like American Idol. It was like a rock and roll American Idol, so I was on a tour with her.
Anberlin had called me months before and said, ďHey, we might need you.Ē Then they called me again and said, ďWe definitely need you.Ē So I actually dropped off that tour. While I was on that tour, they sent me Cities to start learning songs. I think it was while I was on that tour Cities came out, or it was right before. I canít remember.
What do you remember about joining the band? Was it a natural fit right away? Did it take some getting used to?
No, it was uncanny how natural it felt, I think for me and for them. When I went out to do the Cities tour, at first I was just a fill-in musician. They just needed a guitar player. Then I think it was only a few weeks into the tour, they were like, ďYou just want to be in the band?Ē It was really seamless. To me, Acceptance and Anberlin came from the same kind of sound. It was a seamless transition for me. Even performing and writing, I didnít have to change my writing style because I felt like we were brother bands from opposite ends of the country.
Not that the guys in Acceptance werenít great dudes, but it was a pretty tumultuous band. We definitely fought a lot, which led to some of the reasons why Acceptance broke up. With Anberlin, I was so pumped and so happy. I almost had this epiphany, like, ďTouring can be like this? You guys get along. You donít fight after every show. You guys just have fun.Ē You know what I mean? Not that Acceptance was fighting all the time, it was just different. It felt right, I think, for me and for the other band members.
On the first three records before you joined, Joey was the primary songwriter. Whatís your relationship with him been like, working and writing with him? Is that something you also just clicked into right away?
Yeah, we kind of hit the ground running. Cities had only been out a little when when we started talking to majors. Originally we wanted a major to pick up Cities and push that, because we felt like that was a great record. Universal didnít really want to do that, so we started writing for New Surrender pretty early on after Cities came out.
He and I just clicked. The way they wrote was kind of the same way Acceptance wrote. Joey and I would write, either ideas or full songs or verse/chorus, and then weíd send that to each other or to the band or to Stephen, and build from there. It was good. Like I said, it was seamless, honestly.
So I thought Iíd ask about a couple of the other records. Your fifth record, Dark Is the Way, Light Is the Place, came out in September 2010. I guess you could say that was your arena rock record for the band. You worked with Brendan OíBrien, who helped you achieve a bigger, more expanded sound. What do you remember about that process? Is there anything that stands out about making that record?
I can vividly remember we were on tour with Taking Back Sunday. I think we were in West Virginia, playing at the college. Iím walking around town, getting some coffee. We had been debating producers. We didnít know who we wanted to go with. We loved Sprinkle, but for some reason majors always want some big name attached. To me, Sprinkle was much more talented than a lot of people I could think of.
So anyway, we didnít know who we were recording with, and our manager calls me and was like, ďHey man, what do you think about Brendan OíBrien?Ē I was like, ďWhy? Why would you even say that name? Is that even an option?Ē He was like, ďYeah, Iíve been talking to his manager.Ē That was a mind-blowing moment for me because that dude is a legend. Heís one of the best rock producers out there.
Everything about that record was pretty surreal. It was a really cool process. Brendan was intimidating in name but totally friendly in person. Heís a fun guy and made recording a fun place to be. Heís a great producer. It was definitely a quick record. We flew through that record, but it was an amazing experience. Iím happy to have worked with someone like that. It was definitely intimidating, because for us heís done AC/DC or something, and here I am fumbling around with the guitar.
The whole process was great. It wasnít too stressful. If anything, New Surrender was pretty stressful, just in the fact that was the first record at the label. It felt like on Dark Is the Way, we were a little more comfortable with how to go about being a band on a major and a little more comfortable songwriting together as a band. Iím super proud of that record. I think itís great.
The record after that was Vital, which youíve talked about a lot in the past. Is there anything that really stands out about that one in your mind?
What would stand out on Vital? On every record, it was never planned out, like letís do this. The conversation was always, ďYes, letís push ourselves and grow.Ē You never want to put out the same record twice, and those kinds of concepts. On Vital, we were looking around at the landscape, and it was weird to us listening to alternative radio and no one was rocking. No one was bringing the rock. On that record, we were focused on writing some unique and rocking songs. That was a big part of the writing process, getting at least the majority of the record to be rock.
It was also a weird thing for us. For some reason when weíd play the songs weíd written and recorded from all the records live, weíd constantly get these comments, like, ďYou guys are so much heavier live.Ē We really wanted to try and capture whatever that was that was going on live that was making people say, ďWow, when youíre live youíre much heavier than you are on record.Ē We were like, ďWell, weíre just playing the songs from the record the way we recorded them.Ē On Vital, we were really trying to capture whatever that energy was that people were talking about. That was definitely something we talked to Aaron Sprinkle about.
Is there a song in your mind that stands out that youíve done that you debated and fought over the most, or took your the longest to get right?
You always kind of butt heads a little bit in the studio. The creative process in a group of dudes is a weird dynamic to have. In talking to other bands about how they write and how they record their records, honestly in Anberlin we work pretty smoothly together. Stephen and Joey definitely butted heads a lot on Cities. I wasnít there for that, but thatís what Iíve heard. I think some of thatís on the DVD.
Since Iíve been in the band, weíve never had any yelling matches or argued super hard. Thereís been some awkward moments where Joey and I will disagree on how something should be done or played, and weíll have to talk it out. I think as a whole, we write and work together really smoothly. By the time we get into the studio and we have the demos done that weíre going to record, weíre all pretty much on the same page.
A big reason we did this last record, producing it ourselves, is we felt like that for the past two records. When Joey and I and Nate, whoever writes the song, when we demo songs out, theyíre pretty much finished. I donít know how other bands write. Maybe itís just an acoustic and they write a melody, but when we demo songs, theyíre like finished songs. Weíll put in big drums in Pro Tools, and it will sound amazing. Generally when we get into the studio to record them, theyíre all mapped out and planned out. Youíll definitely add some things and add layers, all that kind of stuff, but itís rare we get into the studio and are disagreeing about stuff. Itís usually before that, usually in the writing process. ďI donít like that melody.Ē ďCan we not put those synth lines in there?Ē Itís rare in the studio, for sure.
Looking ahead to this fall tour that youíll be doing for the final time, have you started playing around with what set lists youíll be doing?
Yeah, I think in the fall weíre going to play close to two hours. Itís always been tough with this band because we have so many records now at this point. Theyíll be a lot of old songs. Weíre doing a show in Australia where weíre playing Never Take Friendship Personal from front-to-back, so maybe weíll throw a lot of those songs into the set. Weíre trying to play songs off of every record.
Weíve actually even debated whether weíre going to play any new songs live. I donít know. It just seems weird. It seems weird to me if Iím going to see a band that Iíve loved for however many years, a decade, on their farewell tour and they play a bunch of new songs. I donít know if Iíd be pumped about that. I think Iíd want to hear all the old stuff that drew me to them in the first place and that I grew up on. Iím not sure but as of now there are no new songs in the set, but that could change.
There are songs off of Blueprints I never learned, so I had to learn a bunch of old songs. It was fun, though. For a long time, weíve generally been playing the same-ish kinds of songs live, plus the new songs. You play your older fan favorites, and then you throw in new songs. There were definitely deep cuts that I had to learn, especially for playing Never Take from front-to-back. I think we might be doing a Cities show, too, in some market. I canít remember. I think that may have been a surprise, but yeah, itís a pretty extensive set list. Two hours is a long time.
What are your plans post-Anberlin? Anything in particular you plan on doing?
I think Iím one of the few guys in the band that wants to keep being in a band and touring, doing that kind of thing, so Iím going to keep on keeping on. Deon and I are the only guys who want to keep playing and keep touring, so him and I have been talking about starting something. I think weíll try and focus on getting a new thing going.
Looking back on the seven years you have been in Anberlin, what would you say your most joyful moment has been and the most difficult moment you can remember?
From the moment they asked me to be in the band, itís been pretty epic, honestly. I feel very blessed and very grateful to have been able to have done this in two different bands now. Most musicians and kids growing up who had dreams and aspirations of being in a touring band, Iíd say for 99% of them it doesnít work out. It doesnít pan out. For me to have done it once in Acceptance Ė toured, been on a label, put out records Ė thatís an amazing, amazing thing. To do it twice, and even on a bigger scale with Anberlin, I feel extremely blessed.
The whole run has been very joyous to me. Iíve gone to places I never would have dreamed of going. If I wasnít in a band, why would I have ever been to Moscow, or to Beijing? Most of the places Iíve traveled to around the world have been awesome. Thereís been so many amazing experiences and amazing opportunities, so many memories. The records we recorded, the producers weíve worked with, the music we made Ė I can look back at this time, and this band, and be very proud and feel very blessed to be able to have done what Iíve done with these guys.
To end things the way that weíre ending them, Iím happy about that, too. Itís bittersweet for me because I donít want it to end. These are my best friends. Weíve spent every moment together for years. Itís going to be weird. Even when we take long breaks, itís always on the horizon when Iím going to see them again. Itís like, OK, we have however many months off, but then we have this show, or then weíre going to go on tour, or then weíre going to record this record. Itís going to be weird when this all ends to not really know because we donít all live in the same state, just a few of us do. I donít know when Iím going to see Stephen and Joey again. Nathan, Deon and I live in Florida, so I see those guys all the time. I think thatís going to be the weirdest thing.
The most difficult thing? The same things that Iím grateful for and Iím joyous about are also difficult. Being in a band is a weird life choice that honestly I donít think most people could handle. People look at what we do and have a lot of assumptions and a lot of ideas of what they think that is, but I can almost guarantee you itís not that. Itís a tough job. Itís a weird lifestyle to live that I donít think most people could handle because youíre gone all the time.
Iím not complaining. Iím never going to complain about anything Iíve been given. The only thing I complain about is peopleís perceptions of what I do. Itís not like we woke up one morning and we were in a successful band. No bands are like that. You work really hard and sacrifice a lot for so long to get here. Most of my career in Acceptance, I didnít make any money. I was living at home in my late 20s, making no money, but people would think, ďOh, youíre a rock star. Itís so glamorous.Ē Itís like, yes, itís great. Itís an amazing life, and I feel blessed to be playing shows. Itís more than most people can say, but itís not easy. Itís not like people trip and fall into success. It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice and brutal schedules.
I tell this story all the time because it was so vindicating for me. I would get off tour and Iíd be in Seattle, hanging out with some friends. Not really complaining, just kind of venting, like, ďMan, we had to do this. I didnít sleep for three days.Ē Whatever. My buddy would always bust my balls and be like, ďOh, boohoo. Poor dude, youíre in a band.Ē Years later, and this is when Iím in Anberlin now, he randomly gets this gig to be the personal assistant of some singer from a pretty big band. It was so randomly because he went to law school.
Anyway, he goes on tour with this band and calls me a week into it and is losing is mind. Heís like, ďDude, oh my God. I was here and then we had to take a flight here. Then I didnít sleep and we had to get on the bus. Then we went here and then we went here.Ē Iím like, "Yeah, welcome to touring! What do you think Iíve been doing for the past 10 years?Ē And he quit. He couldnít do it. He was like, ďI canít live like this. My wife is upset that Iím gone, and this is just a week. I canít handle a couple months.Ē It was so vindicating to me.
The point Iím trying to make is itís difficult. Itís not an easy lifestyle. Itís an amazing lifestyle, and itís such a blessing, but itís not easy. Itís not this party. Itís not MŲtley CrŁe, or whatever people assume that being in a band is. Itís rarely that. Itís just a lot of hard work. Living in a hallway or in a van, spending 24 hours a day with the same people, itís like having four wives, honestly. You spend so much time with people, you know every idiosyncrasy of every person. There are things that annoy you about them. Itís a weird spot to put five dudes together for years at a time, nonstop. There is no alone time.
Iíve been asking this question to the other guys but how do you think being in Anberlin has impacted and changed you as a person?
Everything you do in life has some sort of an impact on you. Everything you go through teaches you lessons and you learn from that. Itís the same thing with being in band. Seven years for me is a long time. Thatís your high school plus half your college career. I think you grow as a person as you get older.
Being on the road, you learn a lot. Being in close quarters with a small group of people, you learn how to work well in groups and communicate. Like anything in life, you live and you learn and you grow. Your experiences have an impact on who you are and your life view, all that kind of stuff.
One final question Ė looking to the future and to legacy, what would you like Anberlin to be remembered for?
I donít know. Weíve had a pretty decent career. Weíre ending things still loving each other. A lot of bands get to a point. Like I said, itís a difficult thing, living with five people all the time and five different personalities. I can see and I can empathize a lot of times when bands end up imploding and hating each other.
The legacy is the music, our character and the way weíve always carried ourselves as a band. What we stood for, the way weíve treated people, the way weíve treated each other, the way weíre ending the band is a testament to how we respect each other. I hope that always shines through, that we were standup dudes just trying to make the best music we could.
Glad he'll still be doing music. Also, totally get where he's coming from with not putting new tracks in the farewell setlist (it's actually very selfless), but man, I'd really like to hear We Are Destroyer, Atonement, and Hearing Voices. Also, Harbinger would be an amazing way to end the shows, lyrically-speaking.
I like how he acknowledged the debate of whether they should play new songs on the farewell tour. I'd like to think of Lowborn being a parting gift to the band and the fans, but the farewell tour be full of all time favorites and less new songs.
I've been a long time fan, and I really want to hear new songs just as much as old. That's half the fun of a new album. I understand their reasoning, but to me It wouldn't seem like they're going out on top if their not playing at least some new material.
Though I would be completely satisfied to just hear Atonement live, once.
Great interview. It feels like Christian has been in the band since the beginning.
where did you find the info that they're playing cities in full for that date?
In the interview Christian says "we might be doing a Cities show, too, in some market. I can’t remember"
So I figured he was trying to think of a venue name. Showbox at the Market stood out in my mind.
I may be completely wrong, though, since they already confirmed Cities for another date.
But you never know, cos Seattle is where they recorded Cities, so it would be a fitting surprise for Seattle.
Plus, there is no other venue on the upcoming tour that has market in the venue title.
But I dunno, it's anyone's guessing game at this point