After three indie albums and a whole lot of dues-paying, ANBERLIN have made the ascension to the major-label big leagues. Don’t worry, though; their attitude remains the same.
Story: Kevin Wade
Photos: Taylor Foiles
Some bands would do anything (and we really mean anything) to get a phone call from a major label, while punker-than-thou types will avoid it at all costs. Serial nice-guys Anberlin, new members of the Universal/Republic roster, had their own way of dealing with it.
“We actually were just taking [their] calls to be polite!” says vocalist Stephen Christian, whose mighty power-pop quintet entered Universal’s radar after delivering three successful long-players for Tooth & Nail Records on their way to a headlining spot on the 2008 Vans Warped Tour. “We really wanted to stay on Tooth & Nail-those guys will always be our family-but after seeing Universal come to show after show and call us week after week, we thought that maybe it was time to take our shot.”
With each new day come stories of the changes that occur when a band take the leap from a successful independent career to a major label: Sounds and attitudes can change; touring packages become more visible; bands must quickly become experts of “generally accepted accounting principles” to understand their contracts; and most importantly, longtime fans may, to put it generously, become infinitely more fickle. Any band claiming to be immune to the pressures and tension that can arise from such a quick transition are clearly kidding themselves.
Consider Anberlin: Their 2007 release Cities was easily their most successful offering to date-both musically and fiscally- debuting in the Billboard Top 20 and garnering outstanding reviews. While Cities’ success gave the band-Christian, drummer Nate Young, guitarist Joseph Milligan, bassist Deon Rexroat and relative “new guy” guitarist Christian McAlhaney -a lot of momentum, the stakes are far greater with their label debut, New Surrender.
“It’s pretty crazy to think that if you’re in a band that sells 100,000 records on an independent label, you’re heroes to that label,” says Young, lucidly. “But if you do that on a major label, you’re just another drop in the bucket.”
Christian’s view of the major label pressure is slightly different, and offers a more starry-eyed glimpse into the path the group hope to follow. “I look at bands like Jimmy Eat World and Death Cab For Cutie: Has anything changed about the way those bands write songs since they became major-label [acts]? Those bands paved the way for guys like us to feel comfortable writing what we know and not concerning ourselves with pandering just to get on the radio. Universal actually wanted to work out a deal so that they could release Cities,” Christian concludes, illustrating the label’s confidence in the group.
That confidence especially came in handy when the group sought the services of producer Neal Avron, whose expertise has been heard on offerings from Fall Out Boy, Yellowcard and New Found Glory. “We had two weeks just for pre-production to work on our songs,” Young remembers. “I was used to being in there tracking drums 24 hours after getting off tour. I finished drums after a couple of weeks and then just flew home to Florida, because the guys still had two months left [to record] the other instruments.”
While Young appreciated the leisurely pace of recording New Surrender, it was Christian who faced new challenges writing the album’s lyrics. The singer felt that his writing had grown so personal and introspective, he wasn’t sure listeners could always relate to what he was saying. “It was getting to the point where the lyrics were too much about me,” he says. “I wanted to be more external and inviting with my lyrics on this album.” Making the challenge all the more daunting was the band’s decision to re-record “The Feel Good Drag,” from 2005’s Never Take Friendship Personal. Cynics would hiss that the decision was obviously made by “a suit” at the label-and they would be wrong. “We just really love that song and thought that it would be a great introduction for new fans,” says Young. “When we think of a song that really displays what we’re all about, I think that one’s perfect. The label loved the idea, but they never once suggested it to us.”
“I only wanted it to be a B-side, but after going through the process of recording it again, we realized how much we loved the song,” Christian reveals. “[We] felt it really fit in with my intention of delivering lyrics that were really relatable for the listener. It’s about staying faithful to the people you love. After a lot of thinking, I realized it really fits nicely with the communal feeling I wanted to achieve.” Not surprisingly, the track delivers decidedly more power than the already impressive original.
The three months the band spent working with Avron also afforded them the luxury of being thorough with every facet of the record. The sugary, bouncy “Haight St.” conjures images of the Anberlin of days past at their absolute best, while the more urgent and punchy “Blame Me! Blame Me!” plays like the next logical step in their growth from Cities. The proceedings flow seamlessly into the band’s traditional epic closer, “Misearbile Visu (Ex Malo Bonum)” (translation:“Terrible By The Sight (Good Out Of Evil)”). With more advanced instrumentation and a greater depth in Christian’s vocal melodies, there’s no question Anberlin were up to the challenge.
New Surrender proves that Cities was barely even a teaser for what was to come. It’s also a parallel that could be made about the band. In the early days of the band, Christian graduated with a psychology degree from the University of Central Florida, less than six months prior to a contract offer from Tooth & Nail. “I really hadn’t expected to be in this full-time band,” he remembers. “We all just started with the intention of writing songs together as a way have some fun and maybe see what happened. I have a family full of college-educated, successful people. Between my brothers and sister, two are doctors and one is a United States ambassador-then there’s me strumming a guitar, living in a van and relishing the opportunity just to take a shower.”
Christian adds a bit of cautionary advice to those seeking to follow Anberlin’s path. “My lyrics are influenced by everything in my life,” he begins. “Actually going through with college, and taking some of the coolest classes you could imagine, is something I wouldn’t trade in for anything. I think everyone should get an education. Look at a music website like PureVolume: There are over 400,000 bands on there, and if you assume each band even only has three members, that’s 1.2 million people currently playing in bands. I’d never tell someone not to pursue their passion, but when education is available to everyone, it’d be silly not to take advantage of that.”
The success of Cities and the possibilities for New Surrender earned the band an invitation to join the increasingly diverse fraternity of Vans Warped Tour headliners. Christian deems Warped 2K8 as “one of the top three tours I’ve ever done, and definitely the best summer tour ever.” One thing he may not have anticipated, however, were the cleanliness issues. “I’ve been home for maybe 12 hours total, and I’ve already taken two showers today, and I’ll probably take two more. Everyone gets pretty sweaty out in the heat all summer.” Not surprisingly, the affable singer notices a connection with the band’s early days. “[Warped] reminded me a little of when Deon [Rexroat, bassist] and I used to work for this welding company between tours. We’d be finished with a tour and one day later, I’d be out there with a college degree digging holes to make cash.”
It’s a fitting full-circle tale as Anberlin become the latest independent band to take their shot at major-label glory, one clean shower at a time. With a headlining tour with Scary Kids Scaring Kids and Straylight Run this fall, to be followed by some overseas touring, Anberlin are ready for whatever new opportunities await them. They are certainly poised for something larger, but for right now, everything just seems right.
“I wouldn’t change a thing about the way I’ve gone about my life,” Christian resigns. “I remember that my mom really knew I was doing what I was meant to do when we were out in my hometown and someone just randomly recognized me on the street.”