In this recurring column, we pull back the curtain on the making of your favorite songs, taking a retrospective trip with the bands who wrote them. In this installment, Brian Kraus spoke with Acceptance singer Jason Vena and guitarist Christian McAlhaney about their major label single, “Different,” taken from 2005's Phantoms.
Seattle, Washington's Acceptance have reunited in honor of the tenth anniversary of Phantoms, their first and final full-length for one of the majors, Columbia Records. To many, their untimely break-up in the year after its release is a story untold—until now.
“All the mistakes were made, by us and the label, by management, everybody. Everybody was to blame,” recalls McAlhaney. At the forefront of these problems was the label's insistence to tout a ballad, “Different,” as the single, and subsequently sinking six figures into it. Morale slumped when the song didn't hit, and subsequent demos for a second album were shut down by Columbia.
“What that experience did was take all of that [passion] away. Not only did it turn the music into a business, but internally as a band, as soon as you start second guessing yourselves, then you start second guessing each other, then you start second guessing everything,” says Vena.
When I did the last Backtracking for Anberlin, the only thing the fans dogged me for was not asking what the lyrics meant, so let's start with that. [Laughs.] Jason, can you talk about the meaning of “Different?”
JASON VENA: The concept behind the record was to have a commentary on a bunch of different aspects of love, if you will. Actually, this idea of love being this thing you can be chasing in different ways, whether it's a relationship, whatever it may be. “Different” ended up being a fairly traditional song where it's about someone telling somebody that they're in a relationship with that they want it to be different. They want to change whatever these things may be for the other person. It's just a commentary on someone going on this drive and replaying these issues that came up, and singing or talking back to himself, “Hey, I should change. I should do these things.” A fairly straightforward message, but just in the context of this conversation you have with yourself on a drive.
That kind of got brought back in when we did the video for “Different.” They had me driving around and what not. It flashes these images of people in thought, if you will. That's really the imagery behind the song and where it fits within the greater picture of Phantoms. The album is all kind of songs about different places within the love spectrum.
What do you remember about filming it?
VENA: Christian wrote the song, and I think he'll have a good story about how the song originally was, because it wasn't anywhere near—if you heard the first demo of the song, it sounds nothing like the final version of the song.
MCALHANEY: Oh yeah, not at all.
VENA: The video was interesting because the treatment originally had a girl in the video. There was some connection between me and the girl, and all this footage with the girl got completely scrapped. For good reason—it just wasn't good. All of the shots in the video that are like lights coming on, turning off, people in thought—those were actually all taken after the video was done. We met with Columbia and weren't happy with the original result of the video. I think, I don't know if Mark Webb ended up having to redo it. I'm pretty sure in our conversation at the time the person who was in charge of music video production for Columbia was either in a relationship or married to him. He's the guy that did the last couple Spider-Man movies. He's the guy we originally wanted, we wanted to emulate the video for Green Day's “Time Of Your Life” a year or so earlier. We really wanted the “Different” video to have that kind of feel. He's the guy that did that video, too. I think it ended up being that they re-shot those little spots and he ended up editing it. We never really had a meeting afterward to confirm how it all got done. It was a fun experience, but it was consistent with everything that ever happened to Acceptance on that record release. Still, looking back it was fun we were doing a music video, but it didn't turn out the way we had hoped.
MCALHANEY: Yeah, like Jason said, we spent all this time shooting this video. I think we stayed up all night. They ended up pretty much scrapping all the B-roll besides live performance. We basically ended up shooting that music video without a complete video, you know what I'm saying? Yeah, like he was saying it was one of our first real music videos, so the experience was cool, and shooting a video for a major label, so it's kind of a big deal, but now we know it was not great. We wasted a lot of money.
VENA: The easiest way for a band to blow a lot of money is do a music video and don't keep half the footage. I don't know. It was crazy.
Do you remember what the budget was?
MCALHANEY: Oh, geez. It was a lot.
VENA: It was over $100,000, I know that.
VENA: Yeah. The one thing I will say, we fought to have Aaron Sprinkle make this record. When we signed, the idea was this record would more than likely come out on an indie label, just because we never put a full-length record out. When the record was finished, Columbia really liked it and they loved “Different.” They were just in love with that song. Everything escalated quickly. Before we knew it, it was like 'Hey, let's make the video.' We actually re-recorded “Different,” and didn't use that version, either.
MCALHANEY: Yeah, we recorded with Howard Benson, and then one of the Lord-Alge brothers mixed it. So we ended up not using that version, which was a giant waste of money. I think going in and recording one song with Benson and having one of the Lord-Alges mix it cost as much as making the whole record did.
How did “Different” become the single as we know it, then?
MCALHANEY: The original version was totally different. It was more upbeat, I don't know what I'd equate it to.
VENA: It was kind of like a folk-rock song. When we first recorded the song as a demo, it was an upbeat, double-time, it just felt way different. I'll give credit because we did our demos, back to the fact that Columbia didn't want Sprinkle to do the record because he'd never done a major-label record, and flown Lou Giordano to Seattle who had done Sunny Day Real Estate's The Rising Tide and the Ataris record for Columbia. They flew him in to do demos with us. It was actually his idea to slow “Different” down. In the demo session, he brought it up, and it was actually a really great idea.
VENA: The demo isn't a slowed-down version, but when we went to do the song with Sprinkle, we decided to slow it down at that point. The piano part that you hear in the song was never even in the song until we got into the studio to do Phantoms. It was completely different. Then Sprinkle came up with the piano part, we kind of have the intro, were like 'Oh, that's perfect.' When the song was done, Columbia was just in love with the song. It was pretty simple. I heard somebody say something that they thought it was like Coldplay or something, but actually the band that was successful at the time was Hoobastank. They had a song called “The Reason,” which was the biggest song in the world at the time. I think Columbia thought that this was going to be in the same vein, although it's not. It's way more ballady even than that song. But that's what got them all excited. They hear the song and think it sounds like something and decide it's going to be huge. From there, everything starts to spiral.
Were any of you hesitant about their choice?
VENA: I think everyone in the band was against it at one point. It came in different phases. In hindsight, and Christian can talk on this too, Columbia came to us and said 'Hey, if you don't want 'Different' to be the first single, then we need you to write an upbeat single with somebody.' We were like 'Well, we're not going to write a song with somebody.' At this point in our career, we were very idealistic. The idea of writing a song with somebody not in the band really just bothered us.
MCALHANEY: Yeah. It was more like 'This is what you need to do or you're not going to have any single.' At least on Columbia, you know, it was always an option to be on their imprint label (RED). They didn't even really know, like Jason said earlier, where the record was going to come out. Then, once we finished the record, it was basically like their way or the highway.
VENA: Yeah. 'Hey, we really love this record, it's going to be huge! You have to do whatever we say.' Okay?
MCALHANEY: None of us really agreed with or wanted to release a ballad as the first single. I think we all thought it was a misrepresentation of the whole record.
VENA: Yup. I mean, “Take Cover” would have been a great song. Even “So Contagious” would have been a great song. But it didn't go that way, and obviously and the rest was history. A great example if you're going to release a ballad first—at the same time Capital Records put out the Fray's “Over My Head (Cable Car).” That was released at the same time [as Phantoms] and Capital promoted that song for probably over a year until it actually started to pick up. In our scenario, it was like maybe a month, tops? 'Okay, well, it's not a single! It's not number one. Let's move on.'
You brought up “So Contagious,” which might be your most popular song looking at stream numbers now. It's still pretty soft, do you think that would have performed better back in the day?
VENA: The only reason I think if would have is because even though it's soft, the way the guitars came up, I think the reason it's popular is because it just has a little bit more of it's own unique personality. Listen, I love “Different.” I think it's great. There's some great stuff happening in that song. It's not my favorite song on the record. If we recorded that song today, there would be things we'd do differently, whereas “So Contagious,” I wouldn't touch that song. “Take Cover” is another song we obviously love, it was an upbeat song, but I don't know if it necessarily had a huge radio hook that you need for a first single. Once again, the landscape of rock music was a little bit different.
So at that point, there wasn't going to be any real push for a second single?
VENA: No, unfortunately the record was derailed when the copy protect lawsuit happened. Every Columbia release got pulled off the shelves. When you put our record back on the shelves and you're six months into the record, you kind of have to decide 'Are we going to reinvest or not?' And they didn't. What's interesting is not long after that, we went on tour with Panic! At The Disco and the Academy Is, and that was a really successful tour for the band. We got to where it was about a year or less after Phantoms came out, and started working on demos. From there, that's when the band ended up breaking up. If we put out a record at that point, it probably would have been really good.
It just was a tough thing. We would meet with Columbia and ask about our internet presence, how they were going to promote the band online, and they're just like 'We don't do online. We don't have the budget for anything online.' At the time, MySpace was a thing, Absolutepunk.net was a thing, Alternative Press was a huge thing to promote bands like ourselves. It's like 'Can we put an ad out in AP for our record?'
And the answer was no. Were these all major label fears manifesting in front of you guys?
VENA: Yeah, because it was so weird to sit there and know that the landscape of music was changing, that Apple and iTunes was starting to take over.
MCALHANEY: It was basically everything that could have went wrong, went wrong. It was like 'If we could not make these mistakes, we'll be okay.' We ended up making all of them. All the mistakes were made, by us and the label, by management, everybody. Everybody was to blame.
Do you have any ties left to Columbia now?
VENA: Nothing that I know of. Who knows. I mean, if we ever put the music out I'm sure we'll find out pretty fast if we have ties to Columbia. [Laughs.] But no, I think we don't. By the time we broke up, there was a different president, A&R president, A&R person. We got signed by Matt Pinfield, and that was what really excited us about Columbia. That's why we chose the label because he was well-known in the music industry, he worked with MTV on 120 Minutes and he was a real music lover. He's the kind of guy that would fight for your band. He had enough respect in the industry that he could talk to the president of Columbia and they would listen to him, but unfortunately he had to step out before we even got to release the song. That was a bummer.
Would you say “Different” was the downfall of the band?
MCALHANEY: I don't know if you could put it on one thing like that. It was a slow chipping away process at the morale of the band. It's one constant defeat after another. By the time we started thinking about doing another record, involving your life in another cycle of a couple years, you can understand how you'd look at it and not be excited for it. You're like, 'I don't know if I want to do that anymore. I've got a really bad taste in my mouth.'
VENA: I agree. The one thing about the band that holds true, and I'm glad it transcended. We loved what the message of music is all about. Everything idealistic about music, we loved. We played music that wasn't very idealistic. When we find out that people think our band is an 'incredible band,' if you will, from a musical standpoint we're just a pop band. We write pop songs. There's nothing real amazing happening with the songs, but there's something that transcended with the music and the passion that the band had. I also think we had that same passion when we played the music.
What that experience did was take all of that away. Not only did it turn the music into a business, but internally as a band, as soon as you start second guessing yourselves, then you start second guessing each other, then you start second guessing everything. Everything. What Christian hit on perfectly is once that's happening, it just feels like the next two years are going to be the worst two years of your life. People obviously look at it and go 'Man, you get to be in a band on a major label. I'd kill for that.' Well, I don't know. I'd kill to be able to make music I love and have a lot of people be able to share that experience. You know what? The most rewarding thing about us getting back together is we get to see that happening again and we got to see that happen regardless of getting back together or not, which is a cool thing.
Just curious, how many units did Phantoms move?
VENA: 140-something thousand. Physical records were a lot.
Jason, have you done much singing or writing since the band broke up? Besides your guest spots for Ivoryline and All Time Low?
VENA: Just over the last few months, but I found an old recorder I have like a hundred songs on. Some of it is cool. It's been fun, now that we've all come back together, we have six guys—some of these guys have ten years worth of ideas they've been messing around with in their bedrooms. We've had a lot of fun listening to music and figuring out what everybody likes and what we sound like at this point.
How are you guys communicating now? Massive group text? What rekindled that in the first place?
MCALHANEY: Well, we actually lost contact for a while, a few of us. Obviously, touring with Anberlin, I was in and out of different states. I had the opportunity to see a lot of the dudes over the years. It wasn't really until the end of last year that we really started getting the conversation going about [getting back together]. First of all, what brought it up is that we had an offer for Skate And Surf festival. That was something tangible to talk about, like, “Hey, here's this offer to play in New Jersey on this day for this much money. How does everybody feel about that? It's been almost ten years, the anniversary of Phantoms.” It just got the dialogue going, and it's been slowly growing into where we're at now. We're trying to see how many shows we can play this year based on our availability, the possibility of putting out new music and all that kind of stuff. There's been a lot of email chains and a lot of group chats. [Laughs.] It's actually overwhelming at times with texts flying left and right.
VENA: At this point, I don't think a day goes by without somebody in the band having a fifty text long conversation with each other. It's actually pretty interesting, for me I was just thinking about it yesterday. We had out first band practice with the four guys that live in Seattle, we went out to dinner afterwards and had a really good time. We all have a lot going on in our lives, for me I was able to five good friends again. We text, and we're talking and everyone's got their unique personality going on from ten years ago. It's really entertaining.
For anybody that is interested, it's definitely not six guys that are trying to go play some shows and make some money. It definitely feels like six guys that truly are excited about being able to play these songs again, get together again and potentially do more in the future.
VENA: I think that's why everyone's so excited about it.
If there was a to-do list for Acceptance—a blank piece of paper in front of you—what would you put on it?
MCALHANEY: I'd like the band to be able to do all the things we didn't get to do when we were a band. I luckily kept playing and moved on and was able to travel the world. Some of the things I experienced with Anberlin are just so mind-blowing, so humbling. When you thought of your life like, 'Why would I ever go to Russia? Why would I ever be in China?' Acceptance never really got outside of the states. If we could do some things like that, it would be awesome. To do another record and feel you're doing it your way, because you want to do it for your own reasons. I think that would be amazing, as well.
VENA: I agree with that. I'd love to look back a year from now and been able to make music together, been able to play some concerts together, have a lot of great moments from that year, be able to look at each other and say 'This is exactly what we envisioned happening before everything stopped.' Hopefully from there, it allows us to do even more amazing things, like what Christian's talking about. Get out of the states, see other places and just touch other people. I can't even do a to-do list because there'd be so many things. I'm just really excited to look back in a year or two and see where our relationships are individually inside the band and how that's been able to affect people that come in contact with the band's music.
I like how this interview started on a bummer note, and maybe you were thinking 'Why are we going to talk about that song?' but I knew that we needed the “Different” story to get here.
MCALHANEY: It's a great experience for any band to understand. We really did go through a lot, but at the end of the day, I do think that there was a lot of positive that came from our music. That's what was cool about Acceptance. People liked the band because they really connected to—they didn't connect to—you look at pictures of us ten years ago, we were not the coolest looking band. [Laughs.] It's not like we all had long hair or wore black button-down shirts or had pyrotechnics. People just really connected to our music, and I think that's what every band would really hope for. alt