The History of Anberlin, Part 1: Blueprints for the Black Market (2002–2004)
Previously — The History of Anberlin, Prelude: Just One Year
The name “Anberlin” did not come from a child who Stephen’s grandfather saved during World War II. They didn’t name themselves after a dog they once hit on the road, or a noise in Radiohead’s song “Everything in its Right Place,” or after Anne Boleyn, the Queen of England from 1533 until 1536 who was arrested for high treason and eventually beheaded. While all of these stories, and many more, have been told by the band members over the years when interviewers ask them where their name comes from, the true story is a bit less theatrical. Stephen was simply telling a friend about his European backpacking aspirations, listing off places that he wanted to go, including Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, and Berlin; he thought those last two words had a nice ring to them, and the rest of the band agreed.
Anberlin recorded five demos with Matt Goldman, including “Readyfuels,” “Driving” (later renamed “Autobahn”), “Everywhere and in Between,” “Foreign Language,” and “Embrace the Dead” — the first three of which would later appear on their b-sides and rarities compilation, Lost Songs. With these songs at their disposal, the band uploaded them to MP3.com — one of the first legal music-sharing websites to become popular, allowing independent bands to upload their songs for fans to stream and download. Within a month of posting their demos, Anberlin’s songs had been played upwards of 25,000 times.
Once their songs were recorded, the band members had to balance working long hours at odd jobs with trying to find any way that they could to get their music out there. “They used to have these things called Musician’s Atlases that you could buy at Borders, and you would invest like $24 in them, and man, I must have sent out forty or fifty manila envelopes full of our information, and CDs, and all that kind of stuff just to try to get on a tour, or get a club to book us,” said Stephen. “It was way different because, even though there were the grassroots strategies of social media, I couldn’t afford a computer by any means. We had to hustle. That’s just what it was. We pooled our money together and Deon’s dad ended up co-signing with us for a loan for the van, so we had to buy a trailer. All of us were working, Deon and I were digging ditches for his dad who was a welder, and when I wasn’t doing that I was trying to do anything I could, from substitute teaching to administrative work, anything I possibly could do to make money, to keep my cell phone on just in case someone called and wanted to tour, or wanted to talk about a record deal.”
Slowly but surely, all their hard work combined with the buzz that they were building online began to attract the attention not only of fans, but of record labels, too. Matt Goldman reached out to his friends at Warner Brothers Records, and from there, the word spread to other major labels as well as independent companies. Despite interest from major labels including Epic Records, the band decided against making such a big move right out of the gate, and instead began talking to their friend Chad Johnson, the owner of Takehold Records — which had just been purchased by Brandon Ebel of Tooth & Nail Records.
“Chad came to check out a show of ours in Atlanta, Georgia, which turned out to be one of the most catastrophic shows of our lives,” Stephen wrote for HM Magazine in 2007. “We were sandwiched right in between hardcore acts Underoath and headliner Norma Jean — two bands we had shared the stage with numerous times, but had no right to be performing with in our then pop-indie rock form. Needless to say, Chad told Brandon Ebel, president of Tooth & Nail, that they should not sign us, because our performance that night was deplorable, and, in retrospect, I agree.” Despite a lackluster live performance, Tooth & Nail continued to pursue the band on the strength of their recorded demos, and in the spring of 2002, Anberlin joined the Tooth & Nail Records family.
One of the biggest questions that came along with Anberlin’s decision to sign to Tooth & Nail was whether or not they would be marketing their music specifically to a Christian audience. At that time, nearly all of the label’s acts were made up of Christian artists and musicians — and while the members of Anberlin never denied being Christian individuals, they expressed reservations from the start about being classified as a Christian rock band.
In many early interviews, Stephen, Deon, and Joey Milligan spoke about the illogical nature of labeling bands, albums, or songs as Christian or non-Christian, commonly raising the question of whether or not it was possible for an album to get its soul saved. Furthermore, they conveyed their discomfort with using God as a marketing tool. “For me and the band, it was selling out,” Stephen told Relevant Magazine. “I would hate to think that someone bought my record because the name of Jesus was put into some bullet point about the band.”
Still, their presence on the Tooth & Nail roster began to precede the band’s musical talent itself when it came to press coverage — and even, in some cases, future tourmates. Members of the band have noted that they occasionally found themselves faced with surprise from other musicians who, after spending a few days on tour with Anberlin, would make remarks about how normal they were.
In 2003, Stephen and the rest of the band were even profiled in a piece in The New York Times called, “Christian Bands, Crossing Over; A New Breed of Rockers Broadens Its Appeal by Skipping the Sermons.” In the article, Stephen — whom the author continually refers to as Mr. Christian — discussed the predictability and staleness of the Christian music market, pointing out the ways that the market often attempted to assemble and promote musical groups that mimicked the most prevalent secular trends at any given moment.
When it came time to write and record their debut album, Anberlin came face-to-face with Tooth & Nail’s expectations for their music and their image as a whole. An A&R executive approached Stephen and tried to convince him to craft his lyrics so that they leaned more toward topics of faith. One song that the band recorded, “Change the World (Lost Ones),” was initially meant to be titled, “Lips and Sway” — the words appear in the song’s second verse, warning the listener against caving into sexual temptation. But despite the message contained in the song, Tooth & Nail argued that the proposed title was too sexually suggestive, so the title was changed.
Stephen chalked this incident up to the band being young and not yet having much influence with the label executives. “I think that, as a band, you build trust, and I think Brandon Ebel kind of thought he saw this band that may have gone after the Christian market,” he said. “But once we started to pick up steam in other places, touring with Fall Out Boy and bands like that, he didn’t care as much.”
In February 2003, Anberlin went into the studio for three and a half weeks to record their first album with producer Aaron Sprinkle in Seattle, Washington. Only three songs from the previous year’s demos had made the cut to their debut full-length: “Readyfuels,” “Autobahn,” and “Foreign Language.” The other two songs had been shelved — a mutual decision between the band and the label, all of whom felt that neither track represented the sound Anberlin wanted to pursue.
They entered the studio with only ten original songs; they knew they needed one more (not just for themselves, but for the record label, too), and after hearing Aaron Sprinkle play an acoustic cover of The Cure’s “Lovesong” at a local covers night event in Seattle, they decided to record their own rendition, noting that The Cure had been an influence for all of them individually as well as the band collectively.
Stephen cited Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity and Sense Field’s Tonight and Forever as two of the most influential records for Anberlin’s early sound. “It was [Sense Field singer] Jon Bunch’s vocals, and how his lyrics were almost telling a story — and at the end of the story you kind of wanted to resolve something in your own life, and I felt like that was just huge, you know, the passion and the vigor in his lyrics — I wanted to do that,” Stephen told Alternative Press’s Mike Shea. “And then with Clarity, I think the music really seeped into early Anberlin as far as how those songs are cohesive and beautiful but they can be all over the place. Clarity is all over the map — it goes from almost a techno beat into lush, sixteen-part harmonies.”
One of the starkest changes between saGoh 24/7’s sound and Anberlin’s sound was Stephen’s vocal style — a change that he attributes to truly learning how to sing, and to discovering artists including Jeff Buckley, The Smiths, and Depeche Mode during his time at college.
The songs on Blueprints for the Black Market are both immediately accessible and deceptively nuanced — a quality that Anberlin would continue to develop throughout their later albums, and a quality hinted at in the record’s title, which Stephen has explained is “a jab at pop music at the time,” saying, “I considered it a black-market product as most music was not created by the artist but for the artist. I knew, though, that we could write just as good of songs, and our formula was the blueprint.” The lyrics for “Readyfuels,” for instance, are Stephen’s reflections on lust, hormones, and temptation, filtered in part through the lens of dealing with an unplanned pregnancy within his family.
Meanwhile, “Cold War Transmissions” — a song that has sparked in-depth speculation by fans at various times, with some suggesting that it was written as veiled political commentary on the Iraq war — is actually the most surface-level song on the album in Stephen’s view. During an interview with Frank Jenks, Stephen said that he wrote “Cold War Transmissions” about playing Risk, the board game, with his younger brother Tim. “I love him to death, and we’re like ten years apart, so we just don’t connect on the same levels — I graduated college and he’s still in high school, you know? But one of our favorite things to do when we’re together is to play Risk,” Stephen said. “You’re the military and you’re trying to take over the world. And I’m always Russia, because I love this place — and so if you read over the lyrics again, you will just laugh your head off, because the spies coming clean are just the little chips.”
The album is also full of scattered references to influential artists and texts. In “Glass to the Arson,” Stephen sings, “Savage the poison, unhurried compass east,” which is a reference to a line near the end of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World that reads, “Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south-south-west; then paused, and, after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left. South-south-west, south, south-east, east.” Another song, “Cold War Transmissions,” references a line in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII — “penance the fire drake.” Stephen has said that the line “Let me kiss your lips of red tonight” in “Cold War Transmissions” was included because it reminded him of lyrics written by one of his favorite vocalists, Jeff Buckley.
Blueprints is very much an album steeped in Stephen’s family life; he wrote not only “Readyfuels” and “Cold War Transmissions” about experiences within his family, but also “Change the World (Lost Ones),” which he has since called an imaginary letter that he wrote to his brother Tim and his sister Ruth, and “Cadence,” which details his relationship with his brother Paul; the two of them shared a room together while attending the University of Central Florida and spent late nights discussing faith with one another.
From the start, Anberlin’s writing process involved Joey Milligan recording tracks on his own, and then burning them onto a CD, which Stephen would listen to and begin writing melodies and lyrics to match; next, the remaining members of the band took the reins and wrote their own parts that aligned with what Joey and Stephen had created.
Although Joey Bruce was an official member of the band when they recorded Blueprints, he did not participate in the actual recording process. “We’d had some personal issues with him before going into the studio, and we decided it was best for him not to record on the album,” Joey [Milligan] told me, citing concerns with his attitude as the chief reason behind this decision. “We didn’t want that in the studio with us, especially when we were making our first legitimate record.”
Working with Aaron Sprinkle on Blueprints turned out to be one of the most significant moves in the band’s early career; he not only helped them nail the sound that they were aiming for, hard-hitting rock music with memorable pop sensibilities, but he also offered them invaluable artistic guidance as a seasoned musician himself. “I remember sitting down to track the first song with him, it was ‘We Dreamt in Heist,’ and my hands were shaky, and he was like, ‘It’s cool, man. It’s cool. Just take your time, bud.’ And once I got in it, we were just knocking out guitars left and right,” Joey said.
Aaron also educated them about the industry, and urged them not to allow their music or their image to be forced into the Christian market against their wishes. The ties that the band established with Aaron during these three and a half weeks would hold strong not only through the band’s next two albums, which he would also produce, but all the way to the end of Anberlin’s career, when Stephen would return to Aaron to produce the vocals on Lowborn.
After recording, the band mixed the album with J. R. McNeely in Vancouver, and returned to Seattle to master the album with Troy Glessner. The entire process, from recording to mastering, took about two and a half months. Blueprints for the Black Market was released on May 6, 2003.
Immediately after recording, the band went on a short tour with pax 217, which was followed by a few shows with Rock Kills Kid, as well as a spot on the release show for Copeland’s Beneath Medicine Tree in March. They played the Icthus Festival in Wilmore, Kentucky in April, and then in May, they appeared for the second consecutive year at the Cornerstone Festival in Orlando, Florida. While Anberlin’s very first tour after signing to Tooth & Nail Records had been a few shows in support of their friends in Underoath and Copeland, their first major tour came in the summer of 2003, when they hit the road with Further Seems Forever and The Movielife.
Not only were they playing to broader audiences on a nightly basis, but they were also learning how to survive on the road as a touring band — which wasn’t always easy. At times, they lived on two-dollar per-diem meals, which were often spent at Taco Bell, purchasing two tacos for a dollar at lunch, and then two more for a dollar at dinner. They slept on floors, in their van, or wherever they could find a place to stretch out — even, at one point in their early career, staying in an abandoned house in Washington, D.C. where they had to open a kitchen stove in order to stay warm.
Their next big tour, this time with Relient K and Don’t Look Down, arrived in the fall of 2003 — two straight months, from the end of September to the end of November. Nate, only sixteen years old at this time and not able to drive, traveled in Relient K’s bus instead of Anberlin’s crowded van. Fortunately, he had been home-schooled prior to joining the band, so he was able to continue his schoolwork on the road. The members of Anberlin continued learning how to adjust to the touring lifestyle; Stephen noted that he tried to read a book per week to keep his mind occupied, and he took walks either early in the morning or right before a show in order to find temporary solitude.
While signing to Tooth & Nail certainly helped Anberlin land spots on coveted tours and distribute their music across the country, there was never a moment when the band put their feet up and relaxed, or were able to luxuriate in the comfortable life of professional musicians. Many of the daily tasks involved in touring and promotion were still left to the band members themselves. “I remember standing outside of clubs and venues passing out CDs, and I remember when our first record came out, I would go hang up Anberlin posters,” Stephen said. “I went to Kinkos and copied five hundred posters. They weren’t tour posters, but they just said, ‘Anberlin, Blueprints for the Black Market,’ and I hung them all over my former high school; I drove to Lakeland, I drove to Tampa, and I just taped and stapled them all everywhere. All those things like that — you don’t stop working just because you got signed.” When not on tour, the members of the band still lived with their parents.
Mid-to-late 2003 brought more than just difficulties in their workload, however. The relationships inside the band had become strained, with guitarist Joey Bruce at the center of the chaos.
According to Stephen, Joey embodied the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll mentality that the rest of the band made a conscious and determined effort to avoid. The dynamic between Stephen and Joey had become so tense so quickly that, even upon finding out about their impending tour with Further Seems Forever and The Movielife, Stephen later said he felt more contempt than excitement about the opportunity, knowing that he would have to spend the summer in such close quarters with someone whose actions and beliefs were constantly undermining the band’s goals. Tension reached an all-time high when Joey attempted to fight a female security guard at a show (as summarized in a Cross Rhythms article), nearly getting arrested and endangering the band’s position on the tour. Before the year had ended, the band removed Joey from their lineup.
As the pages of the calendar continued to turn, Anberlin toured relentlessly. They recruited temporary guitarist Jimmy Aceino to fill the hole left by Joey Bruce, and kicked off 2004 with several in-store acoustic shows and radio performances before embarking on the Tooth & Nail Tour, which was billed with Further Seems Forever claiming the headlining position — that is, until Further Seems Forever’s vocalist, Jason Gleason, quit with little notice, forcing his band to drop off the tour entirely. The label bumped Anberlin up into the headlining position, with Emery, mewithoutYou, and Watashi Wa providing support.
Anberlin continued tightening their live show and acclimating to life on tour. When speaking about the artists who have influenced his always-energetic stage presence, Stephen listed Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, Robert Smith of The Cure, and Morrissey of The Smiths, who — in order — taught him that frontmen have incredible power over their audiences, that you don’t have to be traditionally good-looking in order to establish sex appeal, and that mystery lends itself well to the position of the vocalist. Meanwhile, Deon and Joey Milligan built upon the now eight-year musical chemistry that they shared, and Nate grew more comfortable among his bandmates as they all continued to age.
Following their successful (if unexpected) headlining run on the Tooth & Nail Tour, Anberlin played a month-and-a-half-long string of shows with The Juliana Theory, Bayside, and Number One Fan, which led directly into another month-and-a-half-long stint — this time, with Fall Out Boy. As the heat of the summer began to take hold, the band’s touring schedule finally caught up with them, and exhaustion set in like it never had before. “There was a moment when we got out at a truck stop and I said, guys, I’ll be right back, I’m just going to go get some Gatorade — I got on my knees and fainted right in front of the van, then stood back up, got my Gatorade, got back in, and went onto the next show,” Stephen told Alternative Press. “You just keep going. We had no money to go to a hospital or anything like that. Nobody had insurance. We were just like — crap, get back in the van. This is what you do when you’re in a band.” When they finally returned home, Stephen went to a doctor and was diagnosed with a severe case of bronchitis.
Despite the financial struggles, the odd jobs, the inner-band turmoil, the health scares, and the long months spent away from home in a cramped van, Stephen looks back fondly on the early days of Anberlin. “I kind of correlate it to an athlete who is going to the Super Bowl — or at least he wants to be in the Super Bowl — but he sprains his ankle, and he just plays through the pain,” he said. “I think you just play through the pain, that’s kind of the hope, because you’re living with your parents and you’re eating ramen noodles and you’re scraping by just to pay a cell phone bill. I had to sell my car because I couldn’t even afford the insurance, but you don’t feel that, you know? The pain isn’t there because you’re so focused that you kind of have blinders on to the superfluous things.”
The band had succeeded in establishing themselves, with an acclaimed debut album and two solid years of touring under their belts. Next, they had their sights locked on a return to the studio with Aaron Sprinkle, and a determination to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.
Below is a video of the band playing “Readyfuels” on June 14, 2002, during what videographer Joe Setney recalls was the group’s first show under the moniker of Anberlin.
In October 2003, Anberlin shot their first music video for “Readyfuels” with Zach Merck in Los Angeles. In 2004, the video was added into rotation on MTVU and MTV2.
The band didn’t hire an official tour manager until well after the release of Blueprints for the Black Market. Prior to that point, Deon handled a large amount of the managing responsibilities himself.
Before committing to a career in music, Deon considered going to culinary school to become a chef.
When the band members sat down with Nate’s parents to try to convince them to let him tour at such a young age, Nate’s parents were understanding — in part because his dad had spent time in the National Football League, playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Green Bay Packers, the Miami Dolphins, and the New York Giants, and knew how important it was to strike while the iron’s hot and take advantage of such a fleeting opportunity.
Nate’s older brother accompanied him on tour a few times in the band’s early career.
“Embrace the Dead,” one of the demos that Anberlin recorded with Matt Goldman, was never officially released — but it can be found on YouTube. This was one of the songs that were shelved because they did not align with the sound that the band wanted to pursue.
On the Tooth & Nail Tour, the band began playing two new songs that would eventually appear on their second album: “When Time and Confusion Collide” (which was later shortened to “Time and Confusion”) and “Never Take Friendship Personal.”
By this time, they felt like true songwriters capturing something unique and whole, instead of having to rely on their musical influences.
A History of Anberlin was written by Matt Metzler. Matt is an independent writer, a part-time teacher in southwest Ohio, and, clearly, an Anberlin fan.
View more of Matt’s work on his website.
Author photo and trophy illustrations by Tyler Davis
Anberlin Forever is an unauthorized and unofficial biography of Anberlin and has not been commissioned, endorsed, or authored by Anberlin LLC.