The History of Anberlin, Part 3: Cities (2006–2007)
The writing process for Anberlin’s third album felt quite different for the band, for a variety of reasons. In an attempt to cleanse his mind from any contemporary influences, Stephen only allowed himself to listen to blues and jazz music, citing his favorites as Nina Simone, Sonny Stitt, and Serge Gainsbourg. Joey experienced a wave of songwriting inspiration unlike any before, abandoning all past anxieties about whether the material he wrote was too heavy, too poppy, or too slow to form a cohesive sound.
At first, the members of Anberlin were uncertain about returning to producer Aaron Sprinkle for the third time, not wanting to recreate either of the two albums that they’d previously recorded with him. After making plans to hire a different engineer and a different mixer, as well as booking some time in a different studio, London Bridges, in order to record drums separately, both Aaron and the band felt confident that everyone involved had grown enough in their respective skills to ensure that this album would not be a rehashed version of Never Take Friendship Personal or Blueprints for the Black Market.
Another stark difference in the writing process came as a result of turbulence in Stephen’s personal life. He’d experienced an emotionally draining break-up at the end of the previous year, and he’d been watching other relationships in his life suffer and fall apart around him. Spending so much time away from home and surrounded by his bandmates and crew members at all times had led him to desire long stretches of solitude; when Anberlin arrived in Seattle to prepare for recording, coming directly off a lengthy summer on tour, Stephen rented an apartment for himself for five days in order to get away from the band’s busy routine and to seize a short period of privacy.
In order to maintain a degree of distance between his personal life and his career as a musician, Stephen admitted that he’d adopted and relied upon a different persona while on stage — more extroverted and confident than his inner self. The process of writing and recording Cities, Anberlin’s third album, served as an unmasking of that stage persona, and an attempt to reconcile himself with the unanswered and unanswerable questions of his inner life.
The name of the album came to Stephen early on during the recording process, as he was sitting on the balcony of his apartment looking out over the city of Seattle. “It just clicked; with how much we were touring at the time, it felt right,” he said. “We loved to travel then, we were into culture, and all of us liked exploring each new town we stumbled into.” Most mornings while the band was in Seattle, Stephen and Nate would begin the day in a coffee shop; Stephen spent hours inside coffee shops as well as wandering the streets of Seattle in order to finish writing his lyrics for the album, wanting to make sure that they were more meaningful than anything he’d written before.
He viewed the lyrics of these new songs as a sort of experiment — he felt determined to expose deeply personal elements of his life, including his experiences with depression and his responsibility for the failure of relationships in his past. While in the studio, the band kept a journal on their online forums, where they allowed fans to submit their phone numbers; Stephen wanted to speak directly to the people who would be listening to the album when it was finished, and make sure that he was addressing issues in his lyrics that were relevant to their fanbase. “When I started to talk to people, I realized that time and time again people were on this exponential search for truth,” he told Mike Passaretti of PunkBands.com. “It was just crazy that all these people kept saying the same exact thing: ‘We want deeper songs with actual meaning.’”
The recording process began with Nate tracking his drums at London Bridges Studio, which held quite a significant piece of music history within its walls; Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains had both recorded albums there. With this inspiration, the confidence of the band riding an all time high, and Nate’s continued evolution as a drummer (which Stephen has identified as the biggest change in musicianship for the album), the drums came out sounding bigger and more commanding than ever. As Nate wrapped up his own parts, Joey, Deon, and Nathan Strayer began tracking guitars at the Compound Studios — but some difficulties emerged almost immediately.
“We were having issues with [Nathan] Strayer, and it was mainly his work ethic, and his commitment to the band just wasn’t there,” Joey told me. “So when we got to the studio to do pre-production, he didn’t know any of the songs. He just hadn’t practiced any of them, physically was unable to play some of them, and so it got to the point where it was a little embarrassing, because, I mean, we were in the middle of tracking drums and we’re doing scratch tracks and stuff, and [Aaron] Sprinkle pops in on the talk-back, and he was like, ‘Is everything okay?’ And it’s like, dude, come on, get it together. We finally had him just leave the room, and Deon and I just did all of the scratch stuff with Nate [Young], and so I just went in and did all of the guitars again.”
To pass time when they weren’t recording, the band played basketball, Halo 2, and attended shows in Seattle, including one for Aaron Sprinkle’s band, Fair. They also began filming for a DVD that would accompany the deluxe edition of Cities, which contains thirty minutes of studio footage.
“Godspeed,” the first full track on Cities, kicks the record into full-throttle mode immediately. While they wrote the music for the song only a few months after finishing Never Take Friendship Personal, the finer details, such as the vocal melodies in the chorus, proved to be one of the most challenging parts of the recording experience. Stephen, Joey, and Aaron re-worked the chorus again and again, swapping melodies in and out of other songs in an attempt to find the right fit. “There Is No Mathematics to Love and Loss,” on the other hand, came together in less than twenty-four hours, demonstrating the variability of Anberlin’s writing process.
While the band has clarified that Cities is not a concept album, they have frequently spoken about their determination to create a more unified record than they had in the past — a record that not only sounded musically cohesive, but that also contained recurring themes woven into the songs lyrically. The first such theme arises in “A Whisper and a Clamor,” which Stephen said he wrote out of concern that many listeners weren’t taking the meaning of his lyrics to heart. “I grow tired of writing songs while people listen but never hear what’s really going on now,” he sings in the track’s first verse. The title, meanwhile, is meant as a comparison between the reality of how far people are willing to go to create a change in the world — merely whispering about it — and the idealism of what should truly be occurring: clamoring to solve the problems that we prefer to just throw money at.
The centerpiece of the album, “The Unwinding Cable Car,” explores a life unexamined, and a refusal to live consciously in the present moment. When Stephen sings, “With quiet words, I’ll lead you in and out of the dark,” it serves as perhaps a one-line summary of all the album’s themes. “There have to be those moments of solitude, where life hurts, and there’s pain, and there’s suffering — because I think those moments grind us into who we are,” Stephen said to Frank Jenks. “Let’s go explore the deeper, darker side of yourself, so that way you can find the hope, you can find the salvation, you can find the life. Life in all its beauty. But you have to go through those dark moments.” In this interview and in others, Stephen often invokes a quote attributed to Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and a prolific writer: “Solitude is the furnace of transformation.” After putting the finishing touches on “The Unwinding Cable Car,” Stephen recalls running down a lamp-lit street in Seattle, feeling a rush of delight and satisfaction with how the song turned out.
Cities possesses a dynamic, temperamental spirit through and through, as the songs bounce back and forth from a soft sense of reassurance (“The Unwinding Cable Car” and “Inevitable) to haunted, brutal moments of self-reflection (“Hello Alone” and “Reclusion” — the first of which had been renamed from its working title, “The Lesser Thans”). Stephen singled out “Reclusion” as what might be the darkest and most personal song he’d ever written, saying that at one point he’d hoped it wouldn’t make the final cut for the album and would instead be relegated to a b-side that few people ever heard.
Closing out the album, in a one-two punch that many Anberlin fans view among the band’s greatest achievements, are “Dismantle.Repair.” and “(*Fin).” Cities’ oscillation between quiet and loud, contemplative and searing, is on best display here; “Dismantle.Repair.” examines the weight of words and their ability to bolster or destroy another person, while “(*Fin)” documents a lifelong struggle with God and an attempt to understand the destruction that has been caused by those who claim to be people of faith.
“I think ‘(*Fin)’ is a summation of my entire existence, of my wrestling process with God, starting with the house on Ridge Road,” Stephen said to Trash the Stage. “It was a house I lived in around St. Joe, Michigan, and I remember being six years old and walking to the end of the road, and just crying, because there was so much turmoil in the world — like watching the news and seeing someone die, but then going to your Sunday school and hearing that everything is wonderful, and just feeling that kind of commotion in your soul… I think that was almost the foundation for the rest of my life.” Clocking in at nearly nine minutes, it’s the longest track in the band’s catalogue; the song’s final three minutes feature improvised lyrics, created on the spot by Stephen in the vocal booth.
Anberlin finished recording Cities in early September, having spent four and a half weeks in the studio — longer than any of their previous albums. They returned to their busy touring schedules right away, heading out with Yellowcard and Reeve Oliver for the rest of the month, and then with Story of the Year, Greeley Estates, and Monty Are I during October and November. To round out the year, in December they released “Godspeed,” the album’s first single, along with a b-side, “The Haunting.”
In January, the newly formed Faceless International hosted its first major overseas trip — to the red light district in Kolkata, India. Along with many of those who had traveled with Stephen, Sarah, and Seth to Haiti, the group who spent time in India included Anberlin’s Deon Rexroat, Jamie Tworkowski (founder of To Write Love on Her Arms), The Classic Crime’s Matt MacDonald, and Showbread’s Josh Dies and Patrick Porter. They partnered with an organization called Apne Aap Women Worldwide, meeting with and mentoring young girls who had been sold into the sex trade industry.
Stephen, Nate, and Deon helped restore and paint the walls of a school building, and the other musicians in the group taught music, art, carpentry, and other skills that the young women could use in order to produce material goods that could then be sold for money. “Some of [the girls] couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old, maybe,” Stephen later wrote on his blog. “I choked, not because of just their circumstances, but because none of them smiled — their eyes looked so vacuous, as if there whole bodies had shut down like mine wanted to, and their evenings were set to autopilot.” Later that year, Faceless would go on to plan more trips, both domestic and abroad, extending the invitation to anyone who was able to join them.
Back in the states, the members of Anberlin revisited a familiar yet always difficult conversation: how to remove someone from the band. Despite having tried to look past the issues that they’d had with Nathan Strayer during the recording process for Cities, it had become clear to the rest of the band that he was no longer the right fit — musically or personally. Coming from a hardcore band, he wanted to introduce a more prevalent hardcore influence into Anberlin’s music, which conflicted with the direction that everybody else wanted for Anberlin’s future. Furthermore, he grew tired and unhappy of being on the road almost immediately after each new tour began, causing a sense of unease and low morale among the other members of the band.
“I never envied anyone coming into our circle, because we’d been together for so long, and we were so tight with each other that I know it had to be a little intimidating,” Joey said, “And if you don’t fit with us, you’re not going to be allowed to come in. And it felt like he was just this pong ball constantly bouncing off of us, never fully meshing live or personally.” They sat down with him and told him the straightforward truth: that they’d found another guitarist to fill in, and that it was time to part ways with one another.
The guitarist who they’d found to take over in Nathan’s absence was Christian McAlhaney, whose former band, Acceptance, had since split up. The core members of Anberlin had grown close with Christian during their earlier tour with Acceptance, and when Acceptance had needed a fill-in drummer for a few shows, Nate Young obliged, building yet another bridge between the two bands. After Acceptance broke up in 2006, Christian had been touring with other bands, trying hard to stay involved in the music industry; upon receiving the call from Anberlin in January 2007, he seized the opportunity without hesitation.
While they welcomed Christian into the band as a temporary guitarist, the members of Anberlin were skeptical about recruiting a permanent addition to their lineup so quickly, especially after the number of guitarists they had been forced to cut loose in their career so far. But almost as soon as Christian arrived and began spending time with them, they changed their tune. “Within the first two days of just hanging out with each other, before we actually started practicing with him, it was already that vibe of like, you know, he fits perfectly, style-wise, personally, everything,” Joey said. “We were jamming Metallica songs on acoustic guitars together until like three in the morning. I’d never had that before, and it was so relieving.”
“Within days, we all knew,” Stephen echoed, speaking to Mike Shea of Alternative Press. “It’s sixty percent what you do off the stage that matters, and Christian is just always smiling and he’s so excited about life.”
Speaking of the transition, Christian told Mike Shea, “It was very seamless and it felt almost natural. It felt like I had known these guys for years. It was really awkward in the sense of how well we got along right off the bat — that was why within probably the first week of touring, they were like, yo, do you just want to be in the band?” Without much further deliberation, Anberlin yet again gained a fifth member, just in time for their spring headlining tour with Bayside, Meg & Dia, and Jonezetta — but this time, after all the false starts, the addition would be a permanent one, lasting for the rest of the band’s career.
Tooth & Nail Records released Cities on February 20, 2007, marking the band’s biggest first week yet — the album sold 40,000 copies and debuted at #19 on the Billboard 200 charts. They released two editions of the album, one standard and one deluxe — the latter featuring the in-studio DVD they’d recorded in Seattle, as well as a b-side, “Uncanny,” and two covers: “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” by The Smiths, and “The Promise” by When In Rome. Every copy of the album also included a “City Pass,” which could be used as an entry to an online contest with prizes that included Anberlin merchandise, Alternative Press and Relevant magazine subscriptions, Vans shoes, a custom Epiphone guitar, Nate’s first snare drum, and a long list of additional items.
Anberlin made their nighttime television debut in March, playing “Godspeed” on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Stephen spoke to Michael Schneider of Driven Far Off about the band’s nerves before the performance, saying, “Everybody was just sweating and I was shaking. We actually did a take and a half because my vocal mic was off. Halfway through the first take, I forgot some of the words. I remembered them at the last second, but I was freaking out because I was so nervous. The second take was a lot better.”
Appearing on late night TV wasn’t the only sign that they were growing, though — they’d been invited to play Warped Tour that summer for the first time, too, directly after joining Copeland for a run of international shows in Japan, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. With new opportunities at every corner, and with Cities having fulfilled their contract with Tooth & Nail, a crucial decision now lay at the band’s feet: re-sign to Tooth & Nail, where they felt comfortable and secure, or jump ship to a major record label that would have more resources for them as they continued to grow.
Navigating the waters of record deal offers and major label contracts wasn’t easy; Anberlin had to figure out which parties were genuinely interested in their music, versus those who only wanted them on board for the potential sales that they carried along with them. When it came to enthusiasm and determination, though, one label stood out above the rest. Universal Republic Records had been pursuing the band since before Cities had even been released, trying to strike a variety of deals, including licensing their music even if Tooth & Nail maintained the ability to release it. And while most major labels expected the band to fly out and perform for record executives wherever their operations were based, Universal Republic flipped the script and sent a representative out to an Anberlin show instead. Witnessing the label’s excitement for their music ended up sealing the deal, and Anberlin signed to Universal Republic Records in mid-2007.
“Anberlin is in a predicament now where we’re either going to blow up or implode. We’re either going to get a lot bigger or this will be the death of us, and that’s just a risk we’re willing to take,” Stephen said to They Will Rock You’s Mary Oulette in November 2007. “I believe in Tooth & Nail, but there just comes a time when you hit a glass ceiling. It’s just crazy to think that we sell tons of records the first week and we outsell bands on the covers of magazines yet we still can’t get played on the radio, we can’t get a video on air. Even internationally we can’t tour as much as we want because they won’t distribute our record there. It was just time. Even though it hurt and we never wanted to leave Tooth & Nail, we tried to work out a deal with different labels and Tooth & Nail but it just didn’t work. It’s not about the money. It’s about the passion and following your dreams and we felt like that’s what we needed to do.”
Before letting go of the band altogether, Tooth & Nail told the band that they wanted to release a compilation album of Anberlin’s greatest hits. Uncomfortable with the idea of a greatest hits album and its implication that their best songs had already been written, the band convinced Tooth & Nail to change the nature of the release to a b-sides album instead. After a lot of give-and-take, Anberlin also convinced the label to include eighteen tracks on the album instead of the twelve that had been planned; but Tooth & Nail shelved the DVD that the band wanted to include with the release, which led to the footage being uploaded onto YouTube in seven parts between early November and late December 2007. Tooth & Nail released Anberlin’s Lost Songs on November 20. Several years later, the label would go on to release Dancing Between the Fibers of Time, a greatest hits collection pulled from Anberlin’s first three albums, without the band’s authorization.
After touring nearly nonstop since the release of Cities in February — including their stint on Warped Tour, as well as a trip to the United Kingdom with Paramore and This Providence, and a huge US tour in the fall with Motion City Soundtrack, Mae, and Metro Station — the members of Anberlin enjoyed some rare downtime in late 2007. It had been a whirlwind year: they’d released their most successful album to date, which almost instantly became a fan-favorite among their work; they’d found a sense of stability thanks to the addition of guitarist Christian McAlhaney; and they’d signed to a major label that promised to give them access to bigger audiences, better promotion, and higher-caliber production than they’d ever received before. Despite Cities containing the band’s darkest songs, the cycle of writing, recording, and releasing it had carried them out of the dark, and landed them squarely in the spotlight of potential mainstream success. But as they would soon discover, that spotlight brought risks and difficulties of its own.
The release of Cities also brought the first ever Anberlin vinyl record — a promotional 7-inch single of “Godspeed” and “The Unwinding Cable Car,” exclusive to specific preorders and retailers.
Stephen had originally written “The Haunting” on guitar for his solo project Anchor & Braille, but the rest of the band convinced him to record it as an Anberlin song.
Before settling on Cities, Anberlin considered naming the album Songs for Darker Places, which evolved into Songs for Darker Cities, then Darker Cities, then Dark Cities, before at last reaching its final title.
Stephen did not write “Adelaide” about a girl, but rather, about himself; its title comes from the first city that Anberlin saw on their earliest trip to Australia.
The band made music videos for “Godspeed” and “The Unwinding Cable Car,” which were released, respectively, in June and November 2007.
“Godspeed” was directed by Christopher Sims (who was also responsible for the “Paperthin Hymn” music video), while “The Unwinding Cable Car” was directed by Andrew Watson.
Alexithymia — the title of the eighth track on Cities — is a psychological condition in which a person is unable to describe the emotions they’re feeling in words, or sometimes even unable to identify their own feelings or understand the feelings of others. Stephen has since expressed regret at the simplicity of the song’s chorus.
Despite the fact that New Surrender propelled Anberlin further toward mainstream success than any of their past material, fans were divided.
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.