The History of Anberlin, Part 4: New Surrender (2008–2010)
Previously — The History of Anberlin, Part 3: Cities
Not long after signing to Universal Republic Records, Anberlin began writing for their fourth album. Although Cities hadn’t even been out for a full year, the label wanted to make the most of their new signing, and they ushered the band into the studio as soon as they could. Such a fast turnaround would be anxiety-inducing even in the most controlled circumstances, but the members of Anberlin had much more than just songwriting on their plates as 2007 turned into 2008; not only were they busy developing their inner-band relationships as Joey Milligan and Christian McAlhaney began learning how to write with one another, but their lives outside of the band were also becoming busier — it was around this time that Stephen Christian married his wife, Julia Marie.
One of the most exciting aspects of signing to Universal Republic came to fruition when the band learned that they would be recording their new album with producer extraordinaire Neal Avron, who had been behind albums including Yellowcard’s Ocean Avenue, Fall Out Boy’s From Under the Cork Tree, and New Found Glory’s Sticks and Stones. And for the first time, they would not be returning to Seattle to record; instead, beginning in March, they would set up camp in Los Angeles to work with Neal in two different studios.
During the initial writing process for the album, Stephen traveled to New Orleans on what he has since referred to as a Brian Wilson-esque excursion. He said that the city’s vibrant music scene inspired him during the songwriting stage of New Surrender, and that he spent a lot of time writing lyrics in a café called Kahve. Writing about the café on a recording update posted on Anberlin’s message board, Stephen said, “You have to see this place to believe it, if any of you know me and ever visit there you can see why it would feel so at home. It’s a 1700s house that’s dark yet inviting and with two pianos in the back only lit by lamp it made the perfect place to write.”
He also said of his time in the city, “The songs that came from the trip, inspired by New Orleans, are like none other before; I can safely say that we have never been so prepared or excited for a record in the history of Anberlin. Usually when we walked in the studio previously we would have no more than 12 songs ready to record; as of right this second we are sitting on 19 songs with three more in the works.”
Behind the scenes, though, the mood was much more tense than Stephen let on through his message board updates. “At one point while writing, the label called me and said, basically, ‘If this record fails, it’s on your head,’” Stephen said to Brandon Jones of Indie Vision Music in 2010. “I ran off to New Orleans and just fell apart. Usually songs come so easy for me, ideas and melodies flow through my head most of the day, but everything in me froze.”
Making the album in Los Angeles instead of Seattle proved to put the band in a different headspace — and not always in a positive way. “Los Angeles was just rough, as there’s so many people there. We would travel about seven miles to get to the studio and sometimes it would take several hours, so you’re drained by the time you get there. Sitting in traffic in a mini-van is mind-numbing,” Christian told BLARE Magazine. Not only were the days longer, but there were also more of them — preproduction lasted for two weeks instead of just a few days, and they spent three months in the studio compared to the four and a half weeks that it took them to record Cities.
Once the recording process began, the band found themselves working harder than they ever had on ensuring that the songs were the best that they could be, which they attribute directly to Neal Avron’s production style. During an interview inside The Boat studio, one of the two locations where they were working with Neal, Joey told Buzznet’s DJ Rossstar, “We’ve had homework, like where we literally have to go home and listen through things, make notes, and do re-writes at home, come back here and try it out, and it’s funny because Neal even told us at the beginning this is how it was going to go, that a lot of times you re-do things like ninety times then end up doing what you originally started out with, because you just have to go through it and make sure that’s the perfect thing, and we’ve never really done that before.”
Inside the studio, Christian worked alongside Joey as one of the band’s principal songwriters, and is credited with Joey and Stephen for the songs “Blame Me! Blame Me!,” “Retrace,” “Disappear,” “Burn Out Brighter,” “Soft Skeletons,” and “Miserabile Visu (Ex Malo Bonum)” — the first two of which Christian has said feature musical elements that he’d originally written for Acceptance songs. “[Christian] rounded out everything in a way that we’ve never had. The writing process was great. It was such a relief for me,” Joey told Ultimate Guitar. “We had never had a rhythm guitar player play on one of our records before. I had always done it all. I knew that Christian could pull it off. There was no question at all that he was going to play everything on the record that he was supposed to play.”
While Joey and Christian fed off of each other’s songwriting abilities, Stephen explored working on his melodies and lyrics with co-writers for the first time in the band’s career, enlisting Butch Walker, Dan Wilson (Semisonic), and Mitch Allan (SR-71) to give feedback and advice about sections of songs that he was struggling with. “In working with other amazing songwriters, I got to see how they do this, how their minds work, what their operation of trying to go through a song was,” Stephen said to Timothy Anderl of Ghettoblaster. “As a singer or lyricist, having the opportunity to look across the table and ask someone’s opinion was incredible. I’d never worked with another singer or lyricist before. It was incredible to be able to learn from all of these outstanding songwriters and then take it back into the production and work it out.”
On the first day of April 2008, Stephen’s car was broken into and his laptop was stolen, resulting in the loss of early lyrics and melody lines that he had written for New Surrender. “As it were, I am back to the drawing board on several songs and with less than four weeks left in this process, count me in the stressed category,” he wrote on the band’s message board. Later, he said that the songs that were most affected by this theft were “The Resistance,” “Burn Out Brighter,” “Soft Skeletons,” and “Said and Done” (a b-side which he has since called the worst Anberlin song of all time). “Those four turned out to be the hardest songs on the album to write both before and after the theft,” he said. “The lyrics did not remain the same at all, but the themes for the most part remained the same.”
Amidst all the new songs they’d been writing over the past few months, they also decided to take another pass at a song that had appeared on their second album, “The Feel Good Drag” (shortening the title to “Feel Good Drag” in the process). The re-recorded song featured new guitar work and the lack of Stephen’s shrill scream from the Never Take Friendship Personal sessions, which Stephen said was done in order to make the recorded song sound more like the version that the band played live.
Joey detailed the process of tweaking the song before re-recording in an interview with Ultimate Guitar, saying, “Neal was like, I want an intro for this song. I want something that the minute you hear it, you know it’s that song. So I just kind of locked myself in the studio with ProTools and a guitar, and worked it over and over and over. Finally I got this whammy pedal that I tracked with the opening riff. I put the whammy pedal up an octave, and then I doubled that with a regular guitar. That was just for scratch, and we actually ended up using that track that I did in the other room. That was cool!”
“In the verse we wanted you to hear the melody more,” Joey continued. “Actually when we played Neal the original version, he didn’t know that those notes were being played because it was difficult to hear them. On top of that, we added a synth underneath it and Stephen did cool stuff with the backing vocals, and it really brought out all of the melody that was lost in the verse originally.”
While they originally considered making the new version of “Feel Good Drag” a b-side, as a sort of treat for the fans who had been with the band since their second album, Universal Republic told the band that they wanted to release it as the album’s first single. The members of the band were hesitant about this decision at first, but they soon adopted a different mindset, confident in the re-recording and hopeful that their fans would rally around the familiar song once they began hearing it on the radio in its new and improved form.
Anberlin once again joined the Vans Warped Tour in 2008 not long after they finished recording New Surrender. The album leaked on August 19, over a month before its scheduled release date. Answering a fan’s question about the leak on AbsolutePunk.net, Stephen said his main frustration was how early the album was posted. “I once read a book called How Soon is Never, a fictional book about The Smiths in which the author describes purchasing his first Smiths vinyl,” Stephen said. “He said after he saved up his money for more than a month, he purchased The Queen is Dead from his local record store. On the way home, he clutched the vinyl to his chest the entire way, as if fearing someone was going to steal it. Once home, he listened to the entire record front to back. Two times. I want to return to this day where listeners appreciate music, vinyl, or CD. I don’t care about leaks and illegal downloading, I care about the dying art itself.”
Universal Republic Records released New Surrender on September 30, 2008. The record sold 36,000 copies during its first week and entered the Billboard 200 chart at #13, and the Billboard Modern Rock/Alternative Albums chart at #5 — all around, the best opening week that Anberlin had seen by far.
New Surrender’s sound took many fans by surprise, following up the moody and introspective Cities. While there are still a handful of songs that reflect the band’s gritty side, including the album opener “The Resistance,” the re-recorded “Feel Good Drag,” and “Disappear,” they are balanced out with the poppiest material that Anberlin had ever released. “Retrace” and “Younglife,” for instance, find Stephen taking a nostalgic look back at youthful romance and friendship, while “Haight Street” ditches the nostalgia for a pure, carefree embrace of the present. Musically, too, the songs sound bright and airy — and big, thanks to Neal Avron’s penchant for producing songs that sound destined for radios and stadiums.
“Disappear” — the first song released from the album — serves as part of New Surrender’s three-track core, epitomizing Stephen’s now outward-focused lyrics in its examination of homelessness (specifically, homeless youth). “I’d been recording in LA, and every day I’d drive past these gutter punks and these people who were homeless, and they had set up a tent city right outside of an abandoned theater,” Stephen told Frank Jenks of Listen In. “The song was meant to be almost a call of desperation — please don’t let us disappear in your mind. Please don’t let us vanish into the back; we need help, too, whether that looks like a blanket, or some socks, or vo-tech training, or a hot meal. Just don’t let us disappear from the back of your mind.”
Both structurally and thematically the centerpiece of the album, “Breathe” represents a contemplative turn inward; but unlike the bleak introversion of Cities, which lowered the listener directly into the chaos of Stephen’s mind, “Breathe” finds him looking back at that turmoil, acknowledging that “revolution’s not easy with a civil war on the inside,” but finding optimism in the opportunity for a new beginning. Stephen said that he found the inspiration for that particular line from a Native American proverb — a proverb also taken up by Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, who said, “A Native American elder once described his own inner struggles in this manner: Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time. When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied: The one I feed the most.”
“Burn Out Brighter (Northern Lights)” takes the inward turn of “Breathe” and ratchets it upward, raising the stakes. The song’s lyrics were written about a terrifying moment experienced by Nate as he was flying home from recording; his airplane began shaking and then started to drop, and on board, lights were flickering, the oxygen masks fell, and people were screaming and vomiting. The plane stabilized and touched down at a small airport, at which time Nate called his bandmates and told them that he’d been prepared to die on the plane — that he’d made peace with his life and with God in those moments, and was ready for whatever came next.
“So I put a fictional character in his place who maybe had not made peace with his maker or with his life, and was wondering what the regrets of those people around him might’ve felt like,” Stephen said to Frank Jenks. “It’s about someone trying to make amends with themselves and those around them, and saying, you know, wow — I wish I could’ve burned out a little brighter than this.”
As New Surrender comes to a close, the songs grow somber and serious. “Soft Skeletons,” the album’s penultimate track, was co-written with SR-71’s Mitch Allan and tackles the topic of addiction. The guitars are sludgy, and Stephen strains his pleading vocals. The song’s use of keys lends it just the slightest amount of lightness and hope; and the sparse bridge, led by Deon’s bass line, begs the subjects of the song to “stand unafraid” — which not only serves as an appeal for strength, but also seems to foreshadow the trials of judgment and the end of days as they are imagined in New Surrender’s closing track, “Miserabile Visu (Ex Malo Bonum).”
The title of the final song roughly translates to “Pitiable Sight (Good from Evil),” although other fans have translated it as “A Terrible Event (Out of Bad Comes Good).” Comparisons can be drawn immediately between “Miserabile Visu,” and “(*fin),” as both dive headlong into spiritual disarray, and both engage in a much more intentional kind of storytelling than the majority of Anberlin’s material. Continuing with the album’s lyrical direction, though, “Miserabile Visu” looks outward, toward the signs of a coming apocalypse. “Someone I am close to is into conspiracy theories and the apocalypse. Both are intriguing to me,” said Stephen. “The song is about a daydream I had, in the midst of the chaos saving the ones I love.”
Following the album’s release, Anberlin spent the fall touring with Scary Kids Scaring Kids, Straylight Run, and There for Tomorrow, as well as heading to the United Kingdom for a quick tour with Elliot Minor. Former Acceptance member Kyle Flynn joined the band as a touring member, playing keys, occasional guitar parts, and backing vocals. They also shot a video for “Feel Good Drag” with director Steven Hoover, and Universal Republic began pushing the song to radio, beginning a six-month climb that would eventually break an alternative radio record when it became the number-one song on the alternative charts in April 2009. A press release from Universal Republic noted that Anberlin “leaped over the group Rolling Stone magazine recently called the ‘hottest band in America’ — the Kings Of Leon — to lock down the #1 position all for themselves.” The album’s second single, “Breaking,” was delayed in order to focus on the success of “Feel Good Drag.”
Later in 2009, they returned to Australia — this time, to play the iconic Soundwave Festival for the first time, alongside acts including Nine Inch Nails and Alice in Chains. “We found out that a lot of metal bands are into us,” Deon said in an interview with Creative Loafing’s Brad Tilbe. “We made really good friends with a band called Unearth, and the whole time we were like, ‘We’re not tough at all, why are all these tough meal guys into us?’” Anberlin continued to add to their international touring experience throughout 2009, traveling to Japan with New Found Glory and Forever the Sickest Kids in March, and heading back to Australia for the second time that year with The Academy Is… and Wherewolves. While in the US, they toured with bands including Taking Back Sunday, Envy on the Coast, The All-American Rejects, and fun.
As Anberlin’s name began to gain recognition in the American music culture at large, they not only found themselves presented with bigger opportunities in the public eye, but also in more private spheres. While touring for New Surrender, several members of the band visited the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in order to spend time with troops who had just returned from Afghanistan. “There’s a lot of things I would do even if I wasn’t in Anberlin, but doing this obviously gives us more of an opportunity,” Deon told Brad Tilbe.
Before the album cycle ended, Stephen moved out of Los Angeles and into a Nashville neighborhood for a much-needed change of scenery, and to begin a family with his wife. Speaking with Pop-Break about his new (relatively) small-town life, he said, “We always end up on each other’s porches barbequing, hanging out, just talking, and having a great night. You know, that’s just what I love to do. Usually in the morning, it’s coffee shops and hanging out and running errands during the day, and somebody’s back porch at night.”
Despite the fact that New Surrender propelled the band further toward mainstream success than any of their past material, fans were divided about the album. After some time, the members of Anberlin themselves also began expressing mixed feelings about the songs and the writing and recording processes that led up to New Surrender. During an interview for AbsolutePunk.net in 2010, Stephen spoke about the amount of over-thinking that had gone into the album. “Whenever you over-think something, especially when it comes to art, it loses form. Art is supposed to be chaos. Art is supposed to be creative. That’s the whole beauty of music and painting. It’s supposed to be an expression of how you feel, not cold, calculated, systematic and by the numbers. I’m not an accountant, I’m a musician,” he said. “[New Surrender] was so calculated that I felt like it was lost in translation.”
However, Stephen gave a more optimistic account of the circumstances surrounding New Surrender when he spoke to Sam Hailes later that year. “That record kept us alive, it kept us going to the next phase and allowed Anberlin to be able to put another record out on Universal. Without that, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking. So I don’t regret that record at all; even though it’s not my favorite record we have ever put out, I’m here today because of it.”
The band performed “Feel Good Drag” on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on September 29, 2008. The video has been pulled from YouTube due to a copyright claim by Disney (the show’s parent media company) and is currently unavailable online.
Anberlin recorded two covers for a deluxe, re-released edition of New Surrender: an acoustic version Danzig’s “Mother” and a full-band version of New Order’s “True Faith.” They released the latter as a single in November 2009. These became some of the band’s favorite covers; when asked by Neon Tommy’s Michelle Tiu to name the cover songs they enjoyed the most, Stephen chose “True Faith” and Nate chose “Mother.”
When deciding on the final tracklist for New Surrender, the band had to choose between “Soft Skeletons” and “Heavier Things Remain.” They chose “Soft Skeletons” because it fit more closely with the themes of the album. Stephen wrote the lyrics to “Heavier Things Remain” after observing his parents’ relationship as they navigated through a temporary separation before falling back in love with one another. Even though it didn’t make the final cut, the song was released as an iTunes bonus track to the record.
Stephen has said that “Said and Done,” another b-side to New Surrender which can be found on the Walmart exclusive version of the album as well as the deluxe, re-released edition, is his least favorite Anberlin song of all time. “I literally rewrote [that song] seventeen times and it still didn’t make it on the record. I hate that song to this day. I just hate it,” he told Jonathan Bautts of AbsolutePunk. “Again, it sums up the differences between the records. That record was the hardest I have ever worked. Whenever you overthink something, especially when it comes to art, it loses form.”
Other album titles that were in the running for New Surrender included Haight Street and Your Love Will Do For Now.
During Anberlin’s stint on Warped Tour in 2008, Stephen filled in for Say Anything’s Max Bemis on the band’s hit song “Wow, I Can Get Sexual, Too!” when Max became too sick to perform. Other fill-in vocalists during the set included Relient K’s Matt Theissen and Every Time I Die’s Keith Buckley. Stephen also filled in on vocals for Story of the Year’s Phil Sneed when he had to leave tour for the birth of his child.
Stephen released his first book in February 2008, titled The Orphaned Anything’s. The novel draws bits and pieces of content from Stephen’s own life, his lyrics for Anberlin, and his musical and literary inspirations. In September 2008, Stephen gave his first public reading in New York City with author Augusten Burroughs and songwriter Tegan Quin (of Tegan and Sara). SPIN.com hosted the event, which benefitted the AIDS charity Housing Works and also featured a solo performance from Colin Francigetto (Circa Survive).
Legendary producer Brendan O’Brien helped Anberlin rediscover their rock edge after New Surrender’s detour into more sugary territory.
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.