The History of Anberlin, Part 5: Dark is the Way, Light is a Place (2010–2011)
Previously — The History of Anberlin, Part 4: New Surrender
By this time in the band’s career, whenever they were off the road, each member called a different city home. Stephen was now firmly rooted in Nashville, Christian remained in San Diego, and the rest of the band had spread out across Florida — Joey in Winter Haven, Nate in Tampa, and Deon in St. Petersburg. Due to this distance, they often wrote new music piece by piece, sharing ideas over email and then building off of each other’s work. “We’ll email it back and forth and record little parts here and there, with Pro Tools or Garage Band, and then send it to each other and we’ll all just add parts,” Nate explained to Lucy Valentine of the AU Review. “But once we have a good batch of ideas, we get together and kind of jam them out and see which ones we’re feeling and not.”
From the very start, the writing process for Anberlin’s fifth album was more focused and determined than it had been in the past. “I think especially now that it is a conscious effort to just write music that we all love to listen to — what we are into,” Nate told Lucy Valentine. “You know, make sure our influences really come across in our music, which I don’t think came across as much in the past. Not downing on our other records by any means, but I think as we got older and grew together, we all wanted to head in a more mature, darker direction than we had in the past.”
Stephen echoed these sentiments in an interview with Indiependent Music: “It was definitely an album that we wanted to write as individuals, and as a band, because we felt like a lot of our spirits were just lost in New Surrender,” he said. “And I think it was kind of the next evolutionary step for the band — to play the music that we wanted. I think that record was written for the five of us.”
Also with this record, the sense of collaboration between every band member expanded, with everybody contributing various parts regardless of their “main” instrument. Nate, for instance, composed the album’s closing track, “Depraved,” on guitar. Stephen, thinking that Nate might just be experimenting with his songwriting, recorded demo vocals on the track by singing impromptu lyrics, hence some of the song’s repetitiveness — but they ended up sticking, and the band kept the song.
With the songwriting process for the new album nearing completion, Anberlin still hadn’t settled on a producer. They knew that they wanted to evolve their sound and work with someone new; while their experience recording with Neal Avron had been valuable and lent their songs a bigger sound than ever, they hoped to achieve a more organic, less intensive studio experience this time around. After they’d made their list of potential producers, however, they found themselves negotiating a very unexpected match with one of the biggest names in rock and roll. Brendan O’Brien, known for his work with Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Incubus, and Bruce Springsteen (among many others), contacted Anberlin’s management and attended a show in Atlanta after his daughter had introduced him to their music. Following the show, he spent some time talking to the band members on their bus, making it clear that he’d be interested in producing their new record.
“There was a great, great vibe between all of us with him just right off the bat. We have nothing but the most massive amount of respect for him for what he had done,” Joey said in an Ultimate Guitar interview with Amy Kelly. “It’s kind of daunting being in a room with a guy that produced pretty much everything you grew up listening to. Thinking about working with him is super-intimidating, but it pushes you to work that much harder.”
In March 2010, Anberlin traveled to Brendan O’Brien’s Blackbird Studios in Nashville to begin tracking their second album for Universal Republic Records. Despite the intimidating nature of working with a more renowned producer than ever before, the band members eased into the sessions quickly, thanks in a large part to Brendan’s encouragement. “He sat me down and was, like, ‘Listen, I know you can sing. I know you can. It’s somewhere in there. I’ve seen you live, so I know you can do it; we just have to put that down on tape,” Stephen said to Jonathan Bautts of AbsolutePunk. “Brendan just pulled it from me. He would stop in the middle of a take and say, ‘This isn’t it. I want you, I need you to sing.’”
For the rest of the band, Brendan’s own musical ability and vast collection of recording gear helped them dive further into the songs they’d written. “We got some amazing tones, a lot of stuff that I never even thought of. Brendan would run a guitar through an organ amplifier. That was interesting,” Joey told Ultimate Guitar. “There was one guitar that was a standard six-string electric, but it was made completely out of metal. It was a baritone as well. It had a really, really interesting sound. We used that on a couple of songs.”
Christian contributed a larger portion of the album’s guitar work than on New Surrender, becoming the principal songwriter for more than half of the record’s final tracks. For Joey, who had been the band’s principal songwriter for their previous four albums, Christian’s more prominent role proved to be difficult to adjust to at times. “I wasn’t writing like I used to — the amount that I used to — and the band was also kind of shifting styles, and so only a few of my songs ended up on the record, and I held onto it,” Joey told me. “I held onto that, hard, and it took a couple years of me backing up and looking at myself and being like, dude, you’re being ridiculous. There was also a lot of personal turmoil in my life at that point — no excuses, I was being an asshole — so I apologized to Christian, and I apologized to everybody.”
“It was more like growing pains,” Christian said in an interview for BLARE Magazine, “but it all worked out because we just talked it out. It’s best to talk about these issues, because you want to be happy with what you create. The album isn’t going to disappear. Your name is going to be on there forever.”
Universal Republic Records released Dark is the Way, Light is a Place on September 7, 2010, pushed forward from its original release date of September 21. It sold 31,000 copies during its first week in order to land at #9 on the Billboard charts. The band derived the album title from a line in a Dylan Thomas poem, “Poem on His Birthday.” Stephen credits touring member Kyle Flynn with introducing him to Dylan Thomas’s work.
While speaking to Jonathan Bautts, Stephen described how Thomas’s poetry inspired the album: “He’s such a contradiction. Everything is a contradiction. In that poem, he hates God and doesn’t know if he believes if there’s an afterlife or heaven, then in the next poem he’s, like, ‘Oh, I love God.’ In one poem he’s like, ‘I hate life. I’m going to kill myself,’ then in the next poem he’s like, ‘Life is all we have. Let’s appreciate it,’” Stephen said. “I felt like that was the perfect way to describe Anberlin. Our music at times is heavy, and I don’t mean like distortion metal, but it just feels heavy and sobering. Then the lyrics come and it’s hopeful or it’s painful. There are so many contradictions inside the record that I felt like this was the perfect title.”
Brendan O’Brien certainly helped Anberlin rediscover their rock edge after New Surrender’s detour into more sugary territory, with songs like album opener “We Owe This To Ourselves” as well as “Closer” and “To The Wolves” packing a stronger and more hard-rock punch than any of the band’s previous work. But they didn’t abandon all of the pop sensibilities that they explored on New Surrender; rather, they refined them into a different kind of pop, one that shares more in common with U2 than with Top 40 radio. “Take Me As You Found Me,” which Brendan O’Brien later identified as his favorite song from the recording sessions, features chiming guitars, huge-sounding drums, and flourishes of keys beneath one of Stephen’s most impressive vocal performances ever.
Stephen’s vocals take center stage throughout the album, which he says was a conscious decision during the recording process. “I felt like, for the last few records, I revolved around the music. It wasn’t about me — it was about the music and spending a lot of time on that. This time, [Brendan] came back and was like, ‘Listen, we’re going to revolve the record around the vocals,’ and he did,” Stephen told Jonathan Bautts. “I feel like that’s how it shaped up that way to sound that mammoth and that big.”
But even though the album sounds big — bigger, even, than Neal Avron’s touch made New Surrender sound — they achieved the grandiosity differently this time. “[Brendan] has a way of making it sound massive, but really, it’s not like we layered the guitars fifteen times like we did on New Surrender,” Stephen continued. “He just has a way of making minimalism sound epic.”
Dark is the Way feels more like a follow-up to Cities than to New Surrender; the songs are moody and introspective, focusing on relationships and picking up where Cites left off as Stephen delves back down into his psyche. He yearns for a more perfect relationship with God during “Closer,” and fears that he might’ve already lost his opportunity for such a relationship during “Down,” a mostly acoustic song featuring various, unique elements of percussion reminiscent of “The Unwinding Cable Car” or “Inevitable” from Cities. “Pray Tell” also highlights a new style of percussion for Anberlin, helping to create a track that truly sounds like nothing else in the band’s catalogue. The menacing undertones created by Deon’s bass lines along with the jangling guitar work of Joey and Christian complementing one another provide a perfect set-up for Stephen’s hypnotic wails during song’s choruses and bridge.
The hypnotic quality of “Pray Tell” bleeds into “Art of War,” one of the pinnacle moments of the album. Again, Nate’s percussion drives the rest of the band’s performances, this time lending the song a slow-burning, industrial feel. “I never really listen to Anberlin songs but I remember being in my car and listening to ‘Art of War,’ the demo, over and over and over and over because something just resonated, I just felt it,” Stephen said. The song became a fan-favorite and the band began to add it into their live set soon after the album was released.
“Impossible,” the lead single from Dark is the Way and Anberlin’s second most commercially successful single behind “Feel Good Drag,” impacted radio in July 2010 and spent 22 weeks on Billboard’s Alternative Songs charts, peaking at #5. Upon entering the studio, Brendan O’Brien chopped up their demo for the song, leaving some of the band members ambivalent about the song as a whole and its future on the record. “So when we flew to Brazil about halfway through the record, I went to Christian and was, like, ‘Listen, I don’t want to put [“Impossible”] on the record. It has no soul, it’s lost, and I don’t want anything that doesn’t feel right on this record. I don’t want anything that doesn’t have some sort of depth to it. I feel like “Impossible” has been cut up and chopped up to make this sterile single and I don’t want it,” Stephen told Jonathan Bautts.
“So from Brazil, Christian called Brendan O’Brien back in the States and was like, ‘We’ve got to do something. We have to. We can’t lose this song. Everybody loves it but Stephen’s going to vote it out. He just doesn’t want it.’ He was, like, ‘I’ll think about. You guys think about it. We’ll come back and put our minds together and do this.’ So we came back and we added different tones on the guitar. We wrote an entire intro. We just made it into the song that I had envisioned.”
“It was just amazing because that was a song where I was like, ‘Eh, I think it’s going to be gone,’” Stephen continued. “But between Brendan and Christian’s creativity, and the rest of the band adding in, it turned out to be, well, the single.” They premiered “Impossible” ahead of the album’s release with a music video directed once again by Steven Hoover. “We didn’t want a story. We didn’t want, like, guy meets girl and girl rejects guy. He runs through a maze and he finds her. We wanted no storyline. No live action shots with all of us in a room with flashing lights. We just wanted cinematography. That’s all we cared about, so that’s how we approached it,” Stephen said. “We just recorded for hours and hours on slow motion film. It was awesome. It was a great experience.”
The album art for Dark is the Way, Light is a Place is a charcoal drawing by Michael Zavros; Nate discovered the piece online and contacted the artist in order to negotiate using it for the cover. “When you look at that cover, if you really look at it, if you really study it and not just glimpse at it or look for a sticker or a bright font, but if you really look at it, it makes you feel something. Whether you hate it or you love it, there’s something there, and that’s why we wanted it,” Stephen told Jonathan Bautts. “For us, we just wanted to go back to as simple as possible. Here’s a piece of canvas and a guy with a [charcoal] pencil and that’s it, yet he derives so much from it. ‘Dude, that horse is falling. There’s going to be a moment of ending.’ You feel angst, you feel impatient, you wonder what’s going to happen next, you know? It felt like the album. We went back to our basics. All we were concerned about wasn’t flash or hype or shock; we just wanted somebody to feel something.”
Following Dark is the Way’s release, Anberlin embarked on a headlining tour across the US and Canada with support from Crash Kings and Civil Twilight from late September through early November. This tour found the band ramping up their live production, bringing along a dedicated lighting person for the first time and adding in auxiliary percussion for some songs. During this tour, they recorded audio and video for a live release, which would be unveiled as an iTunes exclusive the following year titled Anberlin: Live from House of Blues in Anaheim.
In November, they returned to Jimmy Kimmel Live! to perform “Impossible” and “We Owe This To Ourselves” on the show’s outdoor stage. Randy Torres, formerly of Project 86, joined the band’s live ensemble to play keys. In early 2011, Anberlin and Circa Survive co-headlined a tour with openers Foxy Shazam; afterwards, they returned to Australia for their second performance at the Soundwave Festival, playing shows with The Starting Line and Bayside while down under, also traveling to the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Once back in the US, they took a supporting slot on a tour with 30 Seconds to Mars. Throughout the rest of the year, they toured internationally quite often, performing in the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Russia, Netherlands, and France.
Continuing to focus on their live show, the band put together a production called An Evening With Anberlin and took it to Australia in August and September 2011, with support from Tonight Alive. On each stop for this tour, they played nearly thirty songs including b-sides and covers (such as Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” a much-loved song in Australia and New Zealand), inserting an acoustic set and a Q&A session into the middle of the show. They rounded out their year with a US co-headlining tour with Switchfoot. In mid-October, Stephen had to leave the tour in order to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. Afterwards, the band took some much-needed downtime to spend with their families and loved ones before gearing back up to write and prepare their fifth record early the following year.
Reflecting upon Dark is the Way, Light is a Place on an AbsolutePunk podcast in 2013, the band members referred to it as their punk rock album (“not sonically punk rock, just our mentality,” Nate clarified). “It was kind of just like a giant F.U. to these exact terms that we felt like the label was putting on us, and the fans were putting on us, so Dark is the Way is absolutely a record that the five of us wrote for ourselves,” Stephen said. “And I love it. I genuinely love it.”
“I think we literally said while making that album, so many times: this sounds too Anberlin, we don’t want to do it,” said Deon. “Which, in hindsight, you know, maybe was the wrong idea, but that was how we felt at the time, and that’s just what we did.”
Christian wrote the main guitar riff for “Closer” during his time in Acceptance, and revisited it for Dark is the Way’s writing sessions.
Before sending the finished album to Universal Republic, the band members thought that either “We Owe This To Ourselves” or “Closer” would be the first single, but the label reacted strongly to “Impossible” and chose it instead.
“We Owe This To Ourselves” was originally titled “King,” but Universal Republic suggested that the band rename it. Stephen wrote the song’s lyrics after being inspired by a Martin Luther King, Jr. documentary.
The band recorded the acoustic version of “Impossible,” which was released as an Amazon.com exclusive track, in Sweden. Other non-album tracks included “All We Have” (an iTunes exclusive), “Hell or High Water” (released on a 7-inch vinyl record as the b-side to “Impossible”), and “I’d Like to Die” (released on a hybrid vinyl/digital disc along with “We Owe This To Ourselves” and the video for “Impossible”).
“I’d Like to Die” was not included on the album because the tambourine was not mixed to the band’s liking.
Anberlin: Live from House of Blues in Anaheim was released as an iTunes exclusive audio/video package on July 5, 2011, but was later pulled by the band and their management due to concerns with its quality.
In addition to their performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, the band also played on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, performing “Closer,” the album’s third single (after “Impossible” and “We Owe This To Ourselves”). “Closer” just barely cracked the Top 40 Alternative Song charts, peaking at #39.
In 2011, both Joey and Nate introduced side-projects that they had been working on — Sins and Carrollhood, respectively. Between 2011 and 2012, Stephen recorded the second Anchor & Braille album, titled The Quiet Life.
Nate has said that his favorite track from Dark is the Way is “Pray Tell.” A video of the band playing the song during soundcheck prior to the album’s release surfaced online in May 2010, giving fans their first glimpse into the new material.
Not since before Christian joined the band in 2007 had Anberlin collectively experienced such a surge of songwriting material to work with.
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.