The History of Anberlin, Part 6: Vital & Devotion (2012–2013)
Anberlin opened up 2012 with a short tour featuring Foxy Shazam and States before buckling down to work on their sixth album, announcing in February what many fans had been clamoring to hear for several years: the band would return to producer Aaron Sprinkle for the first time since 2007’s Cities, which many still heralded as Anberlin’s definitive work.
Despite their overall positive experiences with producers Neal Avron and Brendan O’Brien, they’d always considered Aaron Sprinkle a sixth member of their band. Their familiarity with him and his production style proved alluring now more than ever; they had a bigger and more solid group of songs than they’d ever brought into the recording process before, and they wanted to dive right into them without worrying about having to adjust to a new producer’s techniques. “[Aaron Sprinkle]’s a better producer [than he was before], we’re a better band, we’re better writers, and it was just one of those perfect moments in time where we were like, ‘We’re ready.’ And it was like going back home,” Stephen said to Jesus Freak Hideout’s Roger Gelwicks.
They began their work in Seattle, the longtime home of Aaron Sprinkle’s Compound Recording Studios. During their ten days there, they completed preproduction for the entire album and even began the final tracking process for two songs. Anberlin holds the honor of being the final band to record at Compound; after finishing preproduction, they followed Aaron Sprinkle to Nashville, where he opened his new recording studio, Electric Thunder. They tracked the bulk of the album from late winter into early spring.
Not since before Christian joined the band in 2007 had they collectively experienced such a surge of songwriting material to work with, and this time it came from every member of the band. “We were in a very useful place,” Joey told Angela Mastrogiacomo of Infectious Magazine. “With writing, we were just having fun and doing whatever we wanted and I think that ended up translating to a similar vibe of youth and energy … that drove [our] first two records. It definitely wasn’t a conscious decision, but we were just having a lot of fun playing heavier stuff and faster stuff, and really delving into the electronic and keyboard aspect of the music that we’ve kind of tinkered with for years but never really committed to.”
For Joey in particular, these writing sessions restored a great deal of passion and excitement to Anberlin’s music. When I spoke to him during the summer of 2014, he opened up about how his life had taken a turn for the better prior to beginning work on the band’s sixth record. “There was probably a six-to-seven-year period where I was a full-blown functioning alcoholic, to the point where my weight got out of control, my writing was suffering, my friendships were completely suffering. And it all stemmed from 2005, when my sister passed away from cancer and the only thing I knew to do at the end of the night was to grab fifteen, sixteen beers and just go to sleep on that. Have a twelve-pack by yourself and pop a couple sleeping pills, and then hit the hay.”
“It got to the point where I was having panic attacks almost every day, and the guys sat me down in the back lounge — this was probably four years ago now — and they were like, you know, something’s got to change. We love you, and we don’t want you to do this to yourself. We can’t be in a band with someone we love and watch them kill themselves. And I appreciated every single thing that they said to me, and it inadvertently turned my life around,” he said. “I mean, I quit drinking for three years — and it was never about an addiction, it was about a routine. You fall into a routine and that’s just what you do, you know? And I’m a complete creature of habit. This inadvertently spun my life around to me getting married, dropping I think sixty pounds total, and now I’ve been a vegetarian for the last five years — just really thinking about the future instead of right now. So it was probably the best, most important conversation I’ve ever had in my entire life.”
“When Vital rolled around, I demoed forty-two songs,” Joey said. “It was like this levee breaking in my head, and I just started writing constantly again. That was the biggest relief — and Christian was still writing in addition to that, so we had this flood of songs, and it made it so easy and so much fun to do that album.”
In addition to the incoming flow of material from Joey and Christian, Nate, too, had begun expanding his contributions to the early stages of songs. It seemed like the band — both collectively, and each member individually — might just be hitting their prime. From this feeling came the title of the album: Vital. “We were just full of energy, full of life,” Stephen said to Neon Tommy’s Michelle Tiu. “We weren’t trying to be pretentious in the fact that we felt like this was going to be our most vital record of all time. It was more like a goal or something that we put before us, and I think we accomplished it, with the energetic songs and the feeling and emotion of it all.”
As the members of Anberlin worked with Aaron Sprinkle to craft Vital’s sound, they found themselves focusing on one specific question: would this be fun to play live? The band’s live performances had grown to become one of their claims to fame, and they wanted to make sure to capture this energy on record like never before. “Our favorite moments of being in a band are those moments standing on stage with our fans screaming along,” Stephen told Bryan Weesman of The Aquarian Weekly. “I think Vital is a direct reflection of longing to just be up there on stage, standing there with everyone singing along in unison.”
In true Anberlin fashion, Vital opens up loud and fast with its first track, “Self-Starter.” Despite being the first song that many fans would hear from the album, it came about fairly late in the writing process, and started as a synth-heavy demo that Nate sent to Christian via email. The two of them worked together to shape the base of the song and then forwarded it on to Stephen, who received it late at night and became instantly enthralled by what he heard. “The next morning, I got up at like, I want to say five-thirty or six o’clock — I was that excited — and by, what, 10 a.m., I was done with the first round [of lyrics and vocals] and I’d already sent it to everybody,” Stephen said on a Spotify commentary track for the album. “I was out of my mind it was so good.”
“Self-Starter” works not only as a pummeling opener, but also as a general indicator of Vital’s overall sound and mission statement. The distortion is thick, the tempo is breakneck, the drumming is intricate and fierce, and Stephen’s vocals rest atop the mix, but just barely — perhaps more than ever, each musician and their respective instrument are given equal ground in these songs. “Little Tyrants” delivers one of Joey’s most robust guitar solos in the band’s entire repertoire amidst gang vocals that hearken back to fan-favorites like “Godspeed,” and Nate becomes the first band member other than Stephen to provide lead vocals on an Anberlin song during the atmospheric bridge of “Other Side.”
Lyrically, Stephen casts a wider net on Vital than on any of the band’s prior releases, jumping back and forth between spiritual, interpersonal, and global issues from song to song. “I think [Vital’s lyrics are] more or less just a cultivation of everyday life, kind of like a grand observer of everything that’s happening, whether it is world current events that are happening across the country or across the globe or whether it’s as minute as something that happens to an immediate family member,” he said to Michelle Tiu. The album’s first single, “Someone Anyone,” features lyrics that were inspired by the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011; the aforementioned “Other Side,” meanwhile, contemplates the possibility of closeness in one’s relationship to God.
In many interviews during the promotion cycle for Vital, the members of Anberlin discuss the album’s foray into electronic sounds while making sure to note that hints of this style can be found throughout their past work. “I mean, we did a Cure cover on the first album — we covered ‘Love Song’ — so there’s a lot of those bands, that late-70s and 80s and early-90s sound, those British bands like The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and Duran Duran … they still kind of sounded rock even though they were using electronic instruments,” Deon said to Cassandra Paiva of The Audio Perv. “We don’t just confine ourselves and say, I play bass, you play guitar, so that’s all that should be on the album. If we hear something we like, we aren’t afraid to just put it in there.” Aaron Sprinkle also contributed to some Vital’s electronic elements, most notably adding his touch to the chorus of “Innocent.”
Like many of the best Anberlin songs, “Innocent” may at first sound like it’s a love song written to a romantic partner, but upon further investigation, the lyrics reveal a much different meaning. “Instability is our stability. We’re basically gone for ten months a year. We miss the anniversaries, the birthday parties, the graduation ceremonies, everything that everyone else thinks is mundane or monotonous or just no big deal,” Stephen told Roger Gelwicks. “For me, I was on my way to Brazil last year and I got a phone call from my dad, saying, ‘Son, your grandfather is dying. He might pass away while you’re in Brazil; we just don’t know.’ So I rerouted my trip to go spend the day with him. He wasn’t totally there; I don’t know what transpired in his mind and it was probably kind of a blur. Then when I was in Brazil, I got another phone call that he had passed away.”
Stephen picks this story up again in his interview with Bryan Weesman, saying, “I missed the funeral. I missed being there for my father, who was so close to his father. I invited my father to be there when I recorded [“Innocent”] because I just wanted him to know that in my heart that I was still there for him, and that in my heart my grandfather was worthwhile and valued and loved.”
Closing out the album, “God, Drugs & Sex” finds the band tackling yet another sprawling finale track, this time with the accompaniment of Merriment’s Christie DuPree (a sibling of the DuPrees that make up Eisley). Once they’d decided that they wanted to find a female vocalist to appear on the song, they sought out a voice that contained experience, and perhaps a tinge of sorrow — not a sugary pop vocalist, they emphasized. Vital’s opening and closing tracks serve as two of the first Anberlin songs to feature female vocals; Stephen’s wife, Julia Marie, sings back-up vocals in “Self-Starter.”
Even before the song’s official release, “God, Drugs & Sex” became a very polarizing song among casual fans — particularly those who knew of the band through their tendency to be associated with the Christian rock scene. Stephen spoke about this at length with Roger Gelwicks: “[P]eople should explore it lyrically on their own, and they should really read the lyrics. It’s about a relationship that … involved being attracted to the other person, but the deeper the relationship got, the more the chasm appeared with personality or character, or whatever the case may be. ‘God, drugs, and sex don’t mean a thing, do they now, do they now?’ For me, those are three major topics, and sure, they are heavy topics, but they summarize the depth of the relationship,” he said. “And if people are having trouble with that [because of the song’s title], that’s between them and themselves; they’ve got to figure that out on their own. And if they’re not even going to buy the record just because of the song’s title, it’s like they don’t want to even acknowledge that these things exist! If we refuse to be challenged, we simply don’t hear about these topics, and it’s happening everywhere around us. And instead of facing it or coming to conclusions, we bury our heads in the sand. And that’s avoiding reality.”
The song stands out among Anberlin’s catalog as being the first time that all five members of the band, in addition to the album’s producer and engineer, contribute vocals to the same track.
Universal Republic Records released Vital on October 16, 2012. It sold over 17,000 copies during its first week, earning a peak position of number 16 on the Billboard 200 charts. The album’s cover art is a photo by Aaron Feaver, which Nate discovered during the process of making Vital. Compared to the monochrome cover of Dark is the Way, Light is a Place, this photo struck the band members as appearing much more vibrant and alive, while also a bit ambiguous — which they considered to be an adequate representation of the album’s sound.
For the deluxe CD edition of Vital, Anberlin brought in Florida cinematographer Dustin Miller to capture video footage of the band during the recording process. When they weren’t tracking music for the record itself, the band members worked on writing and tracking an original score for Miller’s footage, which they eventually titled Pretend to Be Friends. “There’s not really a lot of dialogue to it; it’s more about the shot, and the interactions between the music and the shots on the screen,” Deon told Cassandra Paiva. “We were talking about it and thought it would be really cool to have a short film, not so much just about recording, but us being in that atmosphere of recording, and we’re really happy with the way it came out.”
Despite Anberlin’s pride in their newest release, which they considered to be their best work yet, they soon began to express disappointment in Universal Republic’s promotion of the album. At the top of their list of grievances was Vital’s first single, which the band and their label had butted heads on prior to its release. While the band members wanted to lead with “Self-Starter” as the first song sent to radio, Universal Republic strongly suggested they choose “Someone Anyone.” They ultimately reached a compromise by sending “Someone Anyone” to radio, but releasing “Self-Starter” online beforehand as the public’s first taste of what was to come. However, the radio campaign returned little success, and a music video for the song was shelved indefinitely before later being reworked for a b-side from the album, “Unstable.”
“I’m not going to talk a bunch of smack about our label, but they definitely dropped the ball,” Christian told AbsolutePunk’s Jonathan Bautts several months after the album’s release. “We were just kind of left asking, ‘What the heck’s going on?’ Basically, outside of us promoting through our own avenues, whether it be Facebook, Twitter or whatever, no one knew that that record was out. We still have kids come up to us after shows now and be like, ‘Hey, when’s the new record coming out?’ It’s like, ‘Uh, we just released the record.’”
The band didn’t let this slow down their touring schedule, however, embarking on a U.S. acoustic tour between Vital’s recording and its release, and then picking up quite possibly the most high-profile tour of their careers in October 2012. Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan hand-picked Anberlin to join his band as the first and only supporting act for their fall tour, which hit arenas and amphitheaters across both the U.S. and Canada.
“To be on tour with them is just a little surreal because we all grew up listening to them, so when we got asked, it was definitely a huge surprise for us, for sure,” Nate told Laura Stern of Pop-Break. In another interview that month, Joey told LA Music Blog’s Mary Bonney, “We all sat in the dressing room [on the first night of the tour] talking about the first time we heard [Smashing Pumpkins] and tracing it back to when we were 14 or 15, sitting in our rooms, playing the CD over and over … The tour has been great. It’s a little surreal seeing Billy Corgan walking around. We were like, ‘This is normal life now, okay.’”
They kept their momentum going into November with a headlining tour featuring support from Morning Parade and IAMWE, taking some downtime during the holidays and then ringing in the new year with a UK tour alongside The Xcerts and The Getaway Plan. Next, the band announced the Tour de Vital, spending much of February, March, and April on the road throughout the United States and Canada, bringing Paper Route, All Get Out, and Make Do and Mend as opening acts. They also had the chance to visit Africa and the Middle East in order to play a few shows for troops from the US, the UK, and Germany, including a performance on a naval ship, the USS Peleliu, located in the Gulf of Aden.
Stephen spoke to many interviewers in great detail about these experiences, counting them among the most rewarding and fulfilling moments of his life. “I met this guy named Bob, and we hit it off. He works for Special Forces, and for whatever reason, my heart just melted for him. This was his fourth tour [of duty] … and he was telling me about how in Timbuktu right now, this faction of Al-Qaida is coming through and working their way south, and these people are saying, no more art, no more music, no more dancing, no more drinking or smoking; they’re taking away all these personal freedoms, and I just felt like, to watch his passion and then to realize the dangerous job he does, I’ll never forget him,” Stephen told Black Velvet Magazine. “He’ll constantly be in my thoughts and prayers. Just the fact that he’s out there trying to defend something as mundane for you and I as dancing, or wanting to go to the pub — half this country can’t do that right now, they don’t have those liberties, and the fact that someone out there believes so much in personal freedoms that he’s risking his life for them is just incredible to me, and it really affected me.”
Anberlin spent the summer of 2013 playing more acoustic shows across the US, bringing Campfire OK (now known as The Weather) and Stars in Stereo along as support; after this tour concluded, they traveled abroad and played in the Phillipines, Thailand, and New Zealand, followed by a seven-show stint in Australia with The Maine and William Beckett. As summer turned into fall, they continued touring with The Maine, this time for a US co-headlining run featuring support from Lydia and From Indian Lakes.
As the year slipped past in a blur of touring, the mood behind the scenes slowly began to shift for the band. Stephen pinpointed their time in the UK in early 2013 as one of the most jarring and alarming moments for him: “I was just tormented. I just felt off. I just felt like… it’s not that I wasn’t happy, it’s that nothing made me feel content about the band. I felt kind of like a pull, to pull back, to pull away. I was just done,” he said when I spoke to him last year. “I can safely say on that stage that I was absolutely performing uninspired. And as a fan, if I knew that of the person I was going to see, I would feel ripped off, you know? And so not only did I feel like I was ripping myself off from this other life that I was beginning to dream of, but I was ripping the fans off, and I was ripping the band off, because I would be discontent with any decision that they would make or anything that would happen, because I was discontent with myself.”
This other life that he spoke about is a family-centric one, and it’s a life that other members of the band had begun pining for in the back of their minds, too. By this time in their career, all five band members were either married or involved in a serious relationship, and the amount of time that they spent on the road — sometimes being away from home and from their newly-emerging families for months at a time — had begun to take a serious toll on not only their individual sense of morale, but also, to a certain degree, on the collective morale of the band.
In perhaps one of his most direct and plainspoken interviews on this topic, Stephen said to Black Velvet Magazine, “It’s a detachment. Mentally, I have to detach myself from the situation. I can see why so many musicians would do drugs, because mentally you don’t want to tell yourself the truth: that you are away. I mean, it’s like I’m holding my breath, and the only time I get to exhale is when I’m around [my family]. And that’s just what it’s like, and that’s honest, that’s as real as it gets. It hurts. It’s the worst. It’s the hardest part of touring. I’m so passionate about music and I love touring, but it does not even come close to the passion that I feel for them. If there was a way that I could amalgamate the two and bring them with me, I think I could tour forever, but at this time, it’s just one of those things where, you know, I’m just holding my breath.”
Over the course of the year, Stephen began approaching the other members of the band about the feelings of discontent that he’d been experiencing. “I remember being in England with Stephen,” Joey told me during our first interview, “and I think we went to go get some Chinese food or something, and we sat down and we were just kind of talking, and he was like, ‘How much longer do you see the band going?’ And I was like, man, I don’t know, a couple more years? And he just kind of nodded his head, and he was like, ‘I didn’t think you would say that.’”
“So I said, what do you mean? And he was like, ‘I thought you would’ve said, like, five, ten years.’ And I was like, no, man. We’re getting older, I think we still put out great records, but when is it enough? When is it done? It’s up to each individual when they’re done, and I think we all kind of arrived at that place where it just made sense.” Joey clarified what that place meant for him, saying, “For me, it was more of a focus on my wife, and my home, and being a producer and recording bands. It was always like this thing, like, man, I can’t wait for that to happen… but I have no idea when that’s going to happen, you know?”
Before making any concrete decisions about the future of the band, however, the members of Anberlin had a bone to pick with the music industry as far as Vital was concerned. They still didn’t feel like the album had been given the chance that it deserved, and they were too proud of the songs that Vital contained to simply shrug off their sense of disappointment and move on.
The band joined the AbsolutePunk Podcast for a nearly-hour-long interview, during which they detailed the disintegration of their relationship with Universal Republic Records. “They came to us and basically said, ‘You can stay on Universal, but this is going to be the norm. You can keep putting out records, but this is the kind of push you’re going to get,’” Stephen said. “And we felt like Vital was the best thing we had put out in years, maybe ever, so we just felt like, man, we’ve got to give this record a chance. Vital was almost a pinnacle moment for us, and for me personally, I felt like we had to do anything we could, anything possible, to try to give Vital a chance.”
And so, with both the band and Universal Republic putting all of their cards on the table, they came to the mutual decision that they would take the songs from Vital to another record label and release them again, this time as part of a larger package that they would call Devotion. Initially, Joey told me, Tooth & Nail Records expressed interest in releasing Devotion, but the band ultimately chose to go with Big3 Records. On the AbsolutePunk Podcast, Stephen and Nate noted how rare and unheard of it was for a major record label like Universal Republic to allow one of their bands to take an album to another label after it had already been released. Despite Universal Republic’s lack of resources for their style of music, the band said, their team at the label nevertheless proved to be incredibly empathetic and helpful when it came to finding a new home for the songs on Vital.
Once they finished making the legal transition to Big3 Records, the band dove into the process of preparing Devotion, which would be their longest and most comprehensive release to date. They polished a live recording — both audio and video — from the Williamsburg stop of their first acoustic tour during the summer of 2012, and they contacted various friends and fellow musicians to ask for original remixes of every song from Vital. They gathered all the b-sides from the Vital recording sessions — including the iTunes exclusive “Unstable,” the Best Buy exclusive “No Love to Speak” and “Said Too Much,” and the Australian exclusive “Safe Here” — and reworked them into the main tracklisting of the album. They even contacted photographer Aaron Feaver to ask if he had any leftover photos from the same session that produced the cover photo for Vital. He sent over a variety of shots, and the band chose two of them for the alternate covers of Devotion.
Originally, they planned to record one brand new song to add to the release, but as the recording deadline approached, Stephen made an off-the-cuff suggestion to their new label that they record two or three new songs instead of just one — despite the fact that the band didn’t have a single song totally ready to record. The label jumped at the idea, although the rest of the band’s first reaction was to balk at the prospect of writing and recording three new songs in what amounted to about ten days. Joey, Deon, Christian, and Nate recorded the instrumentals at Big3’s studio in St. Petersburg, Florida, and sent the tracks to Stephen, in Nashville, Tennessee. There, Stephen turned to friend and former tourmate Chad Howat (Paper Route) to record and produce his vocals for the songs before sending them back to the rest of the band in Florida. From these sessions came “City Electric,” “Dead American,” and “IJSW,” the latter of which soon became one of the band’s favorite Anberlin tracks ever.
Big3 Records released Devotion on October 15, 2013. It came in two different versions: one featuring the standard, eighteen-track album and a disc of the audio performance from their acoustic show in Williamsburg, while the deluxe version featured the eighteen-track album, a DVD of the acoustic show in Williamsburg, and a CD of Vital remixes from artists including JT Daly, Spacebrother, Nick Rad, and more. They released “City Electric” as the collection’s first radio single, and in December, they premiered a music video for “Dead American” — filmed by Pretend to Be Friends cinematographer Dustin Miller and directed by Nate Young and Team Club.
Unbeknownst to fans, the video served as the band’s first cryptic admission that the end of Anberlin was near; no single shot depicts all five band members together, and the video’s imagery includes a casket and a burning car. The announcement of Anberlin’s decision to disband loomed only a few weeks away.
The bridge of “Orpheum” features four guest vocalists who were chosen as winners of a YouTube cover contest that Anberlin and Aaron Sprinkle developed while the band was in the studio. The winners were Allan Purcell, Alana Aleman, Paul Pelc, and Taylor Bastain. Two more facts about this song: it’s named after a club in Ybor City, Florida, and the sound at the beginning of the track is Aaron Sprinkle walking across the studio to sit at the piano.
The band originally wrote and demoed “Little Tyrants” for Dark is the Way, Light is a Place, but ended up putting it on the backburner and then revisiting it for Vital.
The drumbeat at the end of “Other Side” was originally part of another song that Nate was writing for the album but never finished.
The liner notes for Vital include the first appearance of the band’s “fingers crossed” symbol. They also used it as a backdrop for their live show during throughout 2013.
In March 2013, the band released a live music video for “Other Side” featuring footage from their Tour de Vital:
Anberlin streamed a live, acoustic holiday set online via StageIt on December 12, 2013. Their performance included a piano rendition of “Godspeed” and their cover of the Christmas song “Baby Please Come Home,” among others.
In addition to the remixes that appeared on the deluxe edition of Devotion, Joey uploaded two more original remixes of Vital tracks to his music production website (“God, Drugs & Sex” and “Desires”).
The opening guitar riff of “City Electric” came from one of the tracks that the band recorded for the Pretend to Be Friends score.
Dustin Miller posted a behind the scenes look into the “Dead American” music video shoot on his website:
On November 26, 2014, Anberlin took the stage for the last show on their final world tour.
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.