The History of Anberlin, Part 7: Lowborn (2013–2014)
Previously — The History of Anberlin, Part 6: Vital & Devotion
After a series of emotional discussions, both one-on-one and as a group, in the autumn of 2013 the members of Anberlin came to the decision that they would disband the following year. From very early on in their career, they’d talked about this moment, this decision, and how they would handle their breakup differently than the ways they’d seen other bands call it quits. They knew that they wanted to put their fans first; over the course of their twelve-year run, they’d watched countless bands come and go, many of them imploding due to interpersonal conflicts or poor decision-making, and as fans themselves, they felt the pang of sadness and distress that often comes along with a band breaking up suddenly and offering no hope of a final record or a final tour.
So even though they briefly contemplated touring one last time on Vital and Devotion, and not making another album, by the time that the end of 2013 came around, they’d changed their tune. “We came to the realization that if our favorite band said ‘We’re calling it quits — no more records, no more tours,’ we would absolutely be crushed,” Stephen told Kristen Alligood of Florida Today. “And so that’s why we came together and said let’s do a record… and let’s make sure that anybody who wants to has the opportunity to see us. So that was the end of the conversation.”
They knew that they were going to be met with lots of probing questions upon announcing their plans: What if you change your minds? What if the album and the tour sell better than any previous albums and tours? Why now, after you’ve shown such longevity and you’ve finally gotten out of your major label contract? But they had compelling answers and reasons for all of these questions and then some.
“I would rather people say, ‘Why are they disbanding?’ than ‘Wait, they’re still a band?’” Stephen said to Billboard’s Steve Baltin. “That’s what it’s all about. Every band has to know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em. And I just feel like if we want to keep the inspiration, the legacy and everything we’ve done and accomplished as something people are still excited about, we should leave before we’re back in a van playing for 40 people. Twelve years we just put our heart and soul into this, so why leave it with putting a bad taste in peoples’ mouths.”
Each band member offered a similar sentiment, making sure to clarify that there was no bad blood between any of them, and that the decision had nothing to do with not wanting to play music with each other anymore, and everything to do with wanting to explore different avenues of life — for Stephen, Nate, and Joey, this meant a life without touring. “Being on the road two hundred out of three hundred days a year, you miss out on the mundane. What other people would view as no big deal or just another day, especially birthdays or anniversaries or graduations, all that stuff, you miss. You’re just gone, you’re absent from life. You’re always perpetually the visiting family member,” Stephen told Kristen Alligood. “I can’t tell you the last time I spent more than a few months in the same city. That’s difficult — especially to cultivate relationships and friendships. But, again, that definitely plays a part in the disbanding of Anberlin, but I don’t think anyone of us would trade what we’ve done for anything.”
Once they’d decided to record one final album, they approached Universal Republic about it, just to gauge their response — and since the band was upfront about it being their final album and about not intending to tour in promotion of it, the label was upfront in return and said that they would put it out if the band wanted them to, but they wouldn’t give it much of a push. At Tooth & Nail, however, Brandon Ebel expressed a great deal of enthusiasm about the prospect of releasing the album. “It made sense for us to go back home to where we started,” Stephen told AbsolutePunk’s Jonathan Bautts. “There were never any negative feelings with Tooth & Nail. They knew exactly why we were leaving to go to Universal, and Universal understands exactly why we would want to go back with Tooth & Nail. Everybody was happy at the end.”
The band spent the first couple months of the year writing the songs that would make up their final album, shrugging off any and all expectations and sources of pressure that they faced with their previous albums. They knew they didn’t have to worry about writing a single that would bring them radio success, or about how this album’s sales figures would impact their shot at securing a big tour. For the first time in the band’s history, their label wasn’t asking them to submit demos before they began recording. Tooth & Nail trusted them, and stepped back while they pieced together their final collection of songs.
And to a certain extent, piecing it together is a very apt metaphor for what Anberlin found themselves doing. They didn’t recycle any former b-sides — all the songs came from brand-new material. However, once it came time to hit the studio, the band members faced another first-time experience: they recorded their parts in three separate studios, and for the bulk of the process, they weren’t together in the same room.
The whole band traveled to Atlanta in February, to Matt Goldman’s Glow in the Dark Studios, where they’d recorded their first few demos back in 2002. “Ever since we did that with him, I always knew I wanted to go back and do drums with him,” Nate told Jonathan Bautts. “He’s an amazing drummer and can get such good tones and sounds. For me, it was always something I wanted to do, so when this record came up and we decided we wanted to do one last album, I was like, ‘Listen, I want to do it with Goldman, as far as the drums.’” While they were together there, the band also completed preproduction for the album.
Next, Stephen returned home to Nashville where he would stay close to his family and record his vocals in town with Aaron Sprinkle, while Nate traveled with Joey, Deon, and Christian back to Lakeland, Florida to track guitars at the studio of Aaron Marsh. For Stephen, working in his new hometown proved too convenient to pass up, and he trusted Aaron Sprinkle to capture the best sounds for his vocals, having worked together on four albums prior to this one. In Lakeland, Aaron Marsh was willing to take a limited role while Joey, Deon, and Christian produced a lot of their guitar tracks themselves, already knowing what sounds they wanted to achieve. With Lakeland only a short drive away from Winter Haven, the town where Anberlin first began, the band members were able to stay with Joey and Deon’s families while they weren’t in the studio recording.
Everyone in the band made it clear when speaking to interviewers that this wasn’t exactly the ideal recording scenario — but above all, it was practical, and they felt confident that all their years composing demos over long distance via email would help them make the most of this situation. “It was one of those things where we didn’t want to spend tons and tons of money on it just because it was our last record,” Nate told AMH Network’s Luke Bunworth. “Obviously, it was very weird recording it separate to everyone, but I think that’s the kind of time that we live in now, where you can do that kind of thing. It was definitely strange, but it actually wasn’t that bad.” After all, he said, they would be spending the following six months together on tour, so it wasn’t like the recording process was their last chance to be in each other’s company.
The songs they wrote for their final album — which they would call Lowborn, shortened from their initial idea of Lowborn Harbinger — were certainly a natural progression from Vital and Devotion, as the band dove even deeper into integrating electronics into their sound, while also injecting a great deal of spontaneity and looseness into their song structures. “Any of the leads and stuff that I tracked, I didn’t write ahead of time. I literally sat down on the floor cross-legged with a guitar, and just wrote it as we went, and it came out really cool,” Joey told me. “Christian and I split all the rhythm guitars so it was more live-feeling, and it was fun, man. It was easy.”
Not only did Anberlin let themselves off the hook from any sort of record-label-related pressure, but they also removed themselves, to a certain degree, from the expectations that they knew their fans would be building for this final album. This is most evident in “Dissenter,” a song toward the end of the album that finds Stephen shouting for nearly two minutes straight above choppy, distorted guitars and bone-shaking drums before everything grinds to a halt for a soft-spoken, dreamy-eyed bridge — and then, with a howl, the song returns to its original warpath. In Nashville, “Dissenter” became the final song that Stephen tracked vocals for. “Because it was so crazy and sporadic, I just put on a distortion pedal, picked up a book that I was reading, and started screaming lyrics from the book into it,” Stephen told Jonathan Bautts, speaking about the song’s demo. “I wrote the lyrics within 24 hours of recording it. To me, I kind of wanted to do that simply because — well, first off, you can barely understand what I’m saying, so it didn’t matter — but also I enjoy the fact that, here was an opportunity to be as punk rock as it gets. Just write what you feel, what you’re thinking, and then go and sing.” Except for the bridge, most of the Stephen’s work on the song came from a single vocal take.
Elsewhere on the album, things are less chaotic. “Armageddon” and “Stranger Ways” become two of Anberlin’s finest slow-burners, with the latter serving as Lowborn’s first single. Despite many members of the band having diverged from one another’s musical preferences over the years, Nate told Stereo Subversion’s Matt Conner that “Stranger Ways” came together almost effortlessly. “It’s the perfect mix of everything we’re into and everything we’ve been into in the past,” he said. “I think that song has such a cool vibe. It just works for all of our tastes and influences to merge into one song.” Perhaps more than anywhere else on the album, the band’s confidence in their work becomes plainly audible, as the track seems to climb and expand over its four-and-a-half minutes (Anberlin’s longest single). They shot a video for the song in June, working with Daniel Davison, a former member of Underoath and Norma Jean; it would be the band’s last music video.
Lyrically, Stephen found many opportunities on Lowborn to write retrospectively about Anberlin’s career, as well as to look ahead at what might be approaching now that they were putting the band to rest. In “Atonement,” resting squarely in the middle of the album’s tracklist, Stephen expresses his gratitude for fans and friends around the world, opening with the lyrics, “I’ve seen faces I may never see again; I’ve been places I never could’ve dreamt. I’ve touched hands with those who touched me, seen the marks of skeleton keys.” The song unfolds almost like a sister track to “Stranger Ways,” guitar lines and vocal harmonies ebbing and flowing on top of a steady rhythm of drums and keys, the band members adding small nuances to the track’s foundation until these subtleties merge together near the end to produce a second chorus of sorts.
Speaking of “Atonement” to HM Magazine’s Melissa Sanchez, Stephen clarified the importance of this song: “I think I owe it to our friends and fans that are still questioning why,” he said. The second verse features what might be the most simplified, straightforward explanation that he’s ever given as to why they’d decided to part ways — “I’ve loved where I’ve lived, yes, I’ve loved where I’ve been, but my heart’s where I’m going,” Stephen sings, as the song crashes into its chorus. “Many people have given us so much of their lives, so much of their time, energy, you know, memorizing lyrics, tattooing themselves. I felt like it was only fair to give them a song written just for them,” he told Sanchez.
Writing Lowborn’s closing track was a little like a litmus test for how serious the band members were about creating the album they wanted to make, as opposed to the album that they thought their fans would want to hear. Ever since Never Take Friendship Personal, they’d been closing their records with grandiose, sweeping songs — epic finales — and they knew that they would be expected to do the same this time around, and that the expectations would be even higher than they’d been in the past.
“I think there’s stuff on the record that people will maybe be confused about,” Nate told Cool Try. “I think a lot of people are going to be up in arms about stuff we’d normally do but didn’t. Like, we didn’t do a 10-minute final song. We honestly tried to, but it just didn’t feel right and we never thought more about it than that. If we’re not feeling it, then let’s not force it. We just wrote the songs that we were feeling.” Instead of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the song to try to make it an elaborate, career-defining closer, they kept the mood wistful; the refrain of “We’ll live forever” is not shouted or demanded, but rather, stated softly, reassuringly.
Despite the fact that Stephen had begun to feel a little burned out on his role in the band in February 2013 — exactly one year before the recording of Lowborn — he didn’t hesitate when asked if his passion returned once they’d all agreed on Anberlin’s end terms. “There’s something about just knowing [that the band is ending], that you take it all in, you soak it all in, you’re just like a sponge, and every moment is like that — your eyes are back wide open, and it’s no longer old hat. I’m not calloused anymore. Everything is brand new,” he told me in May 2014. “It’s like how I would imagine somebody who knows that they just got diagnosed and they have a month left to live, you know, or in my case like a year, and I guarantee you that person is not worrying about mortgage payments and their credit score; they’re going to the beach, and they’re watching every sunrise, and they’re taking in every sunset, and they’re taking the deepest breaths … so yes, the passion is there and then some, like it hasn’t been for several years now.”
Not long after completing Lowborn, the band joined Warped Tour for the first time since 2008. This served as a chance for them to experience the iconic summer festival one more time alongside their friends in Bayside, Yellowcard, and Saves the Day, and it also gave them an opportunity to reach fans both old and new across the country, playing “just the hits” for a couple months before embarking on their final world tour. While Tooth & Nail was supposed to release Lowborn on June 23 — toward the beginning of Anberlin’s two months on Warped Tour — legal complications involving former contracts forced them to push the release date back a full month until July 22.
The band chose Lowborn as the album’s title in another gesture of gratitude for their fans. “For us, we wanted to make a statement that we are one of the people,” Nate told Jonathan D. Wright of High Wire Daze. “We’re not rock stars. There’s no chasm between us and the fans, they’ve all been friends. They’ve all meant the world to us. We’ve made every decision based on what we feel is the best for them and that includes making this record.” As Anberlin’s art director, Nate worked together with longtime collaborator Jordan Butcher to develop the album’s front cover scheme; seven different covers for Lowborn exist, each of them showing a hand with two fingers crossed. “That’s become our symbol,” Nate continued. “It’s because early Christians would use that symbol to find each other, especially when they were being persecuted. So it was another message, telling our fans that all along we’ve been Christian, and we’re still Christians.”
In August, after finishing their run on Warped Tour, the band kicked off their final world tour in the United Kingdom and Sweden. Later that month, and into September, they played shows in Brazil, Australia, Singapore, and the Philippines. In interviews, all five members of the band expressed how much their last shows in Australia meant to them, acknowledging that they’d felt a special bond with their Aussie fans ever since they’d first traveled to the country nearly ten years earlier, in 2005. Their final show in Melbourne sold out far enough in advance for the band to book a second show in the city, for which they decided to play Never Take Friendship Personal from start to finish — something they’d previously suggested would never happen.
“When the first show sold out, we were pumped but we kept getting messages from people saying ‘I didn’t get a ticket! I am so bummed. You should add a second show.’ So we thought about it, but sometimes adding a second show is a bummer,” Nate told Luke Bunworth. “Some of the same people buy tickets to both and end up seeing the same show twice. So we thought about it more. When we first came to Australia, Never Take Friendship Personal had just come out. I feel like that was the record that really helped us over there. It was a kind of random idea. We had previously said that we would never do anything like that. A lot of bands tend to do ten-year anniversary tours and I’m not dogging them for that, it’s fine if they want to, but we said we never would. We would prefer to look to the future rather than the past. As I mentioned, we are different people now. But this is different — it’s only a once-off. Australia is special to us, so we decided we wanted to do something special and different.”
The members of Anberlin took a few weeks off after returning from these last trips abroad, and then, in October, they began their final tour of the United States — starting in Phoenix, Arizona, and winding across the country over the course of about fifty days, ending in Orlando, Florida on November 26, the day before Thanksgiving. They brought out a variety of supporting bands for different dates of the tour, including Lakes (featuring Seth Roberts formerly of Watashi Wa), Greek Fire (featuring Story of the Year’s Phil Sneed), The Weather (previously known as Campfire OK), Mike Herrera (the vocalist for MXPX), ’68 (featuring Josh Scogin, founding member of Norma Jean and former singer for The Chariot), and Copeland (one of the band’s first shows since 2010). In some cities, Anberlin played without any opening acts; during these shows, they expanded their setlist by a few songs.
For this last string of shows, the band played for around ninety minutes every night, digging as far back as Blueprints for the Black Market (alternating between “Readyfuels” and “Glass to the Arson”) and occasionally playing “We Are Destroyer” — the only Lowborn song to show up for the majority of the tour. “It seems weird to me if I’m going to see a band that I’ve loved for however many years, a decade, on their farewell tour and they play a bunch of new songs,” Christian told Jonathan Bautts. “I don’t know if I’d be pumped about that. I think I’d want to hear all the old stuff that drew me to them in the first place and that I grew up on.” Once again working with Jordan Butcher, they put together a series of one-color, screen-printed posters for each city on their final tour. Along with these posters, the band also sold black, city-specific “Final Tour” t-shirts at each date.
Ever since they’d announced their decision to disband, they’d been overwhelmed by the words and actions of appreciative fans at each and every show, from the long lines during their daily signing sessions at Warped Tour during which some fans would wait in line only to thank them for their music, to the handmade shirts and banners that they could see from the stage during their final tour. “Even the people who aren’t moving at our show, you can see them absorbing it. Usually at shows, there are hundreds of camera phones. But at these shows, there are very few. People do it like once during the show and then that’s it, because I think they’re kind of like ‘I’ll never have this experience ever again. It’s not gonna come again,” Stephen told Mary Nikkel of New Release Tuesday.
“People are making these crazy signs,” Joey said to the Examiner’s Lauren Wilson. “So many people are bringing us gifts and we get to hear some crazy stories. It’s been really cool, the appreciation that everyone has been showing.”
“Inevitably every night there’s somebody in the first few rows crying, and you would think it would bring me to a level of remorse or pain, but instead it’s such gratitude,” Stephen said in an interview for The Rooster. “I don’t think I properly gauged how much impact we had on people’s lives until we started these final shows. You can get on Twitter and explain that Anberlin is your favorite band, but I don’t see that effect. Not until these last shows started, then it’s like, ‘Oh, man.’ It’s just intense.”
Even as October turned into November, and the date of their final show in Orlando loomed closer and closer, the mood among the band members while they were off-stage didn’t become somber or gloomy. Their decision, made almost a year earlier, to end Anberlin’s career on their own terms and for reasons that put their families and their fans first had paid off. Everybody had taken the time that they needed to process their feelings about their twelve-year run coming to a close, and now, they found themselves enjoying the days that they had left.
“I think we’re all coming off a pretty big high from the world tour we just got off of, and I would have to say maybe it’s bittersweet — except we’ve got past the bitter part. It’s just absolutely sweet from here on out,” Stephen told The Rooster. “We’re really just enjoying each other’s company and hanging out… goofing off. I think that’s one of the biggest things that we’re all gonna miss collectively, the camaraderie. We do love being on the stage and we do love the music we’ve created and writing and all that stuff, but when we look back at times and memories, that’s gonna be the biggest to us, is just five guys that have been together for 12 years and gone through thick and thin and been around the world a few dozen times. Those are the memories that are gonna be lasting.”
On November 26, 2014, Anberlin took the stage for the last show on their final world tour. Throughout the night, they played the opening tracks from all seven of their full-length albums. They performed more than half of Cities, perhaps their most adored album, including deep cuts like “Alexithymia” and the rarely-played “Adelaide.” Halfway through their twenty-two song set, just after finishing “(The Symphony of) Blasé,” Stephen stopped and let the applause wash over the band, and then stepped back to the microphone.
“A few years before Anberlin even started, the fact of the matter is that me, Joey, and Deon stood on this stage in a very small little band, and we were actually at a talent show, right here at the House of Blues in Orlando,” he said, to a few distant shouts of “saga!” Stephen continued: “And we lost the competition, you know.” The crowd booed. “No, no, no, no,” he interrupted. “Because I think the fact of the matter is, you know, here are a few guys from a very small town, very close to here, who can make it on this stage, and you actually care about us — that’s…” He paused to gather his thoughts while the crowd boomed with cheers. “I think, if we can make it, you can make it. Honestly. You know, at the end of the day, we’re nothing. In fifty years, in a hundred years, our name will be forgotten, but I hope at the end of the day, we live in your hearts, we live in your minds… and if we can just influence you to follow your dreams and your passions in life, then we’ve absolutely succeeded.”
“I don’t care where you’re from — I don’t care if you’re from Ocala, or Odessa, or Winter Haven — I don’t care. You can make a difference in everyone’s life. You can make a difference in the people around you, tonight, tomorrow, in your children’s life, in your grandchildren’s life. You can make a difference. And if we as Anberlin could just set any type of inspiration in your life, then all of this is worth it. So I don’t care if you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or a painter, I don’t care if there are musicians in the crowd or missionaries or pastors, whatever it is that you have set out to be, I know — I know, I know you can make it. And I’m saying that on behalf of five men that don’t deserve any of this. We don’t deserve you, we don’t deserve each other, we don’t deserve all of this, but the fact of the matter is, five guys from a small town followed their dreams and passions in life, and had the opportunity to be here tonight in front of you. Thank you very much.” Stephen stepped back toward his bandmates, put his head in his hands for a moment, and then returned to the microphone to paraphrase a Bible verse from the Book of Zechariah: “Never despise the day of small beginnings.”
He introduced their next song, “The Unwinding Cable Car,” and the show went on. Following that song, Anberlin performed “Atonement” for the first and only time, dedicating it to the more than three-thousand fans in the sold out venue.
Around thirty minutes later, the band played their biggest single — which had been certified as a Gold single in January 2014 — and then left the stage. They returned for an encore soon after, playing the closing track from Cities, “(*Fin).”
As the song reaches its climax, Stephen borrows from the lyrics of “Harbinger,” singing, “We’ll live forever, forever, forever,” his crossed-fingers held high in the air. After repeating this mantra a few times, he lets go of the microphone and raises his other hand in the air as the song continues; Christian and then Deon kneel with their guitars, and Stephen falls to his knees alongside them. Joey remains standing, playing the final few notes of the song over and over again, and on Nate’s last drumbeat, the guitars cut out, and Stephen stands.
All five band members gathered in front of Nate’s drums, and a few of the band’s crew members snapped one last photo of Anberlin: five close friends, with a sea of fans who had traveled from all over the world raising crossed-fingers toward the sky behind them.
After selling out two shows in New York City on their final tour, the band added a third date, which they billed as featuring Cities performed in full. Not only did they perform Cities, but immediately afterwards, they launched into Never Take Friendship Personal, also playing it from start to finish. For their encore, they played “Readyfuels,” the first song from Blueprints from the Black Market.
Anberlin streamed their first show in New York City live on Yahoo! Screen, although the stream ended before they returned for their encore. Right now, the full stream can be seen on YouTube.
The band did not record any additional tracks or b-sides during the Lowborn sessions, saying that they put all of their time and effort into recording the ten songs that appear on the album.
While on Warped Tour during the summer of 2014, Nate served as Yellowcard’s drummer in addition to his duties with Anberlin. He also played drums on Yellowcard’s ninth studio album, Lift a Sail.
Also while on Warped Tour, the band partnered with the Sing Me a Story Foundation to write and record a song based upon a poem written by a fifteen-year-old in the New York Writer’s Coalition. The song, called “Big Brother,” can be downloaded from Sing Me a Story’s website, where you can also see fifteen-year-old Iniko’s poem and the prompt that inspired it. The band recorded the track on the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus.
Throughout the year, the band released a series of Anberlin Classic merchandise, both online and at their shows. This series included one t-shirt each from the touring cycles of their first four albums (Blueprints for the Black Market, Never Take Friendship Personal, Cities, and New Surrender), as well as a tank-top, a crewneck sweatshirt, and a koozie. All items were limited edition.
Now that Anberlin has been officially done for a few months, all five band members have begun revealing their next ventures in life.
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.