The History of Anberlin, Prelude: Just One Year
On January 16, 2014, Anberlin quietly uploaded a video to YouTube and placed it on the front page of their website, directing fans through Twitter and Facebook to the page without any indication about its contents. The video begins with subtle traffic noises in the background and a Helen Keller quote against a black screen: “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose — all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” The quote disappears, replaced by fast-moving, close-up footage of a street passing beneath a vehicle. A guitar note rings out, and at the same moment, a simple drawing of a hand with its index and middle fingers crossed — a symbol that the band had adopted during the promotion cycle for their 2012 album, Vital —appears over the footage.
Beginning with Nate Young, each member of the band — Nate, Stephen Christian, Joey Milligan, Deon Rexroat, and Christian McAlhaney — take turns speaking over the music, reminiscing about the band’s humble beginnings, the bond that all of them had formed over the past twelve years, and their passion for the music that they create and the fans that they meet. The footage of the street begins to be interrupted by shots of the band playing live and clips from their music videos.
Around a minute and twenty seconds into the video, its purpose starts to become clear. “Everything that we’ve done in this time as Anberlin has been a total mix of fifty percent intention and fifty percent just blessed blind luck,” says Deon, the band’s bassist. “We’re just so thankful,” says Nate, drummer and the band’s youngest member. “It wasn’t about money, or success, or anything like that, it was just doing what we all loved, and doing it together,” says Joey, lead guitarist.
In the one-and-a-half minutes that follow, the members of Anberlin announce that the band will be breaking up at the end of the year, after one last album and a few final tours around the world.
When I first spoke to Stephen about the band’s decision to part ways, he revealed that, for a while, they weren’t even planning on recording a final album. “We were just so proud of Vital, because we put so much into that record,” he said. “We loved it so much. We felt like, here’s a record that music reviewers and a lot of fans said was our best work to date — so why not leave out on that?”
Anberlin released a deluxe and expanded version of that record, entitled Devotion, on Big3 Records in October 2013. Devotion was created with the intention to give the songs that they were so proud of another chance — a chance that they didn’t feel like their previous record label, Universal Republic Records, had capitalized on. “So we were thinking, through November and December, you know what — let’s just not record another album,” Stephen said.
“But then, by the end of December, somebody basically just said, ‘But why not?’ If we’re going to announce in January that we’re not going to be a band anymore, why not just say, hey, we’re doing it all at the same time, we’re going to write another record, just one more, for the sake of the creative outlet that Anberlin has always been for us, and go at it just one more time?”
With that, the band’s writing process commenced, for the final time.
Anberlin formed in 2002, from the aftermath of a breakneck-speed punk-rock band called saGoh 24/7 (Servants After God’s Own Heart) — which they colloquially referred to as “saga.” Over the course of saGoh’s existence — from 1996 until 2002 — three members remained consistent: Stephen Christian, Deon Rexroat, and Joey Milligan. They were joined at various points by guitarists Joey Bruce (known occasionally as Joeby to prevent confusion between himself and Joey Milligan) and Shane Schuch, as well as drummer Sean Hutson.
Stephen and Deon first met in 1994, when they were young teenagers living in Winter Haven, a small town in Florida’s Polk County. Although they went to the same middle school, they were in different crowds — Stephen in the “surf” crowd, and Deon in the “punk” crowd (he played bass and sang in a local band called I’m Not Sure). A year later, a mutual friend formally introduced them to each other, and they hit it off immediately, soon starting to play music together themselves. While Stephen was playing guitar at the time after discovering his father’s Gibson in a closet, he wasn’t too keen about the instrument; fortunately, Deon soon brought his friend Joey Milligan into the lineup, allowing Stephen to take the reins as full-time vocalist.
“I was fifteen, I was like, whatever, I just want to play music, I don’t care what it is,” Joey told me, reflecting on his entrance into the band. “So [Deon] came over to the house and I learned like two songs in an hour, and we went to Sean’s house, and he had this little shed behind his house with this big mirror, I remember, it was so off-putting, and we would practice in there. So I breezed through the songs with the guys, and before that, Stephen and I had met like twice, and we did not get along from the get-go. It’s hilarious, because he’s one of my best friends in the world now, and has been for seventeen or eighteen years. I think my band was playing a show with his band in the driveway of this kid’s house, and he needed to borrow a guitar. And it was this perfect moment of, like, I handed him my guitar — it was this old Epiphone SG or something — and he was like, ‘Oh, that’s a nice guitar for a girl!’ And everyone in the room just erupts in laughter, and I was like, oh, I don’t know about this guy… So it took a little convincing from Deon for me to come try out for the band, but I was like, whatever, I want to play music.”
“Stephen didn’t know I could see him in the mirror on the practice space wall,” Joey continued, “but he was jumping up and down and pointing at me, like, yeah, yeah, yeah, and I thought he was making fun of me. So I think like halfway through, I was like, ‘Dude, what’s the problem?’ And he was like, ‘Nothing. Everything’s great.’ And I said, ‘I can see you jumping up and down in the mirror,’ and he said back, ‘I’m excited!’ And I was like, oh, okay. So I was pretty much in from that point on.”
saGoh’s sound was rough and brash; Stephen later came to describe his singing style during these years as “groveling.” In the early ‘90s, Hot Water Music were making a name for themselves — another band from the sunshine state who called the city of Gainesville their home, a little over two hours north of Winter Haven — and saGoh certainly took some cues from Hot Water’s brand of hoarse and pummeling hard rock. Deon’s musical preference leaned toward the classics of punk rock, like Minor Threat, 7 Seconds, and Bad Religion (although his first purchase was a ZZ Top album), while Joey grew up with two older sisters who imparted their love of hair metal to him; Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, and Poison were among the bands on constant rotation in his childhood home.
They signed with Rescue Records, a label in San Diego started by Noah Bernardo Sr., whose son played in the ‘90s nu metal band P.O.D. In 1999, saGoh released their self-titled debut album — it was sixteen tracks and forty-five minutes worth of rowdy punk rock that integrated the common themes of the punk scene — brotherhood, community, and political stands — with the band’s at-times politically conservative viewpoints and their desire to praise God through their music.
“We had this guy approach us who was the father of a friend of ours — I think he was a dentist — and his son loved our band, and his son convinced him to give us $3,000 to make a record. I don’t know if you anything about record budgets, but $3,000 is nothing,” Joey said. “And we found this place in Cocoa Beach, and I think the only thing the guy had recorded before was his own band, which was like a late ‘80s/early ‘90s metal band, and he was the lead singer and he also played flute. We went in there, and I think we knocked it out in like less than a week. I did all my guitars for eighteen songs in one night. We didn’t know how to make a record, we were just like, yeah, that’s good, let’s move onto the next one.”
“So we took that CD when we were done and we mailed it everywhere. I think Stephen still has copies of rejection letters that we got back from some people. Fat Wreck Chords rejected us, and that was a heartbreaker for me,” Joey continued. “I think we were at Deon’s house hanging out, and he got a voicemail and it’s like, ‘Hi, this is Matt from Rescue Records. We got your demo in and we really like what we hear, and we think we can do something with it. Give me a call back,’ and he left his number, and, like, we didn’t know what we were doing — we were like, what? A label?”
“We ended up doing this show that gave us enough money to drive straight from Tampa to San Diego, and while we were there, we met with Matt, and pretty much the whole deal was done over the phone, and papers were just sent to us — we didn’t have anybody look at them, we just signed and we were good. And I think the only thing we knew about Rescue Records was Dogwood was on it, and P.O.D. was on it, and that was all we knew. It was a dream when you’re a kid, but looking back on it, it’s like, man, that was us paying our dues. You would have a question for the record label, and you would call, and the voicemail would pick up and it would say, ‘Hi, thanks for calling Rescue Records and Noah’s Lawn Service,’ and it was hilarious. But, I mean, they got our records out, and it was fun — but bizarre.”
One of the clearest examples of saGoh’s integration of punk themes and Christian ideals is “Fifteen,” the album’s second track. “The punk rock scene will cease to play, so another band will take my place, and reality will slam us all in the face,” Stephen sings. “The only thing that will remain is our faith.” The song is addressed to a high school “hooligan” named Johnny, whom Stephen urges to resist procrastination and to make something of himself without relying on anyone else.
saGoh’s self-titled album also contains a couple head-scratchers, like “Withstand,” a searing track about perseverance that somehow manages to blend ska-style verses with a hardcore-influenced chorus, complete with throaty screams. And then there’s “Rocky,” an unexpected tribute to Rocky Balboa that contains a doo-wop bridge and lyrics about punching salami. Despite these eccentricities, though, the album makes a plain statement about, as Stephen sings in “Tickle Me Emo,” focusing on what matters most — forging unity, embracing the gift of life, and slogging through the difficulties of school, work, and relationships without losing ambition or hope.
The music scene in Polk County, Florida left a lot to be desired in the 1990s. The area was somewhat isolated from major market tours; many touring bands would go no further than Atlanta before heading toward the west coast. Stephen has referred to Polk County as the redneck capital of the state, noting the prominence of country radio stations and the lack of alternative music venues or publications. While he was still in high school, Stephen started his own club, called Mutiny, and tried hard to book bands from all over the country to play in Winter Haven, hoping that an influx of national bands might enable the town’s own scene to grow.
Even when Florida did make music headlines in the mid-to-late 1990s, the artists that drew the most attention were far from the sound that the members of saGoh wanted to pursue. Backstreet Boys and Creed both emerged from Florida around this time, taking Top 40 radio by storm while giving the state a bad reputation amongst the smaller, independently minded musical communities that clubs like Mutiny were attempting to foster.
But before long, saGoh’s local scene did begin to bloom. Bands from Tampa, Lakeland, and Winter Haven came together, swapping members and booking shows, opening for one another and building ties. Stephen speaks fondly of the “small, tight-knit community of bands” that formed during this time — bands that would eventually transform into Anberlin, Copeland, Underoath, and Further Seems Forever, among others. “We only drew sixteen to forty-five, maybe fifty people at each show,” he said. “I mean, if there were a hundred people at the show, we thought we were the biggest band in the entire world. It just didn’t get bigger than that.”
Other parts of Florida experienced similar booms of productivity around this time, too, with bands including New Found Glory, Less Than Jake, Yellowcard, and Dashboard Confessional breaking out of the state’s confines and making names for themselves on a national scale, while at the same time transforming central Florida into a marketable area for touring bands of all kinds. The drought was over; circumstances slowly began to align that would propel the members of saGoh 24/7 to join the ranks of rockers who rose above their local scene.
saGoh’s second album, …Then I Corrupt Youth, came out via Rescue Records in 2001 and found the band playing longer songs that weren’t quite so fast — songs that contained the first few bits and pieces of the sound that Anberlin would eventually pursue.
…Then I Corrupt Youth traded in the band’s lyrical emphasis on politics and community for the recurring theme of the pursuit of God, and the pain and longing that such a pursuit entails. In “Surfacing Distant,” Stephen sings, “The deeper we dig, the more sorrow it brings; but how much satisfaction will the sunset be.” Throughout the album, Stephen’s lyrics position the failures and faults of human relationships against the mysterious yet immeasurable gift of grace found through a relationship with God. “Regrettable Paris,” the band’s first acoustic tune, sees Stephen lamenting the slippery slope between temptation and regret; here, he abandons the abrasive style of singing that saGoh fans had become accustomed to and instead adopts the softer tone that Anberlin fans would cherish for years to come.
But Stephen’s vocal style isn’t the only thing that had begun to change by the time saGoh released …Then I Corrupt Youth. In songs like “Atlantis Reaching Affinity,” “Mercury,” and “Celeste’s Song,” the band began to blend pop elements with their punk tendencies (the intro to “Celeste’s Song” wouldn’t sound out of place in an early Jimmy Eat World track). Lyrically and melodically, too, the album contains hints of Joey, Stephen, and Deon’s future work; “Billet Doux” contains lyrics that would be repurposed in Anberlin’s “Cadence,” while “Dearest You” even features a short line that would appear again over half a decade later in “Dismantle.Repair.”
Not long after the album’s release, however, their longtime drummer Sean Hutson left in order to start a family. Fortunately, the space behind the drum kit wouldn’t be vacant for long. saGoh had recently begun sharing the stage with a local band called Bottle Rocket, whose drummer, technically proficient and turning heads at only twelve years old, had captured Deon’s attention at a show. After some persuasion, Deon convinced Stephen to watch the twelve-year-old play when Bottle Rocket opened for saGoh the second time, and Stephen was immediately impressed. The remaining members of saGoh knew that they had to convince this prodigy drummer, Nathan Young, to join their ranks. Nate accepted the offer, first joining as a fill-in drummer for a few saGoh shows before becoming a permanent fixture in their lineup.
But even with this addition, saGoh’s future was uncertain at best. Stephen was approaching the end of his time in college, working for a Catholic humanitarian organization that he planned to continue with after graduation. Attending the University of Central Florida, he double-majored in psychology and philosophy — a feat that he was proud of, considering his high school guidance counselor had persistently recommended that he enroll in a vocational-technical school due to his less-than-satisfactory grades. For a while, he bought into this pessimism, spending some time after high school working a tedious groundskeeping job at an amusement park. Eventually, however, he realized that he was capable of more, and enrolled at UCF.
After working so hard toward building a future for himself through his education, Stephen felt conflicted about signing away any more of his time to play in a band — particularly a punk band. saGoh’s style never quite matched up with Stephen’s own musical interests; whenever his time in the band comes up in interviews, he notes that his passion was not for the music, but for the message that they were communicating to listeners, and for the opportunity to spend weekends on the road with his closest friends. He describes the years spent singing for saGoh as innocent, naïve, and invigorating.
As Stephen began contemplating his future, a few crucial events began to tip the scales: his job with the humanitarian group fell through, and after hearing some acoustic songs that Stephen had been working on, Joey suggested that the band shift their sound more consciously toward rock music. Then, out of the blue, longtime member Shane Schush quit the band. “We were in a parking lot, in the middle of Minnesota, and we had just scraped together the last of our money for a hotel room,” Stephen told Black Velvet Magazine. “One of our members had just up and left, had just quit the band … we were basically at the end of our rope.” They’d just finished playing a show, and the next day, they were scheduled to play a festival. After that, they had five more shows booked, and then — no further plans. “The four of us — me, Nathan, Deon, and Joey — were sitting in that parking lot, and it was kind of one of those moments where, either we’re going to give up and this is it — we’re going to go home, we’re going to go back to our lives — or we’re going to work as hard as we can.”
They decided to go with the latter option.
“I looked at the guys and I said, listen, let’s give this one year. And let’s work our asses off,” Stephen told Frank Jenks of Listen In. “And in one year, if we haven’t made it, if we aren’t signed, then that’s it. We’re going to quit.”
When I asked Joey about their transition from saGoh to Anberlin, he brought up this moment in the parking lot. “That was the transition,” he said. “When Shane left, it kind of forced our hand to take this band seriously, and we were like, listen, you know, if we really want to make music, and keep making music, it has to be something we love, something that’s fun to play, something that people can hear and be like, that hits me. We were just all growing out of that punk rock vibe, and even saGoh in its later days was gearing more toward rock music. You know, your tastes change as you grow up. It was fairly seamless.”
With Nate on board behind the drums, they called upon guitarist Joey Bruce (who had played with saGoh around the time of their first album, but left prior to the release of …Then I Corrupt Youth) to resume his former position. Although they didn’t yet know what they would come to call themselves, this final addition solidified the founding lineup of Anberlin.
saGoh was dead, to begin with.
They did not merely change the name of the band; Anberlin and saGoh 24/7 were two separate entities. In 2002, Stephen, Deon, Joey Milligan, Nate, and Joey Bruce traveled eight hours from central Florida to Atlanta, Georgia to record a five-song demo with producer Matt Goldman at Glow in the Dark Studios — and they knew for certain that these were not saGoh 24/7 songs.
“We planned this farewell saGoh show in Brandon, [Florida], and it was fun,” Joey told me. “We had a great time, buried the hatchet with Shane and had him on stage playing with us for a couple of songs — it was cool, and it didn’t feel sad in any way, shape, or form, because we had something to look forward to, and we were so geared and amped up, we were so pumped for Anberlin and ready to get moving. We were so over playing those saGoh songs.”
Over the course of the following year, the reinvigorated band kept writing new songs, kept booking their own shows and tours, and spent tireless days and nights finding new ways to promote themselves. “And one year later, to the day,” Stephen said, “we were on our first tour, signed to Tooth & Nail Records, and playing Cornerstone Festival in front of 3,500 kids.”
Somewhat capriciously, Anberlin’s first demos and Anberlin’s final album, Lowborn, share something in common: they both almost didn’t happen at all.
In both cases, the members of the band had a different life in mind for themselves. They found themselves face-to-face with circumstances that seemed almost insurmountable. At the beginning of their career, breaking out of Florida seemed a long-shot at best, and even trying to do so would mean working relentlessly — not just improving and promoting their music, but also collecting odd and tedious jobs to pay the bills for a future that wasn’t even guaranteed to become reality. And by the end of their career, the music industry had collapsed. Music videos, radio singles, CD sales — all of the elements that defined a successful band in the late 1990s and early 2000s had become all but obsolete in the digital era.
Moreover, rock music once again found itself taking a backseat to pop. In 2013, the band parted ways with Universal Republic Records, where they released three of their most successful albums to date, after representatives from the label told them that promoting rock was simply no longer a priority. And again, the members of the band — Stephen, Deon, Joey Milligan, Nate, and Christian McAlhaney (who joined in 2007), found themselves grappling with their futures. The stakes were considerably higher this second time around, with wives and children added into the equation.
Later that year, they made their decision: it was time to put Anberlin to rest. But for their fans, they made a concession: one last album, and one final touring cycle.
And with that decision, the band ended as it began — with just one year.
In February 2003, Anberlin went into the studio for three and a half weeks to record their first album with Aaron Sprinkle in Seattle.
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.