Tony Cummings looks over the rise and rise of Florida-based rock five-piece ANBERLIN
The news that the biggest record company in the world, Universal Music, had signed Florida rockers Anberlin won't have come as a surprise to their growing legion of fans. Their Tooth & Nail 'Cities' album debuted at 19 on Billboard's Top Albums chart in February this year and when Universal Republic release their new album in mid 2008 the mainstream rock world will surely embrace en mass this most inventive group. For though Anberlin have been compared to acts like Jimmy Eat World and Third World Blind, in truth the five-piece bring something truly fresh to emo-influenced alternative pop/rock. The band's lead singer Stephen Christian wrote in HM magazine about the band's origins in Orlando, Florida. "At the time the roots of Anberlin were starting to take hold we were not even old enough to get a driver's licence. I first encountered Deon (Rexroat) in 1994. He was playing bass and singing for a punk band, called I'm Not Sure, at Friar Tucks, the local venue and tavern. The band's cover of Nena's '99 Red Balloons' was an optimal fit, since Deon was only 13 years old and could reach the range of Nena herself! Being that Deon was in the 'punk rock scene' and I in the 'surf' crowd at the local middle school, we didn't have much contact."
Christian continued, "A year later, however, we were introduced by a fellow musician and immediately became friends and shortly after that started playing music together. At the time I played guitar, which after learning a mere three chords was dumbfounded as to where to go from there (God bless the Lord for power chords). So I dropped the guitar and stuck to the microphone. Due to my lacklustre performance on six strings, Deon introduced Joseph (Milligan) to the current three piece. This was a much needed addition, considering that we had only a drummer, bass player and a singer. By 1996 I was in my first official band, and though we tried desperately to sound like Gainesville, Florida's Hot Water Music, we fell dismally short. But, in spite of our shortcomings, we ended up signing with an inadequate Southern California label, which in turn sold a breathtaking 1,300 records before our inevitable demise."
The inept Christian punk team were called SaGoh (Servants After God's Own Heart). Steven continued, "In 2001, with the end of the band in sight, we began playing shows with a Tampa-based band called Bottlerocket, a three-piece punk rock band with potential and a 'prodigy' drummer. While watching the prolific 13 year old drummer, I remember my mouth agape when I first heard the enormity that is Nathan Young. Our drummer was leaving the band to get married and we convinced Nathan to fill in for the remaining time. He has yet to leave."
The new aggregation was named Anberlin. (Not, as some Brits thought, a bolderisation of Henry VIII's unfortunate wife Anne Boleyn but rather emanating from a list of places in Europe Christian hope to backpack to. "I said, 'Madrid, London, Rome and Berlin. After I said it I was thinking how one day I would like to name a band And Berlin. Shortening it, I came up with Anberlin.") Anberlin, consisting of Christian (vocals), Joseph Milligan (guitar), Joey Bruce (guitar), Deon Rexroat (bass) and Nathan Young (drums), went to the studios of Matt Goldman (Underoath, Copeland) to record the few songs they had developed during the rebuilding phase. Like thousands of other young hopefuls they posted three of their demos on the internet. Remembered Christian, "The reaction to the three songs on the internet was astounding, within only a couple of months our purevolume site had accumulated 25,000 hits and was attracting the attention of several major labels. Being that we had known Tooth & Nail A&R (guy) Chad Johnson from his Takehold Records days (238/Legends Of Rodeo) he contacted us as a possible label interest. Chad came to check out a show of ours in Atlanta, Georgia, which turned out to be one of the most catastrophic shows of our lives. We were sandwiched right in between hardcore acts Underoath and headliner Norma Jean - two bands we had shared the stage with numerous times, but had no right to be performing with in our then pop-indie rock form. Needless to say, Chad told Brandon Ebel, president of Tooth & Nail, that they should not sign us; because our performance that night was deplorable, and, in retrospect, I agree."
Thankfully, for the band and Tooth & Nail Records, Anberlin's demos were so impressive they were signed anyway. The band's T&N debut 'Blueprints For The Black Market' was released and immediately began to sell. Christian spoke about the album to Europunk.net, "The writing process was amazing. The guitarist and I do all the lyrics and music. We have a sort of chemistry and I don't think I could ever be in any other band without him. Joey must write 10 songs a week, he burns them on to a CD and I listen to them and write lyrics about what I am experiencing in my life at the moment. The producer, Aaron Sprinkle, is the best Tooth & Nail has to offer. He knew the style we were looking for, straight up rock with pop sensibility. He helped in a lot of decision making and gave us great advice throughout the entire process. There is no doubt in my mind that I will work with him again! The black market is an analogy for the music industry as a whole, and not that we have the best formula for that industry; but this album is our attempt to help in the fight to take it over, and turn it from pop-driven airwaves to an artist-friendly environment for every indie/rock/singer/songwriter band out there."
In the same interview Christian spoke about one of his big influences, Jeff Buckley. "'Grace' was THE most underrated albums EVER (in my opinion). Jeff's music and life inspires me because one only has to watch his live DVD to see the word passion come to life. [Other influences have been] Thom Yorke - who showed me art and music can co-exist. Bono - who showed me that music isn't life, music is a way to help better people's lives. Mick Jagger - who gave front men the ability to bring the crowd to their knees. Morrissey - who put originality and the mystery in the singer. Robert Smith - who showed me that you don't have to be good looking to be sexual. Beatles - who taught me that music has a greater impact on people than we will ever know, and that there is such thing as a formula for writers (because they discovered and maintained that formula). Literary writers have had a huge part of my music, the song 'Foreign Language' was inspired by the book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, (I had to read it for my college class The Psychology Of Women). The song 'Glass To The Arson has actual lines from A Huxley's classic Brave New World. 'We Dreamt In Heist' was provoked by my own thoughts on a book called Veronica Decides To Die, by Paulo Coelho, and there is more. But I just wanted people to see there is more that influences artists than just current radio singles. Finally, the two biggest influences have to be my father and Jesus, both whom I love and respect."
The release in 2003 of their 'Blueprints For The Black Market' should have brought good times for the tenderfoot band. But problems came thick and fast. Stephen told HM, "There was a point where giving up seemed to be the logical next step; we had our trailer stolen with thousands of dollars worth of merch and equipment taken the day before our first tour; once on tour we had to sleep in the van, because we could not afford hotel rooms; and more than once we had to have our parents wire us money just to keep gas in the tank." The low of the band came right before the recording of the second record, 'Never Take Friendship Personal'. Said Stephen, "The rhythm guitarist had ulterior motives for the band: sex, drugs and rock and roll in every sense of the word. He became an infection to the rest of the band and the joy of playing shows and writing music became more of a chore than a privilege. I remember one of our first tours was with Further Seems Forever and the Movielife in 2003. Upon hearing this news, most members of a new and unknown band would be elated at the opportunity to tour for a month and a half straight with such outstanding bands. Instead I mumbled something under my breath in contempt for having to spend that amount of time in such close quarters with someone I loathed so much. To work so hard to try to set a good example, to try to stand up for my faith and then have someone so closely associated to you participate in illegal activities, get us nearly kicked off a tour for attempting to fight a female security guard and then almost getting arrested, was wearing us thin. Especially me."
Getting rid of the offending muso was their only option. After a few failed attempts at finding a replacement, Anberlin decided on Nathan Strayer in 2004. Strayer was a guitarist from a Tampa, Florida band The Mosaic and had been a friend, since childhood, of Nathan Young. The band continued to tour continually becoming veritable road dogs as they worked with such big names as My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Story Of The Year, Yellowcard and Hawthorne Heights. That exposure, combined with major radio airplay, helped the band sell more than 150,000 copies of 'Never Take Friendship Personal'. The disc boasted two popular singles, "A Day Late" and "Paperthin Hymn" which landed substantial airplay at alternative rock radio. ("Paperthin Hymn" actually became a Top 40 hit on Billboard's Modern Rock radio charts.)
But it was Anberlin's 'Cities' (named by Cross Rhythms as one of the Best Albums Of 2007) which became an instant sales and critical hit. Producer Aaron Sprinkle told CCM magazine, "The entire time we were making 'Cities' I couldn't stop thinking about how excited I was for the world to hear it. (The band) took their unstoppable approach to rock and roll to the next level. I feel very privileged to have been part of it."
Love - the message that Christian stated he wanted "to be associated with" - permeated 'Cities'. In the song "The Unwinding Cable Car", Christian sings of "the correlation of salvation and love," and promises "with quiet words, I'll lead you in." Asked what his songs address on 'Cities', Christian is clear: "Life, really. On this record I had an overall theme. It came from a quote [attributed to Catholic author Henri Nouwen] that 'solitude is the furnace of transformation.' It's an autobiography of life lessons."
And, while it's personal, Christian knows that these are common experiences. "All of us are going to go through these kinds of things at one time or another. We will know depression; we will have unanswered questions. It's a universal path that all of us will take. And I knew that going in to the record. I knew that starting out before I wrote the first lyric. I wanted to touch people's experience. I want people asking questions. I want them wondering what I meant, why I said this or that. I wanted to do something that invited people to dig deeper."
'Cities' closed with the song "Fin" wherein he quotes the Epistle of James' concern for "widows and orphans," which Christian says puts our life and work in perspective. "It reminds us that our ministry to take care of the vulnerable and the weakest among us is something we're all called to do. We need to get back to love and grace and acceptance."
With Anberlin signing with Universal, Tooth & Nail have taken the opportunity to squeeze one more release from the archives. 'Lost Songs' is a 19-track compilation of covers (Bob Dylan, The Smiths, Radiohead, Depeche Mode), demos, acoustic versions and unreleased songs from previous album sessions. But of course it's their Universal debut which will be the band's most important release so far. Like many artists of faith working in the mainstream, Anberlin have had to deal with a barrage of questions, and no few criticisms, from Christians concerned that Anberlin clearly aren't a "ministry band". In CCM magazine Stephen Christian explained his response to the tiresome "are they a Christian band" question. "I'm proud of my faith and I'm proud to be a Christian, but I don't want my faith to be used as a marketing ploy. I don't think I should put Jesus' name on a record with the idea that I could sell more, anymore than I would leave it off to sell records. I'm exuberant about Jesus Christ, but I know that there are people, whether they are in marketing or media, who are going to say, 'Ah, I can now sell this product,' 'I can finally put this on my radio station,' now that they've named Jesus. If I knew I sold a record because I exploited my Lord and Saviour, that, to me, sounds sacrilegious. When you market something as a 'Christian' product, you are walking a fine line."
Christian continued, "Using the name of Jesus to identify and, therefore, market and sell a product comes awfully close to using the name of God in vain. Still, we get hate mail from Christians who want to call us out because we played in some club 'that is best suited for a crack junkie' or play with bands that are 'demonic,' which, in our experience, has been nothing of the sort. It's hard when you get that kind of criticism from other Christian people, so my manager keeps that kind of mail away from me - it's so disheartening. Jesus said a prophet isn't appreciated in his own hometown, and Jesus was criticised for places that he went to eat and who he ate with. If we're all the body of Christ, I know that I am the feet and I'm going to go out and tread where other people are less likely to go. But, as a Christian, we make our music to connect with anyone who will listen, but we're not in the market as Christians, but as musicians."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.