As one might imagine, plenty of perks go along with landing a major label deal. While there might be more pressure to secure a place on the charts and start making money, you also have a few more tools to work with in the studio. When Anberlin
signed with Universal Republic last year, it allowed guitarist Joseph Milligan
the opportunity to not only experiment with new equipment, but to also take a good deal more time in preproduction. All the little extras shaped the sleek sound of New Surrender, an album which also features the debut of second guitarist Christian McAlhaney
The new record does feature an extended scope in terms of instrumentation, but Ultimate-Guitar writer Amy Kelly
learned to not believe everything you read. There have been a few band bios floating around that state Anberlin
went so far as to include the sitar on New Surrender
. When asked about the unusual selection in equipment, Milligan
broke the news that the truth might have been stretched just a tad.
UG: You'll be heading out on tour shortly after the album New Surrender is released. Do you usually have to spend a good deal of time rehearsing the new material before hitting the road?
With this record, we had a lot more preproduction than we did with the last one. I think on Cities we had 4 days of preproduction, which is like us playing in a room, playing all the new songs together and working on parts together. We would tweak things here and there. This time we had 2 weeks of preproduction. We had 24 songs between Christian and I, and we weeded that down to 17. Then we cut 2 more and went into the studio and tracked 15. So there's this huge gap between preproduction and tracking. When you're tracking, you've got everything in individual parts and have all this time off. So when we got together to practice the first time, we thought we would goof around and play one of the new songs. It was a disaster! We need rehearsals! It's fresh in your mind in the studio, but then you get a couple of months off and it's just gone.
It's impressive how quickly you went into making New Surrender after the release of Cities.
It was definitely less than a year. It was kind of scary in that respect because we're so used to having a couple of years to put a new album together, go in and take care of it. With this one, we had just finished our cycle with Tooth & Nail. Our contract was up and we signed with Universal, and they kind of wanted something fresh and new right off the bat. I guess they really wanted to utilize all the hype around the last record. So we didn't have a ton of time to write, but it ended up working out.
Christian was fairly new to the band. He hadn't even been in the band a year yet. He was with Acceptance before he was with us, and he was one of their primary songwriters. With this one, I got into this funk where I was completely out of ideas. I had maybe 9 or 10 demos down, and obviously we need a lot more than that going into the studio! So Christian started shooting me over files and demos that he had done, and we ended up working together on a lot of stuff. We ended up with 24 songs, and it worked out great. Also with the preproduction and having that much time, everybody tossed in ideas. It was something we had never really had before. It was definitely a group effort.
How did you end up selecting Christian to replace Nathan Strayer?
We had toured with Acceptance a while back, and we had played a couple of shows here and there with them. We knew all those guys and they're all great dudes, great musicians. When it came down to where we had our headlining tour coming up and we had just parted ways with Strayer, we knew we had to get someone who was really a pro and at the same time really easy to get along with and hang out with. Christian definitely fit that right off of the bat. He's one of those guys that has a smile on his face and he's just happy to be there. He's a great player and a great vocalist, so he rounded out everything in a way that we've never had. The writing process was great. It was such a relief for me. When we got into the studio, it was a new situation for both of us. We ended up butting heads on a lot of stuff, but it made what we did that much better.
Was the writing process with Christian dramatically different than it had been for you in the past?
We had never had a rhythm guitar player play on one of our records before. I had always done it all. I knew that Christian could pull it off. There was no question at all that he was going to play everything on the record that he was supposed to play. It was a totally different situation in and of itself, for me and him and the rest of the band. For me songwriting-wise, I would usually get the demos to the guys and then we'll jam it out a little bit in preproduction. They can fine tune their stuff. Stephen writes everything based off of that.
With this, it was totally reworking everything. We had all of the demos, but then everyone had a say in it. Neal (Avron) made us rethink everything. He would never tell us what to do. He would just tell us, That's not it. That's awesome. It's not like somebody molding your band. They're just pushing you to be better, and he did that with every single one of us.
I keep reading that you experimented with different instruments like the sitar. Is that true?
|"With this record, we had a lot more preproduction than we did with the last one."|
It was a joke! There's no sitar! Now I kind of wish there was so that we could actually say that!
That's a relief because for the life of me I couldn't hear the sitar in there.
It was great. We really threw little things like that in there. Like we'll say, I have no idea how that voice ended up on the record. It must have been a ghost! It was funny. We actually did end up using a lot of stuff that we've never really tried before or played around with before, especially synth and piano. Every song on this record has some form of synth or keys or piano on it. That's really a step up from the things we've done. We had done maybe 2 or 3 songs with synth in it, and we really liked how those came out. Production-wise, Neal had this huge box with everything you can think of. Me and Christian definitely played around with a lot of that stuff, trying out new things. We had more strings on this one than we had ever had.
Are you playing the synthesizer on the record?
I think Stephen played a little bit. I did the majority of it, and then Neal did a little bit. Christian played a couple of things. We really just kind of tried to spread it out as much as possible. When you focus too hard on one thing, you end up getting burned out. That was one thing that Neal was great at, spreading everybody out and making sure nobody really got burned out while we were in the studio.
Did you and Christian offer each other any ideas in terms of your playing techniques?
The cool thing about that is if you listen back to the last 3 records, I had done all the rhythm guitar and lead guitars. So everything matched up to be perfect. With Christian, we decided to split the rhythm tracks evenly. It was cool because I would get done on a rhythm track, and then he would start in on a rhythm track. He would play the same thing, but it would have different voicings. It ended up filling it out, making these huge sounds.
What guitars are you playing on New Surrender?
We tried out a lot of different stuff, but Gibson was definitely the main thing. The first day before we started tracking guitars, Neal took us over to Lon Cohen Studios in L.A., and we just walked into this room full of amps. We were so excited! Me and Christian were trying out all these different amps, and we got to pick out which ones we thought would be great for the record. That was like a kid in a candy store!
Did you end up picking out a favorite amp or were there too many to choose from?
Oh, there were so many. It was a Fender Super-Sonic that was really cool. That was for like the low gain stuff. The cool thing about it was how incredibly loud it was! There is no gain on the amp, so you just have to turn it up as loud as it will go. That's how you get any kind of gain out of it. So that was fun! We thought we would use it a lot more than we did, but it did end up on a few. But for the heavy stuff and riffs, we used this old Diezel that was unbelievable. It was great sounding.
On the new album you re-released the track The Feel Good Drag, which originally was featured on the 2005 record Never Take Friendship Personal. Was it the executives at Universal Republic that encouraged that move?
|"In the verse we wanted you to hear the melody more."|
Actually they really didn't have an opinion. That was something we talked about pretty much right after we signed with Universal just amongst ourselves. We were like, It would be cool if we could bring back an older song that really didn't get a shot at anything. We had to make sure that it would fit the mood of what we're doing now. The Feel Good Drag did that immediately. That song style-wise was ahead of its time. It didn't really get any kind of shot. It was more of a fan favorite that went later on the record Never Take Friendship Personal. It really was all us. We just felt that the song never got a real shot at what it could do. We figured we would give it another a go, and we're really glad we did.
On that particular song it sounds like a lot of different styles or effects are coming from the guitar.
Yeah, it was cool. When you've played a song for so long, you kind of figure out what you should have done the first time and what was missing the first time. Granted, the song is pretty much part for part exactly the same as the other one, just a little heavier. Neal was like, I want an intro for this song. I want something that the minute you hear it, you know it's that song. So I just kind of locked myself in the studio with ProTools and a guitar, and worked it over and over and over. Finally I got this whammy pedal that I tracked with the opening riff. I put the whammy pedal up an octave, and then I doubled that with a regular guitar. That was just for scratch, and we actually ended up using that track that I did in the other room. That was cool!
In the verse we wanted you to hear the melody more. Actually when we played Neal the original version, he didn't know that those notes were being played because it was difficult to hear them. On top of that, we added a synth underneath it and Stephen did cool stuff with the backing vocals, and it really brought out all of the melody that was lost in the verse originally.
Anberlin has done quite a few acoustic gigs over the past few years. Do you enjoy those just as much as when you've got the full band playing?
It's a totally different feel and vibe. I feel like when we play a regular big show with a full production and everything, it's cool and the kids are really energized and go crazy. With the acoustic set, it's a totally different experience and it makes you feel a little bit closer with the audience. It turns into a sing-along! We have those little moments where we look over at each other, and you can't help but smile because all these kids are singing along with the song. It's so bare bones. It's just the 3 of us: me, Christian, and Stephen. It's a lot of fun. We've tried to include more acoustic stuff over the last couple of albums because it definitely shows diversity and we love those kinds of songs as well. We don't want to be a one-dimensional, rock your face off and go home band. We actually want to show some depth.
Are most of the songs written on an acoustic originally?
It kind of depends. I'm pretty sure it's the same for Christian as well. When you have it in your head, you already know how it's going to be. If I have an acoustic song in my head, I'll demo it with acoustic guitars. If I have a heavy song in my head, the only way to get the point across to the guys is to do it the way you hear it. You have to do each one exclusively to what that song needs.
Will you be taking your Gibson on the road with you?
I brought my guitars into the studio, but we ended up using the other Gibson. Live, I also play Gibson. The weight and the density of the wood and everything like that, it's just a loud and clear guitar. I've always played Gibson and probably always will. It's cool to have a Telecaster on hand, but for the heavy stuff it's always Gibson.
Interview by Amy Kelly