The annals of music history are littered with stories of careers cut short and talents never fully realized. Acceptance seemed destined to be such an example. The band released its full-length debut Phantoms in 2005, yet despite positive reviews and a small but passionate reception from fans, the album was caught in major label purgatory and never took off. A year later the band dissolved, likely to be remembered as little more than a footnote.
But a funny thing happened in the time since. The response and fervor around Phantoms grew and grew. The music that the industry forgot became something people bonded over and shared with friends. Even celebrities like music wunderkind Joe Jonas and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers got involved.
Then in 2015, the once thought impossible happened. The band reunited for Skate and Surf Fest in New Jersey and played an additional run of shows around the country. It released its first new song in a decade, “Take You Away,” and began work on a new record. Now two years later, that record is finally here, and while the guitars might be more atmospheric and the ‘80s influences more prevalent than before, the same soaring melodies and emotional resonance that made Phantoms so beloved remain.
Behind the Setlist talked with lead singer Jason Vena about the making of Colliding by Design, the 10 years he spent away from music and his humbling journey back, reconnecting with his bandmates, and why there’s still a lot of story to be told about a band named Acceptance. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Starting at the beginning, the first time I remember Acceptance was hearing “Permanent” on, I think it was RadioU, when you were still on The Militia Group. What stands out the most about those pre-Phantoms days for you?
The first thing that stands out is The Militia Group was a booking agency before it was a record label. We were booked by Chad [Pearson], who ran that. We used to go on tour, mostly on the West Coast, and take turns paying for gas out of pocket. One of my first memories pre-Phantoms is you’d be driving and it’s your turn to pay. So you get to the gas pump and go, OK, I got to pay. The money was from working before we went on a tour.
I remember we were just starting to put some songs together and we wanted to make an EP. We felt the only way we were going to be able to put a record out is to try and put some songs together and have something to sell at a concert. This was as old school DIY as you can think of nowadays. The idea of making a physical CD you sell at a show to get your name out there is old now. It’s funny.
Anyway, we wanted to get with Aaron Sprinkle because we had grown up big MxPx fans. In the Seattle area, they were a pretty well known band. The local radio station, “107.7 The End,” had really gotten me high on MxPx. Everybody in the area really loved that band. Aaron Sprinkle did their first record. We were like, “Well, we know who that is. He didn’t do their last couple records. Maybe he’d be willing to do our EP.” So we got ahold of Aaron Sprinkle and Aaron agreed.
We paid for our first EP, which ended up being Black Lines to Battlefields, on our own. We started touring some more and we were selling that EP at shows. Somehow that got into the hands of Matt Pinfield at Columbia Records and they ended up signing us off of that. We released the EP through The Militia Group because they were part of Sony Music, but it was really part of the Columbia Records deal we had done.
You’ve already talked endlessly about Phantoms, so I thought we’d just skip over that part. Over the years I would talk to [guitarist] Christian McAlhaney for Anberlin stuff and he was always optimistic that at some point in time Acceptance would have some kind of reunion. With you being out of the music industry and away from all that, what was your frame of mind about the band? Did you have thoughts you would do something together again at some point or had you given up?
I don’t know if given up is the right way to look at it, but I was resolved when I left the band to not do music again. The industry at that time, and the avenue you would have to take to become a successful musician, seemed like it was not something I was going to be excited about. I was young and naïve in a lot of different ways. I was naïve to begin with, thinking you could be idealistic in music, which you can. But at that point in time, the avenue of going through a major label to be idealistic, and then also have a career, were counterintuitive ideas.
Then when I got married and we started making the second record, the record label was like, “We want to hear something that sounds like the Foo Fighters.” We had given them demos like “Not Afraid,” songs that people who have heard now really like. We thought they were pretty good, but they were like, “Yeah, this isn’t going to work.” It got to the point where I realized this isn’t why I started playing music.
At that time, we either had to start over again or take the band in a different direction. Quite frankly, those options never even came to my mind. It was really like, “I’m going to be on the road 300-plus days of the year. That’s not the environment I’m looking for my family and me.” It all came to a head and I just decided to end being in the band.
If you’re going to go a different direction, and try to start a new life or career or whatever you’re going to do, you have to be able to focus solely on that. So the idea of giving a half ass attempt at music, or anything else for that matter, was nothing I was going to entertain.
I was pretty resolved we would never get back together. I had really only talked to Kaylan [Cloyd] within the 10 years and only a couple times. Maybe Christian once. A couple of the guys I hadn’t even seen in 10 years. When we got back together it was pretty remarkable.
For someone like you, music is such a huge creative outlet. You’re not only writing songs, you’re singing. You’re writing words and lyrics and all that stuff, so there’s so many different creative muscles you’re using. Did you find you were applying those energies to other things during that 10 years or did that completely go away?
I was always a pretty analytical guy, even in the band. I approached things from different viewpoints. I kind of switched gears when I got out of music. When we got back together, I probably underestimated how much I needed that or how important music is for my growth.
I don’t know that it should have necessarily taken 10 years, but I think it took being away. It definitely took being away from it as a career/business endeavor and getting back into it as an outlet to really understand what I was missing and what I was capable of learning or telling people. I would have told you three years ago, “Oh yeah, I’m fine. It’s all good.” But I was wrong. So it was interesting, you know?
Now if I heard correctly, you became a car salesmen during that time. Is that true?
Yeah, I’m in the automotive industry. For the last 10 years I’ve worked for the same company and I’ve done a lot of different jobs. I now run one of the dealerships for the company, but I’ve done everything in the automotive world you can think of. At one point, I was definitely selling cars [laughs], which is funny when you juxtapose that against being a musician. It’s just kind of odd, but it’s fun when you have people you work with who are fans of Acceptance, I can tell you that [laughs].
My best story is for a little while I worked with Sean Mackin, who plays violin in Yellowcard. We were together one day and somebody came in. In their car they had an Acceptance and a Yellowcard CD. So we asked them which record, if you could only pick one, would you play right now. And he’s like, “I got to go with Phantoms [laughs].” It was great.
That’s awesome [laughs]. So let’s get into this new record now. This had to have been a very different process than Phantoms was. This was recorded over an extended amount of time. It was a lot more fractured, doing it all over the country. What was your main takeaway from the experience as a whole?
I was proud of it. It was an accomplishment that required a lot of belief and passion. We erred on the side of giving more than we ever thought we could, whether it be a commitment to stay working and stay focused on trying to make the best music possible or navigating through people living in different states. We would get together to record in Nashville and then Seattle or wherever.
For me, it’s such a great example of these five different people, six if you include Aaron, coming together for the sole purpose of making something to the best they can and really trying to create a piece of art that people can remember. The level of personalization people gave Phantoms – they were so close to it. When we talk to fans, their belief is Acceptance is their band. “Nobody knows about Acceptance but I do, and if you don’t, you’re an idiot” [laughs]. That kind of feeling.
The idea of being obligated to make another Phantoms is not really the right word. The idea was to make something that resonated with people the same way. That was the part that was important, so that’s what we tried to do.
As you were alluding to, you didn’t want to make a Phantoms part two. You’ve described this record as being more atmospheric. You’ve mentioned some ‘80s influences that were big for you, like Tears for Fears, Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. How did you like playing around in that sandbox for this record?
I loved it. Both our records are pretty straightforward. Layered guitars, palm muted, a couple lead parts here and there, and there you go. Vocally, the same kind of thing. Main vocals and background vocals everywhere you expect them. We’re straightforward coming at you with pop-rock songs, which is great.
We did the same thing except now we forced ourselves to think about each part that came in those places and be purposeful. What do they do? Do they make you feel a certain way? Do they make you feel the way the song wanted you to feel? These things were essential to the fabric of the record.
We did things like saying, “Hey, this whole part, this whole song, we will not record a guitar playing a chord. We’re going to force ourselves to try and figure out what should the guitar do here. What should we be playing? How should this sound?” Vocally, there’s a lot of stuff with different effects on there and things we’ve never really done, a lot more dynamics that’s happening, which is obviously something I’m proud of. We’ve always taken pride in the melodies and the vocal presentation.
I really came away feeling like we did more than I anticipated being able to do, based on being away from each other. Some of us were rusty when it came to songwriting – though some of us have been writing songs the whole time – I really was pleased with the outcome. That ‘80s atmospheric feel is there.
It will be really interesting when we start to get a general feel of how people receive these songs, because you can take a lot of different feelings from them. Sometimes I’ll hear someone comment on a song and I’m like, “You have no idea. That is not what that song sounds like [laughs].” But it’s also like some people have probably never even heard Tears for Fears before. So I’m like, OK. Never mind.
In general, how do you think your music tastes have changed since when you first were in Acceptance? What kinds of things do you gravitate towards these days?
I was always a big U2 fan, I was always a big Coldplay fan and I was always a big Jimmy Eat World fan. I evolved off of Joshua Tree into some of the other ‘80s stuff, like Peter Gabriel and Tears for Fears, that’s still in the vein of that kind of emotional ‘80s rock-pop that’s not too far into the New Wave. I never really got that far. I probably got more into that, getting closer and closer to songs that really have a feel and a different persona to them.
I got into some music that didn’t have your traditional drums-bass-guitars, that kind of presentation, and exploring some electronic avenues. But I really ended up coming back full circle and landing on that core and what I was always really into. I’m going to listen to something off a Coldplay record or off a U2 record if I’m going to go pull up a record.
There’s some cool stuff right now that’s happening. There are some artists that have some tracks that are just amazing. They inspire you and you’re like, “Oh wow, I can’t do that.” You’re always looking to be inspired. You’re always looking to hear something you can listen to more. The thing that sucks about music, especially nowadays, is you listen to a song one time and you’ve kind of heard the song.
When it came time to start putting lyrics together for this record, how did you like getting back into that side of things? Do you think this record ended up being about anything specific when you finished it?
A lot of the record is about my personal growth and how I’ve been able to break out of some really narrow mindsets about life and people, and really understand people in a different way and love people in a different way and accept people in a different way. It’s really been a cool growth for me.
I think the whole band has taken that same journey in coming back together. There’s a lot of that in the record, and then there’s some relationship stuff and just life. We’ve all been through a lot in the last 10 years, so there was a lot to work off of.
The lyrics in Phantoms were admittedly vague, if you will. I always used to write with a high level of interpretation and that was the intent. That was by design, to allow a high level of interpretation. I was able to, and I wanted to, find some subjects and some things that were real personal to me and hit them straight on.
Speaking of Phantoms, you mentioned vague, and that record seemed to have some vague spiritual undertones on it. Do you think that’s present on this one as well?
On Phantoms there is a lot of discussion about love and relationships. I was in a relationship that was very strong and I had some personal friendships that had dissolved. I was writing about how love interweaves between relationships. Some songs were literal and some songs were more figurative. That was where my headspace was, and with that it was hopeful. Spirituality and faith and love are hand-in-hand, in my life at least. So those are concepts that will weave in and out of each other.
On this record I don’t know if there’s a level of what I would call spiritual undertones. I think there are some learning lessons that are at the core of becoming a better person to other people and somebody who can influence the Earth in a better way. So there’s a lot of that. It’s all coming from the five of us and how we’ve evolved, and you’ll find lyrics geared to that specific relationship. There’s a song on the record that is specifically about my relationship with some of the guys in the band.
How did you arrive at the Colliding by Design title? That’s a line in the second song, but originally that song had the title “Roll Tide.” So what about the line “colliding by design” stuck out to you that made you name the song after it and the record as well?
“Roll Tide” was the working title. Our working titles are always either artists we channel or some kind of sports. They’re weird analogies usually where we’re like, “It sounds like this.” Anyway, “colliding by design,” that lyric was in that song. It became fitting because of where we came from and the fact that we never thought we’d do this. The idea of “colliding by design” and that this record happened had a real significant meaning at that point.
The words, the phrase, originally came out because I thought it was a cool phrase that fit the song and stood out. Right when I wrote the lyrics, the rest of the guys were like, “Yeah, that’s the title of the record, for sure.” So it went from there. It does really speak to where the band’s at.
I remember Christian telling me last year how he was really jazzed about a song called “Stillwater.” Did that get renamed something else on the record or did it not make it on there?
Yeah, that song is called “73.”
OK, I thought it might be that one.
It’s actually funny because it’s called “73” because that’s the year that’s on the bus that the guys in Almost Famous are touring in from that movie. That band’s called Stillwater, obviously, so we called it “73.” That song did turn out good. It’s one of our favorite songs, for sure.
I heard one of your favorite songs is “Goodbye,” where you have a little bit more of a complex vocal thing on the chorus. What do you like most about that song?
Probably that. There are weird little things that I like. I sing the chorus in one take. That always doesn’t happen, especially considering there are some different vocals happening. There’s some falsetto and some different stuff. I felt like it was something different from what I’d written before.
Some of the vocal melodies I wrote – even though I probably don’t sound like this at all because of the presentation of our songs – but there’s a lot of Killers influence in some of these melodies. [“Goodbye”] was one where I was able to accomplish what I was going for. I was really happy with the way it turned out.
I like that song in general. It’s got a little bit of a different vibe than everything else on the record. Even though it’s an upbeat song, I like that as you’re listening to the record, when that song comes on you’re like, OK, this is different. What’s going on here?
Last year you did a little impromptu writing and recording session in Nashville after one of your tour runs back in September. Did anything from that session make it on the record?
So we’ve got one song that we’ve finished the vocals for. We have a basic track for it, but it didn’t get done. It’s one of those songs that when it does get finished, it’s probably going to be one of the songs where it’s our favorite song. It’s different than anything on the record. It’s got some great moments vocally and melodically and lyrically.
But we don’t have any of the music finished. We built it off of the guitar parts. We had some basic tracks set up, and I went and sang. All the singing is final cuts of it, so we’ll see. The goal is to keep making music, so hopefully that’s the first step to the next record.
I wanted to ask about one older song real quick. One of the last times I saw you live, you introduced “Glory/Us” by saying it was probably your favorite Acceptance song, and that’s my favorite Acceptance song. What stands out the most about writing that song?
At the time, it was the closest thing to [accomplishing] what I think we were actually trying to write. I don’t know how to explain that. The Rhodes sound that opens the song, it’s probably the most vulnerable melodically and lyrically that I am on the record. The chorus is good but could have been better. But whatever, I’m not going to knit pick on it.
I really love the verses on that song. The second verse when the guitar part comes in, we were feeling like old Sunny Day Real Estate when Christian wrote that part. It kind of had that vibe for us. It probably doesn’t sound like that to anybody else, but I love that song and the way it feels. When I listen to Phantoms now, that and “So Contagious” are the two songs I can listen to like it was the first time and go, “Wow, I like that.”
The acoustic version of that song is especially beautiful. Have you had the chance to mess around with any of the new songs acoustically?
Yeah, we just did a session for Journeys where we played “Haunted” acoustic and it was amazing. We have one of the guys playing on an electric guitar, and then Ryan [Zwiefelhofer] and Christian are playing acoustic. It turned out so good. We’ve been running around, playing these songs for people acoustically. Different than Phantoms, these songs translate almost better acoustically. I almost have more fun playing them acoustic and I’ve never experienced that before.
When you have a lot of songs with guitar layers and palm mutes and all that different stuff, it doesn’t always translate the same. And on Phantoms, I just sang a ton. I’m always singing. There’s singing happening all the time. That also doesn’t necessarily translate as well, but these songs are different. I think it’s a sign of what we talked about earlier. The songs are meant to have this feeling about them and we hopefully accomplished that. So I’m excited about acoustic stuff too, yeah.
“We have this group of people who have continued to love the band, regardless of what we did, but we also put one record out. As far as the world is concerned, there’s still a lot of story to be told about a band named Acceptance.”
How did you get hooked up with Rise Records? How has that been going so far?
First and foremost, it’s been amazing. We’re the example of what not to do when signing with a record label, right? If you’re a band and you like Acceptance, or you’re a band and you even know about Acceptance, you know that if you want to talk to somebody about what not to do when signing a record deal, you can talk to us. It’s like the quintessential story at this point.
When it was known that we were going to make a record, Rise was the very first one to say we absolutely had to have this record on their label. Quite frankly, in hearing their excitement about the record and the band before even hearing a song, we didn’t put a lot of effort into partnering up with another label. It didn’t seem like a need. You have a label in Rise that has the understanding of the independent landscape, and being partnered with BMG they have resources. And they sincerely liked the band. It was a good fit.
We finished the record and ended up signing after the record was done. It didn’t start until we were halfway through making a record that people started to realize it was happening. We ended up signing with Rise and it’s been so far, so good. We’ve had a great experience.
In the interview you did with Jason Tate last year, you were talking about how you had to mature when you were away from music and learn a lot about yourself during that time, which has given you a different perspective now with the band going again. What do you think was the biggest thing that allowed you to reach this place where you’re at now?
I’ve been humbled. I’ve been divorced. That’s a humbling experience. I accepted that everything wasn’t going to be perfect in life. I think I was probably able to experience life at a different level because of it. As we started to get back together as a band, one of my first hesitations was, man, I was kind of a dick. I’ve got to apologize to them all.
Getting back together and spending so much quality time with these guys, I’ve quickly evolved and learned more about myself. That was one of the more challenging parts of my life and what pushed me to understand that there was more. There was more than this perfect little bubble that I lived in where everything was going to end up being perfect. There are times where that’s not the case.
It gave me a lot of inspiration. I realized that the reality is you control a lot of what happens in your environment. I was able to grow from that and it’s helped me with this record and with the relationships with the guys in the band.
So closing here, not every band gets a second chance like this. I’m sure you can think of numerous bands when you were first coming up that never got a second chance. What do you think has gifted Acceptance this second opportunity here 12 years later?
It’s an interesting deal and I agree. It’s weird, because you do see a lot of bands that put out two, three records. They go through the process and they break up. Maybe they get back together and it is a reunion type thing. Our thing is different. It was definitely surprising.
We did not expect Phantoms would be held in such esteem, and that we would still have people sincerely interested in the band. We have this group of people who have continued to love the band, regardless of what we did, but we also put one record out. As far as the world is concerned, there’s still a lot of story to be told about a band named Acceptance.
I think it’s about not trying to get too caught up in what that’s all about and trying to stay sincere in what you’re doing. We just wanted to make a record that we really loved, that we think people will love, and more importantly they’ll love because it changes them, or it pushes them or takes them to a situation they’re struggling with or gives them comfort. Whatever it might be.
That’s an important part of music, and maybe one that doesn’t get spoken of enough. If we can do that, and the fact we even have the opportunity to do that, is something to be thankful for. That’s it. That’s my only hope, really.
The next thing you have are those three album release shows and then the Australia tour with Taking Back Sunday. Have you thought about what the rest of the year is going to look like?
We’re working through it. We have personal lives and things we want to balance, but our goal is to do as much as we possibly can. The cool thing is there are going to be opportunities for us to go out and play music. I think we’re going to be able to do that a lot more than we thought.
If you’re somebody out there who wants to see us, the opportunity that we’ll be in your city is pretty likely. That’s how we’re going to look at it. We’re going to take each day at a time. We’re definitely in love with playing music and this record and the idea that maybe we can do more. We’re just going to take it from there.
Originally appeared on Behind the Setlist