At the beginning of yet another headlining tour, the guys of Underoath unwittingly find themselves elder statesmen of the particular branch of post-hardcore they helped create. Playing in support of the band's seventh studio album, last year's Ø (Disambiguation), the six-piece enjoys the unlikely honor of having musical predecessors Thursday as an opener.
Underoath guitarist Tim McTague is just as surprised by this flip-flop as anyone. "[With both Thursday and ourselves], we're mutually looking at what's going on in music now and going, 'What the heck's going on?' There's an evident change that we've transitioned to where we're the new 'old' guys," he says.
For perspective, though, consider that McTague is just 27 years old. But success came preternaturally early for Underoath, which got its start in the late '90s via the usual all-ages, underground circles around Ocala and Tampa. The original members were still teenagers at the time, but their early signature style, which blended brutal guitars with snatches of poppier vocals and melodies, positioned the group for massive success when the sound bubbled over into the mainstream in the mid-'00s.
Unlike many of the watered-down acts still treading in those tracks today, though, Underoath had no model then for guaranteed commercial success - and McTague bemoans the fact that many of the band's once-removed followers do.
It's to that end, perhaps, that Underoath has seemed to purposefully buck Warped Tour trends since its fifth album, 2007's Define the Great Line. That record took a markedly heavier turn into almost pure metal, mixed with synth experiments and ambient textures. It's a sound fully brought to bear on Ø, which lumbers along under crushing, almost sludgy guitars and vocalist Spencer Chamberlain's tortured, blood-vessel-bursting shrieks.
With the departure last year of the band's final remaining original member, drummer/backing vocalist Aaron Gillespie, also gone are his signature adenoidal harmonies and the last traces of pop. It's a move that boldly distances Underoath from the dead-end trends of new tight-pantsed acts. And, especially in the Radiohead-outtake-sounding song "Driftwood," it signals an exciting array of potential new avenues for textural exploration.
And if this direction continues to click with massive numbers of fans, cool, McTague says, but if not, that's OK too, he says. Actually, he had a lot more to say than that. In advance of the band's headlining show at Revolution
on Sunday, County Grind recently caught up with him by phone for a long chat about Underoath, music in general, and the state of the scene. Read the full Q&A below.
Underoath, with Thursday, Animals as Leaders, and A Skylit Drive. 6 p.m. Sunday, February 27, at Revolution Live, 200 W. Broward Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $21.50. Call 954-449-1025, jointherevolution.net
County Grind: Underoath is headlining this tour, and Thursday is playing Full Collapse in its entirety before you guys go on. You guys are a little bit younger than Thursday, so what is it like to have them essentially open for you?
Tim McTague: It's not really like, weird, honestly, we don't really look at it like, Oh, we're headlining and they'er our support. There's not really an issue with hierarchy. I think more than anything we're just really happy to be out on the road with them.
They've been one of the most influential bands in the scene, and Full Collapse specifically is a record that we all listen to. It's more of an honor to have them out and be on tour with them, and not so much an achievement to be headlining over them.
At the same time, Underoath in some form has existed for over a decade now. Having Thursday play before you, has it sort of sunken in that you guys are one of the older bands now on the circuit?
Yes, definitely. Not having them play before us, but just having them tour with us, and having them, you know, say that they like what we do and us liking what they do, and kind of mutually looking at what's going on in music now and going, "What the heck's going on?"
There's an evident change that we've transitioned to where we're the new old guys. We're not, like, bummed, but we're confused at how music is being made the way it is. I don't think it's something necessarily that we wanted, but it's something that's happened.
You mentioned a shared confusion over the state of music. What aspects are confusing to you about the newer bands that are coming out?
I think just the lack of intelligence when writing, and the lack of passion and respect for just music. I think in a lot of ways, the industry is music, and music's not the focus, it's a tool of the industry, so to speak. I know at least for me, that's not how I look at it, and I know that's not how Thursday looks at it.
People approach it differently. You can get in a band and approach it as your job, and say, "Okay, as long as we do this, this, and this, then we can make it." I don't think that when our bands were starting out, any of us thought we would be doing this forever / into our mid- to late-twenties, or early 30s.
So I think the intentions are wrong in a lot of places with new bands, andI think that translates to how poorly their music is written and how poorly it's performed. And I don't think that's something you can really fix.
You can't just fix music, you just support the bands that are doing real stuff, and stop supporting the bands who aren't. But that won't happen. It's like television -- everyone wants to watch Jersey Shore. It's just one of those things. People want to be entertained.
But music for me is an art, and a creative outlet, and music's just become this entertainment circus where you can have the worst music, but as long as you have the right look or the right hair, or the right clothing line or whatever....
There are so many aspects to "making" a band that we've never identified with, or tried to pursue, and I think that that just kind of, for us, is really confusing. That's not what it's about, and it's weird that people are doing it, and even weirder that it's working. So we're feeling, not necessarily out of touch, but disappointed that that's what it's come to, you know?
The music industry, to some extent -- or a large extent -- has always been about image, though. So are you referring more specifically to the bands that have come from the more underground scenes that you were a part of?
Yeah, I mean, there's always been put-together bands like N Sync and b.s. things like that, music that doesn't matter. But there's something, at least for me, special about our scene -- or there was.
And I think that even the "indie hipster" scene has turned into this big-business mentality. And the people who are supposed to be hating the man and only printing stuff on vinyl and cassette and hating even digital technology are now, like, on Microsoft commercials. And I think that's cool, it's fine, you have to recognize the industry's change, but there's good change and bad change.
And I think a lot of what's going is not good for music. I think if you write music that you believe in, and that happens to make you massive, then that's amazing. But I think there's something to be said for the almost meticulously calculated approach that's happening all too often.
People are looking at a band and going, "Look what they're doing, let's do that." And the songs are exactly the same, the look's exactly the same , the banter's exactly the same. They get the same management, they get the same agent, they get the same label. The label signs 20 different versions of their biggest band because they want another biggest band.
It's this huge cycle of unfortunate circumstances that I think were always prevalent in the music industry, but have now made it into this industry. I don't think underground music as knew it is underground any more. I think that's part of it and you have to accept it and move on. I don't think that really dwelling on it helps. I think it's just one of those things you look at from time to time and go, "Oh, that really sucks."
But we just try to do what we do, and keep what morals and ideals we have and maintain as a group intact, and move forward. I think it's one of those things that everyone views differently, in our band and in every band, but I think there are certain bands coming out now that are just wearing it on their sleeve, and unashamedly trying to get in a big band and doing what they think it takes to get there. I think it's a shame, and really disappointing from an artist's perspective.
Well, would you say your faith, about which you've been very outspoken, has helped insulate you against a lot of those more commercial forces?
I would say that the Christian background and Christian personal perspective of not going after stupid things like fame and fortune and all that crap -- I guess having the perspective that all of that's fleeting, yeah. That does help ground you and show you that it's not really important.
But I don't really look at it like, I feel the way I feel about music because I'm a Christian, or anything like that. I think it's a separate thing, and I guess how you act and treat people and run your business, morally and ethically, have to do with your personal moral code as a human being.
Music's just music. I'd feel the same way about music like -- even if I became not a Christian. I guess for me, I never really got into a band to have it be my job.
So, music was never about making money. But I think that now we have stumbled into a way to do it, it's a really hard balance to figure out what to bend on and what not to bend on, just to maintain a certain stability. Because now we're all older and we have bills, and we have responsibilities. So it's not about making money, but if we don't make money, we can't do it.
It's one of those catch-22s where you have to make money to do the art, even if you don't care about money, because you have to live. And if you have to go work another job just so you can live, then all of a sudden, the music and the art suffers even more grossly than if you were just making small compromises.
It's a really, really hard balance for us, but I think it's less "What are you doing" and more "Why are you doing it." When we started, there wasn't a chance of getting on Warped Tour. There wasn't a chance of getting a management deal. We just wanted to go on tour and get in a van and play music for people.
Now, it's like there's a five-step program for getting huge. It taints everything; it's a little bit of poisoning the well, so to speak. And I just think it's not good for our scene at all.
A couple minutes ago you mentioned that none of you could imagine doing this as long as you have. Where did you think it would logically end up?
I didn't really think about it. There was really no logical, "Oh, I'm 17 and by the time I'm 21 I don't be doing this any more." We never put a time limit on it or put realistic expectations. I just knew I would do it as long as I could because I loved it.
But, we kind of were in the scene as the scene became more mainstream, so I think up until our generation of underground bands or whatever, I don't think that there was the model of, "Well, we wanna do what so-and-so did." We were in a band, touring, when Thursday and Thrice came out, and all of a sudden it was like, who is this band all over MTV? Even with Full Collapse, it was one of those things where we were in bands and all of a sudden bands just started blowing up, and we were like, holy crap.
Then two or three years later we released a record on Tooth and Nail that we recorded in like three-and-a-half weeks, and ended up doing way, way, way, way more than we thought it would. We ended up getting on tour with some of those bands, and touring with Taking Back Sunday, and Coheed and Cambria, and all of a sudden it was a whole new world. But for us, we were just approaching it as, "Wow, this is crazy."
There was no formula to it, I guess. It just happened naturally, and I think that was really good for us in a lot of ways, and really bad for us in a lot of ways. I don't think any of us necessarily have a kill date, where it was like, "Man, once I hit 24 I thought I'd be done; I can't believe I'm 25!"
I don't think any of us thought we would grow up. I think it's like, you're in a band and you don't grow up, or you're not in a band and you grow up. That seems to be the case for every band, like, the guy leaves because he's got a wife and all that stuff. We all have wives for the most part; half of us have kids. We have real bills and drive cars and somehow have been able to pay for that by being in a band.
That's where it becomes like, "Wow, I never thought that would happen." I definitely wasn't opposed to the idea of being 27 and being in a band, but the fact that we've been able to actually have real lives outside of the band, and not have the lack of funds and lack of flexibility to make other choices be hindered by the band that's really impressive. In that, there are definitely quite a few members who wouldn't be here if they couldn't afford to provide for their families and stuff.
So in that case, our band would have been done years ago. So there is a theoretical timeline in which things would have changed had we not have done as well as we had when we did. It's a crazy thing, but I can't really think about it and give you a straight answer on that. Yeah, we were all blown away by the reception of the last few records, and we've been really fortunate to be doing this and still going on tour and playing to kids and stuff.
Related to what you're talking about with new mainstream bands following a formula -- your latest record, the one that came out last year, seems to have completely bucked that. It's your heaviest record yet. Did you plan it that way on purpose, as a kind of like, statement? Where did it come from?
We didn't plan it. We just wrote, and that's what came out. But as far as making a statement, we try to make every record make a statement. For us, personally, I think that we take a lot of -- we try now to be super prideful about, like, what our band does or doesn't do.
At least for me, I personally take a lot of pride in the fact that we've never bent for anyone, musically. We may not have as much success as, insert 10 other bands here, but the success we have had is 10 times more than we ever thought, and we did it on our own terms. I'm really proud of that. I think that every record we do is more of a testament to that.
We just write music we think is good.We don't let the label or our manager or producers or anyone really get in our way of doing what we want to do or going where we want to go. We surround ourselves with people who are artistically sound and help us get there.
For me, that's a statement. But I don't think we intentionally write really heavy records, and do really well, and be like, "We wrote this heavy record." It's that, that's where we're going, and we don't think about the positive or detrimental effects on our careers by writing a song one way or another. We just do what we want to do, and if it coms out an does well, that's great, but if it doesn't, that's okay too.
Arielle: How much of the direction of the album is related to Aaron Gillespie's departure?
All of it. I think that where we went with this record is where we've been trying to go for a while. I think Aaron -- not hindered us in a bad way -- but as an equal member with different ideas just balanced us out differently. I think that now Daniel's in the band and we share a lot more of -- not even exact musical tastes, but similar tastes and genres, and he enjoys playing and writing the genres that we wanted to explore, it just kind of opened up the flood gates on our end.
He hadn't been playing heavy music for years so he had a bunch of things he had written and we just had an overflow of ideas and new directions. It ended up coming out exactly the way we hoped, but not nearly the way it did if you had asked me before we started writing.
When you talked about genres you wanted to explore, what as really influencing you when your direction started changing?
Musically, not a lot. When we write music, personally, I tend to not listen to any other music. It's more that it just takes up so much of our time, by the time I get around to having time to listen to music, I just don't. So it's kind of hard to be like, "Yeah, we were listening to this the whole time we were writing and recording."
But I know the new Deftones record came out. There were a couple Converge references; there's always a Refused or At the Drive-In reference in there. There are a bunch of staple bands, that, no matter if we're listening to them at the time or not, will affect us, like Glassjaw.
But as far as the idea or the direction, we just wanted to make sure we didn't do the same thing we did on the last record, and really push ourselves and not repeat. So I think that's kind of where the perspective came in; we needed to do something different, whether it be heavier, faster, slower, or prettier, without putting a limit on it.
How does having only one vocalist now affect your songwriting process?
It really doesn't on the musical end. Like, the vocals on this record, as well as all the other records, have never been even close to -- I don't even know if they've even been started until we go into the studio, aside from sketching out ideas. I think Spencer and Aaron both wrote better once they heard the complete song, rather than the morphing idea of a song.
But it's probably the most cohesive record we have vocally, for sure. He did a really good job singing and doing everything himself, and I definitely think it's our strongest and most solid record musically and vocally. In the past we've always had heavy songs and pretty songs, and Spencer's vocals and Aaron's poppy vocals, and we've never really settled into a really good pocket where everything's complementing everything else until this record.
At the same time, "Driftwood," the fifth track, there's all this heavy stuff, and then that comes and it sounds like a Radiohead outtake. Where did that come from and why did you decided to include it in the record where the rest of it is so on the other extreme?
"Driftwood" came from Chris' brain. And then we just ended up throwing a bunch of drums down,and I had that guitar part for a while, that we hadn't used, and we thought it would work really well. Our friend Jeremy who was recording for us wrote the bassline for it. It was a really spur of the moment, on the fly kind of feel.
I think personally, if we're talking about direction, that direction, I think, is something I was most proud of and most impressed with. I'd really love to pursue that in the future more, and have that be more of a staple dynamic in Underoath. That's the kind of music that most of us listen to personally.
You mean you guys listen to more experimental music? If you had to pinpoint some influences, what do you think they would be?
Oh yeah, definitely. Definitely Radiohead. I think that's really the only thing I can think of. I don't know what everyone else was thinking of, but there's a couple different bands I listen to that come to mind, but I almost guarantee they weren't in the heads of the people playing the other parts.
You mentioned that now you feel you're finally settled, musically, that everyone's on the same page. Your band was famous for almost breaking up five years ago, so ho have you guys reached the same kind of happy medium in your band dynamic? What keeps you all on an even keel?
Just patience, I think. I don't think it's ever super easy to share everything with five other people. I think everyone has different tolerances and things that annoy them. I think at the end of the day you try to do your part and be respectful of other people's parts.
It's weird. It's like any other relationship in your life. Your best friend you're gonna have big blowouts with.