More than just an accomplished musician, Tim McTague was Underoath’s heart and conscience. Actually, it’s absurd to use the past tense, because the guitarist is still very much committed to his band’s music and achievements, as well as their upcoming final tour. He talked with Jason Pettigrew about the roles of artistry, ambition and change, from music scene subcultures to the life needs of a touring musician. Given the length (and brutal honesty) of his answers, it’s crystal clear the passion McTague has always had for his band will be sustained right up to the final tour date.
INTERVIEW: Jason Pettigrew
I don’t want to use metaphors like “hype man,” “CEO” or “cheerleader,” but from my point of view, it seemed that so much of you was wrapped up in Underoath. So when the band announce, “Okay, we’re bringing this to an end,” I’m thinking, “Wow, that’s a big decision on Tim’s behalf.” I’ve always seen you as a guy that’s wanted to do the right thing with the most integrity, but at the same time, not make crap music. When the decision was made, what was going on in your head?
TIM McTAGUE: That’s a long answer. We don’t have enough time for that. The band started as friends that believed in music and believed in a like-minded faith and that was the cornerstone of everything we did. I don’t think we even knew about musical integrity or lack thereof when we started because we didn’t really wrap our heads around the fact that music could lack that. It took a few years of being out and about. We just kind of grew up in this scene where no one even knew a music industry existed. Underoath were birthed from nothing, with no real purpose, no real creation. The only purpose was that we needed to go forward but we didn’t know how. We had music, we had our faith and that was it, and all together it cumulated the birth of Underoath. That was always my personal belief. I believed in it wholeheartedly. I joined the band when I was 17 and had nothing else. I just wanted to get out, bang my head, play guitar and travel. I ended up booking all the shows, along with Dallas [Taylor, former frontman] and assumed most of the managerial roles in the band until we ended up getting a manager. We all built this random thing that didn’t have really any focus.
Then 2004 came, and out popped a lot of new choices to be made, so we just really had to navigate those waters in the best way possible. We made a few mistakes as far as press, touring and perception because we didn’t really know that we were at that point where we had to consider it. But it was always in the back of our mind to do things right, do things honestly, excellently and trying to do them better than everyone else—when possible—from a creative standpoint. Owing people that listen to music, hopefully, the same opportunity to get out of what we do the same things we’ve gotten out of our favorite bands. I don’t think that we’ll ever come of the point where we can say, “Yeah, in 2004, we were to someone of that era what Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity was to me growing up.” I don’t think that will ever be something we believe, whether it happened or not. But that was always the goal: stay humble, don’t think much of yourself but have aspirations of changing the world. Hopefully, one day it does, but it doesn’t matter if it does or not—you won’t really know if you did it. Because you don’t even know what to look for and that wasn’t necessarily a motto or anything that was calculated. It was just how we grew up. It’s just the type of people we are or were and the person I very much still am.
Going back to the decision to break up, that was something I pretty much approached the band with when we were recording these last two songs. James [Smith, guitarist], Chris [Dudley sampler/synth op] and I are all married. We have two kids. Underoath have been a massive part of all of our family’s lives. We’ve met all of our wives on the road. I’ve never known anything different, but in the last two years, I’ve transitioned into a role of being at home and I just do not function well with divided attention. This last tour we tried to see what a slowed-down version of Underoath looks like. We did the Soundwave, some European dates, Asia, some festivals. In my head, we were faced with two choices, one a little bit harder—which is the one we made—and then the other, a lot easier and something a lot of other bands do. To look at [the fact that] you have this name, this reputation, this stat page. You have accredited statuses, and whether you’re relevant or not, whether you believe in what you’re doing or not, whether you have the time to believe in what you’re doing or not, that name alone can fetch money. For a very long time, you can do stints on Warped Tour. You can do Christian festivals. You’ve basically carved a niche in which you have a retirement plan that can be very lucrative, even with not a lot of effort—because you put the effort in now and for the last 10 years. Which is very much something I hate, personally.
Because by that point, it’s just careerism and you might as well go play rib cook-offs on the weekends.
That’s the thing: Everyone’s like, “Well, is that the right career move?” We put our last shows on sale, and we’re getting these Facebook manifestos from people: “I’m coming from Germany. I’m coming from Australia.” The shows are selling out and/or being moved to larger rooms. There’s the temptation to [think], “Look, there’s still something here. There are still shows to be played. There are still people to be reached. There are still songs to be uncovered. There is still money to be made.”
There are advantageous solutions and situations by saying the door is closed January 26. We’re turning our back on these opportunities, and I don’t know if that’s the best career decision, but Underoath was never supposed to be my career, it never will be my career, and it never has been my career. I can only speak for me, personally: I trust you will do your best to quote me as speaking for myself and not for the band as a spokesperson. But at this point, the band is not going to be around, so I don’t really care. But it was never about that. For me, the goal of Underoath was to change as much about music as possible and to reach as many people as we could while doing that. If I was 21 and the band broke up after one record—and we did our best and on our terms—I’d walk away saying that’s success. The first time we sold out State Theatre in Tampa, in our hometown, for 500 people. That’s where my goals from a growth standpoint were met, personally.
When we did that AP podcast for the release of Define The Great Line, I remember you chastising me about the kinds of bands that were written about in AP. The question was something along the lines of, “Why does AP write about these bands all the time? Why don’t you do a story on Sigur Rós?” And I countered with, “Dude, we did five pages on Sigur Rós; apparently nobody saw it, because I never got an email or a letter to the editor about it.” It seemed that far back, Underoath’s personal aesthetics were already going in different directions that were further away from what the name was built upon.
That was our thing: We were in the metalcore world. We were touring with Bleeding Through and Eighteen Visions, From Autumn To Ashes and Terror. I think our first non-Christian tour was, like, Terror, Throwdown and Bleeding Through, maybe, and us. They were all great bands. It was never my dream scenario, but as far as being part of the cutting-edge hardcore culture, yeah, absolutely. It was great.
I think we ended up going down that road and getting really bored with heavy music. We were like, “Man, we want to kind of ruffle heavy music’s feathers,” so we wrote The Changing Of Times thinking, “Oh, cool, we’re going to spend the next three years touring with Bleeding Through and Terror, and playing Massachusetts metal fests and all this other stuff we’ve done for the last four years. That’s all we’ve known, and we’re going to be the weird, avant-garde, why-is-this-band-in-our-scene dudes and hopefully shift the culture a bit.
Then we got a random offer for Warped Tour in 2004, when They’re Only Chasing Safety came out, playing a side stage. The shows had been getting bigger and bigger. But everyone’s shows had been getting bigger. It’s Warped Tour: There’s 20,000 people everyday, whether you’re Michael Jackson or nobody, so we ended the tour going, “Yeah, the record’s doing good.” All of a sudden we’re like, “Oh no, it’s completely different.” We didn’t know had happened. We were being told, “You guys have got to see this. The sales aren’t stopping.” Merch was doing better, but we had still played that whole tour for free. We weren't getting paid. We were definitely like, “Yeah, we’re not a big band, trust me. You should see our bank accounts.” At the time we didn’t know it, but what had happened was instead of being the push-and-pull of the metal scene, we got abandoned by the metal scene and got completely welcomed by this Warped Tour scene we didn’t even know existed. All of a sudden, everyone’s screaming and singing, and breaking down.
By the time we sat down for that podcast, we were equally burnt on that. We were like, “This is just the status quo again. What are we going to do next? This well’s run dry.” I remember saying, “Refused broke up in a basement, and they’ve affected so many people with a great record—The Shape Of Punk To Come—years after they stopped. What would Refused have done if they had the pedestal we have? What would At The Drive-In have achieved if they followed up Relationship Of Command and stayed together. What would Glassjaw have done if they followed up Worship And Tribute, these records that got everyone’s attention where everyone’s like, “Okay, I’m onboard. What next?” And no one ever did anything. That was the biggest crusher for me. We have this opportunity. We have reach, whether we like it or not. I don’t know why we have it. I don’t know how we got it. I don’t know who gave it to us.
At that point, we were going through this prepubescent stage. By the end of that summer—especially by the end of that year—our lives had changed both from a musical perspective, as far as how we could write and communicate our ideas, as well as how much of an effect putting out an MP3 or CD with the name “Underoath” on it would have. That’s the highlight of my career: No one gets the opportunity to go, “I see the record I want to be a part of.” We, as a band, see the record we want to make, and we have nothing stopping us from making it. We have everyone’s attention for this brief moment in time. We know what we want to be. We have the funds. We have the time. We have the capabilities and the glue between us six people to get it done, and on top of that, it’s not going to fall on deaf ears.
Those things never happened at the same time, especially on an independent label from a random Christian band from Florida. That was honestly fully attributed to just [acknowledging] this is above and outside of our control. This is a literal blessing from God, for whatever reason, and the only way we can repay that debt is to make the most excellent record possible and the most meaningful and influential record possible. I remember all of us talking, and we’d be having these conversations, feeding each other. “Screw that template. Screw everything about that. Let’s build something that hasn’t been built before,” and that was the ambition. It’s one of those weird things where it’s just like, let’s just go for it.