When progressive-metalcore outfit UNDEROATH announced their dissolution and the details of their final U.S. tour on Oct. 2, the shockwaves were sizable. You didn’t need to subscribe to the band’s chosen belief system to understand how far they raised the bar for aggressive heavy music. And like their music, the decision process they went through to end their band was just as uncompromising. Jason Pettigrew discussed the decision with vocalist SPENCER CHAMBERLAIN who was forthcoming about everything from the decision, the mitigating factors surrounding it and whether looms large in the singer’s post-Underoath future. Guitarist Tim McTague discusses life after Underoath with Jason Pettigrew later this week on altpress.com
INTERVIEW: Jason Pettigrew
Nine dates in North America to say “so long.” How did the band come up with the cities?
SPENCER CHAMBERLAIN: The thing is, when we got home [from our last tour], some of the guys decided they couldn’t tour full time any more due to families and kids. It’s tough to afford all that. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. People have houses and bills. We talked about instead of being a band that doesn’t really do very much, let’s just close the chapter and bring a good thing to an end. [As far as those dates go] really, that’s about as much time as the guys who got real jobs could get off, so it wasn’t like, “Hey, let’s only tour these places.” Half the band was like, “Let’s tour everywhere,” and the other half of the band was like, “We can’t tour at all.” The guys who did have other obligations [chose to] take their entire year’s vacation to do those 10 days. That’s kind of where it’s at. We looked at it as, “How far can we get in 10 days?” That’s about as far as we can get.
I don’t have to tell you Underoath have been trough a bunch of well-documented travails in their career. So this decision to end it now was about economic realities and the life-changing situations with each individual member of the band?
I think so. A lot of it has to do with family. I think it’s time. I don’t know if that sounds weird or not. Underoath were a part of something important that happened, as far as heavy music goes and the underground scene goes. I think we did our part and now it’s out of our hands: It has been out of our hands for a while. I feel like that scene still exists, but we don’t know anything about it anymore, you know? We’ve grown up a lot, and it was just time for all of us. I’ve been in the band for a decade. Chris [Dudley, synth op] and Tim [McTague, guitarist] for close to 15 years. It’s been a long time in people’s lives.
You recorded two new tracks, right?
We went a couple months ago, and honestly, I think they’re the best Underoath tracks we’ve ever recorded. It was kind of funny: Because we had decided we weren’t going to play anymore before we got there, and then we were in the studio like, “Well, this sucks. This is the best we’ve ever gotten along in the studio. Songs are great,” but [the decision to break up] was already done. It was kind of a bittersweet experience for me. Those are the last two songs we wrote, and I’m very proud people are going to hear them and go, “Wow, I wish they would have made another record because those songs are awesome.”
Some of the band members were like, “We can record another record, but we can’t tour off of it.” And I think the people who were willing to tour felt it wasn’t fair to put out a record, pour your heart and soul into it and never play it anywhere.
Plus you have download culture that’s prevalent, so a band simply has to tour…
Absolutely. This summer, before we decided to stop, two or three of the members were like, “I can’t tour full time. We’ll do some fly-outs here and there, then we’ll talk about maybe a tour here and there, but I can’t really do that right now.” About halfway through the summer of flying out for one show here and there, I remember sitting at the bar at an airport. God, what airport was that? I wish I could remember. We sat down at the bar, me Tim and Grant [Brandell, bassist], and Tim was like, “It’s over.” I used to lose sleep over that idea, but I looked at him, and I was like, “I know. We can’t do this anymore. We can’t be that band that just shows up without a new record, still playing songs from that long ago. We can’t do this.” We just decided it would be good to be remembered for all of the good things we did, as opposed to the band that just kind of fades away. Even if you show up for that weekend on Warped Tour, everyone’s excited because Underoath haven’t been there in a couple years, but you’re playing the songs from when you were there the last time.
What do you think the climate of the tour is going to be? Is it going to be weird afterward when you’re not going to be next to your buds that you’ve been with for so many years? Or is it going to be like, “This is the last tour, let’s throw this down as loud, mighty and insane as we can?”
It’ll be another bittersweet experience for me. Before we had made the farewell tour, there was a fear of one of these festivals being the last one. There were a couple songs I could barely get through, I kind of teared up a little bit. There’s actually been a time where I had to stop singing because I was looking [at the crowd thinking], “This is kind of really sad. It’s been a huge part of my life.” We decided to do a for-real farewell tour—not just pick one of these festivals and that’s going to be the last show. We talked about how we owe it to everyone. We owe it to all of our fans. We honestly wish we could play everywhere in the world, but obviously that’s not going to happen. But once we decided there is going to be a tour, we’re like, “We’re going down like a party.” We’re pulling together everything right now. Our favorite crew members over the years have already reached out to us. We’re putting together the sickest light show we can possibly put together in whatever size rooms we’re in. We’re coming up with all sorts of cool ideas to make it an experience.
It’s going to be your last tour, but you’re seriously raising the bar on the way out.
Absolutely. That’s been the idea since the get-go. We’re not throwing in the towel. We’re going out very proud and on top. We’re not a band that’s like, “Oh, we’re defeated. We’re not as big as we used to be,” or “No one likes us anymore.” We’re not having a pity party. Honestly, people’s lives change, and I can’t argue with someone who needs to be there for their family because I don’t have a wife or children—I can’t relate. All I can do is say, “I don’t understand, but I can’t argue with you because I don’t have that in my life to be like. I can kind of get that, man. Go raise your son. Go raise your daughter. Be with your wife. It’s been long enough. We’ve been out here for so long.” I think it’s more of closing the chapter of what Underoath was and let’s make it as big and badass as possible.
I remember interviewing the band for an AP Podcast a long time ago and it seemed the band were wary of the culture and the scene back then. Before Define The Great Line came out, the band were already pondering what they could further do within the framework of metalcore. Let’s face it; if Underoath made a record with lots of ambient loops, your fans would be like, “This isn’t Underoath. I hate you.” Did you feel there was any type of constraint aesthetically?
Absolutely. I think that’s very true. If you go down the catalog of Underoath records since I’ve been in the band, you can see the identity crisis happening. It made for some cool songs and records, but at a certain point, it did alienate who Underoath were and what people wanted from Underoath. [Those fans] didn’t want us to change and I felt like we couldn’t sit still and not change. Our fans are great. We hear all the time that “Underoath are better than ever.” Then there are the kids that are like, “What happened to Warped Tour, poppy, hardcore rock?”
Like on They’re Only Chasing Safety.
Yeah. It’s tough because we wanted to keep going and changing, but we couldn’t. I’d be tracking a song and be like “Man, I have to scream because I have to because that’s what Underoath ‘is’.” I would just want to sing the whole song, because I think it would be better and then we’d end up going back and forth and coming off somewhere in between. There was another step to be made with Underoath, but I don’t think the fans would have been happy. That’s always a weird feeling to know you’re getting better, but Underoath have to be a heavy band—you have to be that. That’s what side projects are for; because you have to be that and that was maybe a part of some of the guys not wanting to tour so much—because they can’t do that anymore. You can only play hardcore or heavy metal for so long.
By virtue of that music, it has to be played with energy and force and it’s emotionally draining and to have to do that for a 90 minute show…
That was never the problem—some people [in the band] just wanted to play rock or indie or whatever, and after a while you could just see it in their faces. That’s why when we decided what we decided it was cool. It’s ending exactly how it’s supposed to end. People ask if we thought about calling it quits when Aaron [Gillespie, drummer/vocalist] left [in 2010]. No way: We had to keep going. We had a huge purpose in us to keep going at that point and then I think now it’s just with everyone having two children and not having the time to tour, it’s cool. It was a great run and we feel good about everything we’ve done. We never want to get to a point where we write an album or song that we’re unhappy with and we never did that. Maybe we wrote some things that weren’t as smart or we could have songs on the radio or whatever—we never did any of that. We never had to go to that spot where we wrote something that we weren’t happy with or didn’t want to play live because we’re Underoath and we have to sound this way or we need to do this so we can keep going or we should change this. We did exactly what we wanted.
So there’s no backpedaling involved at all.
That’s the cool thing about Underoath. It’s always been that way. When everyone thought we were going to write Chasing Safety on steroids and become a huge radio band, we wrote Define The Great Line and changed everything. It was great—we always did what we wanted and we wanted to end it that way, too. Except for the fact that we can’t play everywhere, but we can’t. People are really mad. There was all these kids on my Twitter just ripping me apart and I’m like, “Hey, if you only knew that I was one of the ones that wanted to tour everywhere. Come on.”
How much of this has to do with the Christian community’s expectations of the band? There was so much of that in the band’s history.
I don’t know if you remember it, but a few years ago we decided that we weren’t going to be a Christian band anymore and that made a lot of people angry, as well. I think that was another thing where Underoath did what we wanted. We wanted to be honest with everybody. There were some members who didn’t believe that anymore. When those kids grow up, they might feel the same way that some of our guys do. I came into a huge problem with it over the years, seeing how some of these kids reacted and treated each other, other Christians and non-believers. It was a very uncomfortable thing for me. The judgment there was worse than anywhere else and I didn’t like it.
When you put any sort of label on your band, you’ve already cut off a lot of the world. Music is a universal language—it might be the only universal language there is. I go to Japan, and I see people cry over lyrics that I wrote. And I think, “you don’t even speak English, but it still means something to you.” When you put the word “Christian” or whatever in front of it, you no longer have made it a universal language. That really bothered me and some of the other [guys in the band]. When we made that announcement, people were confused and didn’t understand why, but being out there for so long and seeing different effects that something positive is supposed to have on somebody changes your viewpoint. I think everyone is entitled to believe whatever they want to believe and I don’t think it should be labeled as far as bands go. You should just be a band. I didn’t write songs about God and we were a Christian band: I know bands that aren’t Christian bands that write a lot of songs about God. You’re entitled to do whatever you want; just don’t label it as far as that goes.
I was really positive with Underoath’s embracing of that ethos. As a guy who’s maybe not of the Christian faith, I would gravitate to a band like Underoath than typical contemporary Christian “rock music.” Bands from 20 years ago like Petra or Stryper seemed like knock-offs of the same horrible stuff, but there is genuine power and menace and atmosphere in Underoath. You guys are the cornerstone of the contemporary… I don’t even want to say “contemporary Christian rock” scene, because that phrase immediately gives a knee-jerk reaction to something that is lame. There was a subculture you ignited that was like, “I like heavy, aggressive music. I am a person of faith. This works for me.”
Absolutely. There were a lot of great things that came with that, for sure. I just think that, over time, it changed for people. People felt like they didn’t want to lie to me. There are a lot of people who appreciated it in the right ways, but there were a lot of negatives that came with it, too. The cool thing about Underoath was, when I wrote lyrics, my whole point was that I wrote about myself and the flaws I see in myself and the things that I try to change. I wrote from the spot where these are the things I have a hard time telling my best friend. I brought that energy to the forefront of “But it’s okay because you’re not alone” space. I think kids reacted to that and that’s what made being a hardcore Christian band cool, because I wasn’t up there screaming, singing and diving off speakers singing, “I love Jesus.” There was a lot of pain and the aggression was coming out in the right way, but with a different outcome.
What are your plans at the end of these dates? Are you going to take some time off, start a new band, higher education? What are your post-Underoath plans?
I’ve only told one person this before, about two years ago. I’m a musician; I’m not just the guy who fronts Underoath. I’ve been playing piano and guitar my entire life. I’ve been singing since I was in elementary school. I played my first show when I was 12 years old. I can’t leave behind the people that have followed anything I’ve done. I can’t leave the industry behind. It’s like working as a lawyer and your firm decides to shut down, you start your own firm or you can go join someone else. I’m not going to go join someone else’s band—that’s just not what I do. But I was coming home a lot and locking myself in rooms and studios and writing songs even when Underoath were not even close to breaking up. Even talking about it, I was doing stuff. I never wanted to make the mistake that Aaron made and release something at the same time, because I think he could have gone way further with the Almost, but he had to do double duty with Underoath. I saw that happen and was like, “Dang, that sucks.” I feel bad, but this band happened first. It’s not fair for us to sit there while he tours with the other band, but that really did hurt that band. Not that they’re not doing well, but I feel like it was bad timing.
In my mind, I’m writing stuff I want to hear and I can’t do anything with. I’m already halfway done recording it. I have 30 songs—it’s different [sounding] and some of the fans will come with me, but some of them will probably be mad at me. I made that decision when I started writing songs. I was like, “If I’m writing some style of music and it’s just not as good as my favorite band then I’m doing something wrong.” So, I took all of the elements from the things that I loved and sat down and decided to make something that I want to listen to. I’ve got a lot of stuff to share with people and a lot of stuff to say. That’s as much detail as I’m going into—I am not stopping. There is another band and I’ll make that announcement when the time is right.
At the end of the day, what’s the thing you’re most proud of in the whole Underoath experience?
That’s the toughest question anyone could ask. I don’t know how to answer that. So much stuff happened that we thought was never going to happen. It’s not about how big your band gets or how much money you make. It was just the fact we did something and we made a difference. I think we were part of something important. I feel like when I look back on it in 10 years, people will remember Underoath. And no offense, I’m not talking shit, but I think there are a lot of bands in that scene no one will ever remember. I think that’s another reason why we’re stopping. We did our job in that world. It’s done for us. I don’t know what my proudest moment is, but I think being a part of something that was a positive movement that changed people’s lives for the good is all I can imagine saying because there are so many different, awesome things we did I never thought Underoath was capable of.
I think you did well.
That’s why I like to tell people we’re not throwing in the towel.
More like Underoath are soaking the towel in sweat and slapping folks in the face and shoulders with it to remind them of your legacy.
Exactly. I don’t take all the credit for it, but the bands that we grew up with have all done the same thing. Thursday were a huge part of that movement and so were Thrice and Poison The Well, and they’re all done, too. They’ll be remembered and people are going to look back and go, “Man, I wish I could see them again, but that was awesome.” Those are the bands that show up at a huge festival and play an hour-long set of songs they wrote 10 years ago.
Like I said, I’m not leaving this behind. I’m closing a chapter and starting a new one. That’s also not the reason we’re stopping: I waited until it was done. I’m in Underoath until January 27 or something like that. As of now, it’s all about Underoath until the chapter is closed. Alt