After spiraling toward certain demise, UNDEROATH have returned with a pummeling new album and a strengthened resolve, once again ready to offer up their music and message to the masses. But it’s only by taking a hard look inward that the band remain able to reach further toward the divine.
Story: Brendan Manley
Photos: Neil Visel
As the six members of Underoath sit wedged together in a passenger van on a sunny California morning, en route to their AP cover shoot in downtown San Diego, the conversation among the Christian post-hardcore sextet turns not to prayer or scripture, but rather, to guitarist Tim McTague’s shorts. More specifically, his lack thereof.
You see, McTague seems to have a predisposition for wearing short shorts, judging by the near “Daisy Dukes” he sometimes sports. On this occasion, talk in the van is centered on a baggy pair of Dickies the guitarist recently purchased with the intention of turning them into cutoffs. The band, in town with Slipknot, Mastodon and Machine Head for the metal-centric Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, are concerned that if McTague does his usual thigh-high snip job, certain anatomical features may make an appearance on stage this evening.
“We’re just concerned that you’re going to end up free-ballin’,” explains bassist Grant Brandell, as the van erupts in laughter.
A grinning McTague takes it in stride and counters, “Maybe I should just wear a loincloth.” Oddly enough, considering the man’s Grizzly Adams-esque beard, it might not be such a bad look.
Moments like these are much more frequent in the Underoath camp than they were this time two years ago when the band, seemingly on a rocket-ride of success, suddenly imploded during the 2006 Vans Warped Tour, dropping off their headlining spot and taking a “hiatus” of sorts from band activity. While the members-McTague, Brandell, singer Spencer Chamberlain, drummer/vocalist Aaron Gillespie, sampler/synth op Chris Dudley and guitarist James Smith-sorted through years of pent-up resentment and hostility that had finally boiled over, the future of the band looked grim. Somewhere along the way, the healing began.
Underoath came back from the brink of that disaster with a newfound maturity and a greater understanding of one another. They finished touring for 2006’s Define The Great Line and took some much-needed time off to relax at home with their wives and families, buy houses, and reconnect with their faith. Now they’re back with Lost In The Sound Of Separation, a stark, brutal record that once again pushes the band’s creative boundaries while also showcasing the refinement that comes with age. For a band who nearly threw in the towel, Underoath are now churning full-speed ahead. From the looks of it, nothing but life can slow them down.
The day before the photo shoot at the Fresno, California, stop of Mayhem, and Chamberlain looks like he’s taken enough physical punishment to retire to his bunk for a week. Sporting skinned knees (thanks to torn jeans that no longer cover that region) and a face sizzled an uncomfortable pink, the almost illogically thin singer limps around the bus like a tattooed, sunburned skeleton.
The members of Underoath are seeking refuge from the heat on their air-conditioned bus parked in the lot of the Sav-Mart Center. In the front lounge, Brandell and Dudley sit with eyes buried in their beloved laptops (for Brandell, it’s a break from video games, his true obsession), while Smith channel surfs on the bus television before finally deciding on ESPN. Then Gillespie emerges from the bunks to talk to Brandell about a potential time for their daily jog. The two have taken to running in an attempt to maintain some level of fitness while on the road. But with a natural sauna waiting outside, neither of them is exactly jumping into their cross-trainers. It’s even harder to venture out when you’re not really a fan of the sort of hair-whipping shred-metal that comprises the lion’s share of the tour.
“I’m into heavy music, like Botch and Converge, but I’m really not a fan of stylized metal,” admits Gillespie. “I know I shouldn’t say that because people will be reading this, but it’s true. Like death metal- can respect it, but there’s just no place for it in my heart. I do like Slipknot, though; they put on a retarded show.”
Brandell agrees but isn’t quite as diplomatic: “It’s tough for me to look out into the crowd and get into it,” he says. “There are just so many tough guys.”
The band are particularly weary today, and with good reason. Being a touring rock band isn’t always about late-night parties and erratic sleeping patterns, especially if it’s a band with Underoath’s tireless work ethic. Yesterday, an off day from the tour, was nixed when the tour headed to Sacramento for a make-up show after the original date was canceled due to wildfires in the area. Underoath were supposed to spend that day filming a video in Los Angeles. When the new Sacramento date sprang up, the band had to arrange to play an earlier afternoon set; immediately fly to L.A. and shoot the video; crash there for the evening; and fly to Fresno in the morning for the next stop on the tour.
While all involved said the shoot went well, the band were clearly feeling the effects of fatigue the next day, which was only compounded by the 100-degree heat. It was painful just watching them play their set. Still, the fact that their sweat was spent on an audience that had largely never even heard the band before-aside from a small throng of diehards at the front-made their onstage kinetics all the more commendable.
“We knew there was going to be a lot of people who didn’t know or care who we were,” says Dudley, kicking back later that night in a folding chair in the parking lot, the mercury having finally dropped to a comfortable level. “You look out and see a thousand Slipknot shirts, and people wondering, ‘What are these guys about?’ but by the end of the set, they’re always digging it, which is awesome.”
That’s business as usual for Underoath, who’ve morphed over the years from an unknown extreme-metal outfit to gold-selling screamo sensations to the dense, challenging post-hardcore juggernaut they are today. The lineup was crystallized with 2004’s They’re Only Chasing Safety, the band’s most melodic effort to date, and not surprisingly, their breakthrough recording. After growing downright sick of the Safety material, the group served up 2006’s Define The Great Line, a bludgeoning, gargantuan-sounding affair that garnered rave reviews from critics and established the band as something more than just another scene staple. Along the way, infighting and growing pains were endured and the business side of music reared its ugly head. But rather than bring the Underoath machine to a screeching halt, the band appear to have survived the upheaval. Now in 2008, Underoath have finally settled in behind the wheel.
Underoath see their progression away from the melodic, scream-sing textures of Safety toward increasingly heavier material as nothing more than the natural course of the band. The relentless sonic beatdown of Lost In The Sound Of Separation is simply where they’re at creatively here and now. Safety was the first recording to feature the complete lineup as it stands today; some of the newer members brought different elements to the mix that hadn’t been explored when the outfit were still finding their voice. All very quick to name some fairly crushing, equally experimental bands as influences (Converge, Botch, Glassjaw, Isis) they believe each record that followed Safety-particularly their latest-gets closer to capturing the essence of their sound. Admittedly, breaking out the crunch also has its cathartic qualities.
“Sometimes I think we’re as happy as we are because our music is so heavy,” concedes Gillespie. He’s only half kidding.
Few people-at least no one in the Underoath camp-have Tim McTague’s seemingly boundless energy. The slight, heavily bearded guitarist appears always on the go. He’s usually deeply involved in something, whether it’s scrolling through e-mails on his handheld, talking on his phone or having an animated, in-the-flesh conversation with whomever captured his interest at that moment. Friendly, personable and usually simmering with a healthy dose of wide-eyed enthusiasm, McTague is a natural leader and has his hands in just about everything Underoath-related, from the business side to the creative to the spiritual. In many cases, McTague’s responsibilities are ones some of his bandmates wouldn’t even consider taking on.
“There comes a time when, art aside, we have to be 25-year-old company-owners. We all own a company called Underoath Incorporated, and that’s a really important thing,” McTague says, chomping on sunflower seeds in the bus’ back lounge, just prior to the band’s set. “After making each record, it shifts to how we can tour on this record and do what we love to do, but also do it in a way that we can afford to do it, and not come home to evictions and foreclosures. We never had to plan on a business level like we do now.”
Earlier, McTague returned from the band’s daily afternoon autograph signing worked up into a serious lather, and made no attempt to conceal it. His multimedia company Audible Diversion Group-which runs the web stores for both Underoath and the Almost-was busy planning a pre-order for the upcoming release of Lost, and the pricing quoted from the label was much higher than McTague would’ve liked. While firing off a flurry of e-mails to management (as well as a hasty retort to the label) he spends the next few hours ranting to just about anyone who’ll listen before the situation is finally resolved. Due to a loophole (ADG is technically employed by the band), McTague and management are able to secure more favorable pricing. With yet another crisis averted, the general mood becomes significantly more relaxed.
“At one point, I was like, ‘Tim, we go through this with every record you put out. This is just the first time you’re involved,’” says manager Randy Nichols in a separate interview. “I told him, ‘Relax-in 12 hours everything is going to be fine and exactly how you want it. You can’t stress out all day about these things. Let me be the bad guy.’”
Working to balance a healthy interest in one’s own livelihood with the need to trust and delegate is not always as easy as it might seem. Despite all their accomplishments thus far, Underoath are still young men in their mid-20s, who have plenty of life lessons in store. Their increasing acceptance of this fact is one of the factors pointing to less stormy seas ahead.
“No one joined this band thinking we were going to have marketing meetings or budget meetings, because we never had a budget. There wasn’t any money before,” says McTague. “But these are all good problems. So we’re just doing our best to be mature and level-headed, and take all the things that arise that we’ve never thought about before and just come up with a way of dealing with it.”
On the surface, it might seem odd that the music made by a band who’ve experienced the impressive level of success Underoath have enjoyed-a success that has afforded the band’s members a fairly comfortable lifestyle-would grow increasingly heavier and more brutal with each new release. With its lean song structures and 10-ton guitar riffs, combined with Chamberlain’s face-peeling vocals, Lost In The Sound Of Separation (once again produced by Adam Dutkiewicz of Killswitch Engage and Matt Goldman) finds a way to push the envelope even further than Define. In reality, the album is the product of the band’s turbulent past two years, and no Underoath member has suffered more of that turbulence than Spencer Chamberlain. His lyrics on Lost are his chronicle of those soul-wrenching trials.
“It’s about my demons,” admits Chamberlain, sitting down for a candid chat in the back lounge, having recovered from the day’s performance. “I’ve had a lot of on-and-off drug problems, or other issues, of, like, depression, or whatever. It’s been pretty up and down for the last however many years.
“I had to take a good look in the mirror, and say, ‘Really? Is this really what you thought you’d turn out to be at 25?’ You have to look at yourself as a person, and not the dude who stands on stage,” he continues. “As a human being, I don’t think I’m a bad dude at all. I feel like I’m better off this year than I was last year, and that’s because I’m always sitting myself down and writing down what I hate about myself.”
The infamous 2006 Warped Tour meltdown was a subject of considerable speculation. One popular misconception is that NOFX singer/bassist Fat Mike drove the band off the tour with onstage verbal jabs that he repeatedly threw at the group. The real story is far more traumatic: Unbeknownst to his band mates, Chamberlain was wrestling with a serious cocaine addiction (and was later falsely rumored to have been caught using with Fat Mike, of all people). When Chamberlain finally broke down and told the band about his problem, the group-who generally limit their partying to beer and junk food, and barely even curse-basically turned their backs on him. The more militant members of the band-particularly McTague and Brandell-flat-out didn’t want to play music with Chamberlain anymore.
“That was my contribution to the [Warped Tour] explosion. I can see why it was shocking, but maybe it shouldn’t be,” reflects the singer. “The most fear you could ever have is when you reach out to someone for help and they leave you in the shadows and turn their back on you. That kind of happened for a little bit there, and that’s a scary place to be.”
“I told them, ‘If you guys were true Christians, you’d be trying to help this person, not walk away from him. You’re showing the whole world the hypocrisy of who and what you are,’” remembers Nichols. “I was so upset and hurt and couldn’t believe they weren’t what they said they were.”
The crisis then spilled over into a marathon rant session, during which band members vented all sorts of repressed peeves that had been slowly gnawing away at them. Individuals’ religious beliefs-and the way they practice those beliefs-were even called into question. After truly talking to one another for the first time, and exchanging some extremely difficult words, the chasm separating some members seemed far too vast to overcome. The future of Underoath, who’d already booked two more major upcoming tours by that point, was a perilous one at best.
“There was at least a week there where I thought it was all going to go away, and we were going to piss a lot of people off,” recalls Gillespie. “I’d still rather do that than be on tour and not want to be, but it’s a pretty daunting thing to call your agent, label and manager, and go, ‘We’re just going to s-can all of this.’”
Meetings were held and many heavy, emotional discussions ensued. Then something changed. After settling down back home after the initial blowup, clearer perspectives and cooler heads began to prevail.
“Something happened, right about the third week, where I really felt like God softened my heart and changed my viewpoint, not in what everyone else was seeing in me, but what I could see in me,” says McTague. “I realized that by me being who I am, I aided the problems I was most mad about myself. That didn’t necessarily fix anything, but it brought me down to the level where I realized we’re all the reason that we’re home. We all are here because we all put ourselves here.”
About a month into their self-imposed sabbatical, the band got together with assorted managers and label people and spent a day boating in the Gulf of Mexico purely for the sake of trying to once again enjoy one another’s company. It was monumental for the fence mending.
“It was one of the most amazing days ever,” recalls Nichols. “We just went out and were stupid kids for the day-no band business, no anything. We rode out to some island and were toasting marshmallows.”
It’s apparent Chamberlain still carries around some of the hurt from his band’s initial reaction to his cry for help, but he accepts his share of the blame for the overall situation. He continues to battle his demons: While he won’t comment on the last time he used (and has never entered a formal treatment program), he says that these days, being on the road actually helps him to stay clean.
“Tour is my treatment. I take what I do very seriously-not too seriously so that I can’t have fun-but even if I was addicted to something right now, and I was sweating it out in my bunk, and one of my great friends came by and said, ‘Let’s do it,’ I’d be like, ‘No,’” Chamberlain says. “I don’t want an excuse to sound bad tomorrow. There’s no excuse in my mind. There’s a million people dying to do what we’re doing right now, let alone that half these other bands are going way beyond what we’re doing. That dream that I’ve always had, that never leaves. I will not let it be compromised. In the studio or on the road, I’m clean as a whistle.”
The following year presented new challenges. During the 2007 Define tour, Gillespie started having problems with a lingering blister on his thumb. On the day the band were scheduled to play the massive Cornerstone Christian music festival, he awoke in such pain that he couldn’t even zip his pants. So he super-glued the wound shut, wrapped it, and soldiered on. After the performance, the thumb began to throb with such intensity, he enlisted the help of an EMT, who said the finger needed to be lanced to alleviate the pressure. Gillespie made the mistake of accepting the EMT’s offer to help. “You should never have your finger lanced in a field in California,” the drummer reflects.
When he awoke the next day, he could see a red line running from the wound, up his arm. That was more than enough to make the self-professed hypochondriac take a drive to the nearest emergency room where the ER doctor determined Gillespie had blood poisoning and a fairly serious infection in his thumb. The doctor pumped Gillespie full of antibiotics, then cut down into his thumb with a scalpel, inserted a small drain and sent Gillespie home for some rest. His bandmates could barely believe the news.
“Everyone knows Aaron’s a hypochondriac-he’ll feel sick and drive to the hospital, then call me from the parking lot and ask me what he should do,” says Nichols. “It’s a real problem that he deals with.”
Not wanting to cancel shows, Underoath turned to Kenny Bozich, a friend and drummer in Gillespie’s side project the Almost, to fill in until Gillespie was healed. Bozich performed admirably given the circumstances, attacking the drums each night until his hands literally bled. Everyone believed Gillespie would return in a matter of days, and things would soon be back to normal. But things didn’t quite turn out that way. When Gillespie flew out to Portland, Oregon, to hook back up with the tour, he attempted to warm up on his kit for the first time since the surgery. After a few minutes of his usual pounding, he decided it still hurt too much to play and the wound would need more time to heal. Rather than sit around and watch, he decided to fly to Salt Lake City and meet up with his then-fiancée (who grew up there), and reconnect with the group when they made their planned Salt Lake stop a few days later. The band were stunned.
“It really shows the inner workings of a band in that kind of situation where everyone’s questioning each other’s motives all the time. To this day, people [in the band] still question whether Aaron flew into Portland to just do a photo shoot that day, or to play,” explains Nichols. “I trust Aaron, though, because I spent a lot of time on the phone with him while he freaked out thinking that they were going to kick him out of the band if he couldn’t play that night. The rest of the band didn’t hear those kinds of conversations.”
“It was horrible. I felt like such a wiener,” admits Gillespie. “The first time I came back, I should’ve stayed out and just limped it, but I didn’t feel I could give it 100 percent. It hurt bad though, and it was still bleeding under the skin. It made me realize that I am definitely not immortal,” he continues. “That woke me up. Even a blister can put you on your back.”
The problems that Underoath, or any band for that matter, must face are only compounded when those affected either handle it inappropriately, or not at all. Underoath hold one another to a very high standard, and as evidenced by Chamberlain’s near outcast status after his admission of drug abuse, and by the band’s obvious suspicion and disappointment over Gillespie’s injury as seen in the band’s “lost documentary." Some members don’t always react positively when they believe standards have been compromised. Navigating the 2006 Warped Tour disaster has at least opened their eyes to the problem, and now, just as Chamberlain continues his own personal battles, some of Underoath have found themselves working to be better Christians-and perhaps just as important-better friends and bandmates.
“We’re not perfect, but we’re getting better at dealing with these things as they arise,” says Brandell. “It’s two years later, and everyone has gotten older and able to keep it cool. There’s a lot more at stake now with our band, too. You can’t deny the fact that dudes have wives they have to provide for, homes that they have to pay a mortgage for.”
After bringing the San Diego show to a close, the Mayhem Fest production crew throw a “metal mixer” of sorts at the venue. It soon deteriorates into drunken tomfoolery fairly quickly, including attendees intentionally smashing beer bottles on the floor and a film crew shooting footage of a sloppy public make-out session. Underoath-both band and crew-make an appearance, generally staying together (Smith got involved in a lengthy conversation with Mastodon bassist Troy Sanders) but lingering long enough to throw back a few beers and get into the general spirit of things. By the time the 2 a.m. bus call arrives, all aboard the Underoath coach are having raucous, high-volume fun, punctuated by McTague pointing at specific people and commanding them to “Shut Up,” which only instigates even greater hysterics. The revelry eventually dies down to a dull roar, until the last men standing retreat to their bunks, while the bus, just like life, rolls on.
Although no one can predict what the future holds for Underoath, most would agree these next few years are pivotal to the band’s career. They understand that their turn on top is an extremely fleeting thing. Each day, each show, each interaction with a fan is something precious, and the most should be made from it. This is why the band-some of whom would be quite happy back in Florida, fishing in the Gulf, or laying on the beach-choose to do things like spend the summer on a metal tour, thrashing themselves to the brink of heatstroke each day with the ultimate goal of winning over even just a few new faces.
“We don’t want to be one of those bands that keep making the same records and keep playing within the same scene for five years, and at the end of those five years are stuck,” explains Gillespie. “I feel like if we can try to maybe flip-flop a little bit, maybe we can have a little longevity.”
Some of Underoath’s members have branched out into new side pursuits that could potentially become full-time gigs one day, whether it’s Gillespie’s transition into the role of pop frontman with the Almost, Chamberlain’s personal musical creations (which he describes as sounding like “Radiohead crossed with Nine Inch Nails”) or McTague’s business ventures involving everything from merchandising to production. Right now, however, the band have a fire-breathing monster of an album to tour behind, so all those peripheral aspirations will continue to ride shotgun for now. Armed with a far greater sense of solidarity than ever before, Underoath can only hope the biggest speed bumps are safely behind them.
“When I was a kid, this is always what I imagined it would be like,” says Chamberlain. “People have grown up and learned to love and be real friends. It’s more of a brotherhood now, as cheesy as it sounds. Real friendship, real camaraderie, real understanding and real love. I don’t think any of us had that before.”