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February 2020

Underoath: “When we started to play, we didn’t know what would happen”

Releasing their first album in a decade, Underoath have returned from beyond the grave. And they’ve come back… different.
Published: 11:00 pm, April 12, 2018
Underoath: “When we started to play, we didn’t know what would happen”
ON 26TH JANUARY 2013, UNDEROATH PLAYED THE FINAL SHOW OF A NINE-DATE FAREWELL TOUR IN FLORIDA. And that was supposed to be it, the end of all things. Three years later though, they were back at the same venue for the first proper show of their reunion tour. A lot more followed. And now, they’ve just released ‘Erase Me’. This is where it gets serious.

“Here we are,” starts Aaron Gillespie “It’s our first record in ten years, and there’s this real, palpable excitement. It’s not just like, ‘Here’s an old band putting out some songs for fun’. Being on this end of it, it feels like this is our most important release. The way that people are responding to the songs and everything, it’s a cool time.”

Aaron formed the band in 1997 while still in high school, but it wasn’t until their fourth record, 2004’s ‘They’re Only Chasing Safety’ that things began to fall into place for Underoath. It was the first record to feature Spencer Chamberlain, Tim McTague, James Smith, Grant Brandell, Chris Dudley and Aaron working together. After a turbulent history, that line-up that would see them through the next six years.

It was also better than anything Underoath had put their name to so far. All conflict and chemistry, it was one of those instant classics. Its follow-up, 2006’s ‘Define The Great Line’ was another step forward, redefining the band and adjusting their course. Then it began to fall apart. Tours were cancelled, tensions mounted. Aaron walked away in 2010, and the rest of the band followed a few years later. Underoath’s reunion was never really about picking up where they left off. At that point, they were too far gone. By the end, they’d worn down their friendships and their love for the band. Rather than stepping back for a moment when the cracks first appeared, they tried to hold it together by doing more, pushing harder and soldiering on.

“We should have said no a shitload more than we did,” admits Aaron. “We got ourselves in trouble because we never stopped. We should have rested more. It messed us up. Now we just want to do the right stuff. We don’t want to play for the sake of playing; we want to make sure it makes sense.”

“When you’re a kid in a band, you play together because you all like the same stuff,” explains Spencer. “It’s tough when you leave your teens because you start becoming individuals and different people. That’s weird, and you don’t know how to handle it. As time goes on, you go in different directions. You miss how it used to be. It’s a hard place to grow up.”

But grow up they did. It wasn’t until someone revived their group chat with the reminder that ‘Define The Great Line’ was about to turn ten and maybe they should play a show, that Underoath returned.

“We started talking about more than a show, and we ended up booking a tour,” continues Spencer. “Grant suggested playing ‘Chasing Safety’ in full as well because we were too busy being mad at each other when that record turned ten.”

“We got ourselves in trouble because we never stopped”

Aaron Gillespie

And after some hesitation (“that’s so many songs”), they decided to do it. The Rebirth tour, with the band playing both albums in full each night, was born.

“I didn’t want the band to break up in the first place,” says Spencer. “As much as I was probably the last one standing before the breakup, I was one of the last to agree to Rebirth. I thought it would be weird for me if they didn’t want to keep playing after that. What if everyone else just wanted to have normal lives and normal jobs? I didn’t want to take time out of my life to just feel robbed of what could be.”

During the first practice, the band were asking why they’d waited so long. After the first show, they decided to take the tour around the world.

“We had no idea what it would be like. It could be really good or really bad,” explains Aaron. “In the smallest way, we just wanted to have a good time, hang out together, be buddies again and play the songs that gave us the life we have now. It ended up being the biggest and best tour we’d ever done.

“I had this whole idea that every show would be full of these old guys, just out for a beer and listening to a band they liked in high school. I mean, those two records are at least ten years old. But every night Spencer would ask the question, ‘How many of you have never seen Underoath before?’ At least 70% of the crowd would raise their hand. I thought that was fucking impossible.

“I started realising a majority of these fans were younger. Their older brother was 18 and had given them the record when they were only ten and weren’t allowed to go see a concert, or they had to go to bed early ‘cos they had school or whatever. There was this influx of young folks, which was super interesting. I did not expect that. It’s been cool to see this younger generation of kids still really interested in our band. It’s given us this shot of life, which is flattering.”

That rejuvenation can be felt across ‘Erase Me’, but it’s not just because there’s a whole new generation listening.

“For a very long time, there was uncertainty around our friendship,” adds Aaron. “When you all grow up together, and you do the same things, you think that you have to believe the same things and have the same set of ideals. The reality is, you don’t. You can be your own person. For us, we really just needed to be honest with one another. With Rebirth, we’ve been able to do that. It’s a small adjective, but it does feel really good. We’re confident and in a good place.”

“I didn’t want the band to break up in the first place”

Spencer Chamberlain

That feeling is mirrored by Spencer. “We’re in a place where we’re finally healthy as a band, and we work together, which never really happened before. Even at the very beginning, it was always a little weird. We were never really on the same page.

“After burning the thing on both ends until we had to walk away from it, we’ve come back to it as healthy human beings who have their lives more on track. So many things can go wrong when you’re in a bad place; there was so much pressure. After we broke up, it let us talk which helped us fix our relationships with each other and the things within ourselves that needed fixing.

“When we started to play, we didn’t know what would happen, but we took all that pressure away. Now that we are playing and writing together, I’ve seen the future of this band. It’s healthy and can go for as long as we feel we want to go for. We can do this for another fifteen years if we want because we know how to communicate, work together and we know how to actually get along, which is crazy.”

Despite the instant connection when they started playing together again, talk of new material wasn’t so quick. Two weeks into the tour, Aaron was sure he wanted to keep doing Underoath; Spencer never wanted to stop. So the pair started writing music together, away from the rest of the band.

“It wasn’t in a deceitful way,” promises Spencer, “but those guys weren’t sure yet, and we weren’t going to sit around and wait for them to decide if they were going to give us the time to make a record. Aaron and I, we wanted to make music together. We’ve been best friends since we were teenagers and we were sick of making music away from each other.”

So committed was their bond, there was talk of just starting a new band if the rest of Underoath wanted to quit after Rebirth.

“If no one else wants to make a record, we should just do our own thing,” echoes Aaron. Everyone wanted to keep it rolling, though. “We realised it needed to be all of us.”

Tim and Chris started working on music as well, and things fell into place. ‘Erase Me’ is the first Underoath record where all six band members love every song. Every album before was littered with compromise.

“We fought our way through every record,” reflects Spencer. “It’s always been a full-on battle every time we recorded, until we made this album. We made this album as friends, adults and we worked together.”

There were no rules about a song ‘sounding Underoath enough’, either. “We needed to make a record that we love and feel, so that’s what we did,” explains Aaron. “If we’re all stoked on a song, if we feel really good about it, we’re excited about it, want to listen to it and want to play, let’s record it. We distanced ourselves from the pressure.

“It would be easy to look at ‘Chasing Safety’ or ‘Define The Great Line’ and say, ‘We need to have that kind of record’, but that would have been unhealthy for us. ‘Erase Me’ is different to what people would expect, but we weren’t even going to make a record in the first place. If we can’t make things that make us happy, then I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know what the point of all this is. We asked ‘What is Underoath now?’” explains Aaron. “And what Underoath is now, is whatever we say it is.”

UNDEROATH’S GLOBE-TROTTING, FOURTEEN-MONTH LONG REBIRTH TOUR WAS ABOUT GIVING THE FANS WHAT THEY WANTED. “We have to play for people,” offers Spencer. “All the people that didn’t get to see us on the farewell tour.” ‘Erase Me’ has a different mentality.

“This is the best version of Underoath,” he states. “Is it going to be your favourite version of Underoath? I don’t think we really care. If you loved ‘Chasing Safety’ or ‘Define The Great Line’ when they came out, you probably don’t listen to that stuff anymore. All those people have grown, so why is it so quote-unquote disrespectful to our fans if we’ve grown as well? If you can move forward and broaden your horizons, why can’t a band? We’re not 18-year-old kids anymore, we’re going to do what makes us happy, and I think people will be able to hear that.”

Regardless, Spencer still hopes the lyrics resonate. “Music for me has always made me feel like I’m not alone. Bands I’ve really connected with, they make you feel like you’re not the only person going through that. If I can supply that to anyone on the planet, for me, that’s a successful record. If one person connects and feels, ‘Thank God someone else feels the way I do’, then I did my job. I’m just trying to give back what I got from music.”

“We can do this for another fifteen years if we want to”

Spencer Chamberlain

“You can’t anticipate if people will like it or not, or if it will make you more or less successful,” he adds. “You just have to do what feels right to you. We’re going to write stuff that we fucking love, because we can. None of us were listening to what we were listening to in 2006, when we made the record in 2017.

“We’ve grown so much, we’ve all done individual music projects, so when we got back together it was a natural thing to do something different. It was never talked about. The only thing that was talked about was, ‘Let’s just do what makes us happy, let’s not go back in time and try and pretend. Let’s grow, let’s make a great record, let’s make something we want to listen to’.

“Will we piss people off? Fuck yeah, we will, but we always have. Every record we’ve ever made has made people mad. That’s the part of art that I think is important. People don’t do those things on purpose, but they happen when you’re true to yourself. That’s natural. That’s what art is.

“We walked away from this band with the intention of never playing again, so coming back to it was way more liberating. If we’re going to get back together and those dudes that have two or three kids quit their fucking jobs to do it, then let’s make something that makes us happy. If it’s either me happy or someone else, I’m going to choose myself.” Spencer grins. “Artists are selfish in that way.”

THE BAND ARE IN THE BEST PLACE THEY’VE EVER BEEN. They’re closer as friends, more connected as a band and more willing to give each other space. There’s a real excitement around ‘Erase Me’ and what Underoath can do in 2018, and there’s more freedom for them to do it. In short, they’re happy to be back, but ‘Erase Me’ isn’t a happy record, despite what it means to people. There’s anger throughout. It’s hurt, lost and it doesn’t know what to believe in anymore.

“It’s the time I was going through,” starts Spencer. “I called it my breakup record with drugs, and Aaron went through a divorce. A lot of us are in different spaces to where we were when this band started, spiritually.”

Once upon a time, they identified as a Christian band, but beliefs changed in private and now, “there’s no more faking it,” says Spencer. “We’re not pretending to be a Christian band. I don’t think there’s one guy in the band that considers themselves Christian anymore. We’d got to the point where we’d had enough. There was so much bullshit in our lives that we had to leave behind. Writing about it, singing about it, making songs about it was the best way to do that.”

“Getting older, you grow up, and you become unafraid of asking questions,” adds Aaron. “A lot of people feel like they have to believe something and they’re afraid to ask the questions and say, ‘Maybe I don’t believe this anymore’. For us, as we’ve gotten older, we’ve been able to be more ballsy with asking those questions and saying, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t understand it’. It’s been a new thing for us in our music to do the same. It comes from having the balls to be honest.”

“When I started writing this record, I was still trying to get my shit together,” continues Spencer. “I was trying to get myself back on track. For a long, long period of my life, I was a drug user. Half-way through writing this thing, I decided I was never going to go back to my old ways. There was a lot of different emotions attached to the last few years of my life, battling those demons and it’s all in there. The anger, the anger within yourself, the anger towards others, feeling alone, depression, addiction - all that stuff. I needed to sing about it.

“It was incredible to track the record for the first time completely clean. Being able to record these songs and these things that I had written down, there was this feeling of, ‘Wow I can’t believe that’s how I felt not too long ago. I never want to go back there’. It was a very therapeutic experience and something I needed to do.”

That anger is often turned inwards, though. It’s a record of changes forced upon you, and changes you can make.

“If you can’t look at yourself and make changes, maybe you’re not ready yet to change,” Spencer muses. “You’re in a tough spot. I’m not saying to hate on yourself, but being able to criticise yourself the same way you’d criticise friends is important. You need to be able to check yourself.”

‘Erase Me’ is a progressive conversation, a constant back and forth. Opening with ‘It Has to Start Somewhere’, the band insist, “You’ve got me wrong,” before asking “How did we end up like this? I’ve lost myself. Dear God, give me a chance.”

“It’s not about making people upset but I want to be challenged”

Spencer Chamberlain

The title ‘Erase Me’ comes from ‘ihateit’, one of the album’s poppier moments that sees the band pleading to an uncertain God and trying to regain control of their vices. “It’s that thing where you just want a clean slate. You just want to start over. We all get to that breaking point in our lives,” reasons Spencer.

“It’s about deconstruction, it’s about hope in a dirty way and figuring that out for yourself,” adds Aaron.

‘Bloodlust’ was written in the studio and is “about what we do out here,” he continues. “You leave your family, and you do this job, and it just keeps on going, it becomes something you get hungry for.”

The closing argument of ‘I Gave Up’ stands tall with the belief that people are never going to understand you completely. “They’re never going to get the shit you’re going through, but you tried,” explains Aaron. “It’s not something morbid like I give up on life, it means I’m going to stop trying to explain myself. I’m going to stop trying to be understood, because every time I’m understood, I feel misunderstood.”

The most amazing thing about ‘Erase Me’ is that it happened at all. “I didn’t think it was ever a possibility for us to make a record again,” Aaron explains. “Even when we started Rebirth, that seemed like the furthest thing possible in my mind. Up until we got into the studio, I wasn’t sure it would even happen. I’m ecstatic it did, though.”

See, Aaron has unfinished business with Underoath. “I quit, and it was premature on my part. We never said no to anything, so I was just burnt out. I needed closure.”

Even now, asking why Underoath connected all those years ago, or why they’re still forging connections today is met with a pause, and an “I don’t know”.

“That was a stupid ass answer,” Aaron laughs. “I’m thankful for it every day, and I’m honoured by it every day. At the time a lot of our peers were better; they had just as much to say as we did. We’ve always just been genuine, and people gravitate towards that. I’m so thankful we’re not the band that had a couple of radio hits and were a flash in the pan. With Underoath, when people liked Underoath, they got a tattoo of it. They made it a part of their life, which has been a huge honour for us.”

They still feel like they have something to prove. It’s there in the weight they put on two of their earlier records, it can be felt in the urgent new paths they tread on ‘Erase Me’, and it’s there in the belief they have in this band, and in each other.

“We’re always trying to outdo ourselves and prove we’re a band and not a moment in time,” starts Spencer. “A lot of bands from our time and genre have been pinned as throwback or ‘Emo Nite’ bands. That’s such a huge thing right now, and we don’t feel that way about ourselves. We’re still Underoath; a band that’s unpredictable.”

THERE'S STILL AN AMBITION TO UNDEROATH. From their first support slot in ages with Bring Me The Horizon on their American Nightmare tour, to playing festivals and embracing new sounds, there’s a desire play outside their lane and see what could happen.

“I believe you should never limit yourself,” Spencer explains. “Put your best foot forward in every record you make and not go back in time and redo something. We’d never let our legacy dictate anything we do, that’s where you fuck up. I could be wrong,” he admits.

“Making the same record over and over again, kids think they want that but if you hear a song or record that doesn’t leave you with questions, what’s the point? When you release something that’s super safe, and everyone’s happy, then you didn’t do anything. You wasted your time. It’s not about making people upset, but I want to be challenged.

“We were never going to go back in time and recreate something that we made ten years ago”

Spencer Chamberlain

“We really took a turn when we did ‘Define The Great Line’. ‘Chasing Safety’ was a turn for the very few people that listened to the band before that. Heads exploded when we released the first song from that record. Everyone was mad. ‘Define The Great Line’, everyone was mad. The list goes on.

“Underoath has always been a band to shock or surprise people. Every time we’ve done that, it’s never been a conscious decision. We did know we didn’t want to be nostalgic though. I think nostalgia is such a bullshit word for bands that have only been around as long as us. I do understand a period of time where people fell in love with the music, but there are a lot of bands that have been around a lot longer than us that you don’t consider nostalgia acts. We were never going to recreate something that we made ten years ago; it wouldn’t be true to ourselves.

The one thing that hasn’t changed about Underoath is that Underoath doesn’t do things that don’t make us happy. When things weren’t going well, and we weren’t all getting along, we parted ways with Aaron. When the rest of us weren’t getting along, we walked away from the band. Underoath has always been the band that’s been trying to find ways to do things that make us happy.

“Going back in time and pretending it’s 2006 is not going to be the answer for us. We’ve made something we’re proud of, and we actually worked together on. You’re never going to make everyone happy, so why don’t you start with making yourselves happy?”

© 2018 The Bunker Publishing