Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #127. Subscribe to our print edition here!
With the aptly titled Erase Me, Underoath tinker their signature chaos for a new generation. Words by Matt Doria
Few bands have mastered the comeback album as nobly as Underoath. Erase Me – their first full offering in eight years, following an acclaimed comeback in 2015 (during which they swore off its possibility) – kicks off with a swift left hook to the eardrums in “It Has To Start Somewhere”, blaring howls and thundering guitars pelting at our undeserving faces the Underoath we knew and loved as teens. But it doesn’t take long for the ex-Christian hardcore warriors to show a new, more experimental side of their musical cataclysm.
Bright, lingering guitars fill the soundscape on “Wake Me”, paving way for Spencer Chamberlain’s emphatic clean vocals to shine like jewels. Crunchy synth-bass floods “Sink With You”, a neogothic ode to the mosh pit. It’s a journey through hell and back told in 11 short, but tight and tempestuous chunks of sonic gold. And, unlike most heavy genre comeback albums, it’s entirely deserved. On the heel of its release, we sat down with lead shredder and beard god Tim McTague to learn a little more about 2018’s biggest statement album.
When the six of you reformed in 2015, did you think you’d end up here with a new album?
Not for a second. We went on the Rebirth tour in March of 2016 – the biggest tour we’d ever done – and as soon as we announced that, we started getting more tour offers. We got tour offer after tour offer after tour offer, and we kept saying, “Nope, we’re just back for five weeks.” And then at a certain point on the tour, Spencer [Chamberlain, vocals] said, “Yo, are we just going to keep saying no to everything, or is there something here?” So we all got lunch as a band and we all started to think about it, and we were like, “Okay, let’s not say no to every opportunity.” It was really just a touring thing at first, but just for fun, we started noodling around with some weird little riffs. We were just chipping away at these little ideas, and we realised, “If we’re going to start touring again, the next logical step is to at least think about a new record.” It was very much an organic process. Certain dudes were like, “I’m done! I sold my gear and I have a full-time job, I’m not joining this band again!” And we kind of had that discussion of, “But what would it look like if you did?” That was a big couple of months for us, and once we realised that everyone was not only available to do it but wanted to do it, we were set.
Did you find it easy to gel together in the studio after so long?
I think everyone went in thinking, “Oh man, this is going to be really weird.” We all had different experiences and different memories, like, “This guy was like this on the last record,” so there was definitely some trepidation. I think there was a little bit of tension going into the unknown, but the second it all started unfolding, we realised that we were all in the right headspace, we were with the right team – Matt Squire [producer] and Eric Taft [engineer] – and we were able to go, “Yo, this dude’s not crazy, he’s actually onto something.” And then when we were being crazy, we could go, “Hey man, I think you might be out of line.” The old tensions that we faced never really came up in the studio.
Was it easier to try new things with the six of you not at each other’s throats?
This studio experience was by far the easiest we’ve ever had, in the sense that there was a global vision and we all looked at the songs in the same way. We followed a blueprint, not in the sense of a blueprint being, “This is the formula for every song,” but it instead being, “Let’s not be egotistic, or irrational, or emotional – let’s just try everything, and if we hate it in the end, we’ll just delete it.” And I think that’s where things really started coming together, because we realised, “Oh, if we try something that ends up sounding ridiculous, no-one is going to hear it! So let’s try every cool idea and every dumb idea, and if you think it’s cool and I think it’s stupid, where we used to fight about it, let’s just not. Let’s try it.” And we deleted a lot of stuff, but there was a freedom and a gelling and a non-tension that we’ve never really had in the studio before.
How much music did you end up writing in the studio together?
We wrote a tonne of songs! We brought in, like, 20 demos, and then we recorded 13 songs. The 11 that made it on the record are the ones where we said, “All of these play a part and have a purpose, and they don’t offend any of us.” Certain dudes like certain songs more than others, of course, but at the end of the day, all of these songs are an authentic representation of where Underoath is now.
From the art scheme to the bass drops, and, of course, the first ever F-bombs you’ve dropped, it feels like Erase Me is indicative of a seismic shift in the way Underoath exists. Would you say this is the first chapter in a quote-unquote “Underoath 2.0”?
I think this is the first chapter of the Underoath that’s trying to figure out what Underoath really is. We’ve always taken every album as a very lighthearted statement without any connotations of or anchors to say, “This is setting the ground for the next thing.” I think we proved that with They’re Only Chasing Safety  and Define The Great Line  – Chasing Safety wasn’t us wanting to make people go, “Oh wow, this random metal band have started off on a new melodic hardcore path,” that’s just what we decided to do that year. And then two years later, we decided to do something completely different. We don’t really look at things in five, ten-year or two-three record increments; we tend to look at it as us going, “Let’s make a statement that’s authentic to where we are as a band now, but also has the quality and the capacity to outlast our feelings about what music should sound like right now.” And I think that was really the goal with Erase Me – to push boundaries, to a degree, and to be as different as Underoath has ever been, but then to recognise that in two or three years, we’re all probably going to feel completely different about music.
The album starts on a bit of a familiar note with those classic riffs and roars, but after a few tracks, it starts to drift into a really unexpected stylistic territory. Was it important for you as a band to almost sort of guide the listener into this new direction you explore?
Yeah, I think so. If we started the record out with a song like “Wake Me” or “ihateit”, I don’t think many long-term Underoath fans would go, “Oh man, I want to keep listening to this!” So I do think the tracklisting is intentional – we kind of staggered the first five songs with a pattern of, “Here’s a classic Underoath song, but now come with us on a journey,” and then the rest of the record kicks off. I think generally, people will give you a couple of songs. Once you have their attention, if they’re not at least interested, they’ll stop listening. So for me as an Underoath fan, what I would want is something to make me feel at home and make me go, “Oh, they haven’t changed so much,” and then get something that makes me think. “But they have, and this is exciting.” I want people to know that we’re not out here being like, “That was the old us! We were stupid then and we’re cool now!” Like, we love our old albums, and if we felt like we could write another Define The Great Line, we totally would… But we can’t. So we basically said, “Okay, let’s let the old Underoath die in theory, only to the extent where it restricts us from doing what we want to do right now.” The old DNA is still in the bloodwork, but it’s evolved and it’s progressing, and we want you along for the ride.
Did you find that the new style gave you an opportunity to experiment more as a guitarist?
I don’t know, to be honest. I don’t really think about guitar playing like, “This is my craft and it needs to be heard throughout the world!” I’m not really a guitarist in that sense. I think with this record, the songs had so much guts to begin with. There were certain tracks where the root of the song was already kind of built before the guitars even came in, so I was positioned with asking myself, did I want to go in and throw a whole bunch of wild shit on there so that everyone would go, “Woah, there’s Tim! There’s the sick guitar player that I thought he was!” Or, did I want to look at the song and go, “Man, what does this song need?” For the first time, we approached the studio with a minimalist’s perspective. In the past, we’d be like, “How many guitar riffs and how many delay pedals and screams and drum fills can we fit I three minutes?” But this time, it was like, “Let’s just ask ourselves why before we do anything. If we have a melody, a progression and some vibes, why do we need to add anything?” And if we didn’t have a reasonable answer to that, we’d leave the song alone.