Take a second to think back on the very first band that gave you butterflies when you were driving down the highway at sunset. Think about the band that created your addiction to art, music, and even tattoo culture and how they continued to feed into that. Many millennials remember Underoath as the band that created the modern metal scene and continuously cultivated it, even without always being present. If you’ve ever just had a conversation with your favorite artist or band, you will know that in reality, they are just a bunch of dudes who wanted to play music. They go through hardships and successes like any of us who have spent years falling asleep to their discography.
Underoath was formed in 1997 with its heart in Tampa, Florida. Many fans would recognize that band’s core members to include Aaron Gillespie, Christopher Dudley, Timothy McTague, Grant Brandell, James Smith, and Spencer Chamberlain. The band went through a heavy-hearted official departure in 2013 and in 2015 announced that they would be reuniting for the 2016 Rebirth Tour on which they would be performing They’re Only Chasing Safety and Define the Great Line in their entirety.Tattoo.com had the privilege of sitting down with Aaron, Grant, and Spencer to discuss the band’s efforts to branch away from inhibiting labels and genre descriptions, tattoos, and what it meant to grow up in a van full of six dudes who just wanted to play music. If you’ve ever wanted to have an honest and casual conversation with your favorite metal band, then it might go something like this:
In past interviews, you guys have mentioned wanting to take a more ambiguous approach to your music and how you present yourselves as a band. How has that been working out so far, especially on the Rebirth Tour?
GRANT: It’s definitely a little more different, especially since we are playing older albums. It’s a little more straightforward. People know what to expect, to a degree. Even the set order is what’s on the CDs. I think we still try to add as many elements as we can with like interludes and stuff, video production– yeah.
Do you have a lot of kids still coming up to you wanting to talk about faith?
GRANT: Not really. I mean a couple times. We’re kind of mixed now. Half of us are Christian, and some of us aren’t. It’s not really like a mainstay of the band anymore.
SPENCER: We’re just a band. I think no matter what you believe, the minute you put a word before your band name — you just messed up.
AARON: I think you open up Pandora’s Box too, man.
SPENCER: Yeah. I think it’s really tough. No matter what your goal is– if you’re a believer or non-believer, a straight edge vegan or whatever– the minute you put a word in front of a band, I’m not gonna listen to it. So why would I do that for my listeners. I think it’s pretty messed up. Just for me, personally. I didn’t listen to any Christian bands growing up. Ever. If someone said, “This is a Christian band, check it out,” then I would laugh in their face when I was a kid. It wasn’t until I was a little bit older that I had different feelings about faith and went down my own path or whatever, but I wasn’t brought up in a Christian, like– it wasn’t how I was raised. So I think it was a no brainer for us. Not that we are any different, but I think we’re all better people than we were when we started. We just removed a title, because I think it limits whatever you’re trying to do. Whether you’re trying to save people or just trying to play music. Whatever you’re trying to do, I think that label is going to narrow your audience.
AARON: There have been great movements of faith from people like Billy Graham. He is the only one that’s coming to mind right now, but it was never labeled as anything, you know? It was a movement of something. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with a movement, but like Spencer said, once you put a label on something– if you feel like you have to give a piece of music a faith– a piece of music isn’t an inanimate object. It’s alive in what it is. It doesn’t have to have another existence for it to mean something.
I kind of picture a bookstore. You have your different sections such as religion, fiction, poetry, etc. It’s almost like asking if they would place Underoath in the religion section versus something like non-fiction or memoir.
SPENCER: Yeah, who goes to the damn religion section anymore? I feel like religious people, even strong believers, are gonna go to the bookstore to get a book.
GRANT: I think the simplest way to put it is that back when Aaron was in the band before 2009, we were all on the same page. It made sense. Even though looking back–
SPENCER: We weren’t on the same page. We were trying to be on the same page.
AARON: Attempting to be on the same page. It was a whole different–
GRANT: Yeah, basically once we started we had that title. And we are all different now, but it’s never gonna go away, to a degree. But the fact of the matter is that we don’t all believe in the same stuff now.
SPENCER: Do you guys think that Creed still deals with that same stuff [laughs].
A lot of extreme believers– think Westboro Baptist Church– have sometimes referred to metal and hardcore as the “Devil’s music.” What are some of your favorite remarks you’ve gotten from people who honestly believe that?
AARON: That racist homophobic guy?
GRANT: [Laughs] I think we just kind of laugh it off and disregard it. Do we even ever come across that anymore?
AARON: We all have different beliefs now. I mean, I’m a believer, but I don’t like organized religion.
SPENCER: I’m a Belieber.
AARON: I am also a Belieber [laughs]. I believe what I believe, for sure, but I think people are what mess the whole thing up. This may sound a little harsh. I think anybody who has that kind of mindset is really living inside the wrong belief system.
GRANT: I think it’s just pure ignorance. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, or anything. If you’re so absent-minded that you can’t grasp anyone else believing in something else, or if you just can’t put your head around it, then you’re just an ignorant person. That’s all there is to it.
AARON: Yeah, if you’re a Christian and can’t look at an agnostic person and think,, “Yeah, I can talk to you and have an intelligent conversation with you,” then you’re not living the way you should be living. You’re an idiot. That’s how I feel.
GRANT: It’s like your great-grandma looking at your tattoos and saying, “You’re going to hell.”
I didn’t personally grow up with any sort of belief system. I just really wanted to pick your brains a bit about this transition you guys are going through from being a band that was so easily pigeonholed as a Christian band to just being more open and trying to strip the labels.
SPENCER: I think we also grew up though. It’s not like going back on anything we said. We were talking about this the other day. Kids ask why the band broke up. Dude, put six dudes in a van at like seventeen and eighteen years old and don’t ever stop, then watch the difference several years later when they are all in their late twenties or thirties. Think about that difference. Put that in a box and then add shows and success to it. When you’re a teenager it’s really easy to be like, “This is our band. We’re all the same guy– this little clique.” Then you start to become a man, and I don’t think I was a man until 26 or 27 years old. I didn’t really have my own identity outside of these guys. And I think once we did we started to figure out what was right for ourselves. And I think a lot of people give us shit about not being a Christian band or whatever anymore, but they have no idea. We were just little kids, you know? I’m not saying it’s wrong. There are some people that feel the exact same way when we started this band, and there are people that don’t. And even the people that don’t– it doesn’t mean that they’re worse off. They’re not in a “bad place” or lost. I don’t think that every religion works for everyone. That’s clearly why there are so many of them. I think it’s ridiculous when people point fingers and place blame on why this band isn’t what it was. I think that for me and my friends– it’s the healthiest we’ve ever been. Because everyone is free to be themselves. That’s how it should be.
AARON: There was a long period of time when we were hiding things from each other. Trying to make the ends meet. To an extent. I can say that for myself and for [Spencer]. I don’t know about the rest of the guys, but now– everyone’s shit is in the middle of the floor. And when you do that– when you get so many skeletons out of the closet and in the light so you can see them as your issues, your problems, your crutch– it’s a much smaller thing than if you don’t. There’s no baggage. We’re just growing up. We’re getting old. That’s all. We’re all in our mid-thirties, so there’s just no point for us to try to be something we’re not.
SPENCER: I think it’s healthy to be an individual and to accept your brother. If you’re a Christian or a non-Christian, it’s very accepting to be able to continue– just because we don’t all feel the way we did when we were seventeen years old– that’s okay.
It would also be incredibly unrealistic for people to expect that of you.
SPENCER: Yeah, it’s like someone saying, “Oh, you’re that dude in that metal band. You must only like metal.” No. I write songs on piano half the time and record the softest stuff you’ll ever hear. But stuff like that becomes your identity, and we made it our identity. And that’s fine. But I also think it’s okay that we’re just a band and that we’re happy. That should be enough for everybody, I think.
So do you all have families? Married? Any kids?
AARON: I’m divorced. I have a four-year-old. But it’s good. These two guys have long-term girlfriends, and everyone else is married with children. My son was here two days ago.
SPENCER: He grabbed my girlfriend’s boobs [laughs].
AARON: He’s very into girls. He’s four. It’s very interesting. He is just handsy. When you have a child you wonder how they’re gonna turn out– what they’re gonna be like. And he is just all boy. All he cares about is baseball and boobs.
Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about tattoos. Do you have any pertaining to family? If not, just pick one or two and tell me a little about the history behind them.
AARON: I’ve been getting tattoos for a long time. I have some that I need to adjust slightly [laughs]. But really, I have my son’s name tattooed on my chest, and I really love that. I got it when he was born.
SPENCER: I only have one arm done, and it’s taken me since I was eighteen.
AARON: I recently got a giant Sailor Jerry piece from the back of my neck down to my butt. But I haven’t filled it in. It hurts now, dude. I hate it. I have to finish my stomach and my chest, and I just– like, I haven’t been tattooed in a year. It hurts.
GRANT: I’ve only got two. One of them is pretty ironic because it’s a Christian tattoo. It’s Jonah and the Whale from the Bible. It’s funny because people ask if I’m gonna get it covered up, but it’s still an awesome story. Even though I’m not a Christian I still find a lot of value in that stuff. I still have to finish the other sleeve, which is supposed to be all space stuff, because I ran out of time and money for it. The same guy did both sleeves. His name is Mike Parsons. He lives in Tampa. The space sleeve is kind of just a theme of being a dreamer. There is a kid pretending he is flying a plane, and it just goes up into space. Nothing too crazy. You can’t see it, but it’s actually kind of a cover up. I had a sparrow. A long time ago I drove some guy around delivering weed all day, and he was like, “I’ll give you a tattoo.” He did it in a trailer. It was pretty awesome.
AARON: I have these Buffalo nickels behind my ears. I love these the most, I think, because when I was a kid my dad and I used to look for Buffalo nickels all the time. So there was like a big bunch of change we would dig through. My dad left my family when I was in high school, and I’m about to be 33. I’ve seen him like five times since. So I kind of got these tattoos to try to not be bitter. For me, it’s a reminder. I think bitterness will kill a human, you know? I got these to remind me to be kind to people, even if they treat you like shit. Even if it’s your father.
SPENCER: I have a pelican. I think it’s the newest one. He has a hook through his mouth, and he’s kind of bleeding and a little hurt. But at the same time he’s beautiful. I got that because I lived in a place called St. Petersburg for ten years. I wasn’t born and raised there. I just met these guys and I picked that place to live. The pelican is the logo of St. Pete. It’s, like, beautiful yet terrible at the same time. He’s hooked and hurting but still pretty. I became who I was while living there and became a man. But at the same time, it was just as evil as it was good for me. When I moved I got that tattoo as a reminder of that part of my life. I think every place can be what you make it. Whatever you want. I could have gone down a really dark path while I was there, and I kind of always skated this line. I’ve watched a lot of friends fall. Friends die. And people leave. I’m not saying it’s the worst place on Earth, but for me and my friends it was a place that we had to get out of. And it was really hard to leave. Why is it so hard to just move, you know? Why is it so hard to just pack up your stuff and say, “I’m gonna go somewhere else?” For me– I’m gonna change for me. Even if I don’t know anyone. All my friends are still there, and I miss everyone, you know? I go back for Underoath practice. I go back for Sleepwave practice. But I just got up and left, and that was really hard. I wanted to leave for three years, but for some reason I felt like I couldn’t. I felt like I was hooked, just how he is. I felt like I was chained to a place and had no family there– nothing. So when I got up and left I decided to get that tattoo.
As far as fan tattoos go, what were your reactions the first time you encountered one?
SPENCER: It’s crazy. I saw a few yesterday.
AARON: There are so many. It’s bizarre.
GRANT: There was a kid with a cast. There was a kid in the front of the crowd last night. He literally has the “O” with the slash on the top of his hand.
SPENCER: This kid had the “O” on one hand and the album art from my other band that’s only been together for a year on the other side. It’s crazy.
AARON: The kid in the cast was gonna get the “U” on the other arm but said he broke his arm and had to get a cast. He had never even seen us live before and he had this on his hand.
SPENCER: We’ve been having this conversation about the people who come out to these shows and how a lot of them are first-timers. A lot of people think it’s gonna be like a bunch of old people. But no. Think of your favorite bands. There are a lot of bands that I grew up on that I never got to see live. I still haven’t. Even bands that still exist right now. And I go to shows. When I’m off tour I go to shows all the time.
AARON: I think what we’ve seen is people who are our age that were into Underoath like in our heyday if you will. They gave their brothers, who were in middle school, copies of the albums or whatever. So now those kids are showing up, and they’re 21 years old.
SPENCER: I’ve been listening to Foo Fighters since I was in middle school. I’ve still never seen them live. I’ve been on tour for my whole life, basically. I’ve just never crossed paths or had the time off to where they didn’t have a show that was either $200 or sold out, or I was here while they were there, or whatever. I’ve got their lyrics tattooed on the back of my neck. Think about it. I’ve got Foo Fighters lyrics on my body, and I’ve never seen them.
AARON: There are going to be 2,000 people here tonight. We will ask the room how many people have never seen Underoath before, and three-quarters of the room will cheer. It’s crazy.
SPENCER: I think it’s really cool because it’s that little bit more of fuel that I think we kind of needed to see. Coming back, getting the band back together, and as far as the future goes– it’s like, “Okay, it’s not a bunch of old people that are just reliving their childhood.” We’ve got a lot of new people, and I think that puts more of a flame behind it. I think that’s cool. It’s like I want to make more music with this band and not just my other band. Because I’m seeing a lot of people, like myself, at these shows.
How do bands like Underoath respond to the Spotify culture, so to speak?
SPENCER: It’s better than pirating, to me. We’ve never seen money off record sales, and then when we hit that late 2000s era, it was really hard for labels. They were giving you less money and putting less into the band because they were seeing the numbers drop. But now it’s just known that people don’t buy records. So we can just take those numbers off the table. They don’t really matter. What matters is your ticket sales. What matters is the kids showing up and just getting in the room. If you like a band, then go see them live. That’s how they’re gonna not have to break up.
AARON: The interesting thing is that labels are still running an antiquated business. What’s happening now is that you have Spotify, iTunes– all this stuff. And records aren’t selling, but labels still gauge how much money they give an artist and gauge how much marketing they give an artist based on what they think they will sell. What we are doing now, basically, is branding. That’s how you make money now with an artist, is by branding. All of the biggest bands in the world now– you see them on iTunes commercials, and shoe commercials, and on a banner at the top of your Facebook page. Because that is, now, the new record sale.
GRANT: You’re not a musician anymore. You’re a celebrity. That’s how it is.
SPENCER: The internet is giving these kids a false perception of what real music is. It’s this whole smoke and mirrors thing. And now you’ve got all these Instagram-famous singers and stuff. I don’t even know what it is. It’s not authentic. It’s weird. But you can’t fight it. It’s just what it is. I’m really glad that our band existed before that’s what was important.
AARON: It would be hard for me to stomach success on the backend of all of that. But I think you have to look at all this stuff like Spotify as a tool as well. When we were coming up and playing local shows, unless someone came and bought a physical CD or a record from you, they didn’t have your music. And now everything is accessible, which is great for the start-up band.
SPENCER: I used to skip school to buy records.
AARON: Same. I remember when record releases were on Tuesdays. I used to go wait in line when something was coming. It was like more exciting than a movie. I was so excited. And that’s gone. Now it’s like artists are just saying, “Fuck it, I’m gonna put out my record and not tell anybody.” That’s the only way to do anything inventive anymore because it’s such a shark tank. You have to have a real and organic fan base that found you.
SPENCER: The reason that we are able to do this is because we drove ourselves into the ground. We started out in a van. Stuff like that broke our band up. We have this fan base because we worked really really hard. It’s not luck. It’s nothing like that.
AARON: Yeah, you have to go out and get it man.
Fifteen minutes quickly turned into an hour before the guys had to run to soundcheck. But rest assured, this won’t be the last we hear from Underoath.
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