Songwriter and guitarist Tim McTague discusses how the band sought to replicate their live sound and make their most authentic music yet
Underoath have long been a band that’s only continued to get better with time and each new release. From the early days of the Florida group’s disjointed extreme metal sounds to a string of albums that rode the wave of the metalcore, post-hardcore, emo (or whatever you wanna call it) boom before the 2010s, Underoath always seemed to have one foot in the future. But a tumultuous period for the band that resulted in a years-long breakup put everything on hold at the turn of the last decade.
The band would officially reunite in 2015 before making a full comeback in the form of their 2018 album Erase Me, which honed the band’s sound into its most concise and accessible form yet; cleaner, more melodic and seemingly destined for the airwaves, but without losing any of its punch. Their follow-up record now comes at a tumultuous time once again, albeit due to external forces rather than internal.
After nearly two years of a catastrophic pandemic, societal unrest, untold loss, and constant online discourse that only exacerbated every problem, Underoath have channeled their collective rage, helplessness, and revelations into their greatest work yet. Voyeurist combines all of the most compelling elements of the band’s sound – inspired dual vocals from drummer Aaron Gillespie and Spencer Chamberlain, massive synth layers and programming from Chris Dudley, and creative brutality from guitarists Tim McTague and James Smith and bassist Grant Brandell – to make a modern masterpiece of heavy music. It ebbs and flows and shifts moods on a dime (look no further than ‘I’m Pretty Sure I’m Out of Luck and Have No Friends’, ‘Numb’, or ‘Pneumonia’) all with a genuine sense of cathartic grandeur that shines on tracks like ‘Hallelujah’ or ‘Thorn’.
The band unveiled the entire album a month early in the form of Digital Ghost, a live streaming event that showcased the band performing Voyeurist front-to-back with a massive production surrounding them. It’s the ideal way to experience the new music – a visual spectacle with a connective narrative that gives the songs the proper glory and stronger emotions with a band at the top of their game absolutely shredding. Since then, the album has been released to critical acclaim from press and longtime fans alike, and the band’s first headlining tour in over two years is set to kick off in February with Spiritbox.
Knotfest was joined by guitarist and creative lead for the recording and production process Tim McTague once again to chat more in depth about Voyeurist and how the band sought to capture their live sound within the studio during a time when nobody was sure if live music was ever going to return.
What has this first week of having the new album out been like for the band?
Tim McTague: Honestly, it’s been very, very chill for us. It’s weird to not be on tour, it’s weird to still kind of be waiting for a lot of things that normally happen around a record release, but it seems like social media and press and everything’s been going and I haven’t really seen much bad press on it. I love that. I’m super proud of the record, I think we dug really hard and I feel like this is one of our best efforts. I love that it’s been received as well as it can be and I really don’t know until I’m sitting in front of someone live and I see the actual reaction, you know? It’s like, Underoath and Slipknot and Metallica and, you know, any heavy band is just – we’re live bands, and then we try to synthesize something into a phone or a CD or a vinyl, and it’s never the same. So it’s gonna be really interesting to see how it translates live and we won’t know that for another month. I’m really excited.
I’m actually a newer fan, I had a lot of friends that loved you guys and were more involved in that scene but my favorites bands were Linkin Park and Slipknot and stuff like that. I didn’t get into metalcore and post-hardcore stuff until later, and I’ve enjoyed your albums more progressively as they’ve come out. But when I saw Digital Ghost last month it really blew me away. It was exactly what I wanted and needed to hear without knowing it.
Tim McTague: I love that. I think, for us as a band, we observe a lot and I think we’re more thoughtful than we get credit for. Just thinking through what music is and what the point of music is. Especially when you’re locked in your room, or locked in your house for two years, you kind of get to reflect and it’s like, “What do we do?” Not so much like, what does Underoath do or what does Slipknot do or what does Beartooth or Thursday or Thrice do – all of those answers are totally different. But what does this unit of people that are creative do better than anyone? Or what do we do more authentic than anything we could do otherwise? I think that’s the biggest question and our goal with Voyeurist was even if it’s not the best selling record of the year, what do we want to authentically represent and put out? I think that in this time, everyone wants that more than anything. Everyone’s just hunting for something honest. I would take an honest politician with a few policies that I’m not really sure of over someone that I think is bullshit. And I think that that narrative has kind of extrapolated over everything. I just want a movie that feels like it was cared for, and even if I wouldn’t have done that shot, or I wish there was a different actor in it, if I believe the director, and I can kind of go with them on that journey, that means more to me than being blown away with a lot of smoke and mirrors and money and all of that. So I think Underoath right now, to us, is just fully stripped down. Fully back down to basics, in a very short sense, which in turn allows us to tap into things that we haven’t tapped into in possibly a decade.
Going through your discography, you can see the choruses get bigger and the music become more precise, especially with Erase Me, and Voyeurist feels like the culmination of everything before into the most definitive Underoath sound.
Tim McTague: I feel like Erase Me and Voyeurist are, within reason, such a disparity from each other that it’s hard to even compare them. Erase Me is a very tidied up, not over-complicated or over-thought, but very much an intentional song-by-song approach, where Voyeurist to me is more of, let’s let creativity kind of fly. How that expands, and how that kind of bridges out, you just chase it. Let the song just tell you where it wants to go and just be done. If there’s not a big chorus, that’s okay. There’s probably something else down the road. I think a lot of bands right now are following a big formula where it’s like, “We have to pay off the radio people, we have to pay off the label people, we have to pay off these people.” And not pay off in the sense of like, doing something disingenuous, but just even being conscious of it creatively kind of fucks with me, you know? What if there was no care if we got a Grammy nomination, or a top 10 or top 20 record or got anywhere with radio? Like, what do we do? Looking back for us, our biggest records and the records that mean the most to most people, insofar as it pertains to Underoath’s career, are the records that we didn’t even think about anything aside from “What do we want to do?”
You go back and reflect and you realize that nobody bought into this band previously because there was some big campaign or there was like, a special, bleached-hair singer or any of that. People gravitated to Underoath because it was authentic. What we thought was cool was also what they thought was cool. So let’s circle back and just kind of start there, and let’s not move from there until we feel like there’s a need to move. We started the record, we started demoing, and then as we got in the studio we decided we weren’t gonna deviate. We’re just gonna do what we want and hope that people like it, and I really hope that people like it. It was not intentionally a record to turn anyone off or turn anyone on. This is where we’re at creatively and we really hope that you’re along for the ride. And it might take two or three listens to the album to really understand where we’re going, but I hope that you give us that time. If you don’t, that’s a bummer, but hopefully you’ll come back to it at some point, you know?
This was a self-produced effort, correct?
Tim McTague: We produced the whole record ourselves alongside our front of house technician and engineer on the record, who also co-produced with us, JJ Revell. JJ has been touring with us for four years and we knew we wanted to go into the studio and have a clear headspace and not have anyone trying to push us or have to talk to the label or about singles. But we also knew that we needed that through line component and the glue that would allow us to talk while things are being set up, as well as who knows what we sound like. The fact that he’s been mixing us live for four years – he knows what our band feels like live in front of 1,000 people and in front of 20,000 people and everything in between. And we need to make sure that that’s what it feels like out of your speakers. So we brought JJ in and it was, me, Aaron, Spencer, Chris and JJ, and we built the whole record. Nobody was allowed in the room. Management didn’t hear anything, the label didn’t hear anything. We were just cooking for 90 days and what you hear is what you got. And that was it.
What did you find to be the major differences between that kind of approach versus having a bit more cooks in the kitchen?
Tim McTague: I think producers play a really good role. We’ve had amazing producers like Matt Squire who produced Erase Me, we’ve had Adam Dutkiewicz from Killswitch, Matt Goldman produced most of our stuff, and Jeremy Griffith produced Ø (Disambiguation) with us. It’s this whole thing, where everyone plays a role and there’s a community aspect as well as like, a disjointed aspect. Where we kind of land is a producer is there to get a band to get to where they want to be if they don’t know how to get there. And for us, we felt like we knew how to get to where we want to be without anyone. If we can achieve that, I think that is the purest form of what we are and what we’ve been working towards over the last 20 years. The beauty of that was like, if we do it and we realize and listen back, and you know, two months, or 75 days or 90 days, and we’re not happy with it, we can just go to a producer to help us figure out our blind spots. So that was kind of the premise that we started with. Let’s try it.
Not everyone was fully sold, including myself. But we need to try something just us first, and then figure out where we need help if we even need it. We have to intentionally try this and I think we’re going to be able to do it, but even if we’re not, we also have room to kind of pull back and bring in other collaborators if we feel like we’re missing the mark. And by the end of it the record was done and we didn’t want any other influence.
I’m so interested in the process of how artists decide to put the songs in the proper order and find the correct way to blend them into the whole experience. Voyeurist has such a diverse range of sounds and moods that ebbs and flows not just from song-to-song but even within each song itself.
Tim McTague: I feel like with Underoath, we’ve always been very album oriented. Regardless of the amount of songs, it’s about having someone put a CD in – back when we actually were making records, right? Where CDs were a thing? I want someone to put a CD or a vinyl on and just be transported. And as soon as they’re bored, you need to give them something new. I think that’s the counter programming of like, write individual songs creatively without any attachment, but when you’re done with the collection, figure out the proper way to arrange them to where you’re not getting bored. If you put a ‘Damn Excuses’ and a ‘Thorn’ and then you go right into a ‘Numb’ and then another heavy song like ‘Cycle’, if you start the record and it’s four songs of just brutality and it’s going, going, going, going, going, going, that wears the listener out.
I think one of our strong suits is finding those peaks and valleys and looking at a record, once the record is written organically, as an entire song. In the same way you write a song, you can do that over 30 or 40 minutes. I think that’s an art form in and of itself. I do believe that we nailed that with the order and how we staggered the brutal songs and the poppy songs and the deviant songs and experimental songs. Everything kind of works to give you a whole picture of what Voyeurist is. We just know that, if I’m bored, someone else is going to be bored. So what’s next and how do we keep interest? All the while knowing that most people aren’t going to even listen to it front-to-back, you know?
It’s refreshing to see you guys still embrace that side of it where so many other people have gone the other way in believing that nobody wants records anymore.
Tim McTague: In a lot of hip hop and pop, you put out a few singles, see what sticks, kind of build from there and see what shakes loose. Frankly, I’m excited about that. The idea that Underoath can’t put something out until it’s a 10,11,12 song album kind of hinder us in a lot of ways. I would love to experiment in an EP format or even just releasing one or two songs here and there, where it’s like, this isn’t the new vision, this is just something we wanted to mess around with. I think that we’re all in that weird spot, right? Of attention span, COVID, the world, shifting culture. I’m really interested in that playground and not being mad about the fact that the rules are constantly changing.
I would love to usher in some sort of wing or wave of Underoath where we could do a song with Fever 333, we could do a song with another band, we could do a song with a rapper. We could do a rap EP where we play all the music and they sing over it, and it could be an Underoath project, but also knowing that there’s a cohesive Underoath album, somewhere, somehow in the future. I think both things can have the same drink at the same bar and coexist.
After performing most of your back catalogue and even the whole Voyeurist album in a livestream setting, what are you hoping to bring to the upcoming tour?
Tim McTague: I would love to play the whole new record, but once you fill up like 9 tracks from the new record, then we’re not playing any other songs for the most part. I think where we’ve landed is we’ll probably going to try to play at least 30% to 40% of the record on tour and then obviously showcase the rest of our catalogue. I would love for the record to grow and for us to have an opportunity to play more Voyeurist heavy shows or sets, whether that be a one-off where we play it top to bottom, or whether that’s a future tour where we play the whole record and then a few of the fan favorites. But for this upcoming tour, I think it’s gonna be a really good and very balanced mix of all of the records that people love and all of the songs we love from the new record.
Are you guys bringing some of that Digital Ghost aesthetic to the live show?
Tim McTague: I don’t think we are, the big thing that we’ve tried to separate is a live stream experience to actually, physically being in a room. Going back to Observatory and all of our old live streams, I think we’ve done a really good job of not trying to replicate a concert, but creating a new world, a new universe and a new experience. Then live, it’s going to be more lights and just straight down the middle rock. We, as well as everyone else, is so starved for that. It’s hard to integrate something that’s so tethered to the loss of live music. I don’t want to bring anything from a pandemic, I want you to feel fully separated and reborn into what you used to be. I think that’s really important for everyone that’s at the show. Like, let’s pretend the last two or three years just never happened and just pick up where we left off. I think deep down, we all want this to go away. I think we’ve all done really creative things, and really cool things in the midst of adversity, but I don’t want to bring that adversity to a live show. I just want to go on stage, I want it to be hot, I want to sweat, I want people crowd surfing, I want to stage dive, I just want to go. Let’s just get back to rock and roll. Everything else has been a bridge and a bit of theater to a degree to kind of get us back to where we really all want to be, which is in a room and a community sharing the same experience.
I know you guys managed to get out and play a couple of shows last year, but I can’t imagine what it’s like for you and other artists that went from playing shows almost every day to none at all. Is there some intimidation to getting back into the swing of a full headlining tour?
Tim McTague: We haven’t played like that in almost two and a half years. It’s crazy to think about how the thing that we’ve done since we’ve been 17 and doing forever just gets cut off. We played Furnace Fest and Blue Ridge Rock Festival and they still felt like we were in a coma. We’re still trying to figure out how to walk, you know? What I love about prepping for a real tour is we’re all working out, we’re all putting in the prep days, we’re all just ready to go. Let’s work on a body of work. I think that’s a big thing that nobody really pays homage to. People talk about a record and how we worked so hard on the record, but every tour, in a weird way, that setlist is a record. How do you go from song one to the end? Do you want to do an encore? Do you not? How do you tether a song from 2006 into a song that’s from 2021?
There’s a whole new art form and it’s really hard to do that when you only have one day a year that you’re playing. When it’s a tour, you really understand that this is what we’re going to give to everyone at scale for 30-40 days, whatever it is, and you can refine it. The beauty of tour is we’re building a live record out of all of the things we’ve already built in a different way. That’s equally as creative and equally as exciting. So I’m really stoked. We haven’t been able to do that for two and a half years and I’m just ready to get in there. There’s so much creativity that we’ve had bottled up because we haven’t been able to exercise it. I want to be better live than we are on record. The goal of Voyeurist was to be as good on record as we are live – make it raw and make it loose and kind of rough. It’s gonna be really interesting to see how we kind of counterbalance that whole idea with it being different live, and it has to be.
‘Voyeurist’ is now available everywhere via Fearless Records. Underoath have added Bad Omens and Stray From the Path to their upcoming headlining tour with Spiritbox – Score your tickets HERE