Underoath’s Aaron Gillespie On Creative Progress, Controversy, And The “Sacred Rite” of Performance

underoath interview

Photo by Dan Newman

Heavy rock titans Underoath have returned with Erase Me – the band’s first new music in eight years. The album represents an era of progress for the band. Not only have Underoath stripped away the ‘Christian band’ label that fans once associated with them, but Erase Me finds them broadening their horizons stylistically as well. From here, it seems, the sky’s the limit.

We spoke with Underoath drummer and vocalist Aaron Gillespie about creative evolution, controversy, Dave Grohl and more. Watch the video for ‘Rapture’ here and read our Underoath interview below:

Underoath Interview

Dan Redding: On Erase Me, you guys have broken down some of your own restrictions about what Underoath is supposed to be. Is that a liberating place to be?

Aaron Gillespie: It’s liberating in the band – and then it’s difficult everywhere else. You know? When you begin to say things that people are innately going to be offended by – even if it’s something that isn’t offensive – it’s a bit like having surgery in the sense that there’s something inside of you that you know needs to be excavated. But you’ve got to cut it open and get it out there. And that process hurts. For us, we needed to remove any labels from what we do. We needed that for us to be happy as humans.

When we started releasing these songs and people heard the lyrical content, some people were super angry. They were like, ‘What are you guys doing? This is nothing like you used to be.’ The last record we put out was a decade ago. At first, it’s really frustrating, like ‘What the fuck are you talking about – this is what we wanted to make!’ And then you realize that people are so connected to records that we made ten and twelve years ago – and that’s flattering. Especially in our genre of music, and from where we come from, for people to be that invested in what we said ten years ago is an important thing to me, and a flattering thing to me.

I guess where I’m at is that it was easy to do inside of our band and we needed to do it, but it was difficult outside of the band because it makes people think that we went back on our word, when the reality is that people just grow up and change. If we were exactly like we were socially ten years ago, we’d have a more screwed up place than we do now.

You and Spencer spent 18 months writing together to make this album. I wonder what that period was like for the two of you, in terms of navigating where you would go together for this album after a long hiatus and all of the changes that you went through. What was that like navigating those waters with him during that time?

Initially, when we started writing, it was kind of a secret. The whole making of this record was a secret – but it was a secret from the band. There was no plan to make a record. There was no plan to keep going. We were gonna do one tour, and then we decided we wanted to keep the rebirth thing flowing and happening. So right after the first tour, Spencer and I began to write in secret. We were like, ‘If the band doesn’t wanna make another record, we’ll just make another band or do something else, but why have we not played music together in eight years – we’re idiots!’ That whole thing. So it was kind of a secret.

What I think really happened – and this is kind of the first time I’ve spoken about this – I don’t think we were trying to navigate around that. We didn’t really know if it would even be for Underoath. We didn’t give a crap. It was like, ‘We’re just writing songs, so whatever.’ There are songs on the record from those first sessions. It’s really interesting. I think that first stretching of our legs as writers again – there was no connotation of what it would be. It was just like, ‘We’re doing this for Underoath, but the guys probably will hate it, or they won’t want to make a record anyway – so let’s just do whatever we want. Let’s just say whatever we want to say.’

We quickly realized as time went on that we were all in really similar boats with our belief systems, and socially. Why were we afraid, you know what I mean? When you grow up together with a bunch of guys, and everyone feels like each other should be the same person, and you feel like you should be this way and that way, it kind of grates on you socially. You kind of become afraid. It’s like family – to reveal your true self to your family is almost the scariest.

That process of maturing as a band – was that something that you had seen peers or your favorite bands go through?

I think so… I don’t really know that I paid as close attention as I should’ve to that. When it came time for me to need that type of advice or example, I don’t know that I had much to draw from. I’m a big music fan – I have a thousand vinyl records in my living room instead of a television. I live and eat and breathe that stuff. This sounds really cheap, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been a critical enough listener to really dive into the lives of people more than watching an Oasis documentary, like I did last night. It’s interesting to me, obviously, but I just am interested in the craft. I’m interested in peoples’ lives far enough to know why they created what they created. But beyond that – their inter-band issues – that stuff doesn’t interest me, I guess because I’ve lived that. People ask me questions all the time, like, ‘What is it like socially for you and Spencer to say the things that you say? And to sort of be the mouthpieces for this organization?’ Sometimes I ruefully wanna say, ‘That’s none of your business.’ But I understand it. But at the same time, it doesn’t interest me, but maybe that’s because I’m on the inside. I don’t know man, we could talk about that for an hour if you want to (laughs).

The theme of faith and religion is a big part of the band’s career, and to me that’s very personal subject matter. Do you have to sort of segregate part of yourself for things that are too personal?

That’s an interesting question. We were all very evangelical. Most of us were raised very evangelical. So naturally, we thought and felt that that’s how we should take our art too, and make it an evangelical product – even though we weren’t necessarily writing about God. We just felt that we should be evangelical with the band even though the songs are essentially about what they are about now – struggle and questioning, et cetera.

As you get older, you begin to ask questions. Sometimes, questions begin to blow holes in the things that you thought were watertight. For me, that’s been modern Christianity. Organized religion is something that I can’t really understand. As a kid, that was my whole life. … The modern American Christian church. I’m not attacking the modern American Christian church – I’m saying that I don’t understand it, and that I don’t really uphold that belief. I didn’t say spirituality or any of that, I just mean the organization of it that is really confusing to me.

I think we all began to feel that way in one way or another. Separately or in our own ways. There’s a whole other set of issues. When you put a label on something, you make it for someone. Right? Say I start a band tomorrow and all we sing about is veganism. Or we don’t sing about veganism at all but we call ourselves a vegan metal band. I know that sounds ridiculous – but I’m probably not gonna pick that up off the shelf and listen to it. Even if there’s some stuff on there that I might need to listen to or hear. That’s the thing – for us, having that label for so long created something in the band that I hate, and that is exclusion.

Dude, I’ll tell you what, the thing that scares me most in the world today is exclusion. I think that’s the source of the world’s problems: people being excluded from things. Exclusion is the reason why we have such a fucking mess. It’s the reason why we had slavery. It’s the reason why we had all this evil shit in our world, and I feel like us having that label for so long put us in a box. Once we dropped that label, it was freeing to us as a band to say, ‘This is for everybody. You can find something in this if you try.’ And for us to drop that label – it allowed us to stop feeling guilt for asking those questions. And to stop feeling guilt for saying, ‘I don’t know that I buy this, man. I don’t know that I buy this section of this.’ Or, ‘Do you think it’s okay to ask this question?’ It really freed us up. It’s funny how just a word can do that, but it’s true.

And plus dude, you live in New York – the state of the country right now, it’s just scary. It’s a scary term. The term ‘Christianity’ is a scary term. Even though I uphold a lot of those beliefs – it’s just a really scary term to say. Just because of what evangelicals have done to each other, and have done to the world at large.

As a New Yorker, I feel kind of removed from it in a way, because religious faith isn’t a big part of my daily existence here in the way that it is in some parts of our country. So it was surprising for me to see how some Christian fans thought it was controversial to hear profanity in an Underoath song. It was shocking to me that someone could be offended…

That’s the hardest part, is I feel removed from it. Something that people associate with us from twelve years ago is still that strong. This is what bothers me most about modern religion: that song was released just mere days after that school shooting in south Florida. People were just scathing about the fact that the first verse of [Underoath’s ‘On My Teeth’] says ‘fuck.’ I was chartreuse with anger because we had fucking children being killed, and we’re talking about a word? We’re using our social media space – what little soapboxes we have – to talk about a word? We didn’t even really identify the controversy because it hurt my feelings.

That’s the whole reason that we started asking questions in the first place. You have petty things like that, when there are such huge issues in our country and in our world. A few days before that whole thing started, children were murdered in a school. Donald Trump is our president. We have way bigger issues, you know what I mean? That’s only the beginning.

Aaron, do you ever experience bliss or transcendence when you’re onstage?

Every time. Every time, yeah.

There have been very few times in my career when I’ve been miserable onstage. When I was playing drums for Paramore for a while, we played Madison Square Garden, Red Rocks, Wembley, all these bucket list places. It was total bliss every night. There was one night when I had bronchitis and a one hundred and four fever. Those are the only moments when I’ve been unhappy onstage. In our line of work, you don’t call in [sick] – you just can’t. At a certain level, if you cancel, you’re costing people millions of dollars. You can’t really fuck around, you can’t cancel unless something’s really bad. I think Underoath has canceled one or two shows in our whole career. One was because someone had a kidney stone, and one was from crazy food poisoning. Those are the only moments when I don’t feel that though – blissful transcendence would be a fun way to put it.

There’s nothing like it, man. I have a theory that it’s directly linked to the reason why you hear about some musicians being drug addicts and alcoholics. You get offstage and your adrenaline is on a twelve. You get offstage and it abruptly stops. You might carry that high for a couple of hours, but then what do you do? Are you just gonna wake up the next morning and drink coffee like a regular person? Are you gonna go to Target and buy toilet paper and towels for your house?

No, you gotta chase the dragon!

(Laughter) Every time someone says ‘chase the dragon’ I think of the South Park episode where they play the ‘Heroin Hero’ video game.

Anyway, it can change your life, and if you learn how to harness it, it can be so healthy for you, and transcendent for you, and it can change everything about you. Or, it can become an addiction. I think that we’re all addicted to it a little bit. You just find other things. Most of us have children now, so you learn to displace that emotion, but you still can’t completely replicate it.

One musician that I spoke to described the experience of losing himself onstage, and sort of waking up after a bunch of time had passed – is that what it’s like for you? Do you lose yourself, or do you just get lost in the song in the moment?

Every city, every country, it’s different. It has a different feel to it. There are moments when you hear a count-in for the beginning of a set, and two hours later, you put your head up, and you’re covered in sweat and it’s over. There are times where a song will take on its own microcosm of life, and it becomes its own ecology for those three minutes. It changes from night to night.

I think that it’s unsafe for me to try and accurately describe it, because I’m afraid it’ll take some of the magic. I feel like it’s that sacred of a thing that we do, that we get to experience. We get to do this really sacred rite that not a lot of people get to do. Stepping onstage to a sold out crowd, and you hear those people, and the lights go down, and the curtain drops – there’s nothing like it in the world, and there’s so many musicians that deserve it but will never see that.

The director of the movie Amy did an Oasis documentary [Oasis: Supersonic], and Liam was talking about that. He’s like, ‘I don’t know that we’re the best at anything. I don’t know that we’re that good at anything, it’s just that we got chosen and we got to be the people that stand in this space. Even though we fucked it up’ – you know the story of Oasis, the brothers hating each other, et cetera, et cetera. It’s really interesting, that whole concept. You know what, you’re the first journalistic person to ever ask me that question, so that’s pretty cool. And I’ve literally done seven interviews a day for the last six weeks. So the fact that you asked that is very cool.

Oh, cool! Aaron, Can you name a concert that you attended as a spectator that changed your life?

We started touring when we were like eighteen, so we missed a lot. I’ve never seen my favorite bands play before. I saw Ryan Adams play here in Salt Lake City four or five years ago … that was a pretty special night for me. But in terms of the music that inspired me to death, like the Foo Fighters and early U2 – I’ve never seen any of that. I’ve played some festivals and seen Foo Fighters from the side of the stage, and opened up for them. That was really cool. But I never got to be in the seats and feel it. U2 did a Joshua Tree tour, and I missed that whole thing because I was on another tour.

Is there something about Dave Grohl that stands out to you, that you really appreciate?

Yeah, absolutely. Anybody that puts themselves out there like he has, in that really real kind of way – he’s a ‘guts on his sleeve’ kind of person.

He makes it look easy, it seems to come so naturally to him.

He does. There’s something cathartic about him. He’s like the last real rock star. That sounds trite, and I don’t mean for it to. But he’s the last guy that isn’t using a vocoder, and he’ll just say whatever he wants. He’s like the final one. We have this resurgence right now, especially in country music, of people doing really rootsy stuff – but in my mind he’s the guy. And he was in Nirvana. Nirvana was like my virginity of understanding this whole thing.

Plus, you’re a drummer. Drummers of his generation always talk about John Bonham – Grohl has a Bonham tattoo – people of newer generations love Bonham too, I’m sure, but I think Grohl might be the equivalent for a newer generation, you know?

I love Bonham, don’t get me wrong, but you have to understand who Bonham was to my age group. As a kid – even though I grew up really evangelical – every Friday night, my dad would get drunk. It was the only day he drank. He had this massive record collection, which I’ve inherited a lot of, and he would listen to all these records. Zeppelin of course, and The Beatles and The Beach Boys, and then a bunch of yacht rock – Steely Dan and Hall and Oates.

So I loved Zeppelin – but to me, those guys lived in a castle somewhere. My dad played The Song Remains the Same for me as a kid. Those guys drove weird cars and lived in castles – it wasn’t possible. As good as Bonham was, that did not seem attainable to me at twelve years old. When Nirvana came out, I was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ I was in fifth grade when ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ became the biggest hit of the year. That seemed attainable. It’s funny how as a kid, it didn’t seem that good – I mean proficiency. They didn’t seem like these virtuoso people – like when I watched The Song Remains the Same, or when my dad would play Pink Floyd, and I put headphones on, and it seemed like it was the richest thing I’d ever listened to. ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond,’ the first time I heard it, it sounded expensive. That’s one of my favorite records every made, but it sounded gold, it sounded expensive.

When I heard ‘Teen Spirit’ in my dad’s car for the first time, I was like, ‘I am capable of this.’ It gave me purpose. I think that’s the reason why my generation looks at Grohl and speaks about Grohl almost as much, or even more, than we do about Bonham, as drummers. Grohl did something that we were all able to do, and able to emulate. Obviously he did it better, with more sex and more groove and more appeal – but it made what we wanted to do permissible.

Well said. Yeah, Nirvana sort of reframed the rock star dream in an accessible American way.

Nirvana was the first time for all of us. In the mid-nineties, too, you had Oasis playing Nebworth. I think something like 1.3 million people applied for tickets. Something like a fifth of the population of England. To me, that was the expensive thing too. I loved ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ and I still love Oasis – but Nirvana was something different, man. It was this living, breathing rebellion. It invited us all in – you’re allowed. You can break cymbals, and be obnoxious, and it’s okay, and it’s apparently commercially viable now! It was such an interesting time. I really believe it’s the reason we’re all here. Obviously, all roads lead back to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and that’s the reason why Kurt wanted to write songs, et cetera, et cetera. But for us, it was Nirvana.

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