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A Hardcore Day’s Night

  • David Jenison CCM Magazine
  • 2004 18 Nov
A Hardcore Day’s Night

Faith-based bands talk about being a light in the darkness, but into exactly how dark a place should a band go? For Tampa-based rockers Underoath, the darker the better. In fact, for the past two years, the band has played a New Jersey hardcore festival with a name that will certainly raise a few eyebrows: “Hellfest.”

Sure, a New Yorker might say that’s the perfect name for a festival held in New Jersey, but religious folk free of state rivalry might wonder if a Christian band should be playing such a show at all. Knowing how boldly they embrace their values, these Sunshine State boys would, without a doubt, beg to differ.

“Hellfest is a three-day, hardcore fest with 6,000 kids; and it’s insane,” explains guitarist Tim McTague. “It’s funny because it was at the same time as ‘Cornerstone’ last year; so Norma Jean, Beloved and [our band] went straight there after ‘Cornerstone’ and played on the last day. The big joke was that all the Christian bands were playing ‘Hellfest’ on Sunday. It seems like a lame joke, but it’s kind of funny if you look at it.”

Does playing such a music festival pay off? Underoath finds the answer when the guys read and respond to all their e-mail. The most common questions come from kids who see the band members at shows like “Hellfest” and ask about their faith.

“A lot of non-Christian kids hear the lyrics and see that we are on Tooth & Nail, and they want to find out what our deal is,” explains McTague. “We always answer the same way: ‘It’s what we believe in and why this band started. No matter what music or members change, that focus will never be lost. Without it, Underoath isn’t Underoath anymore.’ I know a lot of bands like to say how they are Christians in a band but not a ‘Christian band.’ I respect everyone’s opinion, but that’s not what we are about. We are not ashamed of what we believe because it’s what we are all about as a band.”

Underoath — whose members include six-stringers McTague and James Smith, vocalist Spencer Chamberlain, bassist Grant Brandell, drummer Aaron Gillespie and keyboardist Christopher Dudley — finds itself making an impact in the mainstream market with its new hit album, "They’re Only Chasing Safety." The video for “Reinventing Your Exit” is already playing on music channels MTV2 and Fuse, and the band backed up the buzz as a mainstay act on the entire “2004 Vans Warped Tour.” And beyond the TV exposure, the new album has sold more than 50,000 albums in only two months — impressive numbers for any type of artist, much less a hardcore act. Underoath also “crossed over” with its previous releases, but "They’re Only Chasing Safety" is such a strikingly innovative hardcore album that the entire scene is taking notice. In fact, the band boasts so much creative growth that it was actually bumped from Solid State to its big brother label, Tooth & Nail.

And with the opportunity to play the general-market shows and tours, the band feels it’s found an untapped ministry niche. Underoath has the opportunity to reach many non-Christian kids because so many are fans, a result of the band’s music being so authentic and creative. Comments McTague, “You have to know ‘what’s up;’ and if someone doesn’t feel he is connecting with you on a certain level, you aren’t going to break through to him. Half the kids we talk to at shows won’t go near a church. They feel like they need to meet a certain criteria to be accepted, and that’s our ministry — to bridge that gap and show people the love and acceptance of Christ.”

The band members admit, surprisingly, that they weren’t always this bold. The new album ends with the song “Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape,” which addresses a period when the guys realized they were too timid.

McTague explains, “The song is about realizing the error of your ways, asking for forgiveness and making a vow to start over and do what’s right. There is a balance in everything, but it seems a lot of Christian bands are willing to be so flexible and so accommodating that they end up putting their beliefs on the backburner and forgetting why they started the band in the first place. When someone used to ask if were a Christian band, we’d be like, ‘Yeah, we are all Christians who believe in God; but we aren’t here to shove anything on you.’ It’s always some beat-around-the-bush answer. No one just says, ‘Yes! This is the real deal; it’s why we are here, and it’s what we do! If you don’t like it, that’s OK. You don’t have to buy our record or come to our show.’”

Truly, a lot has changed; but as longtime fans know, it’s more than just the band’s boldness that’s different. Even though "They’re Only Chasing Safety" is its fourth album, the band’s actually had more than that number of member changes. In fact, drummer Aaron Gillespie is the only original member, which isn’t surprising, considering the founding members were all young teens when Underoath started. After the band’s debut EP, 1999’s "Acts of Depression," Chris Dudley joined on keyboards, while McTague joined soon after 2000’s "Cries of the Past." Underoath then signed to Solid State Records; and, after 2002’s "The Changing of Times," Grant Brandell took over on bass and James Smith on guitar. The biggest change happened last year, though, when the band was slated to play 10 “Warped Tour” dates. Vocalist Dallas Taylor was asked to leave the band two shows in, and Underoath bowed out of the remaining dates.

McTague, who said it involved personality differences, explains, “It’s hard to be in a hardcore band and try to have a regular life at the same time. There’s not a lot of money, you’re always on the road, and you’re never at home. Dallas was older than the rest of us, and he needed to be in a more stable environment. But it’s cool now. We just played Birmingham, and he came to the show; and half of us stayed at his house. He just wasn’t having fun anymore, but now he’s married with lots of stuff going on in his life.”

Pressed on what specific event sparked the split, McTague responds, “It really isn’t relative. I wouldn’t want to say anything to make him or anyone else look bad, and it’s not anyone’s business but his. We’ve straightened out our business with each other, so there’s no reason to bring it back up.”

Whatever the reason, Taylor left the band last October; and, with studio time planned for January, Underoath needed a replacement fast. Fortunately, the right vocalist was not far way. The band knew Spencer Chamberlain from his group This Runs Through and as the fiancé of Dudley’s girlfriend’s roommate. According to the guitarist, Chamberlain was a perfect fit; and Underoath now has a locked-in lineup with its best chemistry ever. In fact, the newfound dynamic inspired the band members to push themselves to make the new album a creative statement.

“We just didn’t want to write the millionth generic hardcore record,” exclaims McTague about "They’re Only Chasing Safety," which hit stores in June. “For the new album, we experimented with drum loops, keyboard samples and overall different feels for each song. We wanted to do something different than [what listeners had] heard before, whether from us or from another band.” After a pause, McTague concludes, “We are a hardcore band, but we just don’t want to be a typical hardcore band.”

© 2004 CCM Magazine.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.  Click here to subscribe.