Armed with nothing more than his Gibson SG—with just a bridge pickup and volume control—Timoty McTague went berserk during “In Regards to Myself” at Riot Fest 2016 in Chicago. His current main axe in the studio is a Gibson Les Paul with an EverTune bridge. Photo by Chris Kies
If your thing is shred solos, guitar heroics, or endless jams, then Underøath—a heavy metal, post-hardcore, somewhat mathcore band from Tampa, Florida—might not be for you. “We’ve always been energy- and vibe-focused,” says guitarist Timothy McTague. “That’s really a different way of songwriting than, ‘How much shit can we fit in a five-pound bag?’ We’re not about, ‘You do a drum solo, then I’ll do this weird lick, then the bass will slap, then whatever …’ That’s just so tired to me. It gets exhausting to even think about.”
Instead, Underøath’s approach is song-centric. No fuss. No mess. No distractions. “Our songwriting process has evolved around the song being king,” McTague continues. “The vision is king. Everyone plays to that unified vision rather than, ‘How fast can we go?’”
Not that their songs aren’t fast. They can be. They can be heavy, too. Underøath is a metal band, after all. They even have a funky “Ø” in their name. It’s just that their focus is collective and emotional. Underøath’s current lineup—which, in addition to McTague, also features James Smith on guitar—came together in 2004 at the time of their fourth release, They’re Only Chasing Safety.
Their profile grew with subsequent releases and two Grammy nominations, until they disbanded in 2013. But that breakup was short-lived, and two-years later they were back—although it took until 2017 to record the just-released Erase Me, which is their first studio album in eight years.
Erase Me is also their first effort to develop organically. “Historically, the band had always locked itself into a rehearsal space to write a new record,” Smith says. “Someone would come in with a riff or idea, which led to another part or another idea, and there was always that lockdown, like: ‘We’re not leaving until it’s all here.’ This time the band had taken a break for a few years. Some members had pursued other projects and had songs that weren’t being used or that weren’t the right mood or setting for those other projects. Some of us brought these ideas to the table, sent them around, and from there started developing them individually with Pro Tools. By the time we hit the studio, there were a few songs that were in a good spot to record.”
“We had a lot of different writing processes on this one,” McTague adds. “I think it shows, in that the record is super-dynamic. It is not as themed as our others, but it is also much more diverse.”
To learn more, we spoke with McTague and Smith about Erase Me, how they divvy up guitar duties, their unique approach to polyrhythms, their recent embrace of amp modeling, and their unbending—although officially unofficial—policy of never taking guitar solos.
Was Underøath already touring when you joined the band?
Timothy McTague: They were. The band was around for about two-and-a-half years, played a couple of cool festivals, signed to Takehold Records—which was a small indie label in Birmingham, Alabama—and released two albums. I was already in the band at the point The Changing of Times came out.
James Smith: I was playing in different bands and along the way I met Grant Brandell, the bass player in Underøath. We played in a ska band together in high school, and then we tried to transition to a heavier hardcore type of band. He was always pretty serious about music—as I was—but I also had my parents at home drilling into me, “You have to go to college and figure out a professional path to your life.” So I had a little bit more of that focus. He ended up joining Underøath to pursue full-time music. I stayed in school, played in some other bands, but really wasn’t happy to focus on school. Then the opportunity came up within Underøath: Their guitar player was going to leave. I was on that guitar player’s last tour—just offering my services. I was the merch guy for a few weeks, and from there was able to befriend everybody and get to the top of the list for tryouts. I plugged in, was able to play along, and then after that we were off and running. They didn’t need to try out anyone else.
TIDBIT: Timothy McTague played all the guitar and bass tracks on the band’s new album. But, he says, “I usually play all the lead stuff and James plays all the rhythm stuff.”
Was it difficult to find your voice within the band?
McTague: It wasn’t hard to find my voice, because when I tried out there were two guitar players, Corey Steger and Octavio Fernandez [who originally joined as bassist], and one of them was leaving. Corey wrote everything and Octavio basically played what Corey told him, and I thought I was replacing Octavio. I was like, “Man, that’s a dream come true. I’ll get to learn from a great songwriter and I’ll just be under Corey.” But then I realized that Corey was the one who was leaving.
I remember Octavio telling me, “You are going to have to take on a lot of writing for the new record, because none of us really write.” So it wasn’t like I had a mold I had to fit into. It was more that the dude who literally told everyone what to do just left. For the first time in the band’s lifetime everyone got to sit and think, “Who do I want to be?” Instead of, “This is what I am told to be.” That was really cool, because I wasn’t an established songwriter. I couldn’t do it all and I didn’t do it all. That was a big question in the conversations I had with the guys. I think it unlocked Chris [Dudley, keyboards] and Aaron [Gillespie, drums and vocals] to really become the hyper-creatives that they have blossomed into.