James Smith poses with his Fender Telecaster HH. He and McTague have swapped their amps and their pedals for Fractal modelers. “I am trying everything in the Fractal and I haven’t been disappointed yet,” Smith notes. Photo by Dan Newman
Let’s talk about playing in odd meters. Do you do that on purpose or is that just how it works out?
Smith: It is a little bit of both. We’re trying to capture the feeling and not so much trying to play the odd time signature. From a musical standpoint, our goal isn’t necessarily guitar-based. It’s more mood, sound, feeling, and emotions. However that speaks and translates musically is how it speaks and translates musically.
McTague: I think 4/4 timing with a 3/4 riff over it looping back [on the 12th beat] is one of the cooler moments in the music we play. What I really like is, as you’re listening, getting a little of that vertigo for a bit—and then it resets every four bars. But that’s not really a theory thing. I don’t know theory. I can’t read music. I don’t know what key songs are in.
I intentionally kept music theory out of my life, because I don’t think it’s ever done people good when they are trying to be creative. Obviously, there’s Jonny Greenwood [Radiohead] and Hans Zimmer [film composer], and these people are geniuses both technically and creatively.
But by-and-large, especially in heavy music, you can tell who are the guitarists that took guitar lessons for five years. It’s Between the Buried and Me. It’s Animals as Leaders. It’s so technical, because they think technically. I love those guys and we’ve toured with them, but that’s never been something that I’ve wanted to do. We’ve never had a guitar solo on a song and we never will. I think playing together to create a massive typhoon of color/emotion/feeling is much more important than me sticking out and people saying, “Dude, that guy is so sick at guitar.” For me, one of the special things about Underøath is we’ve always been energy- and vibe-focused. We play as much or just enough to where it gets the point across.
So, not taking solos is part of the band’s philosophy?
McTague: One-thousand percent. Though I don’t think it’s our philosophy. If you bumped into Grant or Chris and said, “Dude, I heard about your no-solo policy.” They would be like, “What do you mean?” It’s just that we have never been interested in solos and we just don’t do them. And we never will. If there was a point where it made sense … but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a guitar solo that makes sense. I get why they’re there. But why they’re there is everything that I am not trying to be. I don’t care about those things. I am impressed when you do it, but I don’t want to do it.
Smith: It’s more a lack of ability, I think. Also, it’s never really been a pursuit of ours. We’ve always played through the emotion and the soundscape of the song. Neither one of us are overly talented shredders by any stretch of the imagination. We leave that up to the guys who are. Also, I feel that it can get in the way of what you’re trying to create. It’s just highlighting ability instead of highlighting the song structure and songwriting.
As a two-guitar band, how do you define your roles?
McTague: On the record side, I record all of the guitars.
In general, or just for Erase Me?
McTague: Not in general. James has recorded on every record except this one. It is a weird thing. It is not a super-fun thing to talk about, but I think me, Aaron, Chris, and Spencer [Chamberlain, vocals] got to a point where we realized that we four have always been the main writers. It seems that it makes way more sense for us four to go in and write and record the album, rather than having everyone there and certain things not be efficient, creative, agile. So we took that route on this one. Generally, as far as divvying up parts—and this is for this record and every record—I usually play all the lead stuff and James plays all the rhythm stuff. When we have a part with three overdubs, he and I put our heads together and go, “Which way are we going?” He does the rhythms, I do the leads. Though I don’t like being called the “lead guitar player.” Yuck. But I do all the ambient noodle-y stuff. That’s how it’s always worked. James is super strong. He’s really great at rhythms. I am pretty good at creating a vibe with the delay pedal, bends, and getting a little more emotional. It works. We have a rock-solid rhythm section and that allows me to get a little more noisy and bring a new element live to everything.
Smith: I stood back on this record and let Tim explore and envision things. He was writing non-stop and these songs were coming from a place for him to really take the reins. He did it better than I could. I would just be more in the way. Tonal-wise, Underøath has always been two distinct guitar sounds. He mostly plays lead. The only times a lead will shift over to my side of the stage is if he has a vocal going on or something else that allows him not to play it as full. I am always there to support him. That’s the way I look at my role in the band: It is to support what we’re trying to create, and I am always down to do whatever.