Dan Newman

Underøath – ‘It Is This Life That Is Inspiring’

The Stone Pony Summer Stage opens its arms to the legendary metal core band tomorrow night with Irving Plaza doing the same as they take that stage on Friday.

When we catch up with Chris Dudley (keys, percussion, and programming) and Spencer Chamberlain (lead vocals) of Underøath, a band quite famously associated with nearly every post-hardcore, metal, emo, and indie scene this side of the century, it’s a vision of an on-the-road, touring band. Truly.

Chris is on a tour bus (a bus!) taking my call over Zoom while Spencer is dialing in from his phone so there wouldn’t be an echo from them being so close together inside, so he is “pacing the parking lot.”

On the day of our interview, it is the band’s day off. Jamming since early this spring, they tore through the dense 24-city Blind Obedience tour that they headlined with supporting metal outfits Periphery and Loathe before hopping over to the UK for Slam Dunk Festival in May. They have also just come off a short run supporting Ronnie Radke’s band Falling in Reverse and Fearless Records’ Ice Nine Kills and are now gearing up for the event long in the making: a massive summer tour with The Ghost Inside (supported by contemporaries We Came As Romans and Better Lovers, the supergroup comprised of folks from Dillinger Escape Plan, Every Time I Die, and Fit for an Autopsy). 

At the time of this writing, they’re headed to the legendary beachside Summer Stage at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park. (Call me biased, but that’s the pinnacle!) They will be taking this show well through the summer – all the way to California – and are slated to wrap up with Hawthorne Heights’ respective Ohio and Tennessee is for Lovers Festival in the fall. Oh, and Underøath also released a couple of new songs earlier this year: the sweeping, juxtaposing “Lifeline (Drowning)” and anthemic “Let Go.” Chamberlain and Dudley also share that the band has an album in the works for 2024.

That’s not all! The band is vocal to causes such as Mental Health Awareness Month (May) and create access to their art through partnerships, as well as solo and side projects. Chamberlain records as Slo/tide (“It Always Seemed Easier” is a straight bop), Dudley scores movies (so, so #mood), Aaron Gillespie (drums and vocals, and the only remaining founding member of the band) works with Mixwave to create open access to to drumming samples, Tim McTague (lead guitar) runs a craft beer and coffee joint, and Grant Brandell (bassist), in addition to shredding, is like many of his band mates – one of the raddest things ever – by being a family person. 

Of note, these are some of the first tours, runs, and releases of new music without longtime rhythm guitarist James Smith, who left the band in March of this year. Jumping into the dialogue, the industry veterans who had been touring together since they were 20, were as warm and generous as when I got to interview them for their #UØRebirth run six years ago. Change is not a stranger to this band, but one thing is for certain: fans old and new have a lot to be excited about.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, especially in the middle of your long-awaited summer run of shows… and two days after Red Rocks, if you want to tell us a bit about that.

Chris Dudley: Spee, you want to take this one?

Spencer Chamberlain: Yeah! We’re a couple days in, so I think we left July 1 to get ready for our tour [with The Ghost Inside], which starts in a couple of days. Right, Chris? 

Chris Dudley: Yeah, we had some pre-production… well, a lot of pre-production ’cause we have a lot of stuff going on with this co-headlining tour. The run that we just did with Falling in Reverse and Ice Nine Kills was perfect because it was a support slot, so the set length was, like, a half an hour, and it kind of got us like back in the groove of being on stage. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more ready for a first day than this tour. Pretty sick.

SC: It was a rad couple of days to get warmed up for this tour. We got ready for our tour first and then kind of went backwards ’cause we got a festival set, we’ve got a one-off show, and then our tour starts, and then we had the Ronnie Radke/Falling in Reverse stuff. We had all these different set lists; we had prepared for the long one and moved backwards from there. We were coming into this very prepared for our headlining tour which was kind of cool. We ended this run with Ice Nine Kills and Falling in Reverse at Red Rocks, which couldn’t be a cooler place to end a short run. It was the first time for us playing there. It was a very surreal experience. The way the venue is… it’s a special place.

Can you tell us a little bit more about that? Red Rocks is a bucket list sort of venue for a lot of artists, but also a lot of fans, consumers of music. How was the weather? What’s the setup like? I’d imagine because of the venue, leading up to getting on stage, it must’ve been a process. 

CD: It is definitely a bucket list venue for anybody in a band, but… it’s hard to describe. Everybody has seen pictures of it, but it’s really hard to describe how just built into the rock the entire place is. Like, the catering room backstage – I was sitting there and one of the walls of that catering room and it’s all just rock. They just built the room into the side of the rock. It’s just crazy. In the middle of the day, me and Spencer and Grant all walked up to the top of the steps, just because we had to, and when we were sitting all the way at the top. I was like, “Man, there’s not a venue in the country I can think of where I would more want to sit all the way in the back.” When you’re all the way at the top you’re seeing all the rocks, you can see Denver out in the background, all the stars are crazy, and you have the concert, so you have the rocks all lit up and everything. Yeah, it’s incredible.

SC: Also, Denver is the highest – or one of the highest – places in America altitude-wise, and Red Rocks is another 1,200 feet up from there, so you definitely feel a little bit of the altitude in a way that kind of makes you feel a little dizzy at times, or almost like you’re leaning or falling over, which is really interesting. It makes it a little harder to breathe. I thought one of the wildest things was where they put the buses in the parking lot, the way they load in there. These vans go up and down all day to take band members back and forth and it’s like straight up, is what it feels like, when you’re going up that hill. And they have to take all the gear up and down that way. It’s a process to get the show to go on in there, but everything about that venue seems so special and perfectly laid out, and just they’re so organized and ready to rip there. It’s awesome.

That’s wonderful! Maybe challenging to take a breath there, but it does sound like you’ve been non-stop leading up to that show, so it’s kind of like you were training hard for this tour. You mentioned kicking off your previous run with a festival and one-off show [Slam Dunk Festival and Heavy Music Awards in the UK], can you tell us a little bit about that?

CD: The award show that we did was at Wembley [the national stadium of England and the home of English football] and that was another kind of a bucket list thing for us, as well, because we never played there before. Day of, just kind of looking around and being like, “Holy cow, this is really really cool.” As far as shows in the UK go in general, we have found that particularly in the bigger cities – Birmingham, London, cities like that – we’ve had as good a shows in those cities as anywhere else in the world. They’ve been really, really good. We don’t go to the UK or Europe as much as, I guess, I would like… It’s logistical and it depends on what tour we’re on, etc., but overall and particularly that last experience was really cool, because we played the award show and then we played two Slam Dunk shows. Both of those were incredible.

SC: We’d never played Slam Dunk before either. I’d always heard [about it]. We had tried to make it work before, but it just never lined up where it made sense for us to do, but doing it for the first time and playing on the main stage in front of all those people. Those were two of my favorite UK shows we’ve done in maybe a long time… or maybe ever.

Y’all have been all over the world at this point. On a light topic, definitions of tour food might vary, but do you have spots in different countries that you always hit now, or do you just explore?

CD: It’s funny because typically, internationally, I feel like we are the most basic, uninteresting food people [Spencer laughs]. I think if you were to ask Aaron, he’d probably have more spots in particular places. But some places we go it’s literally “just get us some solid food.” Get us something that’s good, we don’t want anything crazy. I will say, when we went to South America, the promoter that brought us down there was an amazing guy. Literally every night after the show he would take us to these really nice Brazilian steakhouses. We were eating at these amazing Brazilian steakhouses so often that by the end of the tour we were like, “Hey, can we just get, like, a pizza or just something regular?” [Laughs] It would almost seem like it was too much! I don’t know – Spencer might have some particular places, but I find that I just kind of like what’s got a decent rating and is semi-close.

SC: I think we all just kind of lean on the old Yelp, which is the best thing that’s ever happened to traveling – between Yelp and Uber and Lime scooters, all the stuff that wasn’t around when we first started touring and you were on a bus and you were on your foot, on foot, and you were just trying to find food by just guessing…. The one staple in the UK that we always look for is Nando’s [Chris laughs] because that is so good.

Good to know! I haven’t been.

CD: Oh, it’s good I remember when I first saw one in the US I was like, “Holy crap! They’re bringing them to the US,” because that used to be a special thing for us just when we went overseas.

SC: But it’s not the same…

So, food is just one aspect of surviving and thriving while on tour. What other tactics or habits do you have to stay happy and healthy on this tour specifically, and how’s that changed from when you first started out? 

SC: For me, it’s working out: trying to find a gym or using a hotel gym five to six days a week. It keeps me mentally and physically healthy. Otherwise, I will lose my mind. That’s really what’s changed the most. Half the band works out all of the time. We weren’t doing that when we started. 

CD: You know, one of the only negative things about being on tour is being away from family. We all have kids and that’s a big negative of being on tour, but being able to have FaceTime, and my kids have phones so texting me throughout the day and I’m video chatting with them, and sending pictures and all of that… just being able to have a steady line of communication to my wife and kids, it makes all the difference. There were times when we were touring where we didn’t even have cell phones, so that’s been a game changer: just being able to talk to my kids and my wife whenever I want and they can get in touch with me whenever they want.

Remember when we used to have to pay for text messages? Now you can talk to anyone in the world for free! It’s wild.

CD: When we first started touring, I was 16 and my mom bought – I didn’t even know she would do this – an 800 number for our house so that at any pay phone (because we didn’t have cell phones), I could call home and I didn’t have to pay for it. I saved money on phone cards.

SC: You remember those calling cards we used to get in Europe and the UK? Cell phones were a thing when we first started touring; we just couldn’t all afford it! We were a band sharing one hotel room making $100 a day to get from one place to the other. When we first started going overseas, we did have cell phones but it wasn’t where if you made a phone call from overseas it would even work. Or, if it did, it was going to cost you a fortune. We had to buy those prepaid phone cards and then go in little pay phones and call home.

CD: Oh, yes. We got it so easy now.

Do you write at all while you’re on tour or do you focus most of your energy on the touring material?

CD: I will say that when we do write on tour, it has to be intentional, because the traveling and the performing and all the stuff that comes with that physically, mentally; it’s easy to not write on tour. You know when you have down time and you take that down time. It feels really good. Myself and Aaron, we tend to write on days off. Because Aaron is a songwriter, he works with a lot of different artists. I’m a film composer, so I’m working on film stuff on days off. It has to be intentional. I think we would all prefer not to write on tour, but we also want to keep pushing forward to getting new stuff out.

SC: I think we do try to write on tour as a band, stuff for Underøath. I laid down a track this week actually, for someone else, but when it comes to Underøath, it’s tough because the show does take a lot. We put a lot into it, being creative, and when you’re constantly playing heavy music and around heavy music all day…. I feel like the best Underøath comes from when we take a minute away from it and then we all come together and we’re excited to work on stuff as a band. That being said, we do try to keep moving along on tour, like Chris said, but it tends to be that the best stuff that actually makes it to a record never comes from what we do on the road, typically. Not saying that it wouldn’t, but the biggest thing for Underøath, I think, is sometimes taking time away from it and just being excited again to play together. 

CD: Then there’s the individual writing that happens on tour. It’s easier, because it’s individual. Like, I can just take my rig, go to the room, and write, whereas if we’re doing Underøath writing it’s like, “Hey, we have a day off. We can relax or we’re all going to get into a room, set up our stuff,” and it’s just logistically harder.

SC: And a lot of times you need that day off . Sometimes I’m like, “Man, if I’ve got four shows in a row this week and then the day off and then five more after that, do I really want to use my voice a lot today?” Sure, I can, but it can be exhausting ,and the best thing for you as a singer a lot of times it’s just to shut up, you know? Like you just need a day to shut up and rest and relax and sleep.

CD: Those are my favorite days, when Spencer is–

SC: –quiet.

CD: Those are some of my favorite days: when Spencer doesn’t talk. [Laughs]

You just released “Lifeline (Drowning)” via your new label home MRK Heavy, an appetizing follow up to “Let Go” this past March. How did that track come together? Did you write separately and send each other files, or did you get together and workshop?

SC: We did that all of the ways [Laughs], all of the above. It came together in a really strange way, but it started like… Aaron had worked with this other guy for a completely different artist on acoustic guitar and had this part of that chorus that you hear now. He sent it to us, we all liked it, and we got in a room together as a band and we tried to make the music, then make the vibe, and then make something out of this first hook idea. As the band got stuff together, we were working on other songs,  then we all left and went home because we don’t all live in Florida anymore. Some of us do, some of us don’t. I flew to Nashville and me and Aaron rewrote part of the chorus and wrote all new verses and the bridge, vocally tracked it, sent it to the band who were in Tampa. They adjusted stuff on their end, sent it back, and finished it. It was really the first song we’ve ever done in every way possible; things were done from different locations, things were done together. It was just like a hodgepodge of every way we’ve ever made a song. It was a cool way to do it. Now, I don’t know if we’ll do that again unless we had to, but we typically like to do everything in the room together as the four writers.

That’s pretty neat. Would you say that the experience of recording your last album [Voyeurism, which was self-produced] might have had something to do with your confidence in going about it that way?

SC: Yeah, once we figured out we could produce ourselves and record alone without any outside people, I think that was really cool and we definitely learned a lot – about each other, about ourselves, and how to trust one another. I’m sure confidence went up with that. I think one of the main things I also took from that is that sometimes collaborating with people on the outside is really cool and really special – and it’s not because you can’t make your own record or you can’t write your own song. Sometimes when there’s that other element in the room, it brings different things out of different people in different ways. I really enjoy both sides of it. I love that we can make our own records and say, “Fuck it, let’s just do this shit ourselves,” but also like that, we’ve kind of come full circle in that we don’t have to prove that point to ourselves anymore. It’s like, if we do these songs alone and we do these songs with someone else in the room, that’s all normal and it’s all ok. I think we had to figure that out.

“Lifeline” was framed as a standalone, but of course folks want to know, when are the creatives keen on another collection?

SC: There will be another Underøath record next year. That’s the record, next year, and we’re not sure the exact timeline, but the moving target that we’ve been trying to hit is 2024.

CD: Yeah, it’s funny because you know we’ve got “Let Go” and “Lifeline” out and I think people have this idea that we’ve got another like eight, nine, 10 songs done in the bag and we’re just waiting to release them. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this, but that’s not case at all. We’ve got a lot of really cool ideas, a lot of really cool demos. Some of them are almost completed songs and then other things are like just really starts of ideas that we’re really excited about. […] During this tour and I think after this tour we are really going to start hammering down on what that will be like. Who knows what that will even end up being? Last night I was talking to Aaron and he was like, “Man, I really like the idea of not putting “Let Go” and “Lifeline” on the record and just coming up with a whole new thing.” It’s very much a moving target. It’s a work in progress and I think that’s exciting. I think the idea of being able to get a song done, put it out, and then potentially just have that be that song is exciting. What’s also interesting about it to me is the ideas that we have. They are just so dissimilar from one another; we’ve got some insanely heavy fast stuff and then we’ve got like some weird down stuff, and we’re just kind of still chipping away at the stone to figure out what it’s all going to look like.

SC: In my opinion,, I think it’ll be the most well-rounded Underøath record we’ve ever made. By that I mean, like, Erase Me was really song driven, Voyeurist was very experimental, Lost in the Sound of Separation sounds extremely heavy; that kind of thing. I feel like the heavy stuff we have now is the heaviest stuff we’ve ever created in the most…. I don’t know if the right word is violent or aggressive in a way, but this energy there. Then the song stuff is, like, the most song stuff we’ve ever created, if that makes any sense. They are the most melody focused yet and it’s catchy and it moves you and makes you feel something. I feel like we’re going to have a very well-rounded Underøath record, like the heaviest shit you’ve ever heard and the catchiest shit you’ve ever heard on the same album, which would be my goal. I think looking at it from where we’re sitting, that could change, but that’s where I feel like we are right now. 

That’s really exciting. I still live in the universe of mixed CDs and the idea of listening to an album all the way through, so I’m really excited for that composition. Now, this might be a personal opinion, but I think what’s going into some of the themes of Underøath’s music are reasons that the music has endured over time. Where do you get your inspiration now, having spent 20 years since the start of this thing?

CD: Oh boy, that’s a big question. I think that, for me – although I think I can speak for the other guys, as well – is when we are working on Underøath songs, it always tends to stem from a feeling. It’s like, “I want to write something that makes me feel like, ‘Oh, I saw this movie, I want to write something that feels like that.'” It’s not always something like, “Here’s this riff and we need to write like this.” It’s more so whatever is making us feel like what we want to create. That is a super hippie-dippie answer, but right now I’m in the middle of reading Rick Ruben’s book and I am so inspired to just write and not even necessarily write something that would end up on an Underøath record. I’m just inspired to create something and that in itself is something that’s inspiring me currently. You know, movies always tend to inspire me to write and I’ve seen a couple really good ones lately. Yeah, it just runs the gamut for me, personally.

SC: Yeah, I could agree with that, movies, and also the feeling, like what you were saying earlier, Chris. This is something we tap into a lot; it’s not necessarily a band or a song or whatever. I feel like a lot of times it’s like we’re chasing a feeling that we used to feel, if that makes sense. Music, for example: we don’t listen to a lot of heavy music anymore and that’s maybe because we’re around it all the time and because we’ve been playing it forever. Or maybe because we feel like a lot of heavy stuff is not our personal taste, or whatever it Is when your tastes have changed. So when you’re writing whatever genre you’re writing for, I always try to be like, “What is it that my brain wants to hear from this genre? Is there any song that when I hear it, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s perfect. What’s the point?'” I think there are some songs that are perfect for the way I feel or what I want to hear, but a lot of times when I hear something heavy it’s like, “Oh, I would have done this,” or, “I wish they would have done that.” It’s trying to find what it is that we want to hear out of heavy music when we’re creating it and then the inspiration of just what you’re going through, or even what you’ve been through the last month or year or two.

CD: I think particularly with vocals and in lyric writing, that’s a lot more of it because that is an element that I don’t play into my process at all just because I don’t write lyrics and I don’t sing. But I think particularly for Aaron and Spencer, that’s probably a lot more of a ‘thing.’ Thinking, “What do we want this to be about,” then when you figure out what you wanted to be about, it’s like, “What does that feel like?”

SC: It’s the emotion of what you’re going through, what you’re trying to say, and trying to capture that in sounds. We’re all involved in the music writing and when me and Aaron talk about the lyrics of melodies, we’re trying to capture the sound of the music the same way we would feel about the sound of the lyric, the actual lyric, and what we’re trying to say. So, yeah, I think that’s all. It’s this life that’s inspiring, you know? The ups and the downs.

You’ve been eating and breathing tour and recently working with a number of your peers: Periphery, Loathe, The Ghost Inside, Falling in Reverse, Ice Nine Kills, We Came as Romans, Better Lovers. Tell me a bit about working with those bands and how they reflect or align with your style and experience.

SC: We’d never worked with any of them before!

CD: Yeah, I think that’s what’s cool. This run that we just did with Falling in Reverse and Ice Nine Kills… we’ve never toured with either of those bands. This co-headlining run that we’re doing with The Ghost Inside? We never toured with The Ghost Inside. We never toured with We Came as Romans. Nobody has ever toured with Better Lovers. We toured with Every Time I Die years ago. I think what is particularly cool about this bit of touring we’re doing is we are meeting so many new people. We’ve met some of the guys – we met Ronnie from Falling in Reverse years ago on Warped Tour, we’ve met the We came as Romans guys, and we’ve met a couple of The Ghost Inside guys – but it’s such a new thing that I think is awesome having been touring as long as we have. To get on two months worth of shows where it’s just new people that we are meeting and getting to know, all of that… I think there’s a freshness that comes with that which is pretty exciting. It’s rad. It’s a position that we haven’t been in in a long time.

It sounds like there’s a spirit of partnership and a lot going on within the band and with solo and side projects, and a lot of you have families. How, and why, do you do it all?

CD: Wow, well… the how is that you just do it. You just keep doing it. I think that the how and the why are intertwined. We’ve had this discussion amongst us before where it’s like, if you are a creative person, you can’t help but create – whether or not people consume what it is you create. If you’re a painter or you’re a poet, whatever, you have to do it – whether it’s at one in the morning when you get home from your second job or on the weekends. If it happens to somehow become your career, you have to do it no matter what. I think that we’re just in a very uncommon position where the art that we make is also our career and people enjoy it. I personally try not to think too much about it. I find that when you overthink that aspect, it’ll start to creep its way into the creative process itself. I think that the important thing as far as being creative is just getting out whatever it is that os inside you, or having whatever idea that happens to come to mind, out. Then, if you’re doing something that’s good enough to work and excites you as a creative person, you kind of just hope that other people also enjoy it that much. I guess that’s a weird spot with being in a band. If you write music and you put out an album, it’s kind of a roll of the dice where it’s like, “Well, we think this is awesome. We’re going to keep doing it. Hopefully this is another two years where we get to do this as a career.” It’s an odd thing that we’re all just crazy thankful for. It sounds kind of hippie-dippie again, but it’s kind of a wave that we’re continuing to ride and the fact that it’s over 20 years now and we’re still riding that wave… if something happened tomorrow and we’re not able to be in this band anymore for whatever reason, all of us would still be creating.

SC: 100%.

CD: It would just take some sort of different form.

SC: We have that joke conversation on the bus all the time: If you hit the lottery, would you just go home and live it up and buy all the stuff? Everyone in the band has the same answer right now, which is absolutely not. We would keep touring and making music the way we make it right now. Nothing would change. Maybe we would have a nicer bus and cooler production, but no one would stop making music if they hit it big with money or the lottery or whatever the hell. Like Chris was saying, we talk about that all the time; as a creative person, it’s something you have to get out and that you have to do. It’s your passion, it’s something that you love. We’re just fortunate to where that is also what feeds our families and pays our bills. 

CD: We’d bring all our families on tour if we hit the lotto. That would be the sickest.

SC: Oh, dude, yeah! No one would have to be away from their children! That would be really cool and special.

CD: We’ll have Metallica-level buses, but we’ll be playing the same venues we’re playing now.

[Both laugh].