Why Underoath No Longer Identifies As A Christian BandFrontman Spencer Chamberlain talks about his crisis of faith, kicking drugs, and how Underoath felt restricted, creatively and as individual, by their record label. See why Chamberlain says the change is “One of the best things we ever did.”
After nearly 20 years of identifying as a Christian band, Underoath ditched the label on their newest album, Erase Me.
The change left some of their fanbase confused about the new direction and even angered. Now, in an interview with Revolver, the post-hardcore outfit explained the reasoning behind the decision: being a Christian band became far too limiting and suffocating.
The history of Christian music basically goes like this: rock and roll (which was possibly created by Bill Haley and the Comets, or Chuck Berry, or maybe by Elvis, probably by the Beatles) is conceived, born, and begins to mature sometime between 1950 and 1960.
According to an essay in Christianity Today, at some point, rock bands stopped being polite young men in matching suits and become drug-addled, free-loving, infrequent bath-taking hippies, and the music gets more interesting.
The hippies realize that taking tons of acid has not made their lives quantifiably better and become disillusioned; some of them become lawyers, but some find Christianity to be a more satisfying alternative, establishing a kind of counter-counterculture called the Jesus Movement.
These people (also called Jesus Freaks) are still hippies, but with fewer drugs and sex and more Jesus. More Jesus, in fact, than a lot of churches, who (the Jesus Freaks think) are too focused on rules and rituals and not enough on the joy of God.
Converts though they are, these emerging Jesus rockers are not keen on stodgy church music (it’s part of the problem), and so they keep playing rock and roll, but, they do not go back to the politeness and the matching suits. They keep their beards and torn jeans, and the Jesus Freaks start touring churches with their bands. Other Christians begin to realize that (a) these people seem pretty legit, faith-wise, and (b) kids seem to like this kind of music.
At this point, many older Christians sound the alarm.
Underoath seems to qualify as part of the Jesus Movement if we use the aforementioned drugs and the associated identity crisis. That makes the title of their new LP, Erase Me, somewhat prophetic.
Erase Me is Underoath’s first album in eight years. It not only marks a return to the spotlight but an altering image.
“The band who once openly, and without apology, professed their faith-based worldview onstage nightly, have since moved beyond the realm of seemingly impenetrable polemics,” read their new Spotify biography. “At various junctures, Erase Me illustrates those moments of sanctuary, anxiety, betrayal, and conflict that inevitably arise when humanity grapples with belief systems.”
Reality and humanity eventually caught up with Underoath, to the point that they had to face the fact that being a Christian act wasn’t working for them anymore. In many ways, it had held them back, both creatively and as individuals.
Since the moment that Underoath announced “the hiatus is off” in 2015, nearly two years after the Christian metalcore luminaries officially disbanded, their ultra-passionate followers began clamoring to hear new music from their beloved Florida crew.
But earlier this year, when the band finally revealed the new album and debuted its first single “On My Teeth,” many of their faithful fans received quite a jolt. Not only did the track feature Underoath’s first recorded utterance of “fuck,” Erase Me‘s cover art depicted a brutalized angel.
“We definitely had a lot of issues going on.” – Spencer Chamberlain
But far from a superficial shock tactic, these choices, blasphemous to some, innocuous to others, were the results of a band confronting deep existential issues and undergoing profound philosophical changes.
“One of the best things we ever did was when we agreed not to be a Christian band anymore,” vocalist Spencer Chamberlain tells Revolver. “And when we made this record the [phrase], ‘That’s not Underoath enough,’ was not allowed to be said because those two things fucking ruined our band in the first place.”
Formed in Tampa, Florida, in 1997, Underoath released three albums before the abrupt departure of founding singer Dallas Taylor in 2003.
It wasn’t until Chamberlain signed on that they hit the screamo jackpot with 2004’s, They’re Only Chasing Safety. That record, their most commercially successful to date, was followed by a series of albums that helped usher the Christian rock genre into the mainstream while simultaneously strengthening their connection to the massive contingent of religious fans who passionately shared the group’s Christian beliefs.
For more than a decade, Chamberlain and the guys appeared to be living a charmed life; touring the world, releasing Top 10 albums and building families. However behind the scenes tensions were on the rise and the act began plotting its exit.
“We definitely had a lot of issues going on,” says Chamberlain of the events around that time. “I was constantly battling drug addiction, [guitarist] Tim [McTague] was having an identity crisis and [drummer/vocalist] Aaron [Gillespie] and us parted ways.”
“We were adding religion to it and holding people accountable to different things as they’re growing up and learning about themselves and telling them, ‘You have to be like me, do the things that I’m doing.’” – Spencer Chamberlain
In October 2012, Underoath broke the news to their fans that they would be performing one final tour; the last show of which was held on January 26, 2013.
Over the next couple years, Chamberlain stayed productive, releasing a record and touring with his new alternative band Sleepwave, however, his public battle with addiction was spiraling out of control causing him to become a pariah among the religious community that faithfully embraced the singer during his tenure in Underoath.
The healing didn’t begin until 2015 when Underoath reunited with founding member, drummer Gillespie, and announced plans for the Rebirth tour; events that re-ignited the band’s creativity, and inspired them to begin writing new material, which would eventually make its way on to this year’s crushing full-length Erase Me.
Chamberlain talks about why being in Underoath almost killed him, and how reconnecting with the band turned out to be his ultimate salvation.
It’s been eight years between Underoath records. How do you look back on that period now?
Spencer Chamberlain: I think none of us were really that happy and in the very beginning of 2013, we decided to split up. The next three years of our life were probably the worst three years of my life to date: I fell pretty hard into depression and a personal identity crisis, not really knowing what to do. I was writing kind of a solo record with a friend and touring — and I guess trying again. It was a rough couple of years. People don’t realize how hard we hit it for so long; I think we overworked after a certain point. There are no roadmaps for this; we just hit the ground running, and eventually, we got burnt out. It was a long life-changing period from 2010 to 2018 for me; I learned a lot about myself and about life.
How did Erase Me come together?
When we agreed to play shows again [in 2016], I kind of knew something was going to happen. It’s unrealistic that we are going to think that we are going to get in a room and practice all these songs and not start riffing. We just rehearsed for what we needed to do and pretended like we weren’t going to make a record and tried not to put that pressure on anyone in the band. But I think me and Aaron eventually knew that we needed to make some music.
As soon as the first Rebirth tour was over, I flew to Salt Lake City where he lives, and the two of us started writing in secret for a while until the other guys started talking about writing. Then we all shared different ideas and started talking about the idea of making a record. It was a natural process, but a very long process.
Underoath established itself as a Christian band, yet this album talks about your disillusion with organized religion. Was it a tough decision to make that sentiment such a big part of Erase Me?
I think that whole idea of spelling it out was a no-brainer for us. If anyone understands how a band works, it’s really hard to juggle all those relationships and personalities. Then in addition to all of that, we were adding religion to it and holding people accountable to different things as they’re growing up and learning about themselves and telling them, “You have to be like me, do the things that I’m doing.”
I don’t care what fucking religion you are, that’s so not what it’s about. It’s not about a unit moving together; it’s about a bunch of people growing up on their own. It was so much pressure and everything you did, no pun intended, you were crucified for. You couldn’t do anything without someone being angry. People don’t realize how much that weighs on you.
My drug problem was very public, and all of the Christian community hated me. I was struggling, and all I was getting was hate, like, all I’m having is people tell me how shitty I am all the time. That’s not love, that’s not comfortable. The most alone and isolated I’ve ever been in my life is when I considered myself a Christian, personally. Because I had real issues going on in my life and no one could talk to me about it. There was no help. There was nothing. It was just hide it, don’t talk about it because if you do you’re not Christian and the band can’t go on anymore, and that’s such an unrealistic thing. Life happens, people deal with stuff differently. It was driving us all apart, and it was making things really unhealthy, and I had a huge problem with calling the band a Christian band.
I mean in what other context is a 35-year-old man saying “fuck” controversial?
Right? I think part of music and art is stirring the pot. One of the best things we ever did was when we agreed not to be a Christian band anymore, and when we made this record the [phrase], “That’s not Underoath enough,” was not allowed to be said because those two things fucking ruined our band in the first place. We couldn’t grow musically, and we couldn’t grow individually, and once we let that stuff go, we became a healthy happy family that got along and were able to create music again.
I’ve been off drugs for over a year, and I know that was able to happen because we just let all those titles and restrictions go. That’s beautiful to me, and if people are mad about that, they can be mad all they want. I’m at a point in life where I can be happy and healthy, and if they really want us to be a metal band, and a Christian band again? I would be dead by now. I would be miserable, and overdosed on drugs, and there wouldn’t be an Underoath.
Erase Me is available on iTunes and the streaming services
This story initially appeared in Revolver.