Ceaselessly propelled by his desire to express his voice as a drummer, vocalist, and songwriter, Aaron Gillespie has reunited with Underøath, the band he helped found over twenty years ago. Gillespie, who’s now thirty-five, left Underøath in 2010 to pursue other interests. During that time he spent three years in the drum seat for pop-rockers Paramore; fronted his own project, the Almost; and released three studio albums, a live collection, and several singles under his own name.
In 2013 Underøath announced that they were breaking up, but in 2016 came back together, this time with Gillespie, for a reunion tour. “After that reunion tour,” says Aaron, “we decided that we wanted to stay a band. About a year later, we had the conversation about whether we were really going to make a record. While we were writing the record, though, we had to keep it a secret. The day we announced it, we put out a single and a video. It was only a six-week rollout, and there was no extended period of releasing singles ahead of the album.”
Since his formative years in Florida, Gillespie has regularly seen his work, including Underøath’s first several albums, categorized as Contemporary Christian music, or CCM. Publicly distancing themselves from that identity with the new Erase Me album—including the use of profanity for the first time—Underøath have raised some eyebrows. But ultimately the band feels that they’re being true to who they are at this point in their lives.
“For years,” says Gillespie, “we had major success with some really heavy, avant-garde music. Our records went gold, and it was a life-changing experience. The songs were always important to us, but it was more about the moment. This is our first record in a decade, and I think we’ve all grown as men. We’re all in our mid-thirties now. I did a lot of sideman work, and I think [the time away] kind of grew us all up a bit. We all realized that what we loved about music is the songs more than the moments. I think that’s the place that we’re coming from.”
Gillespie co-wrote all of the nearly thirty songs that he and his bandmates brought to producer Matt Squire for Erase Me. “For the entire writing process, [singer] Spencer Chamberlain was living in New York City, I was in Utah, and the rest of the band was in Florida. Only four of us recorded the album. [Guitarist] Timothy McTague recorded every string instrument, [keyboardist] Christopher Dudley worked his ass off, and then it was Spencer and me.
“In the past,” Aaron explains, “all six of us would go into a room and ‘jam-write.’ [Guitarist James Smith and bassist Grant Brandell round out the lineup.] It would take a year or a year and a half to get to twelve songs, and those twelve songs were what we recorded. This time we didn’t really want to take that approach. We were sending material back and forth, and it was a very different experience from the previous records.
“As you can tell, this record is very different from our other material, and it started even more differently. It started in a very ‘left’ place, with us almost writing pop songs, because that’s just what we were feeling at the time. Tim is into a lot of hip-hop, and we just all started writing stuff and then adding guitars to it to make it sound like rock ’n’ roll—and it worked. We started in a room together with Matt Squire playing bass, just jamming on one of the songs that we thought was going to make the record—which is funny because that song didn’t make the record. But we realized that we didn’t want to work that way, we just wanted to build the songs together, and we just started working.”
Eschewing modern production comforts like sample replacement and excessive quantization and editing, Gillespie went for full takes and worked with Squire to get his parts to tell the story he intended to tell. “I wanted to be real about this record,” he says, “and really play for the songs. I think modern music, especially heavy music, is too replaced and compressed. I’m just not into that. We did legit full takes and flew in my drum tech and changed the heads for every song on this one. I really wanted the album to feel and sound like you were standing in front of a drumset.
“We spent a lot of time getting the drums to poke out,” Aaron continues. “I loved the drum sound. I had a great Gretsch USA Custom kit sent in and, like, thirty snare drums. I mean, Gregg Keplinger sent me one of his personal snares. It was awesome. But for the first week, something about it was just bothering me. I was uninspired. So one afternoon, when they were cutting bass or something, I got into the rental car and drove to a pawn shop. I picked up all these orphaned drums. There was a 15″ Ludwig Vistalite floor tom and a 12″ Premier rack tom from the ’70s. There was also a Premier kick drum from the ’70s that had all the wrap taken off and had water damage.”
Taking his find back to the studio, Gillespie kept all of the original heads on the drums, put Sennheiser MD 421 mics inside each, and… “I recorded ninety percent of the verses to the songs with those drums,” he reveals. “I think that when your ‘A’ kit comes in after the ‘B’ kit, it sounds crazy. You need so much texture to get people’s attention these days.”
Among Gillespie’s standout moments on Erase Me is his all-out linear assault on lead single “On My Teeth.” Regarding the genesis of the song, he says, “We went to a restaurant one day, and on the way back we were listening to the Nine Inch Nails record With Teeth, which has a song on it called ‘You Know What You Are?’ It has this thunderous rack tom/snare drum part in the verse, played by Dave Grohl. I was like, ‘I bet we could do something like that!’ When we got back, Matt said, ‘Okay, do it.’We put the click on at 180 bpm, and that part is what I played.
“We just did things differently from how we’ve done them before,” Aaron says. “A lot of those songs were created from an idea rather than written [as a whole piece]. I’d come in with a groove that was supposed to be used for something completely unrelated, and we’d just start to build on it. We found that to be a really great process for us rather than the traditional way of getting in a room and jamming.”
Gillespie’s parts stick like glue to the industrially flavored second single, “Rapture.” Other standout performances among the album’s eleven carefully crafted tracks are his boiling fills and emotional yet controlled smashing on album opener “It Has to Start Somewhere,” his clever backbeat displacement on “Bloodlust,” and his intense, all-over-the-kit approach to “Sink With You.”
On working with Matt Squire, whose résumé as a producer includes acts that would seem contrary to Underøath’s metalcore and post-hardcore background, Gillespie says, “It was cool, because Matt got his start as an assistant to Brian McTernan [Darkest Hour, Hot Water Music, Thrice, Circa Survive, Sky Eats Airplane]. Brian owned the original Salad Days studio in Baltimore, Maryland, where they did all the Dischord Records stuff and the first couple of Thrice records—all of these records that we really liked growing up. Matt went out on his own and did A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out by Panic! at the Disco, which did something like three and a half million copies. He did a bunch of heavy stuff too, then he moved to L.A. and did Ariana Grande and One Direction’s first records. He became a pop guy for a decade. During this time, Brian McTernan became a real estate agent and sold Matt the studio, so we made this record at the original Salad Days in Baltimore.
“When we reached out to Matt,” Gillespie continues, “he’d just moved back to the East Coast, and ours was the first rock record he’d done in eight years. We all thought it would be a brilliant choice because he’s a pop guy who came from punk rock and metal. We were kind of doing some of that, trying to sprinkle a little pop into our music, so here’s a guy that does both—let’s see what happens. Tracking drums with him was super cool because he would say, ‘You don’t need to play that. What are you saying by playing that?’ That’s something I’ll never forget, and I’ve decided to always ask drummers that with my own productions. What are you saying by playing that? You’re saying, ‘Look at me, look how good I am,’ or you’re saying nothing and letting the music breathe.”
Often when Gillespie’s playing falls into the busier end of that spectrum, he’s simultaneously providing Underøath’s clean vocals. “It’s a learning curve every time we make a record,” he says. “Obviously we don’t record drums and vocals at the same time, so I always have to figure out how to do the parts together live. We just had two weeks of rehearsals, and I was having to learn how to [sing and play the new songs] at the same time.”
As Aaron suggested, those new tracks stray a bit from the group’s hardcore roots, a trajectory not all fans were automatically on board with. “This album has the biggest preorder in the history of the band,” Aaron says. “The lead single is the most streamed song and the most watched video in the history of the band, and I think a lot of that is because of curiosity. But yes, there’s also been a lot of backlash already. My response to that is that I would seriously rather work at Chic-fil-A than make the same record over and over again.”
Tools of the Trade
Drums: Gretsch USA Custom kit in Underøath Pantone Green
• 6.5×14 Keplinger custom steel snare (“Dale”) with PureSound snare wires and Gretsch USA snare hardware
• 8×13 concert tom
• 14×16 concert floor tom
• 18×18 concert floor tom
• 12×24 bass drum
• additional snares: Gretsch 6.5×14 cast aluminum (“JR”), Gretsch 6.5×14 cast bronze (“Betty”)
• 17″ hi-hats (K Constantinople crash on top, K Constantinople Suspended underneath)
• 22″ K Constantinople Overhammered ride
• 22″ K Constantinople Renaissance ride
• 23″ K Sweet ride
Heads: Remo Emperor X coated snare batter and Emperor Hazy snare side, Controlled Sound tom batters, and Powerstroke 3 coated bass drum batter
Sticks: Vic Firth American Classic 2Bs
Hardware: DW 9000 series cymbal and snare stands, and 5000 series single bass drum pedal with Gibraltar round felt beater; Wedgie cymbal washers
Electronics: Roland SPD-SX sample pad and kick trigger pad
Accessories: Lewitt Audio and Sennheiser mics, Ahead drum rug, Winding Wheel Supply stick bag, Vater percussion stick holders