Last week, I was able to sit down and chat on the phone with one of my favorite songwriters, Aaron Gillespie. You may know him from his work as the drummer/singer for Underoath, or as the singer/songwriter behind The Almost, but Aaron has also just released his stellar debut full-length solo album Out of the Badlands. It came out on August 20th, and I think it showcases everything I love about Aaron’s writing style. We sat down to discuss the record in depth, as well as Underoath’s recent reunion, and many more topics.
I wanted to start off by asking now that we’re a few months removed from the Rebirth tour, how are you feeling about that entire experience? Exhausted? Reinvigorated?
Oh, man. It was the best tour we’ve ever done, and we’ve toured together for like fifteen years. It was absolutely exhausting though, because we played the two records back to back, so it was a two hour show, six nights a week.
And you had just done the Paramore cruise just before that tour too, right?
Yeah, dude I went to Underoath rehearsals, left- we took a break in the middle of them- went to Paramore rehearsals and then the Paramore cruise, and then came back to the pre-production for the Underoath tour and then the Underoath tour. I didn’t see my kid for three months.
Oh, that’s brutal.
It was insane. And just the length of the show, dude it was brutal. We played 22 songs a night for six weeks, six nights a week. Spencer and I, on days off, we had one day off a week, we would literally just get a hotel room, close all the blinds, and just sleep for 18 hours. I mean, we were just so, so , so exhausted. But it was so much fun, it was just really really cool.
It must’ve certainly been a shock to your system. I know you guys had been hitting it pretty hard with Paramore, but I feel like there must have been more days off for that.
Yeah, you know when I tour with them it’s way more cushy than that. And then when I do my solo thing, I just get there and play a guitar. I’m not basically running a marathon every night. But it was really flattering to go away for that many years, and then to come back, and we really are better now than we were then- as musicians and as a live band. So to come back, and to feel connected to it was great. A lot of shit can change in ten years, especially when it comes to six guys who have literally lived in the closest quarters ever for fifteen years. But honestly we just had the time of our lives.
I covered the Philly show of the Rebirth tour for Chorus, and I was just struck the entire time by how energetic the crowd was and how present in the moment everyone seemed to be. So many of those reunion shows nostalgia-fest type tours are so dismissive of it, saying “Oh, I’m going back to middle school again.” But it seemed like everyone was so present at those shows.
I think we’re really lucky. We’re one of those few bands that didn’t just get stuck in the scene. We’re one of those bands that people still care about, and it’s really interesting. When you’re in it, you don’t see it that way. When you’re writing the songs, and you’re doing the tours, and you’re watching the whole train move, you don’t… I didn’t think this whole thing would matter, this many years down the road. And the weird part for me was that all of these shows were big shows that sold out seven months in advance, and half the crowd was young. That’s what I found interesting: that big brother Joe thought the music was important enough to pass down to little Tommy, and now Tommy is seeing Underoath for the first time. Every night Spencer would ask the crowd, “How many of you are seeing Underoath for the first time.” And 90 to 95 percent of the time, three-quarters of the crowd had never seen Underoath before. It just blows my mind that they show up. We’re not the hot new Warped Tour band. So for it to still last, this far in the future, is just a humbling experience.
So with that said, I guess I’ll just get the Underoath questions out of the way earlier on in the interview so we can just move on to the main topic of conversation. I know it’s still early on, but Spencer seemed pretty confident on stage during the tour that you guys would be back, at least in a semi-active fashion, in the future. What does that future for Underoath consist of?
I don’t know. We’re all open to whatever that means. But at the same time, I don’t think Underoath will ever be a band that tours 300 days a year like we used to. We’re all in our thirties, and some of us have three children. In Underoath there are seven kids between us. And that’s a lot of family. And, you know, I’m so damn busy and Spencer is so damn busy. I think we’re open though to whatever that means. I obviously don’t have some juicy, TMZ thing to tell you, but I think that we’re having the time of our lives, and we’re open to whatever.
Now, let’s spin this into the discussion of the solo album. For those who aren’t aware, you just released a new solo album August 20 titled Out of the Badlands and it’s coming out via Tooth and Nail Records. I’ve given the record a few listens now and I’ve been into it. I’m not sure if that album title is a covert Bruce Springsteen reference or not, but Badlands has always been one of my absolute favorite Bruce Springsteen songs and I was definitely making connections back from that record to this one.
I mean, there’s no explicit connection. It’s a pretty literal title. I had a hard time with it. You know, Halsey called her debut record Badlands, and I had a hard time naming it that, but I felt like I had to, because this past year has been kind of the worst year of my life in terms of my personal life. I went through a divorce, which turned out great in the end, but it was a really awful time. I felt like this record was kind of a way for me to showcase my emotions, as a well as throwback to the past 15 years of my career as well. So for me, it was a very literal title. Like, I’m coming out of the Badlands in my life. As hard as it was, with the Bruce song and the Halsey record, to name it that, I felt like I needed to name it this. I felt like it was dishonest any other way, you know?
Yeah, definitely. And I think maybe all the songs and all the albums with similar names are trying to do similar things, you know connect the natural beauty of that place to the coming out of a dark time in life. I don’t know, I just thought it was interesting. I was listening to the Springsteen song today, actually do you know Julien Baker?
She did a cover of “Badlands,” it came out today actually.
And I was listening to the song right after I listened to your record, and I was listening to the lyrics pretty closely and I was making connections between the two.
Yeah, you know. I think the “Badlands” is such a good mental picture for being in such a tumultuous time in your life. So I think for me, this is the way I kind of healed from that and came out of that.
Yeah, and it seems kind of natural to want to go into the studio, as you said you built a studio in Salt Lake City, and the natural way to respond to those dark moments is to make music.
Yeah, I think whatever you do in life, whatever you’re passionate about, you turn to that in times of emotional stress. I think that’s why drugs are so dangerous. People get stressed out and they turn to drugs. For me, my passion is music. I eat, breathe, live, sleep music, so when I go through something, always my reaction is, “If I write about this, I’ll feel like I’m shedding it, like snakeskin.” I feel like these days we’re in a dangerous place with music, where we feel like we almost have to manufacture music. Where we almost have to make it so the kids can jump up and down, to make people feel a certain way. And I think the most powerful music, the most memorable music, the ones that speak into a person’s soul is because the person that wrote it was going through something that they needed to get off their chest, or they needed to tell someone how happy they were. And I think, to me, that is the true art of songwriting.
Yeah, absolutely. I think it has to resonate first and foremost with the artist, even more so than the audience. You can’t write to an audience, I think you have to write to and for yourself.
Yeah. I think that’s key. The artists we love, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and the records that we just can’t deny, no matter if you’re into metal or rap, you probably love “Free Fallin.” And that song, and that type of song, just comes from an honest place. I think that people, whether or not they realize it, have an instinct. Every music listener can tell, “This is bullshit, or this is not bullshit.”
I know you said a lot of this record was going back and getting your emotions out about what was happening in your life. So what was the decision making process behind the reimagined versions of the The Almost songs and the Underoath songs? Where did that come into play?
You know, the last couple of years, I’ve been doing these solo tours, where I’ve been playing basically this setlist. And I felt like I didn’t really have anything which really showcased what I was doing as a solo artists live. So I wanted to put those on tape, so people could maybe connect with it more in a live setting if that makes any sense.
And then that last song on the record (“You Don’t Love Me Anymore”), I think certainly isn’t the most hopeful of notes to leave things on.
You know with this record I wasn’t looking to fit any particular forumla. Sometimes looking at your life and saying, “This is what it is. It’s fucking awful, and I don’t know how to deal with it. But I’m just going to say it, and put it out into the Universe, and hopefully it will make me feel better.” And that’s basically what that song is. For me, I didn’t put it on the record so that people would look at it and go, “Oh, you poor bastard.” I put it on there, because it was a way for me to cope with what that song means. For me, the record isn’t meant for the listener to go, “Oh, he’s better now.” It’s not conceptual in that way. It’s exactly where I was at the time, and I feel like people can relate to that.
There’s enough of a sense of ambiguity where people can say, “This is for me” even if the songs aren’t about precisely what they think they are. I remember when Dashboard Confessional’s Swiss Army Romance came out, I was a kid, maybe 15 or 16 years old. And I remember driving around in my first car on the way to high school, thinking, “This is about me, this is about my life.” And, obviously, Chris (Carrabba) is a good friend of mine now, and I know obviously that Swiss Army Romance wasn’t written about me. But at the same time, I really felt like there was a sense of personal investment in that record. And I think that with Underoath, The Almost, and now with this record, I always try to inject a little ambiguity into it, to make my listeners feel like this is for them.
But at the same time I think these new songs definitely stand out as some of your most personal too, like a song like “Raspberry Layer Cake.” I’m not sure if you could’ve written a song like that before now.
It’s definitely the most honest record I’ve ever written. I think there comes a time when you’re past thirty and your “give a shit” meter just breaks. And I don’t mean you put out garbage after that, but that you literally stop thinking, “Is this enough like the last thing.” or “Is this going to make people feel like They’re Only Chasing Safety did.” For me, I feel like, I have to do this and I really don’t give a shit.
It’s funny. I was prepping for an interview with Anthony Raneri, I think his record releases the same day as yours. And he said a very similar thing. Actually fairly similar life situation I guess, I don’t know if that’s personal or not, but he said a very similar thing about it.
That’s funny actually, we just had the conversation a couple of weeks ago at the APMAs.
Oh, how funny is that.
Yeah, we have the same manager. I think any musician, if you have success when you’re young, when you get to thirty and over, it’s kind of like, “Well, what am I gonna do now? Am I going to really try and make every movement about somebody else, or am I just going to do what I love?” You know how you hear people say, and you hear this so fucking much in music, “Oh, their first record was better.” I mean how often do you hear that? Let’s be honest with each other.
It’s depressing how often, but yeah.
Yeah, you hear it a lot. You probably say it a lot, because I know I certainly do. “I like their first record the best.” And I think that happens because when we were making They’re Only Chasing Safety, there was no pressure. There was no pressure to sell records, to make somebody happy. We just made the record we wanted to make because we wanted to make it. And I think there’s some synthesis of that that happens after you turn thirty and you’re in this industry. And that’s a really interesting conversation to have. Especially in music journalism, like what you do, because you know, you have to ask the questions all the time. How many times have you interviewed a band where you undoubtedly like their first record more, and you have to talk to them about their new record.
Oh it definitely happens all the time.
Yeah, I’m sure it happens. And there’s such a mental thing there that happens when you’re a kid and you’re making music because you love it. And I’m hoping that as I get older that keeps getting stronger in me now. When I was 25, 26 years old, I was terrified. “How do I make these records? Define The Great Line was big, and They’re Only Chasing Safety was big. And now I need to make another record and I don’t know how, and what if people think it’s shit.” So now, hopefully, the way I feel right now at 30 is I’m just going to do my thing. And whatever comes out in the wash, comes out in the wash.
People put pressure on themselves for that second and third record, and if you think about it, there should really almost be no reason for that pressure, because the band has already proved they were capable of it with their first record. But you know it’s a human thing to want to top whatever came before.
Of course, you know, that’s called the Sophomore Slump. You’ve got to re-do that first record somehow and make it even better. With Underoath and Define the Great Line, I don’t even remember. Spencer and I were talking about this a couple of weeks ago, I don’t remember writing the songs for Define the Great Line, I don’t remember making the album. I don’t remember anything about it. We just went and did it. And for us, we were just so in it, it worked. For certain artists, I think you get jacked up on “How do I do it again?” And I think the way you do it again, and maybe this is just old guy bullshit I’ve come up with, but the way to go about it is by literally forgetting you’ve had any sort of success. Actually just going to do something because you love to do it.
Taking each record as the first record then, essentially.
Yeah, try and wipe the slate as clean as you can get it.
So I know you’ve been working for Paramore for a long time as far as being their touring drummer, I was wondering how much of the studio drummer situation for the new album were you aware of going in, and do you think you could’ve brought something to the table as far as the recording for that album, or were you just so busy with the Underoath reunion and this solo record that you just weren’t concerned about it?
You know, that’s not really my place to say. I love those people. Those are some of the greatest people in the world and I love working with them. And I’m kind of in a place where whatever they want me to do I’ll do, within reason obviously. I think they’re one of the greatest groups of people in the industry, and I just want them to be happy and do something great. And if I’m involved that’s awesome, and if I’m not, that’s cool too. I’m not really in a place where I know. If they have me back, that’s rad, and if not, that’s cool too.
And you have so much going on in terms of the solo stuff now that it would be disappointing, but I don’t think it would be dramatically life-altering for you.
No, man. Definitely not. I have such a great time with them, so I definitely wouldn’t feel that way.
So I’ve been asking this to the last few artists I’ve interviewed. I want to sort of compile answers from different artists as to what they think is the quintessential pop or rock song. Like which song are you most jealous of that you wish you could go back and write instead?
Gosh, that’s so hard. That’s insane. You could say “Free Fallin.” You could say “Atlantic City.” You could say, “Smells Like Teens Spirit.”
I got “God Only Knows” from Sam Means of the Format.
You know for me maybe “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” maybe “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” fucking “Yesterday.” When you start talking about The Beatles, man, those are the greatest songwriters that ever existed. So to try to come up with a Beatles song you wish you wrote. That right there is damn near impossible.
And then you have that U2 cover on this album.
Yeah, I like old U2, not so much newer U2. But man that’s such a hard thing to figure out.
How about this then, we’ll leave off with this, fantasy football season is coming up. So with that said, can you build for us your perfect fantasy band: a guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, and a singer?
So we have Dave Grohl playing drums. Mike Campbell from The Heartbreakers playing guitar. Nate Mendel, from Sunny Day Real Estate, now with the Foo Fighters, playing bass. And I think the singer, would have to be, this is a weird one, Brandon Flowers or Josh Homme.
Honestly, Brandon Flowers isn’t even that weird of a pick. He’s got some undeniable talent.
I think they’re probably my favorite modern band, The Killers. And his solo records are so good.
What’s remarkable to me is arena rock had lost sort of the non-kitschyness by like the 90s, but I like how they just say “fuck it,” and go for that sound.
(laughs) Yeah, they don’t give a shit, dude. It’s incredible. I love that too. I think anybody, even if I don’t like the music, any artist that says, “This is what the hell I’m going to do, and it’s because I love it.” I think that’s such a cool thing. You know, when they put out Day and Age, and there’s saxophones…
And electronic drum solos…
Yeah, ridiculous stuff. And when I heard it, I said, “This is so good.” Is it different than Hot Fuss? Of course it is, but I think that’s the thing. As I was telling you earlier, you make records because you love to make records, and you go in every time and just do it. You don’t look at the past. I think The Killers have had such longevity, and such allure as songwriters, because they’ve made a different record every record they’ve made. I think it’s a dangerous place, and it’s a silly place, for an artist to be, putting out the same record over and over again. And I think when you hear that from a band, it’s because they’re scared. Where they’ll think, “Our fans will leave us.” Well, no if you’re putting out quality that you believe in, I believe the fans will stay. Maybe the numbers will be less, but if you’re being true to yourself, that’s what matters.
Out Of The Badlands is out now on Tooth and Nail Records, and you can pick it up here.