Who is Tampa’s biggest band ever? With hometown arena show, Underoath makes a case
TAMPA — Timothy McTague showed off two mason jars of beer tapped straight from a fermenter in St. Petersburg, brewed with coffee beans he roasted in Tampa. When his coffee business opens a bar in 2019, the plan is to have it on tap.
“We’re going to do distribution,” said the Underoath guitarist, lounging on a couch in a rehearsal warehouse in the West Shore district. “We’re going to hit up the normal people — Jug and Bottle, the Independent, all that stuff. But this is going to be exclusively at our spot.”
It’s a local product, through and through. Just like Underoath.
Since coalescing in the early 2000s, the metalcore band has racked up a couple of gold records, Grammy nominations and a global fan base. They’ve performed on huge festival stages, and their fall Erase Me Tour is playing to sold-out venues around the country.
And on Dec. 14, they’ll play their biggest headlining concert to date: a hometown show at the Yuengling Center in Tampa.
It’s a watershed moment in local music history. Never before has a Tampa band headlined a Tampa arena. It isn’t just Underoath’s biggest hometown gig ever; it’s likely the biggest hometown show ever by any local band. Upwards of 5,000 fans could turn out.
“We’ve never been bigger than we are right now,” said singer Spencer Chamberlain. “That’s not in a cocky way; it’s just, we’ve never done the business we’ve done.”
And it raises an interesting question: Is Underoath, stars in their genre but unfamiliar to a wider pop audience, the biggest band ever from Tampa Bay?
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Pick almost any city in Florida and you’re bound to find at least one notable musical ambassador. Gainesville has Tom Petty. Jacksonville has Lynyrd Skynyrd. Orlando has ’NSYNC. Tallahassee has Creed. Boca Raton has Dashboard Confessional. Miami has Pitbull, Mr. 305 himself.
Tampa Bay, however, is an anomaly. Despite being one of the largest dozen or so media markets in the country, it’s not known for spawning any one superstar act.
Jim Morrison and Stephen Stills spent parts of their childhoods here, but were military brats who moved around. Mel Tillis was born in Tampa and lived in Plant City, but also grew up in Pahokee. Trans-Siberian Orchestra has some roots in Tarpon Springs, but until this decade was based largely in New York. Pasco County’s Bellamy Brothers and Tarpon Springs’ Bertie Higgins had No. 1 hits in Let Your Love Flow and Key Largo, but both are more popular overseas.
Tampa does have a reputation for birthing the brutal rock subgenre known as death metal, thanks to bands like Obituary, Morbid Angel, Deicide and Buffalo, N.Y., transplants Cannibal Corpse. But on their own, none of those bands headline arenas.
The one other band with a case is the Outlaws, Tampa’s contribution to Florida’s Southern rock boom of the ’70s. At their peak, they were large enough to sell out the Lakeland Civic Center, Central Florida’s dominant arena of the day. Had the Yuengling Center existed back then, it’s probably where they would have played.
The initial version of Underoath formed not in Tampa, but in Ocala in 1997. Drummer and vocalist Aaron Gillespie, a Clearwater native, is the only remaining original member. When the Ocala lineup splintered, Tampa Bay players stepped in around Gillespie — McTague, keyboardist Chris Dudley, bassist Grant Brandell and guitarist James Smith all attended local high schools and played in local bands. (Chamberlain grew up in North Carolina before moving to St. Petersburg and joining Underoath.)
“I feel like the band wasn’t a real, full-time band until we had this lineup, which was 2003,” Gillespie said. “It was kind of weekend-warrior, going to play Ocala and Tampa on the weekend. It wasn’t a band. It was a local band.”
Underoath played clubs and colleges and, as they identified as a Christian act, some churches. They signed to a national label and spent several summers on the main stage of the Warped Tour. They released albums that earned acclaim in the metal community and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Their 2006 LP Define the Great Line debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, right between Nelly Furtado and the Dixie Chicks.
Gillespie left Underoath in 2010 (and briefly took a job drumming for Paramore), and the rest of the band broke up with a sold-out farewell show at Jannus Live in 2013. There was too much in-fighting, and Chamberlain dealt with drug addiction.
But just three years later, Underoath reunited, again at Jannus Live, and embarked on a sold-out “rebirth” tour. This spring they released Erase Me, their first album in eight years; it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hard Rock Albums chart. They launched what Chamberlain called “the biggest tour we’ve ever done,” playing to sold-out rooms around the country.
When plotting the tour, Underoath’s team suggested that instead of playing mid-sized shows in St. Petersburg and Orlando, they just play a single, super-sized Florida show in Tampa. The band had never headlined an arena before, but the math checked out: Why sell 2,500 tickets in two cities when you can sell 5,000 in one?
“It’s a good look to do it at home,” Gillespie said. “The risk is, if this bombs, we look like idiots.”
But it’s not bombing. Gillespie has seen the receipts. He believes the show will sell out or “get comically close,” and if that happens, they’ll have outsold Yuengling Center concerts by artists like Arcade Fire and R. Kelly. Looking forward, it could put them in position to play arenas around the country.
“We can’t just do Jannus again,” Chamberlain said. “You can’t just keep doing the same s— over and over again. Push yourself. It’s a scary move, but I don’t think we’re looking at it as, we expect to sell out this mega-arena. We just want to have as many people get in as possible, because every Florida show has sold out nonstop since the farewell.”
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Maybe it’s their Christian roots, maybe it’s their Southern upbringing. But if Underoath is Tampa’s biggest musical export, it’s something they’ve never discussed.
“Google ‘Bands from Tampa, Florida,’ ” Dudley suggested. “It might be true. If so, that’s crazy. I’ve honestly never thought about it.”
“As an artist, that kind of thinking is really counterintuitive to health,” Gillespie said. “My brain doesn’t work like that. For me, being from Tampa Bay, it’s like, it’s just where I’m from. It’s where I grew up. I love it there. But I don’t think about being a band from there. Does that make sense?”
Underoath still rehearses and stores equipment in Tampa. Gillespie moved to Utah some years back to be near his kids, but still keeps a house in Tarpon Springs (“I’ll retire there”). Chamberlain moved to New York during the band’s hiatus but returned to St. Petersburg last year. The other members are spread as far north as Brooksville, attending local churches, forming side projects and running local businesses like their coffee company King State, which launched out of McTague’s Lutz garage in 2014.
For Dudley, it’s surreal that Underoath is even in the conversation with the local metal bands he grew up admiring. Funny story: Not long ago, working through a mutual friend, Satan-hailing death metal lords Deicide shot a music video in Dudley’s backyard. Singer Glen Benton, who has an upside-down cross burned into his forehead, told Dudley that he had once looked at buying that very same house, and in fact ended up with a place just down the road.
“Did you invite him over to Christmas Eve service at church?” McTague said.
“I should have invited him over for Bible study,” Dudley said.
The discord that led to the band’s 2013 breakup seems to be gone as they look ahead to the Tampa show and the milestone it represents. They’ve heard from fans who are coming from around the country to see the band level up to something new.
“We’ve played Tampa probably 100 times,” McTague said. “Every time we go on tour, it’s like, how do we change the setlist? What songs have we played? How do we add production? With this, it was just like, how do we make the biggest show we’ve ever done make sense?”
Backstage, the Yuengling Center will be teeming with Underoath’s friends, relatives, spouses and kids. McTague is bringing King State beer to share with close VIPs. Afterward, they’ll sleep in their own beds.
For Gillespie, though, the appeal isn’t just that Underoath can now add the words “arena headliner” to their resume. Nor is it merely proof of concept for future tours, showing promoters around the country that a metal band from Tampa can play venues this size in 2018.
“This has consumed our lives for 15 years,” he said. “I know that we’ve written really great music that people have connected with. And I only know that because I meet these people, and I see their faces when I crawl up on a riser every night and they sing them back at me. For me, that’s it. That’s all the proof of concept I need, is we made honest art, and it worked. That, to me, is enough.”
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.