Torche’s Steve Brooks,
The TVD Interview

For over ten years, Miami, Florida’s Torche has been defying any rules and boundaries set by rock and metal norms. The band has crafted a truly unique, genre-defying sound, and if they have changed at all over the years, it’s been strictly on their own terms. Their latest release, Restarter, is a brilliant, artistic journey through a heavy soundscape, and will surely stand out as a top release this year.

We had a chance to sit down with singer/guitarist Steve Brooks before their show at DC9 in Washington, DC. It was a loose, interesting discussion, taking us through the ins and outs of Torche’s music, from writing to recording, and to which color vinyl to release it on. Steve also happened to be celebrating his 41st birthday, and being the same age, reminisced about Kiss, vinyl, and destroying our toys in our youth.

Restarter has been out for a month. Are you pleased with the feedback you’ve been getting on the album?

Yeah, more than pleased. You never know how anyone’s going to react to a record, so you just write a bunch of songs, record it, and you end up putting it out. It could be either good or bad reaction, it’s a crap shoot, but as long as we like what we’re doing, that’s all that matters. People are going to like or they’ll hate it, or they’re going to be a bit of both every time, so you can’t win. There’s no winning situation. It’s either, they’ll complain about one thing, and then you’ll do something that is kind of like what they wanted on the last record, but we didn’t necessarily do that.

You either grew too much or not enough.

Yeah, you either change too much, or didn’t change enough. It’s like, you know, we’re just gonna write a bunch of songs, and sometimes it’ll go on a seven-inch, and it won’t be as hyped up as it is on a record.

Well, the hype is happening. You cracked the Billboard top 200 without making any really drastic changes to your sound.

Yeah.

Do you think people outside of your usual fanbase are starting to “get it,” or is the musical landscape changing enough on its own to where Torche is now fitting in a little bit with what people are digging?

I think we’ve just been around long enough that people are kind of getting used to our sound, I guess. In all honesty, a lot of the other bands are kind of, well, I won’t say “sound like us.” I won’t say that we sound completely original either. I think the whole “mainstream” is changing. Like in the ‘80s, everybody got sick of the hair metal, all the poser shit, now all the poser shit is happening all around us again. It’s been happening for the last twenty years, almost. There was a good boom in the early ‘90s, when a lot of underground bands were doing a lot. They were doing what they did, and ended getting grabbed up by major labels. You’d hear bands like Screaming Trees on the radio.

Oh yeah.

It was a good time, man.

Even Nirvana, at the time they were underground.

Yeah! I was a big Nirvana fan, and when Nevermind came out, I didn’t even have to buy Nevermind, it was everywhere! That was a band I never thought would have ever blown up. I didn’t even think Soundgarden would. I mean, I saw Soundgarden open up for Voivod. I didn’t think any of those bands would have gotten as big as they did. But they did! That’s where you just don’t know. You don’t know what’s going to happen around you, you don’t know what’s going to happen with music, bands like that just do what you love to do and see what happens. When music is masked by image, people get tired of that. It’s the same with nu-metal, it was huge! It was all image, it was just like the ‘80s.

It’s all about riding a wave, whatever wave happens to be coming ashore at that time, ride it.

Exactly. Ride the wave, and the ones that actually last are the ones that are there whether there are fans or not. Melvins have been around for thirty years, and they’re still “underground.” They’re still on top of their game, they’re fucking amazing. They keep changing, but it always sounds like the Melvins. Those are bands I look up to.

I first saw Torche in 2010 with Kylesa and High on Fire, without ever hearing you. People asked what you were like, and my honest answer was, “I have no idea, I’ve never heard anything like them before.” That was my genuine reaction. People automatically lump you guys into stoner or sludge, but you’ve been pretty public about your viewpoint, which is that you’re not a metal band. How do you see yourselves?

I grew up in the ‘80s. Well, ‘70s and ‘80s, so…today’s my 41st birthday!

Congrats, happy birthday! I’m not far behind you.

Thanks! [laughs]

I grew up on all kinds of things, but I was a metalhead, so there’s a metal influence in what we do. There’s this sort of raw power of punk and just raw rock and roll, but I grew up with everything from Cheap Trick up to seven minutes of just nodding your head, and noise, grindcore, some classical music, psychedelic music, the Mamas and the Papas. I’m just a product of basically everything I love, and that’s a wide spectrum of music. Country, all kinds of stuff. Most of it’s really old. The Torche sound kind of started with my old band Floor back in ’92. I’ve heard we’re sort of a revival of the ‘90s or something like that. I’m like “Really?” I’m more of a product of the ‘80s. The other members of the band are ten years younger than me, so they grew up in a different era. There’s a mix of everything, really.

Jumping back into Restarter, it’s funny that you say that you’re a product of the ‘80s, because when I listen to “Loose Men” my first thought was that it sounds like a heavy Adam and the Ants.

Dude, Adam and the Ants are one of my favorite bands of all time. Adam and the Ants, Missing Persons, Gary Numan, all that stuff. Huge influences. A lot of synthpop, more of the riffs are kind of inspired by synthesizers, ‘80s synthpop than they are by rock or blues, or anything like that. Nowadays, what we’re doing is just more along those lines, because there’s so many bands doing that. We have our own identity, and a lot of it comes from many other things. We have little bluesy parts here and there, but as far as “stoner,” I don’t even smoke weed.

I think that’s become more of a common phrase for that style of music. I think people are hung up on trying to pinpoint the subgenre with bands nowadays. It has to have a subgenre.

Yeah, it has to be stoner, or doom, or something. It can’t just be rock and roll. The way that I see it is that we’re a band that’s influenced by over fifty years of rock and roll. It just kind of comes out in what we’re doing, but in our own way. If it’s a subgenre, you’re gonna get pigeonholed. It took a while for people to kind of understand us, because we didn’t sound like any other bands. You would hear things here and there that kind of sounded like someone else, but those are just our influences coming out.

The minute you get pigeonholed by a subgenre, the minute you deviate from that, you get those reactions of, “Wait, this isn’t sludgy enough,” when you never claimed to be a sludge band in the first place.

Exactly. We get lumped in with doom, and we’re just the opposite of doom. We have some doomy songs, but Sabbath has a doomy sound and they have some uplifting, great rock songs.

Absolutely.

If you listen to Bauhaus, that’s some of the doomiest shit. Bands like Bauhaus and Swans are doomy, but I don’t hear anyone consider them “doom.”

Now that the album is out—granted, it’s only been a month—looking back, have you had any moments where you’ve gone, “Shit! I wish we had…”

I think I do that for every record, because we all live in different cities. I live in San Francisco, the guitar player lives in Atlanta, the other two guys live in Miami, so we would get together for a couple of weeks and write, and then try to demo some of that. Then we would take a break, then come back and write more and do more demoing. Since we’re so spread out, and we’re really busy with our own schedules, it kind of becomes a little rushed sometimes.

Trying to fit everything into that writing window.

Yeah. When we record, we take a couple of weeks to record the record, then towards the end we are like, “Shit, man, I wish I could have done something else,” or you’re not in the same city anymore with the guys. There was one song where we needed to put some kind of solo to, and nobody could agree on a solo. So I was in the studio in Oakland, recording every type of guitar solo there was. I kept hearing something Neal Schon would have done. You know, something like that. Then I would just kind of clear my mind, and then I would do something completely different. I would try every little thing, then I would send it—actually, Andrew sent a bunch of stuff. The guys totally didn’t hear what Andrew heard. Then I sent them constant stuff—they didn’t hear what I was playing. So the drummer and bass player went into the studio, and recorded a solo within like, twenty minutes that they were happy with. It was alright. I thought all my solos were better, but what can I do? [laughs] I gotta please the other guys, and now me and Andrew are like “I really dig that solo,” and now I’m just used to it because I’ve heard it so many times, but I’m like, “Man, I had some brilliant shit.” [laughs]

Your lyrics are wonderfully poetic, and I feel like the true meanings of some of your songs are veiled behind that poetic layer. Do you think that is intentional, maybe to let the listener interpret for themselves?

Yeah. I tried making sense in songs, I mean, I’m not really a good poet or a good storyteller or anything. When I kind of play with words or leave it vague, I think it’s more powerful that way, because you don’t know exactly what’s going on in my head. Someone else can interpret it the way that they want to. There are certain things that I’ve heard in songs that might not even be the lyrics that have hit me really hard. There’s a Guided By Voices song that Robert Pollard just says “No, not you.” Just the way he sings it and everything, it just put fucking tears in my eyes. It could be something just so simple like that, that’s kind of what I do in these songs. Some things make sense, and then other things are kind of like, just playing around with words.

Abstract art, in a sense?

Well, yeah. It’s like, well, doing a guitar solo. The stuff I listen to, I’m not really a big lyrics kind of guy. There are some lyricists that I think are great and that I love. Guys like Stephen Merritt from Magnetic Fields. Great lyricist, but I look at it like it’s more of an instrument than having a message to say.

I’ll vent a few things. This record had a lot more anger, I think, just from seeing everything around me, and just the stupidity. I mean, I’m part of the stupidity as well. I didn’t realize until after the new record was out that there was this theme of human annihilation. Just get rid of us, we’re no good for this fuckin’ planet. [laughs] Everything I see around me, I’m just like, goddamnit man, we’re no good. We’re too fucking dumb for our own good.

We keep fucking it up.

We keep fucking everything up. But we’re brilliant, you know? Anyway…

Once again, Restarter was self-produced, and you returned to Kurt Ballou from Converge for mixing the album. At this point, do you feel like he gets you and is in tune with the sound you are trying to achieve?

Yeah, we still have to work a little bit, because there are certain things, but he’s worked with us. He worked with us on the Floor record that came out last year, we tried mixing that ourselves, or our drummer did. I was in Europe during this time, and when I got back, I was like, “Ehhhhh…”

Just not working?

Yeah, and it’s the same with Torche, too. With both bands, like Henry has spent so much time and energy just mixing the record and overanalyzing everything, and your ears just get burnt. Plus, you’re the one that’s playing the instruments, so you hear everything in your way.

Especially when you have played each song, what—30, 40 times?

Oh, man. Thousands of times. Especially when you are mixing the record, like with Torche, Jon’s in the band, so we need to just get everything we want, then send it to someone we trust, like Kurt. We’ve worked with him before, and he’s done a great job.

This is what, the third album he’s worked on with you guys?

Um, yeah. We recorded Meanderthal with him at his studio. That was the only thing we’ve ever done that we didn’t do ourselves. Then we had the last two records mixed by him. He’s super quick. Within a few days, you’ll get a first mix. Then it’s, “Alright, raise this, lower this.” We’ll just send him notes. It was the same with this record.

Do you find it easier to self-produce? A lot of bands like having that objective outside voice guiding the process.

I think it would be great to go in and work with somebody that we admire, that we know is going to be completely honest with us, and have that sort of outside voice. We don’t know anybody yet. [laughs] Kurt’s good like that, but he’s got his own taste too. We’re all really strong-minded individuals in the band, and so we end up with tons of shit getting knocked down immediately.

Are you able to have those knock-down drag-outs and still maintain a good relationship within the band?

Oh, yeah. It’s terrible, your ego gets hurt.

You’re musicians, you all have egos. Not the public ego, but the ego of your own musical creation.

Yeah, I mean, if I was playing with a bunch of people who I had to tell what to do, the band wouldn’t work out. I want to play with people who have a strong voice, but also that we collaborate well, rather than someone who is just trying to overpower everybody. If there’s one person in the group that the rest of us don’t share the same sort of ideas, then that’s gonna be a problem.

It would be like a gear with a tooth that’s too big, it won’t fit right with the other parts.

Yeah, on the outside it’s gonna be a mess. We’ve been very lucky that we’ve lasted this long.

You reunited with your previous band, Floor, and released the first album with them since 2004, Oblation, in 2014. What was that experience like, coming back together after ten years?

It was cool. The last record we recorded was in 2001. We hadn’t done anything in so long. Basically, I let Anthony and Henry write most of that record because I was living in Atlanta, and I was working with Torche. I said, “If you guys want to do another record, start writing.” So they did. They live in Florida, and they would write a bunch of stuff, and would send me a bunch of rehearsal recordings, and riffs and stuff like that.

This is just over the past couple of years, or stretched out over time?

I think it was about a good year of them writing together. I wrote like three songs, I think, and then we would collaborate when we all got together. Then we would all write the vocals together. It would get down to the wire when we were in the studio, it was like, “Shit, I don’t have the heart for this.” Also, because I didn’t want what I was doing with Torche to interfere with the Floor sound, the sound that was a part of me, Henry and Anthony. I wanted it to sound like a continuation of the last Floor record.

Do you think you did it?

Yeah. I thought it was a good progression, and I thought it still had that Floor sound, rather than sounding more like Torche.

Do you think any of that vibe bled over into Restarter, or were you able to keep them separate?

Yeah, because they did the majority of the writing. I went in and wrote like 3 songs, but there was 17 or 18 songs recorded. Some of it was old stuff from before we broke up and we never recorded. Riffs and things, old stuff. It was mostly them doing a lot of the music on that record. With Torche, I was writing with 3 totally different people. It’s my voice, my guitar tone. Torche was originally a continuation of my Floor sound, but in a different direction. Then Floor comes back around and tries to continue where Floor left off.

I get that. It’s like, any record that Tom Morello ever does, it’s definitely going to sound like Tom Morello.

Yeah, it’s going to sound like the type of stuff that I play. I just want, when you listen to the Torche record, and when you listen to the Floor record, you can see all the differences in the players and the styles but it still sounds like something I would do.

Do you think that was the last from Floor, or will there be more in the future?
I don’t know. I thought Floor would never do anything again. I thought it was all done, and Andy Low from Robotic Empire Records kept pestering me over the years to put out a box set. I’m like, “I don’t even have any of that shit! I recorded over all that stuff,” but Anthony had a huge suitcase full of shit and he’s kept everything. He was just going through all these old tapes.

Literally in the vault.

Yeah, he kept the vault. He kept everything. Everywhere I moved, I would lose things, I would record over things, I never thought any of that stuff…you think that you’re a local band, and this is stuff that nobody wants to hear.

I feel like I’m watching A Band Called Death, all over again. A suitcase with the master tapes hidden away.

I didn’t think I would be doing this at 41 years old. I didn’t think there would be a box set. I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear any of this shit. I’m glad Anthony kept it all, otherwise, it would have been gone forever.

Restarter had a couple of different vinyl releases which were just beautiful. Are you into vinyl yourself?

I love vinyl, but I live in a tiny little bedroom in San Francisco, so when I moved out there I had to get rid of a lot of things. I sold a chunk of it. Most of the vinyl I had had water damage from a flood.

Oh no.

I was able to get money for water-damaged records. [laughs] My CDs, I condensed everything onto my computer and got rid of my CDs. I kept the real special records and I kept CDs that you just can’t find that are kind of rare. When I sold the CDs in lots, I put in some of the hard-to-find original copies so I could sell the lots.

Sort of, here, take all of these because you really want these two.

Yeah, you just want these two CDs, and I would start at like $5 for fifteen CDs, and it would go up to like $75. It was great!

So, you’re a product of 1974, like me. I’m assuming you grew up with records.

Oh, yeah. My first record was Kiss Alive II. I think I was five years old.

I discovered Kiss at age 5, in 1979 as well.

Check this out…

Steve starts flipping through pictures on his phone and shows me when he finds the picture he was looking for—a picture of young Steve in a Kiss iron-on t-shirt.

That is fantastic! I love the iron-on!

Yeah, man. This one’s my first concert, Yngwie Malmsteen. Hide the women! Then there’s this…[he shows me another picture of him as a child holding a toy Kiss guitar]

Nice! The Kiss guitar!

The Kiss guitar. Look at that, man. I’ve already got my foot propped up, a cardboard monitor. I was like, five or six years old there.

When we were five years old, in ’79, they were so much larger than life. They were superheroes. It was unreal.

Oh, yeah man. They would say “Join the Kiss Army.” They started a whole army, just for kids! I guess back then, it pissed off a lot of adults that were Kiss fans, that people would bring their kids to a show. But you know what? Those fans are growing up on Kiss, and they became us.

Absolutely. I mean, you look back at all the stuff—the dolls, the lunchbox, all that stuff, and I wonder “Why the hell didn’t I hang on to all that stuff?”

I played with all my shit. I still have a whole thing full of Matchbox cars and they’re all fucked up. The wheels are broken off.

I could never understand how people have kept their toys for years still in their packages, in perfect condition. I always opened them.

We just destroyed everything. [laughs]

I still have a couple of things that made it through but other than that, it’s pretty rough. What do you think about this recent upswing in vinyl over the past few years?

I don’t think it’s ever really gone anywhere. I remember the first CDs that we put out—I think it was No Idea magazine—they had our song on a CD and I was like, “Holy shit dude, we’re on a CD!” This was in like the late ‘90s, maybe mid-‘90s. We didn’t put out our first CD until about 2002 with the first Floor record. That was a big deal, but there was always vinyl. All the 7-inches in the ‘90s. We would put out 7-inches and all the small labels—like Rhetoric and Bovine—all these labels said, “Just put out 7-inches.” We had all this material, and just wanted to put something out. Since then, vinyl has just been the big thing—you want to just keep that alive. Anybody can put out a CD and that’s cool, but I want a fucking record. People treasure it just like I did. I know a lot of people who won’t listen to their records online, because they want to hear it first on vinyl. I love that. That’s how it was before.

It’s pure.

Yeah, man. It’s special. It should be special. Vinyl, it sounds great, it sounds killer. You actually have to pull the thing out, put it on the turntable, and you treasure it. It comes with the great packaging, you look at the cover, and it’s like “Holy shit, look at all this stuff, man.”

That’s exactly it. I got the green and purple splatter version of Restarter, the mail order version. I pulled it out of the sleeve at work, and people gathered around and were like “Whoa…” It turns heads.

Yeah, it’s wild. When I was a kid, I didn’t really have a whole lot of colored vinyl.

It was fairly rare years ago.

Yeah. I had a clear vinyl of Jane’s Addiction’s first record. There very few records, everything was black vinyl. That’s what I like about Harmonicraft, it’s just one colored vinyl. It’s actually not even colored, it’s just clear. That was all that was released, and it came with a slipmat.

I don’t even know when it all started. I’ve started collecting John Barry’s soundtracks, and the soundtrack to the movie The Deep was clear blue vinyl. I was shocked when I pulled it out. I didn’t realize they were doing that back then.

It’s cool, it’s just like, when did it really begin? And now, people are obsessed with, “Well, how many were pressed in this color?” I don’t fucking know! [laughs] Just buy it! If you like that color vinyl, then buy it. Is it about the music, or about how cool the record looks, because personally, black vinyl sounds better.

I usually don’t try to get caught up in it. If it’s black, it’s black, if it’s colored, then awesome.

I have a friend, it’s funny, he’s like, “Hey man, can you bring me one of those records?” It was like when our first record came out. I gave it to him, and he was like, “This is on black vinyl.” I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” [laughs] Where’s my colored vinyl? Well, then where’s my money, motherfucker? The shit is ridiculous. We could put out a limited number of black vinyl. It would be a collector’s item. [laughs]

I think the creativity of the colored vinyl has gotten pretty neat, with some of the things that they are doing.

Oh yeah, I mean, I like it, but it is almost too much now. I’m just not a collector like that.

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PHOTO: JANETTE VALENTINE

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