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Torche: The Heaviest Non-Metal Band in Miami

Torche, Restarter

Somewhere in a marijuana field in northern California, Steve Brooks realized he had really better make this music thing work. It was last winter, and the round-cheeked, friendly eyed lead singer and guitarist for Torche — one of the sludgiest, most acclaimed bands working today — found himself confronting the realities of sweat-soaked agricultural labor. Every day, he raced the clock to try to trim enough weed to make the promised cash worth his time. It wasn’t proving very fruitful. 

“You’d trim it, and get paid $150 a pound,” Brooks says months later, relaxing on a leather couch backstage at the downtown Miami venue Grand Central. “Do you know how much weed you have to trim to get a pound?” 

He himself didn’t, previously. Despite his former day job and some of the labels thrust upon Torche (they’ve frequently been called “stoner-metal,” a tag that’s attributed to their general love of heavy fuzz), the 40-year-old doesn’t smoke what he quaintly refers to as “grass.”

“I worked for about 48 to 50 hours and made $190,” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘Alright, I gotta go. Fuck this.'”

Now, Brooks focuses on Torche, a quartet birthed in Miami a decade ago that’s managed to bridge the gulf between metalheads and mainstream rock fans like few before them. “We’re metal-influenced, but we’re not a metal band,” the frontman is quick to correct. 

“We get in a room and we just write whatever, and the handful of songs we have just come out,” Brooks continues. “Not all of them are heavy or dark, but the majority of them are more aggressive.”

It’s January and we’re sitting in the venue’s cool, impressively graffiti-free backstage area, surrounded by a top-shelf hospitality spread of whiskey, other booze, and snacks. And though Torche is technically opening for Richmond, Virginia thrash act Municipal Waste, most of the crowd at this approximately 700-person-capacity place is here to see the former.

Fans love Brooks and his cohorts — bassist Jonathan Nuñez, drummer Rick Smith, and second guitarist/vocalist Andrew Elstner — for their crushing, unflinching riffs elevated by surprisingly sweet, major-key melodies. And thanks to the band’s sheer lack of pretension and command of hummable melodies, Torche has largely escaped the vitriol directed at other metal-leaning groups that have poked into wider circles, e.g. Liturgy and Deafheaven. They draw glowing reviews in metal-centric media (see: Metal Sucks) but tour with larger-scale acts as varied as Converge and Coheed & Cambria. 

And yet, after ten years of collecting these kinds of nods, Brooks and Co. still bootstrap it out on the road, playing almost every tour they can get, supporting the same full-length for up to two years at a stretch. What’s more, they never tour with a full-on bus, no matter how fancy their tourmates are living on the road. Tonight, they’ve got a van with a beaten-down metal trailer parked outside the venue’s entrance. And only on their previous tour did they finally decide to graduate from crashing on drunk and generous fans’ floors.

“We know the result of not touring, and we’re trying to avoid that,” says Nuñez. He’s mostly escaped physical labor in his non-Torche time, running the underground-acclaimed Pinecrust Studios, a random suburban tract home turned haven for sludge-slingers down south. (The remaining members of the band scrape by in-between tours with music-industry odd jobs.)

But on this night, a month or so before the arrival of the band’s since-released fourth album, Restarter, Torche finds itself at another turning point, with what is likely the group’s highest-profile release to date. Even before the record hit shelves on February 24, on the strength of singles like “Annihilation Affair” and “Bishops in Arms,” the album has garnered the sort of breathless “must-listen” accolades that might make any band nervous.

Then there’s the fact it’s being released on what has long been considered the premier metal label: Relapse Records. The imprint has released classics by titans from the death, black, and doom metal circles, among them Neurosis’ Through Silver and Blood and most of Suffocation’s discography.

But based on the opening blasts of Restarter, Torche’s latest stands up to all of these tests. It’s the refresher that everyone — the label, metal purists, the stagnant world of festival rock — needs.

Torche is often referred to as a “Miami band” in the press, but these days, the members are scattered across the country. Brooks decamped to San Francisco about a year ago after roughly five in Atlanta, where Elstner still currently lives. Smith still lives in Miami. But Nuñez is packing up Pinecrust soon and moving it temporarily to Gainesville, a north-central Florida college town that’s home to both the University of Florida, and enough nearby, down-tuning bands to keep his studio in business.

But still, it’s Miami where the band first gelled — and where it truly found its doom-metal-referencing (but undeniably hook-driven) sound. Some have tried to draw a constant comparison between the city’s humid, wet-carpet air and Torche’s “swampy” vibe, but that’s not really it. Rather, Torche comes from a creative scene with no rules, one of weird juxtapositions and low stakes.

A good chunk of Miami’s punk-and-heavy-rock sphere revolves around Churchill’s, a decaying English pub on the fringes of Little Haiti, where vagrants draw pictures in the parking lot and collect money to “protect” patrons’ cars. If bands want to make it out of that insular atmosphere, they have to spend a good 12 hours driving just to get out of the state. Otherwise, they’re free to incubate in Miami, playing fast and loose with genre conventions. The “Miami sound” for this set might lean towards the loud and severe, but it doesn’t hew to any particular collection of rules — something evident on the night Torche plays the city with Municipal Waste. 

At Grand Central, a cavernous, minimal-mod space that also hosts EDM titans, the setting proves that Torche has graduated in esteem beyond the confines of hot, dim, smoke-choked Churchill’s. This time, they’re staking the stage at a sparkling-clean club with an LED-light-display behind the stage, bathroom attendants pumping soap for concert-goers, and $20 parking.

The bill of local supporting acts, too, shows how Torche has little use for the usual stoner-metal playbook. There’s Wrong, a forceful, downtuned foursome, and Nunhex, a thrashy party quartet whose allegiances are clear from the wild-maned singer’s DRI shirt. That’s more or less the way it’s gone for Torche since the beginning: There was no real reason to worry about alienating metalheads or indie gatekeepers, because there simply weren’t enough of either to care about enforcing scene rules.

Torche’s 2005 self-titled first album, released via the indie label Robotic Empire, played like a grab bag of experimentation. On one hand, there were songs that could’ve been confused with leftovers from Floor, Brooks’ previous, more straight-ahead drone-metal band, full of dirty, repetitive riffs. Then there was a handful of markedly different compositions, ones that owed a heavy debt to the fuzzy love affair original guitarist Juan Montoya had with Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, drowning bona fide pop songs in layers of effects.

Torche is a collection the band looks on with mixed feelings now, but it planted the seeds for future sonic expansion. “That album was like, ‘Write this many songs because we need that many,” Nuñez recalls of the frenzied rush to get it out. “Personally my head was in a dark place, so I wanted to get that record out and start touring,” says Brooks. “We didn’t really have our chemistry yet. So I look back at that record and it sounds like children playing.”

The next few albums, then, marked Torche’s developing teenage years. On the 2007 EP In Return, the best songs chugged along at a pace that would be considered way too breakneck for doomy traditionalists hoping for more of Floor, Version 2.0. But they still ground along with gut-churning intensity — they just came wrapped up with sing-along melodies powered by Brooks’ husky, decidedly non-traditionally metal singing.

By the mid- to late-2000s, Torche took the stage at massive festivals like All Tomorrow’s Parties in England. And in 2008, the band’s aesthetic began to crystallize on Meanderthal, which left behind the feel of Floor holdovers in favor of muscular melodies. “It was a stepping stone with our own progression,” Brooks says.

But after the kinds of contentious fights that come with living on the road together, Montoya either suddenly quit or got booted from the group, depending on who tells the story. It’s something no one involved likes to dwell on now and, though fans feared it might signal the end of Torche, it turned out not to be so. “I’m the first person who wants to give up usually, but it’s the other guys who kept me going,” Brooks says. “We basically did this thing from the ground up, you know?”

“All that hard work, all that time,” Nuñez adds, trailing off. “Once you start touring and it becomes a full-time thing, it becomes hard to just stop.” Luckily, by the time it felt like time to write a new crop of material, they had tapped Elstner, a long-time friend, to join full-time as guitarist.

Even with the loss of a founding member, Torche seemed to perfect its blend of light and dark, hostility and melody, with 2012’s Harmonicraft. Here was a record that shredded and soothed, surging along on both power-pop hooks and skate-session-worthy aggression.

Torche’s audiences expanded even further with the help of yet another new label, a subsidiary of the mammoth skate-and-surf lifestyle brand, Volcom. And after about two years of touring behind the record, the guys finally decided they could swap fans’ aforementioned floors for the relative luxury of cheap motels.

“I’m gonna be 41. If we’re living on the road, I want it to be as comfortable as possible. Do you wanna live on someone else’s floor every day?” Brooks says. “I don’t mind paying a little of the money we make and just having a clean bed, a clean shower, and getting sleep.”

Restarter arrives with more than a bit of pressure — probably intensified by the band’s equally punishing recording methods. Constant touring at mid-level clubs doesn’t leave much time for writing, and when they’re not on tour, Torche’s members form a wide geographical axis — so the new songs came together during an intense two-week incubation period in Miami.

There are indeed moments on Restarter that sound high-pressure and noticeably murkier. “Annihilation Affair” opens the whole album on a markedly slowed-down note, with Brooks’ trademark buzzsaw guitars cutting shaper and more jagged than they have in years. 

But that’s just some of the album, whose bewitching command of mood and nuance unfurls over a total of ten tracks. There’s “Bishop in Arms,” which explodes with major chords and floats on a cloud of almost Beatles-esque vocal harmonies. Later on, there’s the meaty, but almost ethereal, “Believe It,” a slab of shoegazing psychedelia.

“We go back and forth with everything, really. The next record could probably be super sad, like Dead Can Dance or something,” says Brooks. He pauses. “Well… it won’t. But it all just depends on the mood we’re in while we’re writing.”

In other words, says Brooks, don’t pin the extra hint of aggression on the album to its home on Relapse. Torche arrives at the label on the tail end of a decade of averaging one album per label — so chalk it up to the volatility of the music industry. Relapse came around after years of interest in releasing a new album by Floor. But in recent years, its roster has diversified, and Torche isn’t sweating any kind of implied metal-purist pressure. 

“There’s been some wondering if it was like, ‘Oh, is it a heavier record, or more dark or aggressive because you’re on Relapse,'” says Elstner. “But we had already started writing the songs well before we had sat down with these guys anyways. So it was like, the album was gonna be what it was gonna be.”

Onstage in Miami at Grand Central, the band’s logo blazing from the club’s fancy light screen behind them, it all makes sense together. Old tracks like the self-titled cut from In Return run right into Restarter selections, into Meanderthal-era favorites like “Healer.”

The crowd doesn’t lose the thread for a second — Latino metal purists in denim jackets, stoner teens, old-timers and hesitant show drag-alongs all get sucked into Torche’s gut-busting, catchy vortex. And if Elstner still looks geeked to even be in the band, nobody cheeses harder than Brooks himself, whose pinchable cheeks stay locked in a perma-grin.

And if the outcome is a just a slightly better class of motel, and the ability to skip weed-farm work and just keep the Torche show on the hard-grinding road, well, that’s okay with the band.

“I don’t wanna work for some shithead, and I wanna do what I love to do, and not have to have a second job,” says Brooks. Right now, they’re closer to that goal than ever.