Rock and roll with a message is a relatively new concept. There are bands who have had agendas, political stances and opinions dating all the way back to its earliest days, but for the most part, rock is and always has been about feeling. Happiness, despair, frustration — everything in between — rock music has always been about the way your skin gets set on fire from the beat, the groove, the passion in the noise. It’s something you feel deep inside your gut.
Formed in 2004, Torche has carved themselves a frustratingly tough-to-categorize niche in heavy music. Born from the ashes of vocalist and guitarist Steve Brooks’ (recently reunited) band Floor — who have a similar-yet-simpler, heavier sound than Torche — the band, rounded out by Andrew Elstner, Jonathan Nunez and Rick Smith, With Restarter, has dropped another immensely heavy slab of their sludge-meets-’90s alt-anthemic-rock with Restarter, their fifth full-length.
In the days leading up to a U.S. tour with Relapse Records labelmates Nothing, HM was able to speak with Brooks about what Torche, Restarter and rock and roll means to him.
Restarter has been out for two days, and I think I’ve listened to it six times already.
Don’t burn it out man (laughs)!
How has the reception been so far, even though it’s only been a couple of days?
I mean, it’s been better than I thought it would be. I think it’s pretty awesome, and I’m kind of blown away. I’m waiting for the backlash (laughs). And I’m already getting sick of hearing about my band.
Torche has such a distinct sound, but when I compare Restarter to 2012’s Harmonicraft, it feels quite different. Harmonicraft was more expansive and layered. Restarter feels more stripped-down, adding to the full-force wall of sound. What was the mindset going into this one? Was that shift intentional or organic?
It did happen organically, but it was still intentional. We took a very Gary Numan approach to the songs. We kept them simpler, in a way, as if we were playing synthesizers instead of guitars. You can even hear it in Rick’s drumming, which has always been much flashier. On this one, it feels more in the pocket. Sometimes to the extreme; the title track is eight minutes of a single, hypnotic beat with no snare drum. Yeah. That’s our Krautrock influence coming through. (Editor’s note: a German style of songwriting from the 1960s, centered around minimalism.) It’s just groove. There’s a lot of groove on this record, instead of flash. We did a lot of flashy stuff on the last record, so with this one we wanted to just write something different, really.
It’s also much heavier, and there’s been talk about Restarter being Torche’s return to heavy, although I don’t think you ever left. It’s much bigger. Was your riff-writing mindset different because of all of the recent activity with Floor?
Well, no. Actually, almost all of the new Floor material was written by Anthony (Vialon, Floor guitarist) and Henry (Wilson, Floor drummer). I came in with about three songs for that record, and then collaborated with them. But I wanted them to do the majority of it to try and separate Floor from Torche. I didn’t want either band to be affected by each other.
I mean, of course it’s my voice, and the guitars are downtuned. And there’s that bomb guitar sound that I brought over into Torche. (Editor’s note: the “bomb” guitar sound is Brooks’ own invention, which involves the lowest guitar string being tuned lower than any musical note.) Although one song on Restarter, “Barrier Hammer,” I thought was going to be a Floor song. But I ended up doing it with Torche instead, and we just made it more of a Torche song in the process.
That has to be an interesting push and pull in your writing process. When you’re writing riffs, do you think to yourself, “This one is for Floor, this one is for Torche,” and so on? Or does it just happen naturally?
It happens naturally. But I don’t know when Floor is going to put out a new record or when we are going to write anything again, and I had these riffs. So I just said fck it and made it into a Torche song. But in the end, it’s just me. It’s the style I have. I write and that’s what comes out.
And that’s exactly what you’re known for: the riffs. When you’re writing, do you find yourself always chasing after that next big riff?
It’s more organic because I don’t really write a lot on my own. I mostly write my riffs when we are practicing together as a band. Or on the road at soundcheck, I’ll be riffing around and if something sticks — and if I remember to — I might pull out my phone and record it for later. Jon will write a few things when he’s at home because he lives in a studio, basically. But most of the material is on the spot in the room with the other guys.
But with you in San Francisco, Andrew in Atlanta and Rick and Jon in Miami, how do you find time to get in a room to write and rehearse? Obviously you’re forced to be more efficient.
Usually we set aside a couple of weeks at a time to get together to just write and demo. And then we’ll take a few months off. And then we come back and do it again.
This time, we took a couple weeks, wrote and demoed, we had rough ideas of songs written from the last time we recorded — which was the Keep Up/Leather Feather 7”. We had like four songs we hadn’t completed from those sessions, and we just went from there. Sometimes we end up writing really quick, and it just comes together.
We spent about a month writing this time, and then two weeks to record it. And like I said, we took a simpler approach this time. We didn’t overthink it. We were just like, Well, we dig it. It’s not rocket science (laughs). We like the stripped-down feel to this record.
It definitely feels concise. Not in a too-short kind of way, but in a consistent, straight-forward rock kind of way. In a way, it feels like a fck you to anyone who tries to pigeonhole Torche into a specific genre, like bubblegum metal or sludge pop or whatever people want to call you these days. It’s just a ripper of a heavy rock record.
Yeah, I mean, we do it every time. We kind of say fck you to everybody anyway. We’re going to write what we’re going to write and people are going to label us whatever they do. I mean, I could write a song that’s just straightforward power pop, and we’ll still be labeled sludge or something like that.
When I say power pop I mean that hybrid sound from the ’70s, just big, feel good rock. And then we’ll get labeled a doom band or something like that. Come on people.
Since the beginning, we’ve always confused people. People are like, “They’re not metal. I don’t know if I like this. It doesn’t sound like this or like that.” It’s always been confusing, and some of my favorite bands have always been sort of confusing. I mean, look at the Melvins. Man, people did not understand them for a long time, and they just ended up developing their own fanbase. And I admire that. They were just like, fck you.
I was just going to say, if I could think of a band whose career could be summed up by fck you, it’s the Melvins.
Yeah (laughs). We’re going to do what we want to do. That’s our attitude.
Does all of that genre pigeonholing get on your nerves? It seems like heavy music, in general, is known — more than any other genre — for trying to put everything in it’s own little box all the time.
It doesn’t really piss me off as much as it’s just annoying. I look at it as hard rock. That’s it. Like Motorhead. They never considered themselves a metal band. They’re like, “We’re a rock and roll band.” It’s all rock and roll, you know?
We throw in many different styles of rock that inspire us, everything from metal to soft rock. Air Supply to Black Sabbath. We’re inspired by a lot of different things, and it comes through in what we’re doing. We’re a modern hard rock band — without the poser sh-t (laughs).
We’re a band, in 2015, who have been inspired by many types of rock over the last 50 years.
Torche has been a band since 2004, which, by heavy music standards, is a long time. And you guys top it off by being virtually drama-free. I think of a band like Converge who has a long history of putting out great records and being drama or controversy-free. It seems like much of that comes from giving each other space in between records and tours. Do you attribute your longevity to the fact that you guys aren’t together all of the time, that you guys do your own thing outside of Torche?
Yeah, totally. I mean, we don’t have big egos or anything. None of us are trying to put out solo records. We’re not fighting with each other in the studio. We all get along. We’ve been through the worst already.
We’re at the point right now where we all know this is what we want to do. This is what we’re committed to. We’ve ended relationships. You’re on the road and ultimatums come up, like, “Do you want to be with me or be with the band?” And it’s like, we’ve worked our asses off to get where we are. It’s our life.
Like being a visual artist, you paint and nothing is going to stop you from doing it. We’re not a big money-making band or anything; I’ve been doing this since the early ’90s, sometimes playing for no one. This is what I do. I tried selling all of my stuff one time, and then ended up buying all new equipment again and playing more music.
The longevity is that we’re all really dedicated and love what we do over anything else. It’d be super easy to play whatever people want us to play, but we get the first and last word when it comes to that. We dig it, so we’re going to record it. People are going to like it or they’re not going to like it. Just have to keep going and progressing in our own way.
In the same way, it seems like Relapse Records is a really good fit for you guys. Their whole catalog is an example of putting out what they want to put out, some people will like it and some people won’t.
Back to Restarter. The easiest place for the mind to go when hearing the title is something like a new beginning for Torche; going back to your roots. Is there a theme behind Restarter?
I’ve heard that theory, that we’re going back to the beginning or something. Hell no, man. We’re ten years old. We’re not going back.
The title Restarter came from being pissed off at humanity for all of the stupid sh-t we fcking do. There are some themes throughout the record about human annihilation and how we shouldn’t even be here, that we’re no good for this planet. I was into the idea of what we’ve created, our technology, destroying us and then restarting with a whole new life of it’s own through artificial intelligence, and then nature taking its course around the ruins of what we’ve created. It’s sort of a fantasy sci-fi world. The artwork for the record — by the prolific John Santos — was then influenced by that idea. “Our leaders / Done with conversation” is all I say in the title track. People in power are going to do what they are going to do, and we’re all a bunch of puppets. And it’s like, well sh-t, they could pull the plug whenever they want. It’s a helpless feeling. But maybe it could be a good thing.
So many people talk about Torche’s music feeling upbeat or happy. For me, it makes me feel good, even with its heaviness and intensity. It’s interesting, then, to hear such dark concepts lyrically. Do themes of nihilism and misanthropy weave throughout other songs?
I mean, sometimes I vent. And sometimes I don’t want to vent. Sometimes it’s sorrow or experiences that really hurt me. And it could just be a couple lines in a song — the rest being filler for the gaps — rather than the whole story. I’m not a storyteller or a poet. I just write a few things and that’s it. Some songs are super goofy. Some are angry or sad or just a bunch of words put together in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way.
That’s an interesting approach to lyric writing. It almost seems as if your voice and lyrics are just another instrument rather than the focus.
Yeah, that’s how I see it. I hear melodies, you know? I’m a guitar player. I write riffs. So, basically, the vocals are other riffs that go with the guitar riffs. I like traditional rock music with hooks.
There are really good lyricists out there who write great melodies, and I love that as well. But for me, I look at it as what it is. It’s a good time and then it’s a bad time. We don’t limit ourselves. And you know, you run out of subjects, too. I don’t want to sing about one feeling my whole career. We’re never going to do that. I’m never going to do that.
A lot of bands these days — specifically the younger, heavy bands — feel they have to have some sort of bigger message or purpose to convey, considering it just as important — if not more important than — the music itself. Is there anything that you’d consider Torche’s “purpose,” other than playing heavy rock?
Our purpose? It’s to make ourselves happy, really. And hopefully other people dig it and feel something. We’re not changing the world or anything like that. We’re just out doing what we do. Some people take themselves way too seriously. We don’t take ourselves seriously at all, and I like that. We want to play music that we enjoy and continue to enjoy.
I don’t know if you can talk to this at all or if it’s still under wraps or what, but I have to ask: What is going on with this Rob Trujillo (Metallica bassist) project that Rick has been asked to take part in?
I don’t know! (Laughs) I have no idea. I mean, on the last tour Rick mentioned when he got back he was going to be jamming with Rob Trujillo, and I was like, What?! (Laughs) It’s for a Tony Hawk Foundation thing. I think they’re doing a Sabbath cover or something and then maybe an original. It’s Rob, Rick and Nate from Converge. I think it’s fcking cool. And super interesting. I never in a million years thought any of us would be playing with a member of Metallica (laughs).
That’s what was so mind-blowing to me. I don’t care what anyone’s thoughts are on post-And Justice For All… Metallica, when someone from Metallica asks you to jam with them, you say yes.
Torche was posted on March 11, 2015 for HM Magazine and authored by Collin Simula.