In three waste-free minutes, Across the Shields encapsulates all the strengths of Meanderthal, the mighty second album from the Miami quartet-cum-trio Torche. Thriving off a magnetic hook about toughness and protection and guitars that stomp through swamps before swiveling through the air in perfect synergy, Across the Shields implants its basic, badass melody in the first minute-plus. Healer, the tune that pushed the band from the metal ghetto to the fringes of indie rock last year, operates on a similarly taut, triumphant theme.
Across the Shields takes heavy pop perfection somewhere different, though: To begin the songs second half, Torche sidesteps the theme, settling into a mid-tempo throb that crests, once again, over Steve Brooks howl of I am your armor. The band crashes from atop the wave like soldiers storming a shoreline, the units newfound speed transporting an unrelenting force of heavy. The suffocate-and-surround guitar strategya bed of deep tones plated with a silver sliver of shrill feedbackserves as a prelude to the albums closing quarter, a deadly trip through sludgy, primordial terrain. Perfect, of course, for an LP named Meanderthal.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Did "Across the Shields" start with a riff or with a lyrical idea?
STEVE BROOKS: Basically, all of our songs start out with a riff, and then they go on from there.
Do the members write riffs separately and bring them to the band, or do you write together?
Well, the main riff was one that our old guitar player [Juan Montoya] wrote. Then he brought it to practice, so we all completed the song together.
Juan has since left the band, right?
Yeah, he's no longer with us. It happened last November.
I interviewed Juan last year, and he told me that—for Meanderthal—you'd realized you didn't want to make a dark metal record, that you wanted to change it up a bit.
Yeah, we all listen to rock 'n' roll, so it kind of has a bit of everything.
This song definitely stands out as a pop-rock song, but it's still heavy. Had you written a lot of songs in other bands like this and just never played them in this big of a situation before?
Yeah, I played in other bands, and so many just didn't really get off the ground, bands that just stayed in the warehouse and never played any shows. I've done all kinds of stuff.
What's the poppiest band you've ever been in?
Actually, I played with a band that was like a pop-punk band in the early '90s called The Basils. We never did anything. I played with another band in the late '90s for a year and that never got out of the warehouse and never got a name.
Was that a trio or the quartet?
It was a trio, and it ended up being called The Remedy Session. But it's now completely different than when I was playing with them. It was kind of like indie rock.
Did you grow a pop-punk fan?
Yeah, I grew up on all kinds of music. I mean, basically when I was a kid it was all metal. In the late '80s, I started getting into other things—here was a local band called Quit—The Descendents, Hüsker Dü and a lot of stuff that I don't really consider punk, but just very melodic bands that influenced me a lot.
When you told the rest of the band about changing things for this record, how did that go?
Well, I think when we first started, we didn't really know each other that well. Like "Let's put this together." I had a vision, but the other guys didn't really see things the same way at that time. I don't really take anything too seriously. But, yeah, the first record, we were only a band for about three months when we started recording it. I had riffs written from my old band [Floor]. I completed old Floor songs from my old band with [Torche], and that's kind of where the start of the sound came from.
You said you had a vision for the band. How similar is that first album to fulfilling that vision?
It's kind of like a demo for us. Like, "Well, let's see what we can do and see how we can make this work." I think we started really getting each other on the In Return EP, and then it just got more progressive for us like with Meanderthal. You never know when you start off. You just start playing, and things just evolve in their own way.
Now you said progressive. You mean, the band was progressing, not getting more progressive, right?
[Laughs.] No, it's not like progressive music. It's just progressing as a band.
Torche would make for an interesting definition of prog rock.
Yeah, we're not prog rock. We're just the opposite.
You mentioned the sound progressing with Meanderthal, and then Juan left. Did that departure have anything to do with progressing from one vision to another?
No. We didn't have musical differences, I think. The reasons that we stopped playing with each other were personal and professional reasons. I really love Juan as a guitar player, and I like his ideas. Whatever he does from now on, I'm still probably going to be a fan of it, but we just can't work together. We—the whole band—can't work with him. It's just one of those relationships that didn't work very well. We had some good stuff that came out, but I don't know. We'll see what happens. We're a trio now, so we're looking at it as a trio now. I think a lot of people are a little frightened by that, but most of my favorite bands are trios. I don't really care. I think it's a little more punk rock now.
How does a song like "Across the Shields," which has so much guitar power, work as a trio?
Well, the good thing is we have so many other songs that we don't need it. You know, the guitar parts weren't so different. We're basically playing the same rhythm. The only thing now is, live, there's a couple of songs where I'm doing solos and there's no rhythm guitar behind it. There's the bass, and the bass is doing what the rhythm guitar was doing. It's just a little emptier without a rhythm behind the solos, but regardless it's still powerful. It's a power trio now. We're having a lot more fun, too. There's more room for us to dance onstage. [Laughs.]
How many shows have you played as a trio so far?
We've probably played about a month's worth of shows as a trio, and it just keeps getting better. The only deal with that is, if I mess up, everybody hears it. You can't hide behind another guitar player. Or like last night we played, we started off the set with one song and within a few seconds, I broke a string. I'm like, "Ah! Within the first song, I break a string!" So we had to actually stop the song.
"Across the Shields," even if poppy, is very powerful and heavy, especially how this bludgeoning band swivels around that tiny riff. And then there's the image of shields and the one decipherable line: "I am your armor." What does this song represent for you?
As far as lyrics? I don't know. I was just thinking of medieval times or something like that. What I do is, I just hum up melodies and then words come out. Most of our songs don't make any sense, but I like it to keep it that way. Like when I make sense, it just sounds stupid to me. So I'm not trying to preach or say anything. I just use it as an instrument. That's another reason why we don't write lyrics. I kind of like when people come up to me and say, "Are you saying this?" and I'm like, "I'm not saying that, but I think it's cool that you think that I'm saying that."
What's the weirdest interpretation you've ever received from a song?
I don't know. I've heard so many different things and they're all funny to me. We have a new song "Sugar Glider" and someone thought I'm saying, "You're so blow dryer." I said, "All right, that sounds cool."
What are you actually saying?
I'm saying, "Your sold, blown tire," which is just as dumb.
Heavy metal certainly owes a debt to medieval lore. What was your first exposure to mythology and that sort of ultimate strength—armor, shields, gods, dragons?
When I was a kid, the first band I was exposed to was KISS. I got into Sabbath and Ozzy and Dio and all that stuff. When you're a kid, you think of monsters and ghosts, and it's spooky. I was listening to Slayer when I was still a kid, and I turned the records backwards so the front covers wouldn't be facing me while I'm sleeping. I didn't want the demons to come and get me at night, but all that stuff is ridiculous. Religion is ridiculous. Satanism, it's all ridiculous. I kind of get the joke. It is all a joke to me. What's funny is when metal heads take it all seriously. I guess when you're a kid you think it's all real, and then when you get older you just realize how stupid it is. But it's funny.
A lot of people cling to what they cling to growing up because they need some kind of external strength or reinforcement. Do you think that was the case with you—you liked metal because it provided some measure of strength and support?
I don't know. It was powerful to me. I think in a way it made me more of an individual because I basically had no friends that were metal heads, and I was in the 8th grade. I was picked on. That was my strength because I was out on my own, and that's what I was into.
What was the hardest year in school for you?
The hardest year in school was probably when I was in the 7th grade. I had long hair. I was wearing metal shirts. I was the only metal head pretty much in school. People would throw gum in my hair to get me to cut it. All kinds of stuff. I'd get into fights. It was pretty brutal.
Where'd you grow up?
I grew up in Miami in a Hispanic neighborhood called Hialeah. It's all Hispanic, pretty much.
So you've been in Miami all your life?
Yeah, I've been in Miami. In the mid '90s, I moved to Atlanta for a couple of years and moved back down to Miami. I'm living back in Atlanta now. I moved back about a year ago.
How does Atlanta compare to Miami?
I love it. I actually hated living in Miami. It was just, I mean, my whole life, my family's from down there. That's why I ended up living down there and going back just because I was going back to school and everything. The first chance I had to get out of there, I did. I was also in relationships down there, which kept me there. I just love being somewhere else in a bigger city that has more culture for the types of things that I am or my lifestyle. For music and art, Miami just kind of reminds me of L.A. or something. It's about who you know and how good you look. It's just too expensive, and it's hot. It's miserable, and the traffic is horrible. It's just not me. I like four seasons and hills and mountains and a big city. But the other guys, they love Miami. They're not me.
Being a band in separate cities: How have you found that?
Actually, it's more productive because when we lived in the same city, we didn't do as much as we do when we're living in different cities.
Is that because you value the time you have together more? You work harder?
I think that when I'm in town, I let them know that we have to do this. I've been down there quite a bit and tried to make them understand: "Look, hey, what if you were in Atlanta for three weeks and you were sleeping on somebody's couch while the other guys were living their lives—or while I'm living my life— and we're not practicing, we're not getting anything done?" It's what they're doing in Miami when we're not practicing. They're living their lives, but I've given up my life to go down there to do this. So I think they're a lot more understanding now. When I go down there, I'm like, "Look, we have these dates to do stuff. We're going to do them." We're not going to slack off because I'm not going to drive down there for nothing.
How long is the drive?
It's 12 hours, so when I go down there, I'm sleeping on my dad's couch and just trying to get things taken care of.
As an album, Meanderthal is poppy and heavy. It feels triumphant. How do you guys think you're moving from there?
I'm just into energy and having fun. I mean people take music so seriously, and there are so many different emotions. There are so many fucking bands singing about the negative and pouring their hearts out. You know, I've done it, but the thing for me is escape. I listen to doomy, gloomy stuff as well, but I'm also a huge fan of Van Halen. The Beatles records are goofy, and they're just having fun. That's kind of what I want to do with this band.
Juan said last year, that with Torche, you had said you were tired of making sad music and hearing sad music. Does that continue with the new Torche?
Yeah. If people want to hear sad music, there's a billion bands that are doing it. You know, I just want to go out there and blast.
Torche plays Tuesday, April 21, at The Brewery with Dredg and From Monuments to Masses. Doors open at 7 p.m., and tickets are $15.