Interview with drummer Rick Smith | By Thomas Pizzola
Miami-born doom-poppers Torche just released their fifth album, Admission, through Relapse Records on July 12. The new album is a rebirth for the band on all fronts: musically, personally, and visually, thanks to cover artwork by Richard Vergez. It also marks a new lineup for the long-running band, as vocalist and guitarist Steve Brooks, drummer Rick Smith, and bassist-turned-guitarist Jonathan Nuñez added new bassist Eric Hernandez to the fold.
Many things have changed in the Torche camp since their last release, Restarter, in 2016, so it’s the perfect time to get the full scoop from Smith.
Witness the rebirth of one of the most unique heavy bands of the past two decades.
How is Admission different from the previous album, Restarter? Was there anything you wanted to focus on bringing out that you didn’t on the previous one?
We took our time over a couple years working on Admission. Some of the original ideas on the album date back to 2016, not long after Restarter came out. Restarter was written in two weeks and recorded in two weeks. It was so quickly put together that I feel it lacked some of the imagination that typically goes into Torche songwriting. It seemed to be well-received by critics, so I can’t say I’m unhappy with the overall end result, but I definitely feel way more confident with the material on Admission. It marks a new era for the band with Jon moving from bass to guitar and our longtime friend and auxiliary member Eric Hernandez joining full-time on bass. This new lineup is probably my favorite so far, and the songs are more thought-out and complete.
How do the band operate these days with everybody scattered all over the U.S.?
We’ve been a long-distance band for well over a decade. Steve and Juan [Montoya], our first guitarist, moved to Atlanta back in 2007, and we’ve been split up around the country since. We’re all originally from Miami, but I’ve done some years living in Gainesville, Jon’s lived in Gainesville and Los Angeles, Steve’s lived in Tampa, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Eric has lived in Miami all his life. Jon and I are both back in Miami now. We’re used to this arrangement and always make time to rehearse and write every year. These days, Steve will fly to Miami to work with us, since it’s officially home base again. Through the years, Torche has called Miami, Atlanta, Gainesville, and Los Angeles our hometown.
With all that distance between band members, what are the writing and recording processes like?
It’s varied through the years, but now, it’s as simple as getting Steve a flight to Miami. He still has his father and grandmother in Miami, so it will always be home to him in some way or another. Our writing process has been a little different on just about every record. This time around, some ideas were recorded as demos by individual members and shared between the band via text or email. Some ideas were just single riffs contributed by one of us and built into structured songs while the band worked together in a rehearsal setting. Eric and Jon both came to the table with fully realized tracks on Admission, a couple songs were truly collaborative with all of us in a room, and a couple of them were Steve and I writing together. Steve and I have always had great chemistry as songwriters.
When we had the bulk of the album written, we went into the studio with Jon engineering and tracked just about everything minus solos and vocals in a 10- or 11-day timeframe. Vocals, guitar solos, and mixing were all done over the months that followed at a bit of a slow pace. Mastering, like most Torche records, was a tedious affair with plenty of back and forth between the band and engineers, but ultimately, I think Jon did good and held out until we got what we ended with, which I think sounds incredible.
What do the lyrics address this time around?
The lyrics on the record address an array of personal stuff for Steve. Like most classic rock ’n’ roll albums, there’s definitely sex and drugs, but it’s way more than that. Steve really wrote some imaginative and strong lyrics on this album compared to previous recordings. This will be the first Torche record since our [2005 self-titled] debut to featured printed lyrics. It’ll be up to the listeners to interpret for themselves, as some are not so black-and-white, and others can be a little more obvious.
Admission has a pretty stunning cover. It’s minimalist compared to previous covers. What made you decide to use that piece of art? Also, who created it?
The artist responsible for the cover image is South Florida-based minimalist artist Richard Vergez. Richard is well-respected by people locally and has also been involved in the music scene for many years performing under a few names as an experimental composer. I’ve been a fan of his visual and sound art for a long time. When Steve mentioned to me that he was really digging Richard’s stuff on Instagram, it dawned on us that his art may be a perfect fit for the new visual direction we wanted to take for Admission. Richard had created a handful of pieces for us to choose from, and the Admission cover was something that really stood out. We all knew it was the one.
How does new bassist Eric Hernandez fit into the band? What made you decide it was time for a new member, and what does he bring to the table?
Eric is someone I grew up with and a very close friend. I played in bands with Eric in high school. We did our first tours together. Him and I played in House Of Lightning together along with Henry Wilson of Floor. I drummed for Eric’s band Wrong on their first U.S. tour. Eric plays with Jon and [my] grindcore band Shitstorm sometimes and is on our last two 7”s. He’s also filled in for me on drums in Torche when personal reasons prevented me from being able to play. He’s been part of our musical family tree for as long as I can remember, so I think he fits right in.
The reason for the lineup change wasn’t personal. We all liked working with and touring with our previous guitarist, Andrew Elstner, but I think he always kinda disliked the way we worked as a band creatively, especially during the Restarter era. I can’t say I blame him; we weren’t the most cohesive group at the time, and no one was really contributing much to the idea pool, Andrew included. It was an all-time low for inspiration in our camp. In the end, we started feeling like the three of us were on a different page than Andrew. Andrew contributed a solid amount of material for [2012’s] Harmonicraft, and his sound and style could be heard much more on that album than Restarter. The only song he contributed big ideas for on Restarter was the title track, which I love! I believe that was his song. He seemed uninspired otherwise, and I don’t say that in any kind of belittling way. We all were at that point. Steve wrote the majority of Restarter super fast, but it just wasn’t enough to really make a big wave. The record stands as my least revisited Torche album.
Bringing Eric into the mix was something we knew would be a productive decision, because Eric is a beast of a songwriter. Of all of my inner circle, he probably has the most ideas and is also an insanely talented player when it comes to both technical proficiency and feel. When Eric joined, he immediately came to us with at least seven or eight recorded demos of fully realized compositions. “Slide” was the very first one we knew we had to play together.
Torche have been a band for 15 years. What keeps you going? Do you ever see an end to it?
I think writing timeless, honest, and unique music is what keeps us going. No one out there does exactly what we do; there’s bands we get compared to, but most of the time, I don’t think it’s accurate. Part Chimp in the U.K. is a band we consider to be our cousin band—very heavy, loud and melodic. It probably stems from influences more than anything. They like the stuff we like.
I personally don’t see an end to this as long as we’re in good health and capable. We really love what we do and have plans to continue releasing records and performing live. We haven’t run out of ideas, and that’s obvious when listening to Admission. While having a classic Torche sound, it’s a more mature record than any from the past and also showcases how we can reinvent ourselves without losing focus of our intention or identity.
Also, in your 15 years of being a band, you’ve probably had great shows and not-so-great shows. What constitutes a great show for you? What constitutes a bad show? Do any particular ones stick out?
A great show is basically a tightly executed performance in front of an excited crowd. The crowd can be big or small; it doesn’t matter too much as long as their energy can be felt onstage. We feed off of that, and it makes us play even better.
We’ve played some horrible shows for sure, but every band has at some point. The reasons for bad shows, for us, can be getting too stoned or drunk to play, performing like shit, and forgetting songs, meltdowns and fights, never-ending technical difficulties, terrible stage sound, injuries, members of the crowd attempting to fight us, list goes on. We’ve seen and done it all!
We’re also older and more focused than ever and look forward to 2019 and 2020 being some of our best shows of our career.
Photo by Keans Llamara