Torche’s Jonathan Nunez Expands (and Expounds Upon) the Possibilities of Sound
It’s really, really hard to get ahead these days – especially in the music biz. Sadly, the current pop milieu is a by-the-numbers, cut-and-paste, ProTools music marketplace. Granted, the lowest common denominator pop neoliberalism of the present day is nothing new. It’s just worse. Songs merely function as commercial jingles for an artist’s brand, and nothing more.
Thankfully, there’s still the subterranean world of underground rock, where, once in a proverbial blue moon, savvy, driven and inspired artists are still figuring out ways to eke out a living, albeit a diminished one, from recording albums (yes, albums – not singles) and touring.
Case in point: Miami’s Torche. The genre-defying, memorably-melodic-and-heavy-as-hell band has toiled in the underground for around 15 years. Being in Torche is anything but an easy gig. But the band’s tenacity and artistic derring-do has yielded a singular oeuvre. In other words, these guys have busted ass for a long time, and it’s paying off. Torche’s recently released, fifth album, Admission (Relapse Records), is by far their best yet.
Torche has a hard-to-define yet instantly recognizable sound that features elements of heavy metal, punk, prog and an occasional dash of musique concreté – a grist in the glaze if you will. But at its core, Torche is, uh, “hook-laden melodic pop?”
Torche is a guitar band that plays bludgeoning riffs. So, for all of its career the band has gracefully borne the onus of heavy metal – all the while defying the generic strictures of the form at every turn.
“With a band like us, we don’t make it too easy to pigeonhole,” explains guitarist Jonathan Nunez, who also serves as the band’s producer and recording engineer. “So the metal reviewers are going to understand it in one way and the alternative reviewers might take it another way.
“With Admission, the record really captures the whole sonic stratosphere of Torche,” Nunez continues. “I think it touches on everything we’ve done before, but it brings a lot more to the table. It’s every bit as heavy as the earlier stuff – and it’s every bit as melodic, it’s every bit as poppy, it’s kind of shoegazy or dreamy and it has elements of punk. It just depends on where you’re coming from.”
Sure, the songs on Admission are great. Torche has always had great songs. The X factor that makes the album such a triumph, though, is not just the songs – but the sound. And as producer/engineer, Nunez is the architect of that sound.
Yeah, Torche plays songs and they play guitars. But their instruments, really, are their amps. And with these amps, Torche plays tones. Admission is an utter triumph of texture and sonic nuance. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll recognize and remember it.
“I’m really happy that people are picking up on all of the details and nuances of the album,” says Nunez. “This is something that a lot of people have commented on. They’ve been referencing certain aspects of the recording and the sound that are really kind of unique among the bands that we’re [for better or worse] classified with.
“For me, that means everything because I recorded and mixed it and all that stuff,” Nunez continues. “I was very involved with the production and mastering – and I’m very happy in how the sounds we captured were preserved and brought out even more. Also I’m extremely happy because all of the amps, the cabinets and the pedals that were used to make the record was designed by myself and my partner Gary Philips, from my gear company, Nunez Amplification. Obviously I wrote some songs and played on it. So I’m totally immersed and involved with this record.
“I just wanted to really capture what I feel we sound like live and the energy that the new lineup has had for some time now. I guess we’re getting close to the two-year mark.
“So the deal is to have someone go to the show, hopefully really appreciate what’s going on, pick up a record, put it on once they’re at home or in their car, and get as close to that live experience as possible.
“I wanted to make sure that the recording captured the dynamics,” Nunez continues. “And I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t harsh. I mean, we’re a loud band. I wanted this record to do things that I think a lot of current recordings don’t accomplish. I mean, as you turn it up, it doesn’t fatigue your ears and sound harsh and fall apart. Actually, it expands.
“I love the way it sounds and I feel like we pulled it off. If you turn up the record, it like sonically engulfs the listening space in a very natural, yet hi-fi way. I feel like it’s the most clear and honest and realistic capture of the band to date.”
So, the album is Torche’s masterpiece. “To the victors go the spoils,” c’est la vie and all that. But to produce the triumphant sonic stratosphere that is indeed realized on Admission, Torche had to stay together as a band. And there had been many pitfalls to endure.
The band’s second album, Meanderthal (Hydra Head) reaped tons of critical praise in 2008. With years of touring under its belt and a solid fan base, Torche seemed to be poised upon on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough with the release of Harmonicraft (Volcom Entertainment) in 2012. But the label folded soon thereafter, in 2013. Nunez says that the label’s collapse didn’t end up being quite as devastating for the band as one might presume.
“It actually worked out to our advantage in a way,” says Nunez. “We released the record and they [Volcom] did everything they could. They were a great label for the year or so after the album came out – and then they shut down. But at that point, the most important part of the album cycle was pretty much done in my opinion. Harmonicraft actually went above and beyond what we had done in the past, you know, a natural progression musically.
“But Volcom was a good label. We basically ended up with a clean slate. They came to us and said, ‘hey guys, we’re closing down our music division.’ And when they shut down, they just handed over the record. This is something that you never hear. They were like, ‘the record’s yours, do whatever you want.’ And they gave us a lot of stock – pretty much everything they had left, which we sold on tour.
“All told, it was a good experience. We had a good label. They were hard working and did a lot of great stuff for us. They were really supportive of us through everything. And when it ended, well, we were in a good position to move on to something else.”
So Torche moved on to mainstay metal label Relapse Records for 2015’s Restarter, a damned fine album that, still, seems a bit overburdened with excessively technical, proggish embellishments in retrospect. Again, Restarter was a great record. But it seemed like the band had plateaued somewhat at this point.
And then disaster struck. (Well, it would make the narrative arc of this story more dramatic to say “disaster struck,” anyway, wouldn’t it?) Maybe it wasn’t a disaster, exactly. But it was a problem, to say the least.
In 2017, Torche endured a mid-tour shakeup when guitarist Andrew Elstner departed the band. In short order, Nunez, up till then Torche’s bassist, “graduated” to guitar duties to be replaced on the bass by Eric Hernandez of Wrong. Within nine days of Elstner’s departure, Torche was back on the road with the new lineup.
I, for one, was troubled by this turbulence in 2017. I mean, it’s a given that most bass players are wannabe guitarists. But Nunez had been a great bassist. And Elstner had been a great guitarist for Torche whose lively onstage presence provided a certain charismatic je ne sais quoi. Without Elstner, Torche circa 2017 seemed a bit stolid.
Two years in, it’s clear that the band has survived the shakeup, whatever its reasons. Nunez has proven an excellent guitarist in his own right. And the band’s music is at its peak thus far. And, of course, Nunez is stoked.
Still, the lineup change seemed abrupt in 2017.
“It was fast with the new lineup,” Nunez explains. “We had just finished a European tour with Red Fang nine days before. We had nine days to figure out the lineup change. And then we were back on the road for a whole month.
“It was the kind of thing where we practiced a couple of times, it felt real good, and we just dove right in. That [the lineup change] was the beginning of the excitement for the new record. We built up some enthusiasm. Within a couple of weeks with the new lineup, it really came together. It’s been really exciting, and that carries over into writing the new record and being back on the road. This change, it’s like, wow – so fulfilling and it just paved the way for everything we’re doing now.
“We thought it might take people a little bit of time to let the lineup change sink in and get familiar with the new stuff,” Nunez continues. “But it’s been anything but that. People have been immediately excited and accepting. It’s the best we could hope for.
Photo by Keans Llamera.