As a teenager, Black Tide’s drummer wanted to get good, fast. Now twenty, he’s proven just how much you can accomplish if you put your mind to it.
Miami metal quartet Black Tide was signed to Interscope Records on the strength of its dynamic live shows and dedicated following. Fans and critics were equally intrigued by the fact that three out of the four members were in high school when the band released its 2008 debut, Light From Above.
At age twenty, drummer Steven Spence is the “old guy” in Black Tide, as singer/lead guitarist Gabriel Garcia, rhythm guitarist Austin Diaz, and bassist Zach Sandler are still in their teens. “Everyone knows us as ‘Black Tide, the youngsters of metal,’” Spence jokes. “But when people watch us play, they realize, ‘Wow, they’re playing their instruments, writing their songs, and getting on stage and doing it.’ Then they become fans, which is awesome.”
Bringing in a refreshing wave of nostalgia with a Mötley Crüe–meets–Iron Maiden amalgam, the members of Black Tide, Spence insists, aren’t aiming to cause any paradigm shift but are simply making the music that they love. Steven’s contagious passion for learning everything he can about his instrument has him devouring instructional DVDs by Thomas Lang, analyzing the chops of Neil Peart and Jojo Mayer, and seeking to incorporate the visual flash of players like Travis Barker and Morgan Rose.
With Light From Above selling well for over a year, this group with a sixteen-year-old lead vocalist has already established a ferocious rep on the festival circuit, appearing at Ozzfest, Download, and the always popular Warped Tour. In fact, it’s Black Tide’s relentless live presence that helped bring Spence’s drumming to the attention of Modern Drummer readers, earning him props in the Up & Coming category of our 2009 Readers Poll.
MD: Congratulations on making it into the 2009 MD Readers Poll. Why do you think your playing got acknowledged?
Steven: It’s funny, one of my Paiste guys sent me an email congratulating me, and I was like, Wait, what? I was totally blown away because I had no clue that I was even going to be in the running. But I think people appreciate what I’ve done in the past few years. I’m getting better with every show and just learning who I am as a drummer. It’s important to me to put on a show, adding a lot of visual elements. But I don’t like to sacrifice any sound quality for what I’m doing visually. I also think my live drumming has an impressive flow, as far as my limb independence.
MD: Coming up in a time when metal drumming is very focused on speed and blasting, how did you develop such an old-school approach to the kit?
Steven: It has a lot to do with input I got from our producer, Johnny K. He’s not a drummer, but he taught me that it’s not about how fast you’re playing. It’s about the groove and being in the pocket. That was something I struggled with for a little while. It came to a point where I realized that if I wanted to do this, I’d have to dedicate my life to it. Each day I’d go to our rehearsal studio and play with a metronome for ten hours. By doing that, I found where I wanted to be, and with Johnny’s advice I really wanted to play for the song.
I know that many drummers like to do crazy stuff, but I don’t feel like I did that at all on Light From Above. It was maybe a step back for me, because I really do like to add cool and intricate parts that not everyone can figure out quickly. I might bring a bit of that to the next album, but I don’t want to take away from the groove at all.
I also want to be more creative when it comes to my kick drum playing. I have a double pedal, but the double pedal work I’ll be incorporating into our new stuff will be syncopated rhythms and different grooves that you can nod your head to, not necessarily a barrage of straight 32nd notes.
MD: When you’re playing live nearly every day, how important is taking time to practice?
Steven: Practicing is still very important. I only took a handful of lessons when I started out. Then I went off on my own and made it a point to practice all the time. I was absolutely infatuated with drums, and it came to the point where I would play all day and the time would fly by.
That’s the one thing I don’t like about touring. On tour, I’m on stage playing maybe thirty minutes a day. When I’m practicing I get a lot more done, as far as coming up with new things that I can polish and try out live later. As far as improvising, I like to mess around and change up some of the parts or fills, especially in the short solo that I drop into each set. It’s fun, and it keeps me interested and excited.
MD: Your cymbal setup includes hi-hats on both your left and right. Why do you like that?
Steven: Honestly, it’s probably more for show than anything. I think it looks cool to alternate and make it look like I’m ambidextrous. I switch over with almost every hit, or sometimes I ride with my right hand and then switch over to my left hand. It’s also more comfortable for me to play with my arms open and to have another hi-hat right by the ride, so I’m not crossing over like the hi-hat/snare thing that everyone does.
MD: I noticed that you like to sit high. Why is that?
Steven: By sitting high, I get the feel of being over the drums, instead of being in them. I have enough control, and I feel more comfortable. When I’m over the drums, I can hit harder and be more accurate and precise. But sitting as high as I do has been problematic for me, because my seats don’t want to go as high as I want to adjust them. [laughs] I’ve broken more than a few thrones by maxing out my seat height.
MD: What’s your monitor situation like? What do you like in your mix?
Steven: I play with LiveWires custom-molded in-ear headphones, and they go straight into my click track. In order to hear anything else on stage, I have a couple of wedges pointed at me, just blasting the guys. In my in-ears I like a lot of kick, and if there’s keyboards I like a lot of keys. Gabriel plays lead guitar, so I like to hear a lot of that in the mix, and some of his vocals as well. I could play all of the songs by myself—which I did when we were recording—but I do like to hear some of the vocals to keep on point. Zach, our bass player, usually puts his stack right next to me, so I can hear him even if he’s not in the monitors.
MD: What are Black Tide’s plans for the next album?
Steven: It won’t sound drastically different— you’ll still be able to tell it’s us—but as far as the writing and the drum parts, I want to go for more groove. I’m going to be so proud of the drum parts. On our first record, the drums were solid, but it didn’t reflect my style. That record was the first time I’d been in the studio, so I didn’t really find myself. I want people to know my style and be able to say, “That’s Steven Spence” when they hear me. When it comes to music I really want to keep studying and learning from people around me, no matter what point I’m at in life.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Spence plays a Pearl Reference series kit, including a 6-1/2x 14 snare, 8×10 and 9×12 toms, 14×14 and 16×16 floor toms, and an 18×24 bass drum; Paiste Alpha series cymbals, including two sets of 14″ Rock Hats, a 19″ Rock crash, a 20″ Rock crash, a 22″ Metal ride, an 18″ Rock China, a 10″ thin splash, and a 10″ Metal splash; Evans heads; a Pearl Eliminator double pedal; and Pro-Mark 5B American hickory wood-tip sticks.