Steven Spence Of Black Tide
Fast Track To Ozzfest
Steven Spence dreams of clicks. Late into the night, after the stage lights have gone down, the drum kit has been packed away, and the bus has begun rolling toward the next American city on the tour list, Spence is in a world of regulated clicks: tick, tick, tick, tock. But the clicks are not coming from the wet leaf that’s flapping against the front wheel of the tour bus as it races along I-70 toward San Antonio. Like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, it’s the sound of numbers ricocheting off the walls of Spence’s brain.
While other heavy metal musicians dream of sports cars or booze or limitless wealth — or getting to the very last city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty — Steven Spence is dreaming of metronomes, set to 182 bpm. That’s because only a few months ago, Spence’s headphones were saturated with clicks as he and the rest of his metal band, Black Tide, recorded their first full-length album, Light From Above, in Chicago. The ink was still wet on the young band’s contract with Interscope when the 20-year-old joined them in the studio for the first time, and Spence says he had to prove himself.
“I busted my ass every day. There was honestly a point where I was dreaming about a click — sometimes I would doze off and the guys would tell me I was just saying random numbers. They were the bpm numbers. I was the metronome.”
So now, as the Black Tide tour bus drives away from Colorado Springs, the adrenaline from a successful show is still pulsing through Spence’s veins like a metronome on auto. Sure, the band has been on the road since early February, introducing the nation to their brand of Kill ’Em All-style thrash — but the excitement is still palpable.
“It had such a good turnout — like 400 people came out to the show,” Spence says. “Kids were going crazy. The crowd was going wild. People were running up on stage. It was like an old-school ’80s thrash show.”
Spence began his drumming career in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Sparked by the performance of a talented middle school peer, Spence begged his parents for a kit. When a shiny, black Pearl Export finally appeared in his home in 2001, Spence said he gave it all up to the gods of drumming, right then and there — and let his ears show him the way.
“I was so stoked,” he says. “I didn’t even know how to set it up. Somebody set it up for me. I just set it up in my room and I would play the same beat endlessly — four on the floor, just so happy to be playing. I just took it really seriously after that. As soon as I started to play, I just knew I wanted it to be a part of my life.”
By senior year of high school, Spence caught wind of a young group of metal heads playing the Miami circuit — a group called Black Tide. He also heard that the band was hunting for someone to fill the throne. It didn’t matter than Spence was on the cusp of starting his freshman year at Florida State University in Tallahassee — he says he could barely contain his excitement.
“It was literally like — I called up Alex [Nuñez, guitar] and I was like, ’Listen, I want to try out for this band, tomorrow night or never, because I’m flying out for college,’” Spence says. “We had a jam session that night, and that was it. My parents gave me six months to make something happen.”
Despite the fact that Spence was still enrolled at FSU, Black Tide became his full-time occupation. Within months, he was in a Chicago studio recording Light From Above. “I learned a lot,” Spence says. “[Producer] Johnny K taught me that drumming is not about the fastest fill or whatever. It definitely got me more conscious about what I was playing. Now all my fills, I’m actually listening to them.”
As the album entered post-production, the band got a call to play Ozzfest. It would be their first tour ever. Thrilled, the band packed their bags — but before they could depart, the invitation was revoked. They wouldn’t be able to play Ozzfest because Jägermeister sponsored the side stage — and the entire band was under the legal drinking age.
“We were just like, ’Wow, this sucks,’” Spence says. “We were totally depressed. It was at the point where the RV was packed and eight hours before, we got the call saying it wasn’t going to happen. It was messed up.”
A couple of days later, another call came: The band would be allowed to play Ozzfest, but it had to be on the main stage. “It was risky — it was our first tour ever,” he says. “We didn’t want to suck. Just to be able to share the stage with some of those guys … I remember watching them, watching Ozzy Osborne every night. It was such a feeling of accomplishment.”
But for a band that has as much in common with New Edition as it does with Megadeth, age continues to be a frustration. Spence says the ages of the band — Spence the oldest, at 20, and lead singer Gabriel Garcia the youngest, at 15 — have been a double-edged sword for the band as both a great marketing tool and an unfortunate method of pigeonholing four skilled musicians.
“You never really want people to think about you just because of your age,” he says. “Maybe it does attract people, but I feel when they actually listen to us, it totally changes their mind. I feel like how that’s been so far. We just played the Jimmy Kimmel show the other day — he was plugging us the entire show, and not once did he mention anything about our age. So we’ve come a long way.”
Then again, it’s nice to know that mom is watching too. “My mom called me after the show and said, ’Oh my God, you looked great. I couldn’t really see your face though because your hair was in the way,’” Spence says with a chuckle. “She was really proud.”