By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
By Michele Eve Sandberg
By Abel Folgar
By Ashley Zimmerman
It's safe to assume it was the first time a bunch of West Kendallites appeared in the New York Post's infamous "Page Six" gossip column. And it's especially notable because they did so for indirectly inciting a minor riot in L.A. alongside a famously celebrated, then disgraced, then semiredeemed memoirist.
"Crowds Collide" was the headline on the blurb this past May 17. It read, "James Frey — who told Page Six, 'I'm trying to break the mold of what readings can be' — had a mini-riot break out at his session Thursday night at Whiskey-a-Go-Go in Hollywood. Six bouncers tried to remove six hooligans who were there more for heavy-metal band Black Tide than to hear him read from his novel Bright Shiny Morning. Literary types were horrified as the brawl spilled out to the sidewalk, where it took 20 cops to quell the violence. Three men were arrested."
Frey, who was trying out a band/book-reading combo, was a newly minted fan of Miami's latest and only current metal sensation, Black Tide. His people contacted their people, and the band members were flown to L.A. for the appearance. A few songs in, it became apparent that everyone had possibly underestimated the frenzy lapping around the band.
A few weeks later, bassist Alex Nuñez is recounting his side of the story in a resigned, almost tired drawl. But as he gets deeper into it, he becomes more animated, his voluminous, crinkly black mane vibrating slightly as he shakes his head. "The venue was being strict, like, 'Nobody can mosh at all,' because it wasn't really a show; it was a book-reading session. So that made sense, because there's tables there and everything. But of course, kids don't give a shit," he recalls. "So eventually, kids just start getting a little crazy, security guards telling kids not to do it, kicking kids out.
"So finally, we get to our last two songs, and we're like, 'These are our last songs — go fucking nuts, whatever.' So kids start going crazy, and I see this one big security guard come in from the right and just start shoving everybody towards my side of the stage." And that's where things get murky. As Black Tide launched into its balls-to-the-wall cover of Metallica's "Hit the Lights," punches were indiscriminately thrown and a dog pile of sorts formed while the confused band continued to play.
"Our tour manager runs in, our manager runs in, our singer's dad runs in," Alex says. That dad was present, and so fiercely protective of the kids in the crowd, because he is the parent of a young teenager: Black Tide frontman Gabriel Garcia, who is 15.
"The security guards were totally, if I can use the word, assholes. They started kicking kids out of the place and strangling them," Gabriel's father, 43-year-old Raul Garcia, recalls by phone. "There was this kind of wrestling stuff between, like, 20 people trying to get these kids out of these gorillas' hands. In the end of the thing, the police got there and they arrested a few people. But what can I say? It's part of the business."
"I'm never playing the Whiskey again," says drummer Steven Spence, at age 20 the oldest member of the band.
"Nah," 18-year-old Alex retorts. "That was fun as hell!"
The story of Black Tide's unlikely rise to nascent big-label, thrash-metal stardom begins in the sun-bleached stucco expanse sprawling westward along Kendall Drive. It's in this southwest Miami-Dade flatland where the band got its start, and where I agree to first meet Gabriel Garcia and bassist Zakk Sandler at a Starbucks inside a strip-mall Borders megastore.
Zakk is easy to spot. With a fancy belt buckle and forearms stained with classic rock 'n' roll tattoos, he has a blustery, self-assured musician's swagger. He's measuredly cheerful, and his offstage face seems permanently etched with an expectant half-smile, just waiting for an opportunity for a dose of spitfire wit. Gabriel, meanwhile, seems to appear out of nowhere. Slight of frame, his head barely reaching the top of the bookshelves, he has a subdued, regular-dude persona. A worn beanie advertising the Sparks alcoholic energy drink covers most of his forehead; his trademark long metal locks are pulled into a ponytail dripping out the back. Onstage, he's a leather-clad demon, self-exorcising from some fiery pit within his belly. Off, he looks huggable. Unfailingly polite, he sucks a strawful of whipped-cream-topped frozen coffee drink before softly answering questions. (Meanwhile, father Raul browses elsewhere in the store; he will later drive Gabriel away in the family minivan.)
Both guys quickly warm up as they recall the beginnings of their band and their local childhoods. Gabriel was a student at Claude Pepper Elementary, maybe in second grade, when he fell under the influence of a cool, older, pop-punk-loving cousin. And he decided, like his cousin, he wanted to play the guitar.
Raul Garcia, a wry, glib man, later describes the episode: "Gabriel was 8 years old, and we went to the flea market one Sunday. And he was like, 'Hey, Dad, can I get that guitar?' It was an old electric guitar selling for, like, $25. I said, 'Are you crazy or something? The guitar's even bigger than you.' So he started crying, so I said, 'OK, there you go.' "
Gabriel eagerly took the guitar home to his older brother, Raul, now 19 but then a student at Hammocks Middle. Raul had the makings of a drum kit, and within a couple of days, the brothers had the ragtag beginnings of a band.
"The same night as the flea market, they started playing," the eldest Garcia says. "There were a lot of noises going on in the room. And then in the next couple of days, they started to actually sound kind of like music." The brothers quickly recruited Alex for second guitar and Zakk for bass, which he would have to teach himself, and the group began learning cover songs from bands such as Blink-182, Green Day, and Screeching Weasel.
But soon, they discovered rock 'n' fucking roll as well as a number of core influential bands, which Zakk rattles off in reverent, abbreviated form: "Maiden. Metallica. Megadeth. Priest."
Gabriel credits his cousin. "He had a bunch of old CDs, and at the time, they weren't playing any of that stuff on either the new rock station or the classic rock station. We were playing all that pop-punk stuff, but when we heard Guns N' Roses and AC/DC, we were like, 'Fuck that. This is what we're playing now.' "
Dad Raul takes some of the credit as well. "Around the house, I listened to the kind of rock metal I loved beginning as a teenager. There was a lot of Guns N' Roses, Metallica, Megadeth, Ozzy Osbourne, Led Zeppelin. But it was a surprise in my mind that my kids were gonna love it so much," he says. "When Gabriel was, like, 8 years old, he started saying, 'Hey, Dad, I like Guns N' Roses.' And I said, 'What the hell do you know about Guns N' Roses? You were born in 1992!' "
That was, until the day he heard the strains of a competent rendition of "Sweet Child o' Mine" emanating from his kids' bedroom. "Of course, he sounded like a little cat back then! But you could hear the playing was really good."
Gabriel tapped his cousin for a few basic lessons on chords and blues scales and then pored over internet videos to learn technique (Van Halen was a favorite). Everyone around him soon agreed: Age be damned, the preternaturally gifted Gabriel could really shred.
Calling themselves Radio, the scrappy quartet hit Miami's early-'00s all-ages circuit — ferried by supportive band parents with spacious vehicles. They played a venue called the Space, inside South Miami's Shops at Sunset Place (now the site of L.A. Fitness), and numerous house parties thrown by slightly older, often privileged kids. And there were many shows at Kaffe Krystal, at the time the spot for underaged, subdivision-dwelling music fans, where the band played its first official paying gig. "It was $20, split among the band," Zakk recalls. "So that was, like, five bucks for us to all go to Wendy's afterwards. We were like, 'Cool, I can go get a sandwich!' "
Pedro Mena and Steve Pestana — two Broward County-raised, New York-based promoters — stumbled upon the band's MySpace page. Mena and Pestana were known for their devotion to breaking new acts via their ASCAP-sponsored compilation series featuring emerging artists as well as their long-running weekly Sunday party, Shout!, which had turned into a platform for introducing bands to the downtown New York cognoscenti and played a role in the garage rock revival a few years earlier.
"I think at first [Mena] thought it was a funny joke, that there were these little kids playing heavy metal in Florida," recalls Pestana, now a Brooklyn-based producer of editorial photo shoots. "And I listened and was like, 'Dude, this isn't a joke; these kids are supertalented.' "
Mena and Pestana flew down to meet with the bandmates (and their parents); they watched the boys play in one family's garage. They flew them to New York, setting up showcases and meetings with major-label A&R reps. "I'd tell them there was this amazing band with a 13-year-old singer with a lot of potential crossover appeal," he says. "And heavy metal has one of the most loyal audiences in the music business, along with country. They'll keep supporting artists and going to concerts no matter how old they get."
Eventually, the band scored a so-called demo deal with Atlantic Records and was sent to Orlando to record with Jason Suecof. Somewhere between engineer, producer, and muse-finding shaman, Suecof is a renowned heavy-metal alchemist. He co-wrote and produced the two top-selling albums for Orlando-based metalcore giant Trivium and has worked with other "active rock" staples such as All That Remains, Chimaira, and DevilDriver. Suecof quickly recognized a wellspring of outsized talent in, well, then-pint-sized Black Tide.
"At first it was like, Here's a bunch of kids," he says. "But Alex had this really cool blues quality about his playing. And Gabriel — you can ask anyone you talk to, right away, that as a guitar player, he's just gonna be amazing. You could tell by his vibrato and the way that he kicks and the way he performs with it and the way he writes. It's just in his hand; you can hear it."
Together, they polished five songs, and Suecof and Gabriel found they got on swimmingly. "When we're hanging out, we're like brothers. We just really understand each other," Suecof says. "I've been playing guitar since I was 8, and I wanted to show him stuff, and he picked up stuff I showed him so quickly, I was like, Holy shit, here I am jamming with a 12- or 13-year-old. He can probably play stuff now that I can't, to tell you the truth."
The Atlantic deal never gelled, but the demo quickly found its way to Jeff Sosnow, an Interscope Records A&R man. Sosnow — whose latest finds have included Buckcherry, the All-American Rejects, and Wolfmother, along with up-and-comers such as London's Switches — flew down just a few days later to check out the band at the now-defunct Studio A (which Pedro Mena was then helping run). Struck by the energy of their live show, he decided that night to sign them.
"They played like a band that had been playing for years, and they played as if they were playing for 10,000 people on an arena stage," Sosnow says. "They played without any inhibition. It seemed very visceral and authentic." Their age was no issue for him either. "There are lots and lots and lots of bands who came before Black Tide with adolescents and teenagers in the band. The Replacements, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin — these people were 16, 17, 18, 19 years old. People forget that."
When the mandate came that the band would be recording for at least four months in Chicago with producer Johnny K., the choice was clear: Make the record or stay in school. Zakk and Alex dropped out completely, while Gabriel's father enrolled him in an online program (since postponed indefinitely). The bandmates (and Gabriel's father) relocated to Groovemaster Studios, in a sprawling, old, industrial loft space that was half studio, half living quarters. The band had also changed drummers; Raul Garcia quit when his interest in playing hardcore punk increased, and Steven Spence was tapped as his replacement.
The recording process stretched to six months. Downtime was whiled away watching movies, playing foosball, and discovering Guitar Hero. (The band's lead single, "Shockwave," would later be turned into a downloadable extra for play on Guitar Hero's main competition, Rock Band.) The resulting 14 tracks, dubbed Light From Above, were worth the effort. While most of its peers' lament mall romance angst, Black Tide came rip-roaring from the gate with fist-pumping riffage to mosh or break beer bottles to. Gabriel eschewed screaming in favor of an eliding, surprisingly robust groan-wail, sometimes almost lustful and snarling.
It was a heady mix that made even cranky older critics go apeshit and garnered the band a spread in Spin's annual "Who's Next" issue, highly positive reviews in Revolver and Blender as well as on Blabbermouth.net, and even coverage in Entertainment Weekly. Rollingstone.com described the sound as "everything you love about Eighties metal gods like Judas Priest and Guns N' Roses without all the irony."
Light From Above was released March 18. By March 27, the band was performing "Shockwave" and "Show Me the Way" on Jimmy Kimmel Live. The disc peaked at number 73 on the Billboard albums chart, and "Shockwave" climbed to 25 on the Billboard Hot 200.
In the past year and a half, Black Tide has traveled the United States and the United Kingdom multiple times. Raul quit his job as an Orkin man to accompany the band full-time; his son must legally have a parent or guardian with him on the road ("Imagine: From rats, I jumped to a rock band," Raul says). As for rocking 'n' rolling with your dad (or your friend's dad) around all the time, Gabriel says, "I just didn't want to tell him anything I did, like, 'Dad, I drink beer' or 'Dad, I smoke weed.' "
"Dude, I remember when you told your dad that," Zakk says, shaking his head, as the bandmates work on their Starbucks coffee drinks. "But it was especially kind of weird when we first went to the U.K. and everybody else in the band was legal to drink and stuff except for [Gabriel]. We were like, 'Dude, we can finally do it!' But we were still hiding it and stuff."
Raul acknowledges that every once in a while, Gabriel has a couple of beers, but the rest of the time, they enjoy an incredibly close and low-key father-son bond. "The other guys get the chance to go out and go to strip clubs and hang around or even drink. But Gabriel, he can't do that, of course — I don't let him, and that's why I'm around. He loves playing videogames, that Xbox stuff," Raul says. "I don't drink, I don't smoke, so I never go out or anything like that. I'm always staying with him in hotels whenever the guys are out partying. He loves eating that stuff — chipotle? The Mexican stuff. And we go to sushi restaurants; we go to movies. When we're on tour with the other bands, we socialize with them, but Gabriel can't party with them."
Zakk and Alex, however, are unrepentant lovers of European pubs and that 18-plus standby the world over, strip clubs. "This is how it works," Alex says. "Me and Zakk are pretty close in the band, and our singer and drummer are pretty close. So we're always more, like, wacky; we're always down to go out, hang out, and party. They're a little more serious, a little more chill."
"And we're gonna go party or go to a castle or something," Zakk says.
But back in the United States, the band's underaged status has been a deal breaker for a tour sponsor once, famously, during the 2007 Ozzfest. That year, tickets were free and no bands were paid, instead making travel money through selling merchandise; tour operations proceeded thanks to sponsor money. Black Tide was booked to play the entire tour, on the subsidiary stage, which was sponsored by Jägermeister. Somehow, the company didn't take note of the band's age until the tour was under way, and Black Tide was suddenly bumped to the first act on the main stage. While this would seem like an upgrade, Ozzfest audiences at the main stage proved notoriously demanding and unwilling to sit through unfamiliar acts.
"When we played that second stage a couple of times, we got a lot more exposure," Zakk says. "It gets packed as hell. But when people get to the main stage, they're only there to see their favorite acts."
"I think Ozzfest, the actual show itself, didn't gain us any new fans," Gabriel says. "The fact that we got kicked off got us more publicity and new fans."
"It looked really good, from the outside looking in," Zakk says. "But in reality, we weren't selling merch. We sold maybe five T-shirts the whole time. Nobody knew who we were."
Then there was the hazing from other bands, an inevitable part of being a touring newbie, which reached its peak the last day of the tour.
"There were midgets and dildos," Zakk says.
"Sorry, little people."
"There was like a whole freak show on the tour, and the whole freak show was just on our stage during one song," Gabriel adds.
"They were whipping towels at us. The road crew set it up," Zakk says. "The bassists for Ozzie and Static-X and stuff were sitting onstage playing poker. Lamb of God's guitar tech was onstage in a mask playing the cowbell incredibly off-time."
There are even junior groupies on the road, according to Raul. "There are a ton of girls trying to meet the guys and get involved with them all the time. The other guys get the choice of saying, 'That one is good,' and they hang around with a lot of girls. Gabriel isn't like that, even though he's the frontman, and don't tell the other guys I said this: He's the cutest one!"
But at the end of the day, Gabriel paints a tamer picture of backstage at big-ticket metal shows than the average concertgoer might expect, one of relatively quiet dinners with Lamb of God and of Gabriel being serenaded by Avenged Sevenfold for his 15th birthday. And, above all, of trying to keep a level head amid the circus.
"It's not easy for him to be on the road for months at his age," Raul says. "I'm his father, but I also became his friend. He talks to me a lot when he's sad, you know? That's the way we handle the situation."
On a recent Friday, New Times' photo shoot coincides with Black Tide's last day in town. Yet again, the boys are headed out, this time for the national, multi-act, metal-centric Mayhem Tour. (The band shares a manager with headlining act Slipknot.) They've barely had a day to decompress from the Whiskey-a-Go-Go debacle and the rest of a small national run that included a main-stage appearance at Ohio's Rock on the Range festival.
It's early afternoon and they're flagging a little, but they still maintain the rapid-fire back-and-forth of sarcastic, longtime spouses.
New Times: Zakk, Gabriel... lot of biblical names in the band, huh, guys?
Zakk: Yeah, there are a lot of Steves in the Bible.
New Times: When are you guys leaving?
Steven: Too soon.
New Times: How long are you going to be gone?
Alex: About a month.
Steven: Too long!
Zakk: Shut up! It'll be fun. You'll get to go to Germany.
Steven: What's in Germany?
New Times: OK, let's do a shot with a lot of personality...
Zakk: What's personality?
Steven: We have no personality; it's all lies.
Alex: Sorry, it's 2 p.m., and it's really early for us.
Afterward, they lighten up a little, explaining they're a little jarred about the prospect of another long haul. Before the mini jaunt across the States, they've had their longest break at home in the past year: a good three weeks.
"One thing I've realized, since this was the first time I've had a big break, is that leaving is so much harder," Alex says. "Because we always miss our friends and family anyways, but when you're home for, like, four days, you still haven't gotten supercomfortable. You get home, you're there for a few days, see your friends as fast as you can, and then leave again. But with a huge break, you really have time to hang out all the time, and it's like, Fuck, I just got really comfortable being home and seeing all my friends again."
For sanity's sake, the bandmates mostly part ways while in Miami, with Gabriel and Steven preferring to relax at home while Alex and Zakk still hang out together, remaining the band's self-professed party duo. Zakk several times professes his love for hitting on drunken college girls Thursday nights in Coconut Grove and for hanging out late at night at house parties and in Kendall's Hammocks Park.
Alex, meanwhile, is a rabid Churchill's devotee, claiming to have visited the place eight times over the past seven days and yanking aside his T-shirt sleeve to show off a tattoo of the punk dive's logo, the cane-propped silhouette of Sir Winston himself. Alex says he, three friends, and two of their parents all proudly sport the same tat.
At home too, the bandmates cope in various ways with the rising pressures of fame. While friends still treat them normally (or tease them to put them in their place), the guys tend to avoid practicing or even listening to their own music. The exception is Steven, who claims — to the incredulous stares of his bandmates — he listens to Light From Above on his iPod at least once a day.
Zakk says he can't stop himself from checking internet postings about the band, especially on Blabbermouth.net, the high-traffic, Roadrunner Records-sponsored clearinghouse for all heavy music news. As on any other blog, user comments range from slavish to measured to vitriolic. Reactions to a recent posting of an interview with the band at the U.K. Download festival ran the gamut from "Gabriel totally rocks!" to "This stupid band is the mallcore metal version of Carrie Underwood."
"I read them all. And first of all, most of those dudes live in my neighborhood," Zakk says. "And they haven't learned that when you click the user name of the person who leaves the comment on the site, it gives you their email address. And I'm an asshole, and I go to my [MySpace] friends list, and I type in the email address and I find out, hey, it's so-and-so!"
"Most of those kids are fucking stupid anyways," Alex says. "It's like, 'You guys suck and smell bad, and I hate you!' It's like, OK, thanks, do better — I've fucking heard that already."
But why bother reading any of that in the first place?
"I don't know. Somehow it makes me feel better," Zakk says. "It's like... self-torture."
As the weeks pass, the band's star continues to rise. This fall, Black Tide will crisscross the nation again, supporting the like-minded Welsh metallers of Bullet for My Valentine. And in October, the band will travel its farthest yet to share a headlining stage with the likes of Avenged Sevenfold and Mötley Crüe at Japan's Loud Park 08 festival. And guess who's smack in the center of Revolver magazine's Mayhem Tour-themed foldout cover? Gabriel Garcia, of course. It seems the guys are getting the last laugh.
"What would you do if you were 15 and on tour?" Jason Suecof says. "It would be the most incredible life ever."