In this instant, and on this stage, Derek Torres is a stadium-sized star.
He's dressed like an androgynous rock icon. In his fitted pants, white blouse and vintage coat, Torres could pass as a character from Joss Whedon's Firefly, a retro-futuristic aesthetic that the sci-fi-loving singer adores. And when he's singing one of his band's pop extravaganzas, he is a preternatural showman. He climbs atop stacks of speakers. He writhes on the floor. He clutches the mic stand. He slowly removes his coat in a glam-rock striptease, taunting what must be a rabid crowd of thousands. What is this, Wembley?
No, it's a Sunday afternoon in late September, and the Texas Pete Culinary Arts Festival is in full swing. Up and down West 6th Street in Winston-Salem, beer tents and food stands scatter the aromas of foods grilled, fried and baked—pizza, chicken, barbecue, other assorted meats—from industrial-sized ovens and grills through the air. People drift from stop to stop, food and drink in hand.
Torres is down Trade Street, at the bottom of a hill, standing alone on the stage with a little table of music gear to his right. He's 500 feet away from the larger festival throng, and in front of his isolated platform, there's a thin line of about 30 people. But at least they're crowded close, because Torres doesn't seem to notice he's not at Wembley or that people are paying more attention to the barbeque than him. He's focused on those who came. He's here to have fun.
So, he hits play on his backing track and launches into his one-man, pop-music theater. His stage show is a karaoke version of the music he makes as T0W3RS, a full band that turned into a solo project when the other members left. T0W3RS has just issued TL;DR, its first material as Torres' solo project. It's an immensely satisfying pop record, from the Paul Simon-tinted meditation "To Be Woke" to the blissfully Bowie anthem "The Situation." Initial press has been positive, with Entertainment Weekly running an advance stream, calling it "like the alt-J singer joining STRFKR to cover LCD Soundsystem"—three signifiers that point to the ambition and popular capabilities of this music.
Torres wryly admits after the set he may as well be pressing play on an iPod and singing along. But he suspends the crowd's disbelief with an over-the-top performance—smiles and shouts and leaps and laughs.
Near set's end, the crowd has grown. Torres notices a 70-year-old sitting on the cushion of her walker, enjoying the show. He steps down from the stage, takes her hand, looks into her eyes and serenades her: "I hope/I hope you're not alone," he sings. "I guess/that this is love."
Torres was born in a Chicago suburb, but at the age of 2, he moved with his mom and older sister, Kaci, to Florida after his parents split. When he was in middle school, they settled in North Carolina.
"This is my exit," says Torres, 27, about halfway between Raleigh and Winston-Salem, passing the Burlington exit he used to call home. Out the window are strip malls; the most conspicuous landmark is the sign to a Steak 'n Shake restaurant. During high school, he lived not far off the highway in a little condo with his mom behind JR Cigars. He couldn't wait to leave.
"I have a lot of good friends I still am very close with, because we all had that same mentality: 'This is terrible! Let's make it really fun,'" he says.
"We moved around a lot," Kaci Torres explains. By middle school and early high school, cliques can be codified, making it hard for new kids to establish themselves socially, or enter arts and music programs. "By the time you join in, there's really no room—even if you are more talented."
So when the teenaged Torres tried and failed to join the music club or jazz club (he still can't read music), he formed a band and wrote a rock opera. Performance was in his blood from the start. He's always loved the stage, he admits. Kaci, an aerialist who has done acrobatic routines during several T0W3RS shows, recalls building stages with encyclopedias and pretending to be Michael Jackson while her brother did her costume. Today, as a performer, he pairs major frontman antics with thrift-shop fashion.
"If anything, it's because he got all of my hand-me-downs," Kaci says, laughing. "We've always been about the same size."
A few miles later, Torres' mind returns to the gig that's just down the road.
"This show I'm about to play is going to be weird. It's going to be in the daylight," he says. "These sort of shows definitely expose the smoke and mirrors of solo T0W3RS. It's a lot of sleight of hand. I am having to convince people that somehow my body is creating this music, that I'm not hitting 'Play.'"
Sometimes it goes well, like it did at the Texas Pete fest, when he ended up directly serenading the audience. Other times, though, he's as ostracized as the crowd, perhaps more so. There was that time when he played before a Carolina RailHawks game. A pair of kids and one annoyed parent formed his audience.
"I have to basically take this karaoke performance," he says, "and turn it into theater."
T0W3RS started in 2011, when Torres lived in Carrboro. The first iteration was a five-piece band, which lasted until early 2013; its end left the bandleader dispirited, his songs orphaned. He dropped the guitar and devised a stage persona that he hoped might be strong enough to mask the absence of other players.
He brings in a backing band for special shows, but in Winston-Salem, Torres is T0W3RS. This was the only way to keep the project alive. Without the burden of a band, as he puts it, he could actually move forward.
Torres had wanted to take that T0W3RS iteration to the next level and go professional, but the feeling wasn't mutual. One member moved to Europe, and the one he had been dating left for Canada, dumping him afterward. Replacing members seemed unappealing and alien, considering both his level of ambition and the bout of heartbreak the end of the last band had induced.
"I got anxiety about that. I was like, 'I can do it this way,'" Torres remembers. "'I can do it solo.'"
Philip Pledger co-runs Phuzz Records, which released TL;DR. He also booked the Sunday bands for the Texas Pete festival. Not long after Torres' set ends, he sits nearby, gushing about the performer's infectious energy.
"To do what he does, you basically have to be either completely cynical or you have to be the most genuine performer," Pledger says. "Seeing someone like Derek come in and say, 'I don't even have a fucking band! I'm performing by myself with computer tracks, and I'm gonna rule,' you have to be kind of an asshole to at least not like it a little bit."
Torres was 20 and a sophomore at NC State when he met Sam Logan, then a student at UNC and now the chief songwriter for Durham psychedelic shoegazers Lilac Shadows. Back then, Torres and Logan maintained a playful rivalry between their respective college bands, The Huguenots and Lake Inferior. After those acts split, the two played together in another group before they began to play bass in each others' separate outfits. They don't anymore, but Logan remains impressed with how much the breakup transformed Torres, and how he was able to take over the stage by himself.
"Derek always wanted to be the frontman," Logan says. "With [the original] T0W3RS, he had to be behind the guitar, and I don't think he wanted to be."
When Torres decided to go solo, he got serious about his stage persona and its fashion. He played a few gigs in T-shirt and jeans before reaching out to Ryan Hill, who runs a vintage haberdashery of sorts in Carrboro. They spent several hours playing dress-up and doing photo shoots, zeroing in on the image Torres imagined: "Two parts David Byrne, three parts David Bowie, one part Prince, one part Michael Jackson," he says. "It's a little bit steampunk, too. I hate that steampunks have to go ruin it by being steampunks."
Torres now shops for himself. Logan has gone blouse-hunting with him at Carrboro's PTA Thrift Store, so he knows how seriously his friend takes giving the audience something to see, something entertaining. After Torres selects his outfits, he practices in the mirror—what to do with the hat, how to remove the coat, which faces accompany which gestures. He rehearses his Odelay-meets-Off the Wall dance moves, too. This is as central to his act as the singing, so it takes time.
"I've always been a performer. I've always been really proud of that part of the show," Torres says. "I want to be photogenic."
He rolls his eyes at the concept that there's something disingenuous about musicians putting effort into their appearance. There was a backlash to '80s styles like hair metal, for instance, leading to the common conceit that rock music is about the music but not the stage show. To Torres, this means formulaic, boring performances. He's competing for attention, so he wants to give people something more to stare at than cell-phone screens.
"Rock stars are supposed to not care about how they dress and not care about how they look. At the same time, it's 'Stare at me for 45 minutes?'" he says. "No! Look at yourself in the mirror for a second and think, 'Would I pay to look at this?'"
Torres loves large music festivals, where performers establish a coherent theme and deliver a visually interesting stage show. He's seen Björk and R. Kelly at Pitchfork's summer extravaganza in Chicago; major festivals Bonnaroo and Coachella blend delightful weirdness into the concert experience, too, he says with admiration. This inspiration led to a headlining Pour House set at Hopscotch 2014, where Kaci and another aerialist twirled and contorted above an eight-strong band. It was a stunning, synchronized effort, where the music matched the motion. Their mother, Belinda, watched from the balcony, thrilled, and a line snaked toward the end of the block.
But Torres isn't looking to play with the band all the time. It's reserved for special occasions. He can't afford it, as music is his livelihood and playing solo means he doesn't have to split the payout. Those backing players have their own projects, too, so when they come together, Torres even calls it the "T0W3RS cover band." There's no room for conflicting egos or bruised feelings.
"Maybe people thought the music had a lot more to do with the band," Torres says of the earlier version of his act. Again, Torres is T0W3RS.
"Derek has always been a bundle of energy and a bundle of nerves," Logan says. "He has finally been able to harness that. A lot of people would've cracked under that pressure, and he figured it out. Given the right context, it would've happened eventually."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Party of one"