By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
A red warning light is glowing above the doorway at Last Beat studios, indicating that recording is under way. If you were to ease the door open, you'd find the Toadies camped around an ice chest full of Budweiser, and immediately feel a sense of ease and relaxation. If it weren't for all the recording equipment and the television flashing silent images in the background, this could well be a Sunday picnic.
On the other side of the glass, Clark Vogeler is laying down a guitar solo--his first ever--and bassist Lisa Umbarger is heckling him with each slip-up, calling out "new guy" sarcastically, accompanied by rude finger gestures.
It's all in good fun, though, and Umbarger quickly finds a new subject to work--the latest Bush video. "Limey!" she yells at the face of Bush singer Gavin Rossdale. "Look at this guy," she growls. "You wannabe actor! I hate Bush, man."
More on that later.
At first glance, these guys don't seem to have changed a bit since their debut album, Rubberneck, went platinum last year. They still drive the same cars, still eat at Taco Bell, still tell the same dumb jokes, and show more excitement over the return of Star Wars to the big screen than talking about their own music.
It's only when Umbarger and drummer Mark Reznicek start discussing the details of Dave Kehrer's death that cracks in the picture-perfect facade begin to appear. One of the best sound men in the industry, Kehrer had been touring with the Toadies and had become a close friend. His body was found slumped over a desk early that very morning, the result of hepatitis and years of drug abuse while on the road with some of the most well-known bands of the past decade.
Kehrer's death is actually just the first of many signals that these aren't really the same Toadies. A million albums sold, two years of touring, and a whole lot of shit have made them wiser, more cynical and self-assured. Yet as Umbarger explains, "The things around you are always going to change, but the nucleus has to stay the same. Otherwise you're gonna lose what you had."
The lick that Vogeler is having such a hard time with is from a cover of "Cowboy Song" by Thin Lizzy. You might dismiss it since it's just for a campy heavy-metal compilation of Dallas bands with no chance of ending up on the Toadies' new album, but the song has deeper implications than that.
"When the first album was being written, we were listening to the Pixies--they were God," explains Umbarger, who is wearing a Pixies T-shirt. "This time we've all gone off on different tangents. We all listen to a lot of Stereolab, but we're also going back and listening to a lot of old stuff. We're looking at our roots."
Enter Thin Lizzy--for lead man Todd Lewis, anyway. For Reznicek, roots means mid-1960s AM radio pop. For Umbarger, Motown and Elvis (more on that later, too). "Anything but the Beatles," Umbarger says with disgust. "I hate that Beatles...and Bush."
What's more important is the "we" in Umbarger's statement. This album is a collaborative effort, as opposed to Rubberneck, which was more of a realization of Lewis' vision; the band had yet to reach the point of cohesiveness that would allow for open musical dialogue, and Lewis had a novel's worth of resentment toward his intensely religious upbringing to purge. Not that he's finished, of course. Lewis' father, a minister, still refuses to see the band or recognize their success. "He still thinks I'm wasting my time," Lewis says. "Except now he at least sees I'm making some money."
That would be hard to miss: Rubberneck is the Toadies' major-label debut, enjoying skyrocketing sales when released in 1994 on the strengths of such hits as "Possum Kingdom" and "Backslider." The band had been touring around sporadically with another then-unknown group, Bush, when their label finally decided to release the album, and--lo and behold--it jumped up the charts faster and farther than a Mississippi bullfrog.
"It started to taper off after the Conan O'Brien incident," Reznicek says, scratching his short gray hair thoughtfully. He explains that the band was scheduled to appear on the show, but were handed an ultimatum on editing down a song at the last minute, so they walked. "After that, album sales started to drop off," he says. "Plus the fact I told all my relatives in Nebraska to watch, and now they have a videotape of No Doubt."
Then there was the Florida vampire-goth fiasco, which all centered around the song "Possum Kingdom." Some kids interpreted it as a vampire song, "Except that ain't the kind of suckin' that was goin' on," laughs Reznicek, noting that the lyrics more likely depict a discreet homosexual encounter. Lewis claims the song is abstract and open to any interpretation, but still squirms at the fact that people were showing up at their shows with fangs and Anne Rice novels.
"A lot of shit happened to us on the road," Umbarger says. "A lot of emotional crap. Rubberneck was written when Todd was going through a divorce. This album will have a lot of the same emotion, but more stuff has happened to the whole band." She then recounts a horrific tale of touring with Bush, who--even before Gavin Rossdale got famous for declaring to the world that he "swallowed"--had an attitude that sent the Toadies on numerous foiled late-night escape attempts.