Playing Possum

After six years, The Toadies' new album is finally finished, and it's good. So why isn't it out yet?

"Well, right now we're looking at doing it the first of next year, mainly for the reason that there's so many big things coming out at the end of the year," Lewis says. "The end of the year is a really hard time to put a record out unless you're U2 or Marilyn Manson or something like that because there's so many..." He trails off, trying to wade through industry-speak. "There's a lot of expectations for sales and figures and all that manager shit, so if you don't meet up with those expectations, even if it's not your plan, it kind of sucks. We're told that at the beginning of next year, it'll be a fresh project, and it'll be the first quarter and stuff like that."

"More manpower," Vogeler adds.

Lewis continues, "I'm all about putting it out right now, but I don't know, the logistics of it are such that..."

"We've had it so long," Vogeler concludes, "we might as well do it right."

"Exactly," Lewis agrees.

"It's only a few more months," Vogeler says.

The band's argument would make sense if The Toadies and Interscope had not been saying the same thing for the past three years. Plus, Interscope is also the label that justified its lack of support for Rubberneck, when it was gathering dust in record stores for a year, by calling it a "marketing strategy."

"Well, the president of the label [Tom Whalley] wanted to put it out in October, and he was trying to push us to put it out in October, and we just, we really didn't wanna do it," Lewis explains, "because it's just too scary to go up against all these other bands." He waits a beat. "So, there you have it."

Or don't, actually. Not yet anyway.

For that reason, more often than not, The Toadies' second album is referred to almost as though it's an urban legend. It has become both punch line and Holy Grail, a disc that's been billed as either a masterpiece or a colossal failure, even though only a handful of people outside of the band have heard it; a song from the disc, "Heel," turned up on a pair of Interscope Records samplers in the past few months, but that's it. Everyone wants to believe there is a Yoko Ono, a Dr. Eugene Landy, a coke habit, a bankruptcy--anything that would catch a VH1 producer's eyes and ears. There has to be a story there, a reason it took six years for The Toadies to come up with a second act.

"They've heard that for so long that they're numb to it," says Jasun Lee, a longtime friend of the band. Lee has been part of The Toadies' crew since the group was a regular onstage at Fort Worth's now-defunct Mad Hatter's and Umbarger was a regular at the coffee shop where he worked. "Mark challenges anybody to just come over to the house and listen to the record. 'You wanna hear it? OK, fine, come on over. We'll play it for you.' Just proof that it's there."

Eating burgers on a weekday afternoon, Vogeler, Reznicek, and Lewis are the picture of normalcy, just another group of friends grabbing a quick lunch, which is pretty much the situation. That helps explain why The Toadies have been able to stick together through every success and disappointment. Umbarger and Lewis have been friends since they were employees at a Sound Warehouse in Fort Worth in the late '80s, Reznicek came on board shortly thereafter, and Vogeler was friendly with all three even before he joined the group. They genuinely like being around each other, and it shows; their conversations are virtually impenetrable to an outsider, with more in-jokes than a Kevin Smith film. You get the feeling that they likely would be hanging out with each other now, whether or not they were in a band together.

They've lived as though they weren't in a band that's been stuck in neutral for a few years, going out, staying in, doing what people do. Lewis married Beth Clardy, current frontwoman of Pinkston and formerly of rubberbullet. Reznicek has guested, both onstage and on record, with his friends and neighbors in Baboon. Vogeler has an on-again, off-again side project called Mommy with Baboon singer Andrew Huffstetler.

Here's the part every fan knows: Rubberneck was released in August 1994, though it might as well have come out a year later; it wasn't until then that the disc began to receive any radio airplay or attention at record stores. But by the end of 1995, Rubberneck had sold more than 500,000 copies, enough to receive a gold album from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The sales jumped when a Florida radio station started playing "Possum Kingdom" as regularly as traffic and weather reports. Soon enough, The Toadies were all over MTV and radio stations across the country, and Rubberneck's sales were up to a million copies.

By the time The Toadies were ready to begin work on a second album, Darrel Herbert, who played guitar on Rubberneck and wrote a few of the songs with Lewis, had left the band, to be replaced by ex-Funland guitarist Clark Vogeler. (Herbert went on the join The Tomorrowpeople, before leaving the band, and the business, last year.) Vogeler had sold all of his equipment after Funland's final show on June 15, 1996, at Trees. He figured he wouldn't need it in his new job designing Web sites.

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