Playing Possum

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

Lee pauses, wondering how much he should reveal about the situation. "I think he caused a lot of tension between the band that was just unnecessary, that they had to get rid of him," he continues. "And you could tell, too. I saw Todd downtown the week it happened, and he was like, 'We got rid of him; here we go.' They're happier now than I've ever seen them."

In Bunch's stead, Lewis took over as manager, a position he held for the next year. He was skeptical about the idea, at least at first.

"It was great," Lewis begins, "because I was able to go out and meet people firsthand and see how things really worked and not have to hear it from somebody else...I always thought that getting involved in the business side would distract me from doing music, and distract me from what I wanted to do, and it really didn't. It really did the opposite, made me feel more in control and more creative."

Lisa Umbarger
Nancy Newberry
Lisa Umbarger

Lewis took over at a time when it would have been easy to be distracted by the business side of the music industry. In December 1998, Seagram Company Ltd. (which already owned Universal Music Group, home to MCA, Geffen, Universal, and Interscope Records) purchased PolyGram Music (parent company of Island, A&M, Mercury, and Motown) for $10.4 billion. As a result of the merger, nearly 200 bands were eventually released from their contracts, including local acts such as Slowpoke and The Tomorrowpeople.

Because so many bands were stretching their necks across the chopping block, many of them more active and profitable than The Toadies, the group appeared to be in line for the axe. But Interscope stuck by The Toadies. It wasn't a completely left-field decision; Rubberneck had, after all, sold more than a million copies, and more than four years after its release, it was still moving a respectable number of albums each month. That said, hanging onto a band with The Toadies' lack of productivity was a risky move.

"It was a weird time," Vogeler says. "Every other band in town got dropped."

"Every other band, period," Lewis corrects. "Man, that was nuts." He pauses, thinking about the situation. "So we took that as a vote of confidence."

The lack of bureaucracy between The Toadies and Interscope helped. "They don't have an A&R guy, and they didn't have a manager at the time," Lee says. "It was really just Todd communicating with Tom Whalley at the time, going, 'Please don't drop us. You know what we're capable of. We've sold this many records. Please take a chance on us.'"

In a strange way, the merger was just the latest bit of bad news that ended up working in the band's favor. Interscope's rejection of the Austin sessions allowed The Toadies to return to the studio to make the album they really wanted. The group's split with Bunch, and Lewis' subsequent stint as manager, let the band see the inner workings of the business up close, so they'd know exactly what was happening at every step of the way. The merger, along with Interscope's decision to keep the band on its roster, gave them the freedom to do what they needed to do to finally finish the album, safe with the knowledge that Interscope would release it. Eventually.

On January 3, The Toadies entered Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles, their second--and hopefully, final--attempt to deliver to Interscope a follow-up to Rubberneck. Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (the producer team that recorded Rubberneck, as well as albums by Beck and Elliott Smith) were back at the helm. Sunset Sound is, in Vogeler's words, "a classic studio," a Hollywood fixture since 1959, and home to recording sessions by Prince, the Rolling Stones, Van Halen, and Led Zeppelin, among tons of others.

The Toadies' line of credit was almost exhausted. There had already been too many false starts (they were originally supposed to begin the Sunset Sound sessions in November) and fake finishes, too many experiments that didn't pan out, too much of everything except for results. Vogeler had been a Toadie longer than any other guitar player the band had ever employed, and had only a few short tours and one song (a cover of Thin Lizzy's "Cowboy Song" that appeared on 1997's locally released Come On Feel the Metal compilation) to show for it.

The situation wasn't any easier for the other members of the band. The Toadies' last major tour was in 1997, and since then, there had only been sporadic gigs, a handful of shows here and there. They'd decided not to schedule any more serious tours (one of the band members' few sources of income) until the album was finished.

"There's not really any reason to go out and tour if you don't have a record out," Lewis says. "It's just kind of pointless."

Vogeler adds, "We can drink beer here," and they all laugh.

"Yeah, drink beer and lose money here," Lewis says, topping Vogeler, and they all laugh harder.

The new material the band was coming up with was enough to keep them off the road by itself. Something about Interscope's rejection of the Austin sessions had sparked a new fire inside the band, and they were finally hitting their stride as songwriters.

"Right after they got back--it was maybe a month, a month and a half at most--I remember Lisa called me," Lee says. "She said, 'Hey, we've got some new songs. You've gotta hear 'em, they're the best songs we've written. I come to town--I was living in Austin at the time--and it was 'Motivational' and 'You'll Come Down,' and one more, 'Trust Game,' that didn't make the new record. And it was just like, 'Holy shit.'" He laughs at the memory. "'Y'all are a different band all of the sudden.'"

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