By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Just before heading west, the group went on another songwriting tear, resulting in a number of songs that were new to everyone involved when they joined Rothrock and Schnapf at Sunset Sound. They weren't yet sure how to play them, but they knew they needed to.
"We go in to record our demos with a digital recorder, so we kind of put it together, cut-and-paste a song together and get an idea of it," Lewis explains. "We had some of those. So when we went in, we had to figure out how to play it in the studio. And some of those are some of my favorite ones. Actually, the title cut--is that what you call them these days?--'Hell Below/Stars Above,' was finished just days before we went out there."
Rothrock and Schnapf helped "Hell Below/Stars Above" expand by inviting another one of their clients, Elliott Smith, to add piano to the track. The duo's influence pervades the rest of the album as well, though it's not as they imposed their own vision onto the project. They merely gave Lewis and the band freedom to create, a comfortable environment to try new things--for instance, the gospel-drenched female background vocals on "Hell Below/Stars Above," or the tiny explosions that make up the album's quiet climax. It's a living, breathing, laughing, crying, loving, dying record, so full of sound you'd think it was a double-disc set.
"I don't think, even if they were forced to, they could've written this record three years ago, two years ago, whenever they went to Austin," Lee says.
On March 18, the group officially finished recording the album they were now calling Hell Below/Stars Above. In April, Lewis spent a few weeks in New York with Andy Wallace mixing the disc, and by early May, Howie Weinberg had mastered it. In other words, it was done. Finished. Ready to go. The band even began cautiously talking about an August or September release date, and the disc was closer than ever to being in stores.
It's not much closer now.
Vogeler laughs when he tells the story, but he's a little more serious when he refers to another grassroots campaign started by Toadies fans.
"There's a song that's going to the radio--have you heard about that whole thing?" Vogeler asks excitedly. "A bunch of kids are taking it to radio stations and stuff. It's getting played; maybe a half dozen stations across the country have played it. We've heard it's already in rotation in some places. It's really cool, and the kids did it all on their own."
The song in question is "Heel," the first new recording to emerge from The Toadies' camp in three years. "Heel" was on a pair of Interscope samplers that popped up this summer, one being distributed via the Warped Tour, and the other through OzzFest. While the song keeps awareness of the band high (or higher, at least), that doesn't translate into a release date, though most naturally assumed otherwise.
But no one should expect to hear anything else from Hell Below/Stars Above for several months, at the earliest. (You can hear live versions, however, when the band performs on September 22 and 23 at Trees, as part of the club's 10th anniversary.) The band is guarding copies of the disc with almost religious zeal, even going so far as to question whether their interviewer's tape recorder was turned on while they played the album, mumbling something about the tape getting out on the Internet. They've been burned before: A tape of material they recorded in Austin briefly made the rounds.
Besides, Album No. 2 is not technically finished: "We're still considering fine-tuning the sequencing on it," Lewis admits. "The songs are good but we're just wondering about maybe switching a couple of songs or something, to make it really, really perfect."
Fortunately, it's worth the wait, and the band knows it. No one's even discussed the possibility of the record tanking, but even the band is surprised that people are still waiting. While you might assume the band's fan base would have evaporated by now, judging by the number of people who log on to The Toadies' Web site from all over the country, the band adds members to the flock each week. Concert tickets move briskly, and record sales have slowed but not stopped.
"We've been really lucky," Lewis says. "'Possum Kingdom' still gets played on KROQ in L.A.; it gets played a couple of times a day, I think."
"It's still getting played all over the country," Vogeler says. "It still sells.
"The cool thing is, when go play these radio shows, these DJs and programmers are still giving us love. They can't wait. That's real encouraging."
There is a short pause before Lewis adds, "We're almost starting over from ground zero. But not quite."