Playing Possum

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

"We've got the AC/DC collection, if you want it," Toadies guitarist Clark Vogeler says as he glances at the disc in the stereo's CD player. "It's basically the same record." Vogeler laughs as he and drummer Mark Reznicek take seats across from each other in the cramped rehearsal space. Reznicek slumps comfortably on the couch as Vogeler perches on the edge of a drum riser wedged into a corner, and they simultaneously light cigarettes, which, from the smell of the place, is a common occurrence. As they settle in, the band's frontman, Todd Lewis, walks through the door.

The room, part of Last Beat's recording and rehearsal complex on Commerce Street, is piled high with equipment cases, teetering sculptures of handles and hinges. A couch sits in front of one collection like a retaining wall made of musty upholstery preventing a landslide. Cables snake across the floor. The room is wallpapered with posters and fliers advertising shows the band has played and stickers of groups they've played with. Although there is scarcely enough room for four people (bassist Lisa Umbarger is on vacation in Scotland), the members of The Toadies look comfortable here. It's their clubhouse, one of the few places where they're only asked to come up with songs, instead of explanations and apologies.

"Or we can hear AC/DC," Lewis says, replacing the disc in the CD player with an unmarked one he was carrying in the pocket of his shorts.

Lisa Umbarger
Nancy Newberry
Lisa Umbarger
Mark Reznicek
Marina Chavez
Mark Reznicek
Clark Vogeler
Nancy Newberry
Clark Vogeler
To them, he's God Lewis: Toadies frontman Todd Lewis at the Ridglea Theater in May.
Nancy Newberry
To them, he's God Lewis: Toadies frontman Todd Lewis at the Ridglea Theater in May.

"I already made that joke," Vogeler says.

Lewis laughs and presses the play button. After a few seconds of silence, a solitary guitar emerges, hacking through power chords like a muscle car with engine trouble. Suddenly, Lewis' familiar screech kicks off the song, and you're in the path of a Sherman tank driving at full-speed. A rumbling bass line bullies your pulse into beating to a new rhythm, while a kick drum knocks the air out of your chest in 4/4 time. Vogeler and Reznicek smile at each other.

But Lewis isn't paying attention anymore. The music is deafening, but he doesn't seem to hear it. He grabs a guitar, clips off its strings with a pair of wire cutters, and begins cleaning it. Reznicek and Vogeler register every guitar lick and drum fill with their feet and heads, tapping and nodding along. They know every inch of the song, and they should. It's the first song on their new album.

"Do you like rock?" Vogeler asks. The smirk on his face suggests that he doesn't really expect an answer.

The smirk says this: Screw "Possum Kingdom," we've got something better. He's right. After more than six years, two attempts, one new guitarist, and several dozen new songs, The Toadies have finally come up with the long-promised follow-up to 1994's platinum-certified Rubberneck, the disc that spawned the inescapable "Possum Kingdom," which is, no doubt, still playing on a radio near you.

Over the next 45 minutes or so, the three Toadies unveil their new album, happy to show it off for the first time to someone who's not a friend or family member. After it's over, the disc, titled Hell Below/Stars Above, goes back in its plastic jewel case and into Lewis' pocket. Although the record has been finished for months, it won't be reaching stores any time soon. The group says February, their label is sticking with the more nebulous "spring," and the fans--yes, there are still fans waiting for a new album--want it yesterday.

The members of the band admit--no kidding--they wish the record was out already, or at the very least, they wish Interscope would officially tell them when to expect its release. But that's as strong a statement as they'll make on the subject. In the past, they've described the endless waiting game they've played with Interscope as "frustrating" and "fucking depressing," yet now, they claim to be through with all of that. They're confident that the record will come out, and when it does, everyone will know why it took so long.

"We're past all the frustration stuff," Vogeler says. "You know, it's done now."

"Yeah, it's done, and there's been like a lot of momentum at the label, and the record's good, and we're happy with it, so that's where we're at," Lewis says.

"I don't wanna sound like everything's candy land," he continues as he puts his now-clean guitar back in its case. "But it almost is."

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"When is what coming out?" Clark Vogeler deadpans when asked the question he's had to deal with virtually every day since joining The Toadies in 1996. He's sitting at a table at the Angry Dog, smoking a cigarette. It's an hour or so before the impromptu listening party at the band's rehearsal space. Todd Lewis and Mark Reznicek, crowded around the table with Vogeler, both laugh knowingly. Obviously, this is Vogeler's pat answer to that question.

A few years ago, everyone wanted to know the answer. Now, fewer and fewer people are asking the question. Jennie Boddy, the band's publicist at Interscope Records, sounded surprised to even hear the band's name, as if someone had just mentioned a high-school boyfriend she only vaguely remembered dating. She had no idea who at Interscope would field questions about the band and its status there. Who would be asking questions about The Toadies anyway? After all, the album isn't even scheduled to be released until next year, although, until an official release date has been set, scheduled is probably not the best choice of words. Album No. 2 has been scheduled to be released for three years.

"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.

Vogeler had every reason to be fed up with the business side of the music industry. Funland signed with Arista Records in 1992, after the label and the man who signed the band, Richard Sweret, guaranteed the group everything from its own Arista imprint (to distance Funland from Arista's dance-only reputation) to a brand-new touring van. Instead, all Funland's contract produced was one EP (1993's Sweetness, which sold in the dozens) and a year's worth of broken promises and embarrassment as the band sat at home, playing video games and waiting to hit the road. When Funland split up, Vogeler was all too ready to be out of the business.

Joining a working band that was coming off a platinum-selling album and playing nightly in front of thousands of fans was too good of an offer to pass up. The band was ready to start working on a follow-up to Rubberneck and would probably be out on the road again in a year or so. After auditioning, Vogeler became a Toadie near the end of 1996, ready to finally do what he'd always wanted to with Funland. Instead, he found himself sitting at home. Again.

Maybe that's why it didn't take Vogeler long to become comfortable with the group, even though Lewis, Umbarger, and Reznicek had a five-year head start.

"On Rubberneck, it was mostly me sitting around and writing," Lewis begins. "This [album] was more of me bringing in an idea and having the band flesh it out. We'd had enough time together as a band--me and Mark and Lisa--to start vibing that way, and kind of feeding off each other. And, uh..."

"Finishing each other's sentences," Reznicek adds.

"Yes, exactly," Lewis says. "Clark came in and kind of snapped right into it."

In fact, Vogeler's snapped into it so well, you'd never guess he hasn't been a member of the band since the beginning, though he still complains about being the new guy. "I'm trying to get them to add a tambourine player, so I can give someone else shit," he says.

The new lineup spent much of 1997 in a rehearsal space, writing and demoing new songs, periodically updating Interscope on their progress. By January 1998, the group had worked up 20 or so songs, enough to head into an Austin studio with Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary, who had recorded most of the group's post-Rubberneck output, including songs on soundtracks for The Crow: City of Angels, The Cable Guy, and Escape from L.A. A few months later, the album was finished.

Except, it wasn't actually finished. Andy Wallace--who, in addition to mixing Rubberneck, has also worked with Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, and Sonic Youth--was scheduled to mix the disc. But because the sessions with Leary wrapped up later than anticipated, he was no longer available, and no one else ended up taking the job. So, instead of sending Interscope Album No. 2 with a pretty red bow on top, The Toadies gave the label a very rough version of the album. It was unmixed, unmastered, and unwelcome.

Label representatives did not return a request for comment.

The band wasn't happy with the album either, and not just because Wallace didn't have a chance to put his ears to it.

"Well, it wasn't really going the way we wanted it to, and we were only scheduled to track it and then mix it later," says Lewis, who places the blame partly on their use of ProTools, a computer editing system. "Once we were done tracking, we didn't really love the hell out of it and the label didn't really care for it..." He pauses. "It just didn't sound live. It sounded really mechanical and cold and no feeling."

Lee says the first try at a follow-up "left a lot to be desired."

"I knew that they were capable of a lot more than that, especially with Clark jumping into the band. They weren't really good at writing songs yet--still. They hadn't really done much of it, you know? They had--what?--the 11 or 12 songs on Rubberneck, maybe 10 more songs that they'd written before they had to do all that touring for Rubberneck. Then they're told to go write a record."

The year ended without any progress made on the tracks they recorded in Austin. The band was still writing songs, but they hadn't recorded any of them, and even if they had, they would still need to be mixed and mastered, along with the pile of songs they'd already recorded with Leary. It wasn't all bad news, however; Lewis married the former Beth Clardy in September.

But as one marriage was beginning, another was ending: The Toadies split with their longtime manager, Tom Bunch, in December 1998, a situation the band declines to discuss much. They can't, really; Bunch is suing the group. (Bunch could not be reached for comment.) Lee points to the current state of the Butthole Surfers, another band Bunch managed, as an example of why The Toadies and Bunch parted ways.

"They're recording with Kid Rock right now," Lee says, referring to the Surfers' new take-the-money-and-run approach. "They've had to salvage whatever they can. They don't even care about their record any more. I talked with [drummer] King Coffey like three weeks ago, and he was like, 'Well, I go and play drums.'" Lee laughs bitterly. "It's so sad."

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."

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.

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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.'"

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.

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When the fans who populate the message board on The Toadies' Web site (www.thetoadies.com) found out that the record was done and Interscope wasn't rushing to release it, a few of them decided to set up an e-mail campaign to get the album in stores, or at the very least, get Interscope to assign a release date. One fan set up a form in which participants could type in their message and forward it directly to Interscope. The only problem is, all the fans were sending their pleas to a dead e-mail address.

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."

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