By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By all rights, The Toadies should no longer exist, and perhaps, in one sense, they do not. Yes, the band that releases its second album, Hell Below/Stars Above, on March 20 looks, for the most part, like the band that released its debut , Rubberneck, in August 1994. Gone (long gone) is guitarist Darrel Herbert, replaced (long ago) by Clark Vogeler, but all else remains the same. There, behind the microphone, is Todd Lewis, singingscreaming until his voice explodes like the sky on the Fourth of July; there, behind the bass, is Lisa Umbarger, poundingbounding around the stage like a broken spring; and there, behind the drum kit, is Mark Reznicek, bangingclanging as he keeps time with music that sounds, on the best of nights, like hell's unleashed fury. So, yes, all that has changed, on the surface, is a single face in the publicity stills.
But no band endures and survives the past six years of triumph (a million-plus albums sold) and frustration (the firing of a manager, the recording of an album that would never be finished, release dates that kept getting pushed back...and back) without changing, evolving--"maturing," to knick a word Lewis uses, again and again, during an interview. Too often during the course of the last few years, the band had been told it was finished or, worse, irrelevant; too often, the four were told that perhaps it was time to break up, to say thank you for their brief moment of success and, finally, farewell. It was suggested--by their ex-manager, with whom they would have such an acrimonious split a lawsuit would ensue, and by executives at Interscope Records--that nearly seven years between releases had made The Toadies a moot point, one-hit wonders quickly on their way to what-ever-happened-to? footnote status in rock's back pages. And, for a while, maybe the band even believed it, too.
"We almost didn't survive," Lewis says over lunch, surrounded by his bandmates.
"I agree," Umbarger says. "If we didn't have this strong bond before all of this happened, there would have been no way this album would have happened. It was because it was built on such a solid foundation before that we were able to withstand all the adversity."
"Every time we're at practice or in the van, I realize that I'm just happy when all four of us are together," adds Vogeler, who long ago stopped being The New Guy. "It's silly to talk about, but I really think we're all together and focused and moving forward, and I really haven't felt that way since I've been in the band. It's a really cool and positive feeling. It's a great way to go into this next phase."
The next phase of which the guitarist speaks is an album that sounds as though someone dropped a microphone in the middle of a plane crash (the album's opening track, not so incidentally). It contains "horrible, beautiful tales" that sound like AC/DC fronted by the demon seed of Robert Plant and Freddie Mercury; Hell Below/Stars Aboverumbles like some long-lost relic unearthed from the attic of a long-haired hermit who hasn't seen light since the mid-1970s. The album could have been recorded in an arena, amid thousands of glowing lighters and tons of dry ice. It hits you, again and again, merciless and defiant. It threatens and terrorizes...and, somehow, even consoles and moves: The second half of the title track, with its gospel swells and rock-and-roll yelps, is the most remarkable and unexpected thing this band has ever put on tape. "Stars above are shining down/Nothing's ever gonna hurt me now," Lewis sings, abetted by the heavenly vocals of guest Rev. White, "And I slip away/Happy as a clam."
By now, The Toadies' tale of woe has been well-documented, especially in these pages ("Playing Possum," August 31, 2000); suffice it to say that Bedhead had its entire career, plus a new one as The New Year, in the time span between the releases of Rubberneckand Hell Below/Stars Above. The long and short of it: Rubberneckwas released in August 1994, went gold a year later, platinum shortly after that, and then...nothing. In the spring of 1998, the band went to Austin, recorded new songs with Butthole Surfers' guitarist Paul Leary, had Interscope reject the rough mix, then fired its manager (Tom Bunch, who also handles the Surfers) in December 1998--around the time Seagram Company Ltd, which owned MCA and Geffen and Interscope, among other labels, purchased PolyGram Music and purged from its roster some 200 bands. The Toadies figured for a long time their necks were on the chopping blocks but that the guy who was supposed to fire them got axed himself and never sent the pink slip. They could hardly believe it when notified they were still Interscope recording artists.
A year later, on January 3, 2000, the band once more commenced recording, this time at the Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles, where Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones once recorded; no doubt, their ghosts still haunt the place, as parts of Hell Below/Stars Abovesound like one long, tumultuous echo of "Rip This Joint" from Exile on Main Street. Leary had been replaced by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, who also produced Rubberneck, but even then, the process was stop-and-start: The band was forced to take time off, two weeks before the album's completion, when the label phoned to say the budget had yet to be approved. With the finish line in sight, there was still paperwork to fill out, and needless distractions like that, Lewis says, "fuck with my program."