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Dig A Hole

Five months after the release of Hell Below/Stars Above, the Toadies have turned their backs on their career.
Nancy Newberry

In March, the four members of the Toadies--Todd Lewis, Lisa Umbarger, Clark Vogeler and Mark Reznicek--sat around a table at a Lakewood Italian restaurant to celebrate the impending release of the band's second album. They were giddy with anticipation, a welcome relief after so many months--years, actually--of not knowing whether Hell Below/Stars Above, as the album came to be titled, would even wind up in record stores. The past few years had not been kind or easy: The band endured an acrimonious split with its guitarist and its manager, and Interscope Records had no interest in an earlier version of the album the band submitted. The band felt embattled on all fronts: The Toadies were once more fending off all comers who'd seek to destroy the band.

"Part of our motivation...was to be able to go and take this record and this tour and what we're doing now and kinda wave it in front of people who've given us the finger in the past and go, 'Fuck you, man, you don't know what you're talking about,'" said front man Lewis, who formed the band 12 years ago with bassist Umbarger and guitarist Charles Mooney, whose game room served as the band's original practice space. "That's for the people who've told us to quit or break up or whatever--one big 'fuck you.'"

Five months later, that relief and confidence have evaporated, as has the band.

On August 22, Lewis called the Dallas Observer to confirm rumors that had been swirling around town for several weeks: The Toadies, he said, were no more.

Lewis explained that he made the decision to dissolve the band on July 17--three days after Umbarger turned in her resignation during what proved to be the band's first, and final, tour promoting Hell Below/Stars Above. Lewis told the Observer that Umbarger quit for several reasons, "but I haven't been able to make a whole lot of sense out of it. You'd probably have to talk to her to figure it out, if you possibly could figure it out. She's going through a lot of life changes...I don't know how long she'd been thinking about it. You know, who knows? She's decided she wants to have a real job and do boring, real-people stuff."

Umbarger says her reasons for quitting are actually quite simple: The band had gone on the road without any support from Interscope Records, which made touring insufferable and next to impossible. After a talk with an executive at the label, she realized "only the Toadies were putting the Toadies first" and came to realize that being in the band 12 years later had become "a waste of time."

"I had a conversation with someone at the label, an insider who shall remain nameless, and found out they had no intention of doing anything else for the record," Umbarger says. When asked what Interscope did do for Hell Below/Stars Above, she says only that the label "released it. When I found out they weren't going to do another single, that it was going to sit there, it looked gloomy, and I have things that looked brighter. I wanted to get out while I still had air in my lungs."

Interscope publicist Jennie Boddy couldn't be reached for comment--several messages were left and not returned--and no one else at the label will speak about the Toadies. Tom Whalley, former president of Interscope and now the head of A&R at Reprise Records, also couldn't be reached despite several attempts.

One of the brighter prospects of which Umbarger speaks--and that seems to confound Lewis--is the Avalon Foundation, a nonprofit organization "dedicated to supporting the transformation of our world from a society of independent individuals, to a community of connected souls," as the organization's Web site (www.avalon-foundation.org) states. Umbarger recently completed training in an ancient Japanese healing technique--in other words, she's decided to use her hands on people instead of her bass, for the time being. She also is continuing her visual-art pursuits. Her work will be exhibited September 8 at the Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth.

After Umbarger turned in her resignation, it took only three days for Lewis to dissolve the band: If Umbarger wasn't going to continue playing with the Toadies, the Toadies couldn't continue playing without her.

"That's just the core of the band, you know?" Lewis says. "Me and Lisa have been there from the start, and that just never even entered my mind. I've said it before: This band finally got to where I wanted it--creatively and input-wise--and everybody was on an even playing field, and just everything was good as far as the band itself. Then this happened, and I just figured, well, fuck it then." Vogeler says the decision to break up after Umbarger's announcement "made sense."

 

But Umbarger says she was stunned by Lewis' decision; she insists she had no idea her resignation would lead to the breakup of the band. She thought the Toadies would simply hire a replacement and soldier on, despite (or, given Lewis' tenacity, because of) Interscope's lack of support and apparent lack of interest in the band.

"I didn't see this at all," Umbarger says. "I thought I could have the benefits of going to Starplex and watching from backstage. I thought the Toadies as an entity would continue. I didn't know it would have such a big effect."

Still, had she known, it would not have made one bit of difference.

"I had to do it for myself, just to do something fulfilling for once," she says. "The Toadies were not feeling fulfilling anymore."

The inexplicable thing about all of this is why Interscope would simply dump Hell Below/Stars Above without support. The label had plenty of opportunities to get rid of the Toadies: Two years ago, when Universal Music Group (home to MCA, Geffen, Interscope and Universal Records) merged with PolyGram (the parent company of such labels as Island, Motown, A&M and Mercury), dozens of bands were purged from labels' rosters, including such local acts as Radish, Slowpoke and the tomorrowpeople. Reverend Horton Heat was later banished from Interscope. Yet Interscope stuck by the Toadies, even when it was unhappy with rough tracks the band turned in for its second album, which the Toadies recorded in January 1998 in Austin with Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary.

But such questions will go unanswered for the time being. Interscope execs are apparently too busy working on Limp Bizkit and Bilal records to comment on the fate of the Toadies. One thing is clear: The Toadies' final tour was a drag, and sales of Hell Below/Stars Above were dreadful, especially after 1994's debut Rubberneck managed to sell more than 1 million copies after lingering on the shelves for more than a year before anyone, including Interscope, paid much attention to it.

The new album was released March 20, and according to SoundScan, which registers sales at more than 80 percent of the country's retail outlets, since then it has moved a paltry 54,432 copies nationwide. Locally, it moved 6,260 discs--an almost shocking number for a band so beloved in its hometown. Sales weren't getting any better: For the week ending August 18, SoundScan indicates that 507 copies of Hell Below/Stars Above were sold throughout the United States, and according to Lewis, Interscope decided sales weren't going to improve.

The label gave the band seven years to make its second album, but the Toadies' credit line with Interscope had apparently reached its end. And, the environment of today's music industry is far different than it was in the mid-1990s: Now, a band is considered dead if it doesn't hit on its first single, especially one that went platinum its first go-round. Interscope likely figured the world forgot about the Toadies, so it would be best to do the same.

"The label was doing the usual label thing: 'If you don't sell X number within X number of days, then you suck,'" Lewis says. "Especially these days; it's just so competitive. So that didn't help, I'm sure. But, you know, that would have gotten better eventually, or we would've done another record and it would have gotten better then. I really believe in this record. That's the shame of it. I was really looking forward to getting out and beating people over the head with it, to convince them how good it is, because I really, really believe in this record."

The Toadies will have one last chance to beat people over the head with Stars Above, playing a handful of farewell dates around Texas (including September 29 at the Bronco Bowl, in a KDGE-FM-sponsored concert), with Baboon bassist (and Dallas Observer music listings editor) Mark Hughes filling in for Umbarger, who says she wanted to play the farewell shows but was unable to because of scheduling conflicts--which, she says, Lewis was aware of when booking the band's last gigs.

"I had every intention of playing the final shows and told Todd that I was going to be out of town, and somehow I don't know how the shows ended up being booked when I already had a trip scheduled," Umbarger says. "That's how it worked out. I don't know why, but I had every intention of saying goodbye the proper way. I don't know if I am regretful, but things could have been handled better."

And so the Toadies go their separate ways: Umbarger to the Avalon Foundation, Vogeler to Los Angeles and film school and Reznicek to parts unknown, for now.

 

"The breakup's sad, but bands break up all the time," says Vogeler, whose previous band, Funland, broke up after releasing its best album. "We made a record we're proud of. I'll probably still play guitar in my room, playing George Harrison songs, but I am done with being in a band trying to get record deals and trying to be part of the machine. I am going to film school, something I wanted to do since I was 18. From the fire into the frying pan, as they say."

Lewis, however, can't give up on music, even if it tries to give up on him. He's even been writing with ex-Reverend Horton Heat drummer Taz Bentley.

"I have a choice, I guess, but it's just in my blood to do music," Lewis says. "I can't really ever see me not doing it. I would just be miserable. So, I've got a little project that I'd already started before the shit even hit the fan, and I'm gonna fuck around with that. And I wanna get into different things. Who knows, jingles or whatever, just to keep my brain going and hopefully pay the bills or whatever."

One reason it took a month to make the breakup announcement official is because of a lawsuit in which the band has been entangled for more than two years. The suit was originally brought by guitarist Darrell Herbert, who was ousted from the band in 1996 and replaced by Vogeler. The band insisted it didn't owe Herbert money and contended that whatever money the guitarist might have been owed should come from manager Tom Bunch, with whom it parted ways in December 1998. Herbert settled his claim for an unspecified sum, but the battle between Bunch and the Toadies continued. Bunch, who also manages the Butthole Surfers, claimed in legal documents that he was due unpaid management fees as well as continued royalties, while the band insisted it doesn't owe him a thing, since the two parties never signed a management agreement. (One was drafted, but it never was signed; Bunch sought the enforcement of it anyway.)

Two months ago, County Judge John Peyton agreed with the band that Bunch was not entitled to royalties or commissions. But the Toadies finally settled the suit with Bunch two weeks ago, agreeing to pay Bunch the money he contended he advanced them for expenses.

"The Toadies decided to focus on music rather than any past problems and complaints they had with management," says the band's attorney Frank Majorie. "This way, they can focus on their farewell tour."

And so can their most die-hard fans, for whom the breakup has been nothing less than devastating. Since the Observer posted an earlier version of this story on its Web site last week, the Toadies' official site (www.thetoadies.com) has been inundated with sad farewells from fans, most of which are echoed in this bulletin-board posting from a Web site member known as toadmansteele: "i was praying for this day never to come," it read. "this is the saddest news i've ever received in my whole life! i wish the best for the toadies."

At this point, that's all there is left to do.


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