Reign of toads

A red warning light is glowing above the doorway at Last Beat studios, indicating that recording is under way. If you were to ease the door open, you'd find the Toadies camped around an ice chest full of Budweiser, and immediately feel a sense of ease and relaxation. If it weren't for all the recording equipment and the television flashing silent images in the background, this could well be a Sunday picnic.

On the other side of the glass, Clark Vogeler is laying down a guitar solo--his first ever--and bassist Lisa Umbarger is heckling him with each slip-up, calling out "new guy" sarcastically, accompanied by rude finger gestures.

It's all in good fun, though, and Umbarger quickly finds a new subject to work--the latest Bush video. "Limey!" she yells at the face of Bush singer Gavin Rossdale. "Look at this guy," she growls. "You wannabe actor! I hate Bush, man."

More on that later.
At first glance, these guys don't seem to have changed a bit since their debut album, Rubberneck, went platinum last year. They still drive the same cars, still eat at Taco Bell, still tell the same dumb jokes, and show more excitement over the return of Star Wars to the big screen than talking about their own music.

It's only when Umbarger and drummer Mark Reznicek start discussing the details of Dave Kehrer's death that cracks in the picture-perfect facade begin to appear. One of the best sound men in the industry, Kehrer had been touring with the Toadies and had become a close friend. His body was found slumped over a desk early that very morning, the result of hepatitis and years of drug abuse while on the road with some of the most well-known bands of the past decade.

Kehrer's death is actually just the first of many signals that these aren't really the same Toadies. A million albums sold, two years of touring, and a whole lot of shit have made them wiser, more cynical and self-assured. Yet as Umbarger explains, "The things around you are always going to change, but the nucleus has to stay the same. Otherwise you're gonna lose what you had."

The lick that Vogeler is having such a hard time with is from a cover of "Cowboy Song" by Thin Lizzy. You might dismiss it since it's just for a campy heavy-metal compilation of Dallas bands with no chance of ending up on the Toadies' new album, but the song has deeper implications than that.

"When the first album was being written, we were listening to the Pixies--they were God," explains Umbarger, who is wearing a Pixies T-shirt. "This time we've all gone off on different tangents. We all listen to a lot of Stereolab, but we're also going back and listening to a lot of old stuff. We're looking at our roots."

Enter Thin Lizzy--for lead man Todd Lewis, anyway. For Reznicek, roots means mid-1960s AM radio pop. For Umbarger, Motown and Elvis (more on that later, too). "Anything but the Beatles," Umbarger says with disgust. "I hate that Beatles...and Bush."

What's more important is the "we" in Umbarger's statement. This album is a collaborative effort, as opposed to Rubberneck, which was more of a realization of Lewis' vision; the band had yet to reach the point of cohesiveness that would allow for open musical dialogue, and Lewis had a novel's worth of resentment toward his intensely religious upbringing to purge. Not that he's finished, of course. Lewis' father, a minister, still refuses to see the band or recognize their success. "He still thinks I'm wasting my time," Lewis says. "Except now he at least sees I'm making some money."

That would be hard to miss: Rubberneck is the Toadies' major-label debut, enjoying skyrocketing sales when released in 1994 on the strengths of such hits as "Possum Kingdom" and "Backslider." The band had been touring around sporadically with another then-unknown group, Bush, when their label finally decided to release the album, and--lo and behold--it jumped up the charts faster and farther than a Mississippi bullfrog.

"It started to taper off after the Conan O'Brien incident," Reznicek says, scratching his short gray hair thoughtfully. He explains that the band was scheduled to appear on the show, but were handed an ultimatum on editing down a song at the last minute, so they walked. "After that, album sales started to drop off," he says. "Plus the fact I told all my relatives in Nebraska to watch, and now they have a videotape of No Doubt."

Then there was the Florida vampire-goth fiasco, which all centered around the song "Possum Kingdom." Some kids interpreted it as a vampire song, "Except that ain't the kind of suckin' that was goin' on," laughs Reznicek, noting that the lyrics more likely depict a discreet homosexual encounter. Lewis claims the song is abstract and open to any interpretation, but still squirms at the fact that people were showing up at their shows with fangs and Anne Rice novels.

"A lot of shit happened to us on the road," Umbarger says. "A lot of emotional crap. Rubberneck was written when Todd was going through a divorce. This album will have a lot of the same emotion, but more stuff has happened to the whole band." She then recounts a horrific tale of touring with Bush, who--even before Gavin Rossdale got famous for declaring to the world that he "swallowed"--had an attitude that sent the Toadies on numerous foiled late-night escape attempts.

"We weren't even allowed in the dressing room or inside the clubs during sound checks," Umbarger says. "We were always trying to sneak off the tour in the middle of the night. We wanted to just say 'fuck it' and come home. But every time, their tour manager would catch us and make us go back."

Vogeler steps into the rehearsal space and wipes the sweat from his brow, his first guitar solo now successfully completed. Umbarger, whose showiness may come from the fact that her dad was an Elvis impersonator, applauds sarcastically. These are only demos they're working on--the band won't start recording for real until April or May. The new album, as of yet untitled, won't be out until next spring.

Of the six tracks they have laid down, at least two seem to have the same single potential as those on Rubberneck. "Joey Let's Go" alone proves that the new album is going to be a serious contender, touching on Sonic Youth influences, employing a catchy pop rhythm awash in feedback. "Push the Hand" also holds good prospects.

It's obvious that Lewis hasn't hit a dry spell when it comes to writing good new material, but three years of struggle haven't really lessened the obstacles facing the Toadies; the future is most uncertain, and cynicism about four-chord rock angst is at an all-time high. Even former tourmates and lifelong band idols the Butthole Surfers are now featured on an MTV spot declaring that music as we know it is dead in the water.

Yet Lewis says he's not interested in precalculated moves like the Smashing Pumpkins doing a Missing Persons cover in an anxious attempt to stay ahead of the game. "I never expected to make it on the radio," Lewis says during a dinner break at a Deep Ellum burger joint. "We're not bandwagon jumpers. I'm just going to keep doing what I do, which is play in a rock band and write songs that I think are good." It's a healthy attitude that Lewis has held onto since the beginning, much in the same way he views the Toadies as first and foremost a local band.

Possibly more so than anyone who's made it on a national level, the Toadies have made a conscious effort to remain a Dallas band. They've managed to remain humble in mind and loyal to other local artists and to their own roots--unlike the "success story" of Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians back in 1990.

"The New Bohemians totally lost their roots," recalls Lewis. "There was a lot of back-stabbing going on in the scene at that time. The people who wrote those songs weren't even allowed to play their own instruments on the album. And look what happened to them. It's a perfect example of what can go wrong."

But the Toadies have so far managed to avoid such pitfalls--plus they've got the time and money to produce the album they want to make this time around, with a lot more confidence and experience to back it up. Still, you can't help but think that when they emerge from the darkness of the studio, the Toadies may have some trouble recognizing the world that has been so kind to them in the past. The prophets have taken to the streets again, declaring (for the umpteenth time) that rock is dead.

"I can't believe there's not always gonna be people who want to go about and see real people playing real instruments instead of some geek spinning records," Lewis insists. But will there be enough of them to make the new album as--or more--successful than Rubberneck?"

Umbarger thinks so. "It will be more successful because it's more of a band effort," she says. Reznicek and Vogeler agree. "It's gonna blow people's minds how motherfuckin' good it is," Reznicek says enthusiastically; Vogeler--the new guy--is more pragmatic: "As long as I don't have to pay 13 bucks for one like last time, it'll be more successful."

"Parents around the country," Lewis says, "are already saying how good it is."

Though the truth remains to be seen, it will ultimately mean the difference in whether the Toadies go down in history as a significant voice in music or as a momentary blip on the screen. Yet the band seems blissfully unaffected by that kind of pressure.

"To be honest, I don't really care what Joe Blow on the street thinks of [the new album]," says Reznicek. "I'm a lot more concerned with what my friends in bands are gonna think. Like whether or not the guys in Baboon are gonna like it. This album is more for them than anyone else.


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