Still Hopping

The Toadies have spread the word by doing it on the road.

"Can you hang on for a minute?" asks Todd Lewis, singer, guitarist and principal songwriter for the Toadies, in response to a click on his phone line. When he returns, he says, "That was MCI. They wanted me to pay my bill." He adds, with a mixture of amusement and exasperation, "Everybody knows I'm home. It's like, 'Let's call Todd and ask for money.'"
A couple of years ago, such a request would have been utterly futile--because neither Lewis nor the other Toadies (bassist Lisa Umbarger, guitarist Darrel Herbert and drummer Mark Reznicek) had any cash to collect. They'd managed to self-release a cassette, Velvet, that led to an agreement with the Dutch East India company and another couple of offerings: a seven-inch single, "Mister Love," and a CD, Pleather. Those recordings in turn attracted the attention of Interscope Records, which put out another disc, Rubberneck, in 1994. But the odds that the Toadies' big-league debut would turn them into slatternly millionaires seemed incalculably long for two very good reasons. First off, Interscope was better known at the time for propagating hardcore rap of the sort that excites William Bennett than it was for breaking racket-loving post-grungers like this foursome from Dallas. Moreover, the marketplace into which the platter was chucked was a virtual cesspool of combos that specialized in plumbing the same sonic depths as the Toadies. Rubberneck was a good record, sure, but there are plenty of good records that wind up producing little more for musicians than a batch of positive reviews and a colossal pile of debt.

So how did it happen that the album achieved gold sales status and propelled the Toadies into MTV acceptability? Lewis thinks he knows the answer--"touring," he says--but he won't swear to it. After all, even he's not sure why a record that seemed deader than George Burns many months after its appearance has somehow kept bill collectors from pestering him until this very moment.

"We were afraid of getting lost by the label," he notes, his choppy speech marked by frequent whimsical asides. "They had so many acts and everything. Priority--that was the buzz word. That was the secret word. So we pretty much kept out on tour, and that reminded them that we were around.

"I guess it was a goal to do that. That was the whole thing, the whole idea of getting signed to a major label--to be able to stay out on tour all the time. That was pretty much why we did it in the first place. So that was a benefit, I guess--keeping awareness up. I wasn't really strategizing; in retrospect, it would have been a good strategy. But the way I took it then was that we should go out and stay on tour because that's what we wanted to do."

Lewis developed a fondness for the darker hues of rock growing up as the son of a Baptist minister in Fort Worth, Texas. Plenty of journalists have decided that this fact accounts for the lyrical obsessions present in tunes such as "Possum Kingdom," a creepy but undeniably magnetic stalker's anthem during which the vocalist repeatedly invokes Jesus's name. But even though Lewis scoffs at the bargain-basement nature of this analysis, he's largely responsible for fueling such hypotheses; for instance, he told Spin, "I wasn't even allowed to listen to the radio until I was thirteen. I was told rock and roll was Satan's music, so I guess some of that stuff comes out in my songs." When asked about this statement, Lewis promptly backs away from his own words.

"That's not real accurate," he says. "It was just that we didn't have any kind of real stereo in the house until I was eight or nine. Before that, I was only forbidden to listen to it in the way that you're forbidden to drive your car if you don't have one. But my parents pretty much shunned music and television, mainly because of their work ethic. The vibe I got was that any type of endeavor that wasn't bringing money into your pocket was a waste of time."

A few years later Lewis was wasting plenty more of it. "I learned to play guitar on AC/DC," he reveals. "I got a guitar and convinced this guy at school that I could play. He was learning to play the leads at the time, so what an ideal situation--the easiest leads and the easiest chords. We would sit in a room for eight hours at a time learning to play AC/DC records. It was pretty intense. To this day, I still love bar chords."

A chance to further scratch this itch came about in 1990, when Lewis met Umbarger at a record store where they both worked. Herbert and Reznicek came aboard shortly thereafter, and the Toadies were born. Their initial mission was to do everything they possibly could to fight the power of what was then the most popular style in the Fort Worth-Dallas region.

"There was a huge movement of Edie Brickell-barefoot-hippie music," Lewis moans. "It's kind of making a resurgence now, and man, I hate that stuff. So that gave us something that worked up a lot of good bile. We made our first tape to get out of Fort Worth and into Dallas when all that was going on, and we wrote this song--one of our more mature efforts--called 'I Hope You Die.' And the refrain at the end of the song was 'D-I-E E-D-I-E.' I don't think anybody got it."

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