By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
"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."
Perhaps not, but scenesters in Dallas embraced pretty much everything else by the Toadies. The band's sweaty, kinetic live shows, featuring giant slabs o' guitar, whisper-to-a-scream dynamics and Lewis's gothic pronouncements, inspired crowds to gather and reviewers to wax rhapsodic. But when Rubberneck hit stores, keepers of the mainstream media did not immediately clasp the Toadies to their bosoms. The musicians were left to crisscross the country pretty much on their own. According to Lewis, "We hadn't really done a damn thing touring-wise before we got signed. So the whole first year was a shock. Thank goodness we had a decent van--although it's not that nice now. It's sitting in front of my apartment right now with a cooler full of beer from last year. Maybe I should get rid of that.
"Our first tour was with Samiam, and they really showed us the ropes. They were really cool people--but we still had to get used to a lot of stuff. Like learning to sleep in the van with a bunch of other people, and never getting what you're supposed to get in terms of money and rider and so on. Some people were pretty cool, but there were definitely some hassles."
The situation gradually improved over the course of a jaunt with Big Chief and the Goats and two sojourns with Bush, an Interscope labelmate about whom Lewis finds it impossible to gush. But a pleasant side effect to the inexplicable rise in Bush-mania was that the Toadies suddenly were being seen by thousands more people each night than had previously been the case. Interscope responded by finally putting some muscle behind Rubberneck. These efforts persuaded MTV to push the vampiric video for "Possum Kingdom" into the Buzz Bin, and before Lewis knew it, the Toadies had sold over 500,000 albums and were playing arenas with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
That's not all that's changed for the group. The decision-makers at Dallas radio stations that once resisted playing songs by local talent have decided that if the rest of the country likes the Toadies and such Texas brethren as Tripping Daisy, maybe they should give them a spin as well. In the meantime, the number of regional acts being signed by record companies is up--way up. Lewis sees this last development as double-edged. "I hope it doesn't become an official 'scene' that would warrant label attention," he says. "Don't get me wrong: There are a lot of bands that deserve label attention more than anybody. But when you get bands trying to sound like other bands just to get signed, well, that's a drag."
Such are the dangers of success--and there are others. The Toadies once had good press and no liquid assets; now they have the funds they previously lacked, but they're being victimized (unfairly) by the critical backlash against modern rock. Lewis says he understands; after all, he's noticed that there's a lot of lame music out there, too. "Definitely the more quantity you get, the less quality there's going to be--if that makes any sense," he grants. "More of it's going to be crap--which is why we get compared to crap quite a bit. Somebody was writing about us and said, 'Who needs another Bush?' I couldn't even laugh that off. I got really offended by it. And somebody else said we single-handedly killed off alternative rock.
"I'd like to take credit for that, but I don't know. Single-handedly? I don't think so. Maybe we just gave alternative rock colon cancer."