All Sorts of New Flavors Come Out When '90s Alt-Rock Heroes Toadies Unplug
Toadies are one of those bands that even if you don't know them, you still know the music. Since the release of the group's brilliant 1994 album, Rubberneck, Toadies have been on the rock 'n' roll radar of just about anyone who has listened to a radio, thanks to the hit "Possum Kingdom." MTV's Beavis and Butt-Head even featured the song on an episode, which for many mid-'90s alternative bands was a banal blessing of ever-extending proportions.
Luckily for those of us who relish the charm of good (and fucked-up) Texas rock, Toadies are still cranking out excellent music, even if now they look more like four mild-mannered gents getting ready for a night of craft beer and Wilco than a group of rock 'n' roll animals. Their crushing blend of straight-up rock and haunted honky-tonk has carried on over the past 20-plus years.
Most recently, Toadies — Vaden Todd Lewis on vocals and guitar, Clark Vogeler on lead guitar, Doni Blair on bass, and Mark Reznicek on drums — have released Heretics, a wonderfully stunning departure from the group's sound: big guitars and vocals on the verge of unhinged. Heretics finds the band reimagining some of its biggest songs in a quasi-acoustic mode, including the aforementioned "Possum Kingdom," and adding two new songs and a killer cover of Blondie's "Heart of Glass."
A lesser band might just be padding its discography by re-releasing acoustic versions of its best songs, but Toadies are doing anything but on Heretics. Now, the band is taking its acoustic experiment on the road to give fans the opportunity to hear it performed live and experience a different take on Toadies' exquisitely frenetic live show.
New Times: I was listening to a talk radio station this morning, and your music was playing in the background. How does it feel to know you have created riffs that are out there in the strangest places?
Vaden Todd Lewis: I don't know. I've been pretty fortunate. Years ago, we had a song on Guitar Hero 2. People would come up and say they hadn't heard of us, but they had played the song on Guitar Hero and then went out and bought the whole catalog. That's the way it is supposed to work.
What was the inspiration for Heretics?
We have a festival every year here in Texas called Dia de los Toadies. We just had the eighth one this year. It's been a blast. [A few years ago] we decided to expand it from one night to two nights, and instead of doing another big band night, we wanted to have the second night be kind of chill . . . These are family things, near water, and we thought, "What if we do something stripped down and limit the tickets?" We started doing that and it quickly evolved from just acoustic guitars.
After last year's [festival], we decided, you know, it would be really fun to do this record in a controlled environment. We started thinking about it, and we pitched it, and it was great. We got to work with Rob Schnapf, who did Rubberneck, Hell Below/Stars Above, and Feeler, and he's just a great producer. We've known him for 20-some years, so we have a rapport built in. It was a cool experience. Very organic in the way it came together.
Which of the songs you re-recorded surprised you the most, in terms of your own enjoyment in re-imagining them?
I came to realize — I guess it was on the second record — that at some point in the process, there is going to be one or two songs that jump out at me and just scream, "This is why you're here. This is why you're doing this record, to get to right here," and that was "Rattler's Revival" [originally released on 2012's Play.Rock.Music.]. We started tracking that, and it came together, and I thought, shit, this is going to be awesome, and I could really feel it.
At what point did you decide you wanted to do an acoustic tour?
Well, pretty much that's the whole thing with doing a record. It's like, "Why do a record if you don't want to play it for people," you know? It's pretty much hand in hand as far as I'm concerned. That's been the cycle of my life. Record a record and wait for it to be done so you can go out on the road. It's the fun part followed by the "waiting" followed by the fun part.
Is this tour all acoustic? What was the process of figuring out how to pull it off live?
I didn't think about the performance of it . . . I kind of put it out of my mind when we were in the studio because, well, I think it might limit me, but we also had lots of help in the studio, and we couldn't have all of those guys out on the road with us every night. If I worry about that, then it kind of eliminates possibilities for anything to happen. Once we started mixing the record, though, we started talking about how we were going to get it done.
Your songs tend to be full of dark imagery and violent themes. What, if any, are some common misconceptions people have about you or the band based on your lyrics?
VTL: The most disturbing ones that people have bounced off me is that our song "Tyler" [from Rubberneck] is about a rape, but it's not. It's just not. I can't stress that enough. It's halfway about a story I heard. I picked up where the story left off and made this twisted romantic thing out of it. That's all it is. It's not about anything that happened or fantasizing about that . . . That's something that kind of caught me off guard because I never even thought about it that way.
Early on, it was kind of a defense mechanism [the dark lyrics] because I wasn't really sure about my writing yet. Over the years, though, I think I've come to realize I'm just a sarcastic asshole, kinda sometimes, and cynical. [Laughs] Not to anybody else, but in music. I always got a kick out of putting something really pretty together with something really dark lyrically, or vice versa, like "Jigsaw Girl" (from 2001's Hell Below/Stars Above), which is like the prettiest song ever, but it's about how you love this girl so much, but she doesn't love you back, so you cut her up.
I definitely have gotten a kick out of those lyrics.
Yeah, I chuckle sometimes when I sing them. Early on a lot of people just assumed we were a Christian band, which was strange to me because I was brought up religious, so there is all this imagery in my vocabulary and that’s just all it is, a way to tell a story. … But speaking of “Jigsaw Girl,” on the new record, “Queen of Scars” is one of the new songs. The whole thing was written from the ground up in the studio, and it’s kind of a sequel to “Jigsaw Girl.”
Oh cool. I hadn’t realized that. I like that song a lot.
We had a lot of fun with that. That song, we were in the studio and using all this killer vintage gear, and as vintage gear does, it breaks down. So I just started fiddling around on the guitar and the guys just sort of jumped in. By the end of the day, we had an arrangement, and by the next day we had laid down the whole song.
Had you ever had that happen before? Writing a brand new song in the studio?
No way, not like that. I’ve had sessions where I’d gone in without things being completely finished. I would go in without the record being completely done and we would see what happened, but going in and not expecting to write something was a big surprise. It turned out really cool. That’s part of the beauty of not having someone with a checkbook waiting over your head. We had some time to see where it was going to go.
Is there something in the water that makes for great, but sort of weird and fucked up bands in Texas?
(Laughs) Yeah, probably so, yeah. I don’t know what it is. Maybe there is just this kind of an aura. I can’t really put my finger on it. Texas bands just sorta … have something going on. I grew up listening to metal and got tired of that and sort of jumped ship to something else and went simultaneously into listening to ZZ Top and the Cure.
That’s quite a combination.
It kind of informs my songwriting now, too. Then I got into just exploring and getting into whatever I could find that was new and different.
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