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Seven Year Itch

By all rights, the Toadies should no longer exist, and perhaps, in one sense, they do not. Yes, the Dallas, Texas, band that released its second album, Hell Below/Stars Above, last month looks, for the most part, like the band that released its debut, Rubberneck, in August 1994. Gone (long gone) is guitarist Darrel Herbert, replaced (long ago) by Clark Vogeler, but all else remains the same. There, behind the microphone, is Todd Lewis, singingscreaming until his voice explodes like the sky on the Fourth of July; there, behind the bass, is Lisa Umbarger, poundingbounding around the stage like a broken spring; and there, behind the drum kit, is Mark Reznicek, bangingclanging as he keeps time with music that sounds, on the best of nights, like hell's unleashed fury. So, yes, all that has changed, on the surface, is a single face in the publicity stills.

But no band endures and survives the past six years of triumph (a million-plus albums sold) and frustration (the firing of a manager, the recording of an album that would never be finished, release dates that kept getting pushed back . . . and back) without changing, evolving -- "maturing," to nick a word Lewis uses, again and again, during an interview. Too often during the course of the last few years, the band had been told it was finished or, worse, irrelevant; too often, the four were told that perhaps it was time to break up, to say thank you for their brief moment of success and, finally, farewell. It was suggested -- by their ex-manager, with whom they would have such an acrimonious split a lawsuit would ensue, and by executives at Interscope Records -- that nearly seven years between releases had made the Toadies a moot point, one-hit wonders quickly on their way to what-ever-happened-to? footnote status in rock's back pages. And, for a while, maybe the band even believed it, too.

"We almost didn't survive," Lewis says over lunch, surrounded by his bandmates.

"I agree," Umbarger says. "If we didn't have this strong bond before all of this happened, there would have been no way this album would have happened. It was because it was built on such a solid foundation before that we were able to withstand all the adversity."

"Every time we're at practice or in the van, I realize that I'm just happy when all four of us are together," adds Vogeler, who long ago stopped being The New Guy. "It's silly to talk about, but I really think we're all together and focused and moving forward, and I really haven't felt that way since I've been in the band. It's a really cool and positive feeling. It's a great way to go into this next phase."

The next phase of which the guitarist speaks is an album that sounds as though someone dropped a microphone in the middle of a plane crash (the album's opening track, not so incidentally). It contains "horrible, beautiful tales" that sound like AC/DC fronted by the demon seed of Robert Plant and Freddie Mercury; Hell Below/Stars Above rumbles like some long-lost relic unearthed from the attic of a longhaired hermit who hasn't seen light since the mid-1970s. The album could have been recorded in an arena, amid thousands of glowing lighters and tons of dry ice. It hits you, again and again, merciless and defiant. It threatens and terrorizes . . . and, somehow, even consoles and moves: The second half of the title track, with its gospel swells and rock 'n' roll yelps, is the most remarkable and unexpected thing this band has ever put on tape. "Stars above are shining down/Nothing's ever gonna hurt me now," Lewis sings, abetted by the heavenly vocals of guest Rev. White, "And I slip away/Happy as a clam."

The long and short of the Toadies' oft-told tale of woe goes something like this: Rubberneck was released in August 1994, went gold a year later, platinum shortly after that, and then . . . nothing. In the spring of 1998, the band went to Austin, recorded new songs with Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary, had Interscope reject the rough mix, then fired its manager (Tom Bunch, who also handles the Surfers) in December 1998 -- around the time Seagram Company Ltd., which owned MCA and Geffen and Interscope, among other labels, purchased PolyGram Music and purged from its roster some 200 bands. The Toadies figured for a long time their necks were on the chopping blocks but that the guy who was supposed to fire them got axed himself and never sent the pink slip. They could hardly believe it when notified they were still Interscope recording artists.

A year later, on January 3, 2000, the band once more commenced recording, this time at the Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles, where Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones once recorded; no doubt, their ghosts still haunt the place, as parts of Hell Below/Stars Above sound like one long, tumultuous echo of "Rip This Joint" from Exile on Main Street. Leary had been replaced by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, who also produced Rubberneck, but even then, the process was stop-and-start: The band was forced to take time off, two weeks before the album's completion, when the label phoned to say the budget had yet to be approved. With the finish line in sight, there was still paperwork to fill out, and needless distractions like that, Lewis says, "fuck with my program."

The band members need little prompting to recount the events of the past three years; they've lived with it long enough -- and been asked so many goddamned times, "When's the next album coming out?" -- that it's part of the dialogue, as inevitable as the English language. But the fact remains, all the legal and emotional wranglings not only changed the way the band made music, it also changed the music the band made. Rubberneck, with songs that dated back to old cassettes and EPs, has never been a particularly fun record to listen to; it's a bleak album, hard-charging but ultimately draining and even unpleasant. "Do you wanna die?" Lewis screamed, over and over, on the hit single, and by the end, it sounded like an excellent proposition -- suicide by stereo. But Hell Below/Stars Above is a kick -- anthemic but never bludgeoning, chaotic but never shapeless. You can almost hear Vogeler standing with one foot on the monitors; you can almost hear the audience shouting along to every word ("We're coming into your living room/We're crawling into your bed -- yeeeeaaaah").

It's the sound of a band let loose after years of being restrained, by a manager or a label or perhaps even itself. The Toadies have always thrived when they've felt backed into a corner; they need enemies, real or imagined. Feuding with the label is, for them, nothing new: Seven years ago, Interscope held up the release of Rubberneck and forced the band to tour with labelmates they despised (Bush, for starters); back then, it was the Toadies against the world. And while they resist that notion now, there's little doubt that the effects of recent events trickled down into the songs. There's no denying that Hell Below/Stars Above is the sound of release -- catharsis, at long last.

"I still believe for every action, there's a reaction, so sure, you can't help having some of the songs be a reaction to something that happened that either stirred something up or put us on a new path or a new direction," Umbarger says. "I don't know what would have happened if we hadn't parted ways with our manager. Would we have this great a record?"

"No," Lewis insists, "definitely not."

"I don't think so," Umbarger agrees.

"We were talking about that the other day," Lewis adds. "Part of our motivation -- not entirely, but part of it -- 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.' That's for the people who've told us to quit or break up or whatever -- one big 'fuck you.' That's part of what drives me to just make this record rock."

"There's still angst behind it," Vogeler says. "It's just different."

"But I don't know if any of that got in there or not," Lewis admits. "I personally had decided to leave that all behind me and move along, because otherwise I would have a bunch of songs about how much managers suck and labels suck and all that other stuff, and nobody wants to hear me bitch about that, including myself."

Someone recently asked Lewis how he was going to feel if Hell Below/Stars Above didn't sell as well as Rubberneck; he's still galled by the inquiry, insisting that he should have responded with Reznicek's suggestion, "Well, how are you gonna feel if your wife gets cancer?" (To which Vogeler responds with a shocked, but amused, "Nice.") It's the ultimate "bullshit question," Lewis insists. "That's not a question. It's like some kind of damnation"; Umbarger calls it simply "a threat." Besides, the band figures it no longer has to worry about a sophomore jinx; after all, the second album was, essentially, made and discarded a couple of years ago. It's been so long between releases the band might even consider the new album a reintroduction -- pleased to meet you, again.

But that's not to say the band doesn't wonder about its place in the current marketplace; maybe it just doesn't care. After this long, sales are a moot point, something for the accountants at the label to worry about. The band only wants to be taken seriously (no more jokes about Boston, thank you) and to be heard. If it's no longer the Toadies against the world, it's at least the Toadies versus the music business that sought, for the longest time, to silence a band that cries havoc every time it steps in the studio or onstage. One gets the sense that, in the end, the Toadies were afraid of only one thing: being forgotten.

"I'm of the belief that if we can get it out, get people to listen to it, and get it across, then people will dig it," Lewis says of any, ahem, expectations. "That's all we need to do."

"There's no competition now," Reznicek says. "It doesn't seem like any bands play their own instruments, or if they do, they play them poorly and go, 'Yeeeeeaaaaah.' There's no singing. It's all rapping."

"There are no songs anymore," Vogeler adds.

"I went to Best Buy today to buy some blank CDs so I could burn about 50 CDs before Napster shuts down," Reznicek says. "While I was there, I went to see if there were any new releases this week, and they have this one long row of what's hot or what's on sale, and it was all crap. There's, like, fuckin' two million manufactured teeny-bop bands I've never heard of before, and they all have terrible names. It's all about what you look like now. I'm afraid kids are going to grow up and feel like, 'I don't need to nurture any talent I might have, because I'll just be pretty and wait for someone to discover me and throw me on stage.'"

"It makes you just wanna go out and get breast implants," Umbarger says, and the table laughs.

"We're so old," Reznicek says, "the last new record we bought was in the 1970s."

No, they're told, the last new album you released was in the '70s.

"Yeah," Umbarger says, smiling, "we've been around a long time."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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