The Toadies - Masters of understated alternative rock
Texas has been a hotbed of alternative rock since Buddy Holly showed Elvis how it was done. The scene continues to give birth to these acts, some better than others. In spite of this, Texas has never been able to shake the notion in other places that all we have here are country and blues. Occasionally, one band slips through to the mainstream from our state and shows the world that Texas is more than Stevie Ray and George Strait wannabes.
The Toadies stormed out of Ft. Worth with Texas pride and a powerful sense of regionalism. They never moved to California or New York, even after success found them. No matter how many records they sold, they always found time to play gigs at home.
The Toadies brought a punk tradition that somehow maintained an esoteric connection to the 60's sound. Songs such as, "Backslider", "Dig A Hole", and "I Hope You Die" revealed the darker side - and all were 90's radio mainstays - in addition to hits such as "I Come From The Water", and the platinum single "Possum Kingdom" (Do You Wanna Die?).
Front man/vocalist Todd Lewis founded The Toadies with co-worker and bassist Lisa Umbarger. The pair soon recruited guitarist Charles Mooney and drummer Guy Vaughan. Lewis, who was a banjo player (!) had to quickly learn to play guitar for their first show at the Axis in Dallas on April 23, 1989 - opening for Burning Temple and Anonymous Dog.
At the time, the only gig in Dallas was the Axis, so the band continued to appear there, and started work on their first demo, "Slaphead". During this time, drummer Guy Vaughn left the group and they recruited Terry Valderaz. This started their "drummer of the week" phase.
Valderaz would only be with the group until the summer of '89, when in the middle of a set the Axis was raided by Dallas Police and closed. LSD was found - horrors! Michael Jerome of Pop Poppins would replace Valderaz, although he was out less than a year later. This led to scores of other drummers, until they finally settled on Mark Reznicek. Lewis soon stopped playing guitar to concentrate on vocals, making room for guitarist Tracey Sauerwein.
The 5 piece band started drawing a lot of favorable local attention. Bookings came from all over the state. Then, in 1991 they won their first national exposure when they placed second in Yamaha's Battle Of The Bands and second in MTV's Battle Of The Bands.
With the Yamaha prize money they quickly recorded their first (cassette only) LP "Velvet", which was hailed by critics. Indie label Grass Records in New York soon signed them to their first contract and released "Pleather" in the spring of 1992 on a yellow vinyl 7 inch LP.
Charles Mooney, unwilling to continue as an indie player, had quit the band a few weeks before the label signing, turning the group to a four-piece with Lewis once more playing guitar.
A serious of events would soon lead to their discovery and signing to Interscope records, which at the time housed some of the biggest acts of the era. Reznicek's cousin, a record store owner, played "Pleather" for an executive of Valley Records, which in turn gave a copy to A&R man Ray Santamaria from Interscope. Santamaria was impressed with the group and brought them to a showcase at the Whisky a Go-Go in Hollywood. Ted Fields, co-owner of Interscope was in attendance and heartily agreed to sign the band with only a handshake.
During early 1993, the members of the Toadies recorded "Rubberneck", while continuing to play gigs in the DFW area. Reznicek even took a job at a local comic book store. Tracey Sauerwein left the band to be replaced by guitarist Darrel Herbert. Released in the fall of that year, Rubberneck received mixed reviews, until the release of the single "Possum Kingdom", which skyrocketed to the top 10 on the Billboard charts. It didn't sound like anyone or anything that had gone before it. Listeners heard a completely new sound coming from their radios, and rushed to buy it. The eerie lyrics and a surreal but homey MTV hit video soon made the Toadies famous. "Rubberneck" was the vision of Lewis, who would later say that the album was largely autobiographical. Lewis' father, a prominent Baptist minister was violently against his lifestyle. The song "Backslider" is a rant about Lewis' youth. "My father is a Southern Baptist preacher." he said, "I was a little religious boy who went to church all the time. My parents swore by the work ethic which says if you're not miserable all the time, then you're fucking off. So I decided I was gonna fuck off."
Some songs brought forth misunderstanding. "I Come From The Water" described Lewis' rejection of creationism and his belief in evolution. Strangely enough was picked up by religious bands and became an anthem on Christian rock radio stations all over the country.
For the next few months they toured with bands like Bush, the Chili Peppers, and White Zombie. Within a year they became headliners themselves, touring with fellow Texans the Reverend Horton Heat and the Butthole Surfers.
In 1996, "Rubberneck" went platinum, but not before guitarist Darrel Herbert would leave. Later that year they recruited guitarist Clark Vogeler. For the next few years the band quietly experimented with new ideas, working close to home, and helping musicians from their area get signed.
From 1996 to 2001 Interscope released their first two albums and a number of unreleased songs, which were highly praised. Finally their sophomore effort was released in 2001, "Hell Below/Stars Above". It also was praised by critics, including Rolling Stone, and quickly climbed the Billboard charts.
But, what seemed like another blockbuster soon crumbed when on New Years Eve 2001, the band officially broke up. All of the Toadies except Todd Lewis soon fell back into obscurity. Lewis founded the Burden Brothers in Austin with Taz Bentley of the Reverend Horton Heat.
The Toadies for a brief period became one of the bands that mattered. When a person in 95 or 96 turned on the radio, they heard female folk singers, Garth country, and regurgitated 70s artists. Where had rock gone? The Toadies proved that original alternative rock was alive and well, in Texas.
Story by staff writer Jason Miller