With their hit-fueled 1994 album Rubberneck recently reissued on both CD and vinyl, the Texas rockers hit the road, additionally finding time to talk to our Midwest correspondent.
BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
Faith, the search for it or the complete loneliness that comes with losing it, is woven throughout music created by the Toadies’ Todd Lewis. Jesus is a promoted figure in the band’s most well-known work, Rubberneck, but it isn’t in a positive light; it’s just what Lewis knows. “Faith is the vernacular I was brought up with,” he says. “I was brought up Southern Baptist by a preacher and my basic communication skills come from that. I don’t buy into that (religion) anymore, it’s not my bag. I definitely don’t have anything against anyone who does but it’s not my thing.”
From “Backslider,” “I Come From the Water,” and “I Burn,” this is a man at odds with what he was told as a young child in Fort Worth, Texas — the truth, without question. As Lewis explains, “To each his own I suppose. I may not buy into it but it’s still in there, it’s part of how I process thoughts. I believe in believing in humans, in their humanity and a lot of people misinterpret that into some God thing, some Jesus thing.”
The 1990s were a great time for rock music but with great times come bands that deserved more attention — like Nada Surf, Wax, Superdrag, Toadies favorites Reverend Horton Heat, Wax, Ash and Failure to name just a few — but were ultimately relegated to “one hit wonder” status. When Rubberneck was released in August 1994, it exploded, powered by the single “Possum Kingdom” and its dark video that seemed to play on MTV on a constant loop. The band had formed in 1989 after Lewis tired of playing in cover bands: “I wanted to play original music but the guys I was playing with just wanted to do covers because there was money in it but you can’t grow creatively doing covers. I wanted to do my own stuff.”
Unfortunately, The Toadies were one of those bands lost in the shuffle, even though Rubberneck was easily one of the most cohesive rock albums of the alt-rock era.
“I wanted the first record (Rubberneck) to be of what I considered to be our best songs, the ones that I felt the most confident with, and the ones I would want to play over and over,” Lewis tells BLURT. “’I Come From The Water’ was one of the first songs I wrote with The Toadies and ‘Backslider’ was written weeks if not days before we went into the studio.” Regarding “Backslider,” there is a palpable tone of fear locked into the song. Lewis agrees, saying, “Absolutely there is. What started the whole process of that song was me thinking back on me as a kid and thinking that if I thought or did the wrong thing, I was going to Hell. As a young adult, I looked back on that time and seeing how fucked up it was, how mean and cruel and twisted it is for someone to make a little kid feel that and it happens every fuckin’ day.”
He continues, “People all over the world believe that a kid, at 9 or 10, is old enough to take Jesus Christ as their savior but don’t take into account that a kid is still a kid. Kids don’t understand Death, eternity or anything else. They just want to make mom and dad happy. It’s just not far; its brainwashing.”
With Lewis’s stance on religion currently, one would expect there to be conflict with his father, a Southern Baptist preacher. “We [his father and Lewis] have agreed to not discuss it. We have re-constructed our relationship and now we get along better than ever.”
In an album like Rubberneck, there is intensity upon intensity, “I Burn” is the one that crushes your soul down to nothing, pulverizing you, smashing your beliefs; it could be about religion, literal fire or the one that burns in your core. “I like to experiment with my writing and try to figure out different ways to do things. I had just written ‘Possum Kingdom’ which has some super intricate turnarounds and time signatures, it was an exercise in making it difficult but still groovy and cool hopefully. After that, I thought it went pretty well, I wonder what would happen if I tried to do the exact opposite? ‘I Burn’ is taking the fewest ingredients and making something out of it that moves people.” (Below: the band back in the day.)
While Rubberneck has more than its fair share of frustration and anger, (“Quitter” being the finest example of that) it also shows Lewis’s Texas roots and his love for the boogie rock of fellow Texans ZZ Top. “It wasn’t intention but yeah, ZZ Top did sneak in there. When I was a kid, I used to make mixtapes for my cousin at Christmas. One year I made a mixtape of all ZZ Top, like La Grange and Tush then the next year it was a tape of The Cure. That was the weird shit that I was into and it never struck me as being weird or being two different things, it was just music. But, yeah ZZ Top was a big factor back in the day, strange thing was, I didn’t notice it until people pointed it out to me.”
Things in your life creep in, your environment shapes that you are and, whether you like it or not, what you are taught as a kid can destroy you or build who you are. Passion and struggle feeds the beast in you, shaping the future ahead.
Luckily, for Todd Lewis and the members of The Toadies, they get to have an exorcism every night on stage to wash the blood from their hands and the lift the weight from upon their souls.
Until July 31, I had never seen The Toadies. They were one of my favorite bands back in the day and Rubberneck has seen steady play at my house since its initial release twenty years ago. Nevertheless, the little boogie rock band from Texas had always eluded me. Things come up, life changes your plans but this unseasonably cool night in the middle of a stifling Kansas City summer, a visit to Knuckleheads Saloon would remedy that. First, I must see Ume. What is another 45 minutes tacked onto a twenty year wait?
Ume was solid, quite good in fact. The main selling points for me were: (a) female lead singer/guitarist — women in rock bands are badass, and when I saw L7 at the dawn of the 1990s I nearly had a stroke; (b) the music was awash with distortion a la Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine; (c) Lauren LL played a Lee Ranaldo signature model Fender Jazzmaster with both aggression and finesse. Ume was good, powerful and LOUD. All the makings for a perfect revivalist noise rock band. Thumbs up.
After a short break in which the sound guy played four songs from fellow Texan Buddy Holly, The Toadies took the stage and blasted in the lead track of Rubberneck, the instrumental “Mexican Hairless.” A song that Lewis told me was a tribute to good friends Reverend Horton Heat and the instrumentals that often kick off Rev Ho records. Within the first two chords, the venue came alive, abuzz with the electricity of a crowd in awe of what they were witnessing; within a moment, the time machine took us to 1994. It was good, it was great.
This show was one for the fans, the ones that have loved The Toadies since day one, and the people that know Toadies tunes past the criminally overplayed and misinterpreted “Possum Kingdom.” Standing at the front of the stage soaking it in, what I saw on the stage was not just a band; it was a well-oiled machine, conquering heroes re-living past victories, ready to march on with no quarter. This was a unit and one of the best rock bands I have had the pleasure of witnessing with my own two eyes.
Over the past few years, I have seen a disturbing trend of people (hipsters mostly) paying hard earned cash on tickets to great shows only to spend the time nursing a Pabst Tall Boy while texting or checking their phones to see what is cool to like ironically this week. It’s irritating; the show is on the stage not in your hand, asshole. This did not happen at the Toadies show. As soon the band hit the stage, it was eyes front. In rapid succession, they blew through “Backslider,” “Mister Love,” “Velvet,” “Tyler” (which along with “Away” got the best response) and the rest of Rubberneck. However, this was not a Rubberneck only night, oh no.
The band rolled out “Push the Hand,” “Rattler’s Revival,” great covers of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Pylon’s “Stop It” where they were joined by Ume’s Lauren LL on guitar. Through the night, if only for a little while, I felt like I was back to a time before I had responsibilities, kids or gray hair. Back to a time when the most pressing worry was if I was going out or staying in to get loaded while watching “Ren and Stimpy” or 120 Minutes. It was great to be there again and The Toadies provided one kickass, groovy soundtrack for my nostalgia trip down Memory Lane.
I Come From the Water
Push the Hand
Heart of Glass (Blondie Cover)
Stop It (Pylon Cover)
Hell in High Water
Top photo by Matt Cooper; all others by Danny Phillips. (Image above is the group’s recent Texas-shaped picture disc.)