Farewell, Fair Toadies
In March, the four members of the Toadies -- Todd Lewis, Lisa Umbarger, Clark Vogeler and Mark Reznicek -- sat around a table at a Metroplex Italian restaurant to celebrate the impending release of the band's second album. They were giddy with anticipation, a welcome relief after so many months -- years, actually -- of not knowing whether Hell Below/Stars Above, as the album came to be titled, would even wind up in record stores. The past few years had not been easy: The band endured an acrimonious split with its guitarist and its manager, and Interscope Records had no interest in an earlier version of the album that the band submitted. The Toadies felt embattled on all fronts.
"Part of our motivation 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,' " said front man Lewis, who formed the band 12 years ago with bassist Umbarger and guitarist Charles Mooney.
Five months later, that relief and confidence have evaporated, as has the band.
On August 22 Lewis called the Dallas Observer to confirm rumors that had been swirling around town for several weeks: The Toadies, he said, were no more.
Lewis explained that he made the decision to dissolve the group on July 17 -- just days after Umbarger turned in her resignation during what proved to be the band's final tour. Lewis told the Observer that Umbarger quit for several reasons, "but I haven't been able to make a whole lot of sense out of it," he said. "You'd probably have to talk to her to figure it out, if you possibly could figure it out. She's going through a lot of life changes "
Umbarger says her reasons for quitting are actually quite simple:
The band had gone on the road without any support from Interscope, which made touring insufferable and next to impossible. After a talk with an executive at the label, she realized "only the Toadies were putting the Toadies first" and came to believe that being in the band 12 years later had become "a waste of time."
"I had a conversation with someone at the label, an insider who shall remain nameless, and found out they had no intention of doing anything else for the record," Umbarger says. When asked what Interscope did do for Hell Below/ Stars Above, she said only that the label released it. "When I found out they weren't going to do another single, that it was going to sit there, it looked gloomy, and I have things that looked brighter. I wanted to get out while I still had air in my lungs."
(Neither Interscope publicist Jennie Boddy nor former Interscope president Tom Whalley returned the Observer's phone calls.)
One of the brighter prospects of which Umbarger speaks -- and which seems to confound Lewis -- is the Avalon Foundation, a nonprofit organization "dedicated to supporting the transformation of our world from a society of independent individuals to a community of connected souls," as the organization's Web site (www.avalon-foundation.org) states. And Umbarger recently completed training in an ancient Japanese healing technique -- in other words, she's decided to use her hands on people instead of her bass, for the time being. She also is continuing her visual-art pursuits.
After Umbarger turned in her resignation, it took only three days for Lewis to dissolve the band: If Umbarger wasn't going to continue with the Toadies, the Toadies couldn't continue without her.
"That's just the core of the band, you know?" Lewis says. "Me and Lisa have been there from the start, and that just never even entered my mind. I've said it before: This band finally got to where I wanted it -- creatively and input-wise -- and everybody was on an even playing field, and just everything was good as far as the band itself. Then this happened, and I just figured, well, fuck it, then." Vogeler says the decision to break up after Umbarger's announcement "made sense."
But Umbarger says she was stunned by Lewis's decision; she insists she had no idea her resignation would lead to the breakup. She thought the Toadies would simply hire a replacement and soldier on, despite (or, given Lewis's tenacity, because of) Interscope's lack of support.
"I didn't see this at all," Umbarger says. "I thought I could have the benefits of watching [them] from backstage. I thought the Toadies as an entity would continue."
Still, had she known, it would not have made one bit of difference.
"I had to do it for myself, just to do something fulfilling for once," she says. "The Toadies were not feeling fulfilling anymore."
The inexplicable thing about all of this is why Interscope would simply dump Hell Below/Stars Above without support. The label had plenty of opportunities to shed the Toadies: Two years ago, when Universal Music Group (home to MCA, Geffen, Interscope and Universal Records) merged with PolyGram (the parent company of such labels as Island, Motown, A&M and Mercury), dozens of bands were purged. Yet Interscope stuck by the Toadies, even when it was unhappy with rough tracks the band turned in for its second album, which the Toadies recorded in January 1998 in Austin with Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary.
But such questions will go unanswered for the time being. Interscope execs apparently are too busy working on Limp Bizkit and Bilal records to comment on the fate of the Toadies. Two things are clear: The Toadies' final tour was a drag, and sales of Hell Below/Stars Above were dreadful, especially after 1994's debut, Rubberneck, managed to sell more than one million copies after languishing on the shelves for longer than a year before anyone, including Interscope, paid much attention to it.
The label gave the band seven years to make its second album, but the Toadies' credit with Interscope apparently had reached its limit. The environment of today's music industry is far different from what it was in the mid-1990s: Now, a band is considered dead if it doesn't hit on its first single, especially after the band went platinum its first go-round. Interscope likely figured the world forgot about the Toadies, so it would be best to do the same.
"The label was doing the usual label thing: 'If you don't sell x number within x number of days, then you suck,' " Lewis says. "Especially these days; it's just so competitive But, you know, that would have gotten better eventually, or we would've done another record and it would have gotten better then. I really believe in this record. That's the shame of it. I was really looking forward to getting out and beating people over the head with it, to convince them how good it is, because I really, really believe in this record."
The Toadies will have one last chance to beat people over the head with Stars Above, playing a handful of farewell dates around Texas. Baboon bassist Mark Hughes will fill in for Umbarger, who says she wanted to play the good-bye shows but was unable to because of scheduling conflicts -- which, she says, Lewis was aware of when booking the last gigs.
Then the remaining Toadies will go their separate ways: Umbarger to the Avalon Foundation, Vogeler to Los Angeles and film school, and Reznicek to parts unknown, for now.
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