Beer, trash talk shows, slasher flicks, punk rock, '70s heavy metal, tasteless humor: the Toadies are gluttons for a lot of things, not the least of which is touring. The Fort Worth foursome have been living out of a suitcase so long, they might as well call themselves the Gypsies.
"It'll be two years this August," says Lisa Umbarger, the Toadies' gregarious, bass-bashing catalyst and the band's only female member. "But it's not like it isn't what we wanted -- to be out on the road playing our stuff. We're definitely a lot better players now."
As for the rest of the group's vices, just chalk them up to the band's upbringing in a state where more is always better. The Toadies are a product of Dallas-Fort Worth's wildly prolific (as of late) modern rock scene, where they not so much leaped as slithered slowly out of the nightclubs and into the ranks of national acts. And according to those in the know around the Metroplex, they're deserving of their next-big-band-from-Texas status. Lord knows, they've earned it.
The Toadies' Interscope Records debut, Rubberneck, was released in 1994, and took more than a year to start moving off the shelves at a significant pace. It finally did so thanks to the hit single "Possum Kingdom," the song's creepy video and loads and loads of roadwork with the likes of Samiam, All and Bush.
A brilliant, tightly wound affair, Rubberneck approximates what the Pixies might have sounded like if fronted by John Fogerty. The Toadies' gamy, guitar-laden stew -- part punk, part swamp metal, part retrograde stadium rock -- is thick enough to break a steel spoon, loud and heavy enough to mosh the masses into a frenzy and tricky and inspired enough to win over even the most staid skeptics in the music press.
But the Toadies would hate anyone to think they've failed to rile at least a few establishment tools on their way to the top. In fact, during their time on the road, the Toadies have managed to annoy and irritate whole bunches of people. In an interview with an Oklahoma radio station last year, the group appeared to make light of the Oklahoma City bombing. The Toadies insist it was all a misunderstanding, that they never meant to offend anyone with an offhand comment about touring the country in a Ryder truck, the bombers' vehicle of choice. The laughing over the air after the group members realized what they had said couldn't have helped matters any, though.
But when it comes to pissing off Deadheads, the Toadies make no excuses. In response to the Oklahoma City incident, which prompted an angry phone call from the radio station to the Toadies' management, Umbarger quipped in an interview with Alternative Press, "Fuck Ryder Trucks. We're hauling all our stuff in Jerry Garcia's corpse."
"We try not take anything seriously, and sometimes that's mistaken for other things," Umbarger explains, amazed at how their kidding around gets blown out of proportion. "Anyhow, we don't care about the Deadhead thing; we don't like hippies."
Umbarger first picked up a bass in 1990, the same year she co-founded the Toadies with singer/guitarist/lyricist Todd Lewis. Back then, Umbarger and Lewis realized that they had a few things in common. First were their religious upbringings (Umbarger chose to go to church on her own, Lewis went with his parents), which they denounced as teenagers. By that time, Umbarger had discovered punk rock (the Dead Kennedys were her idols), Lewis had become your basic troublemaker, and both had pledged a secret allegiance to AC/DC.
Another connection was the dreary retail job the two shared at a Fort Worth record store, which they both dumped to form the band. "I talked my way into the group," Umbarger recalls. "Then Todd had to teach me how to play. I learned fast -- I had no choice."
After some horrendously bad shows, band members coming and going and a few other crash courses in humility, the Toadies hit on a solid lineup with drummer Mark Reznicek and guitarist Darrel Herbert. The group took the standard route to recognition, starting with a tape they sold at shows and self-releasing an EP, Velvet. Grass Records picked up the group for 1993's Pleather, another EP, which sold about 1,500 copies. Then came the deal with Interscope and Rubberneck, a CD they hoped would sound a little like AC/DC's Back in Black. It doesn't, but it's cool anyway.
Among the first places to recognize just how cool Rubberneck was were Boston and Tampa, both with radio stations that began playing the CD soon after its release. The Toadies had to fight for recognition in the rest of the country, including Dallas-Fort Worth's fickle neighbor to the southeast. "It seems like Houston was the last place in Texas to catch on," says Umbarger. "They didn't know what to make of us."
Nursing a major case of van lag, the Toadies had planned on kicking back this summer -- maybe even knocking around some ideas for Rubberneck's follow-up. But the Reverend Horton Heat had other ideas, and before they had a chance to rest their weary limbs, the Toadies were negotiating the interstates with Heat and the Butthole Surfers for yet another string of shows. Some people will do anything, it seems, for the man they call "God."
"We worship the guy. It was just too great to pass up," says Umbarger. "So we'll just postpone our vacation. No big deal."
The Toadies perform at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 4, with Sincola, Butthole Surfers and the Reverend Horton Heat at Westpark Entertainment Center, 5000 Westpark. Tickets are $19. For info, call 629-3700.
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