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It's been two decades since the Toadies ruled rock radio with a weird and creepy song called "Possum Kingdom." To celebrate that milestone — and also the anniversary of Rubberneck, the album which spawned the tune — the Texas quartet recently released a special edition of the set, featuring five previously unreleased bonus tracks, and the band is on the road performing its breakthrough long-player from front to back.
For singer/guitarist Vaden Todd Lewis, it's hard to believe that it's been two decades since the band first committed Rubberneck to tape. "It doesn't feel like 20 years, until I look back at a photo of myself or video of me in the studio doing the record and I'm like, 'Who the hell is that kid?' But it still feels fresh," he says.
As a testament to that latter statement, you'll still occasionally hear "Possum Kingdom" on the radio today. The song sounds like an evil version of early Cheap Trick, like the "Dream Police" has turned into a nightmare and Mommy and Daddy are definitely not all right. "I've gotten the [Cheap Trick singer] Robin Zander thing a few times in my life, and I'll take that," Lewis says of the comparison. "That's fine with me."
The song about an apparent lunatic, who will "not be a gentleman, behind the boathouse" and repeatedly asks Jesus for help, remains for the most part a mystery. He's either a rapist or killer or both and a likely candidate for Dexter's kill table, but what exactly happens in the song is unclear, in the grand tradition of Bobbie Gentry's classic late '60s hit "Ode to Billie Joe."
"I've kept it under wraps for a very long time, because as soon as the record came out, I started hearing people talk about what it meant to them and it was always a better story than I thought my story was," Lewis says about the song's outcome. "I never wanted to correct anyone. I just wanted to them to have their own stories."
However, that all changed with the 20th anniversary of Rubberneck approaching. Toadies guitar player Clark Vogeler, who replaced Darrel Herbert in 1996 and didn't play on the album, put together some footage from the Rubberneck sessions and interviewed his bandmate to get the stories behind the songs in a documentary called Dark Secrets — The Stories of Rubberneck, which the band has posted on YouTube. "I call it a dream-killer of a documentary," Lewis says. "If you want to keep your blinders on and have the song be about what you want to be about, then don't watch the documentary."
Rubberneck is filled with other similar twisted tales, making for an unsettling listening experience. "I never really considered it that dark of a record until years later, when I was older and I listened back to it, kind of felt, 'Yeah, that's a pretty dark record.' At the time, I just thought it was rock 'n' roll," Lewis says.
Back in 1994, that song and the album connected with fans. "Possum Kingdom" cracked to the top 10 of the Mainstream and Modern Rock charts, while Rubberneck topped Billboard's Heatseekers new artist chart.
Despite that success, the Toadies had a heck of a time following up that effort. "I kind of had the working model that the first album won't be successful and they'll probably drop you, but if they don't, then we'll try to make it with the second record or third record," Lewis says, pointing to a number of classic bands that didn't breakthrough on their first album. "When our first one was big, I thought we could just do what we want on the second album, but I was wrong. I wound up doing it anyway, but it was an uphill battle."
As Lewis tells it, the band toured way too long in support of Rubberneck. "We were all burned out and exhausted from touring," he recalls. "We toured to the point where I came home and put all my stuff in storage and if we had any time off, I'd come home to Dallas-Ft. Worth and just stay in a hotel and hang out for a few days. I was never home long enough to have a home."
After years of touring, the band went back into the studio with producer Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers, but the album, titled Feeler, was rejected by Interscope after the band got caught in the middle in a feud between its management and the label.
After Feeler was shelved, the band regrouped and eventually got back together to record Hell Below/Stars Above with Rubberneck producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, known for their work with Beck, Elliott Smith, and others. In fact, the production team suggested that Smith play piano on the title track. "They were finishing up a project with him in the same studio complex, so we were hanging out with him and knew him," Lewis recalls. "We needed some keys so someone suggested Elliott, so he walked down the hall and played with us for awhile. We were very fortunate to spend some time with him."
Despite the effort, the band found touring a rough road when it went out in support of the album. "We had been in hiatus for a while writing, so it was difficult and we had the usual label difficulties, and the crowds were a little smaller than we had hoped," Lewis remembers. The final straw was bassist Lisa Umbarger's decision to quit, leading the Toadies to pack it in 2001.
For a stretch, Lewis decided to try his hand at carpentry, making bookshelves in his garage before he realized he was fooling himself. "I realized after a while that yeah, that was fun, but I'm a musician," he says.
In 2002, he formed the Burden Brothers with Reverend Horton Heat drummer Taz Bentley and guitarist Casey Hess, and released a few albums and toured. With the Burden Brothers taking a break, Lewis began writing new material, and when he realized it sounded like the Toadies, he decided to regroup with drummer Vogeler, drummer Mark Reznicek from the band's classic lineup, and a few bass players before settling on current bassist Doni Blair. Since the 2006 reunion, the band has released several albums, including a re-recorded version of Feeler.
The band also holds its annual multi-band Dia de Los Toadies festival in Texas and recently teamed with fellow Texans at Martin House Brewing to create their own beer, Rubberneck Red. "It's pretty damn cool," Lewis says. "And it's good, too."
Maybe so, but we suggest keeping that stuff away from the creepy guy behind the boathouse. He's already up to no good.