In the summer of 1996, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing the Toadies’ song “Possum Kingdom.” If you watched MTV’s ode to slacker degeneracy, Beavis & Butt-Head, you know how the two headbangers groaned with delight when “Possum Kingdom” popped onto their television set. By December, two years after their debut album, Rubberneck, was released on Interscope Records, it went platinum. The Toadies were on that rocketing roller coaster to the top of the pop world when they entered the studio to record a second album, Feeler. But before the band even got their songs to the mixing board, the record company pulled the plug.
At the time, the Toadies were huge. They had launched from a North Texas music scene that was relishing the bliss of late-1980s, early-1990s success, with bands like the Old 97’s and Tripping Daisy following on the earlier success of the New Bohemians. In fact, the Toadies found mainstream penetration that far exceeded their peers. Feeler was supposed to build on that. But almost everything about that follow-up album got messed up a dozen years ago.
“We spent a ton of money because you can’t do anything cheap on a major label. You just can’t—it’s against the rules,” says Vaden Todd Lewis, singer and guitarist. When Lewis speaks about Feeler, he has an honest straightforwardness reminiscent of the music he writes, a brand of brash hard rock that was once lumped into a now dated-sounding subgenre, “post-grunge.” “Plus, the recording process itself didn’t come out as good as we wanted. The performances were not quite as jazzed as they could have been. But it’s hard to tell because it never got mixed, it never got finalized.”
A band solidifies long-term success with its second album. Sure, some acts (most famously U2) have been able to overcome the “sophomore slump.” For most bands, however, the sophomore slump is simply called “the last album.” So you can imagine how Lewis felt when his record label didn’t even let the band finish its second album. Disappointment doesn’t quite say it. Lewis was pissed off.
Not long after the failed Feeler sessions, the Toadies drifted apart. “Feeler didn’t help. It was stressful as hell,” Lewis says. A third album, Hell Below/Stars Above, was recorded, but didn’t find success. Touring that album in 2001, there was infighting, bassist Lisa Umbarger quit the band, and the tour was canceled. The Toadies were no more.
Lewis, however, didn’t forget Feeler. “The songs I wrote for Feeler, I was trying to push my boundaries as an artist and not get stagnant,” he says. The band got back together for a concert organized by the Dallas Observer in 2006. In 2007, the group made the reunion official. Lewis knew what they had to do: finish Feeler. The band had a new label, Dallas-based independent Kirtland Records. They were older, had been through other bands, had seen more life, and, out of the limelight, the pressure was off. Finishing Feeler was no longer about sustaining a meteoric launch into the mainstream. It was simply about the brute resolve to finish what they had started.
But there was a problem. Even though they had no interest in doing anything with the material, Interscope Records wouldn’t sell the band its own master tapes. “We’ve gone to Interscope for the last several years offering to buy the records, and they just don’t give a damn,” Lewis says. “They wouldn’t let us have control of it.”
Interscope’s refusal to part with Feeler represented almost out-of-date major label aggressiveness. Since the original Feeler sessions, the music industry has changed dramatically. Major labels are no longer all-powerful, and they can’t wield complete control over the distribution. There is no better evidence of this than the fact that unfinished Feeler tracks leaked onto the internet, snatched up by Toadies fans looking for more material. That bothered Lewis—not because his fans had access to them, but because the music they were listening to wasn’t complete. There was only one option left. “We just decided to go ahead and re-record it ourselves,” he says.
This month, the Toadies will release its second album, a whopping 16 years after the band’s debut. Lewis says the band has brought much to the new version of Feeler, so the record has become more than just completing unfinished business. “This stuff sounds pretty relevant to me,” he says.
The question of relevance is always on musicians’ minds. “We’ve been away for a lot of time, and pop culture has a short attention span,” Lewis says. But that time away has played to the Toadies’ favor. With the release of Feeler there is no fear of failure, no threat of losing a record deal. The years have proven that the Toadies’ core fans will remain loyal. All that is left is to try to make the best music they can.
“I don’t want to be writing ‘Possum Kingdom’ over and over again. It would be an easy rut to fall into because people like that song,” Lewis says. “But I didn’t want to be that guy."
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