Less than thirty days before his band’s new album was set to hit stores, Vaden Todd Lewis of the Toadies was holed up in his Fort Worth living room listening to the most recent version closely for imperfections. With his stamp of approval, the album will be manufactured and shipped just in time for a July 31 release.
“There was a lot of pressure to listen to the masters, but I was bummed for a bit because I was working while my daughter was in the other room playing,” said Lewis, who has been the Toadies’ singer and bandleader since they began in Fort Worth in 1989. “At the same time, I’m sitting at home listening to loud music. That’s me working. Every time I realize I get to do this for a living, I just grin.”
Lewis has not always been known for smiling. In fact, if you watched MTV in the mid-’90s, you probably remember the intensity with which he asked “Do you wanna die?” in the video for the band’s biggest hit, “Possum Kingdom.”
The Toadies are not a particularly prolific band—in 23 years together, this will only be their fifth studio album. The album—called Play. Rock. Music.—was not even supposed to be made. After recording in Austin last spring for what they thought would be a three- or four-song EP, Lewis enjoyed the process so much he decided they would keep recording until they had a full record.
“Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, we’d already announced a release date for the EP and decided to keep the date for the full album,” Lewis said. “We had two songs for sale on iTunes before I’d even finished writing the record. Who does that? But it wound up forcing us to get in there and make something happen.”
He said he felt a sense of freedom recording Play. Rock. Music. that he has not had since recording the band’s major label debut, 1994’s platinum-selling Rubberneck. At the time they recorded that album, Lewis was working as a clerk at a Sound Warehouse in Fort Worth. “Our expectations were low,” he said of the deal. “I looked at the whole scenario like I’d tricked them into letting me make a record. I figured we’d do what we could get away with and then they’ll drop me and I’ll get to go back to work in the store. The downside was that after touring for a year and seeing our crowds grow into thousands of people, I wasn’t really sure how to handle that.”
The commercial success of “Possum Kingdom” was not part of the band’s “long-term plan,” according to Lewis. A modern murder ballad named after the North Texas lake, the song is still a modern rock radio staple nationwide and earned a second life in 2007 when it became a playable track in the Guitar Hero II game for XBox.
“In retrospect, I did everything I could do to not make that a radio song,” Lewis said. “I wrote it without a chorus. I never say the name of the song. To me, that’s a very self-defeatist approach to a hit song.”
Although the success of “Possum Kingdom” threatened to make the Toadies a one-hit-wonder, the band quickly found itself facing bigger problems: its label, Interscope Records, rejected its second record and it took seven years to release a new set, Hell Below/Stars Above. Five months after that record’s release, the band announced its split. “It seemed like negativity was swirling all around us,” Lewis said. “And ultimately we decided it wasn’t worth dealing with.”
Less than six months after the Toadies broke up, Lewis formed the Burden Brothers with Taz Bentley, the Reverend Horton Heat drummer, and released two records. But in 2006 a Toadies reunion show in Dallas sparked the notion that the band had unfinished business, even if Lewis, once again, had low expectations. “I figured the ship had sailed,” Lewis said. “I just wanted to hang with my buddies again and make a record.”
In 2008, the band released a set of new material, No Deliverance, for Dallas-based Kirtland Records and followed it with an album of re-recorded versions of the sophomore album tracks Interscope had rejected.
To Lewis, Play. Rock. Music. marks the end of the band’s comeback period and the start of a new beginning, a chance to craft the band’s most forward-thinking set yet — an album that broadens the band’s trademark fusion of loud guitars, Texas boogie beats, and anguished vocals.
“I wanted to throw some curveballs, whether it’s an odd time signature or a really poppy hook,” Lewis said.
Later this month, the Toadies will support the new record by embarking on a summer-long co-headlining tour with Helmet, their former labelmates. Although the bands share fans from their parallel ascent during the ’90s, Lewis is adamant it is not a nostalgia tour.
“I feel a responsibility not to let this band drown in the past,” he said. “I hope making new music is the way to do that.”