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Vaden Todd Lewis on math, modulation and people expecting only "Possum Kingdom" can get over it already

The Toadies' "Hell in High Water" 

Vaden Todd Lewis on math, modulation and people expecting only "Possum Kingdom" can get over it already

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click to enlarge The Toadies, these days - PHOTO BY PETER MARINCE
  • Photo by Peter Marince
  • The Toadies, these days

Remembered by the mainstream as a one-hit wonder ("Possum Kingdom"), the Toadies cultivated a loyal following in the alternative rock scene for slash-and-burn guitars and Vaden Todd Lewis' untamed wails with Rubberneck. But Disputes with Interscope Records meant the Toadies didn't follow up with Hell Below/Stars Above until 2001 (seven years after its debut) and broke up shortly thereafter.

Reforming for a handful of reunion shows in 2006 and 2007 without original bassist Lisa Umbarger, the Toadies have reunited during Lewis' downtime with Burden Brothers to record and tour behind No Deliverance, again released seven years after its predecessor.

Conceived during an off-day studio jam session, Lewis envisions "Hell In High Water" as a follow-up track to the album's title track. The former references the latter, as both boogie down a Southern rock/ blues path paved by fellow Texans ZZ Top and share the story of Lewis' protagonist, a career-musician character (go figure, right?). "Hell In High Water" also makes lyrical nods to "No Deliverance."

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You've previously said you recorded No Deliverance with the Toadies because the material sounded like the Toadies and not the Burden Brothers, but "Hell In High Water" and other parts of it have more of a blues-rock feel than anything the Toadies have done before. Would you agree with that?

VADEN TODD LEWIS: That first quote was from when I was writing the record. I wasn't sure if I wanted to do another Burden Brothers record or a solo record or what. I hadn't even considered doing a Toadies record. I just started writing and it started going that way. So I called the guys to see if they'd be into it or if I needed to do something else with it, but I didn't know what. At any rate, they were into it.

Once we got [No Deliverance] written and went down to Austin and Fort Worth and started tracking it, we were listening to a whole lot of ZZ Top, just favorites of ours from childhood, so I think that kind of bled through in the recording and onto the record a little bit. I think that's where that blues feel comes from, to make a long story short.

Did you write "Hell In High Water" before you decided to get the Toadies back together or was this after everyone had agreed to get back together?

The Toadies did some reunion shows last year and the Burden Brothers were looking at time off starting in August of last year, and that's when I started writing this record. About eight or 10 songs, which in this case was two or three weeks, went into it. It just sounded very Toadies so I just called the guys and wanted to see if they wanted to do the record.

Was "Hell In High Water" one of those tunes you had written going into it?

No, that's actually the exception. The way most of the record worked, I would write demos at home and I would send them off to the guys and they would send me back notes or ideas, ideas on direction, whatever. Then I would finish the song and we would go into the studio and pretty much follow that pattern.

The way "Hell In High Water" worked was totally different: We got in the studio and started recording and realized we were ahead of schedule by two or three days. It was really weird. That's not acceptable, you know—you've got to be stressed, to be late. So we took two days off in the middle of the session. The bass rig was set up there because I was recording the bass while [Mark Reznicek] did the drums. The guitar was run into one of those amp simulator things just to get the feeling of someone playing along with you. We just got him to stick everything in the same room with all the mics still up, and we just started playing and that song came out in an afternoon.

We spent that evening moving it around on ProTools and screwing around with the arrangement, you know, all the stuff that I do at home, and I do with demos. Came in the next day, did some more arrangement changes, listened to it a few times, then went in and tracked it. It was a good collaboration between the three of us.

What's going on in the bridge?

This is something we've been screwing around with for a while. I've known Dave Castell, the producer, for a long time. He's done both Burden Brothers records as well as our live stuff. I've got a great relationship with him, so whenever we sit around and get drunk together, he'll just have these ideas. One of these ideas was on my birthday last year. He just leaned over and goes, "Modulation! You've got to modulate! ZZ Top modulated. You need modulation." So it goes up a whole step in the bridge. It's an old-school writing trick. I've done it a few times. I try to make up my own tricks rather than relying on old tricks. But we were sitting in the studio and we needed a bridge and I said, "Dave, we're going to do it, we're going to modulate," and it worked. [Laughs]

That's kind of a music geek answer, but that's the way it happened. Straight up old-school '60s approach to doing a bridge.

Lyrically, this song doesn't get too specific. Is it tied to something specific, a certain story or anything?

It's kind of just the way I write with the Toadies. Some of the stuff is drawn directly from my life and I like to veil it to make it as universal as I can. Other parts of it are just straight-up storytelling. It's probably about 50/50 on this record. If I sat and thought about it more, I could probably give you better math. But with the stuff that happened to me personally, whether it just happened or happened years ago, I would just get in the mood of it and experience it again and sit down and write a song and try to grab that moment. As far as the fictional stuff, a favorite pastime of mine forever has been making up a character and then putting him in a situation and seeing what happens, and that will usually lead to one to three songs. It's just a fun way to write.

Well, as far as "Hell In High Water," was that something you drew from experience?

It's a little of both. It's a sequel or a follow-up, I don't know what the word would be, but it follows the story line from "No Deliverance," the title track. It's stylistically very similar too, the swing beat and everything. It's faster, of course. But with "No Deliverance," I wrote that song—this is going to be kind of a stretch, and I don't know if this makes sense to people or not—but I wrote about the experience I had after the Toadies broke up and I had quit the business. I didn't want to be in the business at all and inevitably after five or six months of not doing anything and being bored, I realized that I'm bored because I need to do music and that's what I do. I realized that I'm a musician, this is something that I love, and sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it's a huge pain in the ass, but I love doing it and I'm gonna do it.

Once I realized that, it's kind of a scary endeavor to get back into it with all the knowledge of what you just went through. So that's what, literally, the words of "No Deliverance" are about. I just had a little fun with "Hell In High Water" and took that character now that he made that acceptance, and now he wants to bring somebody in to have some fun with him.

I definitely see the lyrical nods there as far as the waves.

Sure, yeah.

That wasn't a pre-planned thing, then, since you wrote "Hell In High Water" during the sessions, right? I assume "No Deliverance" was written before that.

No, not at all. "No Deliverance" was written right before we went into the studio and "Hell In High Water" was written on-the-fly in the studio. We tried to keep the whole thing like that. We had the budget we needed and we had all the gear and everything, but we tried to keep it as on-the-go as possible. We wanted the record to sound very stripped down and minimal. I think we accomplished that, but a big part of that was keeping things going. If you don't take a lot of time to ponder what you just did, it kind of frees you up. It frees me up anyway, to say, "OK, that's down, it sounds good. Let's move on." Sometimes it's a couple days later when I realize that I wrote that or that lyric means what it means. It worked out really well. It's the same way we did Rubberneck and the way I did the first Burden Brothers record, too. Just get in there, nail it and don't second-guess yourself. It really has that immediacy to it.

Have you guys been playing "Hell In High Water" live much this tour? How's the crowd responding to it, with it being a little out of the normal Toadies sound?

I've been surprised. A lot of these songs that I know are the first time we're playing them in that market, people just really get into it. "Hell In High Water" has such an immediate grab to it, it's got that "Oh shit, here we go" type of vibe, so people have really been getting into it. I guess that's part of it.

If you've ever seen the Toadies before, you probably would know to expect to be surprised. I don't mean to sound pretentious, but people think they're gonna come in and hear an hour and a half of "Possum Kingdom" and that's just... We've got a lot of influences and a lot of ground to cover. Basically, this band sets up as two guitars, bass, drums and vocals. There's only X amount of things you can do, so we're gonna see how many fucking things we can do with those limitations. I wanted to capture what the Toadies were about, but I didn't want to repeat myself.

The Toadies, People in Planes and Boxbomb play Cat's Cradle Friday, Nov. 14, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $13-$15.

  • Vaden Todd Lewis on math, modulation and people expecting only "Possum Kingdom" can get over it already

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