On August 23rd, The Toadies major label début Rubberneck turns 20 years old, but the band is celebrating its 20th anniversary milestone all year-long.
The band released a remastered reissue of the alt-rock classic (Kirtland Records), which contains bonus tracks. They even have their signature Rubberneck Red Beer. And they’re playing the album in its entirety on their 2014 Rubberneck tour.
I recently spoke to Toadies bassist Doni Blair. We discussed the album’s legacy, the alternative rock scene in the Dallas/Fort Worth area that spawned the band, and the group’s upcoming Dia De Los Toadies music festival (now in its seventh year).
So you’re getting ready to head out for more Rubberneck tour dates. How’s the reception been so far?
Fantastic. We were very happy with that outcome. Like Seattle, Chicago, LA, NY, Boston, and Detroit…all the major cities…it’d be sold out. We’d come out and do Rubberneck first, then we go into another 45 minutes of other material. We were hoping that people would stick around after they heard all of Rubberneck, and everybody stayed. Like in Philadelphia I saw teenage girls, 15-16 who knew every song. Not just Rubberneck, but like deep cuts. So it’s been that plus people our age or even older who’re coming to see us for the first time, so we’re very happy with the outcome of it.
So has it been fun revisiting the album and playing in its entirety? Not just the hits that you guys always play, but other album tracks that haven’t been played live as much in the past?
It is. It’s been fun to just play them in order. And we don’t have to worry about the setlist, at least we know the first part pretty damn well (laugh). The one thing we’ve done that I’m really happy about is that you’ll see bands that’ll say “we’re playing this whole classic album in its entirety the way it was done and whatever”, but then they’ll change the key, because the singer can’t sing it in that key; they’ll change the tones…crap like that. So for a fan like me, I want to hear the songs at the tempo I’ve heard them on the record. I want to hear them in that key…so we went over every song with a fine-toothed comb in rehearsals for the tour and made sure we were playing it to tempo.
Even small little guitar things or bass things or drum things, We we’re calling each other out on stuff like “you didn’t do it like that on the record.” Because we’ve added certain things to the songs over the years, little embellishments, and we’re going to have to drop those because it’s not on the record. And we also have a singer who can still sing everything as he used to 20 years ago and even better, so we have that going for us. There’s no stopping that guy.
Totally. You used to play in Hagfish, and I grew up in Fort Worth, and there was such a great alt-rock scene in the late 80’s, early 90’s at places like Mad Hatters and the Axis Club. Bands like The Toadies, Course Of Empire, Hagfish, Tripping Daisy, etc. Now that you’re in the Toadies, when you look back on that era, did you feel more competition with bands like that or more camaraderie? How did it feel to be in that scene?
Camaraderie. Definitely. I felt inspired by all those bands. And now I’m speaking for Hagfish, we were inspired by listening to The Toadies, Course Of Empire, Tripping Daisy, Bobgoblin, Rev. Horton Heat and Brutal Juice and bands like that, that inspired us more than bigger bands since they were our friends. And they were making really good records. They were all touring the world. So it inspired us to see that.
And it’s not like anybody made crappy music; they were all really good quality records. Course of Empire did not put out a bad record. Neither did the Toadies. And you also want to bring (Toadies guitarist) Clark (Vogeler) into this as well with (his former band) Funland. They made amazing records. Someone really needs to document that whole DFW/Denton scene from the 80’s and 90’s, because it was just insane the quality of music that came out, but none of it sounds alike. And I think that’s a reason that scene never popped you know?
There were so many bands that were on major labels and touring, but there wasn’t like a Seattle sound or anything like that. Everybody sounded different so no one could really peg that scene. But we looked up to the Toadies back then. Hagfish played one of its first shows in Deep Ellum opening for the Toadies, to like 20 people. But we didn’t care cause we were playing with the Toadies you know (laughing)? We were stoked.
Rubberneck is 20 years old, which feels crazy to me. I was curious since you weren’t playing in the band back then, what was your reaction when you heard it for the first time? Did it impact you personally?
Oh it blew our minds. We also had Velvet: that tape they put out years ago…we had that and we had Dig a Hole/Hope You Die, and then when Pleather came out, that was my birthday present that year. And we would go see them every chance we had. My brother and I drove from Plano to Ft Worth to see them open up for Wool at Mad Hatters and that blew our minds. I mean we were big fans. And so when that album came out, for Hagfish it was a constant van CD, we constantly listened to it. I had it in my cd case forever; when my wife and I would go on trips, we would listen to it so it was just constant. And now I know it back and forth but I already knew it back and forth at that point. It was like “wow, this thing is amazing”. Fantastic record.
And now that you’re playing it in its entirety, are there any songs that proved challenging to the band, or did it all come back pretty easily?
Well of course that aren’t many surprises, and it is a lot easier, because we’re older, and we know how to play better than we did back then. It was all brute force and energy back then. And now we know how to do the exact same things without just gritting our teeth. But you can’t tell that by looking at Vaden though, because he still does the scream from Velvet perfect and his face still goes purple when he does it so (laughing). The level of difficulty comes from us trying to play it correctly, and not just play it well. Does that make any sense?
Yeah, just trying to get the right vibe that the songs had initially.
Exactly. We want to play it right. We don’t want to play it perfect (laughing). We don’t want to slow it down or speed it up so that’s where the difficulty comes in. Cause everyone out there has heard the bass breakdown to Away. Well I’ve got to play it correctly. I’ve got to play it the way that Lisa (Umbarger) played it on the record. So there’s a level of difficulty with that; trying to remember that and play it correctly so that everyone will recognize it for what it is. And we know them well after playing the record every night for 4 months, but it’s still fresh because we’re still trying to remember those things. Because we want to get it right for people who love that record you know?
And you also have the Dia De Los Toadies Festival coming up in September. Do you all choose who those supporting bands will be together? How do you decide on which supporting acts will be on the festival?
We just kind of start throwing band names out, and start casting a wide net. We’ve had a good amount of different bands on. We’ve had Helmet play with us in years past, or Riverboat Gamblers, or Mariachi El Bronx. And this year we’ve got a great lineup of bands we wanted to see. Last year Baboon played. We’ve got this great band from Austin called Residual Kid that are playing.They’re awesome. I think they’re all like 15 or 16. They’re destruction. We got them and we’re really stoked about them. UME, you know, Old 97’s. It’s going to rip. They’re the kind of bands that we want to see. We’ve been pitched bigger TX bands that would be great draws, but we haven’t been interested (laughs).
The point of it is not to to just get a humongous crowd; the point of it has been bands we like and want to play with. So if they’re bands on there, they’re bands that we chose personally. And we want to turn other people on to these bands so it’s been like “hey, use our crowd to help out your band. You’re awesome, we think you’re great, and you deserve more fans, so here you go.” So we want to give back to really good bands that just go out there and really kill it you know. We just try to keep it very personal, and have the acts that we would like to listen to, and not crap we don’t want to listen to.
So will you be a playing a similar set where you’ll play Rubberneck back to back, and then do the other 45 minutes of material or will there be an entirely different set you’ll do for the festival?
We like to pull out extra stuff for that. We like to do cool covers, and we do two nights, and the first night is a lot more intimate…we do our songs but we screw with the arrangements. Like we’ll play Tyler, but Clark will play it on a Fender Rhodes piano and Vaden’s playing it on mandolin. And we strip everything down or we add stuff. And we decided last year since we’ve had so much fun doing that every year, that we’d do a record like that as well. So we’ve got a new record coming out next year like that with stripped down versions and I believe 3 new songs are on it that Vaden wrote. I was just telling someone else earlier that whenever we listen to it, we can’t get the smiles off of our faces.
Because it’s not just a rehash of our songs played acoustically…everything is done incredibly tasteful. And a lot of these songs the only thing you’ll recognize are the lyrics (laughing). I was playing our alternate version of Tyler to a good friend of mine, and he said, “What I love about this, is I know every lyric on this song, but I do not know what’s coming up next.” And I love that. So we’re incredibly happy with it and we’re probably playing a couple from that on the first night of Dias this year.
Then the next day we’ll the do the big rock show blowout thing, and we’ll throw out some cool covers, some deep cuts, have some guests on, and we just like to make it fun, do stuff that we normally wouldn’t do while on tour, save all the special things for that night. Cause it’s our festival, so we can kind of do what we want!
You were talking about having the Pleather cassette; do you ever try to get the band to dig out earlier material to play live? I remember way back when that the band decided not to play I Hope You Die anymore. Do you ever try to get them to play older songs like that?
We did Dig a Hole a couple of years into Dias. And last year he finally listened to me and did Ruth. And my brother Zack (Hagfish guitarist) came up and did that one with us. Whenever he’s in town we try to get him up to play songs with us cause it’s just fun. He does Get Low from Play.Rock.Music with us a lot, and just let Vaden sing, and Vaden’s like “here, take the guitar” (laughing). Zack has done Velvet, and we’ve done Ruth, which was just awesome. It’s one of my favorite Toadies songs.
There’s stuff that hasn’t been released that I’ve been pushing for us to play live, But I’m all about a lot of the other things, like let’s play Ruth, let’s play Run In with Dad. So Clark and I are big champions of playing a lot of songs like that, you know, cause we weren’t there when they were getting written, so we have to talk the other two into doing them. Cause those are songs we love.
It’s probably good for the band to have that dynamic, to have musicians that are fresher to the earlier material.
It is, cause they see it through different eyes, and they’re like “oh, oh yeah you’re right!” And sometimes Vaden will go “let’s do this song”. Cause he does solo shows as well, and he started doing Heart of Glass by Blondie. And he showed it to us, we worked it up, and we’ve been playing that every night. And it’s awesome cause we do the intro, and go into the song, and you can’t tell what it is until he starts singing the lyrics and then you can see the look on people’s faces go “Oh!” He has a good knack for that.
I was actually going to touch on that, because I heard it recently on Lithium Sirius XM, and I really dug it. Did he give a reason for what inspired that choice of cover?
I think he was driving in his car and heard it on the radio and went “Oh this would be fun” and it was just one of those things that spoke to him at that minute in time, and he went home and worked it up for his solo shows and it started working out for him really well so he thought this would be great for us to do and it has been. We’ve been playing it live and people are really taking to it. It’s been a highlight of the set every night to see people get into it and get really happy when we play it. Cause they don’t expect it, like ‘Toadies doing a Blondie cover?”
Earlier you were saying you’re seeing younger people singing the songs who weren’t around when Rubberneck came out. Why do you think that album has held up so well, and still feels so fresh and vibrant?
I think that’s because we’re all huge AC/DC fans. And I think when they made that record they wanted to make basically an AC/DC record; left guitar, right guitar, bass and drums in the middle. Just a good rock record. And I think the reason people love it is that it doesn’t sound dated. Some records made in certain periods of time have not held up; they sound like the decade they were made in. Like a lot of 90’s records have not held up well because of the production value. And I think sonically that’s why it’s a good listen, but also, there’s just not a weak song on that record. You blow through it because it’s just strong song after strong song. And those records tend to just last regardless of the hits that were on it. The other songs are equally strong, equally as good. Like Mr. Love, it wasn’t a hit but everybody knows it. I think they just wrote a really great classic rock record.
You were talking about seeing the Toadies open for Wool at Mad Hatter’s. I was at that show too, and it was so great. I saw that documentary Dark Secrets: The Stories of Rubberneck where Vaden talked about using Wool’s producer because they liked their sound, which I found interesting.
Wool’s producer Rob Schnapf is our producer, that’s one of the reason Toadies wanted him to do Rubberneck is because he’s just a really good producer. I mean he’ll take one line you got of music and extrapolate upon it infinitely and give you all these amazing ideas. But they were just huge Wool fans so that’s why they got Rob. Also Wool was the reason that Hagfish went with London records is because they were on there. We were like “it’s good enough for Wool, it’s good enough for us!” (Laughs) So that’s the correlation with them.
Click here to see where Wool and Course of Empire rank on our list of 40 Bands Who Should Have Been Bigger
So you mentioned the upcoming Toadies album of different arrangements of well-known songs. Are you guys working on some original material as well?
Yeah, Vaden’s been writing riffs, and I think he’s pretty much charged musically. We were messing with stuff at soundchecks on the last tour and just recording bits and pieces and seeing where it lies. And it’s all up to him so he’s like “this will work or this can’t work”. Cause you’ll give him one piece of music and he’ll take it and make it way cooler. It’s like “Oh, Todd, thanks for taking my music I really like and making it better than I could have. Thanks, thanks a lot (laughing)!”
Cause he’ll listen to it and go “what about this?” And I’m like “oh, well all right; I wish I would have thought of that” (Laughing). But that’s a good problem to have. Soundchecks get old doing the same thing every night, so it’s like “hey, let’s write some new riffs” and it’s really cool sounding stuff already. Now what all that will turn into? You probably have a better idea then me (laughing). So I hope that we pull something together next year.
So once you wrap up this leg of the tour and then Dia, will that pretty much be it for the Rubberneck stuff or will you be extending it further?
We haven’t made a decision yet, but that’s a good question. First I think we’re going to just come home for a long time and recharge our batteries. We’ve been pretty much hitting it since early March with just a couple of weeks off here and there, so we haven’t really had a good break. And then we’re going to figure out what our plans will be next year for the other record and touring and stuff like that. I imagine we’ll be playing shows and be staying fairly busy.
Many thanks to Doni Blair for taking time out to do this interview. Click here to get tickets for the Rubberneck 20th anniversary tour, and click here for Dias De Los Toadies info. And you can order the 20th ann. reissue in various formats by clicking here.