Sorry, there are no Toadies, Helmet dates.
"There's a certain uneasiness to the Toadies," says Vaden Todd Lewis, succinctly and accurately describing his band - quite a trick. The Texas band is, at its core, just a raw, commanding rock band. Imagine an ebony sphere with a corona that radiates impossibly darker, and a brilliant circular sliver of light around that. It's nebulous, but strangely distinct - and, shall we say incorrect. Or, as Lewis says, "wrong."
"Things are done a little askew [in the Toadies]," he says, searching for the right words. "There's just something wrong with it that's just really cool...and unique in a slightly uncomfortable way."
This sick, twisted essence was first exemplified on the band's 1994 debut, Rubberneck (Interscope). An intense, swirling vortex of guitar rock built around Lewis's "wrong" songs - like the smash single "Possum Kingdom," subject to as much speculation as what's in the Pulp Fiction briefcase, it rocketed to platinum status on the strength of that and two other singles, "Tyler" and "Away." Its success was due to the Toadies' organic sound and all- encompassing style, which they aimed to continue on their next album.
Perhaps in keeping with the uneasy vibe, that success didn't translate to label support when the Toadies submitted their second album, Feeler. Perhaps aptly, things in general just went wrong. It was the classic, cruel story: the label didn't 'get' it. "These were the songs we played live," says Rez. "It was pretty eclectic...different styles of heavy rock music - some fast, heavy punk rock songs and some slower, kinda mid-tempo stuff. I've never really been able to figure out what the beef was."
"We got approval for a record," says Lewis, "and somewhere in the process of handing over the masters to get mixed, it got unapproved. So we went back to the drawing board."
Eventually some of the Feeler tracks made it onto Hell Below/Stars Above - a sophomore offering that came seven years after Rubberneck. "It was a very weird, trying time," says Lewis, who didn't see the next blow - the sudden departure of bassist Lisa Umbarger - coming. "We went out on tour, and immediately the band split up," he laughs sardonically. "We kinda shot ourselves in the foot." They released a live album, Best of Toadies: Live from Paradise, and it was over.
Coming out of the Toadies, Lewis, guitarist Clark Vogeler and drummer Mark Reznicek were disillusioned. Vogeler went to work as a film editor, Rez hooked up with the country-western band Eleven Hundred Springs. Lewis initially thought, "Fuck this whole business. I'm gettin' out. I just wanted to do anything else."
Toadies fans, though accepting, stuck with them, often inquiring as to the band's activities. Says Lewis, "People just asked me "So, what are you doin' now?" Although he'd been "foolin' around" with Rev. Horton Heat drummer Taz Bentley, he answered, "I don't know. Nothin'. This, that and the other. Workin' around the house, workin' in the garage, just toolin' around." Soon it occurred to him that music was all he wanted to do. "I'm a musician. That's what I do, and I'm not happy not doing it."
Lewis and Bentley formed the Burden Brothers in 2002 and released a slew of EPs, two albums and a DVD while touring profusely. "I took some of the lessons I learned in the business and took off with that band," says Lewis, "and tried to apply that knowledge." That's how he wound up with Texas indie label Kirtland Records.
Meantime, "Possum Kingdom" never left the airwaves, enjoying constant rotation at major modern rock stations. Fans clamored for a Toadies reunion, which Lewis, Vogeler and Reznicek discovered wasn't such a remote possibility. "The band never went all the way away;" says Lewis. They regrouped in 2006 for a couple of sold-out shows around St. Patrick's Day, and again the next year for the same thing. In August 2007, when personnel changes with the Burden Brothers resulted in that band going on hiatus, Lewis began writing.
"I was pissed off again and wanted to keep goin'," he says. "I didn't know what I was writing, right out of the gate, but...it was just coming out very "Toadies."
Lewis called Rez and Vogeler and asked if they were interested in making another record. They were - and the Toadies officially reconvened, signing with Kirtland and recording No Deliverance with David Castell (Burden Brothers, Blue October) at Fort Worth Sound in Fort Worth, and Music Lane in Austin. Lewis says the band has gone for a "bare knuckle" sound, amping up the psychotic stomp heard on Rubberneck and Hell Below...on the grinding, relentless title track as well as the seething, death-of-a-romance gem "So Long Lovey Eyes" and the towering, sludgy "Man of Stone." The upshot is a taut, exhilarating listen that is quintessentially Toadies. Lewis is stoked on "the freshness of this new record. I wrote it between first week of August and, what? About a month ago. Getting back into this, back into the feel of the Toadies, is cool. Lewis, Rez, Vogeler and new bass player Doni Blair (Hagfish, Only Crime) are optimistic that their indie incarnation will succeed, thanks to the support of their devout fans - and equally supportive label. "The music industry has changed so much," says Vogeler. "A band like us can be on an independent label and still get the music out to the people who want to hear it."
The Toadies are now free to pursue success on their own merit and muscle. And things are starting off nicely: On August 2, The Toadies will play Lollapalooza and, following the album's release, they'll embark on a nationwide tour offering old fans and those to come - as he recently told SPIN, "Balls. A ton of balls."
"Getting back to the bare knuckles element of the Toadies," continues Lewis, "is what I really enjoy, after being away from it for so long." Vogeler and Rez concur. "I'm here and still doin' it," furthers Vogeler, "because the music's good." And Rez proclaims in his thick Texas drawl, "The Toadies are back in business."
And suddenly, everything wrong is right.
Seeing Eye Dog, Helmet’s seventh album, is one of the band’s most uncompromising and ambitious releases, embodying the classic and utterly unique Helmet sound and pushing it into regions the band has never before explored. One big reason for that spirit of musical adventure is the record is essentially self-released (through the Work Song label). “I just felt completely free to do whatever I wanted to do,” says frontman Page Hamilton. “It was really fun to make this record because I just felt this…freedom.”
Freedom can also arise from limitation, something Hamilton knows well–as ever, he insisted on having few overdubs and edits on Seeing Eye Dog. “This album is human and honest,” he declares. “People have always commented that we sound like our albums live, and our recording approach has a lot to do with that. Humans playing music will always be better than chop-shop rock.”
Besides Hamilton, the humans on Seeing Eye Dog include drummer Kyle Stevenson, who joined Helmet in 2006, guitarist Dan Beeman, who’s been on board since 2008, and long-time Helmet bassist Chris Traynor. (Dave Case is the band’s touring bassist.) The album was produced by Hamilton, with additional production by Toshi Kasai (Melvins) and vocal production by Mark Renk.
Some history: In 1989, Page Hamilton co-founded the New York-based Helmet, fusing Zeppelinesque riffing with a vehement post-hardcore precision, augmented by dense chords and offbeat time signatures based in Hamilton’s formal jazz training. The combination was that rarest of visionary creations–it was successful in its own time. After their 1990 debut album Strap It On (on revered indie label Amphetamine Reptile), Helmet unleashed the major label Meantime (1992), a widely acclaimed album that earned a Grammy nomination, went gold, and launched a thousand other bands. Betty followed in 1994, successfully branching out from the band’s ferocious attack and into more varied musical waters. (In 2010, Helmet issued via their website a digital-only deluxe version of Betty that includes 14 original album tracks plus five bonus tracks.) Another acclaimed album Aftertaste followed in 1997 and after nine years and thousands of shows, Helmet called it a day in 1998.
Hamilton went on to do soundtrack work for major Hollywood movies like Catwoman, S.W.A.T., Titus, and Saw, among others, formed the band Gandhi, and, following in the footsteps of greats like Adrian Belew and Stevie Ray Vaughan, played lead guitar in David Bowie’s band in 1999. In 2004 Hamilton restarted Helmet, releasing two acclaimed albums–Size Matters in 2004, Monochrome in 2006–and co-headlining the Warped Tour that year. Helmet did extensive US and European touring in 2009 in preparation for the new album.
Bands such as the Deftones, Rise Against, Pantera and Tool have all cited Helmet as an influence, and not just for Helmet’s blistering, aggro approach but for the band’s sheer musicality and brains. See, Helmet, among other things, is a work of art. Hamilton is a trained musician who happens to make heavy, brutal music, a guy who digs Bartok and Minor Threat. Which is why, as Seeing Eye Dogproves, Helmet is a surprisingly flexible concept.
“The Helmet musical vocabulary is well established at this point, but I continue to work on a variety of musical projects that inevitably influence the Helmet songs,” says Hamilton. “I’ve been working on movies with Elliott Goldenthal and co. for 17 years now and had never really experimented with incorporating these soundscapes (or shit sculpting as I prefer to call it) into Helmet songs. We had a much better recording situation in which I felt much less time pressure and was working with an engineer who was patient and very creative (Toshi Kasai), so away we went. I started layering upper parts of the chords and was digging the sound so I went with it.”
“So Long” and the title track embrace the classic Helmet approach: raging slabs of guitars, drill-sergeant vocals, drums like an expert beating, and guitar solos that scrawl hectic graffiti across the band’s monolithic attack. The lyrics, as Hamilton has said, spring from a combination of “comedy and disgust,” particularly in the scathing Welcome to Algiers and In Person.
But Seeing Eye Dog also finds Helmet pushing at its own boundaries–the grimly affecting White City, for instance, is as close to a ballad as Helmet has ever dared. LA Water sounds like a Beatlesque Helmet and later, And Your Bird Can Sing is a Helmetesque Beatles, with the band wielding the Fab Four’s standout Revolver track like a molten sledgehammer. The mostly instrumental Morphing, the luminous sound sculpture in the middle of the album, might seem unlike any other Helmet track, and yet it has the same monumental quality as the band’s most brutal work. (And if you hunger for Helmet in all its live glory, Seeing Eye Dog comes with a bonus disc, a blistering live set from the San Francisco stop on the 2006 Warped Tour.)
The freedom and adventurousness of Seeing Eye Dog (title via Ezra Pound, by the way) didn’t come out of nowhere. Hamilton encountered some record label interference in the past and vowed that it would never happen again. “After that, I said, I built this thing and this is the way it is,” Hamilton says. “Fortunately, those experiences ended up helping me maintain a singular attitude that’s really conducive to writing rock songs.”