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November 9, 1995 * Vol. 5, No. 34

All Thumbs

How local "all-star" trio Opposable Thumbs just sort of fell into place

by Randall Brown

The way the Opposable Thumbs tell the story, it's all just an accident. They were just sort of standing around last year and unwittingly became a band, as if they'd all eaten at the same bad restaurant and came down with the same case of gas. Lucky for us, the sounds they expel make for a rockin' good time, and the band is a bona fide "thing." In just over a year since their initial "accident," they've plugged firmly into the Internet and already have a number one radio hit (sort of), plagiarist imitators (sort of), and worldwide recognition (sort of). And then there's the Loudon Wainwright III tribute album. But more on that later.

It all started when ex-Smokin' Dave singer/guitarist and local-hero-of-all-trades Todd "Toddzilla" Steed returned to the United States from a teaching stint in Lithuania, itching to write and play some new songs. He landed a gig opening for the Cheeksters, and jammed live with the Cheeksters rhythm section, drummer David "Skank" Jenkins and bassist Paul "Super-Apple" Noe (who were also experiencing the waning days of that little outfit called the Judybats). Instead of the standard blues-improv, however, Steed led them into musical left field.

"I remember," says Jenkins, "being very angry at Todd, saying 'We're up here doing just a quick jam, why is he playing in 6/8?'"

Steed shrugs. "I didn't know it was in 6/8."

Intrigued by Steed's off-beat audacity, Jenkins invited him over to his Disgraceland Studios to record with himself and Noe.

"Dave and I had always been Smokin' Dave fans," says Noe.

"And so had I," admits Steed. "It was a weird coincidence."

By the end of the day, they'd recorded half of an album (God's Autograph, available in cassette form at fine stores near you) and had their Opposable Thumbs stuck out, looking for a ride.

"We were a band against our own will," says Steed. "Then we just started playing gigs. There was never a point where someone said 'Let's start a band."

"The Thumbs are all about rockin' and rollin'," says Jenkins, "not really thinking about it."

"This is Zen rock in its base form," brags Steed. "This band has the least consciousness of any band in town, and I think it shows."

Conscious enough to pass on early name ideas like "Happy Playtime Boys," the Opposable Thumbs combine Steed's famously clever songwriting ability with straightforward guitar rock, hard-edged and upbeat. Jenkins and Noe make up a powerful and efficient tag-team rhythm machine. Far from being mechanical, however, they inject the music with earnest energy. Steed's music and vocals (through the vehicles of Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes, his old persona Johnny Stank and his current Toddzilla solo appearances) have always been charged with vitality and poetic gusto, and he hasn't lost his touch at all. The new sound, to borrow a phrase I picked up from a British rock magazine, rocks like a bastard.

"God's Autograph is the loud obnoxious rock record I have been wanting to make since I was 16," says Steed. "I am glad I didn't do it when I was 16, 'cause it would have blown chunks."

Steed's lyrics, the shining centerpiece of the Thumbs' mystique, cover as wide a range of topics as ever. "John Ward," the band's homage to UT's respected sports commentator, debuted on an AM talk radio sports show a few months ago, making it the de facto number one song on talk radio.

"Every other band does the trendy little college station," says Steed. "But how many get on talk radio?"

Then there's the travelogue piece "Stenga 5," the roots of which ring with the Thumbs' accidental, yin-yang attitude. On his last adventure in Africa, Steed took an excursion on the boat Stenga 5, piloted by a fellow named Bothselso, whose name means "life." Bothselso's partner, on the other hand, was named Dhalasupeli.

"Which means 'you never know when you are going to die,'" says Steed, amused by the irony.

Accidents and irony certainly abound with the Opposable Thumbs. Steed has been plagued of late with the confusion caused by a local "modern rock" DJ's appropriation of Steed's stage name.

"That lame disc jockey," says Steed, steaming. "If I came into a town and there was somebody named Toddzilla already, I would think about using a different name. About once a week someone comes up to me and says 'I heard you on the radio, it's not as funny as your tape.' I mean, who is this Yankee?"

Perhaps most exemplary of band's sense of irony, though, is that for all their raw rock energy, they are "plugged in" to the quasi-high tech world of the Internet. The World Wide Web connection has had mixed results. On the up side, the Thumbs have an electronic mailing list ([email protected]), and they've received e-mail queries from music fans as far away as Greece. They also landed a spot on the upcoming Loudon Wainwright III tribute album, performing the song "Red Guitar," after Steed met the project's coordinator online.

Back on the more Zen side of things, one of Steed's initial web searches of the phrase "Opposable Thumbs" led him to the Opossum Home Page.

"Opossums and humans are the only two animals with opposable thumbs," explains Steed, "which ties it all back to East Tennessee. So now we know what that name means—it's the opossum connection."

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