November 9, 1995 * Vol. 5, No. 34
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
"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
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
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 meansit's the opossum connection."
© Metro Pulse