Cosmic country six-piece Toadvine bellies up to the bar on new EP

Members of the Bascinets and the Roof Dogs join forces for another batch of rowdy, roots-leaning songs.
Toadvine
ToadvineCourtesy the band

Tristan Huygen and Jesse Cheshire knew one another from living and making music in Columbus – Huygen with the Bascinets and Cheshire with the Roof Dogs. But the two never actually collaborated until both landed in Chicago in 2019, just months before the pandemic left everyone on temporary lockdown.

In this downtime, the musicians bonded over a shared love of early country-rock and Americana, playing covers and tooling around with roots-leaning originals, citing the likes of Gram Parsons as a particular influence. Gradually, more musicians joined the fold, including Andrew Marczak, also of the Roof Dogs, and pedal steel player Scott William, with the mutating country collective branding itself Toadvine and releasing its self-titled debut EP in November 2020. More lineup changes followed, and then a second EP, dubbed Toadvine II, which surfaced digitally earlier this month.

The band’s newest effort maintains the shaggy charms of its predecessor, the musicians leaning into plain-spoken, occasionally noisy songs steeped in suffering and salvation, both of which tend to arrive via the bottle. “Open the wine and grab a glass,” the band sings on album kick-off “Open the Wine.” “I’m feeling good, and I hope it lasts.”

Newsflash: It doesn’t.

Two songs later, the band stumbles into a bleary-eyed cover of Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down,” surrounded by clinking empties and haunted by the memories of a former lover that even the booze can’t dim. When the musicians attempt to turn the page on the next song, the EP-ending “Things,” a feeling persists that the ground has been permanently destabilized. “I’m making new connections,” the band sings in one breath, only to counter in the next, “ones we know won’t end well.”

“My songs typically have never been happy songs,” said Cheshire, who joined Huygen, Marczak and William for an early January Zoom interview. “One thing I’ve always loved about country is that it can get a little saccharine and over-the-top in terms of how it plays with those emotional heartstrings. And I haven’t quite reached that in my songwriting, but I love George Jones and songs like ‘The Window Up Above’ or ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’ where it’s just like, Jesus Christ. They’re so silly in their intensity of heartbreak but you still love them. … I also find it’s easier to be sincere with this than it is in indie-rock. ‘Open the Wine’ is not meant to be an ironic song. Sometimes you really do enjoy those moments you’re sharing, and you want those good times to last. And it’s easier to get into that more heartfelt mode in country music.”

While the lyrics walk a more traditional line, the instrumentation takes more risks, venturing into the types of noise-rock soundscapes embraced by mid-period Wilco. On “The Bottle Let Me Down,” for one, the players lean into dissonance, constructing a buzzing wall of stumbling drums, drawled vocals and feedbacking, fuzzed-out guitars that have a way of heightening the sense of desperation in the words. “Dead in Encino,” meanwhile, evolves into a dusty, windswept road tune, breezing along on layered vocal harmonies and extended sighs of winding pedal steel.

“It has that high, lonesome sound, but it’s such a versatile instrument,” William said of the pedal steel, which he struggled for months to learn after purchasing a broken-down model on Facebook Marketplace. “But all of that fed into the image I had of country music. Going out to find some random, broken-down steel, then tinkering on it. And it is finding the music through old recordings and going back through those lineages. The pedal steel, to me, embodied all of that.”

Toadvine played one of its first shows in July 2022 at the Cosmic Country Cookout in Chicago, sharing a bill with the likes of Lavender Country, fronted by the late Patrick Haggerty. And the members said playing out live proved instrumental to helping develop their sound, which harkens to the experimental roots scene fostered by classic Windy City dives such as the Hideout. 

“There’s a very cool scene in Chicago of that psychedelic, weirder country,” said Huygen, who traced his fondness for the music in part to his mom’s side of the family, which has a deep connection to the American South.

“One thing Chicago does offer is there are so many musicians around at any given moment, at any given bar,” Cheshire said. “You can strike up a conversation with anyone and you can find that random pedal steel player who happens to be your co-worker’s husband. Those connections are all around to be had.”

While narratively the songs tend to teeter on the bar stool in those late night/early morning hours, the band members said they generally approach song construction with more intentionality than in any of their more indie-rock-leaning projects, owing in part to having multiple singers and a comparatively sprawling, six-person lineup.

“As an electric guitar player, it’s been nice, because there are definitely points where you can do nothing, and that’s fine,” Huygen said. “If everyone is playing, it’s almost too much. I love that ability to not do anything and just let it sit. But we’re still figuring it out, working on arrangements, adding and subtracting. There’s a lot of power in subtraction.”

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