July 14, 2014 Interview – Glen Phillips of Toad The Wet Sprocket
During the 1990s, when distorted guitars and loud crass vocals dominated the airwaves, Southern Californian band Toad the Wet Sprocket had something different to offer. Mixing folk influence, clean guitar sounds, storytelling lyrics, and soft vocals, the band found their own niche breaking into the mainstream with the multi-platinum 1991 album Fear which features billboard charted singles “Walk On The Ocean” and “All I Want.”
With a few hiatuses to explore other musical endeavors, the band is still going strong nearly three decades later and released a brand-new album titled New Constellation in 2013. Recently, songwriter and lead vocalist Glen Phillips sat down to chat about the past of the band, his colorful solo career, revisiting Toad the Wet Sprocket, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been active in music since a teenager when you started Toad the Wet Sprocket almost three decades ago. The band had a mass amount of success during the ’90s and has sold over three million records and has had a list of hit singles. Looking back now in retrospect, what was the experience like at that time?
Glen Phillips – It was quite lovely, too short maybe (laughs). It was odd; I think we always felt a bit like outsiders. We did not quite fit in the LA world, the pop world, were not quite aggressive enough for what was called the alternative world. I think we were in between a lot of things, so it was very strange. We also got to play music for a lot of people and got to make a living doing it, which was a very cool thing. It was a strange time too because the labels were doing very well and could invest in a new artist and let them grow. We had this very patient and helpful record company which actually gave us a lot of latitude and really let us do our own thing. I certainly think that is the way it would happen again (laughs). It was a good time.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like a good time. You are right; a lot has changed in the music industry. A record company would not allow a band to grow as much as they once did.
Glen Phillips – Certainly, it is a whole new world. That is ok though, the music industry as a whole is kind of a brand-new thing. It is around a hundred years old, there is no point in trying to define normal when it is kind of based on changing technologies anyway. The labels are trying to figure out what they are doing. It is a lucky time for a band like us who has an audience which is waiting to hear what we are going to do next because we can reach them now. We are able to do a Kickstarter Campaign, it has been a really great opportunity for us. It is hard to reach new people, but once again it is always hard to reach new people.
CrypticRock.com – Now the band took a hiatus back in 1998 after years of heavy touring. You reunited in 2002 for a show but your full-blown reunion did not happen until 2006. There was a tremendous buzz going around regarding that reunion tour and resulted in fans coming out in large numbers to see the band perform. How did you and the band feel about the overwhelming positive response to Toad getting back together?
Glen Phillips – It has been great in general. Our audience has really stuck with us well, because once again, I think it is because we were outsiders back in the day. I like heavy music as much as the next person, but there was this idea for a while that if you were not heavy you did not have any depth. If you were not shouting it, you did not really mean it. I think we were a quieter band at a time when it just was not cool. I think for certain groups of people, because of that, they have a lot of loyalty to us. We were offering a different kind of conversation. People were not there because it was cool; they were there because it made them feel something. They kept coming back because of that. It felt really good to have an audience which was willing to wait for us and come back to us.
CrypticRock.com – It has been great since. The band has since been actively playing live shows year after year and remaining popular. Many fans probably pondered, with the band being officially back together a while, if there would be any new music released. Last year you released New Constellation which was in fact the first album since 1997’s Coil. Was a new Toad album a thought for a while and what stimulated yourself and the band to finally put it together?
Glen Phillips – It was a whole lot of factors. People had been asking, after every single show we have played basically, when a new album would happen. It was not like the idea had not been pounded into our heads over and over (laughs). I think more or less we had to feel like a real band to do it. We were playing shows again, but we were not always feeling unified. It is an intimate process to make a record; it requires a lot of trust and a creative starting point which I did not think we had for a long time, at least I did not think we did. Until we could all show up and be a team, be on the same side, and put aside history, that creativity was just not possible.
We could have gotten together and made the disappointing album a fan would be afraid of hearing. To make a record that was worth getting back together for and the album a fan would hope to hear, that took a lot more doing, time, space, and distance to get back to.
CrypticRock.com – Of course you want everything to be just right. You want to be in the right headspace to make the best possible album you can make. The album is very good and has many memorable songs on it with beautiful harmonies. Being that you had not recorded new Toad material in so long, what was the writing and recording process going into the album?
Glen Phillips – It was different. We used to collaborate a certain way and some of our habits have changed. It is hard to describe. The biggest difference for me was coming into Toad as a project instead of my only outlet. The last time around I had not done any solo records or any other bands, so every song I wrote lived and died whether Toad wanted to play it. It was a big difference going in and saying ok what is a Toad song, try and write a Toad song instead of a plain song. Getting back into doing it, I had been in much more of a folk modality for the most part. Getting back into writing for three voices, counter melodies, eclectic guitars; it is just a different way of looking at it compositionally. For me that was the fun of it, to get a look at what Toad did and how Toad is different from anything else I do and appreciate those differences a little more.
CrypticRock.com – That is evident; you have always balanced a solo career with Toad and released five full-length solo albums. Your solo material is slightly different than that of the work with the band. Is that variation in style and sound something you find important for yourself as a musician?
Glen Phillips – Yes, I like variety, especially as I get older. There was an ego of youth; I never used to second guess myself very much. Now, second guessing myself is kind of a problem. It really helps me to have a project to write for and have collaborators. It helps me to set a manifesto and stick by it. Even going into the new Toad record, I knew we were going to do a very production-oriented meticulous-layered sound. I went in and did a solo record with one stereo ribbon mic, with zero overdubs, zero electronic mixing, we mixed it all by moving people around the room.
I like setting up a challenge for myself and a few rules that I have to work under so I can have enough constraints that I can actually be more creative; I like that variety. Where it was Remote Tree Children, which was more in a Flaming Lips kind of world, to doing the stuff I did with Sean and Sara Watkins in Mutual Admiration Society, the Works Progress Administration project, and Nickel Creek in the Largo scene in LA; I really like to switch things up.
For me, at this point, that was what was really exciting about Toad. Toad was what other people would think if I was running back to this. At some point it was just actually the next challenge for me to do. For me that is kind of why I went back into it. I stopped worrying about what other people thought and decided it would be a good challenge.
CrypticRock.com – You want to challenge yourself as an artist obviously, you have done that over the years with the variety of projects you have been a part of.
Glen Phillips – Yes, the strange thing is as a solo artist I feel like I never developed a sound. Every album has been very different from every other album. Winter Pays for Summer (2005) was extremely lush pop and then you have Coyote Sessions (2012) which is basically as raw as you can get. It has been interesting trying to find my voice as a solo artist. Coming from a band, it makes a lot of sense. The thing about a band is with Toad, and what I appreciate now, is you have the four of us playing a song which is automatically going to sound like Toad and we do not have to question it too much. There is a way Toad plays, there is a way we harmonize and there is a way Dean and Randy lock together. There is a way they think about music that immediately becomes Toad. It is cool to kind of see that happen again with a bunch of new songs.
CrypticRock.com – Definitely and as you mentioned earlier, in the 1990s alternative rock scene, Toad the Wet Sprocket was kind of the odd band out. Everything was heavier and following the grunge trend, but Toad the Wet Sprocket was unique. Alternative rock has changed over the years and seems most recently is starting to make a comeback. What do you think of the alternative rock scene in 2014?
Glen Phillips – I do not know what I would call the alternative rock scene in 2014. Would it be Indie music that Alternative has turned into? That to me is the same energy of the bands that influenced us which pulled from the power of punk rock, a deep melodic sense, a little bit of Americana, and a little bit of a traditional world. Whether it was REM at the forefront back when they were an indie band, or The Replacements, or the whole Minneapolis scene which was so amazing, or Dumptruck, or Dinosaur Jr, or Elvis Costello; looking at that stuff asking what kind of lineage that is.
I look at bands today and you take Elliott Smith coming out with Heatmiser and making those really beautiful four track records. He was doing something that was both very broken, very quiet, and kind of making beauty ok again. I see stuff now whether it is Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, or atl-J, there is so much amazing music out of the indie scene. There are people who are influenced so broadly.
That is the difference right now; when we started no one had an iPod. If you wanted to listen to music, you either had the radio, the albums you could afford to buy, or the mixtapes your friends made you. When your friend made you a mixtape, they had to sit there in real time and dub every single song down. It was an act of love to make a mixtape. I think you can put love into a playlist, but it was nowhere near the actual commitment required, you had to love someone to make them a mixtape. I would only buy a handful of records, but that is all I had money for. Now you just go on Spotify, everyone can listen to everything now. The strange thing about that is maybe people do not listen with the same intensity, but the great part is people have an incredible breath. They are not held in by genre or whether something is brand new or not, they just listen to anything that touches them. They then regenerate all that into the music they make, I think there are more great bands now than I can keep track of. It is a great era for Indie music.
CrypticRock.com – That is very true. The idea of a genre is kind of an outmoded idea. Everyone seems to listen to everything now. What are some of your musical influences?
Glen Phillips – My two favorite artists of the last couple of years are alt-J and James Blake. I don’t really listen to anything that sounds like what I do honestly (laughs). I appreciate real well-done lyrics and melody, but I don’t really listen to bands that sound like Toad, and I don’t really listen to singer/songwriter stuff. Not to say there are not a lot of great writers out there. I am insecure enough that I need to forget about myself when I listen to music, so I do not want to listen to anything that is remotely like anything I do. So, I get my inspiration from stuff that is far away from me, if that makes sense (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – That makes sense. Our last question is regarding film. Cryptic Rock covers music and film, with a concentration in Horror films. If you are a fan, what are some of your favorite horror films?
Glen Phillips – I have mixed feelings toward horror; I like comedic horror best. I will do the occasional sci-fi horror, I love sci-fi, and you have to go there sometimes. It depends on my psychological state, I am prone to nightmares. I have to kind of regulate my nightmare fuel.
The comedic horror I like, such as Shaun of The Dead (2004), Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987), and Army of Darkness (1992). I like the stuff that is absurd. That is kind of my favorite realm of that. I tend to go more for suspense than gore. I like a good silly monster movie like the Korean movie The Host (2006). Once again, I have to regulate where I go.