Interview with Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket
In the heyday of 90’s alternative music, Toad the Wet Sprocket was always a bit of an enchanting outlier for me. Foregoing the detuned guitars, sludgy riffs, and head-scratching lyrics of the majority of their musical counterparts, Toad the Wet Sprocket relied heavily on poetic imagery, chiming guitars and Glen Phillips’ crystal clear croon. The first time I saw their video for “All I Want” on MTV, I immediately asked my dad to take me to Blockbuster Music to pick up their CD, Fear. I still remember popping the CD in when I got home, hearing the opening track (“Walk on the Ocean”) and wondering why that song wasn’t on the radio yet. I got Fear just a month or two before I graduated from sixth grade and I used those last few weeks to feverishly memorize the lyrics and attempt to make everyone think I was wise beyond my years and ready for high school.
Fast forward a few years, a few grades and a few more albums and right before the summer between my junior and senior year, Toad released Coil. The album seemed a little heavier – both musically and emotionally - than their previous work and I was along for the ride. It seemed that each time around, they matched my ever-changing world with changes of their own. However, almost exactly a year after the release of Coil (I remember the specifics of both timeframes because of them being around the beginning of summer), I heard on the radio that Toad had officially broken up. To me, it was a humorously ironic (and slightly poignant) thought to realize that one of the bands that had faithfully ushered me through my middle school and high school years went splitsville just a month after I had graduated.
Needless to say, I was one of the many fans who was just a tad excited when it was first announced a couple of years ago that the guys were recording new music. It’s been 16 years since the release of Coil and their new album New Constellation has turned out to be a beautiful addition to their catalog. To help mark this new chapter in their career, Toad has released Something Old, Something New here on NoiseTrade. This exclusive EP features two songs from the new album, “New Constellation” and “California Wasted,” as well as three re-recorded classics: “All I Want,” “Fall Down,” and “Crazy Life.”
To coincide with the release of New Constellation and the Something Old, Something New EP, I talked with Glen Phillips about where the band is now, what inspired them to get back in the studio, and what it meant to them to hit their Kickstarter marketing goal the same day they put it up.
NoiseTrade: While there have been sporadic Toad the Wet Sprocket appearances here and there since the official breakup in 1998, your fans have been fervently waiting for the full-on “we’re putting the band back together” moment. What were some of the main sparks that finally ignited this year’s return to the studio for New Constellation?
Glen Phillips: There were a few milestones. A big one was when I wrecked my left arm falling through a glass table. The ulnar nerve was severed, so I was unable to play a lot of my old parts. It was humbling for me, and the rest of the band had to come together to cover for me. I think it was a great opportunity for all of us to be a little more grateful and show up for each other. We also did a greatest hits re-record album, and that broke the ice in the studio. At some point it just got to where nobody was interested in having the same old fights, and everyone was interested in making things work. Also, as much as we like the old songs, it was frustrating to be locked into a catalog that was fifteen years old. We were dying to play new material. So, it's been good. Nobody's taking it for granted this time around.
NT: As a songwriter, you’ve continually put out new music as a solo artist and with Mutual Admiration Society/Works Progress Administration and Plover. What was it that made this new batch of songs feel specifically like Toad songs?
Glen: Some of my songs were written specifically for the band - two electric guitars, three part harmony and countermelodies, drum grooves. I'm usually writing songs that I'll be able to play solo acoustic easily, so it was great to throw that out the window and write for Toad. The Todd and Dean songs are the other big part of the band. Todd has such a particular tone and melodic sensibility, and just having him play guitar makes things sound like Toad.
NT: The last Toad studio album Coil was released back in the summer of 1997. Were there any changes in the studio atmosphere between then and now or did it feel like things picked right back up where they left off?
Glen: We were able to take a lot more time in the studio for this record. Everything was still on tape when we did Coil, so there wasn't quite as much freedom to experiment. Not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. As far as the personalities, we have our ups and downs like anybody, but when we get in the studio we're all pretty serious about getting down to work.
NT: Playing out as really nice exception to the rule, Toad still maintains the same four members that recorded the band’s 1986 debut Bread & Circus. Apart from genuine friendship and mutual respect, to what do you attribute this cohesion and longevity?
Glen: I don't know, really. We definitely needed to get some experience outside of the band to appreciate how lucky we were. We're about as different as four people can be, but I think over time we've learned how to appreciate the differences instead of fighting over them.
NT: Your initial Kickstarter goal of $50,000 was hit within the same day it posted (ending up at over $260,000 pledged overall). What does that kind of fan response mean to the band?
Glen: It means the world to us. We were floored that so many people were willing to have faith that we could make a record that would be worthy of their support. It was great to see that, for them, after all this time, our music still meant something.
NT: Between Toad and your solo work, you’ve had years of major label experience. What has been the most refreshing and the most hectic parts of doing things independently on Toad’s own Abe’s Records?
Glen: The most hectic thing has been getting everything manufactured. None of us has done anything like this before. We have a great new team, but this is our first time both working together and doing a Kickstarter campaign, so we're having to learn quite a lot and at great speed. Once all the packages get out the door we'll all need to go off in the woods and play paintball. Or go to a spa. Or both.
NT: Finally, you recorded the closing lyrics of your 1991 hit “Walk on the Ocean” - “Don’t even have pictures, just memories to hold, grows sweeter each season as we slowly grow old” - at just 20 years old. When you sing the line now, has it transformed into having any different significance or do the initial seeds of that song still resonate the same for you?
Glen: I still just want to know what the chorus of that song means. If you find out, please tell me. It's an odd line - it's pretty nostalgic. I want my best days and best work to be in front of me, regardless if the greater world takes notice. My job is to try to be a good friend, try to make good art, and not waste too much time looking backwards.