It’s barely eight o’clock in the morning in California when Glen Phillips calls me for our interview. He’s already been up working on new material for a forthcoming solo album, which will follow up 2016’s magnificent Swallowed by the New.
“I actually just spent yesterday with Sean Watkins and Tyler Chester, and we tracked four songs,” he explains before he presses play on a brief slice of a mid-tempo tune from the sessions. Phillips’ unmistakably pungent vocal atop a characteristically buoyant melody line crackles through the speakerphone.
“Anyway,” he continues, “I woke up and started editing. So, I’m mid-way through trying to work out an album. Keeping busy.”
Speaking of, there’s also his other job: a three-decades-long tenure as frontman and principal songwriter for Toad the Wet Sprocket. Along with San Marcos High School classmates Todd Nichols (guitar), Dean Dinning (bass), and Randy Guss (drums), Phillips formed the band in 1986 when he was just fifteen years old.
This year, Toad has two major album milestones to celebrate. First, the thirtieth anniversary of their 1989 debut Bread & Circus, which captures the raw energy that propelled them out of Santa Barbara’s clubs and into a major record deal with Columbia Records. Second, the twenty-fifth anniversary of their fourth studio effort, 1994’s Dulcinea, which remains a snapshot of their art at a commercial zenith.
In a short span of five years, the foursome built an international following from the ground up, producing a steady stream of hit albums and singles that reached across multiple music formats. But, as their cachet widened, creative differences consumed the still young and relatively inexperienced band members. The summer after the release of their fifth studio album Coil (1997), Toad announced their dissolution.
“In recent months, it became harder to keep everyone satisfied within the confines of the band,” read a statement from Phillips that was published in a Rolling Stone article in July 1998. “It felt like if we stayed together much longer, the tensions would hurt both the music and our friendships.”
It would be ten years before Toad would finally return to form.
Reuniting as a touring entity at first, they would eventually circle back to record-making with New Constellation, their first full-length album in sixteen years, in October 2013. Without the support of a major label, the band financed the project through a Kickstarter campaign that generated over a quarter-of-a-million dollars from over six-thousand contributors. An EP, Architect of the Ruin, arrived two years later.
Now contending with a vastly different musical landscape than was in existence during their mid ‘90s halcyon, Phillips and company are reticent to promise big batches of new Toad the Wet Sprocket music in the near future. They appear at least committed to hitting the road once a year—they kicked off their latest tour on May 15th in Clearwater, Florida, with a September 2nd conclusion in Denver.
Guss has sat out the past two outings due to medical issues. Standing in, for the time being, is session drummer Josh Daubin. A regular touring band member since 2011 and a frequent Phillips collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Kingham is again behind the keys, rhythm guitar, and lap steel this summer.
Like their contemporaries who have transcended as many years and tribulations, Toad’s prevalence across three or four generations of listeners is a delicate dance between past and present. Gratitude is a key theme in their trajectory, and it’s tangible as Phillips and I spend the better part of an hour on the phone together discussing the band’s history, the strangeness of fame, and what the future may—or may not—hold for them.
“Thirty years…” he declares reflectively. “I’m kind of proud of us for sticking around and getting back together and being willing to just see what’s good in this—and valuing each other and valuing the music. You know, it’s easy to get lost in my own head on stuff, so I’m really grateful that I get to play music for people.”
Grant Walters: About a week ago, a fan posted footage of a show you, Todd, Dean, and Randy played at Oscar’s in Santa Barbara in 1988. Obviously, it doesn’t have the same level of polish and professionalism as your shows do now—I think at one point Todd’s amp blew and started to smoke. But, it was incredibly fun to watch the four of you work through your set at such a formative point in your careers. What do you recall most vividly about those earliest days of the band and making music in your hometown?
Glen Phillips: It’s so hard to remember. I mean, that was literally…that was more than thirty years ago. I was seventeen then. It’s always strange when people ask about then, you know? How can I say this…I feel like I can almost only think of it in comparison to when I see kids forming bands today, and all their parents taking them to “rock school” and they’re getting tons of support. [laughs]
There was a generational gap with music. My parents just did not understand rock & roll. The only rock record my dad ever bought and enjoyed was the first Dire Straits record. That was about as edgy as he could get. They didn’t even understand Paul Simon. They liked Simon & Garfunkel, but when [he] made Graceland it was, “why all the boom-y drums?!” So, there was something about the claiming of our own music, and there still was that element of rock & roll as kind of generational rebellion.
And it’s strange that I find myself being wistful for that. On the one hand, I’m so excited that I love the same music, for the most part, that my daughters love. There’s this cultural thread now that doesn’t seem disrupted in a generational fashion. But, I also liked the rebellion. I liked, you know, that idea that ‘we’re doing something that our parents just…don’t…get. It’s only ours!’
And I even see kids now…one of my daughters is just a great singer, and she enforces the generational gap for me. [laughs] I think everything she does is great, and I love her voice and I love the music she does, and I just want more and more of it. And she’s just, like, “Dad…get…get the fuck away.” [laughs] It’s interesting how it works! So, that’s less about the “then” and the band, and me in the now, but we were just kind of making music.
Santa Barbara has this great live music scene—tons of original music at the time, and a really supportive thing across the genres. I mean, there wasn’t a whole lot of that, like, you know, ‘every band’s its own gang fighting with everybody else.’ It just felt super supportive. So, there were bands like I-Rails, and Mudheads, Crashing Planes, Woodburning Project.
There were so many bands. They were our friends, and we’d see each other, and they were all damn good. Really inspiring. And, you know, a few of us…I-Rails became Primitive Radio Gods, and a few other people like Summer Camp ended up getting signed, and they had that kind of ‘get signed, make amazing records, get dropped.’ My friend Jesse Rhodes had a band called Stegosaurus—same thing: made the most amazing record and got dropped.
So, it was this exciting time, but even before anyone was getting signed, there was a vital live music scene there. It just felt really good to be a part of that. We were these kids, and I was the youngest guy at any of the shows I could think of being in. I’d have to wait outside the clubs a lot of the time because I couldn’t even work there unless I was on stage. I’d have to walk in, play the show, and get escorted out. But, that’s okay. There was beer in my dad’s van. [laughs]
It was…yeah, it was a ton of fun. That’s the main thing I remember is this support I had around me and having all these role models. I was seventeen and they were all in their mid-twenties or thirties. I was just learning so much about how to write songs, how to play shows. So, it was great.
GW: With Bread & Circus turning thirty and Dulcinea turning twenty-five, it’s probably both wonderful and a bit strange that something you created at a specific point in your career has been continually discussed and scrutinized over so many years. And I imagine the same applies when you’re often asked to look back and reflect on your feelings about them.
GP: Yeah. I’m thinking of the Joni Mitchell quote, “nobody ever said to Van Gogh, 'paint a Starry Night again, man!'” Right? [laughs] Sometimes it feels a little…do you remember Napoleon Dynamite?
GW: Yes, absolutely.
GP: And how there’s his uncle who, like, any time he can get anybody to watch it, he has this clip of the game-winning throw he did back in high school? And I feel like sometimes being in a band is being that uncle, except it’s everyone else running up to you to show you your game-winning touchdown. And you kind of want to move on, but everybody’s obsessed with that touchdown you threw a long time ago. [laughs]
But, there’s also a fact about songs—that they lodge in your soul and your memory in a way that, like, a smell can take you back. Songs can be a form of time travel, and it’s just returning…and not just time travel, but time travel to an emotional state. And, so, it’s easy to dismiss it just as nostalgia. And I’m not a fan of nostalgia, because even the word itself is pain, the etymology of it. It’s less nostalgia and more people attached to a feeling of knowing who they were at a certain time. There’s that clarity of youth where you haven’t been kicked around enough that you’re scared of everything, and just remembering how it feels to have listened to these songs at a certain time when you had a sense of self and hope and potential.
People listen to songs from that period of time because it rekindles that in them—not necessarily just looking back. So, even this week singing “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted,” it just almost took me down, meaning, like, on my knees, just, like ‘oh, my God! I forgot again! How do I always forget?’ [laughs] You know? This thing I knew when I was nineteen or twenty, and I keep having to learn that lesson over and over. That’s humbling to know I have this moment when I put it down on paper, right?
But, not every song does that all the time, and the more I pan out and take in everybody’s experience, I understand that they’re there for their own story. It means something to them, or they wouldn’t be there.
I’m really lucky that I get to go do my solo shows and, you know…what I feel is aiming in a way that feels relevant for me now, and has its own resonance to it. It’s not about that past. You can’t ever compete with that. But, I need to have that balance of present time and past tense, or else I get a little wiggy.
GW: One of Toad’s tracks that seems to surface frequently in fan conversation is “All in All”—the meaning behind it, and lamenting the fact that they’d wish you’d perform it more. What’s your take on it?
GP: I mean, to me it’s in this more ecstatic realm. There’s a part of me that’s, I think, always been a little bit Sufi [laughs]. And as I get older, I’ve moved more directly into that—really diving into Hafiz and Rumi recently. And, you know, this sense of time being relative, of life being this burning fire of connection to nature, of life being connected to fire and consuming itself, recycling itself.
It’s kind of that immediacy and urgency of feeling alive. Once again, it’s ineffable—it’s this kind of a raw passion that’s content-free. And that’s the same about spiritual longing, that reason we try to define God or, you know, go into religion and try to explain is this longing for connection to everything that is at the same time ecstatic and the deepest longing, right? So, “All in All,” I think, just fits in that really maybe non-specific form, at least the material of it.
The reason why we don’t sing it is because if we take the key any lower, Todd can’t sing it. It’s too high for me to sing it where it is, because I had vocal surgery after the Fear tour because those songs were too high, and we did, like, three hundred shows in a year-and-a-half. [laughs] And, so I can’t sing as high as I used to, so that song is hard to do.
GW: I know there were a multitude of things that broke up the band in 1998. Now that you’ve been back together for another decade, are there creative points of contention that still exist between you, or is there just enough time and space between you now that they don’t bubble up anymore?
GP: I think we all just grew up and got some gratitude. It doesn’t matter what you have, right? You can always decide to be grateful or not. I think we all took the band a little bit for granted, and each other for granted. I know I did. It’s a strange thing, especially to happen when you’re so young—twenty-one.
I always had this feeling, and I think I’ve said this in interviews before, that I wanted to be in the arts when I was young, and I had this feeling that I was too emotionally fragile for fame. And I decided I should probably be a schoolteacher, because then I could do the arts, and I could work with people, and I wouldn’t ever have to sell myself or get all that weirdness. And instead, I ended up being the singer of a popular band, and it was a really confusing experience. Part of you starts thinking that’s normal and that you deserve it, and another part is always doing the imposter thing and going, ‘they’re going to figure out you’re just a fake and an idiot. They’re all going to figure it out, and it’s gonna really suck.’
So, that internal dynamic, I know for me, caused a lot of difficulty. And I would blame the band for a lot of my problems, and it wouldn’t change things. You know, that stuff where you say, ‘oh, I’ll act this way…I’ll give this and then everybody will change,’ and everybody doesn’t and then you feel resentful. I was a kid, so I didn’t know how to man up. I either didn’t have really great mentorship, or I didn’t listen. [laughs]
And, so, I think for all of us in the band, it’s just been this process of, ‘you know, this is a really good thing. We’re really, really lucky.’ And we can still forget it—I still forget that it’s the best job in the world, and how incredibly lucky I am to make art that anyone cares about. But, well, you listen to my songs—I’m really good at negative ideation. [laughs]
GW: True, but you’ve mastered the art of making them sound incredibly good. [laughs]
GP: Yeah, and I’ve done a lot of examining of that. I mean, it’s an interesting thing. It’s going, ‘okay, I think I’ve pretty much tapped out that particular subject matter.’ And even writing now, it’s, like, ‘okay, it’s just time to move on and not get stuck on this.’ It’s really important, I think, to understand sorrow and understand grief. But, I also realize I kept myself in my depression as much as anything. The negative thoughts—I make less room for them, feeding them all the time. I’m trying to learn how to do that more and more.
But, I think I got a little off-topic on you. What was the question again? [laughs]
GW: [laughs] Completely fine. I appreciate the detour. I had asked how the four of you overcame the irreconcilable stuff that incited the break-up.
GP: We all just learned to kind of grow up enough and be accountable for the stuff we’re making up and we’re bringing in, and stop blaming each other for our problems. It’s like any long-term relationship, it’s a family in the way that we weren’t fully formed adults when we chose each other.
And we are really, really different people. I remember even early on we tried to take a camping trip together, and we just gave up and drove back. We’re not similar in some fundamental, like, bro “us-against-the-world” kind of way. But, we have a deep familial tie. We’ve created so much and been through so much together. And I know so many families like that, where it’s, like, ‘man, if I met my brother or sister, I don’t know if we’d hang out. But, they’re my brother, my sister. We’re family.’
And, there’s a way of being tied into that where you can either take that attitude that you’re stuck with people you’re nothing like, or you can take it as an opportunity to learn a whole lot about listening and paying attention. Asking why things make you uncomfortable, or why you’re different, or why you’re the same.
So, I think the more I look at the band in those terms, the more I see it as a real gift.
GW: I’ve been a fan for twenty-five years, and I think I’ve felt connected to your work because of your honesty and vulnerability, and the fact that when you write or sing about joy, or heartbreak, or conflict, it’s viscerally believable. From your perspective as the artist, are those the same places in which you feel your craft resonates the most with your audience?
GP: I mean, authenticity has always been our mark. Or, that’s what we value above all else. None of us are virtuosos in any way. Well, Dean, maybe. [laughs] We’re really good at being ourselves, you know? Todd doesn’t play like anybody else—he’s not just gonna rip out some smoldering solo. He goes deep in thinking about his tone and his parts, and it’s a very meditative process for him to play. So, we’re trying to make something that feels real to us and hope that translates to other people.
There’s some part of me that feels I’ve been picking up my pieces for so long, and this is where I work it out. My songs are, in some way, a letter from my future, more evolved self to my current self, trying to help him navigate getting lost, right? And for anybody—not everybody, necessarily—going through similar struggles, it’s a voice that feels real because it is.
I’m not pretending to have anything worked out, and I’m not pretending to be more evolved. Well, maybe I am sometimes, but hopefully not. [laughs] Generally, not acting like I know the answers, you know? I don’t like to be told what the solution is. I make a point of writing songs that always have some of the light and some of the dark, because that’s how we are—we contain both. Trying to deny the darkness doesn’t feel real to me. There’s got to be a balance in there.
GW: This is a horribly clichéd question, so forgive me. But, what do you envision Toad the Wet Sprocket will look like moving forward? And I ask because that seems to have evolved or changed over time, and I’m sure it continues to for the four of you. So, does that involve more touring? Another album? Or are you just seeing where the road takes you?
GP: Well, yeah, we’re figuring it out as we go. We have our touring thing working out at the moment, and we’re doing somewhere around six to eight weeks a year. And it’s a pretty great summer job.
I think we’re all seeing where it creatively leads us, and my current emotional state—whatever it is—is usually the thing that holds up, hounds, or stops a record. I had a pretty big last few years. I’m five years out from the end of a twenty-five year marriage, and the most recent album we did was done in the last period of that. I was just kind of coming up for air from a lot of change and taking stock of my life again. And, I’ve had my solo records and I’ve been doing other projects.
There may be another? These days, things are definitely single-modeled, so putting out a quarterly single is an idea we like. And, as for a record—I like the form of a record. So, you never know. We may do one again, we may not.
I don’t think I would do the fan funding thing again. On the one hand, it did really well. On the other hand, it was so much more work than just putting out an album, it’s not even funny. It’s such a crazy amount of work, and I found myself in the technical weeks at the nitty-gritty level for so many months making that thing happen. We’ll probably avoid that in the future. I mean, it was everything from just getting the supply chain and the manufacturing and the design stuff in, to making email mistakes with Kickstarter and promises we couldn’t keep, and having to figure out all these technical workarounds. It was kind of a wild ride. And then, ‘oh, yeah! I’ve gotta write fifty lyrics out for people.’
So, when you put out an album, you’ve gotta do the artwork, but then it’s just a bunch of interviews and it’s fine. [laughs]
GW: So, I’m going to use your quip about the album format as a springboard. What are five essential albums you’d choose as your favorites?
GP: Oh, dear. Let me think. So, with the caveat that must make it into this that it changes every day…
GW: Of course. I have to print that caveat a lot, actually. [laughs]
GP: Yesterday, I was listening to Wildflowers by Tom Petty and couldn’t believe how perfect every song was for what I was going through. I don’t know why, I randomly put it on because it was there, and got into the lyrics in a way I never have. And it tore me apart. It was so good.
I always say Laughing Stock or Spirit of Eden…maybe Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk. That’s a record that just changed how records were made. People don’t know those records, or a lot of non-musicians don’t know those records, but if you listen to it and then look at the date on it, you realize that Radiohead would not have happened without it. There would be seminal records that were made after it that would change record-making, but it was because Talk Talk had already gone down that road. It still just blows my mind that they could make those records. They’re just gorgeously experimental and really beautiful.
A new record…I would say Gregory Alan Isakov’s Evening Machines. The Weatherman is still probably my favorite of his, but, man, Evening Machines is a masterpiece and I’d strongly recommend that to anyone who hasn’t already spent a lot of time with it.
GW: I’m writing that one down to explore later…
GP: And another new record…this isn’t going to be an “all-time,” but it’s a favorite of the last year is Lamp Lit Prose by Dirty Projectors. I guess it’s been around about year, and I just…I love Dirty Projectors. They’re so damn weird. They’re great. It’s a guy who’s incapable of writing a pop song, but is a truly brilliant writer. He can’t be normal, no matter how hard he tries, and it’s his version of big pop hooks. I played it for my kids, thinking, ‘I gotta turn you on to this band,’ and they were, like, ‘I think this is one of those things musicians like.’ [laughs]
And then maybe Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
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