They sang about emotions, feeling disconnected and soul searching rather than partying, beer, and girls.
They looked like they were headed to biology class in the 1990s rather than a rock concert.
But during the ’90s, Toad the Wet Sprocket connected with a huge audience on college and alternative radio.
Toad have sold more than four million albums. They released two consecutive platinum albums in Fear and Dulcinea and found chart success with songs like, “All I Want,” “Fall Down,” “Something’s Always Wrong,” “Walk on the Ocean,” “Good Intentions,” and “Come Down.”
Glen Phillips, Todd Nichols, Dean Dinning and Randy Guss all met while in high school in Santa Barbara, Cal. and put together a band without any real thought of making a career out of it. Instead, they ended up with what Phillips called a “surprising” career.
They broke up in 1998, but reunited briefly for tours in 2006 and 2008. Then in 2010, the band announced it was back together full-time. Last year, Toad released their first album of new material in 16 years, New Constellation. The album received rave reviews from fans and garnered positive feedback from critics.
Toad the Wet Sprocket returns to Salt Lake to play at The Depot on Jan. 31. Earlier this month, Phillips, the often barefooted frontman of the band, talked to the Deseret News in depth about the new album, the Kickstarter program the band used for their new album, how the music industry has changed since Toad last charted, and his own personal struggles he had to overcome, including resentment and deep depression, in order to feel like he could return to Toad full time.
Usually when bands take an extended hiatus or breakup and then comeback, their first album out of the starting blocks is sub-par. That’s not the case with New Constellation. It’s a great album. Not just as a comeback album, but as an album overall.
First off, do you like that term, “comeback?” Do you agree with it?
I’d say we have to sell a lot more copies before we call it a comeback (laughs). Yeah, it’s definitely our first album in a long time. And I think we could have got together earlier on for the wrong reasons and made a product because we thought it would be good business. And instead, we waited until we could make an album and feel like a band and do something that’s artistically worthwhile. There’s always a lot of pressure to get back because there’s a brand name there. You know, there’s not a day I played a solo show that somebody didn’t walk up to me after and ask when Toad was going to do a record. So, it’s not like there isn’t this business compulsion. But I also knew it wouldn’t be worthwhile if we weren’t creatively on the same page, unless we were getting along, unless there was really something to say. So I’m happy we waited as long as we did. And nobody ever stopped writing. I mean, I’ve done a lot of projects, I’ve done a lot of other things. So hopefully we weren’t so locked in our era that what we have to say now is irrelevant. So yeah, I’m really proud of what we did. We haven’t disappointed people, and I think we were sufficiently scared of disappointing people (laughs) that we made sure the writing was up to par.
Was there added pressure thinking, “Wow, fans have waited this long, we’ve really go to give them something good?’”
Yeah, I think there was. You know, you don’t want to wreck people’s memories. I know that for me, I was just seeing The Replacements and Neutral Milk Hotel are both playing at Coachella, and I think about a new Replacements album, and I’d be a little scared of a new Replacements album. Paul Westerberg is an amazing writer. They are so firmly part of my history and my memory now, and there’s something about the music you hear in your teens and your 20s and the way it gets under your skin, that it’s like, I wouldn’t want anything to ruin those memories for me.
So, it’s interesting to think about: OK, if I’m doing that same thing for other people, I need to respect what our music might mean to them and how it slots in their memory, I could understand how people would be afraid to listen to it. Especially because we haven’t exactly been (pauses), I’ve had a solo career but I would describe it as “stealthy,” I suppose (laughs). It’s not like I did the Rob Thomas jump where I had the top 40 single right away. And Matchbox 20, I don’t think anybody worried about when they’d get back together because he had been out there, and people didn’t wonder, ‘Where they hell have they been for 15 years?’ If there wasn’t some magic that we could get back to, then why haven’t we heard from them? So I can understand people being suspicious.
To me, you somehow were able to combine the classic Toad sound (with the new album), but somehow make it sound modern, if that makes sense. Do you feel like you accomplished that?
Yeah. And we talked about that when we were heading in, kind of to make the record that we would have made had we stayed together as opposed to getting back and doing the same thing we’ve always done. So there’s some signature elements. And for the writing, it was kind of fun to ask ourselves, ‘What made Toad special?’ and ‘What was unique about it?’ and actually write for the project, and kind of keep that in mind. So, definitely a part of that was respecting the sonic signature. But trying not to make a record that was stuck in the past either.
You guys did a couple of brief reunions before getting back together full time. What was it for you, specifically, that made you say, “I’m OK now to do Toad again full time?”
For me, a big part was getting the chip off my shoulder. I hadn’t had a lot of ambition going into Toad. I mean, this was our fist band. We were in high school. And I kind of thought we were going to go through the summer and breakup. We were all planning on going away to different cities and going to college and instead we got signed. And, we weren’t like the band that went to L.A. and put everything on the line and sacrificed everything to make music. We had an artistic ambition, but not a career ambition. It was a surprising career to fall into. Once the band broke up, I had to kind of muster that ambition for the first time. So, I think I had a big chip on my shoulder about the band and the past. And we happened to breakup right when the industry was really changing. I couldn’t get a record deal. I spent a long time rather than looking at Toad as something I was lucky to be involved in and something to be grateful for, I looked at it as this thing from my past that I couldn’t get past and, you know, felt trapped by it for a very long time.
There were times when I was so resentful. And I didn’t feel like I could go back to Toad unless I had had some commercial success of my own. At some point I realized, there’s so much luck involved in all of it. And we were incredibly lucky at the beginning. And I finally had to kind of decide, I never stopped writing good songs, I just stopped being in a place where they were being marketed (laughs). And I had to stop taking it so personally. But I also felt like, for my pride, how can I return to this band? Everybody would think I was running back to this safety net. And I had to get over it, and finally appreciate the band for what it is, appreciate the players more, you know, appreciate what everybody contributes and why it’s something special, and also understand it’s not the only thing I do and it doesn’t have to take away from other projects or other creativity, and you know, I can actually integrate it and balance it with the rest of my life. On my part, that’s really what changed. And other things have shifted as well that made it possible for me to do that. I just had to get over myself (laughs). Early success will mess your head up. If anything is guaranteed, early success is a really dangerous thing.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is “The Moment.” Is that autobiographical, or just words of wisdom by Toad?
Oh, I don’t know if it’s words of wisdom. If anything is sounding like it’s aspiring to wisdom then it’s just a pneumonic device to keep me from sounding like an idiot. Yeah, The Moment is an interesting song because it kind of veers towards feeling like more romantic in nature, but it’s, you know, I keep kinda coming back to living in the past, living in the future, living in terms of, kind of, regret and recrimination. A lot of the songs on the record kind of come back to the idea of happiness is a practice. I went through pretty major depression. That was another thing I was busy doing after Toad. There’s this feeling, and maybe people who haven’t been through deep long depression, it’s harder for them to picture it, but at some point the thing that brought me out of it and brought me to a point where I started feeling normal was the really strong realization it wasn’t about getting what I wanted. That happiness is a practice. Happiness is something you actually work for that’s based on attitude as opposed to situation, for the most part. People are always amazed at people who are deeply impoverished around the world who are so happy. Although the United States, we’ve worked out a great version of poverty that is also completely soul killing. And I guess being poor is different than being impoverished, that’s the distinction. But a lot of the songs deal with this idea of presence of mind, of gratitude, and if gratitude is practiced, and of returning to the moment, returning to now instead of getting lost in all these stories that are crazy making. That’s where that song comes down to.
(For New Constellation, Toad used a Kickstarter program to raise money for marketing. They set a goal of $50,000, and were able to raise it in less than a day. I asked Glen about the band’s experience using that tool).
We set the goal fairly modestly. And we fully expected to hit the goal within a couple of weeks and then double or triple it. We got completely caught by surprise to hit it in one day.
A band like us, economically wouldn’t make a lot of sense for a label right now. The music industry has changed wildly. Since it was built on selling these physical recordings which kind of don’t exist anymore, or they barely exist anymore. The companies are scrambling to figure out how to run entrainment companies and they’re selling brands like Rhianna, who is a great and strong brand. It’s harder for them to sell a band or develop a band. We’re in a real sweet spot for crowd funding because people already know who we are. You need to have an audience that already exists to make that stuff work. It’s not a way to create an audience. There are a lot of semi-fictional stories being told about how Kickstarter is this magic bullet for doing a creative project. Unless it’s a real strict like, geek-oriented project.
Kickstarter is where nerds go. We are kind of an outlier of a band. We were, I think, nerds authentically before nerds were cool. We were an awkward band. Instead of being a rock-n-roll band that looked like a rock-n-roll band, we looked more like the other people in your biology class. My mom was a chemist, my dad was a physicist. I grew up making holographs on my bathroom floor. We weren’t writing songs that were specifically nerdy. But I think the way we wrote about feeling disconnected and trying to find some truth in life I think was authentically from that point of view.
Was there any hesitation in asking fans for money?
The thing for me that was difficult was that the actual fulfillment was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. So making sure people were happy with that they’d given us and they felt like we’d given them good service and communicated well. That was an important thing and I think a bigger job than any of us expected it to be. Did you ever read “Predictably Irrational?” It’s like a Malcolm Gladwell book but it’s actually written by an economist. There’s a whole thing on it about a financial transaction versus an emotional transaction. And music generality feels like an emotional transaction.
I think people understand these days that we’re, once again, in a different era as far as how people consume music. When Toad got signed, people were buying two copies of every album. They were buying a cassette for the car and these brand new CD’s for their home. And maybe they’d buy a vinyl as well. Now, if you like a record, you probably didn’t buy it. So I’d say 1 in 20 people who listen to a record actually purchases it now. I think people who want to support music understand that. And they understand that they are contributing a little more so that the music can continue to exist and they’re willing to do that. It’s almost like they’re paying it forward for the 19 people who are going to pirate the record and not pay for it. They’re paying for a couple of them. And I think a lot of people are kind of happy to do that. Nobody is making a killing off any of this. But we are making a living. And I think people are more willing to think of themselves as patrons and they understand that most people pirate and most people don’t pay, so they’re happy to buy the T-shirt, they’re happy to see the show and they’re happy to buy the record. And frankly, a lot of people when they got back to us with this have said, ‘You’re music, I can’t quantify. It’s not a $10 thing. I’ve listened to this music for 20 years and it got me through my marriage and my divorce and my kids and my job. It was what I listened to when all these things happened to me,’ and people feel indebted. And for those who feel like they owe us something, this gave them an opportunity to give something back to us and do it with a lot of generosity and do it greatly. So I think that is a really worthwhile transactions. We’re not pulling the wool over anybody’s eyes. People enter at any level they wanted to enter. And some really wanted to give back. That was the amazing thing about it, there was so much warmth and generosity from people. It was really validating.
For the rest of 2014, what’s on tap?
I’m way overdue for a solo record. So I’m exciting for a solo record. But Toad’s getting along really well and the idea of doing another Toad record is exciting as well. We’ll see. We’ll be touring a lot. We’ve got a few options for summer touring. We’re hoping to make some festivals. Didn’t make Coachella…again. We’re not going to be on the cool festivals, but hopefully we’ll be out somewhere (laughs).
How’s your arm? Is that healed completely? (In 2008, Phillips was sitting on a glass coffee table that collapsed. His left arm was severely injured).
Oh no. It’s screwed. I severed the ulnar nerve. It’s kind of halfway plugged in. My pinky and the outside of my left hand are always pins and needles. Basically it’s asleep all the time and I don’t have any lateral muscles between my fingers.
How can you feel the chords when you play?
I can feel the other three fingers and my thumb. I had to re-learn to play. And it was really a big part… you asked earlier about the band getting back together…and it was really humbling for me to not be able to play all of the songs and have to learn new positions and give up my solos. There was a long period of time where I wasn’t playing very well. I had to ask for some help and (the band) had to show up for me as well. That really changed the nature of our relationships, to have me come in with some humility and to have them be willing to pitch in for me and help me out when I was in need. I’ve kind of re-learned how to play with a different kind of hand. I stopped mentioning it to people all the time because I feel like I play well enough that nobody notices anymore. But the band really did an amazing job of giving me time and latitude to learn how to play again.
Any touring memories of Salt Lake or Utah?
I’m excited about coming back. I love Salt Lake. I hope we stay warm.
You’ll definitely have snow if you wanted to practice your skiing or snowboarding.
Todd is a ridiculously graceful person who I’m sure will be hitting the slopes while we’re there. I unfortunately, as a kid, growing up with geek parents, I spent my time inside playing Dungeons and Dragons and doing silly BASIC programming stuff. I fall down. Whenever I ski, I get just confident enough to go on a bigger slope and then I do an end-over-end and find myself face down in the snow thinking how lucky I am that I didn’t break anything.