By 1991, Toad the Wet Sprocket had two albums under the belt and a healthy following of fans despite no radio airplay outside a few college stations.
That all changed with the release of Toad’s third album, fear, and the single “All I Want.” The band, and its shy lead singer, Glen Phillips, suddenly found themselves with mainstream success and fame….something that Phillips had always dreaded.
“I knew fame was probably not a good idea for me. And frankly, when Toad was out there, I suffered the entire time from impostor syndrome,” he said.
Philips, who was still not old enough to legally drink while recording fear, found the kind of success by his early 20’s that most people spend a lifetime trying to achieve.
In 1998, Toad the Wet Sprocket announced they were breaking up. Each member continued with other projects, none of which matched the mainstream success of Toad. After a few one-off reunions and limited-run tours, the band announced a full-time reunion in 2009. In 2013, they released New Constellation, their first album of new material in over 15 years. That was followed by a 6-song EP, Architect of the Ruin in 2015.
Now, as the band embarks on the 25th anniversary tour of the album and song that marked the first time most of the world ever heard of Toad the Wet Sprocket, Philips reflected with the Deseret News on how fear catapulted him into one giant phase of his life, the personal demons he had to deal with after achieving success, and being given a second chance after losing a record deal and ending a 25-year marriage. He also talked about the release of his upcoming solo album, his most personal to date and a project he says he’s more excited about than anything else he’s done in decades.
Toad the Wet Sprocket will bring the 25th anniversary tour of fear to the Sandy Amphitheatre on Thursday. Tickets can be purchased at SmithsTix. Phillips will return to Salt Lake in November to The State Room, playing a solo show to promote his upcoming new album.
DN: As you began the writing and recording process of what would eventually become fear, did you do anything differently from the first two albums going into it?
GP: I think we were very aware that this might have been the only chance we had to make kind of a big record. And I don’t mean big record in terms of commercially, but in terms of our own conditions. We made our first two records live in the studio. Our first cost $600 to make. The second one, I think, was $6,000. You know, we just went in a studio and we played the songs and we mixed it. And that was Bread and Circus, and Pale. And then we got a record deal, and we had already been touring for a couple of years. We had gone out for the first two records because Columbia re-released them. I mean, they did this weird thing back then called “artist development” when the actually let you grow (said with a chuckle of sarcasm). And then when we went in the studio, we knew we actually wanted to make a big record.
We were fans of the indie world, the simplicity of that. You know, The Replacements and Husker Du. But at the same time, I was a huge fan of Talk Talk and Tears for Fears and Peter Gabriel, and wanted to make a big record. So I think we were writing with more ambition. So rather than just playing our songs live and going in the studio and just doing that same thing, we started writing demos, we started writing in the studio more. The song “Butterflies,” Todd had the music, the kind of basic idea for the musical themes in that. We recorded that, and I wrote three different songs over the music, and I had never written over a track before. I was having all this fun doing these different melodies and at some point somebody was like, ‘Turn them all up.’ And that kind of was the song was these three overlay songs, that I re-worked into one song lyrically.
DN: How much of the songs you write are observations on life and emotions and how much are from personal experiences? I’m thinking of songs like “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted,” “Pray Your Gods,” “Is It for Me”….how much are those songs Glen Phillips writing about Glen Phillips, and how much is it Glen Phillips’ thoughts and observations on the rest of the world?
GP: It’s all the same, isn’t it? It’s observations about things on all of those. “Is it for Me,” there’s no historical basis. It’s an odd one, because even when I’m writing something personal…I have this solo album coming out in October that’s extremely personal album, and there are also these moments in song where I have to serve the song instead of serving the literal narrative of what might have happened. And talking with my producer, (I’d say) ‘This is a better song but this one is truer. Which should I do?’ (The producer said) ‘Go for the better song.’ So you’re always making that choice. It’s not our job to just put down what happened.
So in the same way, whether it’s a personal narrative or fictional narrative…with “Pray Your Gods,” I think I had been reading about Quetzalcoatl and kind of other South American gods, you know, just thinking of all the ways of looking at the divine that people have. I mean, Christianity actually has a great basis for this idea of different types of gods, the Old Testament vs the New Testament god and how do you reconcile the jealousy and the retribution of the Old Testament god vs the forgiveness of the New Testament god. How do you think of those being part of the same source? “Pray Your Gods” was definitely taking part of that. You had times that god is a blood sacrifice right next to gods that are just people releasing butterflies in the temple. So, you can talk about animal exploitation, insect exploitation, butterfly exploitation, but the point is there are a whole lot of ways to look at the divine and ultimately I think they say a lot about who we are as people, how we choose to worship and what we choose to worship. Although some would argue, ‘But mine is the true one.’ I guess there’s always that. But the way in which we approach it, I think says a lot about who we are as human beings.
DN: When you’re writing, how do you decide what music you keep for a solo album and what to present to the rest of the band for a possible Toad song?
GP: I don’t know. There are certain aspects of just kind of tempo, the willingness to use harmony. It was an interesting thing when I knew we were going in to record, everybody had decided it would be good to try another Toad record, just because I got to ask what a Toad song was for the first time. During all the old Toad records I would just write a bunch of songs, bring ’em in, and Todd would write music and I would write lyrics on those. Everything we wrote came into the band and then we would choose what we liked the most. And it was a very different process to think of Toad as a project and then ask what made Toad unique. There was a combination of songs that I already had around that I thought would be appropriate for certain moments on a Toad record and there was also writing directly for Toad. I did a lot of writing where I would start with beats. You know, when I’m out solo acoustic there’s no drummer. And so I’d think, ‘Ah, I get to do rock songs, tempos.’ So I would write with a drum beat, electric guitars and kind of keep energy in mind from the very beginning. The process is more like that. So it’s a construction of things that were definitely written with Toad in mind and other stuff that just happens to fit, because most of my songs sound a little bit like Toad.
DN: What answer did you come up with when you asked, ‘What is a Toad song?’
GP: It’s not totally rocket science. There’s a certain thing that happens automatically when the four of us get together. There’s a way that Todd writes his guitar parts. It’s this very open bell-like tones. And the way Randy and Dean work together. Dean is a very melodic bass player. It’s not like just sticking straight to the roots like a lot of other guys do. And so there’s certain stuff when you put the four of us in a room, it does sound like us. But, I mean, there’s stuff at a compositional level like making sure there’s counter-melodies, three-part harmonies, we have these three voices that work well together. So kind of maximizing that. And there’s a different way of thinking about the dynamics of song when you can safely rely on counter-melody. I think of a song like “Something’s Always Wrong,” that’s kind of pure Toad because it’s got two choruses happening at the same time. There’s that high line. And I don’t know what one is the chorus. When I’m playing it solo acoustic I don’t know which part to sing. And so I think that’s kind of the hallmark of the band in a sonic way.
And in the lyrical territory, looking at New Constellation and what I wanted to write about, I’ve been trying to slowly extricate myself from my own navel, or other orifices that aren’t so pretty. But how do you be self-reflective without being self-indulgent? And I know on New Constellation it had to have the introspection of Toad, but I also wanted it to be more forward leaning, be more positive at the end of it, to really keep that in mind and not let it just get lost in sadness.
DN: You were still in your teens when fear was released, yes?
GP: I was 20 when it came out. That’s the thing I remember was I was still under 21 when we recorded it in Reno, and everybody else would go out, they would all go to the bars and go to the casinos, and I would like sit in the studio by myself and watch TV (laughs).
DN: How did things change for the band after fear was released
GP: I mean, things changed pretty remarkably. Not immediately, though. The record company definitely put more into the promotion of it. We were on the road. I think that was the tour we co-headlined with Chris Whitley pretty early into that record, and did Europe for the first time. The funny thing about it was we really didn’t have a hit until 9 months into it. People always talk about how quick the success is. And for us, they were almost going to stop working the record. You know, nine months, two singles in, it was like, ‘OK, nothing happened. Call it a day.’ We had an ally in the record company, Tom Gibson, and he convinced them to try one more single and that was “All I Want,” and then everything changed.
So it was very odd. It was odd to tour so long for that record. I think we did 300 shows total for that record. We worked really hard. And it was really different seeing a radio audience come in. And I’m incredibly grateful for it because it’s the only reason I can still make a living as a musician. At the same time, it really changed the nature of what attracted people. There’s something about people finding you by word of mouth or through the record where you get album-oriented people who really understood the deeper cuts and they were responding to that. They weren’t responding to something they’d seen on television. It was interesting, all of a sudden there’s this one song that people go crazy for. I remember the previous fans talking about the “All I Wanters” – that was the term for like the next 5 years, the “All I Wanters,” was the term for anyone who came in after the beginning .
It’s a strange thing now, because there’s so little emphasis on album anymore. People discover stuff through singles and they don’t get a lot of backstory. Bands you really love, you go through the album and you pay attention to it. But things are discovered a little more a la carte these days. There’s no problem with that. The idea of the album is a blip of technology like everything else.
DN: You used a Kickstarter campaign to finance New Constellation. How did it end up working since most people today buy singles and typically making a whole album is costly for artists with not a lot of return. Was it the right way to go?
GP: It was the perfect way to go. On the one hand, we have people follow us because of the singles. I don’t know if people are going to spend $40 on a ticket just to hear “All I Want.” At this point, the people who are coming back are the die-hards. They’re the people who do know the album tracks. They’re the people who do care about all of that. In particularly, for us doing a new album, this is specifically for the album people. The single people, they may or may not throw in a dollar and get the single. But there’s enough of the album people there that this was for them. And we raised, I think, $264,000. It was at the time the fourth largest music project on Kickstarter.
DN: The song “Hold Her Down,” off fear, has as much significance today, if not more, as it did in 1991. What prompted you to write about such a weighty topic?
GP: What prompted me was I didn’t know a single woman in my age group who had not been sexually assaulted. It was simply that. It was so omnipresent. I just felt like writing about it. It’s a strange song because it’s kind of throwing you into the middle of the terror of it. It’s not pleasant. It’s not really saying, ‘This is bad. Don’t do this.’ It’s a really uncomfortable song. The point of it was to get under your skin. It’s going to be a hard one to play again. We haven’t played it live (in awhile). It’s not a pleasant place to be. I feel like it’s an important song. But it’s also kind of hellish to sing.
There were also problems with some people misunderstanding it. And every once in awhile you get some frat-boy douchebag yelling, ‘Play Hold Her Down.’ And I just never wanted to hear that again because it made me want to puke. It made me want to quit, to be misunderstood so completely. Some women misunderstood it completely and we got some letters that were so painful to hear. So painful. But the point of the song was to hurt. The point of the song was to slap men in the face a little. The sad part is it’s still really pertinent. Sometimes it seems like taking a step back rather than taking a step forward. I mean, the good thing is right now the conversation about rape culture is extremely active.
The Internet did a lot in these last few years since fear came out to enable trolls, to enable hateful people to come together. It’s good that this conversation is out again. So, yeah, I’m really sad that “Hold Her Down” is still so relevant and we’ll be playing it on this tour and it won’t be pleasant.
When this album came out, it was when Tori Amos started RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Tori Amos was getting ready to go on tour and she wanted to have some tabling from a non-profit. She said, ‘Let’s go get the 1-800 number for sexual assault. Let’s have them on tour with us. Let’s make sure there’s a table there at every show.’ And basically her people went out and they came back and were like, ‘There’s no 1-800 number for sexual assault.’ So she got together with some other great people and started this non-profit, which is basically a number you call (1-800-656-HOPE) and it links you instantly to the nearest rape crisis center. When we took RAINN on tour with Toad, it was, on the one hand, it was kind of a sad thing and it was a wonderful thing. We were having, what? 500 to 1,000 people to our shows at that time. There was a bump in every city we went to in calls they received. We would go there, we would put the number out, and calls would come in. And on the one hand it was amazing and wonderful those people knew they had a number to call. And on the other hand, it was really scary to think in that small group of people that there were always a few people who needed that number and didn’t know about it. In the amount of people that would be at our concert, that number was actually useful to them. It’s so under-reported. People are still afraid of being the victim. They are so afraid of what happened in Stanford happening to them, that they get treated like it’s their fault and there is basically no penalty for the people who committed the crime.
And that’s the other thing to talk about in terms of that song, is not just how many people I realized I knew had been sexually assaulted, but how few of them had ever done anything about it. That the vast majority had let it go unreported, had never taken it to the police, had never taken it to their parents, had maybe taken it eventually to a counselor, that most people just lived with it and shared it with their friends and healed that way. The hope is that people don’t have to go through this alone and they don’t have to be victimized a second time. They don’t have to be suffering from the process of getting some justice.
DN: After fear, Toad released Dulcinea, In Light Syrup and Coil. All great albums. It seemed like you guys really hit your stride in songwriting, which continued right up until the breakup.
GP: Things always shifted. Dulcinea was definitely a return to trying to represent ourselves live. We wanted to make a record we didn’t have to play every part of live. And when we went out for Dulcinea, when we did that record, we were like, we wanted that to be a big record but we wanted to be able to play every single part. We added an extra guy to do some keyboarding and guitar.
So there was some playing around a little bit. But it always centered around what we did best together. And there was, I think, a progression in terms of song-writing capabilities, as far as arrangements, as far as playing. And hopefully lyrical intent. Since I was 19 and 20, for the songs on fear, there’s a lot of places where I feel it’s a little ham-fisted where I would have written it differently. I think the thing I’m proud of is that the subject matter in my head…I’m proud of the things I was thinking about at that age. I’m not going out at this age and singing, ‘Hey baby, I see you in the club…’ You know, I was kind of a brooding, nerdy kid. And that record came out without being overtly nerdy. This was before nerd culture was mainstream. I think that record spoke to people, people who were able to find it, it was about being kind of vulnerable and small in this big, complicated world. And it was about trying to hold on to idealism in the face of a world that was not necessarily always a friendly place to try to be idealistic. Looking at the other records and the progression, I think there was a maturity and intent that came in. As the years have gone on, I think I’m still doing that in my writing.
It’s interesting at this point for me to come back to that same position of maybe looking at my idealism, looking at who I am at the core and seeing how I have compromised that over the last years. I feel like the last record Toad did, Architect of the Ruin, that song and “So Long Sunny” as well, were kind of written pretty soon after the beginnings of my divorce after a 25 year marriage. And New Constellation was written at the very end of that marriage as maybe right underneath the surface there were the beginnings of that breaking apart happening or maybe a realization of that. It’s been a very loving divorce as far as those things go. I mean, it’s a difficult process. But, you know, it’s interesting to realize, ‘Hey, we did this first huge section of our lives together and we’re really different people now, and not serving each other anymore. And there can still a ton of love, and also a need to move on. I’m finding myself nearly two years after that breaking apart happier than I’ve been in a decade, and really gone from feeling like a victim a year ago to feeling grateful. To feeling like this has freed me to step into another point of my life.
So looking at fear is interesting to me because it was about seeing how life might wear away at my idealism. And now I’m looking at that record from this point of view, you know, in some ways the ruins of the idealism and going, I’m still the same person that I was. In some really important ways, I’m the same person that I was when I was 20. I have the same interest in the divine. How do you lead a spiritual life if you don’t believe in anything? That’s been a question of my life. A spiritual person without a religion. I spent so many years in the role of provider. And in the role of raising three kids, keeping a household together, supporting day to day these other people’s needs. And now I’m at a point again where I’m looking at my own life again in terms of I get to really ask what I want to do again. And not everybody gets to ask that question. I want to really respect the fact I have that gift. That’s a huge thing to get to ask again, ‘What do I actually want to do with this life?’ There’s not so much left of it anymore and I get to ask my own questions again that aren’t just about providing a life for other people. And I had a lot of years as well lost in depression. Things were pretty great in my early 20s. And to go, What does it mean you’re not on top anymore? What does it mean to get older? And I think it’s a universal thing. People go through these years into their 30s of kind of building their lives and getting lost in the structures of protecting what they own. You start saying, ‘Hey, life is pretty good. I love my family. I love what I’m building,’ and start building these castles. And then your life becomes like a defensive mechanism, and it’s about not losing, it’s not about passion anymore. And now I feel I did all this time building a castle, and now I’ve got a backpack and I’m leaving. So, ‘How do I keep my idealism?’ It’s exactly the same question I had when I was 20 but from a much more experienced position.
DN: Most people, however, spend a lifetime building their castles. You were on top of the world by 22. It didn’t take you long to build your castle. How much did that affect what happened?
GP: Yeah, the lesson is external validation isn’t worth (crap). Once again, I was a sensitive kid and I knew I wasn’t cut out for fame or success. I knew that when I was in high school. I was in the performing arts. I knew I was an artist. But my high school drama teacher was very clear that the reason he was a teacher was because he didn’t have the thick skin. He loved the theatre more than anything. But he didn’t want to have to put himself up for the scrutiny that a professional actor would be in for and the pain that he would encounter. I resonated with that very strongly. I was like a very sensitive kid. I remember I would sit there at school as a little kid and I didn’t understand how the other kids had so much confidence (and didn’t worry that) ‘Everything is going to hurt?’ I was tuned really sensitively. I think it what makes me a good artist. But I also think…I just couldn’t understand how people got up and played and had fun. I was just trying so hard not to be in pain all the time, even as a little kid. So I knew fame was probably not a good idea for me. And frankly, when Toad was out there, I suffered the entire time from impostor syndrome. And I was always thinking I was about to get caught and thrown out. So when the band broke up and I couldn’t get a record deal, I fell apart. I felt like this was finally the thing I’d been afraid of, and that I was getting divine retribution for ever thinking that I could deserve success. So I spent more than a decade just beating the crap out of myself.
So yeah, maybe I achieved these things. And I think there are people who would have the same experience and would think, ‘Man, I killed it! This is awesome!’ And instead, it was actually kind of painful for me. So I’ve had to learn a lot about it. After the years of big success and I had to tour in a car by myself and make my own website. And I say that not in a pity way, but that’s how I’ve learned about life. I had the success early, and I discounted it when it was happening. And I’ve had to learn how to measure having had that experience and how to no longer expect someone to pull me out and kind of realize success is what I make it, how I define it.
When I look at things like (Rhonda Byrne’s) The Secret and people are told if you ask in the right way with a pure heart that the world will give you whatever you want, I don’t believe in that at all. I think there is a lot of luck involved in life. There’s a lot of luck and a lot of timing. You can control your attitude. And if there’s anything in The Secret that’s true, it’s your attitude and how hard you work, those are the things that you can control. And everything else external is beside the point. It doesn’t matter. And its taken me a long time to start learning that. That next years of my life are going to be about that. And hopefully the musical work I do reflects that again. And maybe nobody will hear it. A lot less people heard the new Toad record. A lot less people will hear the new album I have coming out, and I care more about that album than anything I’ve done in decades. You have to kind of stop worrying about those results and pay attention to do what you do, because history rolls over all of us, right? And we can’t take it too personally.
DN: Talk about your new album, Swallowed by the New, (scheduled to be released Oct. 7)
GP: It’s an interesting record…I’ve seen a lot of people go through divorce and change. And I think our culture has kind of a poor relationship with change and transition. We build what we get and then we build defenses around it. And then we spend all our energy protecting it. And it doesn’t work.
If it was a great marriage at that point, if it was serving everybody there wouldn’t be a divorce. You gotta have two people fully invested in this thing for it to be worthwhile. It’s never actually a terrible thing unless it’s done with a lot of hate. And the hate is done because of resistance to change.
It’s a great gift to be let go from a non-functional relationship. And to be able to do it with love and respect, it’s really hard work, but it’s so worth it. To sit here two years later with nothing but gratitude. I have three amazing kids who are like three of the coolest people I know. It was a total success. She’s happier. I’m happier. We’re both in love again. We’re both happier than we’ve been and happy to let each other experience this.
DN: So does your new record leave people going through bad relationships and hard time feeling optimistic for their future or depressed because they’ve lost what they’ve built up?
GP: The new record is somewhere in-between because it was written before I realized I was even capable of having a new relationship. It was written before I fell in love again. Before I started being really grateful. But the thing I see in that record, it was written from the point of view of wanting to achieve that. Waking up with the terrible thoughts in my head and resolving every day that those thoughts were not the actual truth.
It’s a really heavy record. It’s definitely written from being in the middle. But it’s from being in the middle and being resolved to do everything possible to get to the other side and do the work necessary to find the peace on the other side. So I would say there’s some optimism, there’s a lot of heart in it. It’s a heavy album but it’s not a depressing album. There’s a couple of moments of feeling sorry for myself. It’s interesting to look at that record now, and also look at Architect of the Ruin and New Constellation and feel like you can be in dark times, but even when you’re there, you know, we all get lost. We all go down the rabbit hole. And I’m really good at going down the rabbit hole. But it’s a question of you go down there, and do you believe that’s all there is or do you collect yourself and know that you can aim somewhere else. We’re all capable of that, whether we choose to do it or not. There’s a lot of ways to pull back through. Some people use God. Some people use other people. And some double down on hate and stay miserable.