By Lee Zimmerman
Glen Phillips isn't the type of person to put all his eggs in the proverbial single basket. One of the mainstays of the ’90s chart champs Toad the Wet Sprocket, Phillips has diversified his efforts into a solo career, a successful stint with WPA, an Americana super group of sorts, and at least a trio of other affiliations on an occasional basis.
These days, Phillips is back at the beginning, with a revived Toad. The band hit the road this summer with Counting Crows to support “New Constellation,” Toad’s first studio album in more than 15 years. The band’s penchant for catchy, utterly infectious songs made Toad the darlings of the 1990s indie scene. Formed in 1986 by high school chums Phillips — the group’s designated singer, songwriter and guitarist — drummer Randy Guss, guitarist Glen Todd Nichols and bassist Dean Dinning, the band borrowed its moniker from a Monty Python comedy sketch profiling the fictional band Toad The Wet Sprocket. (You can hear the reference in the track “Rock Notes” on 1980’s “Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album.”)
It was clear from the start that the real-life version of Toad The Wet Sprocket took its music seriously. The band’s self-recorded debut, “Bread and Circus,” caught the attention of Columbia Records, which signed the group and reissued the album unchanged in 1989 at the band’s insistence. Next came 1990’s “Pale,” followed by 1991’s “Fear,” which featured the hits “All I Want” and “Walk on the Ocean.”
Inclusion on movie soundtracks for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (“Little Heaven”) and “So I Married an Axe Murderer” (“Brother”) raised the band’s profile. Its fourth album, 1994’s “Dulcinea,” included another series of successful songs — “Fall Down” and “Something’s Always Wrong” chief among them. “Light Syrup” — a collection of B-sides and rarities was followed by the band’s initial swan song, 1997’s “Coil.”
Sporadic one-off reunions took place in the first decade of the new millennium, eventually creating the momentum for an official full-scale regrouping in 2009. The initial order of business? To re-record the band’s greatest hits under the title “All I Want.” That was followed by the October 2013 release of “New Constellation.”
With so many projects to Phillips’ credit, Goldmine wanted to get the lowdown on how Toad figures into the mix.
GOLDMINE: For starters, after getting back together on and off for so many years, what prompted the decision to move Toad to the front burner and make it a priority?
GLEN PHILLIPS: It just seemed like the right time. Enough water under the bridge, enough growing up. We were all ready to give a little more and be more grateful for what everyone else had to offer. We didn’t want to make a record unless we knew we could be on the same team and have the heart to go out and do the touring job properly, and we were finally ready. And we still have our other projects. Toad is a priority now, but we’re not abandoning our other interests. The balance is key.
GM: Were you at all surprised by the band’s early success? And how did that success affect each of you?
GP: I fully expected we’d get dropped a couple years after we got signed, and then I’d just go back to school. It was quite a surprise that we were able to keep making records as long as we did. We didn’t really get much airplay until “All I Want,” which was the third single on our third album. That’s not exactly an overnight success. It was strange, though. None of us really has the thick skin or the ego that the music business requires. We were all a little like deer in the headlights.
GM: Why did the group disband in the first place?
GP: All the usual reasons. I tell people to watch a few episodes of Behind the Music, scramble the stories and change the names. Basically, we took the band -- and each other -- for granted, and we all needed to grow up a bit.
GM: Was it odd or awkward when you started collaborating again? Whose idea was it?
GP: The idea wasn’t out of nowhere. Every time I’d play a show, with Toad or without, somebody would ask when we were going to do a record. We just didn’t want to do it ’til we all thought it felt right. I was probably the last holdout. We went in with a lot of caution. We didn’t want to do this if it was just going to blow up before we finished.
GM: What was it like when you reconvened in the studio? Did things fall into place and flow like they did in the old days?
GP: The workflow is different, but things fell together pretty easily. I was surprised at how instantly things sounded like Toad. There’s just some groove we hit together that’s pretty automatic. I don’t think the new record sounds like a ’90s record, but it definitely sounds like us. After putting together so many records outside the band, I was surprised at how easily our sound came back to us.
GM: What prompted the decision to re-record the old hits?
GP: The publishing reverted to our ownership, and we felt it would be wise to own a version of master recordings, as well, for use in film, TV and ads. That way, it’s a one-stop shop to us instead of someone having to go through the old record company. We can be much more responsive and easy to work with. It was also a good excuse to stretch our legs in the studio and see if we could make a new record.
GM: Tell us a bit about the new album. Was it intimidating in any way trying to recapture the old magic? (Which you did brilliantly, by the way.)
GP: There was certainly a self-imposed pressure to make something worth getting back together for. A lot of bands try the reunion thing and only prove that they were wise to break up in the first place. We didn’t want that to be the case. We spent a lot of time writing and making sure we were doing something we were proud of. So, there was a lot of work put into this record.
GM: In its prime, Toad was a reliable band when it came to winning radio airplay. However, the landscape is a lot different now. How do you see the environment and the opportunities now?
GP: The landscape is totally different. We’re not on a label. We used Kickstarter to fund the release and raised $264,000 to put out the album and provide fans with special-edition versions of the record and other treats. It’s possible for us to make a living right now by just reaching a portion of our old fans. We’d like to reach more people, but that takes some external mover — placement in TV or film, something going viral on the Web. If that happens, then Yahtzee for us all, but there’s no guarantees. We’ll just keep doing our job and keeping our fingers crossed.
GM: Is Toad still interested in scoring the big pop hits?
GP: Were we before? We just tried to make good music. I’ve never listened to much radio. It’s nice to be appreciated, but I’ve never aimed at that. I want to make songs that resonate emotionally. Sometimes that may be in line with what they play on the radio, but more often it isn’t.
GM: What can newcomers expect from a Toad show?
GP: We’ll play the hits and some favorite album tracks, as well as some tunes off the new record. No grand gestures, really. We’ll make sure to tune up and stretch before we go on stage. Or not.
GM: You toured with Counting Crows back in the day. Did that make this double bill a natural?
GP: They’re old friends. I mentioned to Adam (Duritz) that we’d be happy to play some shows with them, and next thing I knew, we were heading out for the summer. We couldn’t be happier.
GM: You have so many projects you personally juggle simultaneously. So what is the current status of WPA, Plover, your solo career, etc.? Will you still maintain projects on the side?
GP: I’d like to be better at keeping the other projects up. I’m seriously overdue for a solo studio album, so that’s next on the schedule. I hope we can make time for another WPA and RemoteTreeChildren record, as well. One of the main reasons I was able to go back to Toad is that I have other projects. I like a lot of variety. I need changes of scenery to keep my creativity active, and Toad is just one part of that.
GM: What’s next for Toad? Another album perhaps?
GP: We’ll see. There are no firm plans. We may do another, but I have plenty of other work to do before we get to that.
GM: Have you found that your former fans are returning to the fold despite your lengthy layoff? Are they still coming to the concerts, requesting the old hits?
GP: They seem happy to see us. And they’re singing along to the new songs, which means a lot to us. It’s great to have people cheer when we start playing “California Wasted,” and have the energy go up a notch for something new. They’re happy to hear the hits, too, but that’s the good thing about Toad — we were never the cool kids, never the critical darlings. The only reason to like us was because the songs meant something to you. That’s still the only reason, and so the audience has been willing to listen to the new record and appreciate it. If they couldn’t move forward with us, there’d be no reason to keep doing this. I’m not done as a writer, and we’re not done as a band.
GM: Do you feel like Toad set a high bar for itself? And if so, is it a challenge to meet the high bar you set early on?
GP: We’re just trying to write songs that feel authentic. That’s the bar. The rest is just window dressing, really. If you can write a song that makes people feel something that’s both new and deeply familiar, then you’ve done your job. GM