Glen Phillips is the lead singer of Toad the Wet Sprocket. By phone, he discussed the history and reformation of the band after breaking up in the late 90s, and which Toad the Wet Sprocket album he is most likely to listen to.
Before I get started, I have to say that Pale came out when I was a senior in high school and that was in my heavy rotation for a long time. That and Bread and Circus.
Those are my most embarrassing albums. What can I say? I was 17 when we did Bread and Circus and 18 when we did Pale. I think they were effective because I was too naive to edit. They're these teenage angst documents that are pretty honest. No one wants to read the journal they wrote when they were 17. I understand why people like them, but as they were my journal entries, I'm like "Please, no!"
What means more to you: a couple platinum records or the fact that the band is performing more than 25 years after it formed?
It probably depends on when you ask me. What I'm most proud of is that we're able to perform again and that we're able to get along and be optimistic and on the same side. We went through all the stuff every band goes through. We started really young and had to pay our dues in reverse. We got signed pretty quickly and went out and it worked great. We realized how rare that was and how lucky we were only after we had broken up. For us to get over our history and each other, and enjoy being together again took a lot of time and a lot of work. I'm proud of that.
That was another question I had. What ultimately brought you back together?
At first what brought us back together seven years ago was that at every single show I play, at least one person will ask. Every day. It's really important to other people. To be honest, at first I did it because I didn't know if I had any other options. We would get together when I wasn't ready, or when one of the other guys wasn't ready and it would blow up really quickly. Three or four years ago, for some reason, everyone was on the same page. Finally. Everybody was ready and interested in getting along and kind of in their place. Me more than anybody probably...I had to get over myself. I'm proud of the songs. I'm proud of how much it meant to people. There wasn't a big reason why it shouldn't work. We never walked around and talked crap about each other. At the same time, it would always get too thorny to continue, and finally it wasn't.
I'm sure a lot of that has to do with getting older.
If we were just taking out an ad and randomly encountering each other, maybe we'd be in a band together. We got together really young. It's an odd combination. You have this artistic relationship together. You have a business relationship together and you also have a relationship that is more like a familial relationship. Life has thrown you together in this thing and you're bound. Growing up, having gratitude has had a lot to do with it. There's a lot to go through. Every episode of Behind the Music is the same. I'm really glad we never took the route of airing all the specifics of our dirty laundry. I think that's enabled us to move on. After the band broke up, I lost about 10 years maybe 15 to anxious depression. I was trying to leave the past behind me but I felt like as long as I was playing music, the past wasn't leaving me. It drove me a little crazy.
I feel like we went through the same stuff that anybody our age has gone through. I think that's the reason our audience has stayed with us. We didn't even really have management for about 10 years...not in any consistent way. We never had a hit record. We did everything wrong. I think the reason people feel bound to us is that we were honest when we came out and they've taken the same journey we have. We started as idealistic teenagers and we've all gone through the grinder together. Our audience and us. We've all tried things and failed. We've taken things for granted. We've been through these ups and downs. In your 40s, you really have to choose your happiness. It's not something that's given to you. It's not entitlement. It's something you work for. You kind of stop waiting for life to solve your problems for you. As a band we all went through that and I think our audience has gone through that as well. The thing I'm really curious about is the songs on the new album...the way we've changed I think is still going to parallel our audience.
If you were going to sit and listen to any Toad the Wet Sprocket album, which one would it be and why?
Probably Dulcinea. I feel that's when we really learned to write songs. We weren't overthinking anything. There are some moments on Coil that I like better, but I feel the way we made that album was the most like us as a band. I'm really proud of that one.
I read on the website that you did Bread and Circus for $650. If you were doing your first album today, how different would your approach be?
I think it depends. One of the things that has allowed us to do Toad again is that we all have other outlets. I make a lot of solo records. I have three other bands aside from Toad, not that they play out all the time. I'm able to write songs that are for Toad right now and choose the songs that are best for Toad. When Todd and Dean are writing, it's specifically about what would be a great Toad song. I just made a solo record six months ago that I recorded with one stereo mic and a bunch of people around it in the room. If something was too loud, you just have that person move back a foot. Having other projects allows me to choose even the recording method. The way that Toad works best right now...we're playing well live, but we like to have the experience of staying out and experimenting more in the studio. You make the right record for the time. You make the record that is the most interesting for everybody personally, most appropriate to the situation. I still believe in really cool, quick recordings. I'm still in love with that recording process. I love being in the stuido and I'm a total techno-geek. I love diving into that and I have some projects that are all about that.
It used to be a really arduous process for us to work out the songs. We were really slow. None of us are natural players and it would take forever for us to hone things in. Todd is a brilliant guitarist. I love his parts. I love his tone, but he is not a guy who jams. When I would bring in a new song, we would play it maybe 40 times before he would even pick up his guitar. He would just listen. That was kind of hard for me. We didn't really communicate well so I thought maybe he didn't like my songs. Finally, when he picked up the guitar, the first time he played the song, he got the perfect part. When we were able to get back in the studio, he could just take it home and work on it there. I didn't have to scratch my head and wonder how he felt. He'd just walk in the next week and have the perfect part. Getting to work in the studio has been better that way. Rather than going through all that and then recording demos of the songs, and then going to record it; we kind of do it all at the same time. It keeps it fresh and fun and allows us to do that experimentation in the studio without having to backtrack so much. I think it's an effective way for us to work.
I spoke to The Mahones recently and the singer said that in the studio if he doesn't get it in the first two takes, he'll leave it and go back to it later. That allows him to keep the songs energetic and fresh.
We have these tools now that allow us to go way off the deep end in the manufactured perfection side of things. Keeping spontaneity in that environment is definitely a discipline.
What would you be doing if you weren't making music?
I wonder that every day. I guess the question is realistically or just a dream. If I were suddenly unable to make music and had to support my family, what would I do? or if I could take a few years and go back to school to pursue another career? Are we talking fantasy or reality?
Probably reality, although if you want to answer the fantastic side, that's fine too,
Neuropsychology is very interesting to me. Initially if I had to stop making music, I would parlay that into something with writing. My biggest interest is the mind. I'm really curious about the physical and electronic nature of the mind shapes our reality and perception. I think that's fascinating. One of the songs on the new Toad record is sort of about bottling reality. That's where my head goes. I know I would find research to be a drag, but probably some kind of Popular Science writing would be something I'd love.
If I could work for boingboing.net and find interesting things and write about them, I would be in heaven.
Toad the Wet Sprocket plays The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Saturday 9 March.