Catching up with Glen, Toad, and a style of music that continues to blend genres and combine reality with something broader, bolder, and often appropriately branded as philosophical.
Toad the Wet Sprocket, one of the iconic bands of the 1990s and early 2000s, has continued to make its special brand of alternative rock during the decades that followed their attempt to retire the band in 1998. They responded to collapse of the record industry and the rise of streaming with live performances and frequent reunion tours. In more recent years, frontman Glen Phillips went on to a solo career, but it was reviving Toad that produced a couple of noteworthy albums as well as a powerful compilation.
The Aquarian had the pleasure to speak with Glen about a week prior to the commencement of their latest tour. He proved to be an exceptionally modest and articulate spokesman for the band. My intention was to reexamine their history and to find out what makes Toad the Wet Sprocket so special for this feature. I also wanted to brush up on what the band has been up to now and see where it is currently heading. Listening to Phillips reveal himself was almost as uplifting as listening to his music.
It’s an honor to speak with you, Glen Phillips, singer-songwriter for the band Toad the Wet Sprocket. Last time I interviewed you for The Aquarian was in 2011 and a lot has transpired. Can we review a little bit of your background for starters?
What are your roots? Where did you grow up?
That would be in Santa Barbara, California. The whole band did, actually. We met in high school – in San Marcos High. We formed a high school band which just happened to last the next 35 years.
Are you still around that vicinity?
Yes, I am, as are most of the other band members, actually, in the next town down to the south – Ventura.
What’s it like there as far as geography of the area?
It’s a really thin sliver of land before you hit mountain peaks. It’s a like a riviera with an east-west coast instead of a north-south coast, so you get a really mild climate – pretty ideal. I’m still trying to figure how to remain here. It’s gotten pretty expensive.
Were the four of you classmates? Were you in the high school band together?
They were seniors, I was a freshman. We were we were mostly in theater and choir together. My freshman year we did Oklahoma. We also did Our Town and Todd did the narrator.
When did you get together? How old were you?
I was 14 or 15. We would meet at choir practice and I learned that Todd lived two blocks away. He also could play guitar, so we started writing songs together and that’s how it all began. He had a great record collection that was kind of cool, and so I started hanging out with him.
Were you playing guitar then, as well?
I was playing guitar, but I wasn’t particularly good.
I guess you were particularly good at singing.At the beginning – like a sort of a garage band – were you playing covers, or was it original music?
We learned a couple of covers, but the place that would let us play, called the Shack, didn’t want to pay ASCAP [American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers] or BMI, so we weren’t allowed to play covers – only originals. It wasn’t because we loved original music. We were playing there around once a week. We had to come up with a playlist every week. We ended up writing a lot of songs.
That was good for us! And what was the actual year at the inception of the band?
That would be 1986.
How did you come by the unique and curious name for the band?
We had a gig and we didn’t have a name yet. Dean was a big Monty Python fan – so am I – and we had all the records. They had a hilarious comedy sketch on ‘Rock Notes’ proposing a bad rock band name. It was Toad the Wet Sprocket featuring an electric triangle player named Rick Stardust. We thought it would be just a terrible name for a band, but that we could come up with a better name later.
Glad you didn’t. So the band, I take it, was established by the time you got out of high school.
Well, I graduated early. I was 16 when got out of high school.
Then did you go on to college?
I did two years at Santa Barbara City College, but by that time I was 18, we got signed. It was then that we went on tour. I was intending to go back to school… I wasn’t assuming that this was going to take me […] or last as long as it did.
Let’s get into the actual career of the band. The self-produced first album was Bread and Circus. It already had the signature sound of Toad the Wet Sprocket. Do you still get requests to perform songs from that album? Does it get a lot of traffic on streaming services?
No, it doesn’t. That and the second album, Pale, were the first two we did before we were signed with Sony, then re-released. They were first recorded live. There are a group of people who like them because they’re unadorned, and there’s an authenticity to them. I don’t feel like I was a great songwriter at 16 or a great singer. I feel like those were some things I did as a kid, but some select group of people like it. There’s nothing professional about those albums. They’re really revealing and imperfect in ways that some people find appealing. I don’t share that feeling.
Music videos and MTV were a big thing at one time. Was that a big thing for marketing?
No. I didn’t think it was a big thing for us. I think of it as an after-thought.
I did enjoy the videos, and some of them were controversial.
Like “Fall Down.” That was a brutal take on marathon dance contests.
The video for “Fall Down” was based on They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). It was a good video and it was done by Samuel Bayer. He had also done the Nirvana video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
And there’s some controversy regarding “Something’s Always Wrong,” the video that seemed to parody TV commercials.
MTV shied away from that video because it looked too much like the Home Shopping Network. I loved the idea of that one, of basically selling intangibles like unconditional love and things that you can’t sell.
Maybe it was touching a little too close to what MTV was selling.Another thing about Toad the Wet Sprocket is that you are famous for not being infamous. No substance abuse reports, no fights with other bands, no battles within the industry – how did you avoid those standard scandals that are so common in the music scene?
I don’t know. I met my wife when I was a very young age. I was raising kids by the time I was 25. I had a strong group of friends at home. Those are things that you need as an artist to complete you. A lot of people go into that world that don’t have those basics – like a solid partner and a solid community – to keep you in check, even tell you when you go out of line. I think we had that. Community and friends go a long way… and we were all kind of conflict averse. No massive arguments. Nobody was dating celebrities. If we had done more of that, would we have been a bigger band?
When I spoke to you in 2011, you named REM and U2 as bands you admired. Are there any particular bands or artists at thepresent time that you feel could be influential or that you maybe just admire?
There’s too much to single anyone out. I don’t know where to start. There’s James Blake and there’s Gregory Alan Isakov who I think does amazing work. Phoenix is also a great band.
Sounds like you’re open to a great deal of what’s out there. Would you say that Toad the Wet Sprocket is still capable of being influenced by changing times and changing musical style?
Yes, probably. I’m sure we are. I hope that our last record shows that we are evolving musically. I’m always trying to do stuff that’s different. One of the things about my solo work is that every one of my records sounds different. I’m at the point where now I want to make things that sound a little more alike.
Last time we spoke there was a cataclysmic change going on in the economics of the music industry with the collapse of record sales and the replacement with streaming platforms. How has that affected Toad the Wet Sprocket with you large and popular discography?
You really only make money by going on the road. We haven’t had much luck with streaming. We haven’t had much luck with film and television lately. Those are thing you have to look toward now. We’re really lucky in that we have a catalog, we have a following of fans, and we can go on the road.
I have mixed feelings. You can’t even call it the ‘record’ industry.
But that’s all happened before. It happened when recorded music was invented. If you wanted to have music at your bar, you had to have a musician there. Then the jukebox came along and musicians protested deeply about that. There was a ban on recorded music, I believe in 1941, that lasted about a year. Musicians were not getting paid for their performances on records.
Technological innovation and workers’ rights have always been in slow motion balance. I try not to take it too personally.
If there’s a good thing about the streaming services and easy ubiquity of recording technology it’s that you can buy an entire studio for a thousand dollars and make a really good-sounding record with it. The problem is that it’s really difficult for a musician to make a living at that if they’re not willing to jump into TikTok and all the social media. This market benefits people who are capable with that kind of marketing. People like me are not. Frankly, I don’t want to be; it would take too much of my privacy away and too much of my peace of mind away. I’ve got nothing against the people who find success that way.
Is income from streaming services substantial or negligible?
It’s not a lot [Laughs].
Toad the Wet Sprocket is well-known for engaging in long and strenuous touring in the past. At present you are about to embark on an upcoming tour. When did you tour last?
A couple of months ago [Laughs]. Yeah, we did seven weeks. We go out most every summer and every fall. We tour all the time.
When did this current tour start?
How many stops will there be?
I believe it’s 20 or 25.
Your tour will be making a stop in Red Bank, New Jersey on September 28. Your latest album, Starting Now, came out in 2021. It must have been impractical to tour in support of that album due to the COVID lockdowns. Were you even able to bring Starting Now on tour?
It was. We managed [Laughs], and we went out. We saw people. We wore masks during meet-and-greets. We managed to get through the past couple of years. Last year our guitarist got COVID in the middle of the tour. Actually, we didn’t cancel. Our guitar tech sat in, bailed us out. It was a lot of work. COVID is on the rise again this week. I hope we make it through this tour.
If this upcoming tour is not in support of Starting Now, what is its theme or the title?
It’s the ‘All You Want’ Tour. It’s the re-recorded greatest hits as well as some new stuff.
There was an album called All You Want that came out years ago in 2011 – with a bonus edition in 2022. Why the re-record?
We re-recorded a collection of our greatest hits just so that we could own versions of our records instead of everything belonging to Sony. It’s basically why we re-record. The idea was that if someone wanted to use a song in a film or some such, they could use the version that was ours that we owned and that they could get directly from us instead of from Sony. The setlist for the tour is going to have a lot of overlap with that album.
Are you going to feature some of your solo works?
I usually play one song solo acoustic, and when I do that, sometimes I play something off my solo catalog and sometimes from Toad’s catalog.
May you do some covers?
Probably not, but you never know. There may be a couple of covers.
Speaking of covers, I understand that Toad does a version of the KISS hit “Rock and Roll All Night.” Wasn’t there was a famous occasion when Jon Bon Jovi, who is revered by many in this state, joined Toad the Wet Sprocket on stage at Madison Square Garden for that song? How did that come about?
That was basically due to our drummer Randy’s having the nerve to ask. I wouldn’t have asked, but Randy is more courageous than I am. I wouldn’t have had the nerve.
Was Bon Jovi in the audience?
He was backstage. He was performing at the same festival. Randy said, “Hey, you want to sing with us?” and he said “Sure!”
Did it bring the house down?
Yes. When you’re on he stage when Jon Bon Jovi walks on, you’re like “Oh! That’s what an actual star gets. We – we’re just faking it.” Maybe he wasn’t a fan of ours, but he’s definitely more of a star.
I want to jump into the two albums that came out after 2011. The title track of the 2013 album New Constellations starts off with reference to the findings of modern astronomy and winds up with a brief litany naming a number of saints. The fifth track also brings up God and the names of saints. I’m wondering: are you are hinting to something you acquired in your upbringing?
Do you mean my Jewish roots? [Laughs] I grew up Jewish, but I’m kind of fascinated by Christianity. That list of saints – the saints named – are tied up with issues around artists and mental illness. These are saints that you would call on if you were a creative person dealing with depression – which happens to be what I am.
Aren’t we all? Was the second track, “California Wasted,” about a hallucinogen trip?
No, it’s not.
On the same album, there are two tracks, “The Moment” and “Rare Bird,” that seem to be addressing someone very special with loving feelings of praise and for advice. Can you share with us who that person is?
Well, no. Ok… “Rare Bird” was that it was my wife.
You say “was.”
Well, we got divorced 10 years ago. I got remarried just a month ago.
Congratulations! Good for you. I wasn’t looking for a name, but I wanted to make sure it was a specific person, not just a generalized women.The fourth track, “I’ll Bet On You,” seems to predict the fires on Maui and the hurricane-caused floods in Florida. Were there similar natural disasters going on when you you wrote it in 2013?
I believe we are in an era of extreme weather. Santa Barbara recently had landslides, floods, various big fires. There are a number of places that come to mind, and the point of that song is that people are capable of showing up for each other. In Santa Barbara – when the mountains started coming down – it was amazing how people were in looking after each other.
After listening to your entire body of work over the years, I’m prompted to wonder – and to ask you – are you giving voice to a kind os philosophical Stoicism? You know the line: “Whatever happens will be,” from “All I Want.”
I don’t think I would say I’m a stoic. I don’t know much about Stoicism. I have a more psychological take on thinks. I admit that there’s some kind of philosophical bent in the music and the subject matter that I like to think about and write about.
Going back to theme of evolution of your music: in the last album, Starting Now, I found that it includes elements of folk rock, metal, country & western – even gospel – that I haven’t heard in your previous work. Am I right about that, or is that my imagination?
I don’t know if that accurate. There’s always been a little of everything. Those elements are and have been present in everything we’ve done.
It does appear to me that the last album or two have shifted the focus slightly from deep personal issues to some of the great societal issues in Staring Now. Do you agree?
There’s always been a bit of both. I’ve dealt with other subjects over time. There’s a lot going on in the world. In Starting Now, I was probably less personally oriented and more looking at the world – this crazy world. That was a challenge. My previous solo record was all about my divorce and grief. In Starting Now I was ready to talk about myself a little less.
In that album there is that song – “Best of Me.”
Oh, that’s about my wife – my current wife.
I’d like to call what you write the philosophy of everyday life. Do you think that’s a fair observation? Is that a fair way to put it?
I’ll take it. In all of those songs there’s a combination of the specificity and the generality when I’m writing. I try to get things very specific about the emotions and less specific in terms of the situation. If everything you write is highly specific, it will have less universal take.
Thank you for your time and for the contribution you have made to the realm of alternative music and to 20th and 21st century culture. Good luck with the tour. Hope to see you perform in Red Bank, New Jersey.
We’ll be there.
TOAD THE WET SPROCKET PLAYS CITY WINERY NYC ON TUESDAY, 9/26, AND COUNT BASIE CENTER FOR THE ARTS ON THURSDAY, 9/28. FOR TICKETS AND DETAILS ON THE TOUR, VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE!