Toad The Wet Sprocket Frontman Glen Phillips Is Cool With His Band Not Being Cool
Tracking Down is a Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
1991 is the year alternative rock went mainstream. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden were about to take over the world; Out Of Time and “Losing My Religion” turned R.E.M. into megastars; and the first Lollapalooza tour brought the underground across the country.
Toad The Wet Sprocket isn’t exactly the first name that might come to mind when discussing the alt-boom, and frontman and songwriter Glen Phillips is okay with that. Though his group spent years touring small venues, recording albums on the cheap, and fine-tuning its hooky and forlorn take on jangly college rock before its commercial breakthrough, he knows his band wasn’t cool then and isn’t cool now. Too earnest, too soft. But in its own quiet way, Toad The Wet Sprocket’s third album fear was as omnipresent as some of their louder flannel-sporting peers, as the harmonically rich “All I Want” and the plaintive ballad “Walk On The Ocean” became radio and MTV staples. The follow-up album Dulcinea was successful as well, launching the buzzy singles “Something’s Always Wrong” and “Fall Down.” Both of these albums have recently been reissued on vinyl via Sony Music, with bassist Dean Dinning personally overseeing the remastering process. Whether you’re a diehard who’s been repping the power of deep cuts like “Fly From Heaven” for decades or a casual fan that now currently has “All I Want” in your head, the plain-spoken sensitivity of Toad’s songwriting continues to feel genuine and affecting.
Toad The Wet Sprocket, infamously named for a Monty Python sketch, broke up after their 1997 album Coil, and Phillips embarked on a solo career and bringing along a young John Mayer on one of his first tours. The band reunited a decade ago and crowdfunded its most recent album, 2013’s New Constellation, and is currently on a summer tour. Calling from his home in Santa Barbara, Phillips talked about the making of Toad’s most enduring work, the ’90s cred wars, and coming to terms with his band’s legacy.
STEREOGUM: Toad had some success with Pale, but fear is really where you broke out, especially with “Walk On The Ocean” and “All I Want.” What was the band’s mindset going into the making of that album?
GLEN PHILLIPS: We’d been on Sony, touring colleges. We still thought of ourselves as an indie band. And, you know, working with Gavin MacKillop, who’s a big producer who’s worked with Peter Gabriel and Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, the idea of doing an album where we could do a big production was really exciting for us, because we’d never been able to afford that before. I think the pop success that happened after the fact was a surprise to us. We thought we were much more in this indie world, and radio changed a lot at that moment. And I think the way it ended up was kind of a major surprise. But going into it we were just excited we got to actually take a month to make a record and live at a studio.
STEREOGUM: Before that, had you just had to bang the albums out quickly?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I mean we made our first record for $600 bucks. And our second record for $6,000. And basically, they were both played live with live lead vocals and like a couple of harmonies overdubbed. But they were done as quickly and cheaply as was humanly possible. So [getting to work with] string arrangements and overdubs and layers, it was really exciting for us to try to make that kind of a record.
STEREOGUM: Like you said, 1991 is the year when things changed. Alternative rock was about to break big. But this all caught you by surprise.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, and also the record companies were pretty flushed with cash. The CD was new, and so people were buying a CD and an LP and a cassette if they liked an album. They gave us so much time to grow. In a way that would have never happened today. “All I Want’ wasn’t released ’til the album had been out for nine months. These days, if you don’t have a hit single before the record, the record might not come out at all. Back in those days they let us grow at this tortoise pace. We completely lucked out in timing.
STEREOGUM: Did you notice a shift at the record label where they started picking up on the fact that people are really buying this college rock stuff? And did that lead to a little bit more of a push from the record label during the lifespan of that album?
PHILLIPS: As we got closer to releasing “All I Want,” they wanted a big name to remix it, and the videos were expensive. The videos were costing more than the album cost. When we finally put that out it was kind of a surprise how it took off. And once again, even then the radio formats were really different. There wasn’t Alternative Radio at that point. There wasn’t even a word for it. They were calling it post-modern, post-pop, college music. They didn’t have a term for it. So the formats were really shifting quickly, and yeah, a lot changed really fast. And we benefited from that change.
STEREOGUM: Was it a disorienting when “All I Want” started breaking nationally?
PHILLIPS: Yeah it was really weird — part of it was excitement and part of it was surprise. We didn’t expect to be on the radio and once again we thought of ourselves as this indie band. And having a hit doesn’t really work if you’re an indie band. It’s counter to the idea. There was that thing in the ’90s of all the bands distancing themselves from their singles. You know Pearl Jam and Counting Crows and Nirvana, it’s like “we’re not gonna play that that song, that song’s lame.” We were doing that as well. It was a really weird thing to happen to you. I don’t know, we were having the hit, but we were also trying to pretend we weren’t, because that’s not how we thought of ourselves.
STEREOGUM: Would you have shows where you didn’t play “All I Want”?
PHILLIPS: Uhh we mostly played it, but we were kind of jerks about it. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: I have some younger friends, and they just don’t realize how precious people could be in the ’90s, and how credibility was so important. Did you guys ever get any backlash, like “oh they’re selling out, they’re on the radio”?
PHILLIPS: Oh yeah, we had some serious backlash and it wasn’t a lot of fun for us. We really thought of ourselves in a certain way, and when we put out “All I Want” it was really strange for us. We were deeply concerned that the right people liked us, and we lost our credibility. Credibility meant everything, and these days it’s ok to be on a label, it’s ok to have a hit, it’s ok to be in an ad. But back in our days, the idea of being in an ad, even being in a movie was like “ahh, I don’t know if that’s ok.” There was a lot of resistance to popularity. And so there was a lot of self sabotage in that too. We didn’t do ourselves any favors.
STEREOGUM: On the one hand, it seems like it’d be better to be popular in the ’90s because you sold a lot more records, but you also had to deal with a lot more stuff that people just don’t care about at all these days.
PHILLIPS: It’s a mixed bag. It’s always good to have done well. I’m happy about it, ’cause we were at a time when the label system was really strong and I still benefit from having had promotion back in those days. It’s a really lucky thing. So I’m thankful for it. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be making a living as a musician now. And sometimes I debate whether it’s a good thing that I’m making a living as a musician. But generally, I’m grateful for it.
STEREOGUM: You said you were starting to get backlash, so was there any trepidation about releasing “Walk On The Ocean” as a single? It’s a ballad and a different sound for the band.
PHILLIPS: Well, we felt “Walk On The Ocean” was a little more like us and a little less of a pop song. I mean, “All I Want” almost didn’t make it onto the record because it was … really pop. We felt like we could do a pop song, but that’s not what we were as a band. “Walk On The Ocean” was a little more melancholy, a little more of how we saw ourselves.
STEREOGUM: That song was also a hit. Did that reassure the band or did it just make you more popular and that was even weirder?
PHILLIPS: We had already lost our cred, so we were more capable of just saying “ok well, this is where we are now. Yeah, let’s suck it up.” But it is so funny that there was this punk attitude with bands on major labels. Now the advice I would give is, if you’re on a major label, you’re there because they want to make a lot of money off of you, they don’t care about your credibility, they don’t care about your small thing you think is cool. They think they can make a ton of money off of you, and that’s the only thing they’re interested in. They want a home run. And so if you’re not gonna play that game, it’s not the place to be. An indie label is the place for you. A major label really doesn’t want your small cool thing, they don’t work that way.” So I know that now, but we liked to convince ourselves we were special at that time.
STEREOGUM: You were associated with alt-rock, but you weren’t part of any ’90s trends. You weren’t grunge or punk or anything, but you had more edge than, like, Hootie And The Blowfish or Jewel or whatever. Did you feel out of place?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, there was so much emphasis put on edginess at that time. It was kind of before Elliott Smith made it cool to be beautiful and sensitive again. So it’s a funny thing. I felt like we were against the trend. By not being edgy, we were actually kind of bucking the expectations of the time. Like what was wrong with being a little bit more low key and a little subtler? We were a little bit in between worlds and I think ultimately that maybe helped us in being able to be on all these different radio formats. Because, is it regular rock and roll? Is it college rock? Is it alternative? We kind of fit in all those of places, but we also didn’t get swept up in the movement of the time.
STEREOGUM: You had songs on the Friends soundtrack, you were on the Empire Records soundtrack, you were featured on Doogie Howser, M.D. Did you start to embrace the fact that this is “who we are, it’s ok, we’re not as worried about it anymore?”
PHILLIPS: Well that stuff was all Sony. They were a big record company and their job was getting the bands on soundtracks and stuff, so it wasn’t always the most appropriate mix, but that stuff really benefits you in the long run. These days, once again, it’s like that’s what happens instead of radio, you get a good placement on a TV show and that’s how careers are built. I always think of José González as being this big turning point. Like José González, tons of cred right, NPR friendly, really great guy, cool artist, everybody loves him. And his break was that Sony Bravia commercial.
STEREOGUM: Oh, I think I remember that.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, that’s where you heard him first and it didn’t hurt his cred at all, and at that point I realized “wow, it’s a really different world we’re living in.”
STEREOGUM: So fear did really well. What was the band’s mindset going into making the follow-up Dulcinea?
PHILLIPS: Dulcinea was edgier, surprise. We really wanted Dulcineato be more representative of … we played 300 shows for the fear record. We did a lot of touring on that record, and so we were tighter as a live band, we wanted a record that we could reproduce live. So less overdubs, less layered, less dressing up and just a deeper representation of what we were as an actual band. I think it’s our best written record. It’s wasn’t as big as fear, but I think artistically it was our best.
STEREOGUM: There was a trend in the ’90s for a band to have one big album and then the follow-up went straight to the dollar bin. Did you feel a sense of relief when “Something’s Always Wrong” started to catch on?
PHILLIPS: We were proud of the record we’d made. I think, honestly, we wanted to be liked by critics more than we wanted to have hits. I don’t know, grass is always greener. We were always hoping to get the critical acclaim at some point, and we had hits instead, which at this point I can’t really complain about, but I think at the time we were like “are we cool again? Can we be cool yet?” [Laughs] Then again, I’m a person who traditionally is really good at not appreciating the thing he actually has and wanting the thing he doesn’t. So rather than be like “hey we’re winning” I was concentrating on the reviews. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Were there any bad reviews that really bugged you or was it that critics were just not praising you the way they’d praised, say, Stephen Malkmus?
PHILLIPS: No, it was pretty bad. There was a period when, I think it was Tower Records’ Pulse! magazine, we were the punch line in every column for everything that was wrong with major labels taking over college music and pulling all the soul out of it. There were some pretty scathing things. Once again, now I don’t care about it. I had this revelation a couple years ago, I was playing a solo show, and I have a friend who said “wow, you have a lot of elders at your show.” Like in real life there was a lot of 50 and 60 plus at my show. And you know, old people know shit, they’ve seen things. And I had this moment of going, “I kind of like that older people like my music. I don’t really want to sell to 20 year olds anymore cause they don’t know shit,” and realizing you spend all your life as a rock musician chasing youth right, and chasing cool. And cool is one thing. And you know we were nerds, we weren’t the cool kids in high school, and we weren’t the cool kids as a band and looking back and realizing “man, there was all that energy wishing we were the cool kids and we were specifically this other group of people.” We were nerds before nerds were running the world or as the transition happened where nerds started running the world. And now, I feel pretty great about our audience and that the people who are following every most recent trend, it’s like they still follow every recent trend and they’re still… I don’t know, it’s still not about what moves you or what hits your heart, what hits your soul or what you really care about. And so these days I feel pretty good about it all.
STEREOGUM: The video for “Something’s Always Wrong,” where it looks like an infomercial, if you ask me is one of the more memorable videos of that time period. What do you remember while making it?
PHILLIPS: We’d been going in and just doing that thing where we’d read the ideas and it wasn’t working out so well. We felt the videos didn’t really represent us. Dean the bass player actually made a joke, like, we should be on Home Shopping Network. We found a director, we spent all this time writing up all the stuff on the chyron, we had a really great time working it out with the director. And that was the one video where it felt like it was actually us and doing the thing we cared about and making a statement we really believed in and we thought it was hilarious. The problem with the video was that it looks so much like Home Shopping Network that MTV basically barely played it.
PHILLIPS: MTV were saying well, we’re afraid we’d get channel switches when it comes on. [Laughs] It probably hurt the single a little.
STEREOGUM: On that album, you had “Reincarnation Song” you had “Fly From Heaven,” some songs with some spiritual and religious themes, which is rare even today for mainstream rock acts that aren’t U2. What inspired you to sing about that sort of thing?
PHILLIPS: I’ve always been curious in that way, always had a spiritual bent, always had issues with religion specifically, but been very curious about it. I grew up in reformed Judaism, but my dad was taking me to meditation courses. So I had this Eastern thing and my knowledge of Christianity was mostly reading Apocrypha, I was really curious about early Christianity histories. So I was reading that and [Elaine] Pagels’ books, which is really kind of where “Fly From Heaven” comes from. This idea of the change of Christianity from this earlier very much more Jewish sect into what became the Catholic church, and that split from those who probably knew Jesus and were in that early time and how Christianity switched. So I was fascinated with that from mostly a historical perspective. Without being a Christian, just to me the story of Jesus is hey what happens if you call for righteousness and equality and for people to be non-judgmental, it’s like “oh, sometimes you get tortured to death.” And that seemed like a really probable story to me. [Laughs] And that resonated with me, this bit of “hey, doing the right thing doesn’t give you a happy ending necessarily. And I can live with that.” “Reincarnation Song” was another one. I’ve done a couple of meditation retreats, I do meditate, I’m drawn to Buddhist philosophy, but I wouldn’t say I’m like a practitioner of any particular religion. And once again that idea of the continuity of the soul, it was just a fun thing to think about. And my mind is still largely on those topics and it’s a great one cause the deeper you go into it, the less you know, which I think is always an exciting way to live.
STEREOGUM: Did these songs win you any fans from the youth group community or was the band still too secular to crossover there?
PHILLIPS: It’s a weird thing. There are a lot of people who thought Toad was a Christian band, and some kids were allowed to listen to us who otherwise, if their parents had sat down and talked with me, they might have given it a second thought. It’s interesting, there were both people who were drawn to us, because I think if you talk about some of those subjects there can be assumptions that you’re hinting towards a certain belief system. There were some people who looked at it like what it was and said “oh this is kind of outside mainstream religious thought.” There were some people who were repelled ’cause they thought we were a religious band and they didn’t want that. So lots of different reactions to all that. It’s funny ’cause I had a friend who played “Reincarnation Song” for a bunch of Tibetan monks and said they loved it. A lot of people read whatever they want into records. I’ve had people both shocked that I was not an evangelical Christian and I’ve also had people shocked that I wasn’t gay, because there were songs about being yourself and coming out into who you truly are and being afraid of external judgment, and people read what they want to read into a song.
STEREOGUM: From the time of the band’s peak popularity when you were on MTV and such, do you have strange, “only in the ’90s moments” where you look back and think “wow, how crazy?”
PHILLIPS: It was strange when we were playing the big festivals, it would usually be like Hole and Green Day and us, and we didn’t really fit in and they kind of avoided talking to us. I don’t have any great celebrity stories or anything, and I don’t have a lot to compare it to. It’s like that’s what I was doing in my early 20s. I think the strange part for me is looking back at these things and looking at my life now. You’re supposed to want to be in a big band, you’re supposed to want to be on the radio, you’re supposed to think all that stuff is really important. And it’s been interesting to just ask myself like what do I actually want.
I was in this band when I was a kid. The last couple years I’ve been doing a lot of community choir leading, just doing spiritual group singing for no money in a living room and that’s making me really happy. [Laughs] I’ve been finding more and more that the things that bring me the most pleasure are pretty outside that rock and roll world, and so it’s been an interesting thing to have so much emphasis on this. I mean I’m out here in the summer with Toad, I’m really proud of what we did, but I have a really different life now. And it’s strange that part of my job is to go back and look at this thing I did in my early 20s. My kids are the age I was now when I was doing this stuff. And that’s a real trip for me. It’s always odd to be forced to look back into my past so often. And even with recent songs … going through a divorce and having all these songs in my solo thing … I’m really ready to write another album cause I’ve been singing about my marriage forever and then I was singing about my divorce and now I really wanna sing about some other things I’ve been thinking about. It’s the odd life as a musician. Your head is constantly being turned to your own past, which on the one hand can lead to a lot of great insight and on the other hand can maybe stunt growth or hold you back a little. It’s a really interesting process and I mean getting these records out again with Toad, it’s been some opportunities to look at what do we want to be right now, like what actually serves us in our lives. And doing these shorter seasons and just recording a song here and there and not really worrying about albums, it’s been a really fascinating process.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned writing new songs. Are you guys working on another album?
PHILLIPS: Not at the moment. There was a Roger Miller tribute record [out 8/31] we did a song for, we have a song in an animated kids movie [Animal Crackers] that’s coming out, ’cause every ’90s band must do that at some point in their career.
STEREOGUM: When the band took a break after Coil, what was going on?
PHILLIPS: We had just collapsed under our own weight. I think part of it was entitlement which is what you happen when you have huge success as a young person [Laughs], you know that’ll fuck you up. And internally we’re really different people. We’re really different personalities. We got together when I was a freshman in high school and they were all seniors and we were in theater together. [Guitarist Todd Nichols] lived a couple blocks from my house and he had a car that I could throw my bike in so I got rides home from him. I was listening to like lots of Rush and Ozzy at the time and he had Elvis Costello and Dinosaur Jr., Hüsker Dü, Replacements, Waterboys, really turned me on to a whole new world of music and we started writing song together. But as far as like hanging out after the shows, we weren’t that band really.
STEREOGUM: It’s kind of like a family member that you love, but you don’t really have much in common with.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, tons of shared history and a lot of mutual support but when we broke up we had a lot of issues. There was all the stuff that every band goes through, mutual overlapping resentments and unspoken things that blow up and it was really hard. We were trying to make another record and basically we couldn’t do it, we just didn’t want to be around each other. What surprises me is that our management and nobody around us sat us down and said “don’t be stupid. Take a break, make a solo record, don’t blow this thing up because, really, honestly, this isn’t normal, this doesn’t happen to people, and this will likely never happen to you again, so take a break, cool off, maybe get some mediation, and come back to it later.” But we just broke up.
STEREOGUM: I did a thing on the band Belly last year and they kind of said the same thing. It’s like “we really wish we had just taken six months off instead of breaking up but that’s just not how you think when you’re in your 20s.”
PHILLIPS: I’m surprised we didn’t get sat down. I got chewed out because the head of Sony was not at all pleased. And who knows… I figure you get the life you get, and your mistakes are all part of the lesson plan. I just I would have probably had a better chance of owning a home and retiring if we’d stayed together. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: What does your fan base look like these days?
PHILLIPS: A lot like us in a certain way. It’s kind of nerdy 40-somethings. And the nice thing about our fanbase these days is it’s a lot of diehards. And when we put out the new album, I think we’re playing like eight songs off the new album in the current setlist, and I see everybody singing along. I feel like we managed to, even though we got on the radio and everything, we managed to keep a core following that really knew the deep cuts on the records. And those are the people who are still around. And I think it’s amazing for a band that’s been around as long as us, it’s not like one song deep. And yes people like “Walk On The Ocean” and “All I Want,” but they know every other song and that part of it, like how deep that is, means a lot to me, that they were there for the whole picture and even when we did the new album they wanna know what we had to say. So it’s a good thing.
STEREOGUM: You said for a while you kind of felt like you guys weren’t very cool or respected by critics and it bothered you. But these days, are you cool with the band’s legacy?
PHILLIPS: Yeah I’m happy with it. I think we get referred to as a underrated band from the ’90s now, and I appreciate that. I feel like as time has gone on and as our fans have gotten older we’re getting some more respect now. We were never the cool edgy band and that’s what everybody was wanting all the bands to be back in the day. And I feel proud that rather than trying to cater to that, we just kept being us, we found our own way through it.
STEREOGUM: The majority of the people on this planet just aren’t that cool or edgy, so I think it’s fine.
PHILLIPS: Yeah I agree too.
STEREOGUM: There’s a lot of interviews where you guys talk about how much you hate your band name. Is that still the case?
PHILLIPS: Ahh, I mean I don’t love it. It’s what we are at this point. It was a joke and it’s a good lesson in how you know if you make a joke it might just stay with you, which is fine.
STEREOGUM: And I guess my last question is on your Wikipedia page it says that you’re frequently barefoot when performing with the band?
PHILLIPS: Uh yeah mostly, especially in the summer. It’s a lot more comfortable and I can find the pedals easy. I like performing barefoot. But I like being barefoot generally.
STEREOGUM: Do you ever worry about how clean the floor or the concert stage is though?
PHILLIPS: I do a lot of foot washing after the shows.
Toad The Wet Sprocket’s fear and Dulcinea remastered vinyl is out now. Their summer US tour dates are below.
8/8 New York, NY @ Sony Hall
8/9-10 Alexandria, VA @ The Birchmere
8/11 Boston, MA @ The Wilbur Theatre
8/12 Derry, NH @ Tupelo Music Hall
8/14 Bethel, NY @ Bethel Woods Center for the Arts
8/16 Kent, OH @ Kent Stages
8/17 Royal Oak, MI @ Royal Oak Music Theater
8/18 Chicago, IL @ Park West
8/19 Grand Rapids, MI @ Meijer Gardens
9/20 Charlotte, NC @ McGlohon Theater
9/22 Augusta, GA @ Miller Theater
9/23 Atlanta, GA @ Buckhead Theatre
9/24 Nashville, TN @ CMA Theatre
9/25 Durham, NC @ Carolina Theatre
9/27 Phoenixville, PA @ The Colonial Theatre
9/28 Richmond, VA @ The National
9/29 Virginia Beach, VA @ Neptune Festival
9/30 Frederick, MD @ Weinberg Center for the Arts