Toad the Wet Sprocket: Back on their own terms

Toad the Wet Sprocket really has come a long way. Considering what a splash they made in the early- to mid-'90s with songs like "All I Want" and "Good Intentions," it's kind of amazing when you find out that they actually formed way back in 1986 ...

Toad the Wet Sprocket
The members of Toad the Wet Sprocket -- Todd Nichols, Dean Dinning, Glen Phillips and Randy Guss -- have had almost as much success with one-off soundtrack offerings as singles from their traditional studio albums. The band's 1995 compilation "In Light Syrup," which includes their TV and movie contributions, has sold more than 500,000 units. Submitted photo

Toad the Wet Sprocket really has come a long way.

Considering what a splash they made in the early- to mid-'90s with songs like "All I Want" and "Good Intentions," it's kind of amazing when you find out that they actually formed way back in 1986 -- when frontman Glen Phillips was just a freshman in high school.

After calling it a day in '98, the members started pursuing other projects. Phillips, in particular, kept quite busy, forming a number of bands and collaborations and launching a critically acclaimed solo career.

The Toad hiatus didn't last long, though. Within a year they seemed to have settled their differences, playing occasional shows and recording one-off tracks here and there.

But they've never pushed it past "casual." In a phone interview with the Budgeteer, Phillips offered a succinct explanation: "We're just keeping it where it works for us."


To find out what else Phillips told us, read on.

Budgeteer: Your publicist said you were in the studio yesterday -- what were you working on?

Phillips: I'm in a band called Works Progress Administration -- our first album hasn't come out yet, but we're working on a covers EP or album, just as kind of an added bonus thing.

Are you still doing the solo thing, or are all these other bands taking over right now?

Right now there's not a lot of time. I go out and play solo shows, but I haven't had time to actually go make a new solo record. The outside projects are filling my time pretty well.

Toad officially broke up in '98, but you guys have played off and on since then -- were there never any hard feelings between you guys?

There were hard feelings; I think time has mellowed everything out. In the last few years we've finally found ... we would keep trying to get together and play a few shows, and I think things would kind of snowball. We found ourselves feeling more like we did when we broke up. [Laughs] So, in the last couple years, a big part of it was, right now, there's no management. We have a booking agent, who's very protective of the band. And Dean (Dinning), our bass player, has kind of picked up the management/taking-care-of-business duties.

Now we just kind of book as many shows as we want to do, and we keep it short and we keep it fun. That has worked really well for us. I think when it gets strange is when we have a bunch of outside people who get excited about pushing us into recording again or doing longer tours. When we keep it casual, we really enjoy each other, and I think we finally got to the point where, when we're on stage, when we're out there, we're actually having a really good time again.


We're just keeping it where it works for us.

Is it true the band started when you were 14?

Yeah, I was a freshman, they were all seniors. Todd (Nichols) could play, he knew the riffs from a bunch of Boston songs -- I thought that was really cool. We just hung out and started playing music together. So, it was the first band I was ever in. We just made a couple of records on our own and ended up getting to go out and do it for a living, which was as shocking to us as it was anyone else.

Was that part of the reason you guys broke up -- that you were doing it so long, you wanted to explore other areas?

Yeah, I mean it's all that, but it's also ... I think a lot of it had to do with when we got together, and maybe just how our relationships solidified. Probably if I met them and I didn't have the history actually, it would be great. And if they met me and we didn't have the history, it would be great. But you really can't erase all the history, and there was maybe a period of time where we could've gone in and actually went to group therapy as a band. [Laughs]

Musically, personally, I think we were just ready to move on. We weren't making each other happy, we weren't excited and we weren't passionate. And, once again, we've found a balance where we can get back together and revisit what we did and feel really good about it. I think we're all pretty creatively satisfied outside of that.

For this upcoming Toad tour, did you have to relearn a lot of the songs, or are they just that etched in your mind?

They're pretty well etched. The only challenge I've had is that I messed up my hand about six months ago -- I fell on a glass table -- so I've had to relearn a fair amount of songs, kind of around having a finger that doesn't work. [Laughs]


Aside from that, we're good. We actually realized the more we practice, the worse the shows are. If we go in and we barely know what we're doing, it feels a lot more like rock 'n' roll -- you get a few more "happy accidents" that way.

This might be a tough question, but is there one song -- from Toad, your solo stuff and all your other bands -- that best defines what you're going for with your sound?

Well, no. I mean, I've never gone for one thing with my sound. It's the thing that I've found as a solo artist: Toad, between Randy (Guss) and Dean as the rhythm section, they have a really definable sound -- Dean is so melodic and Randy is so tight and to the lyric, and Todd has just this great open tone, he's a really elegant guitar player -- so it meant that any song I brought in ended up sounding like Toad. [Laughs]

It's been interesting as a solo artist to write with the same kind of variety but not have that evening factor, where, once again, I don't know exactly what I sound like because I'm all over the map as a writer and I think I actually always have been. But there was this factor of the band that made it all kind of blend together -- in a good way.

... Right now, the reason I have other bands is I'm a complete technophile -- I love getting really OCD in the studio, manipulating sounds and playing with things that way.

I have RemoteTreeChildren, which is completely and utterly about that studio experience -- although we'd like to be playing live too.

And then there's WPA, which is Sean and Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek; Luke Bulla, an incredible fiddle player who plays with Lyle Lovett ... then we've got Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher from Elvis Costello's band, Benmont Tench on keyboards and Greg Leisz on pedal steel. We cut that whole record live in the studio. ... That's the stuff we're working on now: cutting a whole bunch of things, sitting in a circle in a room, getting the vocals live and having it be all about capturing a moment.

Once again, that helps make the songs kind of find their common ground.


I don't know, it's been interesting. The idea of a sound becomes so much more important; production has started blending with writing in a way that it has its advantages and it has its disadvantages. I find myself buying a lot of albums that have a great, consistent sound but not a whole lot of songs -- and I'd rather have a whole lot of songs than a consistent sound.

On that, what do you listen to in your free time?

Geez ... everything? This week Benmont turned me on to the Dirty Projectors and the Mills Brothers, which are pretty different. [Laughs]

Dirty Projectors is just completely-out-there studio stuff, and the Mills Brothers did a bunch of recordings in the '40s. It was just four guys doing Big Band music with four voices, a single guitar, a mouth trumpet and incredibly arranged stuff -- with as little resources as you could imagine and they just made a HUGE sound out of it.

One of my favorite songs of yours is the solo cut "Thankful."

That had a lot of chords. [Laughs]

What inspired that song -- or is that a really personal one?

I don't know, they're very rarely hyper-personalized. ... When I sit down with a really strong intent, I usually don't like how the song comes out.


It is much more a matter of playing around with music and finding ... a group of words will emerge out of that, and those words will define how the rest of the music goes. I like to build up the song as a complete entity instead of sitting down with a specific goal.

Most times the song will kind of reveal itself to me, and it means whatever it means. [Laughs]

So, nothing hugely specific in "Thankful"; it says what is says -- you know, like most songs.

I find that, unless it's Leonard Cohen sleeping with Janis Joplin and coming up with "Chelsea Hotel," I'm almost always disappointed with the story behind the song. It's like reading a novel as opposed to seeing a movie: It gives you a whole bunch of images, but there's a lot of empty space in there that you can fill in with anything you want. You can fill it in with your own story.

You can listen to a song about somebody's dog dying and relate it to the fact that you just broke up with your girlfriend, and it's utterly as valid for that. So, I like my songs to be able to do that for me as well; I want them to be able to change as I change or my situation changes.

This is kind of related, but: Toad the Wet Sprocket songs -- and some of your solo stuff -- have been used in a lot of different movies and TV shows. Has there ever been one situation where you felt it actually worked there really well?

The song "Brother" in "So I Married an Axe Murderer," while they're driving, that's perfectly related. ... Not really. [Laughs]

Actually, when we were on a label, it was much more about marketing. "We're doing a Mike Myers movie, get your song in there. It's a Sony soundtrack, so we're going to get Sony artists."


It was less of a creative discussion.

Since then, there's been a big change in music. Alexandra Patsavas -- who was doing music supervision for "The O.C." -- I think really changed how music supervision was done. She started finding a lot of unsigned artists, she started finding a lot of indie music -- that's how that whole "hotel café" scene kind of blossomed so much: There were these really good songwriters who were doing this stuff that was emotionally relevant for the scene that was going on, and they were choosing it to match the scene as opposed to choosing it for the marketing purposes.

I really like the placements that happen now. They're more rare than I would like, but it's cool when you get to the end of "Scrubs" and they have their big montage with your song.

It is always the right song for the scene, you know. You never wonder why they're playing that song, it just always works.

Finally, for a reader-submitted question, what opportunities does the Web give you as an artist, and how has it changed since the band started?

It's a huge change.

Also -- how can I say this -- the signal-to-noise ratio is pretty bad. [Laughs] When we were starting up, we would go and have mailing-list parties. We were really active about getting our mailing list, and we always had an end-of-the-year release we would send out -- kind of as a special thing for the fan club.

We just had to sit there and lick stamps, and put stickers on these releases. It took a lot of work, but I think that got us a very loyal fanbase. It really helped cement that.

These days, what's weird is everybody has a big mailing list, everybody has a lot of Web sites. You know, I have like 11,000 names on my mailing list, and less than half of those people open up the e-mails -- and these are all people who signed up at my shows. They get so many e-mails from so many people in so many places, so, while there's this instant access to the people who would like your music, there's also a real difficulty in catching their attention -- even when they asked you to contact them [Laughs] -- and distinguishing yourself from all these different people.

It's a fascinating time. There's a way in which it's democratized things and made it much easier for a band to build up a name for itself and contact people, but everybody's doing it. So, that's bringing up its own difficulties.

Toad the Wet Sprocket will perform at 2 p.m. July 26 at Bayfront Festival Park. Willy Porter and the Gin Blossoms are also on the bill. Tickets go on sale May 16 at , charge by phone at (218) 260-2342 or the Electric Fetus in Duluth. Tickets are from $27 to $37; children 10 and younger free with a paid adult.

What To Read Next
Get Local