-- This summer, Toad the Wet Sprocket are on tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of their breakout third album, “Fear.” The album contained such chart hits as “All I Want” and “Walk On The Ocean” and set the pace for later albums like 1994’s “Dulcinea” and 1997’s “Coil.” The band was a mainstay of alt-rock radio in the '90s, spawning later hits like “Fall Down,” “Something’s Always Wrong, “Good Intentions,” “Come Down” and more.
Although they had disbanded by the decade’s end, they returned to action in 2013 with “New Constellation,” and followed that up with last year’s “Architect Of The Ruin” EP.
As a solo artist, lead singer Glen Phillips released a string of solo records and formed Mutual Admiration Society with members of Nickel Creek. His new solo album, “Swallowed By The New,” arrives in October.
ABC News: Is it weird to go back to “Fear” 25 years later? Have the songs changed for you?
Glen Phillips: Yeah. I have a tendency to be self-critical so there’s a lot of looking at things and going “Ah, I think I meant to say that, but I said that instead.” It’s also interesting to see how much of some of my core bits of subject matter have stayed the same. We had this idea during the making of “Fear” of, “Well, what would it be like to lose idealism? What would it be like to lose connection with spirit?” I then lost my idealism and lost my connection with spirit. [laughs] I’ve kind of been clawing my way back to them, so there’s a mirror image of some of the thematic elements.
When you were making “Fear,” was there any sort of feeling that it was going to be your breakthrough or was it just like making another record?
The first record we made, there was a guy in town, Brad Nack who ended up co-managing us for a while. He needed a backup band on two songs. Our payment was that we got to record two songs. We were like, “Well, that’s fun! Let’s go in a couple more days.” We just did them live, tracked. This guy, David Vaught had a studio in a house and recorded everything live and we went back and did eight more songs and that was “Bread And Circus.” The second album was “Pale.” The first album I think cost $600 to make. The second one we went to a real 24-track studio in L.A. We got a producer and it cost $6,000 to make.
And were you actually signed to Columbia at that point when you recorded “Pale," the album preceding "Fear"?
No. We were just a local band. I was 17 when we did “Pale.” ... I was going to move up to San Francisco. I was going to go to San Francisco State so I could live in the city. I had it all worked out. Other guys in the band were going elsewhere. Everybody had a next year plan and we’d sold enough of the first record to pay for a second. It seemed like a fun thing to do. While we were making the “Pale” record, the manager of the producer handed a tape of our first record to this guy at ASCAP, Nick Terzo, and he started sending it off to record companies. We never sent it to a record company. We didn’t even think we could possibly get signed. We were going to go through the summer and break up. That was the plan. Instead we ended up getting a record deal. Most bands end up putting everything on the table because they know this is the only thing they can do with their lives. I basically already knew that it would be a hard position for me to be in a band on a label.
When we got signed it was like, “Ah, we’ll get dropped in a couple of years.” It was like, “Hey, we get to go on tour! Fine.” When we made “Pale,” and even when we made “Fear,” it was like, “Well, let’s make it great because it will probably be the only time we get to be in a real studio.” We got to go in. We got to pick a producer. But the idea was that we’d never get to do it again.
Do you ever listen to your B-sides compilation, “In Light Syrup” and think, “Maybe that should have been on the record”?
No. The funny thing about Toad is that we thought we were an indie band. It was at the time where “indie” music / “college” music was becoming mainstream. Just like Tori Amos said, “I’ve never listened to Kate Bush,” we were [sarcastically] like, “R.E.M.? Who are they?” It was really strange to have singles. We didn’t put “Good Intentions” on “Fear” because it was too much of a “pop song.” We almost didn’t put “All I Want” on “Fear” because it was too much of a “pop song.” We were a “college band.” We were “indie.” We really believed in that identity.
Is that why “All I Want” is buried at track 10?
Yeah! We were not thinking of mainstream pop. I think we believed this idea that R.E.M. didn’t have an identity and that they didn’t think about how they were perceived and just showed up as they were. We thought, “Yeah! We’re gonna do that!” So we didn’t narrate ourselves very well. It turns out, R.E.M. were just very good at looking like they had a lot of ease in their persona, but they were very conscious of how they were perceived. And so we ended up looking a little more milquetoast than we were and not really taking credit for where our edge was.
It was also a time when we broke where heavy was everything. We were playing these festivals and it would always be Hole, Green Day, Henry Rollins and ... Toad.
It always seemed like that "Fear" in particular was a study on human frailty. “Butterflies” is one of my favorite tracks on the whole record and the idea that you can be flying and hit a windscreen and be wiped out is something that stands out.
I was spending a lot of time chewing on mortality and how we shut off. Part of “Butterflies” is also about how there’s death everywhere and we’re also ignoring it. There’s the casual wiping of all the [insect] corpses off your windshield as if they’re not life and this constant kind of tumult. I was probably [about] 21 when those lyrics were written. The mortality wasn’t personalized. I was looking outside myself for so many of those stories and dealing with them on a purely conceptual level. Now it’s personalized. You get older and your friends get cancer or your parents start dying. It’s really weird to face your own mortality, face your relationship with your own body and yourself in the world, and have an understanding of that and reach the other side.
I’ve been thinking a lot in the last couple years about the perspectives. The people I’ve known who have actually had cancer and lived through it, or truly had to face their mortality in some way tend to have a really vibrant relationship with their lives. They don’t feel victimized by it. They feel energized.
Your lyrics sometimes remind me of some sort of theological class as a form of study.
I think there has always been a lot of darkness and I’ve talked about this back in the time of “Fear.” I find that it’s easy to talk about a shallow happiness. There’s a certain attitude of, “We’re gonna go out and party. It’s gonna be awesome. Girl, you’re looking great,” that I didn’t want to write about. And then there’s this deeper Van Morrison kind of tie-in: ["Brown-Eyed Girl"] is such a happy song, but there’s something about it that has the mirror of darkness in it. There’s something about a song that is joyful where the joy does not exclude the dynamic range of life.
“All I Want” sounds pretty bright.
“All I Want” is not all that bright. “Nothing’s so loud / As hearing when we lie. / The truth is not kind / And you said neither am I.” “All I Want” is really about how quickly those moments pass and how precious they are. I think I was so fixated on representing the darkness accurately and not ignoring it, that maybe I got a little lost in the darkness.
I’ve had a lot of experience with depression -- why people haven’t heard so much from me in the last few years. I spent a lot of time kind of destroying myself in my own mind [laughs] and I’m really now thinking, “OK, how do you not ignore the darkness, but really give as much attention to the light?" You can get lost in light and you can just get vapid. And you can also get lost in darkness and I got really good at that.
In the last two years, I’ve had two kids go away to college, I’ve had a divorce after a 25-year relationship. I went through a year of fighting against those changes, and hating them and feeling victimized and I’ve been in a state for a while of feeling incredibly grateful that I get a chance to do things again in a different way and grateful for the relationship I have. I feel like for all the societal pressure to bury your past and not love and respect those who were with you, I have a great relationship with my former wife. I’m happy for the directions her life has taken her and I’m excited and grateful for the direction my life has taken. A year ago if you’d talked to me I would not be in that state.
And I’m sure Toad being back together and hopefully seeing the support you’re getting from the long-term fans has been therapeutic in some way.
It’s wonderful! It’s also complicated. There’s so much of the past in it. I think I’m anti-nostalgic.
Which is interesting since you are touring a 25-year-old record.
Yeah! So I have to figure out my relationship with my past work and how that affects my relationship to my current work, or if they’re even related. Is it even the same job to be a songwriter right now? I have a solo album coming out in October that I’m very proud of. I have a lot of projects on the horizon, most of which are obscure. They don’t have much to do with Toad and they’re where my heart’s at.
I can tell you that I just re-listened to “Fear” for probably the 10,000 time in my life and I just listened to you new album (“Swallowed By The New”) and there is definitely a through-line there.
I have to respect what Toad has brought and the fact that I can be an artist for a living. I owe so much to Toad. I’m proud of what we’ve done. And it’s a very different job than being a songwriter. If you ask me what I do, I’m gonna tell you I’m a songwriter. I’m a creator and I’m still creating, and I have this summer job where I get to go be with Toad, and play these songs and people are really happy about it. I’m proud of the experience it creates but it’s not [defining] for me.
I have to feel I’m doing my best work now, and that my best work is still ahead of me and I think that I’m asking questions that are still pertinent and as you said, following the through-line. We did do the new album [“New Constellation”] and I had to ask myself, “What does Toad mean? How do I write for the band as opposed to writing my own stuff?”
Is there a different process?
Yeah. It used to be I’d bring in everything I did and it would kind of live or die on whether it was right for the band. Now if Toad’s doing a project I get to ask what Toad wants to say right now. And even think of things like, “Hey, three-part harmony!” The song doesn’t have to work solo acoustic.
There are bands you wouldn’t want to be in at 50 because it starts sounding creepy [laughs] or just … you know, “This song is about being a teenager and having it all worked out.”
When I was a little kid, I didn’t really understand how the world functioned because I felt everything so strongly. I felt like a lot of my life was just kind of holding it together emotionally. It seemed like everything was just so dramatic and big and I didn’t understand how everyone around me seemed to have such ease. That’s kind of how I came into the world, so I’ve always been trying to figure that out.
Part of it can be a weakness. Part of it can be a strength. I can write about those experiences vividly. It’s a blessing but it is like any tool. You can take a hammer and you can bang people on the head or you can build houses. I’m proud, looking back at [my] songs, looking at the questions I was asking and feeling they’re still relevant.
Your solo song, “A Hole” was used in an episode of “Breaking Bad.” How did that occur?
I don’t know. I have a feeling they Googled the word “hole." Because they had a scene with a hole in it and they found my song. I really don’t know! I’ve only actually had I think three songs as a solo artist, three songs ever placed in television episodes. But yeah, it was really cool to have it there. It was a great placement and a great match. I’m very happy about that. It was definitely a moment that hits you. And I think that it’s interesting that that is I think my most popular download of anything I’ve done solo. It says a lot about how access to music has changed. It is those moments on television that start careers and spark stuff.
You’ve got the new album, “Swallowed By The New” coming out in October. Beyond the tour are there any more Toad plans at this point?
No more Toad plans at this point. I’ve got a bunch of solo or collaborative projects in the hopper. I’ve realized that other than the Toad record it’s been probably 10 years since I put something out with my name on it that I was willing to stand by and felt strong enough to put out. Like I said, I’m possibly too sensitive for this job!
Toad the Wet Sprocket continues to tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Fear.” Glen Phillips’ new album, “Swallowed By The New,” is out Oct. 7.