Glen Phillips Interview: Toad the Wet Sprocket Gets Back in Gear After Long Hiatus, Releasing "New Constellation"
Glen Phillips is the singer and songwriter of 1990s alternative rock group Toad the Wet Sprocket which is known for such chart-topping songs as “Walk on the Ocean,” “All I Want,” “Something’s Always Wrong” and “Fall Down.” He began with the group in 1986 at the age of sixteen, and by 1988, they had signed with Columbia Records and recorded five albums.
Toad the Wet Sprocket wrapped up their Kickstarter campaign in August of 2013, reaching $264,762.00, 529% of the original goal for a new album. This enormous response from fans to their first new music in sixteen years was an overwhelming surprise to the group and has enabled them to expand their release team, securing physical distribution for New Constellation. The single and title track, “New Constellation,” premiered on Rolling Stone’s site June 5, 2013, launching the Kickstarter campaign.
"[Work on New Constellation] started three or four years ago. I think a big shift in it happened when I fell through a glass top coffee table a few years ago. It had a steel metal rim, but apparently it wasn’t supporting my weight (laughs). I sliced a nerve, the ulnar nerve in my left arm. We had a bunch of shows planned, but I had to basically start from scratch on relearning the guitar. My hand is still … I have about half the functionality I wish it had."
New Constellation brings all of the sincerity of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s early catalog into the present, with a collection of songs that seamlessly picks up where the band left off in 1997, while also showcasing the band members’ individual growth as songwriters and musicians since then. New Constellation, the band’s sixth studio album, will be released October 15, 2013, on the band’s label, Abe’s Records and available in all digital stores.
Santa Barbara native Phillips and his wife, Laurel, have three girls (Sophia, Freya and Zola).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Glen, tell me what came first – new music or the guys deciding to get back together?
Glen Phillips: A combination of things. We had been playing shows here and there for a while and kind of seeing if it worked. At some point, I think we just grew up enough. Enough time had passed that we weren’t rehashing the same old stuff that had been going on earlier. Then once we got through all of that, I don’t know. It seemed like a band again.
It seemed like we could make a record that would be worth doing just creatively. It would suck to wait sixteen years and then come out with something that was just product (laughs). If that makes sense.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Of course. When did you start working on New Constellation?
Glen Phillips: It started three or four years ago. I think a big shift in it happened when I fell through a glass top coffee table a few years ago. It had a steel metal rim, but apparently it wasn’t supporting my weight (laughs). I sliced a nerve, the ulnar nerve in my left arm. We had a bunch of shows planned, but I had to basically start from scratch on relearning the guitar. My hand is still … I have about half the functionality I wish it had.
I had a lot of work to do relearning the guitar, changing positions. I had to get a little humble, and the rest of the band really had to be patient and show up and cover parts I couldn’t play. I think that actually had a lot to do with it in terms of our relationship with each other. Instead of all of us sitting in our corners the way we’ve been used to doing, all of a sudden we had to show up for each other, and that helped so much in the long term.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was the songwriting process different than it was years ago?
Glen Phillips: We did one song called “Little Heaven” where we all sat in a room and wrote together. For the rest of the catalog, we’d bring things in and then arrange it. I wrote about half the songs on my own, and the other half were collaborations between Todd, the guitarist, and myself. Since the band broke up, he and Dean, our bass player, had become kind of a songwriting team, so they had a work flow really well established. I would still bring in my songs.
I had been used to co-writing songs with people outside of the band. But on songs they’d bring in, I’d just tweak the lyrics a little bit and add something if it needed it. It was a different way of writing together. There used to be many rehearsals, and now there is a lot of handing files to each other (laughs). But it works. Everybody is in different towns now and so it all worked out.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Before you began the songwriting process, did you have a vision for the record?
Glen Phillips: Yeah. I’ve done many records on my own and done other projects. There’s a way that the voices blend, there’s definitely a way that the guitars interact, and Todd has such a unique tone. Dean is a very melodic bass player, and Randy is kind of lyrical at drums. So getting all those elements back together was kind of fun to write toward and to know that a chorus could have three-part harmonies and countermelodies. I’d been very used to writing songs that worked with an acoustic guitar and a single vocal, so it was great to write something that didn’t fit that mold.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you say the new music is a bit “softer” than the music of the past?
Glen Phillips: Well, we were never a heavy band, but there’s less aggressive rock guitar probably. Dean and Todd have been going to Nashville and doing a lot of country writing sessions. My last major project was with Sean and Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek. I’ve been touring with a lot of bluegrass people and working in that world as well, so I’m sure that seeps through. It’s probably a little less of a rock record, but I don’t know if I’d call it softer. It’s just maybe not as hard (laughs). It’s non-aggressive.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): We can call it non-aggressive (laughs).
Glen Phillips: It’s also something I wanted lyrically. Not that all the songs are just roses and happiness, but there were some “complaining” songs in the past. While there are some songs about being lost or being in a difficult situation, I did want the record to be more positive than what I had normally done to take a further step of laying out a problem and also trying to find a way out of it. I don’t know. It’s a different perspective for a guy in his early 20s and the guy in his early 40s. I felt like I needed to adjust the perspective accordingly.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In “Little Buddha,” (from the 1997 album Coil) it says, “Life is suffering.” There is a song on the new album called “Life is Beautiful.”
Glen Phillips: It was Buddha who said, “Life is suffering.” And “Life is Beautiful” is about just barely not killing yourself (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the 1990s, you and Dean formed Lapdog, and the new song “I’ll Bet on You,” has a connection with that band, correct?
Glen Phillips: Right. “I’ll Bet on You” was originally a song called “See You Again” on one of the Lapdog records. We took that and Todd, Dean and our producer worked on the arrangement. It needed a little more song and a little less riff. Just wanted to throw a lyric in there with some extra life to it. So there it is.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The song “Enough” is so emotional with the lines, “The mind is willing but the body resists. The fight is over but the pain persists.” Where did those lyrics come from?
Glen Phillips: I wrote them with a guy named John Taylor for his band. He had been clean for many years, and we were talking about the wistfulness for losing yourself completely, as much as you can be happy to kind of have your life together. There’s also always that draw toward complete abandon toward throwing down every responsibility you have and jumping into the deep end. Out of that conversation, we wrote that song.
There’s a reference to an old saying by Rabbi Tarfon, “The day is short, the task is great and workers are idle.” The rehab part of it isn’t in my background, but certainly depression is a big part of my background in trying to pick yourself up and force yourself to move forward, how heavy the weight of despair is and to get over the inertia of having given up. It’s a difficult process.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have discussed your bouts with depression.
Glen Phillips: And a lot of the songs on the record deal with it. I think many of the songs on the first records dealt with it before I had a name for it. It’s interesting. We’re being taught as a society that happiness is something you get by getting what you want, and certainly in youth, that’s more of the attitude. If you’re unhappy, you deal with it with happy drugs.
The last few years I think I finally got myself to normal. I still have the brain chemistry that makes me ruminate, and I do all these things that have changed my habits. I’ve been saying more and more recently that happiness is a practice. It’s not something given. It’s something you decide to achieve and work at. Take happiness in that way and take on a practice of gratitude and simply go out and see the sun every day. As tacky as it sounds, it actually does wonders for the body (laughs).
People that haven’t been in the middle of it think that it’s more about a situation. For me, at least, it’s a kind of a psychological hygiene to make sure I’m paying attention to certain things every day. I’m doing things every day that keeps my head above water. In the last few years, I still have all my tendencies, but I feel like I’ve found out a way of working it that keeps my head above water. I’m enjoying that. I like being happy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Happiness is great.
Glen Phillips: It really is. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think being thrust into a professional music career as a teenager had anything to do with the depression?
Glen Phillips: I never took it too seriously. I think what really was the final kick in the balls was when the band broke up. I found myself in my mid 20s unable to get a record deal. I was shocked that all of a sudden for all the work we put into it and for all the accolades we had that when the band went away, I didn’t have to start at square one, but it really freaked me out to see how much I lost when the band broke up.
It took me a long time to not take that personally and to get over it. But regardless of that, this is kind of what our family does. It’s a certain kind of brain that ruminates, and if you have really interesting stuff to think about, then it’s a great thing to have, and if you get bored or are just thinking about yourself, it gets really bad really quick. It’s just how I’m wired, how my dad was wired, how my grandfather was wired, so it’s a family tradition.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Glen, why did the band break up in 1998?
Glen Phillips: It was more of a fizzle than a bang. We were trying to make a new record, and it felt like no one wanted to be there. We showed up, but nobody was excited, nobody was willing to give more, and we were all feeling done. Maybe we should’ve just taken a long break and done some other projects and got some perspective that way. But I’ve been making music with Todd since I was fourteen years old. It was the first band any of us had been in. I don’t know. Twenty-twenty hindsight is whatever it is. But I think it was important that we had a big break and got some perspective.
The thing that enabled us to get back together and start playing shows again was that everybody saw how lucky we were, and we got some gratitude back, you know? When the very first band you have ends up getting signed, and you end up doing well, you just assume you can walk in on any situation and do well. You start understanding how much luck plays a part in things and how much hard work plays a part in things and how much gratitude plays in. For all of us, since we didn’t get our hard knocks on the way up to get some hard knocks in the interim and get some perspective on how life actually works was needed.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is the audience an older crowd now?
Glen Phillips: There’s a lot of cross generation. We have a lot of people who say, “My dad listened to you all the time. I wasn’t old enough to see you.” We’ve got generations coming in which has been really cool. The new album isn’t out yet, so the only people who are going to find us are people who are already looking for us. That means either they liked us back in the day or they grew up with their parents listening or maybe found us on You Tube while they were surfing around. I think by the end of next year, there will be a new crop. We’ll see.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you still working on solo projects as well?
Glen Phillips: Oh yeah. I did a solo record last November that was kind of a single stereo mike in a room. We mixed it by just having people move back two feet if they were too loud. That was called Coyote Sessions. I wanted to do something that was very live performance oriented before we went in and did the Toad record which is much more of a pop-produced record. I loved doing that, but I also really like just capturing a moment, so I went sort of extreme on that (laughs).
The next one will probably be another solo record. I’d love to do another WPA record as well. There are many projects I want to get to. I’ll probably do a solo record next, but once again, I like having Toad as part of the balanced life, but we all have other stuff going on, so it makes me excited. As happy as I am doing this, I’m also very excited to get on to other things.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Still performing barefoot, Glen?
Glen Phillips: I take off my shoes because if I wear shoes, somebody in the front row all night long is going to be looking at my feet going, “Take your shoes off!” The easiest way to have that not happen is just to not wear shoes which only reinforces the schtick (laughs). But it’s comfortable not to wear shoes. I can do it one way or another. It’s not a really big deal.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Happier barefoot?
Glen Phillips: I’m happier with my shoes off. It’s easier to find the pedals. As long as I don’t get a splinter, it’s great.
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