The late '80s were a difficult time for mainstream rock music. Between the nascent ascent of grunge and the rise of hip-hop, there wasn't much room for effortless, engaging melodies and musical hooks that could be cool as well as catchy.
For that reason alone, a group bearing an odd name like Toad the Wet Sprocket seemed an unlikely choice to rekindle a pop presence on album oriented radio. Borrowing their handle from a Monty Python sketch about an ill-fated rock band, which showed a certain nerdy, humorous hipness. More than that, Toad had what it took to capture the devotion of both the pop and rock faithful. A string of early albums, kicking off in 1990 with Bread & Circus, made them the darlings of the college crowd, and once they released their third album Fear just a year later, they could tout hit singles "All I Want" and "Walk on the Ocean."
Soundtrack contributions, another hit album with Dulcinea, and further chart topping entries followed. Sadly though, they fell prey to the usual band dysfunction, and by July 1998, they had called it a day.
Each of the members -- guitarist/vocalist Glen Phillips, guitarist Todd Nichols, bassist Dean Dinning, and drummer Randy Guss -- continued to pursue separate careers, none remaining more active than Phillips, who not only spawned a prolific solo career but also a number of successful side projects, among them the all-star cooperatives Mutual Admiration Society and WPA.
Over the years, Toad briefly reconvened for short periods at a time. More recently, they reconnected in the studio, first to record All You Want, a remade collection of greatest hits, and more recently, for an all new album called New Constellation, a set of songs that recaptures Toad's mastery of more melodic devices. New Times managed to catch up with Phillips after a gig in Nashville, and listened intently as he caught us up with Toad's trajectory.
New Times: For anyone who's even vaguely familiar with your multi-faceted efforts, the first question that naturally springs to mind is, how do you manage your time between Toad, your solo stuff, WPA, and the myriad of one-off projects you're involved in?
Glen Phillips: I have no idea. Sometimes I tend to over extend myself. A year here, a year there. I try to block it out. Right now I'm trying to really concentrate on Toad while trying to do a few supplementary solo shows, because they're a nice break from the Toad thing.
Toad is going to carry us through to next year. We're really going to work hard on this, and while we're working hard on this, whatever down time I have, I'm going to put towards my next solo album. I have this thing that when I feel too pressured or shut in, I need something to look forward to.
Did Toad really split up? They always seemed to still be there on the back burner.
Well, we took five years off. I don't know if we should have broken up actually, I should have just done a solo record and taken a break. I guess, psychologically, it had to be a clean break,because it was the only thing we had ever done, and it was the only band we had ever been in, and we never really got to know how hard it is to be a musician.
We did well off the bat when we were young, actually really well nine months into our third record, so we didn't really understand how how hard it can be, how much work it really takes, all the little jobs that have to get done. In the last ten or fifteen years, I've done all those jobs and done most of them badly. I kind of understand how lucky we are now, and how special this position is, and I think everyone else understands that too. So we kind of have to pay our dues on the back end, whereas most bands pay them on the front end.
There was a lot of pressure to get back together, but it would always blow up in our faces. We were all kind of worried about our personal status in the band instead of worrying about getting the job done. So now, everybody gets together, and we want to be a team. We want to do this better. We don't have to be absolute best friends to make that happen. This doesn't have to be our only family and our only output. We can like each other, we can be really respectful, we can work really well together, and it doesn't have to have any mythological context to it (laughs). It's been great, and now we're having fun.
How did the decision come about to record a new album of all new material?
Frankly, I started to freak out a little. I was probably the last holdout as to whether we could do this or not. I didn't know if I could handle it. I think I had a big chip on my shoulder. I didn't want anyone to think I was going back to Toad because my career hadn't panned out, and I was so afraid of that that I was very reluctant to do it.
Finally, I convinced myself that I couldn't waste time caring about that. We were getting along and everybody was really into it. So I figured I should worry more about what I wanted and what everybody wanted. I needed to get over myself. So I decided I wouldn't care about what everybody thought or what they assumed the motivations were and decided instead that everybody was getting along to the point where we could make a record like a real band, and not just be hurried into making some heartless product. I hope the album is proof of that. We could have just regurgitated something that sounded enough like us to get by. But we wanted to do something that was at least as good as what we did before, and hopefully this record does that.
How much of that early success -- and belief that things can come so easily -- had to do with the fact that you had a major record company behind you? Did it set a high bar going forward?
We were signed to Columbia only after our first self-released album became popular. That was an era where the record company had so much cash on hand. They were selling at least one copy to everybody who heard one of the songs on the radio and maybe two if that person really liked it (laughs). So they could afford to let a band grow and take its time and find its audience.
Again, we didn't have a real hit single until well into our third record, which could never possibly happen today. We were totally spoiled by being affiliated with a major label. We got into it at the right time, we had creative control and we were very lucky. Personally, I've been signed to a few labels, I've been dropped by a few labels, and so I kind of know how it works now.
So it seems like you don't really need to have that same kind of success as before.
I have no major expectations now. If all the new album does is wake up some of our old fans, and let them know we're playing shows, then we've done a great job. And that's fine. Fans have come out and been really generous and supportive. We've covered the cost of the record, but by the end of it, we're pretty much going to walk away -- I hope -- even. So to have a really great record and be able to put it out and own the thing and not owe anyone is really great. That's the best case scenario. We're not beholden to anybody.
The new album really captures all those great melodic elements which were once Toad's calling card. Do you have aspirations for having hit singles again?
Yeah, we're taking songs to radio, and so obviously, we'd like the album to do well. We're going to be making videos and we are going to promote the record, but that whole world is a crapshoot, more than it's ever been. To have a hit single, the best way is to have a viral video or an ad campaign, or be in a movie or a TV show. Sometimes songs start with radio, but often they come from unpredictable directions. So you still have to start with great music, but it used to be a much more linear kind of thing. The record company would work the record and you'd kind of have an idea of if it was going to fly or not.
Now, you just don't know. The key is to work hard. The best thing about working independently is that when things head in a different direction, which is quite often how things work, you can change course and pursue it.
Toad the Wet Sprocket, 8 p.m. on Friday, July 26, at Culture Room, 3045 North Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $25. Call 954-564-1074 or visit culture room.net.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!