Toad the Wet Sprocket: The Culture Brats Interview

After sixteen years (sixteen long years, I might add), Toad the Wet Sprocket, a seminal band for many of us in the '80s and '90s, is coming out with another album! Currently on tour, Toad is releasing its new album New Constellation on September 3rd, 2013. This band was known for their thoughtfully deep lyrics. So it's no surprise that when I caught up with lead singer Glen Phillips we had quite a philosophical discussion about the new album, the work process, the current economy, and coming together again as a band after so long.

Hello! How are you doing today?
I'm doing well. Yeah. It's all good, I suppose.

I know you are in the middle of your tour. How's that going?
Oh, so far it's been great. We just played a few shows and you know getting... switching out crew and you know whatever else, just kind of getting up to speed I guess. But, all considered, it's been quite wonderful. Happy audiences. I mean the main thing is that it's been good to have new songs. Even just a few new ones that makes a huge difference to have something that's not fifteen, sixteen, twenty years old.

So you're playing a lot from your new album then?
Oh, we're playing a few from the new album. I mean, you know, obviously only a handful of people have the new record. And there's only so far you want to stretch an audience as far as new material. But you know, we're playing a few and we're having a lot of fun doing it.

I know you guys have toured on and off over the years but what made Toad decide to start touring again full time?
Well, I've always toured full time.

I know you have!
Yeah. We would try playing a few shows here and there and... I don't know, it's kind of a chicken and the egg thing. At some point it just felt a lot better. It felt like we could make a record and there's no point in making a record unless you're going to work it. I mean, this doesn't mean I'm not doing other projects anymore. This doesn't mean other people won't be doing other projects. But you know for now we're going to be doing one thing and do it well, and put the right effort into it to make it worthwhile. So this is what we're doing this season and we're all kind of investing our time and effort. But more than anything we just did it because we felt like we could all show up and enjoy it and do the right job on it. In the past there was still kind of too much history or strangeness looming over our heads. In the last few years it just seems like we all grew up enough or got over attitudes or whatever it was to make it so we were all happy to be there. So while it's like that we should be playing shows.

Right! So this is for this season, no immediate plans for a next album after this?
No. I'm so overdue for a solo record I'm really excited about. You know the great thing about being able to do the band is that while we're on tour, once you get all the little details worked out, is that you're on a bus for the first time for years so I can actually do things like maybe start writing new songs for a new record while I'm on tour. Which when we're driving four to six hours in a van there's no real time to pick up a guitar and be alone. So bus touring offers kind of an incredible freedom that I haven't had in a long time.

I know how you feel. It feels like the only time I get to read or write is when I'm waiting in airports. So any standout moments on this tour, anything really fun?
Well, it's early days so not yet. I mean, besides getting to play the shows and getting to put the new songs in but that's about it so far. I mean, there's a lot more to do. But we've been having a really great time.

Tell me about the album. Do you think your songs now reflect the growth that you've gone through as a band?
I hope they do. I mean, it's hard to say. Writing is kind of a constant and so the subject matter obviously shifts from being a kid to being an adult. Or from being a parent to then being a parent of grown kids. You know like there's always a shift in the point of view, the perspective, the experience. So I think being asked to be specific about that is always a little strange for me because it's well... I kind of look at it as all being part of the same process. I mean, the biggest difference for me in writing for Toad is that the last time I wrote for Toad it was my only outlet. So every song I wrote either had to be a Toad song or nothing. And there was this certain frustration in that. And what's great now is to be able to write a Toad song... sometimes I just write a song and say, "Hey, Toad would do that. We would do a good job of that." And other times, you know, I'm kind of sitting down saying, "I got three vocals, I got drums, I got two electric guitars, I get to write a rock song." It doesn't have to be something I can play solo acoustic. And so there's a certain amount of freedom writing for the project. It gets to be one project out of many and I think that actually allows creative freedom. I mean, having just a few rules, having a few constraints on the kind of music I want to bring in allows me to be more creative within that than having no restraints whatsoever. You might think that that's more freeing but it's actually kind of numbing. If you have no restrictions, no project to write for, you don't even know what direction to start in sometimes. So I appreciate it when there are constraints.

So you feel like there's more constraints when it's a Toad song as compared to just your solo work?
Yeah, I have a feeling of what I think Toad should sound like. And also what I know Toad sounds like. I mean, that there's this way that we play, this is the way the rhythm section works together, the way the voices blend, and I understand what I want that to sound like. I still have no idea what I want a solo record to sound like, you know? I have no idea. And I think there are people who perhaps have made more successful jumps from a band to solo. But the songwriting is part of it, I think I do a good job with that, but I don't know what I sound like as an artist. And I do know what Toad sounds like. So it's actually a real pleasure to go in and write for Toad. And you know Todd and Dean they've been writing together. They've really been doing more kind of country Nashville writing so they get to come back in and write some stuff that's a little more rock and more Toad. So it's been fun for all of us.

If you could name three things that are different from being in a band at 16 to being back in an band in your 40s, especially recording, what would they be?
Hmm, hard to say. Everything is different about being 40 than being 16, you know? My oldest daughter is now... you know, she's just about the age [I would have been] at that time recording the Pale record. So it's a whole different perspective. I was living at my parents' house and going to city college and now I've got three kids. I think the thing back then is that there were no stakes, you know? Or where I talk now about having a specific project to write and how much that helps. Like when I was sixteen, I wasn't thinking about things in context. I wrote songs because I wanted to. I had a lot of energy. I had a lot ego. It was really easy to just jump in and not second guess. And now the stakes are always higher so not second guessing things is actually a practice. And finding a creative space for it to be its best it has to be a combination of caring deeply and also not giving a damn what other people think and not starting to ask the wrong questions. Once again it's why writing for a project is good. When you don't have ego and the energy of 20-year-olds it helps to go, "OK, if I'm going to work on this, follow through with this, put all this time into it and leave my family, it needs to be for something. I can't just be about me, I've got to support people." You know, there's more weight. At a certain age, I think, there's the freedom that you can either have from having nothing and therefore nothing to lose, or from having enough success that you get to ask, instead of asking questions about like how do we pay the mortgage, you get to ask questions about what's most creatively interesting? And the only question you should be asking is what's the most creatively interesting. But when it's your job you've got to ask the other one too or else the mortgage doesn't get paid and that's not acceptable either.

Right, absolutely. This is kind of trip for me too because we're of an age and so I started listening to you back then and 20 years later I've got a kid of my own and... you're right, it's an entirely different perspective.
And I think it's universal. I think it's one thing to talk about in terms of music and being in a band and it's another thing... I mean, you know, our sound guy is having a baby this year and he's slammed. He's looking at his life in a different way. You know, with everybody it's this question that you start on a certain path and we may end up where we thought we'd be. Even if you do end up where you thought you'd be, it's totally different than you thought it would be. And if you don't end up where you thought you'd be there is, I think, a thing later in life where it's, "OK, I had a direction in my life and now here I am. So what do I make of it? What do I make of the life I actually have and how do I kind of redefine happiness?" Instead of being what do I get, it's accepting what I have. And this all sounds maybe like pop psychology but I think it's universal, you know? I saw with my dad's generation the beginnings of getting fired from a regular job and then rehired as a consultant so they didn't have to give you medical insurance or benefits. And now there's less and less security. I mean it's interesting, I see my kids and they just have no expectations that an employer is going to take care of them.

Wow. Yeah.
They just don't believe in it. It's no longer something that can culturally be accepted that if you do your job well you'll be taken care of. And our generation I think has seen a lot of that, you know, people that are over-qualified and under-employable. It's like there's been a social contract that's been voided. It got rewritten while we weren't looking, and I think we're all asking these questions about whether it's basic security and getting by or simply like what's really important and how do I find some happiness in the middle of that. So we're all going through these same questions. Regardless of the job.

Getting back to being a parent, do you see any of your daughters following in your footsteps and how do you feel about the idea them living this lifestyle?
Oh, I'm scared to death of it. My oldest is an aerial dancer so her entire next year is about getting her Montreal Circus School audition together.

She's got to be able to do standing back flips and fifty pushups. She can do cerceau and silks and trapeze and she's brilliant. Just outside of Paris there's a big aerial arts convention where she was training and performing. So I mean, she chose the circus. How could I ever criticize choosing the circus given what I do? My middle one, she's got a lot of passions. Right now, it's cooking and she's great, she's working with caterers. She has a ton of passion. Cooking, man, it's more crowded now that it's a TV sport, it's more crowded than it's ever been and it's brutal as well. If you know anybody who works in the restaurant world it's brutal.

It is.
And then my youngest one she wants to be a singer. She also wants to work with kids. You know, she's eleven. She's got a brilliant voice. She's been coming up when I'm playing solo acoustic and she'll come up and sing a couple of songs and she does not have an eleven-year-old's voice. She's really got this beautiful, sultry, like I don't know where it comes from. She also gets that it's a weird job. She just loves to sing. So as long as she loves to sing... When I was 16, music is where I ran. When I was feeling like a geek and that nobody got me and like there was no place for me, I went to music. I would listen to the Replacements and I would feel better. And now music is a big responsibility. So I don't have a thing that I escape to in the same way. You know, I can do it through reading or some exercise or whatever, but I never want her to lose that thing that music gives her. Or, I don't know, maybe it's worth having to fight for it. That's the way I think of it now, is that I have to fight for that. It's not an automatic. Yeah, it's interesting. Our friends and our community, they're all people who, all of them do nonprofit work or are farmers or construction site, they're teachers. They're all people who do stuff where they're hands-on people, they get the product they make, they get what they're offering to the world and they're proud of it and they're passionate about it. So those are the adults [my daughters] see. They see people doing what they love the most. And I feel like their adult role models like all have that taken care of. So I think in their lives they're going to choose, and they know it's not always an easy road, but that's what they're all choosing and I think no matter what the economy does you kind of can't go wrong with that.

That's great. I think that's what our parents tried to instill in us and I'm not sure they felt it was going to take. My parents were hippies and it was all about follow your bliss, do your own thing, make your own stuff, on and on and on.
The pre-hipsters! The hippies were really the pre-hipsters.

Yeah, they really were. And then the '80s came along and I think they were really afraid all us kids were going to be materialistic capitalists. And I think it's come completely full circle.
Well, there are some people that are all about the win. And I guess I get that. I mean, I don't get it. But if you're about the win, and there's that financial world, and whatever else. There's also people who just like problems like them. It's why Warren Buffet is the exception in the financial world. He's curious about what makes it all tick. And he's done very well about being curious about what makes it all tick but he's not just about the win. And that's why he's fascinating and not a douchebag.

I don't know, it's interesting. And once again, the people I know who swing a hammer, who do woodwork, like who are building houses and stuff, they can't stand slackers. They can't stand people who think that good enough is good enough. You know, they want to know that the stuff under the trim is perfect. That someday if somebody rips off the drywall they're going to see the bones underneath and go like, 'Holy shit!" That's what, in whatever you do, you want to go into it with an eye towards fascination and excellence. So you walk home and you sleep well every night and not with a feeling like you got away with something. That's important.

Absolutely. And it's funny how much I think there are a lot of really hard working and perfectionists in our generation, you know? For all that we were called slackers, I think we're doing a pretty good job, honestly.
Yeah, we are. And at the same time I think we're swimming upstream because at a larger level it's devalued. It's this odd thing that unless you're in the top, you're not worth anything. And that's a crap message to send to 98% of the population. That you're not really relevant, you're not really the producers, when the fact is if you look at our hour per hour productivity we're at a historical high. I mean, we have less personal life and we work harder and we are more productive hour per hour. We just really don't get compensated for it by and large the way our parents did.

Absolutely. It's frustrating. But I think we roll with it pretty good.
Yeah, we'll see. And you know, there may be an adjustment at some point. You know that's the weird thing. It's like a janitor at a public school used to be able to own a house and have a family. And there's the idea that like you're working 40 to 60 hours a week, you work hard, there should be a living in that. And we're failing as a society if we can't value human endeavor enough to have a living wage. Some part of the equation is no longer adding up.

Exactly. Good grief. Now I'm thinking deep thoughts!

Well, I have one more question for you. I wanted to know what music are you listening to right now?
What are the ones I'm liking? Well, it's not brand new but I love the Alt-J record, An Awesome Wave. I think they're amazing. What are the other good ones currently? James Blake, Overgrown. The new James Blake record, I think is amazing. So yeah, those are my two current favorites.

Well this has been really cool. Thank you so much!
Thank you. Take care!

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The Kickstarter Early Rewards Bonus Version of New Constellation is available now if you donate to their Kickstarter project by August 4th.

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