Thursday, June 5, 2014

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket

The new album is great, and I think the best compliment I can give it is that it doesn't sound like it picked up right after “Coil”…the songs are imbued with 15 years of your and the band’s growth.  How did “New Constellation” come about and have you been surprised by the reception to it?

I don’t know about surprised, but definitely pleased.  We hoped that we weren't deluding ourselves when we put this out and I think we waited long enough that we made the record we had hoped to make and made it worth getting back together.  I think we could have gotten back together a few years earlier and made something that wasn't quite up to snuff (laughs), and that’s why we didn't.  We all needed to be on the same page again and say something new together.  Hopefully we did that.

Were there any expectations you felt getting back together to put something into this album different than you would a solo record or WPA or one of the other collectives you work with?

There are just some major differences with Toad – it’s a two-guitar band, and it has a lot to do with Todd’s guitar tone and his attitude towards writing parts, his melodic sense.  About half the songs, Todd starts musically so there is a different voice involved in the writing, of course.  And there is the way Randy and Dean play, the way they interpret the vocalists. It was nice for me to be able to write for a rock band again, to write for three vocals and harmonies, and to write something that I wouldn't necessarily have to pull off with a single acoustic guitar.  It was a lot of fun…it wasn't Americana, it was a rock/pop band.

I thought that it was very interesting that you revisited “Enough” from the solo thing and repurposed Todd’s song for “I’ll Bet on You”.   What made you think to salvage those for the Toad album?

I didn't really fully release “Coyote Sessions” – I've just been selling it at shows and it’s really the kind of album you just dump out the back of a truck (laughs).  I needed to get it out of my system, and I like the version of “Enough” on there, but that song was kind of conceived as a little larger and grander and more dramatic.  And I also felt like I hadn't finished writing it to some degree…I wrote the song with this guy John Taylor, not the one from Duran Duran, and the ending went on for a bit but it didn't reach the crescendo that it does on the Toad version.  I felt like we had a lot of mid-tempo, pop-ish songs, but most Toad records have had a strong song that hits a little harder emotionally, and we were lacking that moment.  I knew that song would fill that space properly.

Sure.  You have songs like “I Will Not Take These Things For Granted” or “All Things In Time” that wind up their records in really defining ways, and “Enough” does that for this one. 

Yeah, I agree. 

Your band has been kind of unfairly lumped in with some lighter-weight bands…the album “Pale” is as bleak as anything by Joy Division!  There is some pretty dark stuff that you very deftly balance with the more uplifting or romantic ideas in your songs. Is that something that you do consciously?

It’s part of the writing, and it’s part of me, so it shows up.  I’m prone to melancholy, but I tend towards the more subdued expressions of that instead of pull on angst and edginess.  Talk to a goth…part of being depressed is seeing how much beauty there is and how much people stomp on it, how vulnerable we are.  There is a fair admission of beauty, but I tend to balance that with an admission of darkness.  Even on this records, the song “Life Is Beautiful” – Todd came in with the music for that and he had the chorus, “Life is beautiful / Life is beautiful”.  I tried really, really hard to get rid of that line, and I couldn't come up with something that sang well, and as much as it sounds like a happy chorus, the song is pretty close to suicidal. It’s kind of poised in that moment of choosing to re-engage and not totally give in to despair.  I think that’s what makes the chorus forgivable, because the verses are so heavy. There were alternate lyrics on the second verse, one of which was “Love will fuck you up”, but we chose not to go with that (laughs). 

Our other records, we put those out before Elliott Smith made it ok to be mellow again.  In the ‘90s, there was a sense that if you weren't screaming then you weren't really feeling anything…which is not to say I don’t love bands that scream, but I’m not a screamer myself, and I think we got lumped in with lighter bands because of that.  And you have to look for it.  If you listen to “All I Want”, and all you listen to is the chorus, you think it’s about happiness instead of about how quickly happiness disappears (laughs).  It’s the price of subtlety, I guess.  I have a lot of ham-fisted lyrics, but I’m trying to get better. 

You’ve been at this now almost 30 years…did you ever think you would still be at this, working with some of the same people that you were as a teen?

Uh, no (laughs).  Absolutely not.  I’m as shocked as anyone, and happy that Toad managed to get it together again.  We found ourselves able to get on the same page, which a lot of bands can’t do or force themselves to do when clearly there’s no soul in it anymore.  It’s not to say it’s always been easy, but we were able to meet and able to all want to make this work. We went through the same thing every band went through…pick your episode of “Behind the Music”, and we did something like that.  But, it’s been good to get to go back and do that but I’m also excited about continuing to have the variety I've become accustomed to, so I’ll keep doing other things as well.  I’m just starting writing for my next project. But I’m also really excited to be going out this summer and doing the tour with Counting Crows.  It’s good days. 

You and Counting Crows have a lot of similarities lyrically and aesthetically – how did the tour come about?

I just gave Adam a call and checked in and asked what they were doing this summer.  He said he had gotten the record and how about we tour together, and I said “I think that’s a great idea” (laughs) 

You mentioned that you are in the early stages of writing for your next project, so what’s on tap next for you and for the band?

I don’t really know.  We haven’t really talked about it.  I am sure that we will play shows here and there. It’s been a really long time since I have done a proper album, so I am excited about pursuing that and getting back to some of my more obscure projects.  John Askew and I want to do another Remote Tree Children record and that is something that we can kind of send back and forth to each other because it’s a lot of samples and electronics.  There is a lot I like to do.  The strange thing about Toad is that once it gets moving it’s kind of all-encompassing, so when I get home it’s the last year that two of my girls will be home – they’re starting to head off to college, so I’m trying to be available when I’m home and soak up these days when we’re still a family of five living in the same house.  For me, it’s just trying to satisfy the other parts of my creativity.  I really like variety, and I have become pretty accustomed to that.  I like having a project to write to and a palette to write to, and it’s been really cool to think about what that palette will be for my next record and who I want to work with and how to make that happen.

A random, kind of obscure question for you: I was a huge fan of “Winter Pays For Summer”, which I know was born out of the “lost” album, “Tornillo”.  What went into the decision to scrap the sessions with David Garza and go back and re-record a lot of that?

I was kind of catastrophically depressed when we recorded that record, and I really wasn't able to communicate effective.  David had stuff going on in his life as well, his marriage was unraveling, and I was vomiting my feelings.  It was hard for us to get on the same page.  I mean, David’s a freaking genius, but we were not seeing eye to eye, so it was hard to make a record.   Sometimes you can have a situation like that where it’s edgy in the right way and everything works, and sometimes it just fizzles a little, and I just wasn't able to make it work.  Coming from that experience, I had new management and was being represented by AWARE, and they were really hoping that I could get on the radio again…so was I, for that matter.  It was strange, because after Toad broke up was really the beginning of the major changes in the music industry and I had no idea how to navigate those changes and took it really personally.  They got together with John Fields, who is a great guy and tons of fun to work with, and he wanted to make a big pop record.  It was an interesting process to enter into.  I also got friends that I had worked with before, Jon Brion and Pete Thomas and a lot of really players, and we ultimately made a record that was probably a little more “pop” than I feel my center is, but there were a lot of great songs and I got the opportunity to write a lot more and refine what the album should be.  I’m really proud of that record.  

In the years since then, I've been really busy making records while in the process of getting dropped from a label (laughs).  I made “Mr. Lemons”…I was intending on doing a record in Nashville with Neillson Hubbard, and then the label said, “how about some demos instead”, and I knew basically that I was getting dropped.  So I took the demo money and made “Mr. Lemons” far too early…I needed something that I could tour solo acoustic on, and most of the records I have made since then were reactions to situations instead of really sitting down and asking myself what the next creative statement I wanted to make.  I feel like when I did “Secrets of the New Explorers” or WPA or Plover, those were all feeling like screw strategy, screw commerciality, screw anybody’s need of what they want me to do.  I am just going to make records for myself. And so I did, but there was no label, no promotion, and so I would like to make another record that I hope maybe somebody will hear (laughs)

I would think that the new Toad album would buy you some increased visibility and the ability to do that.  A lot of fans you know to look for your stuff, but “New Constellation” should hopefully widen your fan base and make the next thing more accessible. 

It may, or it may not.  I have kind of gotten past seeing it personally.  My friend Teitur was talking a while ago about making records and his attitude was that you only get to make a handful of these things and nobody may ever even hear them, so you may as well try to make something great every time you do it.  I have put out records before because I had to make a living, I had to go on tour, I had to support my family…and they all have good songs and worthy creative expression on them, but I wasn't making them from the point of view of pure creative freedom and asking, “what do I truly want to achieve right now?”  It was more like, “I need to get this next batch of songs out or we don’t eat!” (laughs)   And writing and recording from that point of view is problematic.  So, what I am looking forward to is having the time to make something that is creatively worthy and well thought out and that is sounds like what I really want it to sound like, not anything strategic.  I’ll just keep making music, and maybe people will hear it and maybe they won’t.  Right now, it’s just great making music with Toad and having people show up because they want to hear it!

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