J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Monday, July 22, 2013

Notes From Underground - #51
Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket

If you're a long time reader of the blog, then you might remember Notes from Underground. The last entry in the series was posted on August 30th, 2008. So it pleases me to re-launch it with an interview with Toad the Wet Sprocket singer and guitarist Glen Phillips. Look for more regular postings in this series for the foreseeable future.

16 years is a long time for a band to take a break from releasing new material, but that's exactly what happened to Toad the Wet Sprocket. After 1997's Coil, the band called it quits the next year and went off in different musical directions. But by 2003 they were back touring - infrequently - as a bit of a nostalgia act, playing a greatest hits set out on tour every few years. But within the last year, something changed and now Toad's first album of new material since 1997, New Constellation, is set for release in September. I sat down with Toad vocalist and guitarist Glen Phillips to talk about the process of coming back around to writing new music with the band, their Kickstarter campaign for the album, re-recording old material for proprietary purposes and why an audience might be understandably hesitant to hear new music so many years later. At the bottom, take a listen to a streaming version of their new single "New Constellation."

J. Neas: You guys have a new record coming out in September - your first since 1997 - and it's called New Constellation. At least since 2003 you guys have been touring back together, off and on, doing things like that. So what was the process of coming back to wanting to write new material together again?

Glen Phillips: It came really gradually. We had gotten together and played shows before, but we would often revert to our old habits with each other and would need to take a long break again. But I think we all hoped it would be something we could return to and enjoy and it just got to a point where we tried it enough times that the new normal seemed to be getting along and having fun. I think we all relaxed about the story of it and just allowed it to be what it was which I guess sounds vague. It just seemed like we could finally pull it off and actually do it right and it wouldn't be painful and we could get through it. [laughs] And it worked. We had a really good time getting the songs together. We're really proud of the work we did. And we just waited long enough to do it right.

And the record is already done. We've actually released it on Kickstarter. We're doing a Kickstarter campaign that lasts just a couple of more weeks. And people who contribute on that, if you do $10, you get to download the album. So a few thousand people already have the record. We're just doing it to the wider public in September. The Kickstarter thing has been going great. We started with, I think, a $50,000 goal and we're close to $200,000 now. So it's been really cool. It's just kind of a handful of people who are really supportive, who really want to help the project along. And the reaction to the record has been really good. People seem to think we did the right thing by waiting. You know, I'm scared when bands that I liked from a long time ago get together 15 years later [laughs] and make another record. Because it's competing with memories and you really can't compete with that. So it really has to stand on its own, but I think we managed to do that.

JN: Was there anything that you or Todd Nichols brought back to the writing process for the band from your experiences writing apart from each other in your solo work and his band Lapdog?

GP: It's hard to say. It's been so long since we've collaborated that I don't have a lot of grounds for comparison. The big new element in the collaborative part of the writing is Dean [Dinning], our bass player. It used to be it was kind of either I was writing or Todd and I would write. Dean is really involved in the collaborative part of the writing now. He and Todd have been a writing partnership for a few years now, going to Nashville. The big difference for all of us was that we were writing, not exclusively, but to a good deal we were writing specifically for Toad. In the past, whatever we wrote kind of had to be somehow siphoned into the world of Toad. For all of us to look at this as one project out of many instead of the totality of our artistic expression made it a lot easier, made it a lot more fun. You could write towards the fact that there were going to be two loud guitars and three harmony vocals. I'm used to writing songs that I have to able to play solo acoustic so it's great to get to go 'oh, counter-melody! rhythm!' and all these things I don't get to do all the time on my own. And so it was great writing for the project.

JN: Is it that it gave you a different experience - in that before the band went on hiatus, you hadn't had an experience writing apart from each other, or at least not much, and so this kind of gave you a comparison in a sense - so now you're a little more comfortable saying 'oh, I'm in Toad writing mode for this' because you've been other places and had other experiences?

GP: Yeah, well and had other outlets more than anything. About half the songs have always been mind and the other half collaborations, so getting to bring it back specifically for Toad instead of having to have everything shoehorned into the band is good. Frankly, the older you get, and maybe it's not even the older, it's something about having a specific manifesto, having a genre, having a specific project - people love the dream of infinite creativity and the blank palette and being able to do whatever you want - but people tend to do their best work, or I do at the very least, when I have constraints, when I have limitations, when I know where I'm aiming. Otherwise I can get kind of aimless. [laughs] I can get a little lost. The best example of that is painters. Picasso was not limited to Cubism. Cubism was a choice he took from other people and explored for a long time. But he could paint a portrait as good as the next guy. It's a matter of choosing your palette, of choosing your limitations and seeing how deep you can go within that. Having that comparison, of being able to bring that back to the experience, has meant a lot.

JN: That reminds me of Samuel Beckett. He spoke both English and French, but he was more limited in French. And he chose specifically to write in French because he wanted to limit his ability of expression in order to create a voice for himself in that way - to purposefully limit himself.

GP: That makes sense. I'm friends with Teitur who is a musician from the Faroe Islands and he talks about Faroese, that it's an older language and a very simple language. And when you're writing poetry in Faroese - you would think, as a tiny island, that it's like the Inuit thing you hear about - 'twenty words for snow' - but actually, they have one word for the sea. It's not the sea, the ocean, the deep blue. There aren't metaphorical things. There is one word for that gigantic body of water and it's the only one you can pull out. And writing lyrics, it's like he says, with the limited vocabulary, there's this immense gravity to each word you choose. Whereas in English, you can grab from thousands of synonyms, idioms, you know, you can always run around. With the language, I don't tend to put the reins on, but the music part, it's good to have restrained. [laughs]

JN: Is there a point of comparison, for old fans, between any of the old records and this new one in terms of sound?

GP: Well, it's a hybird. There are a few songs - "California Wasted," "Is There Anyone Out There" - those two definitely could have been on any Toad record. Some of the production is  a little more modern, a little different than what we've done before. But I think it feels like a natural progression. Our records have always been broad compositionally, I think. It's not like we have this one sound we do over and over and over again. There's certainly a thread through it. But certainly our limitations as players - none of us are virtuosos, right - and so, Todd has this very distinct open style, I'm kind of a hand-fisted guitarist, Randy [Guss, drummer] and Dean play together, our rhythm section, in a really particular way. So we can take songs that are kind of far-flung as far as how they are written and somehow bring them back to some center. And I think that nature of Toad, the nature of the vocal blend, the nature of the lyrics, people will find a thread in that. So, I don't think we'll leave anyone in the dust, but it certainly isn't Dulcinea part two.

JN: Since you guys have been back on the road for awhile playing nothing but older material and are now out with new stuff, is there a sense of pressure from the audience to stick mostly to older songs as opposed to playing the new ones?

GP: Yeah. We're playing about five news songs in the new set, which is a generous dose, but not enough to wreck anybody's evening by taking away all of their favorites. But there's always a balance in making a setlist in past versus future. But the thing that is exciting for us is finally have new material. It's always been odd for me returning to Toad because everything else I do is present tense. Everything else I do are songs that I've been writing and there's this response to them. I never thought I was done as a writer, so it was always odd to go back and do a Toad tour after doing other projects and we were playing all these twenty year old songs. I like the songs, but I'm not in that space anymore. I think for all of us to have a portion of the set that is in the present tense makes a huge difference. Makes us feel like a band and that we have something valid to say. And so far, the response to the new songs has been really positive.

JN: Kickstarters are usually limited to 30 days or so, so you recorded the new album first and was the Kickstarter about recouping some of the expenses that went into making that?

GP: Yeah, it's a little bit about that, a little bit about direct distribution, a little about trying to harness the most dedicated fans, the people who are the most interested in it and giving them kind of a reward and hopefully creating a bit of buzz and a story about the record. It's a great model. Even if we come out of this, delivering everything, paying the expenses, paying the taxes and we end up even, and we own a record lock, stock and barrel, and we start that process not in the red, that's an amazing thing. [laughs] Bands don't generally get to do that. So Kickstarter people see the gross and they think 'wow, you're taking it home!' But there's nothing left over. Hopefully you walk out of it and you've at least got your materials down and hopefully you've got a bunch of people who are already talking about the record and are already invested in it. This era is - I don't know that it's the end - but it's the beginning of the end of this whole business that was built on selling physical widgets with music on them, right? The record industry is a hundred years old, it was brand new technology, and the physical widget is gone for the most part and most people find their music for free or next to free through Spotify or Pandora. And so there's a lot of people who may not understand 'supporting the artist,' but for those who do and feel like patrons, they're really buttressing everybody else. They feel more like patrons of the arts, they feel closer to the bands they love and they are more generous with those bands than they used to be. So, I think Kickstarter is a really good way of fostering that relationship - giving more to people and they're giving more back, too.

JN: You mentioned the benefits of owning the record outright - you guys actually went back and re-recorded a bunch of your old tracks a couple of years ago. Can you talk a little bit about why you did that? You're not the first band to do that, others have before because of the problems of not owning the masters, but what was the purpose behind doing that?

GP: Yeah, and it's not a big problem. Sony owns the old records. That's the deal that we willingly signed. And they did a lot of promo for us. The reason we're here now is because they worked us really hard, so we're grateful for the record deal. But since we did break up, and now we're back together and we're no longer on Sony, if you're not really on people's radar, they're not trying to do anything with your catalogue. So if somebody calls and wants to put a song in a TV show, they're in no hurry to call back because you're not a priority. Or they overprice it because they're a huge corporation, and it's easy for them to just give a price and someone goes 'uh, I'll keep looking.' So the thing with re-recording and owning it ourselves is that if someone wants to use "All I Want" now, we can just say 'yeah!' [laughs] and they can use the song. And it's still us performing it and we recorded it and mixed it ourselves and it sounds pretty good. In some cases I think sounds better than the originals. [laughs] It's a great tool to have.

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