Glen Phillips, Front man for Toad The Wet Sprocket, talks candidly about music, success, depression and life

By Mark A. Leon

Music is transformative.  It takes us to extreme highs and lows and becomes the soundtrack to our lives.  For 33 years, Glen Phillips, front man for Toad the Wet Sprocket (TTWS) has experienced a career of reflection, emotional roller coaster rides, influence and struggle.  Today, like a great prize fighter, he is still throwing punches.  We had a chance to sit down with Glen and learn more about his solo career, years with TTWS and the upcoming show this weekend at the Charleston Music Hall.

CD:  As the age of glam rock was fading with the 80’s, a struggle for a new voice and sound emerged including grunge and the new alternative rock scene, did you feel like the pioneers of a new sound? And did that add pressure on you?

GP:  I think music is always evolving.  What shifts is what becomes popular.  Today if you are good at YouTube you can do well.  It does take a special skill though.  I think with the 90’s for us, the pressure we got was from the assumption that if you weren’t edgy, you weren’t deep.  There was pressure to be harder and less vulnerable.  I think we held on to our vulnerability well through those years.  We knew what we were good at and held onto who we were. 

Artists today, like Elliot Smith are saying you can be beautiful now.  You can show a softer side and still get rewarded in the media and by the fans.  Things that we are paying attention to today, may be completely different in the future.  When Norah Jones thrust onto the music scene, she found an opening. Female musicians were intense and sexualized and she just wrote soft sensual love songs.  Hootie and the Blowfish weren’t tough and they broke records in sales.  At the time, people were hungry for something that wasn’t beating them over the head.

CD:  As the music industry began to change in the late 90’s from physical album sales and charts to streaming, YouTube and reality stars, did you feel this was threatening the core value of musical and lyrical composition or did you feel the more exposure the better for the industry?

GP:  These changes are challenging the industry, but they are still interested in keeping the status quo.  The artist tends to be last in line to reap the financial rewards unless they are entrepreneurial and know how to monetize the brand and sound.  The industry doesn’t have to be fair.  Competition is good.  Innovation will force people out of jobs and evolve.  There is no true entitlement for any industry and things will evolve and change.  The music industry is only a hundred years old as a modern medium of industry sales, recording artists, mass concerts and merchandise.  It has a much longer story to tell.

Social media is playing a large part of who artists and public relations promote. The last election destroyed social media for me.  Facebook is depressing and hurting the industry.  I am on it because I need to keep my name fresh, but it can bring down a lot of talented artists or never get their name to light.

When music began, it was mostly collaborative.  Just groups of people singing and playing together.  There is nothing wrong with recorded music or large venue concerts, but at some point, we forget that some music is just about singing together with friends. Whether that was in fields, laying bricks, laying railroad track or in homes. We turned music into a commodity.

I have been doing these singing groups in Santa Monica for some time now.  I refer to them as church without religion.  Generally, I am leading them, but not performing.  They are beautiful and fun collaborations with great sounds coming out of them.  I think we need to look at the business of music, take a step back and start to look at just the “music” again.  The more I do that, the happier I am.

CD:  What are Glen Phillips top Toad or solo songs?

Nobody’s Gonna Get Hurt

Rise Up

Grief and praise

All I Want

“All I Want” gave us so much success and I we are so honored to have that opportunity for the time we had.

CD:  You bring a certain dorky humor to your live performances?  Is that an extension of your own personalities?

I let the songs speak for themselves.  I can drive people away if I really speak my mind, so during the Toad shows I focus more on the music.  During my solo performances, which are more intimate and smaller, I tend to talk and get more involved with the audience.

I often ask, “What is my place in the world?”  Am I political, can I share commentary or just sing?  The dorkiness is real and an extension of myself and the band.  We all met in high school in choir.  My dad was a physicist and my family and I used to watch every episode of Star Trek together. I think that explains a lot about how I was raised and how the band came to be.

CD: Do you still get those personal stories from fans and do they have a positive impact on you?

GP:  To some degree, but it is how the story is told.  Music is useful and not just a narcissistic exercise.  It gives meaning to experiences.  Music feels like a shared experience to some and it often clouds judgement.  Fans will tell me a story about a specific concert they went to and make it sound like we were there together.  I generally have a much different story to tell.  Sometimes, those stories can be odd and awkward because it is a personal account, not a shared experience and they often can’t tell the difference.

I had a realization 3 years ago around the time of my divorce.  Absence from the limelight and depression may have caused me to lose the thing I valued most in life.  It forced me to re-evaluate myself and look at music differently.  Music is healing and necessary for people to have.  Knowing I was doing something important was critical in my transformation. 

I know I am out of the celebrity game and it is just depressing to try and get back in it. I know I never will, but I am finding purpose again.  The singing groups I spoke about earlier have a synergy and bring me back to the raw elements of the sound, collaborative harmony and the essence of music.

CD:  The album ‘Fear’ seemed like it was trying to find an identity in the changing musical landscape with its unique and diverse selection of cuts.  Tell me about the evolution of this groundbreaking album

GP:  Fear was the bands third album.  We demoed over 30 songs in our rehearsal space prior to recording the final cut.  It was all fresh and new.  The studio left us alone to create.  The first two were live on the floor and lacked production quality.  Our goal was to become the labels cheap band, keeping the costs down.  I think, because of that, they give us complete creative freedom.

At the time, I loved Tears for Fears, Peter Gabriel and Thomas Dolby.  As a result, I wanted to make a big album.  We wanted a lot of range. Our producer recently worked with The Church and that is the powerful sound we wanted.

We went big.  Also, we didn’t know if they would ever make another album, so we went all out.

Dulcinea was our most realized record and it was interestingly all over the map.  As a band, that was the most complete composition of music and lyrics that we completed together.

CD:  1998 – 2008 – Break up years.  What did you do during this period personally both in and out of the music business including your work with Nickel Creek, the solo work and how did it differ from TTWS?

Those years were mostly marked by incredibly deep depression.  I tried to get signed as a solo artist and didn’t.  I put myself out there and pitched myself to many labels and no bite.  I thought I would carry the name Toad The Wet Sprocket for much longer than I did. 

I got bitter and depressed.  It took me a long time before I didn’t feel entitled.  I took the position of Toad for granted.  We thought we were cool and would just last.  It was a hard time for me.  I put together so many individual and collaborative projects and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get signed.

Nickel Creek came to me one day.  They loved the band and wanted to collaborate.  They were so young, talented and full of life.  I went on tour with them and after shows we would hang out in the parking lot playing some more.  Nickel Creek helped bring my life back.  Their zest for life and passion for music was addictive.  They made me remember that I loved music and why.  Being around people that alive is intoxicating without the hangover.

I have 3 little kids and I was trying to survive.  It is a human thing.  When things go well we become glutton and entitled.  When they don’t, depression can take hold and choke you.

The point of life is that it happens.  You get to be for a while.  That is gift enough.

I am working hard to stay more grateful these days.

CD:  What will fans expect from the Charleston show on October 28th.

We won’t blend in much of the solo stuff.  Expect a true Toad show with Toad music.  We did a song for a new movie that we will play that night.  We know the memories are important to the people.  It is part of our service to them and with that, they will be pleased to hear the classics.  There will be a bit of old; a bit of new.  Hopefully a perfect blend.

There is some new energy we haven’t had in a while playing together and we are excited about the show and this current tour.  During recent tour stops, we are finding the fans showing up are knowing the new songs and that means a great deal.  The audience is growing up with us.  They sense our vulnerabilities.  Of course, the songs from your 20’s and 30’s stick with you forever.

I have had only one job in my life, music.  Having seen it from the top of the mountain and in the trenches where I spend more of my time, I have a lot of time to think, reflect and plan.  Today, I book my own flights and drive my own car.  I like that I can work hard for what I love.

I am 46 now and just trying to figure out what I have to offer.  Too many of us feel there is an unwritten social contract stating that “If they you do your part as a youth, you will be rewarded.”  So many are adjusting to lesser expectations.

We need to stop being entitled and start valuing community, quietness and slowness.

“I don’t know where it all goes from here. I don’t have a degree to go anywhere, but I have observed human behavior for a long time”

Toad The Wet Sprocket – Charleston Music Hall – Saturday, October 28 – Ticket Information

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