Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips Talks ‘Fear’ at 25: Exclusive Interview
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In the ’90s, Toad the Wet Sprocket‘s music was an alternative radio and MTV staple. Much of that had to do with the success and popularity of 1991’s fear, the California band’s third album. Produced by Gavin MacKillop (Goo Goo Dolls, the Church, the Chills), the LP built on the plaintive, wrenching folk-rock of the group’s first two records (1989’s Bread & Circus, 1990’s Pale) by adding complex musical arrangements and instrumental color. “Before You Were Born” ends in a sunburst of majestic electric guitars; mournful accordion sways through “Something to Say”; and jubilant organ swells through standout “In My Ear.”
Fear also spawned two major, enduring crossover singles: “All I Want” and “Walk on the Ocean,” which peaked at No. 15 and No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, respectively. Neither song has lost any of its emotional yearning or resonance today, which is another main fear hallmark: Although the members of Toad were quite young during the making of fear (especially frontman Glen Phillips, who wasn’t even 21 yet), the album displayed themes and songwriting that was wise beyond its years.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of fear, Toad is naturally hitting the road: In fact, the band kicked off the second leg of its summer tour—which will of course feature fear-centric setlists—on Aug. 12. In addition, Phillips is releasing a lovely new solo album, Swallowed by the New, on Oct. 7. (Good news for fans attending the shows: He’ll have early copies of the album to buy.)
Prior to the first leg of the fear tour, Phillips spoke with Diffuser about the album’s anniversary and legacy, as well as the mind-warping experience of the record unexpectedly taking off and becoming a hit.
So, fear at 25. Does it seem like that long ago?
Yes and no. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s a different world. It’s odd, because so many of these songs we’ve kept playing, and they have changed in gigantic ways any number of times. Yeah, it’s amazing looking at everything that’s changed and everything that’s shifted. You know, feeling grateful for it, but it’s like most of life, things seem kind of like yesterday, and they also seem like it was another person and an entire other world.
How has your own personal connection to the material evolved and changed as you’ve played the songs over the years?
It depends on the song. Frankly, most of the material, if I could rewrite it, I would. [Laughs.]
There are a lot of moments lyrically where you know, I’m like, “I did okay there—I didn’t really commit to that line and, you know, I gave myself an out.” There’s things that, looking at them now, I feel like I could have been less obscure and more direct. Or just really been a better lyricist. But then again, I was 19 and 20, and these are pretty decent for that. [Laughs.] So you know, I’ve got to take it what it is. The thing I’m happy about is that I feel like I was trying to tackle some pretty big subjects, and I’m proud that at that age, that’s where my head was at.
So when I look at these songs now, I do take pride. You know, I’ve seen bands where the guys [are] in their 50s and all of the songs are about being young and getting laid, kind of. And it doesn’t wear very well, as you know. [Laughs.] I’m happy to look at this group of songs and think like, “Wow, I’m proud of where my head was at at that age.” I’m not ashamed to look back on them. That feels pretty good.
The other part of it is that there’s a bit of me [that] as I go back and look at these songs and look at the intent, so much of it was about not losing idealism and holding onto that youthful assuredness about who you are and what you want to do in the world, and how you’re not going to compromise. You’re going to be the first person ever to make it through intact and hold onto who you really are, all of the time.
And then coming back at 45, it’s like, “Well, I’ve got some grown kids and I’m divorced and I went through years of pretty serious depression.” You know, it’s like, honestly, I totally lost that. [Laughs.] And at this age as well, I’m reclaiming some of that. The thing about this chapter, it’s after the survival years and after the years of making ends meet and dealing with the inevitable disappointments of life, right? Everybody deals with that—economies crumble, [the] housing crisis, whatever else. Things turn out the way they turn out, which is never the way you expected, even if they’re kind of like you expected.
Looking at this part of my life, I have a blank slate again, and I get to ask again who I really am and where my integrity is and how I hold onto it. And so I’m really happy to get to ask those questions again and ask them with a little experience under my belt. I think that’s the opportunity of middle age, right? We get, in some ways, we get a do-over, with a lot of experience behind it. So yeah, coming back and looking at these songs, I’m proud of them.
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It’s nice having your younger self to give you a little nudge almost. It’s like that angel and devil on your shoulder. Like, “Hey, remember this? Remember this too?”
Yeah, on the other hand, my younger self didn’t know s—. [Laughs.]
No one does at that age. You think you do, but you don’t!
He was idealistic, he was smart enough, but he was not wise! But the intent was there, and I respect the intent of that person, and I still have these basic questions. I’ve always had this very spiritual bent, but [on that album] I kind of fought with, “How do I take that life of spirit, but not have religion involved in it? And what is the kind of practice a person can develop?” You know, if you’re deeply moved and awed, how do you keep that awe right in your peripheral vision, at the very least, as often as possible, and survive in the world and do the things that need to get done? That balance can be difficult.
There’s a lot of material in there about that edge and those questions—how there’s less emphasis on survival and how to raise three kids and pay a mortgage and all of that. It’s like, how do you keep your center and how much can you actually do that in the world? So it’s all relevant stuff.
What do you remember best about working with Gavin MacKillop? You look at his production discography and it’s all of these beautiful, interesting sounding records that you can’t really pinpoint as any one genre or approach.
The great thing about Gavin is, more than anything, he taught us, there’s some basic things [a band can do]. If Todd [Nichols, guitarist] and I were basically playing the same part—you know, we’re both just kids strumming guitars—he’d be like, “How about you guys actually try to play on different parts of the neck? It’ll sound better.” [Laughs.] And getting the rhythm section to listen to each other—he taught us basic tricks.
But he was also very Socratic. What’s amazing about him as a producer, [is that] there are a lot of people in that role who step in, and they have all of the answers. And the only thing Gavin was ever interested in was our answer. I think that’s why his records are so diverse as well, is that he doesn’t walk in and say, “This is how you should do it.” He just says, “Could you say that better?” And I’d have to look at my lyrics and go, “Probably?” “Third verse, I start to get bored here. Can you keep me from getting bored?”
And so in the pre-production, as far as teaching us to be critical of our own songs and critical—in a positive way—of our own assumptions about how things should go, he got us to really challenge ourselves and how we write. For me, that’s why coming back years later, it’s like, the stuff he taught me [was] about looking at my own lyrics and not getting away with anything, which I was just starting to learn on fear and I feel like I’m still learning. He was an incredible teacher that way.
That’s so nice that he played that role for you guys too, because you’re right, some producers come in and they have no patience with that, or else they want to mold a band in one way. That’s really cool he let you guys figure it out for yourselves too.
We were a young band, and some producers also walk in and don’t change anything. I mean, there’s the Steve Albini thing of like, “The song is your job” and it’s like, “I’m not going to tell you I’m bored.” It’s like, if you couldn’t write it better, it’s your own damn problem. [Laughs.] So there’s that aspect of it as well. Gavin, he’s like, “Ah, you need a little nudge there. Wow, third verse, same as the first—did you get bored? Did you run out of things to say?” “Well, I just didn’t want to do the work.” He was a great person to work with, especially as a young band just kind of trying to figure it out.
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What else do you remember most from the writing and recording sessions? Does anything else really stand out?
The writing, we had done our first two records pretty much live in the studio. We just went in and played the songs, live lead vocal and that was it. We were done. When it came to fear, we’re like, “Well, we’re on a major label, we’ll probably, statistically, only get to do this once. So let’s use a lot of tracks and make a big, beautiful record.” So even the demoing process, we were getting more experimental.
We had one of these Akai 12-tracks that ran on a modified BetaMax cassette and we were, you know, just knowing we would get to go in and make something really lush and big and so we were writing accordingly. We were writing with this bigger palette in mind and going in the studio as well. We went to a residential studio out in Reno, [Nevada] and it was a lot of fun for the rest of the band, because they were all over 21. So they’d all go to casinos and hang out and see shows, and I would wait back at the studio. It was an amazing experience to go in there and get to totally immerse in the record-making process instead of trying to do it as quickly as possible.
“All I Want” crossed over on so many charts: Modern Rock, Mainstream Rock, Top 40 and Adult Contemporary, which I think doesn’t happen anymore. It really struck me to see that.
Yeah, and it was not so much the song at the time, I mean, I think any career is probably 25 percent the quality of the work, 25 percent how hard you work and about 50 percent luck and timing. So we happened to put that record out right as radio deregulation was going on. It was before things had re-coalesced in the new monopolies, but at a time when radio was really open and taking chances. College music was just kind of moving out of the indie world and into the mainstream, right? There was “Losing My Religion” and R.E.M. was all of the sudden a major label pop band instead of like the coolest indie band. So we were right in the middle of that movement and nobody was sure what their formats were anymore. We completely were the beneficiaries of that transitory period.
I grew up in Cleveland, and we had a modern rock station that I think started around ‘92 and they played everything. It was the coolest—they played all of the weird stuff, they played British stuff. It blew my mind. It was such an interesting time.
The thing is, radio has become incredibly narrow for the most part these days. You know, compared to how it was then. But then again, the internet is anything but, right? If you have streaming, if you have Spotify or Apple Music, basically you can listen to anything at anytime and playlists are amazingly eclectic. So yeah, it’s a good era for that.
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So you guys were like, “Alright, we’re going to make this record, we don’t expect anything from it.” Then it took off. What was that like? What was the weirdest or most like disorienting thing about that?
It was all kind of weird. And I mean, the strange thing to consider on this too is that it didn’t take off until nine months into the record. So we’d already been touring for nine months. We’d put out a couple of singles, and we thought maybe the record was done. We were happy with what we did, and there was this, “Well, what about ‘All I Want’? Let’s try one more single.” So we ended up being on the road for another nine months after that. I mean, we did 300 shows for that record. It was quite a marathon. [Laughs.] So it was strange, because it all happened so gradually. You know, people are always like, “Oh my God, you got successful so fast,” and it’s like, that’s only because we were above the radar for a certain group of people. We were on tour for nine months; we felt like it was this very long process. But for the people who first see you when you’re on MTV, and it’s more popular and you’re not on 120 Minutes or whatever it was, I suppose it would seem very quick.
It’s true. I think I first learned about you guys because the videos were in really heavy rotation on MTV. It warps your sense then–you see somebody on TV, you automatically think they’re famous, basically.
Yeah, and we thought we were very indie. I mean, I think the hardest thing actually for us, is we were so indie in our mindset. We had made these two records, we had released them exactly as they were and we got Columbia Records to put out two records of ours and keep us on the road. Our first record cost 600 bucks to make, right? We just thought we were indie guys, like, taking advantage of the major label and doing it our way.
And then we had this video on MTV, and we did it with Hans Neleman, who is a great artist. He’d done the cover art. But it ended up looking kind of similar to “Losing My Religion.” I remember we kept sending back edits saying, “It’s too much like ‘Losing My Religion,’ can we change it?” And you know, we’d spent the money and it came out and we kind of had our first hit and lost all of our indie cred at the same time. [Laughs.] That part was hard, because we’d been really proud of who we were, and then we were being seen by a lot of people as Columbia Records doing a pop R.E.M., and that was the last thing we wanted people to think we were. So there was a bit of pain in that.
But it’s a decent problem to have. I mean, the ‘90s was also the era of bands hating their singles, right? R.E.M. wouldn’t lip sync and then they did. Pearl Jam wouldn’t play “Alive” or Adam Duritz wouldn’t sing the melody for [Counting Crows‘] “Mr. Jones.” You know, it was this thing, like, we’re going to sign on a record label and we hope we do well. And then when we do well, we’re going to s— all over it! The current generation is spared the indignity of that hypocrisy, but we were right in the middle of it.
It seems like such a quaint time now when you think about it, but I totally remember that.
Yeah, it was pretty ridiculous. But it felt right at the time.
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