There’s one ’90s band that never seems to make it into the conversation about the era, or get the critical respect it rightly deserves. In ’97, the New York Times called them “the standard-bearers of folk-rock mediocrity.” (Ouch.) We’re here to tell you otherwise. That the band in question is not only one of the greatest hit-machines of the “alternative nation,” but well worth revisiting. The band? Toad the Wet Sprocket.
If you grew up in the 1990s, you’re lucky, because that era saw a highly eclectic group of musicians from all genres take over the airwaves and daily MTV video rotation -- Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Counting Crows, Pixies, My Bloody Valentine. The list goes on and on. And likewise, it gave way to a lot of really questionable shit like Live, Marcy Playground, Creed, Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray. Toad was not of the latter ilk.
So what makes Toad different? Well, it’s simple: They always just were themselves. They never had a gimmick or a particularly over-the-top sound, which for the era basically meant being popular. Think about it: Where would Pearl Jam be without that "Point Break" aesthetic, Eddie Vedder’s dangerously handsome looks and guttural howl -- and the video for "Jeremy"? How about the Toadies, without that song about showing some chick “my dark secrets … behind the boathouse”?
Toad was just four nice guys from Santa Barbara, California -- Glen Phillips (lead vocals/guitar), Todd Nichols (guitar/backing vocals), Dean Dinning (bass) and Randy Guss (drums). Lead singer Phillips didn’t shoot himself in the head, have a giant rat-tail down his back, or spend his off days chasing the dragon. Instead, he wrote or co-wrote a laundry list of hits from 1989-98 -- and memorable ones at that. Who can forget “Walk On the Ocean,” “Fall Down,” “Something’s Always Wrong,” and “Good Intentions”?
Sure, they’re tailor-made for the soft-rock, wine-and-cheese radio format; but in the same sense, they’re just so damned listenable and enjoyable. (No naked people on wrecking balls needed.) Plus, the guys in the band just seemed so nice -- like guys you’d want to invite home for dinner and introduce to your parents. Hating Toad the Wet Sprocket is like hating puppies. It’s just not right.
So it’s 2013, the music industry is all digital and shit, and the ‘90s are just a flash in the pan. But Toad the Wet Sprocket is back together, out on tour, and putting out a brand-new album, New Constellation, this week. This band -- one you may have overlooked 10-odd years ago -- is giving you ample opportunity to catch the rerun. So we advise, friends, that you take it.
MTV Hive talked to Phillips about some of his not-so-obvious influences, the new record and all those hit songs.
Toad the Wet Sprocket just seems like such a nice group of guys to me. Do you remember the last time you got really angry?
Oh, I get angry enough, but I prefer to be nice. I feel like it takes more energy and creates more trouble to be a dick, so I try to remain grateful. I haven’t met too many terrible people in my life.
In the spirit of Bravo’s "Inside the Actors Studio," what is your favorite curse word?
I think "blast," just because it’s so not a curse word. I was touring with Nickel Creek in the very beginning, and they still didn’t curse. There was a period where they played Elliott Smith and Aimee Mann songs, because those had curse words they could say, but they wouldn’t use them in conversation. And at that time, [fiddle player] Sara Watkins -- if she dropped something on her foot -- would say, "BLAST!" I just thought that was the best thing ever.
I read that one time in 1994 you guys got banned by the city of Schaumburg, Illinois. Is that the only time the band’s ever gotten in trouble?
Probably. And that was for playing acoustically in-store at a BestBuy. Schaumburg is kind of a "Dirty Dancing" town, and it was considered a public performance, and they hadn’t gone to the mayor’s office and picked up a permit, so they shut us down. We haven’t had a whole lot of trouble with the law.
Toad the Wet Sprocket has broken up once -- back in 1998. Bands that break up often are experiencing creative differences, monetary issues, personality clashes, etc. You guys are back together after a long hiatus. Are you still friends?
We’re not actually extremely close friends. [laughs] I’ve equated [being in the band] with that first Thanksgiving, where you get your whole family together, and nobody has an argument and it’s weird, but you’re actually really glad to be there, because everybody’s put the past away. So for me, Toad is kind of like that.
You grew up in Santa Barbara, California. Were you from a musical household?
My brother was a really good musician; he was a composition major. He works for Korg, actually, and makes synthesizers. He was a keyboardist, so I picked up guitar. I remember Rush blowing my mind. And then when I met Todd [Nichols], I was listening to a lot of Ozzy and Rush, and he turned me on to Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, Dumptruck, Dinosaur Jr. -- from there I got into punk music.
Your sound is so distinctive -- there are shades of college rock and folk-rock in there. Did that gel right away?
Todd, I think, has a distinctive tonal center that he writes around; and his taste and Dean [Dinning’s] taste are much more pop than mine are. My favorite new bands are Alt-J and James Blake. I am not really into mainstream pop music. It was frustrating back in the day. I was listening to Negativland, late Talk Talk -- those were my influences, and I wasn’t listening to the bands we were lumped into. They really, honestly, didn’t interest me. And we kind of always had a mellow sound, but we also had these sad, dramatic lyrics. I don’t think anybody else was doing that at the time. Lyrically, I was much more in league with Morrissey than I was with Hootie and the Blowfish.
Crosby, Stills, & Nash -- and Young, too, I think -- all wrote songs about having or being on yachts, because they were filthy rich and could afford them. “Walk On the Ocean” is a water-based track that isn’t of that canon. What was the basis for the song?
In all honesty, that song was written in about 10 minutes, lyrically. We were making a demo, and we wanted to say something other than "la-la-la," and I whipped that thing out. It was loosely based on [a trip] my wife and I had gone on to Doe Bay, on Orcas Island in the San Juans outside of Seattle, to a hippie resort.
I notice that a lot of your hit songs are downhearted or sad in theme -- “Something’s Always Wrong,” “All I Want,” “Fall Down.” Is songwriting where you get the angry, mean-spirited Glen Phillips out?
I don’t know if it’s the angry and mean me, but it’s where I work out the problems. I think it’s really hard to write songs about joy. I really wish I could do more of it. It’s easier for me to write about heavier things. But my favorite songs are the ones that actually lean toward something positive but don’t feel like they’re ignoring the darkness. I mean, that’s what "All I Want" is.
I think there’s this assumption that bands with a string of hits in the ’90s are now living large -- fancy cars, diamond-studded watches, stuff like that. Do the residuals from your ’90s hits even pay your bills?
Oh, God no. That would be lovely, but absolutely not.
With that in mind, what is your goal, album-sales-wise, for the new Toad record? Do you expect to make any money off it?
I don’t know what my goal is. We’re determined to work as hard as we can on it, but I also understand how much the world has changed. It will take a lot of luck to get above the noise floor, because there’s so much out now. Everybody now has these great democratizing tools, which is a real gift; but on the other hand, everybody has the same ones, so the problems of having people know you actually have a record out there are the same as they’ve ever been. The one thing we may get this time around is some respect. We weren’t really cool the first time around and people weren’t writing about us because we weren’t edgy. People can describe us now as not just a guilty pleasure but something they care about.
New Constellation is out now on Abe's Records.