Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips sheds his skin in Cincy
By Bill Forman
Photo: Glen Phillips, of Toad the Wet Sprocket fame, performs in Cincy, March 17; photo: Ashtin Paige
Hindsight is 20/20, or at least it can be. For Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips, that became all too apparent during the traumatic episodes he’s gone through since the breakup of the band he’d been fronting since the age of 15.
The four Santa Barbara natives, guitarist Phillips, guitarist Todd Nichols, bassist Dean Dinning, and drummer Randy Guss, first met in high school and borrowed the name from a favorite Monty Python sketch. They scraped together $600 to record their indie debut album, Bread & Circus. The album was subsequently reissued by Columbia Records, for which the band spent most of the ’90s releasing platinum alt-rock albums and hit singles like “Something’s Always Wrong” and “Fall Down.”
Eager to keep the momentum going, the label gave the band a $200,000 recording budget for 1997’s commercially disappointing Coil, which would be Toad the Wet Sprocket’s major-label swan song. A year later, they disbanded to pursue their own projects.
Phillips, who’s currently on his own tour with Toad the Wet Sprocket keyboard accompanist Jonathan Kingham along for the ride, doesn’t shy away from speaking candidly about what came next.
“I was bitter, and it’s still sometimes hard for me,” the singer-songwriter says, who spent a number of years trying to land a solo deal. “I’d be like, ‘Wait a second, I thought I was legit, why am I on the outside now?’”
Phillips gradually established his career as a solo artist, raising three kids along the way, but only recently recovered from the bouts of depression he suffered in the wake of a 2014 divorce.
“I felt entitled to my marriage, to my house, and to my definitions of myself,” he says. “But the fact is, you’re not entitled to anything. I mean, you’re lucky for every breath you take and every beat of your heart.”
Last year, Phillips and his old bandmates went out on tour to commemorate the 25-year anniversary of their single “Fall Down.” He expects they’ll hit the road again this summer, although a new solo album is his main priority at the moment.
“I love switching between the two,” he says. “And it’s amazing how freeing it feels to do the band by choice.”
Even so, Phillips and his bandmates have sometimes wondered whether they should have just taken a break, rather than actually dissolved the band.
“We’re like, ‘Wow, a brand name means a lot,’ and I hadn’t quite realized that,” he says with a quiet laugh. “I thought it was my songwriting.”
Self-deprecating comments aside, Phillips’ songwriting was, in fact, a major contributor to the band’s success, and that talent has only deepened over the course of 10 solo releases. Last year, he released his latest album, Swallowed by the New, which in many ways sounds like a cross between Paul Simon and, well, Toad the Wet Sprocket.
Lyrically, Swallowed by the New is both heavy and hopeful, and not without good reason. “I was in kind of a fragile state,” the songwriter says, “but I was adamant about not writing breakup songs, because I didn’t want to go there.”
It also didn’t help that Phillips had a severe case of writer’s block. He overcame it, he says, by joining an 18-person songwriters group led by Matt Sever, an Austin musician who performs as Matt the Electrician.
“He sends out a song title on Wednesdays, and then you have until the following Wednesday to send back a song,” Phillips says. “Every week, he would just open up a dictionary, pick out a couple of words, go ‘that sounds like a title,’ and then send it out to everybody. And I just started writing the songs I need to write.”
Three of those songs made it onto the new album: “Reconstructing the Diary,” “Criminal Career,” and the especially poignant “Leaving Oldtown.” “I need a new town,” Phillips sings over a minor-key string arrangement, “where no one knows me, no one heeds a thing I do, and no one’s ever heard of you.”
So last year, the lifelong Santa Barbara resident packed his bags and moved to Nashville.
“I knew I needed to get out of town and go somewhere, but I wasn’t quite sure where that would be,” he says. “I have a couple of friends who were touring musicians in Santa Barbara, but it’s really great in Nashville to just have this community of people who understand the kind of life I lead, and to not feel so strange or even so special.”
That last part is easier said than done, but Phillips says the bouts of depression are much less frequent these days. He’s also been working on understanding the source of his fears, which he wryly describes as “the same crap as everybody else, things like family of origin and fear of failure.”
“We are scared to death that anytime we open up, anytime we love, anytime we take a risk, we’ll be crushed,” he says. “And the answer is, we probably will be, in one way or another. And that’s not a bad thing. You get to love more deeply, and you get to be hurt. And what the hell else are you gonna do while you’re alive?”
Glen Phillips plays Friday, March 17 at Ludlow Garage, 342 Ludlow Ave. in Cincinnati. Show starts at 8 p.m., doors at 7 . Tickets are $15-125. For more information, please visit GlenPhillips.com.