Writers’ Weir: Going through life with Good Intentions — Glen Phillips on music, politics, religion and nerd culture.

The longtime band fills a jangly niche all its own.

Justin W. Price (Courtesy Photo / Stephanie C Schick at @my_Schick_image)

The Capital City Weekly, which runs in the Juneau Empire’s Thursday editions, accepts submissions of poetry, fiction and nonfiction for Writers’ Weir. To submit a piece for consideration, email editor@juneauempire.com.

By Justin W. Price

“Oh it’s too late now but no. Not in a million years.” Glen Phillips laughs when I ask him if he would still choose the name Toad the Wet Sprocket for the band that launched his career 33 years ago.“I’m both happy about it and proud of it. When we talk about nerd cred, Toad the Wet Sprocket taken from a rare vinyl-only Monty Python sketch, it’s got a lot of nerd cred.”

Phillips formed the alternative rock band in 1988 in Santa Barbara, California, with Todd Nichols (guitar), Dean Dinning (bass), and Randy Guss (drums) — all four years older than him. Phillips was still a freshman in high school with aspirations to be involved in the theater arts. Toad released two independent albums and then signed to Capitol Records, embarked on dozens of North American tours, and several European ones throughout the 1990s.

Phillips, 50 at the time of the interview, still very much has the youthful appearance of the man in his mid-20s, during Toad’s early-to-mid-90s heyday cranking out such college rock favorites as “Walk on the Ocean,” “Something’s Always Wrong,” and “All I Want.”

At the start of our Zoom call, I remark at how young he looks, and he smiles and puts his face right up to the camera. “This is where you can see my age. Look at these bags under my eyes.”

Much like the music he creates, he is at equal turns serious, playful, and sometimes painfully self-aware.

With a new album released in August of 2021,”Starting Now,” and a proposed tour barring COVID restrictions; Toad seems primed to enter the next stage of its career with as much optimism and joy as those high schoolers had in the late ‘80s.

Toad has always maintained a loyal if modest fan base. Perhaps this was a result of being a folksy, upbeat, positive band that came of age during the nihilism and negativity of the grunge era.

“I loved a lot of those bands. I mean Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana. Freaking awesome, I mean amazing music,” Phillips says. “It was strange being outliers. There was a lot of emphasis on this idea that you had to be edgy. That depth and edginess were the same thing …We had music that sounded happy enough. Lyrics that were,” a long pause ensues as he looks for the right words. “They weren’t trite … but they didn’t really fit in. In a certain sense, we didn’t even really fit in with Hootie and the Blowfish or Gin Blossoms either. We had kind of our own flavor.”

Toad did not fit in a neat little box, playing jangly pop with folk and alternative undertones, they are hard to categorize but impossible not to recognize with Phillips’ inimitable vocals residing against almost obsequious melodies, guitars that intertwine major chords and minor melodies against a workmanlike rhythm section. The lyrics touch on the deepest recesses of the heart but with a cheerful outlook, deep introspection, and the occasional story thrown in.

“I liked what we did and I think our audience stuck with us ‘cause we were speaking to nerds before nerds ruled the world.” He continues with a laugh. “You know, I’m sure there’s still school districts where you can get your ass kicked with liking math or science. We grew up in an era where that was normal and I think we spoke to people that were a little bit on the outside. And that was our audience.”

With Toad, though, the audience seem more intellectual, more educated, less angry, quieter. Wine over beer. Optimism over pessimism. Toad, in a sense, was its own subculture.

“That’s the way social movements work, right? I don’t know when the first year was that people said punk was dead but I’m assuming it was probably 1977, right [laughs]? As soon as punk became popular, that was antithetical to the vibe,” Phillips says.

While punk fashion and punk music are still alive and popular, proving the ‘Punk is dead’ naysayers to be less than prescient, the gunge movement was born and died within the same decade, even as some of the bands of that era are still putting out quality records — and they completely changed fashion too. Coming out of the glossy ‘80s, the ‘90s ushered in a fashion that was equal turns drab, functional and comfortable.

Indeed, from 1991 until the end of that decade, one couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the plaid flannels, beanies, boots and Chucks of the grunge era dominating fashion boutiques around the world.

“I remember having a friend who worked at Nordstrom back in the grunge days. She was a young shop girl and they took all the girls and all the staff and were like ‘People will walk in and they’ll be wearing plaid and they’ll have things tied around their waists and you’ll think that’s not fashionable but it’s a statement and take them to this area where we have grunge. It became fashionable very quickly. I think any movement like that is also speaking to something authentic and speaking to something that needs to be spoken to.”

Unlike their peers, Glen was often seen in loose-fitting, almost bed style clothing, with cargo shorts and no shoes (because, in his words, he’s a klutz who couldn’t reach his pedals with shoes on). The rest of the band wore bright colors and Randy Guss often tucked a buttoned-down shirt into slacks, looking every part of your friendly neighborhood accountant.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t a place for bands like Toad the Wet Sprocket. Having sold more than three million records over the course of their career, it’s clear that, while they may not have platinum records that bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains did, they did carve out a neat little niche for themselves.

“In the same way, you can have that with things like back to Hootie & the Blowfish and, say, Norah Jones. You know, they’re very different artists.” Phillips recollects. “Norah Jones came out of an era where women were fighting for edginess. There was, like, ‘How gnarly can people be?’ And Norah Jones just came out and sang beautifully and people went ape s – – t for it. Same with Hootie & the Blowfish. In an era where people were trying to be as edgy as they could, hearing a band sing a song about holding your hand was really refreshing, you know?”

At this Phillips pauses again and smiles. Perhaps he realizes the edginess his band curated by not being edgy and angry aurally, but by being positive, meditative and accessible. He has been attentive for this entire tête-à-tête but here, he seems like he is briefly elsewhere. Perhaps he’s back in 1994, on the Dulcinea tour where Hootie & the Blowfish opened. A tour where, by the end of it, Hootie was one of the biggest bands in the world.

“You know, at one point we talked about flipping the bill and they didn’t wanna flip the bill. It was kind of amazing to see. We weren’t adversarial. It wasn’t like ‘why are they blowing up and we’re not?’ It was ‘Holy crap, dude! This is awesome!’ It doesn’t happen every day, right? It’s a curse and a blessing. They were simultaneously one of the biggest bands in the world, but they were also the butt of a lot of jokes. I think it really stunk. They were a bar band. They were a really good bar band, but I think they were as surprised when it happened as anybody. And then just getting made fun of all the time I think really hurt them.”

With Phillips, there is no hint of jealousy. No envy, no lamenting that it was the other guys and not his own band that went platinum 21 times over. He is still genuinely happy for them and appears to be content with the trajectory of his own career. Reflecting further on the tour with Hootie & Blowfish. Phillips has a sense of whimsy and nostalgia. “That was a fun tour though …We used to play Music Farm [in Charleston, South Carolina] way back when they used to come out and see us play. It was awesome to get on the road and really awesome just to see it all blow up.”

***

Eschewing the drugs and rock and roll clichés of many of their peers, Toad has always been stable and steady as the lineup stayed intact until 2020 when Randy Guss officially left the band. “

The simplest way to put things,” Phillips says when discussing the departure, “His medical condition was at a point where the athleticism required to be a rock drummer [was too much for his condition].”

Guss suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly called brittle bone disease. Phillips says this in a matter-of-fact tone, yet there is a clear sense of empathy and compassion in his voice.

Perhaps his own medical issues (he had throat surgery after the Fear tour and was unable to sing for six months) factored into this.

“There were years he wasn’t touring with us but was still technically in the band” Phillips says. “Josh Daubin filled in on those tours and is now an official member of the group.”

Resilience is perhaps the word that could best describe Toad. Never the biggest draw or the top-selling band, they still continue to release new quality material. After releasing “Coil” in 1997, the band parted ways and, aside from a few one-off performances here and there, did not release any new music until “New Constellation” in 2013. In addition to Toad, Phillips has also maintained a solid solo career and has also worked with members of Nickel Creek on a one-off project called Mutual Admiration Society.

Yet, when COVID-19 grabbed the world by the throat at the end of 2019, the death knell for many bands and venues was heard. Phillips, however, like many of his peers took to virtual performances, both for profit and for raising awareness and funds for various charities.

Our call commenced just as he finished one of his Facebook livestreaming concerts. Gone are the days of the 10,000- and 15,000-seat arenas. The audience he’s playing to now is now older, smaller and more intimate. Not only as a matter of necessity in a pandemic controlled world but also due to the fact that some of his political views have proven unpopular with pockets of his fanbase. “I did a series of these live streams, and I lost a lot of my audience this year by supporting the Black Lives Matter movement,” he says. A little nervous laughter emits, but a massive smirk crosses his face, suggesting that he is unfazed by it. In fact the anxiety and division that have gripped the nation — and the world — on a macro level can also be seen on a micro level in Phillips’ interactions with fans and others. “I learned to have really deep and respectful conversations with people who had really different spiritual outlooks or belief systems. I really tried to figure out how to train myself to talk to people who were across the aisle now and it’s more difficult than it’s ever been. So, I thought that was something I was actually skilled at and the last two years have really brought me to my knees. It’s been really humbling.”

Here, perhaps, we see the intersection between art and honesty. Honest art is powerful, fearless, and impactful. Yet, honest art can also leave the artist ostracized and maligned. Phillips, though, appears confident in his convictions and unfazed by detractors. The music is important, yet it is the impact of the music that is vital. He continues, “[Like most people] I want a level playing field, I want to feel safe in the world, I want the people I love to be okay. Just trying to get the conversation back there. If it goes back to love, I feel like that’s the only thing they can come back to these days.”

Phillips seems unafraid to change and improve — perhaps based on his spiritual proclivities. He was raised by a Jewish mother and even had a Bar Mitzvah yet it was his dad’s background that perhaps had the greatest impact on spiritual growth of the burgeoning Phillips. “My dad was raised Presbyterian but he was a Zen Buddhist meditator, and he gave me books on Sufism and Buddhism and so he brought me into kind of a more eastern attitude. There are a lot of Jewish traditions that are extremely alive in spiritual and ecstatic in those ways in that direct relationship with God.”

Indeed, the simplicity of Judaism struck a chord with Phillips as a young man. “I remember thinking how magical it must feel to live in a world with a real God. I remember early on we were hearing Bible stories and I was like ‘I don’t know if I believe it.’ Like as [a] literal fact, I had trouble believing it early on. I asked the rabbi, and he was like, ‘Don’t worry. You don’t have to. This is about being a loving person. It’s about treating people well. Being godly in this context is simply you know being ethical and being loving. Go first with love. That’s all you need to know. I was like ‘I can handle that.’”

He continues, “In Buddhism [I found] something that was not dogmatic but was experiential in terms of spirit and that kind of linking with the unknown and the ineffable, just with a moral context. I’ve always found a lot of appeal in that because in Buddhism you’re not necessarily told that this is what you must believe.” Phillips takes these traits into his songwriting where he writes lyrics that are concrete enough to have some footing in reality but vague enough to be applicable to anyone. These traits also came across in my own interaction with him. Instead of being angry or frustrated that fans have left him over his political positions, he embraces them as just another facet of his life. He even seems to regret that these folks are missing out on the beauty of diversity.

“Instead of saying this is the way it is, if you see something different, you’re wrong. If you think you’ve got it all figured out, you’re wrong. Open [up] more. Your job is always to open more to the actual experience, to be more present and it’s a constant learning, constant opening so that that lack of dogma appealed to me… It’s about being a source of light into a kind of nihilistic grit, right?”

This is the sort of outlook that is seen in many of his lyrics. While some have an overt spiritual bent —“Little Buddha”, and “Fly From Heaven”, for example — others show this dual nature of man and the relativity of it all. “All I Want,” perhaps the best-known song from their major label debut Fear, contains the lyrics: “The air outside so soft is saying everything … Though the air speaks of all we’ll never be, it won’t trouble me … Whatever happens will be.” These lyrics read like a man content to take life as it comes while understanding that the mysteries of the universe are too big to fully grasp. This is a concept — the unknowable God — that is prevalent in Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity — spiritual ideas close to Phillips’ heart.

“Come Down” also has a similar idea (the duality of man) behind it, as Phillips explains. “It was about a number of things. More than anything, it was just about the process of morally failing and that need to start again. Get up where you fell from, right? That constant returning. The need for other people, the need for support. I mean you know in Buddhism it’s the three jewels … Buddha, which is essentially the enlightened spirit that dwells in everything. Dharma would be practice and knowledge and Sangha is community. You can’t be held without community. You need others. You need the reflection of those to love you, to nurture you, heal you. To send you back on the right path when you’re going off the right path and in order for the Buddha nature, your holy nature, enlightened nature, to work.”

As he says this I can’t help but think about his online performances — a way to connect with his audience during a time when many of us are kept socially distant. It’s a reciprocal relationship.“You need teachings, you need some laws in there, you need some knowledge but you also, you know you can’t do it without community. That song wasn’t written directly from a Buddhist perspective either. More just about making a mistake, getting up, trying not to do it again.”

Likewise, he is also unafraid to revisit the past and lament some of his musical and lyrical mistakes, one of which is the highly controversial “Hold Her Down” from the album “Fear.” The song was inspired by the real-life experience of a friend who was sexually assaulted. Much like Nirvana’s “Polly”, released the same year — 1991 — the song is written from multiple viewpoints, including from the point of view of the rapist. “I wish I had gone about that song in a different way because it wasn’t crystal clear. A part of that song, when it was written it’s kind of switching perspective between [the] perpetrator of a sexual assault and a condemnation of sexual assault and it’s meant to be angry and disturbing. And it is disturbing,” Phillips pauses. His legs are curled up on his swivel chair and he hugs them close to his chest. “I think some women heard it wrong and thought it was instructional and were deeply upset about it and that made me feel bad.” The song was acutely confrontational and written two and a half decades before the #MeToo movement. Phillips bemoans the fact that even as a 21 year old, he didn’t know a single woman who had not been assaulted in some way.

“That is astonishing to realize that. There was a lot of discussion when that song was written as to whether it was okay. Did we have the right to do this? Was it too confusing? I know it’s done people some good and we did a lot of work with RAINN [Rape Abuse and Incest National Network] and I hope it did more good than bad but I don’t know. I wish it had been clear, and then again, I’m the person who’s saying I want songs that are ambivalent. To take on that topic in that way I think was cathartic and healing for some people, but I think, it’s sometimes had the opposite effect and I do regret that. That was hard for me.”

What’s next for Phillips is anyone’s guess, though a reunion with Mutual Admiration Society, the band he formed with Nickel Creek (Chris Thile, and Sara and Sean Watkins). The band plans to tour the new record, COVID permitting, with Josh Daubin on drums as an official member of the band for the first time. More solo projects from Glen could also be on the horizon, though Glen cautions that a Toad record is just a Glen record with intertwining guitars and slightly less folksy undertones. In fact, the new Toad record was intended to be a Glen Phillips solo project. He decided to bounce the songs off of his Toad bandmates, who added contributions of their own, thus making it a Toad album.

As it is with most of us during the COVID era, the future is uncertain but one thing we can expect is for Phillips to maintain his positive outlook, and to keep working hard at being a better human.

Thirty-three years is a long time for a band to stay together and remain relevant, and Toad seems to have managed to do just that. Credit their ability to stay away from rockstar cliches, their ability to stay true to themselves, their lack of envy, positive outlook, and optimism.

Or, credit the music. As Phillips says, “You sing a sad song and then you’re not so alone. I’ll sing happy uplifting songs [and that] totally works too. It’s like this secret weapon that I didn’t realize I had access to.”

• Justin W. Price lives in downtown Juneau with his two dogs. He has numerous short stories and poems published and was nominated for the Gover Prize for short fiction in 2013. He creates music with the proper english. and The Empty North. You can also see him on mountain tops in the Spring and Summer. He can be reached at Bigdipperwriting@gmail.com. Find him on social media at www.facebook.com/authorjustinwprice.

The Capital City Weekly, which runs in the Juneau Empire’s Thursday editions, accepts submissions of poetry, fiction and nonfiction for Writers’ Weir. To submit a piece for consideration, email editor@juneauempire.com.

More in News

In this Empire file photo, a Princess Cruise Line ship is seen docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021.(Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire file)
Ships in Port for the week of May 15, 2022

This information comes from the Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska’s 2022 schedule.… Continue reading

Teaser
Judge orders board adopt interim redistricting map

The decision comes in a second round of redistricting challenges.

It's a police car until you look closely and see the details don't quite match. (Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Tuesday, May 17, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

In this October 2019 photo, Zac Watt, beertender for Forbidden Peak Brewery, pours a beer during the grand opening for the Auke Bay business in October 2019. Alcoholic beverage manufacturers and dispensers recently came to an agreement  on a bill that could bring live music and extended hours to breweries. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Of the more than 460 stoOf the more than 460 stocks managed by NOAA, 322 have a known overfishing status (296 not subject to overfishing and 26 subject to overfishing) and 252 have a known overfished status (201 not overfished and 51 overfished). (Courtesy Image / NOAA)
Southeast fisheries hoping for less turbulent waters

Regions and species see wildly variably conditions due to climate and COVID-19, according to two new NOAA reports.

It's a police car until you look closely and see the details don't quite match. (Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Saturday, May 14, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Oil rigs stand in the Loco Hills field along U.S. Highway 82 in Eddy County, near Artesia, N.M., one of the most active regions of the Permian Basin. Government budgets are booming in New Mexico. The reason behind the spending spree — oil. New Mexico is the No. 2 crude oil producer among U.S. states and the top recipient of U.S. disbursements for fossil fuel production on federal land. But a budget flush with petroleum cash has a side effect: It also puts the spotlight on how difficult it is for New Mexico and other states to turn their rhetoric on tackling climate change into reality. (AP Photo / Jeri Clausing)
States struggle to replace fossil fuel tax revenue

Federal, state and local governments receive about $138B a year from the fossil fuel industry.

It's a police car until you look closely and see the details don't quite match. (Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Friday, May 13, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

This photo published in AP World Magazine in Fall 1998 shows Dean Fosdick on election night in Anchorage, Alaska. Fosdick, the Associated Press journalist who filed the news alert informing the world of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, has died. He died April 27, 2022, in Florida at the age of 80. His longtime career with the news service included 15 years as the bureau chief in Alaska. (AP Photo/File)
Longtime AP Alaska bureau chief Dean Fosdick dies at age 80

He filed the news alert informing the world of the Exxon Valdez grounding.

Most Read