Much like his music, talking with Toad The Wet Sprocket’s frontman Glen Phillips is a pleasure. Soft-spoken yet friendly, he is as affable as his band’s hit songs “All I Want” and “Something’s Always Wrong” would lead you to believe. Twenty-four years ago, the (very young) band completed their third album, Fear. It was a lovely collection of alternative rock, with wistful moments of balladry, sensitivity, and delightful songwriting. It was also their third album in as many years. Previous releases Bread And Circus and Pale were lovely and earned them a small, loyal following. Fear was expected to be much the same; if anything, as you’ll read below, the band’s humble expectations were that it may well have been their final album, if not as a band, then for their surprisingly supportive major label, Columbia. As expected, Fear was released with little fanfare to modest sales.
And then something funny happened. Nine months after the album was released, and after a handful of tracks had been tested at radio to little interest, they released the single, “All I Want,” which, to many people’s surprise–not least the band themselves–the humble little college-rock band were now a top 40 pop band, which brought along an entirely new way of life for the rather humble little high school band from California.
Phillips is candid about his success, and one should avoid the temptation of feeling a bit bad for Phillips as he discusses candidly one of his disappointments at the time–one he can laugh at now and chalk up to youthfulness, but it’s not hard to sense the pain and hurt that bubbles below his otherwise delightful personality. More importantly, Fear is simply a great album, and though the band’s unfortunate dismissal as a “major label corporate band,” it is an album that still delights, twenty four years after its release.
Just getting signed was a big deal for you, wasn’t it?
When we signed, we were pretty surprised, honestly. We were a high school band; we made our first record for six hundred bucks, and did it a day or two. We went in and recorded Bread and Circus live, with very little overdubs. I wrote a good portion of those songs when I was sixteen, seventeen. We recorded Pale rather quickly after that; it cost a little more, but the conditions were about the same. When we signed to Columbia, my assumption was that we’d release an album or two, tour a little bit, get dropped, and then transition into adulthood! (Laughs)
Getting signed, it was an opportunity that was handed to us almost out of the blue–and we just knew we had to take it. We’d have been foolish not to, and we might have been a little reluctant, but we sort of realized that we might not have gotten such a great opportunity with such reasonable terms. But we never really had any record company pressure, and Columbia, I have to say, they were really generous with us. They let us release our first two albums practically as-is, and they were really hands-off. Very supportive–perhaps the best word to use here is nurturing–because they really let us do our thing. It was a really different era, honestly, even within the context of the times.
What struck me was that when I looked at your discography, there really weren’t any commercially released singles, aside from a handful of promo-only numbers, and even then, there weren’t that many.
When “All I Want” came out, it was nine months after Fear came out. Columbia had tested a few songs to radio, “Is It For Me” and “Hold Her Down,” and they had already released “Walk On The Ocean,” and it had done okay. When we got ready to make Fear, we sort of thought, well, why not spend a little more time on it? I’m a fan of Thomas Dolby and Tears For Fears and bands like that, and so we sorta thought it’d be cool to make a big, expansive-sounding album, and that’s what we did. When Fear came out, though, it was, again, a modest release. We went on tour, and it really wasn’t that different from what we’d done in the past. We were asking ourselves, “What next?” Though I guess we might not have been totally serious about it, we pondered the possibility that this might have been the end; we thought we’d be dropped and that would be that. When “All I Want,” it was immensely successful–much to our surprise! We were as shocked as the people at the label and our fans alike! It was so unexpected. When we were recording, we didn’t have one of those cliched moments where we start on the song, and the producer flips out and says, “My god, boys, THAT is a hit!” (Laughs). If anything, we just hoped that our modest audience would like it.
Again, I have to stress that we were really lucky to have Columbia supporting us. They liked Fear and they kept us on the road, and encouraged us to build up our fanbase, so maybe the concerns I mentioned just a moment ago were a little premature. Columbia offered us true artist development in a way that just doesn’t happen any more. If there was displeasure or disappointment in us from their side, I never saw it.
Were you intentionally being cooperative? Was it a case of having impressed some higher up who liked your music?
That’s a good question. When I think about it, I think it was due in large part in how we dealt with them. We made sure to be frugal; we never took money from the label that didn’t go for recording or other direct expenses related to the band. We didn’t seek out the little perks that can be there for bands signed to a major label, like cost of living allowances. We made sure we took just what we needed. We were really cheap! (Laughs) Even when we made Fear, we made sure to keep things to a minimum as we had on our previous albums.
In the long run, that really worked to our advantage. We might not have had many sales, but at the same time, we really weren’t terribly indebted, either. When Fear started doing well, people who liked us and were new to us would usually pick up those first two albums, which worked out great because once we started to see the results of Fear, we were caught up and no longer in debt for those two records, which helped add to Columbia’s happiness with us. As a result, they were really hands-off during that time, which, considering how well we were doing, was extremely rare for a band with success. I know I’ve said it a few times already, but I have to say it again, we were really lucky to be aligned with a company that was so willing to let us develop as artists.
Considering how low-budget the making of your first two records had been, what was the experience like when you made Fear, where you went into a studio environment for a longer period of time?
It was a little strange, but a great learning experience. We recorded it at this little studio called Granny’s Place, near Reno, Nevada. I really hibernated in the studio when I got there; I don’t recall going out very much, aside from getting out and riding my bike and going out to eat. The guys were all twenty-one, and I wasn’t, so they got to go to the casinos and I didn’t! (laughs). The guy who owned the studio had just started a management company, and his big client at the time was Rob & Fab from Milli Vanilli, so there was a ton of Milli Vanilli promotional items and memorabilia in the studio. (Laughs). But it was a great time, really. We were able to go in and play around with ideas with perhaps the best producer we could have chosen, a fellow named Gavin MacKillop (The Church, General Public, The La’s), and he was the best person with whom we could have spent a month in the studio.
I thought he was an interesting, unlikely choice, considering his new wave background and your more low-key, roots-rock college rock kind of sound…
You know, I have to say that we’ve always been pegged that way, as a “roots rock” or “college rock” band, because none of us were ever into that kind of thing. I’ve never really understood why people say that, because it certainly wasn’t where our creative heads were. For me, I went from being the typical eighties metalhead high school freshman who loved Ozzy and Rush, to things like Elvis Costello, Dumptruck, U2, REM, and even more punk-rock things like Husker Du and The Replacements, and in college, I was a big 4AD fan, and loved everything on the label, from Cocteau Twins to Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, and Lush. When you take that into consideration, he really wasn’t that surprising of a choice. What sold it for me was that he worked with Steve Lillywhite, and worked with XTC in the studio, and I adore XTC. Gavin was great. He was really enthusiastic; he loved the work we’d done in preproduction, and really couldn’t wait to get into the studio. Better still, he understood how we worked together as a band, and he probably spent a great deal of time helping us to further learn how to play together. He showed us how to listen to what each member was doing, and how to develop our sounds more in synch with each other. I know that sounds really basic; aren’t bands really supposed to know how to do that? But the truth is a good many of them don’t. Listening skills are important, especially if you’re writing music, where those types of things aren’t always realized. He also taught us that we didn’t have to stick to your basic verse-chorus-verse formula, and that varying things up in each individual song was very important. He told us not to “cheap out” and go for that basic songwriting formula. Once I fully understood what he was talking about, and I practiced it, I was amazed at the variety and the diversity that developed.
Can you give me an example of that?
A good one would be “I Will Not Take These Things For Granted.” I can’t remember exactly what I’d written, but one of the early versions of the song had a full four or five line chorus. When we got into the studio, Gavin said, “Beautiful song, really is a pity about the chorus!” (Laughs) It was that sorta passive/aggressive comment he made that really helped us out, and it was that sort of thing that he did that really made working with him so worthwhile. He’d teach us things by making these kinda snide comments, and it’d be our job to translate what he meant. He’d say, “Okay, it’s the second verse, i’m bored already, so do something more interesting!” (Laughs) It became our job to try to get approval from him. (Laughs) In that way, he was the perfect producer for us. He led us to our problems, but he didn’t solve them for us; he let us do the work, therefore, learning how to make a better song, and even with our new album, New Constellation, we were still using those same techniques.
But back to “Granted.” I was a bit puzzled by his comment, and then he explained to me that the line “I will not take these things for granted” is, by itself, a very powerful line, one that doesn’t need to be weighed down by three extra lines. It was a great idea, and it improved the song immensely. What makes it powerful is the atmosphere; the guitars are just so strong and add a dimension that sounds wonderful. And if you listen towards the end, the lines that are sung underneath and in the background, some of those are those lines from the rejected chorus, and frankly, it really works well that way. It’s a beautiful tune, and one I love; it has some great guitar work in it, and I’m proud of it.
We were writing a lot of songs, and for the most part we were having a really good time working on Fear, even though we’d never done something so arduous in terms of making a record. Things such as spending hours on overdub sessions, spending half a day trying to get a certain guitar part just right, all in the hopes of making something as good as we could make it. It was a learning process, and it meant breaking away some from some lazy habits we’d grown accustomed to.
Well, the big thing that comes to mind has to do with rhythm guitar. Truthfully, because we were young, we had always been lackadaisical about it, not taking it terribly seriously. Suddenly, we had a producer who insisted we stop being so sloppy, that he felt it important that we take it incredibly seriously. “Guys, it’s now take twenty, kids, get with the rhythm!” (Laughs). Doing so was a lot harder than we thought. Making an intricate, detailed, nuanced record was way harder then. Nowadays, computers fix it all, and there’s not as much artistry going into it. I don’t want to sound too negative about it—there are pros and cons to the method, to be sure.
What was the hardest part of the whole session? Was there any one song that caused you frustration, or was a source of great stress?
Ironically, the only tears that were shed came from making “All I Want.” The song has a great twelve string melody, but when it came time to record vocals, I just couldn’t get it together. If you listen, it’s a really complicated song, with tons of harmonies and harmonic parts (Phillips demonstrates the different harmonies) , and I was just missing it. It sounded really, really sour. It was a jumbled mess. It made me really grumpy, and it was a real frustration to me, because the way I internally heard it and what was coming out of my mouth. Sheesh! (Sighs) I was really mad, because I simply could not get it sung. Finally, I realized that the bass line was wrong—way wrong—and so we went back and rerecorded it. Once we did that, I could sing it properly. That was probably the lowest part of the sessions, really, that whole recording, a song we didn’t even consider all that important. We spent a day and a half, maybe even two days, trying to get it right, tracking and rerecording, and nothing was working, it just did not want to cooperate. We almost threw it away, truthfully. But hey, considering everything that that little frustrating song has done for us over the last two decades, I guess two days of sheer hell is but a small price to pay! (Loud laughter)
You’ve stated that there was no big feeling that Fear was going to be the massive success it became. What happened after you completed it and turned it in to the label?
When you hand in a record, they start sending you to different departments, getting you ready to promote it. And they’d send you to the video department, and the production costs for videos…they were insane! Like, we talked to them about making an inexpensive video, and the best price they could come up—the cheapest they could do—would be ten to twenty times the budget we’d spent on making the album itself! I would hate to say that we weren’t interested in making a great video, because we were. But we also were extremely pragmatic about how we did business, and it was kind of a bummer to know that what we wanted to do was simply out of our budget and out of our grasp. So many bands didn’t have that practical nature, and some really good bands ran themselves into the ground rather quickly because they wanted to make a cool video, in the hopes of selling records. I know of some people who made a record at the same time we did, they made the cool video, and here they are, twenty-some odd years later, and that cool video still hasn’t been completely paid off, and those people see little to no money, all those years later. Thankfully, a trend started to develop around this time, wherein labels wouldn’t budget videos until the band or singer had some promise of potential success, and that was somewhat true with us. If a song starts to take off, then you spend the money on a great video, because you have part of the income flowing in to pay for it. It’s a move that more bands should have heeded. I’m glad we did.
When a band signs to a label, they are doing so because, at some point, they are doing it to achieve success, whether critically, commercially, or financially, and as you know, most bands don’t break even or obtain the success they desire. One could argue that such was the case with Toad, and its two modest albums before Fear. So, when the success of “All I Want” and Fear came along, were you ready for it? How did it affect you?
I hope I don’t sound terribly cliche here, but I don’t think we were ready for it. I don’t think anybody can really be ready for it, unless the money-grab of stardom is something that they’ve sought after or trained to achieve since they were a child, as some people in the industry have been raised to do. For us, though, it was really surreal. To us, the success of Pale had been great. It wasn’t a “hit” in anybody’s book, but it had done well for us, and we were happy. And we were young, too—I mean, I was twenty when we did Fear, and we’d been fifteen, sixteen when we started the band. Looking back now, we were kids. We were still teenagers, basically. As a kid, I always knew I loved making art, and I had always hoped that somehow I would be able to do so professionally.
But still, I wasn’t ready for it. I was always an arty guy, I loved the art of creation, but truthfully, I didn’t have a thick skin when it came to other matters related to the commerce of art. Selling myself was awkward and made me feel uncomfortable. All of a sudden, it felt like we had backed into something entirely foreign, this world where art and commerce not only went hand in hand, but it was expected of you to be both a creative force and a savvy business mogul, someone ruthless in fighting for their art, and willing to play the game. Furthermore, you have just a modicum of success, and suddenly you are cast into the celebrity machine, and that was something that none of us had any interest in participating in. It’s disgusting and dehumanizing.
Truthfully, though, that never interested us. We were teenagers when we started, and by the time I was eighteen, I was married, and kids came along shortly after that. We never felt a need for the glamour and the glitz and the appeal. I never moved to LA, nor did I have any desire to. My friends were all cool, they were happy for our success, but I don’t think it really changed them. If anything, some of them might have been mystified, because many of them were musicians, too, and there’d never been some sort of idea that any of them were better than us, and vice versa; we just thought we were equal, guys living our lives getting together and making music. It sort of felt like I was living someone else’s dream, because it just became something I had no imagination of it becoming. I never took it seriously, so I never had a crash and burn when later records didn’t perform as well, or when the pressure for a follow-up started to increase.
But I also have to say that in retrospect, because it was something that I had no expectations for, perhaps I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. I didn’t go out and do the schmoozing and networking, and I didn’t move to LA, where I could have “maximized my commercial and professional possibilities.” (Laughs) So even though I was the frontman of a rather successful rock band, i just never got around to reaching the next level.
But I guess that’s not a bad way to go, though; you have critical and commercial success and the rewards that go with it, but you’re not burdened with fame or celebrity.
And that was the best part of it all! (Laughs) I could go someplace with my wife and kids or my bandmates, and nobody would bother us. Well, maybe in our local neighborhood, but that’s to be expected, I guess. We would have the infrequent fan recognition, but as it was such a rare occurrence, it was something we could appreciate, because you could tell the people were always sincere. We could enjoy the perks of success without the annoyances that come along with it.
I think the label found it frustrating, though. Here we were, we were a band that was selling itself on melody and songwriting, at a time when the music scene and radio formats were changing, going for hard, aggressive, negative rock music. We were an “alternative” in the alternative world, and the label sensed that this could be a very successful trend. In a way, they were right. I mean, there were several bands that came up at the same time we did or shortly afterwards, and they were immensely successful, bands like the Gin Blossoms, Goo Goo Dolls, Counting Crows, Hootie & The Blowfish, who took this less aggressive approach and a more melodic pop sensibility to a greater level. Not that we sounded like—or even felt a kinship with—any of those bands! (Laughs) I mean, “All I Want” did great, but I feel some at the label wished we would break bigger. Some of those bands sold five, six million copies, and that is something that was impressive for the era, especially when said music wasn’t “cool” in the minds of the tastemakers. It’s okay, though, because we never had that ambition.
One common theme I’ve heard when bands go from a point of modest success to that of greater critical and commercial acclaim is that, in retrospect, they were simply too busy to fully appreciate and enjoy their success. Did you and the rest of the band find this to be the case as well? I mean, if you’re successful, they’re going to put you on the road for months at a time, sometimes for two or three years.
Yeah, that’s pretty much how it went for Toad, too. We did three hundred dates, and then when we came to the end of that touring cycle, it wasn’t the end at all. It’s almost as if we got home, kicked back on the couch, and then management or the label calls just as we sat down, saying, “Okay, boys, get a good night’s sleep, because first thing in the morning we’ll be coming by at six AM, because tomorrow you gotta go in and start make a new record!” (Laughs) Suddenly, then, there are expectations placed on us. Expectations that we really can’t fully appreciate, because we’ve been busting our butts out on the road. You get people telling you how awesome you are, and how they’re excited to help you get started on your next project, and you’re thinking, “What? Am I really that good? Did I really sell hundreds of thousands of records, and did my song really top the charts?” (Laughs) It’s easy to laugh at it now twenty years later, but back then, these were serious, angst-ridden, sleepless-night causing questions. We had always pictured ourselves as the modest little band that made Bread And Circus and Pale, who sold a handful of records and who had friendly, supportive conversations with our label, who liked us but didn’t have unrealistic expectations about what we could do. And now, suddenly, it changed. It all changed, and we didn’t even see it, because we weren’t around enough to see it. It’s very much like you said; our world completely changed…and we were the last to find out about it!
Seriously, though, I really felt conflicted. It didn’t feel real to me. I can’t speak for the rest of the guys, but that’s how I felt. On some level, I thought it was all deceptive. I thought it was a prank; those calls from the label’s radio department must have been a joke being played at my expense; the calls that said our record was selling well and charting—again, it didn’t feel real to me. I don’t want to come across as sounding unhappy about the success of Fear—I’m immensely proud of it. But because I’d always been a realist and a pragmatist when it came to Toad, I was very wary, and I wasn’t particularly sure how to handle it. Could it really be that suddenly, people—a lot of people—like my music? It’s a weird, odd feeling.
With the way you were feeling and having to weigh in all of the new realities of what Toad The Wet Sprocket had become, how did that influence you after you got off the road and started to contemplate the future?
Well, like any band or artist, we want to make the best record that we could make. You’ve heard the cliche about “you have your entire life to write your debut, but you only have six months to write your follow up?” Very true.Very true. The first two records, they came together really quickly, as we’d been quite prolific in our youth. Fear took a bit more time to write, but not that much. With Dulcinea, everything was different. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these were bad things. We were a different band. We’d spent more time on the road than we’d ever done before, and we became a really tight band. We had worked with a legendary producer—to us at least—who had taught us so many wonderful songwriting tricks and, for the lack of a better term, communication skills (laughs). So unlike, say, the band that made Pale, we were now a band.
For Dulcinea, we had more leeway. We had a bigger playground, you might say, and the opportunity to play around, experiment, and really get into the making of a record. Sure, we’d had that with Fear, which was a different recording experience from Pale, but even though that was the case, we were still facing certain pressures while making it. A band that doesn’t have a hit, they don’t get to play around as much in the studio. We now had the hits, and so in the way that we advanced our creative process with Fear, we could now afford to do more than we could have done had Fear not been successful.
Of course, I’m sure the relationship with Columbia changed. Sure, they were supportive when you didn’t have “hits,” but now all of a sudden you did have a hit. Did you start to get the pressure of, “Okay, let’s have some more radio hits, guys,” or, “go make a record that does better than Fear.”
With Dulcinea, we stuck to our guns, even though conventional wisdom sort of thought we were being way too cautious. We didn’t take the big paycheck; we didn’t seek out major advances so that we could go record in the Bahamas or Europe or wherever. Because we were still in that place where our success was somewhat puzzling and seemingly unreal, we kept to the same principles that we had with our other records. We weren’t going to go out of our way to spend a lot of money; we were only going to take what we need. We approached Dulcinea in the same way we did when we made Fear: very cautious, very conservative. We had yet to receive the royalty checks from Fear. In fact, if I remember correctly, it wasn’t until Dulcinea was out that we started to reap the benefits of “All I Want” and the album.
You would be right to assume that Columbia wanted to take a heavy hand in the making of our follow-up, and for a moment we sort of feared that might be the case, but the opposite was true. They were, once again, extremely supportive and almost totally hands-off. They were supportive of what we wanted to do, and there’s so much to be said about the support of our A&R guy, Chuck Plotkin, an engineer who had an impressive resume, including Springsteen and Dylan. He came in and said, “I’m here to protect you from your label and those scummy radio guys who want to come in and force you to make a ‘radio hit’ their way.” And that never fucking happens! (Laughs) And it never happens from someone the label brought in for our benefit! (Laughing) He said, “I want to protect you guys from the people who are paying your bills, so that you can make the great record that you know you can make if those bastards would only stay out of the studio! (Uproarious laughter) He listened to what we were doing and he said, “Wow, this is like a really wonderful stew; you could take so many emotional journeys and go in so many wonderful directions.” He told us that we had the ability to make a record that would take people on a ride, and he wanted to help us determine the best ride to take the listeners on.
Chuck and Gavin, they really helped make Dulcinea an even better record than Fear. Even though we were now a commercially successful band, ultimately, things didn’t seem to change at all for us creatively. It was after we made Dulcinea that we attempted to “play the game” with the business, and we got burned. We’d always been wary of taking unnecessary money, and we enjoyed being left alone to do our thing, yet when we did decide to splurge a little, everything changed, which made the making of Coil such a…well, that’s another story for another time. But with Dulcinea, we were left completely alone—much to our surprise, considering what we’d just accomplished. Considering the success Dulcinea had, it proves that their decision was the right one—it was equally successful. But yet…there was something nagging at me, that was really tearing me up inside, though I never really came out and vocalized it at the time, because I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it.
What was that?
I have to be honest, there was one downside to Fear’s success that has nothing to do with the music or anything that we did. Growing up, I was into a lot of weird, cool stuff. The Pixies? I loved them to death, because they were both literate and insane. Up until they had their modest success with “Here Comes Your Man,” they were just nuts. Same thing with The Replacements—those guys were wild, and I loved both of those bands dearly, and I identified with them, and other bands of the time like XTC. I was a total indie-rocker kid. We all were. That’s who we identified with, and, to us, we always considered ourselves in that wave of bands. It’s what I loved, and it absolutely broke my heart to have the critics turn on us and hate us because we got played on the radio and MTV. People thought, “Oh, here are these good-looking guys, they’re on Columbia Records, and they’re trying to cash in on R.E.M., but they’re just a bunch of boring southern California rockers. I mean, we got really trashed by the press, or completely ignored. That was heartbreaking. I remember looking at my record collection, and here I am, I have all these really cool underground rock records, but I’m being called a corporate sellout. We were trying so hard to keep control of our band, we turned down a ton of money when we signed to Columbia, because they promised us—and totally gave us—complete creative control, and we thought we were going about it in a punk-rock way by sticking to our guns and not bowing to label demands. All of a sudden, we were the poster boys for everything that was wrong with being on a major label, that somehow we weren’t “real.” That was so heartbreaking. (Pauses) I mean, I could say I liked this band or that band, but that would be treated as suspect. It’s a painful thing to have to deal with, really. You can’t be yourself. And I can certainly appreciate and understand Kurt Cobain’s tortuous battle between who he was as a private individual and his celebrity status, though I don’t condone what he did.
So, with Dulcinea, what I had to prove was completely personal. I wanted to make a record that would get us back some of the “indie cred” that seemed so important at the time. I’m in my forties now and I realize how silly that seems, but back then I was a twenty year old guy, and it seemed so terribly important to me then. I wanted the album to reflect the kind of bands and music that we liked, and to appeal to the people who were around well before Fear and who might have suddenly lost interest because we “sold out” or what have you.
My association with Toad The Wet Sprocket always held you in the same sort of regard as a lot of other cool alternative rock/“college” rock bands. I started getting into those sorts of things in 1985 and 1986, thanks to things like the Sire/Warner Brothers Just Say… series. And, truthfully, it was Columbia’s answer to that sampler series, Theodore, that I first heard you guys, I can’t remember which song it was, but it made me go out and get Pale.
(Impressed) Wow, Theodore. You remember that comp? Yeah, in an odd way, that was an important appearance for us, and there were lots of early fans who came to us through that appearance. But yeah, we were definitely more influenced by bands like The Smiths, Morrissey, The Ocean Blue—things that had a little bit of a jangle to them, but were also witty, intelligent, wistful, and unpretentious. The core audience for the first two albums, they were the ones we wanted to appease, they were the ones we felt “got” us. (Laughs) That sounds kinda pretentious, but really, those were the people we wanted to play to, and when the success started to happen, we might have gained a wider audience—an audience we hadn’t set out to gain, mind you—but at what cost?
Furthermore, it was beyond our control. Radio station politics had changed, and all of a sudden, you start to have a glut of different stations in different styles. So here we were, a humble little band with no great expectations, and suddenly…we’re being played on college radio stations. We’re being played on bigger alternative-rock stations. Then we’re being played on AOR stations. Then we’re being played on top 40. There’s absolutely nothing we could have done to stop it. I mean, what are you gonna do, call up program directors and say, “hey, we’re trying to keep our cool image here, will you stop playing our music?” (Laughs) Of course not. When the single came out, we suddenly had a wider audience coming out to our shows, from high school kids and younger, to older, post-college “adult contemporary’ type of audience members. Some of our long-time fans called these people the “All-I -Wanters,” and these older fans hated the “All-I-Wanters.” To those types, they felt like they were the cool ones who knew us from before Fear, and when they saw these radio listeners coming in, these “real” fans were suddenly resentful that their “cool” band had sold out. There’s a bizarre currency to credibility, and by having a hit single, we lost our credibility.
Were you aware that this might happen?
Well, I’ll tell you when my concern set in. When we made the video for “All I Want,” I had this odd feeling about it. Something didn’t sit right with me, and I couldn’t quite explain it. After we shot the video, I started to think, “Uh, did we just remake the video for “Losing My Religion?”
When we got the rough cut, my heart sank—it looked exactly like the R.E.M. video! (Sighs) We sent it back three times to recut and reshoot it, until finally we were told that the video was done. And I didn’t like it. I told people that we were going to be pegged as R.E.M. wannabes and piss-poor imitators with no original style, and when the video came out, that’s exactly what the critics said. They pounced on it, saying we had brazenly ripped them off. What’s worse, long-time fans were put off by it, because all they saw was us trying to be a mainstream band for imitating R.E.M.. (Sighs). It was the nail in the coffin of our credibility. (Laughs nervously).
Wow. But two decades have passed since then. How do you feel about it all nowadays?
(Pause) I know the last few minutes of our chat were rather negative, but that’s a part of the story, too. I can’t talk about Fear and not talk about those things, and, really, as an artist—is an artist going to have complete self-awareness and objectivity when looking back at their art? I don’t think that’s possible, no matter how successful you are. But I really cannot complain; we were extremely lucky. We came along, and we were successful—immensely successful, but just to the point where it didn’t take away from our lives or intrude upon our ability to be real, normal people. I mean, I can turn on my local rock or alternative radio station, and if I leave it on all day, I know I’ll hear “All I Want.” I’ll probably hear “Something’s Always Wrong,” and sometimes, I”ll even hear “Walk On The Ocean.” I could probably go anyplace in America, do the same thing, and have the same results. And I know that there are people out there who love those songs; someone will invariably hear the drum intro to “All I Want,” turn it up, and sing along with it. And you know what? That’s a great feeling to know that this little song that I wrote and had zero expectations in has lived on twenty years after it appeared, and will continue to live on. So when I think about how I’ve done something that is meaningful for someone, I smile, and I take all those concerns and frustrations and disappointments and angst that I’ve had over the years, and I forget about them. I did something meaningful. And I smile. It makes me happy. How could it not?
Categories: A Conversation With...