In 1997, Toad The Wet Sprocket released their fifth album, Coil. It was second album to follow since the band’s surprising hit single “All I Want,” taken from their third album, 1991’s fear. (We had a great conversation about the making of that album which you can read here.) The album’s other single, “Walk On The Ocean,” was also a well-received song. “Something’s Always Wrong,” the lead single from follow-up album, 1994’s Dulcinea, was another fine offering from an album that highlighted the undeniable fact that Toad The Wet Sprocket’s frontman, Glen Phillips, had matured into a masterful songwriter. Coil only cemented that fact further, as it is an album of wistful and sophisticated rock songs written from the perspective of a thoughtful, intelligent young man asking the eternal questions one often asks when they straddle the line of youth and adulthood. Furthermore, the music itself was tougher, louder, stronger, and much more taut than its predecessors; it was Toad The Wet Sprocket at their best.
Yet Coil didn’t sell; their label, Columbia Records, put no promotional effort into it, and the band quietly broke up shortly after its release, due in part to inner tensions and professional disappointment. A shame, really, as Coil is an impressive record that deserved more than its pathetic fate. If you don’t know Coil, you would be well-served by checking it out, as you might be surprised. It arrived at a time of great musical changes in the industry, and in this writer’s opinion is a lost jewel from the post-Grunge/post-Alternative/pre-Napster era of the late Nineties.
Jump ahead to 2017; it’s twenty years after the album’s release and the band’s split, and Toad The Wet Sprocket is set to tour this summer, in part to celebrate Coil, performing many of its songs live. Sitting down to chat with Glen Phillips is always a pleasure, and this conversation is no exception, as he waxes philosophical about Coil, his solo career, and what Toad The Wet Sprocket means in 2017.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
When last we spoke, I sort of got the feeling that Coil was an album you have mixed feelings about.
Well, yes and no. On a creative level, I think that some of those songs are some of the best we ever made. The album certainly contains some of the most mature songs I had written up to that point, and production-wise, we sounded great as well. Yet there were a lot of things going on in the background that were dark and unpleasant, especially in regards to the business aspect of things, how the album was made, and tensions and creative differences in the band were starting to come up, and in that regard, those memories do haunt. But musically speaking, I really like where I was at when I was writing Coil. I was in a deeper, more introspective and somewhat spiritual place, and those songs still impress me.
Had Columbia been happy about Dulcinea? While it wasn’t the massive success that fear was, it still sold quite well.
Dulcinea wasn’t not a success, and though it was not as big a seller as fear, it did better than our first two albums, so we were happy with it. The label really hoped that we would have sold more, but they were still happy. But at the same time, they were watching Hootie and the Blowfish sell thirty million records and Gin Blossoms selling five million, so they were kind of tapping their feet, waiting for us to catch up. To them the album was a success; it still made money, but they expected a lot more from us after that. Coil set us up in a business sense, as it was the first time we played on their level.
One of the things that endeared us to the executives at Columbia was we were one of the cheapest bands on the label. We didn’t take any huge, extravagant advances to pay our rent, or demand any big, huge, unrealistic budget for videos or things like that. We only took, like, recording fees. But we soon realized that even with our frugality and our hits, we still weren’t really seeing royalty checks. For Coil, we took more money up front, which really changed the environment. It meant that instead of being left alone to do our own thing, this time around, we had a lot of label pressure to have a hit. And so that part of it was weird.
Yet, in terms of creativity, it was a good experience. We were able to deepen the relationship with Gavin MacKillop, the producer of our previous albums. With him, we were really finding our sound. We grew more confident as a band, becoming better writers and players. I look back now and am proud of the strides in my songwriting, recognizing that if I have something to say, then I should just say it, and stop obscuring everything or hiding behind something that’s vaguely poetic.
Were they happy about your decision to work with Gavin a third time?
No, they really wanted us to work with Jerry Harrison. When we chose Gavin, they told us exactly what would happen and when the record would stall–and then that happened! They just pulled the plug on it at the first opportunity, which they told us they would do. We had the right to work with Gavin, but the head of the company was not excited about it. Unfortunately, because we’d had the label invest more into the band, a rebuff like this was not appreciated.
I remember having a meeting with Donnie Ienner. At the time, Jerry Harrison was the big producer for bands like us. He’d produced and had hits with Live and the Crash Test Dummies, and Ienner was like, “You need to do what Live did! Their first record didn’t do anything, and then they worked with Jerry Harrison, and, you know, they had a huge hit, and you need to do that!” I said, “Actually, Jerry Harrison produced the record before Throwing Copper, which wasn’t a success. We want to deepen our relationship with the producer we have, and replicate what happened with Live and Jerry Harrison.” He didn’t like being corrected on that at all! We feared that hurt egos would hurt Coil when it was released, and that’s exactly what happened–indifference from the label.
Music is a really difficult product to market and sell, because it’s not a concrete, necessary commodity, right? For instance, if you are making shoelaces, you discover that shoelaces may have different shapes and forms, but ultimately, shoelaces are all kind of all the same. It’s not like that with music. If you’re buying music, you want something specific. You don’t want something vaguely like it. It’s not something that’s interchangeable; it won’t sell itself because it’s a necessity. Because of that difficulty that’s inherent in the market of it, people want as many assurances as possible that what they are investing in will sell. That’s especially true in the music industry; they want assurances that will get the marketing team excited, so they can say, “Hey, this guy produced it; he had a hit, therefore it’s going to be a hit, too.”
There’s a certain self-selection going on within that, too. The guys who make hits, they’re the ones who get the attention for their other artists, who get the people at the label’s attention, and if a band has lucked out with an A&R guy or producer who has had a hit, the powers that be pay more attention, and bands are expected to take their people at their word; the bigger the hit, the more gospel of truth the person’s word is taken. It’s how it worked, really. It’s a vicious little echo chamber.
Rick Rubin produced a ton of records that weren’t hits, but so many A&R people will tell you that if you want it to be a hit, you gotta go with Rick Rubin. But when they do that, they’re ignoring all of Rick Rubin’s not-hit records, and they’re only paying attention to his top-tier stuff, and once again, it’s self-selecting. Like, everyone thought Adele was going to be a hit, right? She didn’t necessarily need Rick Rubin to do that. She had him, and he’s a great producer, but it wasn’t Rick Rubin’s production that made her a success. It was on her; she has a powerful voice, and in combination with Rubin producing her and superb songs, all of those things combined made her a star. Her producer had a part, but he wasn’t the only part.
With all of these dark clouds looming, what was the mood going into the studio for Coil, then?
When we first went into the studio, there was a lot of optimism, but when we got into the project things started unraveling. Nowadays I think that after Coil was released and we had finished touring and everything, we should have taken a long break. We should have done some group therapy or some side projects, and then reconvened when the time felt right. Instead, we just broke up. We tried to make another record, but by the end of the Coil tour, we were so clearly at odds with each other, and we went our separate ways. Like any relationship, be it business or personal, everyone involved needs to choose to reinvest. One person can’t do all the reinvesting. It’s hard when you get to the point where you ask yourself, “Is Toad really worth pursuing?” And sadly, we realized it wasn’t.
With Toad, we all were somewhat naïve and had an innocence about how the music business worked. None of us thought we were ever going to get signed, and then we were—and teenagers, too! So we knew we were very lucky. I started a band in high school and then suddenly major record labels wanted us to sign with them, so at the time, I figured that’s how life works. It’s easy to take it for granted when it comes so easy in the beginning. But I learned the hard way after we broke up. I didn’t realize how the market had changed, and suddenly I discovered it’s really hard to get a record deal, and that when you go solo, unless you’re hugely, massively super-star level, you’re screwed; it doesn’t really matter to people—both audience and industry–that you’d had a successful band.
Here you are, you’re not even thirty yet, you’ve got three kids, and your claim to fame is over.
Yeah, it was really hard. I got super depressed.
I would assume that financially you guys were doing okay, because you had hit singles that were getting played and had been made with so little overhead, so, in that regard you’re all right.
Yeah, that lasted maybe, you know, a few years. I raised three kids in Santa Barbara; I had to work. (Laughs) I still have to work. I think people think bands do a lot better than they did, and frankly difference between one million and five million records is really significant. One million records, if the record company has spent a million bucks promoting it, which is what a major label spent in those days, that’s all recoupable.
Your whatever it is, eighty cents per record, your penny rate, of that money, you never see a dime. We were making money selling T-shirts and playing shows, but frankly, having records on the radio, people see it as being a really immortal thing. But we weren’t the cool band, you know? In their time, The Pixies sold fewer records than Toad did, but when they got back together, they’re selling out places five times as large as what we play, because they’re a cool band.
So, you know, we were neither cool nor quite so successful that we were set. Which is fine. I like working! With music, it’s like with any career, the career is a glider, you know? It’s not an airplane. It doesn’t have an engine. Like, you’re always falling in slow motion. And every once in a while you catch a thermal, and you get back a little higher than you were before, and then you glide slowly back down. And if you have a certain level of career, you can glide for a really long time without a thermal. But it’s not an indefinite sail; it eventually wears out!
We’re not a band that is hunkering down in the studio and writing together, and kind of, you know, re-forging our creative past. You know, that’s not the season we’re in as a group right now? I feel like we really are about providing an experience for people that makes them feel good. I mean, you know, a little bit of challenge. But we’re like a comfortable old pair of pants that you can still get the top button closed on.
Giving the people what they want.
Yeah, that’s our function right now. And I feel actually really happy about that. I mean, I make solo records; I have side projects. And if people come to my show, I’m going to play them a lot of new material. I’m still a songwriter; I’m still trying to push an envelope creatively.
So, I offer that when I play solo, and I offer a different experience with Toad. And the fact that I can do both, I’m okay with it, and feel great about it. Like, if I want to play the latest song I wrote, and I want an audience that really wants new material, then I have my solo world. And if I want to take people back to their good old days, I call up the guys in Toad and we play. I think there are just more memories involved in Toad. And I have a respect for that. But it’s a different kind of experience. And it’s not to say that that audience doesn’t want to hear a new song or two, but it’s not like I can just say, “Hey man, close your eyes, I’m going to take you somewhere, like this is going to take a little while, actually. You gotta trust me on it,” and then play thirty minutes of songs they’ve never heard before. Like, they’re not there for that! (Laughs)
So, I have to respect that experience and provide that. And I’m really happy to do that. Because, I mean, you know, by this point, you know, the people that are coming to see you, they’re the lifelong fans, you know.
Yeah, totally. They’re not the “All I Want-ers” as you referred to them the last time we spoke.
Well, some of them are, and that’s okay. And at this point, you know, we do play the hits. Because frankly I’ve had a career where, you know, I feel I’ve written my best music since Toad. But, I haven’t had a hit. Hits bring people in. Hits paid for my kids going to college, so I like hits. I like the security they provide. They’re really nice to have! (Laughs)
And, you know, I take great pride in the songs that I’ve written since Coil, because they mean more to me. I’m lucky to have lifelong fans, people who go to both. And I like that people can go, if they’re really into the song for the song’s sake, they’ll probably find their way to my show. And if they want to have a Toad experience, they’ll come to a Toad show. I like that I get to do both things, even though they’re on two totally different levels.
I remember hearing your solo debut, Abulum and thinking, this is so totally not a Toad the Wet Sprocket record. So many solo records are just simply, you know, you listen to them and it’s like, Well, why did you put this out as a solo record, because it basically sounds exactly the same as the band you split up, you know? But your first solo record was just so stark in comparison.
Yeah, it was definitely an anti-Toad record. I mean, I think I did that a little consciously, you know?
It was your teenage rebellion against Toad, you might say. After all, your musical career would have been a teenager in human years.
(Laughs) I like that! Yeah, and like teenage rebellion, I think it was a necessary thing to do, it was a phase I had to go through. I was trying to make a record that was really stark, one that would force people to listen to the songs themselves instead of listening to the production.
Looking back at things now, do you ever sort of regret the band breaking up when it did, or do you still think that was the right thing to do?
I have really mixed feelings about it. I mean it is what it is. My wife and I divorced two and a half years ago. It’s really easy to get lost in what ifs and regrets and re-writings, but at some point you’re left with what is. Actually, you’re immediately left with what is. And then you’ve got to choose how you’re going to deal with and address it. With Toad, would it have been wiser financially to keep the band together, take a long break, record some side projects and get some help? Abso-fucking-lutely! Like, no question! And can I ever go back and change it? No.
It’s happened, you have to go on with life.
Yeah, I can have a healthy dose of regret about that, but I have the life I have, and it’s taken me to some places that I’m really grateful for. And I know I can’t go back. Bands are really bizarre creatures, you know? They’re a combination of family and business and creative enterprise. And I think people do really honestly grow apart and have different interests. Making art together doesn’t just involve your skill. There are other people and other feelings to consider. It does involve your attitude towards yourself, and your attitude towards life, but it does involve others as well. And if those ideas start to diverge, finding common ground can start to become difficult, and the relationships will strain.
But I don’t think that’s necessarily anybody’s fault. From Toad’s first day, we all had inherently different worldviews, and that’s okay—that’s good, that’s healthy. The guys in Toad, we have a definite friendship and love and a lot of shared history, but we do have a few irreconcilable differences. And I am really grateful that we can get together for a summer and play this music, and really appreciate what we did, and what we are still capable of, but not have to make it a full-time job. We don’t have to have to have Toad define who we are as people.
Just a few weeks ago, I got together with my ex-wife at our daughter’s college graduation, and we looked at each other and were like, “Our daughter’s the most amazing person. We did so well. I’m so glad we were together.” We can get together as two people who created this beautiful thing, and then we can go back to our own lives. Our split doesn’t take anything away from the achievements that resulted from our marriage. That we divorced doesn’t have to define us forever.
I see Toad in the same way. Even if we never see each other but once every few years, that relationship lives on thanks to the accomplishments that came from it—be it a band with well-loved records or a marriage with awesome kids. Once again, that’s the thing like, with my ex-wife, she’s an amazing woman. I am really grateful for that relationship. I am grateful I have three kids who are just like three of the coolest people in the world. Like, that relationship is a total success. And I like to look at it that way. I like to look at Toad in that light. Yeah, we could have been bigger; we could’ve got along, but whatever. We made a lot of music that matters to a lot of people. We even got together and put aside our irreconcilable difference, and made an album that we are all really proud of. I never thought we could do that, but we did.
This tour will probably be a lot of fun. I haven’t seen the guys in a while, so it’s fun to go back out there. It’s fun to play the songs. And honestly, it’s really cool to have. II’s a real gift to do this. There have been years where I lost sight of that. That it is actually kind of the best job in the world.
After the tour, what have you got planned?
I’ve got a solo touring in the fall in Europe. I’m finally going to get a record out in Europe. For Toad, we don’t have much planned, but we do have two things coming out. First, We have a song on the soundtrack to an animated kids movie, Animal Crackers, called “One of Those Days.” We also have a cover coming out on a Roger Miller tribute record; we’re doing “King Of The Road.” I think that’s kind of our speed right now, just a single here and there, a song for a special occasion or a compilation, and I think that’s good, and we’ll probably play the new song live.
After my European tour, I’m going to be working on the next solo record as well as a few other projects I’ve got lot of writing and recording that I want to do. So, I mean, it’s interesting; people get so excited about the idea of a new Toad record, but I don’t see one happening anytime soon. We’re all pretty busy doing other stuff. And it’s great to go and have our little summer camp experience with Toad and the occasional song. We’re all pretty happy with the way Toad operates now. It serves our lives rather than us serving it.
It’s really good to get to go back with Toad, because whatever the history, we are still some of the luckiest people on Earth to be able to do this. That’s the long and short of it. And I can go into details about the hassles and heartbreaks and disappointments and the industry, but ultimately, we’re really lucky people to be able to do what we love and make people happy.
Toad The Wet Sprocket will be touring this summer in celebration of Coil’s 20th Anniversary beginning July 13th; tour dates can be found here. Glen Phillips’ solo album, Swallowed By The New, is available now; for more information on his upcoming tour and solo projects, please visit GlenPhillips.com.
Categories: A Conversation With...