Toad The Wet Sprocket:
A Deliberate Choice
Though they've had a handful of hits, Toad the Wet Sprocket could walk anonymously down most any street in America.
It has been three years since the release of the band's last regular LP, Dulcinea. In the interim, singer/songwriter Glenn Phillips and drummer Randy Guss have started families and worked with other bands. Bassist Dean Dinning played producer for a friend and worked with guitarist Todd Nichols to build a home studio — which Toad then used to record much of Coil. The time off — the first long stretch the band has taken away from the road since releasing its first album Bread and Circus in 1989 — gave Toad some time to sit back and evaluate past work and consider future directions. The result is Coil, a well rehearsed, inspirational collection of a dozen songs, and one of their most cohesive discs yet.
To thank their loyal fans for waiting out the "long" silence, Toad launched Coil with a "Fan Appreciation" tour which hit Metro on May 28. The band played there to a house as packed with bodies as it was heavy with heat and smoke. Before the show, in the charcoal shadows of the Metro dressing rooms, Phillips and Guss talked about their long "vacation." The two agree that the break was a necessary respite.
"You tend to get caught up in minutiae if you're away from your family and friends for years on end locked up in a bus with a bunch of guys," Phillips says, noting that the break allowed him to "have a life."
"This is not exactly a lifestyle I would have chosen," he says. "I'd rather be making music than be in a rock band. And I think most of being in a rock band is not about making music. But getting a break from all the business for a year made me remember how good the music was. It's a pleasure to play again with everybody."
"I think we grew up a lot in that year and a half off," Guss offers. "We finally had a chance to get centered at home, to sort of live at home a while as adults."
Part of that growing up period included not only spending time with family and friends, but with friends in other bands.
"We each got to expand our musical abilities a little bit in ways that we wouldn't in Toad, just because of the way we work," Guss says. "We were playing different types of music and had different roles. When we got back together, we got to hear ourselves, really for the first time ever. We could see what was good about us."
Guss says for Coil, the band made a conscious choice to make music together again.
"We never really chose to be doing this, in the sense that most people choose to. We never had to sacrifice a whole lot. We were in high school, started playing, went to college, got a record deal. We never moved to L.A. to get in a good band. We never had to sell our souls to do it. Sometimes it feels like we never made that conscious choice or sacrifice. And now, we are choosing to play together. Not that we didn't always feel that way, but as adults we chose, again."
Toad's members were all still in college when Columbia released their self-financed Bread and Circus, followed quickly by Pale.Since then, they've either been on the road or in the studio. Along the way they chalked up radio friendly hits with non-traditional pop lyrics in "Walk On The Ocean," "All I Want," "Fall Down," and "Good Intentions."
"We were young. A lot of this seems to have happened by accident. Except this record," Guss says. "After such a long break we worked with more confidence and appreciation for each other."
Guss admits that Toad has had a bit of an inferiority complex through the years.
"We chose a band name that is an awful name because we didn't feel we deserved a good name. We never allowed ourselves to feel good about what we did musically. But now I think we made our best record ever. I'm not going to say we're the best band in the world or anything, but I think this is our first mature record. "
Part of that maturity comes across in the depth of Phillips' lyrics, as well as the always increasing instrumental acumen of the band. Phillips says fatherhood has certainly helped change, or at least better focus, his art.
"It makes me more willing to get over myself and get on with my life. To start thinking in terms of years instead of in terms of what I want now. There's more to be around for, more to be present for than in the past. That's what a song like "All Things In Time" is to me."
While Phillips has always written thoughtful, inspirational verse (witness "Walk on the Ocean" and "All I Want") the threads of spirituality run throughout Coil, from "Amnesia" to the quirky life-rule of "Little Buddha" to the moral compass of "Little Man, Big Man."
Phillips says the latter track is about the "male identity thing."
"There are basic attitudes toward life that I take for granted. Then I'm amazed to hear an ad on the radio...there was this one I heard about fatherhood with some sports guy saying, "there's no penalty for holding." I mean, it's a nice message, but how sick are we that we need ads that say hold your child once and a while? That, to me, is the sign of a culture in disarray if we need to remind people to pick up their kids."
Phillips says the common thread throughout his lyrics is compassion.
"Compassion is the basis of anything that's going to be positive. If you look at any religion, whatever rules or dogma or extraneous stuff gets added on top, the basic rule is compassion. The petty stuff that comes out of desire or anger or fear tends not to get you very far."
Guss adds that whatever religious background one professes, the "life is suffering" mantra of "Little Buddha" is universal.
"Whatever religion you're coming from, that's the basis: you're not enlightened—and that's good. Life is suffering not because I have to work and do all these things I don't like to do, but because you're not one with the spirit. Life is the searching and the struggling to become one. There's a beauty to that."
An even more quirky song is hidden on CDs of Coil. "Silo Lullabye," an orchestral piece of bittersweet melody arranged by Van Dyke Parks, is not accessible as part of the regular album using a stereo, but can be heard through a computer CD-ROM drive while linked to the www.houseoftoad.com web site.
"That song sparked one of the most difficult debates we've had," Guss says. "There's always a song like that which doesn't make the record but is better than a lot of the stuff on the record. We didn't feel the balance of the record would be the way we wanted it to be if that and "Little Buddha" were on there."
Only one weird song allowed per album?
"One 40-piece orchestra song per record," he laughs. "We felt like maybe it's the best thing that got created for the record so we wanted to make sure people get to hear it somehow. Just as "Good Intentions" got created for Fear but we didn't put it on Fear. (It later was a hit from the B-sides collection In Light Syrup.)Sometimes you have to do that; an album should be a whole piece, it's not just a collection of songs. You don't just pick the 12 or 13 best songs and put them on there."
The entire band was given some room to be more experimental in coming up with the "best songs" for Coil, thanks to the studio Todd and Dean built.
"It meant that we could go home each night and that if Todd was going to work on guitar ideas for a few days, we didn't have to sit there and wait for him," Guss explains. "You didn't feel like you were wasting your money while you experimented or that you were boring everyone."
Certainly the band's radio popularity proves that boring people isn't something Toad does often. But Guss says that's been both a blessing and a curse.
"We've had a lot of radio play and obviously it's helped us sell records. But most people only know us for the songs we've had on the radio. That's frustrating because I do believe there's depth to our music, real musicianship and real quality. The songs of ours that they play on the radio is the middle of the road stuff."
The average three-minute pop single isn't exactly known for great innovation.
"No. And that's what's been played on the radio from us so that's what people think of us. We're not breaking down new boundaries, we're not going to new frontiers and bringing the world with us. But we're still challenging ourselves. We don't want to make the same record each time."
There's no Fear of that. Coil is another solid step in the Toad song ladder, and achievement that Guss and the rest of the band are rightly proud of.
"Hell, even if this record never came out, I'd still be totally stoked. If the company dropped us after hearing it — well, I think we made our best record ever. Our work is done."
Well, not quite. There's a summer tour, a single to promote ("Come Down") and with any luck, many more Toad the Wet Sprocket albums to write.
Toad returns to The World Theater (which they last played with The Cranberries in 1995) as part of the HORDE tour on August 3.
Music Reviews Index