Just before the turn of the century, the group broke up, citing creative differences. After multiple reunions for live dates over the years, in December 2010 the band put out its first new studio track in 11 years – a cover of Sam Phillips’ “It Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas.” Toad released New Constellation in October, marking its first new studio album since 1997’s Coil. The LP was crowd sourced via a Kickstarter campaign that hit its original goal of $50,000 in 20 hours rather than 60 days.
Pollstar chatted with Phillips ahead of Toad The Wet Sprocket’s next round of headline dates, which begins in May. The outing will be followed by a summer excursion with Counting Crows.
Mr. Phillips, we really only have one basic question: What happened to you guys? You were pretty hip, and then just disappeared.
We had the usual breakup which you can kind of, I dunno, take any issue behind the music and put it in a blender. Todd (Nichols) and Dean (Dinning), our guitarist and bass player, had a band for a while. Sometimes the drummer played with them. I did a bunch of solo things. It was a strange period. We got signed just when the music industry was doing incredibly well. People were buying the CD and the cassette and sometimes the LP, so they were selling two copies per person who liked it instead of one for every 20 people who liked it.
We never made demos. We didn’t understand how the business worked. We … couldn’t get record deals, walking around in a daze but all of a sudden having to audition for this job that we thought we knew how to do. It was a really interesting time to be free but having all that entitlement from having a career and trying to figure out how to grow up and shed the entitlement and adjust to the new reality.
I made a bunch of solo records and did a bunch of great projects. I was close friends with Nickel Creek right when they were putting out their first record, and did a record with them. I did a bunch of touring with them. I did WPA which was [Sean and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek] from the Largo scene in L.A. where I played all the time. I kept writing music but in a fairly obscure world.
At some point, in about 2004, Adam Duritz asked Toad The Wet Sprocket if we’d get together and play a couple of sets opening for Counting Crows. We got together, did it, and it didn’t feel really good. So we waited a couple more years and tried it again and we just had this period where we’d play a few shows and often realized more water needed to go under the bridge and we’d pull back and didn’t let anybody make it snowball. When we played those first shows with Counting Crows, immediately everybody was, like, “OK! We’re going to do a record!”
It started snowballing. We’d only seen each other twice. It was way too early to turn into this race again.
Eventually we got back under our own steam and made sure we weren’t getting pressure to dive back in. We got our relationships back and I was able to get a chip off my shoulder.
I didn’t want to go back to Toad because I didn’t want people to think I was running back to my sure deal after years of obscurity. But I finally realized nobody was paying attention anyway so why should I worry what they thought!
You’ve probably ran the gamut of stardom, from being mobbed by fans to going unnoticed.
Yeah, I had a full-on depressive time. I walked into a record store and had a full-on panic attack at one point – fainted, got dizzy. I realized I was in a low state where I thought, “Wow. I’m not part of this conversation anymore.” People who make records to get in record stores? I’m not one of them anymore. There was a time as a solo artist where I couldn’t get a record deal. I was a nonentity. That kind of hurts!
I’ve always worked hard enough to support my family. I never did the full off-the-deep-end-lost-everything, but I came close a few times. My career has been in places where, even now, it’s me in a compact car. I’m the tour manager, I settle the shows, I still do my website. I’ve had management here or there but it’s gotten as small as it can get. I’ve managed to keep a booking agent but that’s it.
I’ve done all those little jobs so when I go back to Toad I’m really grateful to have somebody else drive. And having a guitar tech is the most amazing thing in the world. It’s already in tune and you show up and your stuff is set up for you. It’s the utter lap of luxury.
It’s made it easy for me to appreciate Toad for what it is and where we are. The fact that people want to hear the music and want to show up is great.
Do you have dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore Toad fans?
Yes. The thing about Toad is that even when we got back together we didn’t become a Ribfest kind of band. There’s a whole ’90s circuit out there, the soft-ticket world. And not that I mind Ribfest, but we’ve been blessed with being able to do a hard-ticket tour and every time we’ve gone out people show up.
We’ve been really loyal to our fans and they’ve been loyal to us. We were something of an outlier even when it happened. We were playing all these radio festivals and there’d be Green Day and Hole and Henry Rollins and, then, us. We didn’t fit in at the time. [The music] was a little too vulnerable in those years when there was this competitive edginess. I think part of it was that college music was being mainstreamed. There was some really beautiful music in the ’90s and there was this brief period right when we were getting on radio when college music people were getting more aggressive, just to prove their edginess and depth. They were getting played on the radio but they hated the radio! What were they going to do about that? It was a messy time period.
But I think because we were doing more emotional, vulnerable, quiet music … the people who were affected by that were really loyal to us because we were doing it at a time when we weren’t allowed to. There was a time when it wasn’t OK to be a nerd. Now it’s the best thing you can do. Back then we were still getting beat up.
What’s Toad’s fanbase like worldwide?
You know, we never got out of the States. Toad is only domestic. It’s a strange thing. We wanted a European audience but we never got one.
You’d figure, back in the day, the “team” would push for a European tour.
We did two promo tours in Europe. Maybe it was because we never had a strategy and never followed through but we never managed to crack that world. I’ve played [solo] here and there, and I opened for my friend once in Scandinavia, but there was never any follow-through. It was always survival mode. It’s hard after a point.
But I’ve got three kids. We’re going to be looking at the house emptying out next year. Those years of dedicating to family – we could have moved to LA because of the career but we never did. At the end of the day you can’t be bitter about making choices about family life. My wife started a nonprofit birth center in town a few years ago, so we never moved to one of the smart cities where the opportunities are. But I have three teenage girls who adore me, which I don’t think would have happened in LA.
But, now, with Toad, it’s amazing to have support. And it’s amazing to be able to accept that support. It’s been a trip having Toad come out as an indie band, realizing we didn’t find anything in the label world that would work for us. It’s been amazing to use tools like Kickstarter. It doesn’t get us above whatever that glass ceiling of notoriety is but it means we can make a living, and on our own terms, which is pretty remarkable.
Anything else you’d like to tell fans?
It’s beginning to be a really cool year. We’re going out with Counting Crows this summer. They’ve asked us out again and we’re doing 40 shows with them. That’s going to be incredible. Again, for being a band from our era, I’m really proud to be out with them. They were another band that was more poetic than the radio tended to be and still managed to break through the airwaves while doing music that was literal and deep. So I’m glad we’re in our kind of ’90s package tour – but one that I think is the happiest of all possible tours!
At some point everybody laid down their armor and started appreciating what we do well together and started appreciating that we didn’t have to be this great, idealized version of ourselves. We could get together, enjoy each other’s strengths and, at some point, realized we could make a record we could be proud of instead of making a product that would be easy to be swept into making. And we really refused to make that record for a long time. We could have done something at any point that would have felt heartless and disappointing. We waited – 16 years – but we did a record that’s worthy of us. Better late than never but we’re all proud of what we’ve done. We don’t know if we’ll do another record – we may – but to come back even once and have it feel good and right and be proud of it is not something every band gets to do. We’re happy to go out again and have this record behind us.
Upcoming dates for Toad The Wet Sprocket:
May 1 – Santa Cruz, Calif., The Catalyst
May 1 – Santa Cruz, Calif., Streetlight Records
May 2 – Fresno, Calif., Tower Theatre
May 3 – Napa, Calif., Uptown Theatre Napa
May 4 – Sacramento, Calif., Harlow’s Night Club
May 15 – Orinda, Calif., Orinda Theatre
May 28 – Wilmington, N.C., Ziggy’s By The Sea
May 29 – Winston-Salem, N.C., Ziggy’s
May 30 – Rocky Mount, Va., Harvester Performance Center
June 1 – Charleston, W.Va., Cultural Center Theater
June 11 – Tampa, Fla., David A. Straz Jr. Center For The Performing Arts
June 12 – Hollywood, Fla., Hard Rock Live
June 14 – Saint Augustine, Fla., St. Augustine Amphitheatre
June 15 – Greenville, S.C., Peace Center Concert Hall
June 17 – Nashville, Tenn., Ryman Auditorium
June 19 – Lake Charles, La., L’Auberge Casino Resort Lake Charles
June 20 – Robinsonville, MS Bluesville At Horseshoe Tunica
June 22 – Atlanta, Ga., Chastain Park Amphitheatre
June 24 – Charlotte, N.C., Uptown Amphitheatre At The NC Music Factory
June 25 – Raleigh, N.C., Red Hat Amphitheatre
June 27 – Pittsburgh, Pa., Stage AE
June 28 – Atlantic City, N.J., Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa / Event Ctr.
June 29 – Bethlehem, Pa., Musikfest Cafe At ArtsQuest Center
June 30 – New York, N.Y., Rumsey Playfield / Central Park (Central Park Summerstage)
July 2 – Boston, Mass., Blue Hills Bank Pavilion
July 3 – Norfolk, Conn., Infinity Hall
July 5 – Vienna, Va., Filene Center At Wolf Trap
July 14 – Highland Park, Ill., Ravinia Festival At Ravinia Park
July 15 – Columbus, Ohio, The LC Pavilion
July 17 – Rama, Ontario, Casino Rama Entertainment Centre
July 18 – Detroit, Mich., MotorCity Casino Hotel
July 20 – Cincinnati, Ohio, Horseshoe Cincinnati
July 21 – Grand Rapids, Mich., Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park
July 23 – Milwaukee, Wis., Riverside Theatre
July 24 – Bayfield, Wis., Big Top Chautauqua
July 25 – Saint Paul, Minn., Myth
July 26 – Council Bluffs, Iowa, Harrah’s Casino – Stir Concert Cove
July 29 – Houston, Texas, Bayou Music Center
July 30 – Austin, Texas, Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater
Aug. 1 – Dallas, Texas, House Of Blues
Aug. 2 – Durant, Okla., Choctaw Casino Resort
Aug. 6 – Tucson, Ariz., Anselmo Valencia Tori Amphitheatre
Aug. 7 – Phoenix, Ariz., Comerica Theatre
Aug. 10 – Las Vegas, Nev., Mandalay Bay Beach
Aug. 12 – Redmond, Wash., King County’s Marymoor Park
Aug. 13 – Portland, Ore., Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
Aug. 15 – Berkeley, Calif., Greek Theatre
Aug. 17 – Los Angeles, Calif., Greek Theatre
For more information please visit ToadTheWetSprocket.com.