The return of the Toad
Toad the Wet Sprocket plays Brixton
In the book of Toad, there are many things.
There are hobbits and Buddha’s, chickens and butterflies, an angry ode to a political prisoner, an upbeat meditation on fleeing nature of happiness and the singularly strange song of a janitor.
“I get around,” said Glen Phillips, the lead singer of Toad the Wet Sprocket and a prolific songwriter whose body of work continues to spiral into new musical galaxies as a solo artist.
Toad the Wet Sprocket was, and occasionally still is, a rock and roll band. But Toad was also an unusually varied enterprise, an adventure, and a fleeting phenomenon in its own right. The band was formed by Phillips and three high school buddies in Santa Barbara in 1986 and by the mid-1990s had catapulted into national rock stardom, scoring hits with songs such as “All I Want” and “Walk on the Ocean.”
And then in 1998, Toad abruptly went away. The band broke up, somewhat acrimoniously, despite having a large and devoted following and broad critical acclaim. They have reunited sporadically over the years, including tonight, when the band plays at Brixton as a part of a short ten-city tour.
Phillips, who has become a cherished cult figure as a folkish solo performer and collaborator (with members of Nickel Creek) in the band WPA, said he appreciates the opportunity to return to the rock altar.
“It’s cool to come back and play,” he said. “When I really only had the one outlet, I really rebelled against the nature of rock. I didn’t want to be so broad, I didn’t like the idea of doing all these simple gestures – basically, if you told people to get excited, they would get really excited. I wanted to trick people into being really excited, or I wanted to make them think, or get them on all these other emotional levels. Now it’s kind of like, wow, at a rock show you can really push these buttons in a different way. It’s the difference between playing guitar in a parlor and a pipe organ in a cathedral. It’s a different animal.
Phillips was 16 when Toad formed. He essentially came of age in the band. Phillips said he finds it interesting to return to a mode of life he didn’t fully appreciate at the time.
“Unless you really need to be a rock star, it’s an incredibly counterproductive thing to have happen,” he said. “I think there is a fantasy people have that it will somehow feed you and fill you, but the reality of it is a much stranger experience. I mean, there is beautiful access, beautiful experiences and some really wonderful things about it, but it also creates incredibly unconstructive expectations about how the world acts. It’s been great to be out of it for ten years and to be able to step into it again as adults with a little gratitude and a little perspective and appreciation for the bizarre kind of chance to lead a very different life than most people get to lead.”
“We’ve been humbled,” he added. “We have been as humbled as anyone can get. We are working for a living and working very hard, and we have gratitude for how incredibly lucky we were – frankly, how lucky anyone is to even come close at making a living at doing what they love. It’s a really, really rare thing.”
It may be more hip to be an underground star of a sort, but it’s also much more difficult. The bottom line is that indie artists struggle to make ends meet.
“I spent probably a large part of the last 10 years feeling entitled, like I did this thing early on and people really responded well, instead of realizing what a statistically improbable-lottery-winning experience that was,” he said. “I thought that was how life was supposed to work, and I’ve been schooled. We were very lucky, which is not to take away from how hard we worked. And the fact that I think we did some very good work.”
Toad the Wet Sprocket’s biggest hit, “All I Want,” somewhat appropriately, was about the quickly passing nature of happiness itself.
“It sounds like the happiest song in the world, but once again, it’s about how fleeing happiness is,” he said. “I know a couple people who seem to live for the most part in that state, but it’s rare. To me, it’s more of a moment to moment kind of thing…” ER