Analogue Music | Glen Phillips is a veteran of the music industry.…

Glen Phillips

By Scott Elingburg

Glen Phillips is a veteran of the music industry. He's also one of the most perceptive musicians to whom I've spoken.

The Toad the Wet Sprocket singer/songwriter/guitarist and solo artist has been through a few decades' worth of changes and shifts, both in a band and personally. That makes his insight into the music industry—and by extension, himself—worthwhile. It's an insight he reflects in his music and in our conversation. Phillips is the kind of artist that makes you care about not only why you listen to music, but how you listen to it, as well. 

Analogue: So Coil, Toad The Wet Sprocket’s 1997 album is 20 years old this year. What’s that like?  

Phillips: It’s very strange. Such a major portion of my life, or at least the part that’s had the widest recognition, is essentially something I did when I was a kid. It’s interesting to have to evaluate your successes, current and past, by their own merits or by how you feel about it as opposed to the attention that they get from other people. 

Analogue: Have you come to any conclusions about your own successes or being judged by your own merits? 

GP: I think it’s better to be an autonomous individual and find another autonomous individual and then come together to negotiate the parts you get.

Analogue: Did the band (TTWS) fulfill that for you? Or is that why a solo record is more appealing?

GP: Well, there’s a familial aspect to the band. We don’t hangout outside of the band and never really did. Our interests have always been really different, and our personalities are, too. Music is really what brings us together. Some bands are roommates and best friends but that’s not our nature. Which is also cool, because we get a break. If the relationship gets strained and it all explodes, we get to take nice big breaks and reassess who we are. 

There’s a lot you can take for granted about what a band brings in. There’s a way that we all play together. It’s really easy because I can bring any song in and it automatically sounds like a Toad song. Whereas when I do a solo album, I have to say, “Well, what do I sound like? I don’t know what I sound like.” It changes year to year. And that’s part of the fun thing about getting back together to do the New Constellation record—getting to ask, “Well, what is different about a Toad song?” By myself on tour it's difficult to do a song like “Something's Always Wrong” solo because it’s got two melodies in the chorus. It’s functional things: tempo, arrangement, harmony that the band enables.

Analogue: Both sound fulfilling, but seems like a bit of your “truer” self comes out in your solo work. Would you say that? 

GP: It could be. At shows I can talk a lot more, I can be more spontaneous. There is a musicality that happens with the band that I don’t do; I can’t do. At this point i really enjoy having these different outlets. The idea of variety and that one thing doesn’t have to be the complete expression of what I can do creatively. But the idea that one thing, one expression, has to be complete, is a little crazy. It’s interesting in this era for artists to continue to challenge themselves. Production has become such a part of what people associate with an artist—like a certain sound. Think of Iron & Wine. With Sam Beam, some people just want him to make the same record over and over, and he chafes against that. But at some point it becomes schtick if you never change it. So how do you break out of that and move forward without leaving too much of your audience behind? 

It’s nice to have a few different outlets so I’m free to explore. That’s what playing music is. It's about exploration and growth.  

Toad The Wet Sprocket Coil
Toad The Wet Sprocket Coil

Analogue: That’s interesting because what I was thinking was, as a band, I think you all have done a great job of walking that line of celebrating your past but not letting it define you. Is that something you have to work hard at? Or do you just accept it?

GP: I don’t know if we’d still be playing if we hadn’t done New Constellation. Those songs made it feel like a band again. At this point, too, as a band we weren’t broad enough to have a lot of non-core audience anymore. Since we’re not on a major label we don’t have the money, the exposure, or, frankly, the coolness, so that everyone knows when we are playing [a show]. I mean, I keep bumping into people who are like, “Man, you guys are great, I had all your albums. Do you ever play shows any more?” [Laughs] Yeah, we played in your town like two fucking weeks ago!

Analogue: [Laughs] I don’t mean to laugh so much, but that’s pretty accurate description…

GP: Yeah, and that’s Toad, for you. And it's probably many bands from our era. But we’re not the Pixies. When they got back together, people freaked out. They became huge after they broke up. Even Nickel Creek. They got huge in their absence. We did not get huge. [Laughs] We got smaller, which is fine. Those who come to our shows are not doing it for one song. The vast majority of the audience that still bothers to come to a Toad show, they are album people. Those songs really meant something to them. They’re curious when we do a new song. It’s not really a broad audience, but it's a dedicated audience. That’s a great thing to have. 

I feel like we did songs that are somewhat universal. Maybe the production is a little dated. We’ve played with other bands who were in their 20s and writing songs about getting laid and having a lot of fun. Those songs are harder to do when you’re approaching 50. They get creepy. We were writing songs about anxiety and depression—those are evergreen! (Laughs) 

Analogue: And, in a weird way, they’re tailor-made for right now. 

We’re not the Pixies. They became huge after they broke up. We did not get huge. We got smaller.

GP: The songs have aged reasonably well and the audience is willing to move with us. And there is a nostalgia part, where you play “All I Want” or “Fall Down,” and we know those songs need to be a part of it and we’re proud enough of them. But I’m glad they’re not my only offering. And I can do whatever the hell I want creatively with my solo stuff. I have an even smaller audience for that, but I get by. I would love to be popular, but I have to write stuff I care about. 

The funny thing is, when I was a kid, I thought we’d get signed for half a minute, then get dropped and I’d go back to school and become an Arts and Social Sciences teacher. But I don’t have that thick skin to be in that world. I don’t want to be at the top. But then we were in that world and I always felt like a faker. But I don’t whenever I’m singing or writing.  It just feels so much better when I’m writing songs I care about, but it’s hard to do when you’re trying to make a living at this.  

Analogue: You said a lot of your earlier work was defined when you were younger. What right now is the biggest difference between making music then and making music now? 

GP: I could say technology but that’s not entirely accurate because Toad recorded their first album for around $600 in about 48 hours and put out a cassette tape in local record stores. There’s a lot of weird ways to get heard now. People make music no matter what. If you’ve got to write songs, you’ve got to write songs. And sometimes artists do well despite themselves. I think of Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel. He got really lucky being a band that broke up and got huge. Dispatch, too. They were a band no one really knew who they were. 

I mean, would anybody be able to find a band like Neutral Milk Hotel now?

I feel like almost everything is an outlier now. And that’s the weird thing. There are a lot of really interesting sideline things of people who find their niche, are making themselves available and working hard. Now these really interesting artists come out of seemingly nowhere. YouTube stuff will go viral and musicians make a name for themselves without ever having to tour. The current situation lets things like that happen in a very natural and beautiful way, but they still happen because someone has the savvy and the tech to go out and make some great looking videos. If you’re writing sad and beautiful songs in your bedroom, probably no one is going to hear you know. And there was time when you could have gotten signed to an indie label. I mean, would anybody be able to find a band like Neutral Milk Hotel now? 

Different eras automatically reward different things. In the '90s, every band was really heavy. You needed to be edgy and edginess was over-rewarded. And [Toad] wasn’t edgy, we were an outlier. But then Elliott Smith came along and he made a whole realm of music available to people. All of a sudden you could be one of the cool kids and write a beautiful song. Norah Jones was enabled in some ways by all the female edginess. She just came in and wrote some natural, beautiful songs in a space that had been left for someone like her—someone just doing pure, beautiful music. The same thing with Hootie and the Blowfish; men were just singing, I want to hold your hand...and that’s okay! [Laughs]

Everybody follows a particular thing that’s overcompensated and people as outliers walk into spaces created by that trend. I don’t know if its wrong or right; it just is what it is at any given moment.