BAM Magazine June 27.1997
` No Wild Ride for This Toad!`
Glen Phillips Maintains his "Everyman" Lifestyle
Despite Toad the Wet Sprocket's Success
Blink, and you might miss him. Glen Phillips is that low-key, that unassuming, that perfectly camouflaged guy in California's attention-grabbing, instant-gratification, peacock-hued society. When he strolls into his San Francisco hotel lobby with his baby daughter harnessed to his chest--while his wife, Laurel, shepherds their other nearly two-year-old toddler--the Santa Barbara native could be any other tourist, back from an enjoyable sightseeing jaunt to Fisherman's Wharf. With his skater shorts, baggy T-shirt, and boy-next-door familiarity, the slight-framed Phillips simply blends in to his surroundings. A day earlier, he says, when his quiescent quartet Toad the Wet Sprocket was co-headlining Bay Area radio station Live 105's star-studded BFD festival, bands like Blur, the Cure, and Echo & the Bunnymen strolled right past without recognizing him. "They probably thought I was one of the caterers," notes the songwriter, who--in his 10-year career--has penned seven smash singles and sold over three million albums.
Watching him with his children-- and, more importantly, listening to his acoustic-buoyed work on Toad's sixth and latest effort on Columbia Records, Coil, one aspect of Phillips forces its way to the surface: his pervasive, sensitive-guy humanity. He cares. Even while the rest of the self-centered world is accelerating toward he-who-dies-with-the-most-toys-wins Armageddon, he cares. In the same warm, friendly tones you've heard before (on earlier hits like "Way Away," "Fall Down," and "Walk on the Ocean"), he chirps out his feelings about turning 26 ("Rings"); confronting emotional maturity ("Little Man Big Man"); divorcing oneself from earthly belongings ("Throw It All Away"); even pointedly political issues such as the Leonard Peltier imprisonment case ("Crazy Life") and the gradual erosion of immigrant rights ("Amnesia"). In the leadoff single, "Come Down," Phillips pleads to his spouse for touring-schedule forgiveness: "I won't say when I have had enough/And I worked so hard to need this stuff...I know I've been away too long."
After ushering his kids safely upstairs, Phillips is back down, ready for lunch at a nearby udon house. And he's a veritable fount of opinions, just waiting to overflow. How does a nice, regular joe exist in our tense, pre-millennium nation? And what does he mean when he intones--over cherubic jangled guitar in "Throw It All Away"-- "Burn your TV in your yard/And gather 'round it with your friends/And warm your hands upon the fire/And start again"? Phillips pours a cup of sake, then pours out a cascading, stream-of-consciousness reply. "The millennium is arbitrary. But at least for me, I always get caught up in the minutiae. Little things like labor-saving devices, in general, seem to create more work in the end, and they merely get in the way.
"I'll talk about childcare and childbirth, 'cause that's a simple one that I'm currently up on. We had home birth, we breast-fed, we sleep with our kids. But all these people say that they don't have the time or the energy for that, and if you sleep with your kids you never get any sleep at all. That if they were in the same bed with you, you'd always be aware of 'em." Phillips shakes his head, No, these folks have got it all wrong. "If they're not breast-feeding, these parents are getting up throughout the night, having to go into the kitchen, sterilize a bottle, make formula, warm it up, walk into another room, put a bottle in the baby's mouth, get them back to sleep, and then go back to bed themselves. Whereas, if they just had the kid with them, they could roll over, give 'em a tit, then go back to sleep. Which seems to me to be a lot more reasonable. So the idea that all these gadgets are gonna make your life easier...well, it seems like there's just too much minutiae."
But doesn't this go hand-in-cyborg-hand with the advent of depersonalizing computers, the dearth of spiritual/family values in the hi-tech, post-baby-boomer generation? The sudden need for a God, something moral to fill this new internal void? Phillips spins off on a related tangent. "Usually, organized religion gets off the point. If you go to the origins of any religion, they're usually about learning how to be compassionate, learning how to be happy, and balancing that with responsibility. That's the basis of all of 'em--compassion. But then it gets into hierarchy, into history, then into magic, and then it all gets blown away. A couple of our songs are about this--for me, if you take Jesus and the stuff he said and the things he did, the basic story of Him, pre-Resurrection, it was about living compassionately, being honest, being righteous, as they say.
"But if you talk to a lot of people, they say 'No, no, no--it doesn't make sense unless there's a Resurrection!' Taking morality and compassion by themselves isn't enough for people--they need a miracle, they need these odd mechanics of redemption. They need heaven and hell to exist, they need punishment for the bad people, presents for the good people. That's where religion gets wacky from the start--you add in all this extra stuff.
I have a friend of a friend, whose brother in Delhi was raised Hindu, and he'd read the New Testament, read the Bible, and wondered if Jesus believed in reincarnation. And his understanding of it, without any of the weight of Christianity as a religion, was purely spiritual and beautiful. He'd just read the text and done his own interpretation, from an Eastern point of view."
But doesn't mankind--even in the microcosm of a songwriter--need its imagery and symbols to communicate larger ideals, concepts? And how does one lead an honorable life, without these guiding images? Phillips is ready with another long-winded solution. "Person-to-person, we're more distracted than we've ever been these days. Not having to worry about survival, you either get into leisure or you get into spirit. And I do both. That's my big problem--trying to decide what's right, what I should do. The good thing about religion is, it gives you very set rules of what you're supposed to do, what you're not supposed to do. You know exactly how you're supposed to live. And if you don't have a code, making a starting and stopping point for acceptable behavior is really difficult.
"Can you drive a car? Can you actually live in modern society and be moral at all? What level is hypocrisy? What level is getting by? If you tried to be completely moral all the time, you'd be paralyzed. So the question I bounce back and forth in my mind is, 'At what point am I living like a decent person?' If I ever have a bad idea cross through my head, if I ever have a sick fantasy of some kind, does that make me a totally unworthy hypocrite? How can you be moral without being perfect?" Phillips pauses for a second to scratch his fevered noggin. "And the question was...? Uh, what was the question?"
Isn't this issue discussed in the "Come Down" cut? How to keep your ego in check while working in a markedly ego-stroking business? The old 'If you can keep your head when those about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you' bit from Kipling? Phillips nods. "Yeah. 'Come Down' is about that, a little bit. But have you ever read Cortazar? Argentinean writer, has a book called Hopscotch. The basis of the book is this group of expatriate Argentinean intellectuals living in Paris, and they're all trying to find true life, what to actually 'be' would be like. And there's this woman, Limaga, who's the protagonist's lover, and she just is what they keep aspiring to be.
"She is exactly who she is, she lives day to day, she's not really concerned with much past what's locally happening, but she tries to do well within that. And that simplicity of life is what they're all aiming for--the lack of guilt, the lack of pretension. She, meanwhile, would like to be intelligent and more like them." Phillips stops for a quick gulp of sake. "Like my wife, Laurel--she's unconcerned with saving the world. She wants to be good to her family, she wants to be good to the people she loves, and she doesn't take it to a stupid degree. Whereas, I myself have this overwhelming sense of guilt, and I can take it to a stupid degree, where I'm always failing. But she doesn't have that interest, which is the end point that I'd like to achieve. She was never raised with the guilt of the world--she treats the people around her decently, and that's it. Not a lot of bullshit to it. Think globally, act locally as a basis."
At this point, the Toadster careens his wild ride to a screeching halt. "Jeez! I haven't said one reasonable thing so far, have I?" he suddenly notes, scowling at his placemat. Then his gaze drifts a few inches to a plateful of tiny age shumai appetizers, and glazed eyes immediately start twinkling again. "They're just so nicely shaped!" he purrs, staring at the star-shaped, deep-fried nuggets. "I'm wondering if there was a tool in the kitchen that does this? Or are they hand-shaped?" Uh-oh. Pesky minutiae again. On to bigger concerns. Like Phillips recently being informed by his label's astute marketing staff that Toad the Wet Sprocket--despite its many Billboard chart feats--is still saddled with "fairly low name recognition, and a negative impression for those who know the name." Once the group took the BFD stage at Shoreline Amphitheater in San Francisco, all that changed, he adds. "We play a place like that, or name gets announced, and you hear all these songs you've heard on the radio for the last six years, but you had no idea who did them. Nobody knows what we look like, nobody knows we did those songs, but a lot of people sing along with 'em on the radio. We're weird that way-- radio and local press has been really good to us. Aside from that, we've pretty much been roundly ignored."
As clear-thinking as its leader appears, Toad's fable defies easy logic. Phillips has known his bandmates--guitarist Todd Nichols, bassist Dean Dinning, drummer Randy Guss--since he was 14 years old; nicking their awkward moniker from an old Monty Python skit, they formed a band 11 years ago to relieve Santa Barbara boredom. And from its 1989 Bread and Circus debut on, it's been a slow burn sort of stardom, culminating in platinum status for later releases Dulcinea and Fear. The term most folks use to describe Toad's charming, non-threatening sound, Phillips admits, is "soft rock." He likens the situation to the slurred gauntlet James Taylor has endured for nearly 30 years. "Taylor always gets called a wimp, but he's lasted," Phillips reminds us. "He's got an incredibly active mind, but he's always written off as a sap because people hear how mellow he is and how nice his voice is, and they don't listen for any subtlety. But I guess 'hard' is the zeitgeist right now, heavy and angst-filled music. These are particular attitudes and sounds that are considered current and worthy. But because they're happening right now, for some reason, they're 'the future'--people forget that every other time there was something like this, it was the zeitgeist too. And as soon as the times changed, it was gone."
Zenlike chap that he is, Phillips--after an exhausting 300-date tour-- took a full year off, with no band projects whatsoever, to mentally and physically regroup. He even moved to Olympia, WA, for a spell (duly documented on Coil's opening anthem, "Whatever I Fear"), where his "everyman" camouflage didn't help him fit in. Tail between his legs, he quickly headed back to Southern California. Oh, yes--he also became a dad. Naturally, the songs sculpted during this introspective blue period would turn out to be Phillip's strongest, most sensitive to date. What's that they always say about the richness of the examined life? When asked to summarize the life lessons he learned from this down time, the answer man is finally stumped. "I have no idea!" Phillips starts chuckling. "There's nothing I can wrap up easily--I'd probably muddle on and say a lot of nonsense again."
Then, what does the guy do? He muddles right on, ignoring his own stop sign. "Hopefully, I grew up a little. I don't crave angst the way I used to--that particularly youthful worship of pain. And just having kids. It means...well, getting to be graceful about not getting what you want is a good thing. Not being able to do what you want, when you want, not feeling like you're entitled to be handed everything. For a child, up to a certain age, 'want' and 'need' are the same thing.
"You hear people say that babies are manipulative, which is just insane bullshit," Phillips continues, his thought train chugging at full-throttle. "If you think about us as animals for half a second, think about leaving a baby alone for half a day in the forest. It's dead. Leave it alone for an hour, it's probably dead. It's only job is to be on your hip, on your breast, being held by you all the time. And the idea that they're somehow trying to pull one over on you by making you pay attention to them is ridiculous.
"Look around," Phillips quietly, peacefully concludes, with a beatific smile. "Look at how ignored most children are and you'll understand just how angry their parents must have been."
Toad the Wet Sprocket will appear live as part of the H.O.R.D.E. tour on July 17th at Irvine Meadows
(c) 1997 Tom Lanham@http://ww2.musicuniverse.com/
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