New songs, ‘90s nostalgia: Toad the Wet Sprocket at the Wheeler
If You Go …
What: Toad the Wet Sprocket
When: Sunday, Nov. 23, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Wheeler Opera House
Tickets: Wheeler box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
Not so long ago, Toad the Wet Sprocket seemed a ’90s relic. Having broken up in 1998, the alt-rock hit-makers behind “All I Want” and “Walk on the Ocean” hadn’t made a new album since 1997’s “Coil.” Lead singer Glen Phillips was pursing a solo career. The band’s four members, to put it mildly, didn’t get along anymore — playing together only for occasional reunion shows.
In 2010, they unexpectedly started making music together again. Far-fetched as it may have seemed to the four members of Toad the Wet Sprocket, and their fans, the reunion spawned a new album, last year’s “New Constellation,” and breathed new life into the band, which stops at the Wheeler Opera House on Sunday.
“If you’d seen us in a room together six years ago, you would not bet on the possibility of this happening,” Phillips said from Santa Barbara, California, in late October, before the fall tour kicked off. “But every time we played a show, someone would ask when we are doing another album. Every time I’d do a solo show, people would ask when Toad’s doing another album — the idea had been out there, but we just came back finally to some level of peace.”
Phillips and lead guitar player Todd Nichols have been writing music together since they were 14 years old, when they were growing up in California. They formed Toad the Wet Sprocket — its name taken from a Monty Python sketch — when Phillips was 16, and soon found themselves with a deal at Columbia Records. Their first album, “Bread & Circus,” was released in 1989 and served as a precursor to the band’s chart-topping run with 1991’s “fear” and 1994’s “Dulcinea.”
“We went through a lot together, and it’s more a familial relationship in many ways than a business or band relationship,” Phillips said of the reunion. “We could have gotten together earlier and put together something with a little less heart, but it would be out of character with the band to do that. We wanted to do it right.”
Doing it right meant making the album on their own creative terms. To that end, they eschewed labels and funded the new record through a Kickstarter campaign. With a goal of $50,000, the campaign raised in excess of $260,000 from more than 6,300 backers, dispelling any doubt about the demand for new Toad the Wet Sprocket.
It’s a different world for musicians today than it was the last time Toad the Wet Sprocket made a record. They made their first albums during the pre-Napster era, the MTV-powered record industry heyday. But the do-it-yourself ethos of today’s scene has its upsides. Email, for one. As band members wood-shedded different parts of new songs for “New Constellation,” they were able to share demos digitally. The effect of the new landscape for music has also created a skilled generation of musicians, Phillips noted.
“Kids now in this iPod generation, they grew up listening to literally everything — their influence is so wide and broad and deep and they’re making incredible music,” he said.
When younger musicians ask Phillips for tips on making a career out of music, though, his advice is limited.
“I tell people to build a time machine, get signed in the ’90s, and coast off that for the rest of their lives,” he said with a laugh. “It’s an amazing business strategy.”
Getting back together after their acrimonious break-up and years apart — during which Phillips spent 15 years as a solo acoustic artist — forced the band to do some soul-searching and to define what makes a Toad the Wet Sprocket song.
“It used to be that all things would flow through the filter of the band, and if I wrote a song that didn’t work for the band I’d have to put it aside,” he said. “So it was really interesting to ask, ‘OK, what is Toad?’ It’s something we’d never done as a band.”
What they found is that Toad the Wet Sprocket is about group harmonies, backed by Nichols’ light touch on lead guitar. In Phillips’ words, the result is songs that “are sadder than they sound,” written with a catchy pop sensibility — but with some darker underpinnings.
During their ’90s run, that style made the band a target for critics who embraced the harder-edged trends of grunge and alternative rock. In recent years, the critical pendulum has swung back in their direction.
“There was a feeling that if you weren’t screaming you didn’t mean it,” he said of the ’90s. “We got a lot of flack back in the day for not being more aggro. Now it’s fine. Today, it’s OK to be pretty again. We were 20 years too early or something.”
Phillips and his bandmates aren’t planning to make another album in the foreseeable future. Perhaps, he said, they’ll record one-off songs and singles before they hit the road again. But after their fall run, he expects them to go their separate ways again for a while. At Sunday’s show, expect a mix of the old hits with the new songs mixed in.
“We’re excited to be playing the songs off the new album — I think that’s brought some new life into it,” Phillips said. “But we also have all the songs that we know people love. So there you have a show.”
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