It has long been said that home is where the heart is, which is something Santa Barbara’s resident troubadour Glen Phillips knows only too well. Intermissions within a touring schedule that sees him constantly crisscrossing the country are cherished opportunities to ‘cocoon’ at home with family and friends. But recently, his musical focus has also been directed locally.
Not only was his latest album Coyote Sessions recorded here in town at Sean McCue’s Coyote Road Studio, it sees Phillips enlisting a little local orchestral assistance and being accompanied by some of Santa Barbara’s most acclaimed musician talents. The singer-songwriter is also currently entrenched within a new burst of creative vim and vigor from his longtime band Toad the Wet Sprocket.
This month the local four-piece will venture into the studio to record a new studio album, their first in 17 years. And, if all that is not enough, Phillips will be bring his recent national road show with fellow singer-songwriter and musical brethren of the 1990s, Grant Lee-Phillips, back home to California when the pair team up for a performance at Carpinteria’s Plaza Playhouse later this month. Brett Leigh Dicks recently cornered Phillips during an all-too-rare interlude at home to talk about his recent musical meanderings.
You are brandishing a new solo album. The recording features a collection of orphaned songs, some of Santa Barbara’s finest musical talents, a friend’s studio and a single microphone. What was the inspiration behind the undertaking?
The inspiration was a combination of things. Part of it was Sean McCue playing me some recordings he’d done with a single stereo microphone in his new studio and they sounded amazing. And part of it was I had a bunch of touring plans and no new record. I had a bunch of songs that were either co-writes for stuff I had played live, but hadn’t committed to a record. It was a collection of songs that wasn’t B material, but songs that hadn’t fit with anything else. So it was a great excuse to take care of those songs, do a recording experiment and also play with some local musicians.
Not only does the one microphone aspect of the undertaking offer the recording a unique intimacy, there is a lovely sense of community to it as well …
I had played with a lot of Los Angeles musicians, but hadn’t really explored the local musician scene in a very long time. I tend to go on tour and then cocoon when I when I come home. It was great to call some people up and realize I could pull together a band in town and have a ton of fun doing it. And it was fun getting to play people like Jim Connolly and playing with Bill Flores. I have known Bill for years, but hadn’t really played with him and getting to know Jim has been really wonderful.
There is a lot of personal history encompassed within the playing is there not?
Sean I have know for 25 years and love making music with him. I have played in bands with Tom Lackner forever and I knew he had the sensitivity that we needed from a drummer for that room. Before Jay Belarosemade dismantled kits popular again, Tom had been doing that for 20 years. I knew Anna Abbey back from when she had been playing around town a lot more and she opened up for me at solo a little while ago. Bill Flores I have known for ages and lots of friends had been trying to me and Jim together for while thinking we’d get along and of course we did. Alastair I had known for a long time. And Tariqh Akoni was my best friend in high school who I have adored forever. He started playing guitar in senior year and went away and played with people like Stevie Wonder and Elton John and is a brilliant player, but we’d never played music together before.
I had done a few things that have hinted at this way of working. I have never done anything that is this reduced before in terms of live performance. With Mutual Admiration Society and WPA I had records that were close to being live in the studio, but to take the mixing and overdubbing elements out of it and really having to capture everything in one take was very different.
Did that instill a very different way of working in the studio?
The big differences were arranging the songs to the room. If you play a really busy part in a traditional recording studio you can always turn it down until it fits later in the process, but with recording this way there’s no latitude for that. If a part is taking up too much space when you record this way you have place the instrument five feet further back or find another part.
Arranging songs for the space was not the only challenge. You severed a nerve in your arm a few years ago which has restricted finger moment and thus your guitar playing. Given all those takes and all that playing, how did your hand fare?
A big part of the challenge was after I messed up my hand it had taken me a long time to feel confident playing guitar again. In the last year I worried a lot about studio recording and playing guitar in that situation, both with Toad and on my own stuff - wondering if I could play well enough to actually do studio recording competently enough again. There are things you can get away with live where you count on the room or the energy of the evening to mask it. There are all these little details that will pass you by live, but if you listen to an album over and over again they become very apparent. So for me it was a really big deal to play guitar on an album like this where it was so laid bare.
You alluded to having a bunch of shows and wanting a new recording to take out on the road. A lot of those shows have been with Grant Lee-Phillips. What has the experience of playing with Grant-Lee like?
It has been great. Being a songwriter and someone who mostly tours solo acoustic, I’m not used to working up other people’s material and I get very nervous about it because I’m always afraid of being a poor accompanist. I’m not a flash player, I’m not soloist and I’m not impressive in that way. But I enjoy playing with another singer-songwriter because I know what I’d like to hear and I know it’s important not to step on him so it ends up working in that kind of way. We’re both really sensitive to the needs of another singer-songwriter and are able to accompany each other well, not because we’re incredible guitarists, but because we’re very conscious of staying out of each other’s way!
So it is going well?
He had a show in Los Angeles that wasn’t part of our tour and asked me to back him up on it and I was incredibly flattered because he obviously thought I had done a good enough to do it out of the context of our shows.
Did Toad the Wet Sprocket and Grant Lee Buffalo cross paths much back then?
It’s funny because we didn’t really cross paths much even though our bands were playing around at the same time. We moved in different circles. They were much cooler than we were. I was well aware of them though. It was Robinson Eikenberrythat sat me down and did the ‘you need to hear this song because it’s going to change your life thing with me’ and played Grant Lee Buffalo’s “Happiness” for me. And of course it was a huge song in my life.
Here you both are now as acclaimed singer-songwriters. Is a rock band a good schooling for that?
Hmmm? Am I more cynical than that? We both started in the business at a time when investing in the underground was a good investment and record companies had a lot of cash to spend on career development. That was the time when you would have an LP and a cassette for the car and CDs came along so you bought one of those too. Not only did people buy albums, they bought three copies of something they liked. So there was patience from the labels to allow bands to grow slowly. We lucked out with radio airplay and Grant Lee Buffalo built up a great following. We both then found ourselves in a position were ours band couldn’t or wouldn’t continue. We both found ourselves as male singer-songwriters at a time before John Mayer hit when you couldn’t get a record deal. So there was an element of moving into the realm of singer songwriter that was creative and maybe about maturing, but there was an element of it being about surviving. The only job that couldn’t be taken away from us was going out and singing our own songs. So there was a necessity to it as well.
It now seems as though life has come full circle because I understand you are about to venture back into the studio with Toad the Wet Sprocket. Is that correct?
Yes - Toad is working on a new record. In December and January we’re going into the studio with Michael Blue and doing our first record in 17 years. It’s going to be much more of a big pop record. It’s going to be well manicured with lots of overdubs and studio experimentation and a lot less about going in and having a single moment like Coyote Sessionswas. There’s always an element of that, but it’s going to be a traditional record making experience.
And I sense some genuine enthusiasm for the undertaking …
It’s interesting to talk to Grant because he has had a similar experience with Grant Lee Buffalo. If I view it as a trap it can feel very limiting, but if I view it as an opportunity and a blessing it’s something that I can return to and enjoy. This is the first time for a long time that we all have a sense of gratitude about the band and a desire to make it work. We are all very appreciative that we have the ability and opportunity to do this and that people still care. That is rare and precious and it’s not something to take for granted. It’s great to be excited about making a new toad album because there were years when people asked me about it and my stomach would drop. Whether or not that was stupid of me, it was what it was. But now to actually feel excited about it makes me so glad we waited because we could have done this years ago and could have done it without the heart or the love it needed to have.
The world is a very different place to what it was 17 years ago. Has Toad the Wet Sprocket’s perspective change with it?
It’s funny because we broke up when I was only 26 or 27 and we had all these songs with youthful idealism about a fear of losing hope and losing our identity and losing focus. Now we’ve all lived enough years that we’ve experienced losing hope and losing our identity. Not in a permanent or fatalistic way, but this next chapter is proving to be about getting back a lot of those things. Finding our sense self and finding the joy. We seem to be exploring similar issues, but the flipside of them.