Cayamo Conversations: Glen Phillips
I missed Toad The Wet Sprocket. In the early 90’s I was starting a family and working pretty hard, so maybe I wasn’t in the right place in my life to discover a pre-emo band (that’s frontman Glen Phillips’s characterization, not mine). The timing was all wrong, I suppose. Now that I think about it, I missed both my pre-emo and emo phases. Oh well.
All that said, I’m a Glen Phillips fan now. He’s a very talented musician and songwriter who’s been a part of the Americana scene since Toad The Wet Sprocket broke up in 1998. Shortly thereafter, he started playing a lot with the members of Nickel Creek and eventually even made a record (2004’s Mutual Admiration Society) with them.
In connection with this interview, I caught up on the Toad The Wet Sprocket story. It’s quite a tale. Formed by high school musicians and named after a fictional group in a Monty Python sketch, Toad recorded its first record (1989’s Bread and Circus) for about $600. Their second (1990’s Pale) cost about ten times that. About the time they finished Pale they were signed by Columbia Records.
Toad’s third album (1991’s Fear) went platinum with two top-20 singles. Things begin moving pretty fast. Toad had songs in two big movie soundtracks, So I Married An Axe Murderer and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. They had a song on the soundtrack for the TV show Friends. The fourth Toad record (1994’s Dulcinea) went platinum, too, and had a number one single, Fall Down. To give you some idea of the Toad sound and sensibilities, here’s the video from another charting single from that record, Something’s Always Wrong:
On Cayamo 2012, the week long “Journey Through Song” aboard the Norwegian Pearl, Phillips played solo and with Works Progress Administration, an Americana supergroup (pardon the contradiction in terms) that’s been playing together on and off since 2007. I first saw Phillips live with WPA at Telluride in 2009. For those who aren’t familiar with this group, here’s a video that provides a look at WPA back when Phillips and Sean Watkins put it together with Sara Watkins, Greg Leisz, Luke Bulla, Benmont Tench, Pete Thomas and Dave Faragher:
Introducing Works Progress Administration
WPA | Myspace Music Videos
I had the opportunity to interview Glen Phillips and Sara Watkins within minutes of each other on the last day of Cayamo 2012. (I also interviewed Rhett Millerthat day.) Phillips is an incredibly polite person who gives a great interview. He’s intelligent, open and well-spoken. We talked about his solo work, his continued touring with Toad, the genius of Chris Thile and the magic of Cayamo. We started off on his recent activities and his plans for writing and recording solo, with WPA and Toad:
GP: The last couple years, I’ve been doing a lot more Toad touring. We did 70 shows last year which was kinda a post-break up record. That’s a lot of shows for a band that’s broken up.
ML: I’ll say.
GP: So, that and moving into writing for a new album, trying to figure out what that means these days and how to balance that with other projects. I really want to do another WPA record. I’m very, very overdue for a solo record. So I just have a ton of writing to do. And the Toad recording right now. We just parted ways with some management, wanting to take our time and do it our own way. Putting out a record, is it better to put out a few songs every month until you have 10 and let them get licensed? Why front load it and spend a bunch of money and get yourself in a situation where it has to be ridiculously successful to even break even! As you know, these days you can actually do things kind of quietly. That’s where we came from anyway.
ML: Well, you’ve got quite a community of fans out there.
GP: It’s been nice the last few years. I feel like Toad is finally not a guilty pleasure. I mean, we weren’t very cool at the time. Everybody was being very competitively aggressive and we were all about feelings. It was before Elliott Smith made it okay to have feelings again. So we were “pre-emo” as I think we called it at one point. We were emo before emo. But it’s been kind of nice to get some credit on the back end and have people admit that they liked us.
ML: Well, they did. And you know, the avenues for putting a record together have expanded greatly since Toad recorded that first record for $600.
GP: Yeah, there’s PledgeMusic, Kickstarter, IndieGoGo. There are a lot of resources for getting stuff directly into people’s hands that didn’t exist. I mean the thing about it being so democratized is that everyone has the same toolkit now. Actual visibility is a whole other question. You know we experienced that definitely with WPA. We had a great little toolkit but we never really poked our heads above the water where people saw us . You know that still takes a lot of either being in the right place at the right time, a lot of luck or a lot of money.
ML: Sure, but with Toad, I’d think than any of those platforms would work since it wouldn’t be that hard to get noticed.
GP: It won’t be hard for it to get noticed. It’s just interesting looking at it and know we’re never going back to what we had. I think we left a decent taste in people’s mouths and we were always decent guys on the road and so I think people would like to be on our side. But I don’t have any illusions that the clock’s going to turn back and it’s going to be like it was 15 years ago. But I do think it’s a great . . . it’s a great place to visit. It’s great to see those audiences, see how happy they get about it. It’s good to get the band together and get the opportunity to have it feel good instead of have it feel broken, which is where we left it. So, if this is the last little thing we do then that’s a great way to go off. I mean you know I like the idea of dying without having people I can’t call up and say hi to. It’s good. Life’s too short for enemies.
ML: Those issues don’t seem to be linked to genre at all. My kids recently gave me the Ace Frehley memoir. I read it because I remember KISS at their peak, plus it was a gift from my kids. Not a very well written book but the idea of being in a group, starting out and everything’s great, then things get complicated, then you go away then you come back, all that comes through pretty well. Those are themes I guess you could identify with?
GP: Yes. And you’re linked to people who you meet as a kid [Phillips was 16 when Toad first came together]. You have such extraordinary circumstances, and it’s really interesting as an adult to find really different communities. That’s the thing with the band, you know. It’s like you get together young enough in the same way that your genetic family is, you know, something that you have to deal with warts and all. Whereas the friends you choose as an adult, you’re usually much more aligned with, there’s much less drama. So the band contains all that. Once again, extraordinary circumstances that, especially if you’re a bunch of insecure people, it has a way of messing with the head.
It was an incredible thing, pretty soon after Toad, to meet up with Nickel Creek right when they were starting, to get to go on the road with Sean and Sara [Watkins] and Chris [Thile]. Whether it was how much they loved music, how much time was spent off stage constantly playing songs, or simply waking up on the road and they want to go for a walk, check out a museum. It was really amazing after years of everybody habitually shutting down and going in their own corner to be on the road with people where . . . I just couldn’t think of a place I’d rather be! It’s really different.
ML: Nickel Creek moved a lot of people in that way. I mean, folks who weren’t as involved with them as you were. It’s a very impressive group. And Thile, this record he did with Daves. He sometimes he pushes the envelope beyond where I can go, but that record, it’s just amazing.
GP: Is that the duo record that he just did with Michael Daves?
ML: Yeah it’s kind of a retro deal. It’s all old stuff but they play it with this kind of punk energy.
GP: I’ve heard a couple of songs off of it. He’s remarkable and full of life. And here’s the other thing: He talks about Punch Brothers as being deliberately difficult to listen to. He’s trying to weed his audience out! He’s also got to know that you try to weed your audience out you’ll probably succeed.
ML: If he plays that 45 minute, four movement thing again, I may just get up and walk out in the middle of it. Although I mean it’s a thing of beauty from an artistic standpoint but it just a lot to take in.
GP: Absolutely. Well, but he can also sing Jealous of the Moon and break your heart. He can do stuff that’s very straight down the line and it’s fine for him to oscillate I think!
ML: Yeah, he can do it and he can get away with it.
GP: And that’s the thing about him. When it’s a really good, simple song he slays them. But he has an over -clocked CPU so . . . he gets bored really easily.
ML: I hope you don’t mind me using that one.
GP: He does, man!
ML: Let’s talk about your experience here. You’re here with WPA and you’re here solo as well. And what’s it like to be a part of Cayamo?
GP: It’s great! You know I was really excited. I think this is my fourth. I came out here once solo and then three times with WPA. And you know there’s a variety of these music cruises but this was the one that I was begging Andy to let me be on. Toad was more of a Rock Boat band, so we ended up there. But I begged and pleaded to be a part of this! Because it’s the festival that I would want to go to. I was making jokes on stage about all the guitarists in Nashville hoping that this boat goes down. You get rid of Greg Leisz, Buddy Miller!
ML: So jobs are going to open up.
GP: And there’s Sarah Buxton’s husband, Tom Bukovac. Five years running voted Nashville’s best guitarist, I mean, the guy’s unfrickingbelievable. Doug Pettibone is here, as is Richard Thompson. Getting to stand around and listen to Greg Leisz and Buddy Miller talk about Richard Thompson’s playing and how stunned and humbled they are . . . the bar is really high here.
ML: I saw Buddy Miller play twice. One of his shows, he brought Richard Thompson out, and he was just looking at Thompson as he was playing . . .
GP: Aw yeah! And getting to hear Richard play this time with a band. I’ve had albums of his forever. And [to see him] playing electric. I’ve only seen him in solo mode and it’s a truly impressive thing. But I’ve also never seen him just rock out on an electric, which is stunning.
ML: It’s like a different person.
GP: The writing, that’s the other thing, and the variety. You have a guy like Chuck Cannon. I guess that there’s, you know, in whatever way there may be competition between artists. Everybody is at a high enough level. And so there’s a Chuck Cannon song compared to a Shawn Mullins song compared to a Lucinda Williams song compared to a Richard Thompson song compared to . . . You could even do all the one chord songs. Chuck’s got Bet Yo Mama. You have Gasoline and Matches from Buddy, you have Joy from Lucinda Williams. The quality of the single chord songs! It’s the best of the best!
But I mean everybody. Loudon Wainwright, it’s clearly his own voice. It’s like John Prine or John Hiatt, for Christ’s sake. I mean . . .
ML: Did you get to see a Loudon show on this cruise?
GP: I did.
ML: He’s funny as hell.
GP: He’s a kook, he’s great. I mean really, it’s like going to school. It’s such a high level with such variety, and you know, getting really to clock the amazing differences between all those people but how high the bar is consistently. And then even if it’s something you don’t get deeply, you’re going to be able to appreciate it. There’s nothing here that sucks!
GP: Even if you’re not going to listen to it when you go home you’re going to learn something if you show up. That’s not something you get everywhere. So, as an artist [as audience member], it’s awesome. And for the artists, well, it’s a listening audience. It’s an older audience, a more sober audience. People are partying but I would assume that there’s less vomit on this cruise than there is on any other music cruise. You go and it’s pin drop quiet at the bar, and if people start talking everybody shuts them up!
ML: What about the close quarters with the fans, no issues for you there?
GP: Never had any issues. I mean I’ve had that one person that always wants to talk a little too long. But that’s fine. I mean, once again, it’s because of the type of audience. If you look out on the deck at the amount of people reading books. It’s an educated crowd. It’s a crowd who’s listening to lyrics. They’re not showing up for a kind of adrenal abandon. They’re actually trying to get into a deeper experience and so I’d say by nature the audience, they tend to be more aware which means they tend to be pretty respectful. So you know people will walk up here and usually just say, “Hey, I hope I’m not bugging you but I just wanna say it was great last night.” Super respectful. Once again, it’s the nature of the audience. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy adrenal abandon but it’s nice to not have to live there if you’re going to be trapped on a ship with a bunch of people.
ML: Right. You jet in, do one day of the festival, you put up with this for a little while then you get out.
GP: That’s the thing, I think I would’ve enjoyed the music on the Weezer cruise but I dunno if I …
ML: You get off at St. Bart’s on that one, fly home.
ML: Well, thanks so much for your time. Enjoy your last afternoon.
GP: Thanks, you too.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines. Glen Phillips is, too @GlenPhillips
Photo by Brett Leigh Dicks.