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Interview: Glen Phillips

5 November 2022

Photo by Chris Orwig

While many musicians took some much needed time to slow down and readjust to everyday life during the early days of the pandemic, Glen Phillips found himself busier than ever. As a touring musician who relies on live gigs to pay the rent, Phillips quickly pivoted to online streaming performances to keep the incoming flowing, often performing five times a week to virtual audiences.

Somehow, Phillips also found time to write and record a new album with the band he formed in 1986, Toad the Wet Sprocket, joining them on a summer tour with Barenaked Ladies, and put out his sixth solo album, There Is So Much Here, his first official release for Compass Records following the label’s reissue of his 2016 album, Swallowed By the New, in 2018.

Phillips, who was quarantining due to finally getting Covid for the first time, joined me shortly before the release of his new album to talk about the inspiration for writing new material, the realities of touring as a solo artist, and the lengths he goes to to remind Toad the Wet Sprocket fans that he’s been releasing material as a solo artist since 2000.

You’ve been participating in a project for a decade where someone sends out a weekly writing prompt to a bunch of songwriters and then you write songs based on those prompts. Did the songs on your new album come about from that project?

GLEN: I don’t think the songs go back 10 years. I’ve been doing that song group for a long time. A few of the songs off my last solo album were from that, a few of the songs from the last Toad record were from that. I find it to be a really great way of writing.

The songwriting prompt project was invented by Bob Schneider and, if you skip a week, he kicks you out. Matt the Electrician’s a little more forgiving. So, if I go on tour or I’m mixing, I will sometimes skip out for a while and then roll back in.

Is this a record that was birthed because of the pandemic? Were you planning on recording something regardless or did you write and record because you had down time in your schedule in 2020 since you couldn’t tour?

GLEN: I knew I was ready for another record and I did have more songs sitting around. I probably played music more consistently during the pandemic than at any other time in my life. I was doing three free livestreams, kind of fundraisers for non-profits, a week and then I was doing one StageIt show and then I was also doing a community choir session once a week where I’d sing songs, use a looper, and people would sing along at home. I was doing five nights a week of performances and trying to always bring in new material for each of those things. So, learning a lot of covers, bringing old songs out, writing new songs. It ended up being a really busy and creative time for me. And, I was home, so I was able to do my songwriting game more consistently.

Lyrically, the new songs don’t seem to be a reflection of the last few years, there’s no overtly “pandemic” songs.

GLEN: Well, “Brand New Blue” and “Sound of Drinking” are my two, on that see-saw of silver linings and groundhog day despair, songs. They were very literally pandemic songs. “The Sound of Drinking” is about being at home more, in the same place, than I had been in the last 20 years. I moved in with my fiancé. I’d been in a post-divorce, nomadic state and it kind of forced me to slow down and say “yes” to what was right in front of me rather than running around from peak experience to peak experience. The title of the album, There’s So Much Here, comes from that.

On the other hand, “Brand New Blue” was a combination of two titles. The previous week Matt had sent out “The Next Room” as a prompt and I haven’t written that song so I threw “Brand New Blue” and “The Next Room” together about that groundhog day feeling and boredom and depression and trying to figure out how to be hopeful.

I’d say other songs too, even if they weren’t directly out of pandemic times. The funny thing is my fiancé is an English teacher, so I had already written the song and she said, “What was the song prompt this week?” and I said, “The Bluest Eye,” and she said, “Oh, Toni Morrison.” I said, “Huh?” because I had never read it.

There’s a background of the political changes in this time and this strange period, even in the last week, the ramping up of it, of violent rhetoric, racist rhetoric, anti-Semitic rhetoric, misogynistic rhetoric. This shrill entitlement that has kind of grown less and less apologetic. That idea of such massive unchecked entitlement was behind “Brand New Blue.” It wasn’t directly about the pandemic but it was of the time.

Most of these were on the more recent side. Songs like “Stone Throat” and “I Was A Riot,” those are about the process of falling in love again, saying yes to romance. I realized I hadn’t been writing songs about being in a relationship for a very long time. There’s a lot of that on the record too.

Probably the oldest song is only four years old. “Let in Anarchy” would be the oldest of these songs.

Did you find any personal or professional silver linings during the pandemic?

GLEN: I really loved doing the livecasts and the community building of that and the personal interaction. Generally, I feel like the comments are where dreams go to die. That’s where humanity gets ugly. For the most part, a really beautiful community grew up in the comments. That was amazing. I would try to find a good non-profit, hopefully one that would have a Facebook “Donate” button, make a graphic, research, make sure that the non-profit was real. And then responding to comments, responding to direct messages, taking requests, learning songs. It was more of a full-time job than I think I’ve ever had. And having that discipline because I had no other choices. It was really good for me to do.

I just went back into my default once I could go back on tour which was playing a lot of shows every year. It’s weird looking at touring and the increased expense and the increased realization that unless I happen to have some placement on a major advertisement campaign or a film ad or a theme song for a show, my career is where it is and my job is to just keeping trying to inflate the tires so that the rate of loss is less. That’s just the way it is. I’m in my 50s. I’m good, I do what I do. I have my audience. It is what it is at this point. I think, especially because there is no songwriting money any more, there is no album sales money any more, the business has shrunk. I talk to my friends who are songwriters in Nashville and they’re down 50%, the same amount of plays. I don’t get played on streaming media and I don’t get played on the radio so touring has been the only thing I have.

I really am at the point, for the first time in my life, instead of just going, “Well, I want to do a solo record,” as I’m getting this record out, I’m like, “I think I need to do some analytics and see what’s worth my time and where I’m spending my time unwisely and what makes sense.” I love learning new tricks, I’m always going to write and sing songs, I just come back to these questions more and more. Maybe it’s a new chapter – music will always be a part but I spent all morning looking at ways to finish my B.A. It’s been interesting trying to figure out what it means in the future. I don’t want to be gone all the time. I don’t want to be burning all that gasoline. It’s also a fragile way of making a living because if your voice goes out or there’s a pandemic … I was really lucky to be able to switch online. I think because I have that combined audience of the people who were there for me and some amount of people who like Toad or who are willing to listen to me, I was able to survive off of tips during the pandemic. I was even able to do that without putting a number on it, without putting up paywalls. I was able to do that without excluding anybody who was in the audience although I did start speaking my mind about certain political things, not always speaking well or eloquently about them, and I lost about half my audience. It’s okay, it’ll be 3 more years before they can arrest me for that type of behavior.

One of the nice things about doing online shows is that you don’t have to worry about booking shows in every city or having to answer the question from fans, “Why did you skip my town?” Doing it online, you’re now literally in the living room of anyone who wants to see you play live. There might be a city like, say, Boise, Idaho, that you’ve never played before but people that live there can now say they’ve seen you in concert.

GLEN: To use Boise as an example, I’ll play Boise any time it’s warm there. I know it’s beautiful when it’s snowy but that city park along the river is one of the best parks in America. I love it because I love running down the river. I have to gauge if there’s a physical beauty to the town? Is there a thing about it that’s unique culturally? Is there a spirit it has? And what’s it worth to me with days away from home? It’s interesting being engaged again, looking at the prospect of marriage. If I don’t feel like I have the agency to decide when I play and where I go, I get to feeling really hopeless because I feel like I’m just going to be on a treadmill of turning that doesn’t lead anywhere and doesn’t give me the time to build other things and doesn’t give me the time to be truly be present to my partner in the way that she deserves.

It’s been very strange going from being home all the time and moving in during that time to going back to being gone a lot. It’s really stressful. It was an issue in my previous relationship. I think she described it once as I was either physically or emotionally gone all the time. Even when you come home, there’s that period of reentry and getting used to it and then getting ready to go again.

Throughout your Toad career, were you often being pushed and pulled in different directions that you didn’t really own?

GLEN: We worked our asses off. Toad was over by the time I was 27. I feel like that’s the time where you really make those investments. You strike while the iron is hot. That’s part of the question now – do I go out with a band and just do an amazing show and lose lots of money? I have my wonderful booking agent go, “You will play at the same places, to the same people, for the same amount of money. You have bills to pay.” I would love to tour with a band. There’s all kinds of things I’d love to do but it’s a job. With Toad, when we were young and it’s happening, you only got one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo. Eminem said it best. So we did the work. We played 300 shows for the Fear album. We worked really hard and we did every bit of promo that we could and showed up to everything, because that’s what you do.

If I’m lucky enough to have my Jason Isbell moment, where you’ve been Jason Isbell but suddenly you’re JASON ISBELL, I’ll do the damn work to follow it up. Right now, I’m not so much of a hustler. I’m so lucky that I get to make a living doing this. Part of my big job is to get out of a scarcity mindset because I’ve always had it and it got way worse post-divorce, this feeling like the sky is falling at every moment. I keep working and I keep getting up, but I fight against that all the time. As a musician, it’s weird because the metrics that the outside world cares about are very different than I think a creative person’s metrics are, especially if you look at yourself not as an entertainer but as a songwriter. I think my job is to make people cry or hold each other or laugh or feel something they were holding in and were afraid to feel. That’s my job. When you put out an album, all of a sudden your job is to compare yourself to other people based on a lot of sales and popularity metrics. Inevitably, someone is always doing better than you. You’re never done. And if you reach the top, you’re trying to stay there.

The industry is so fickle. You could write the best song ever but what happens with it is often out of your hands. You just have to hope that people hear it somehow, on the radio or on a TV show or in a commercial.

GLEN: I don’t think I’ve had a song placement since episode 2 of Breaking Bad. That’s a long break and you don’t earn a dime from the song unless it gets put somewhere. That’s a weird thing. When I put out the last record, Swallowed by the New, I feel like the letters I got about those songs, especially “Grief and Praise,” which Watkins Family Hour just cut, which makes me so happy, it’s more about the response. You get people writing who are going through a divorce or a death or having a sick child. That’s the stuff that really matters.

Toad put out a new album in 2020. While being able to maintain your solo career, is going out on the road with Toad a good way to pay the rent?

GLEN: I’ll say “yes and …” I don’t know if it’s evened out. It’s weird thing, year to year. Some years you don’t make anything, some years you do well and you go, “What happened? I worked hard both years, why did I make money this year but lost money last year?” Toad has gone through a lot of changes over the last many years. Toad has been pretty stable and I think we’ve been growing our audience. We’re in a great space right now meaning getting along well. I think we have more common ground than we’ve had in decades. We’ve found ways of working with each other that feels like we’re moving forward together with some common goals which I don’t think we had for a long time. There was a period where things were just in deep upheaval and there wasn’t a lot of support for each other and I will admit that I was looking for a way out. I don’t feel that way any more. I’m really grateful for it. I’m really grateful for the audience. I’m grateful that we have the hits we can pull out but, at this point, the people that are coming to see us play are really receptive to the new songs too and willing to move forward with us.

We’re not going to deny the old songs, I realize neurologically the stuff you heard in your early 20s is very special. But, we’re growing as a band and it feels really good to be able to do both those things and to have new energy and new optimism after being a band for so long. There were times when probably none of us thought we’d get to this place. It was really good this year getting to go out and open for Barenaked Ladies and kind of seeing their internal culture and how positive it was. We learned a lot from them on how to be a band, how to move forward together.

It’s cool you were playing some new songs. I understand the fans’ desire to hear the stuff they know but I’m often of the mindset that if you’re putting out great new music, I’d almost be willing to give up the songs you’ve played thousands of times and listen to just new stuff.

GLEN: I have a friend who plays in Death Cab for Cutie and I was talking to him yesterday. The same thing happens with them. People go, “Oh my God! You’re the best! Plans changed my life! Do you have anything new? Do you guys tour?” There are so many bands out there, it made me really happy that he hears that too. All the time, people will go, “Toad. You were the best. What do you do now?” It’s like, “I tour two to four months every year with Toad and we put out a record last year. I make music full time.” Our job ends up getting those people who already know us and like us to know that we even exist and might be worth going to see live. It’s interesting that that’s the job at this point. Luckily enough we did well enough back in the day that that’s what we pump up the tires with. We always play the hits, we play deep cut album things. I feel lucky that we’re a deep cut band and that a large portion of the people who got into us were still listening to full albums at that time and that people know and appreciate the deep cuts. I think, like every ’90s band, we had our period of resisting our singles. It was a weird and unseemly trend.

For the new album, I just assumed it would be you with an acoustic guitar delivering coffeehouse type songs. I was pleasantly surprised that this is a full-band record. There are some songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on the local alternative rock station.

GLEN: I made a lot of records that were self-limiting in that they were solo records and I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford to tour with a band so I’d make records that folded easily into solo, acoustic touring. But, I write a lot of stuff that doesn’t fit that. After I lost my studio, I had gear that needed to be housed somewhere so a lot of my gear has been up with my friend John Morgan Askew in the Portland area. He’s always said, “You’ve got to come up and record a record with me. I owe you one.”

He invited me up to Bocce Studios and he suggested the main players on it. It’s Ji Tanzer on drums and Dave Depper on bass and guitar and keyboards. Dave replaced Chris Walla in Death Cab. Their new album to me is just brilliant. It has all the sophistication of Plans but the danger and edginess of Transatlanticism. Dave just added so much color to this record. We had about 10 days up there. We spent 6 days working out the songs, tracking drums, doing a bunch of overdubs. I did about 4 days finishing up the vocals and my own overdubs. And then I had 6 months to tinker with it all.

The next process took a lot of time. I was on tour for half of it. I would be backstage and do some harmony vocals. I recorded my friend Natalia Zuckerman, brought a laptop to her place in New York and recorded harmonies. Did a lot of editing and virtual instruments and other overdubs at home. I got to spend a lot of time adding too many layers.

I really love this album. It was fun to do a record that rather than being strategic, I talked to my label, it was my first real album with them, it was going to be a good idea for me to do an Americana record because that’s the circuit I can tour on. So, of course, I wind up doing this thing which is way stranger and has nothing to do with Americana. I needed to make a record where I didn’t give a shit and I was able to just say “yes” to every idea. I was able to be audacious. For me, I just had a lot of fun. I love big records and it was a really enjoyable process for me to do this and to never go, “Well, I can’t pull this off live so I better not do it.” I think there’s like 43 vocal tracks on “Big Changes.” It’s ridiculous but why the hell not?

It was out of my comfort zone. Even within that, there’s the creation of a palate. Dave was really into this SH101 old Roland mono synth and it has this weird glitchy arpeggiator and then we used some mellotron stuff. So when I was adding stuff in, I really tried to keep a palate of similar tones just so it would sound like an album at the end of the day. Originally I thought it would be two EPs. I was going to call it Loss Leader, ha ha. Have a “Loss” side and a “Leader” side. At the end of the day, it worked as a record. It was a lot of fun to see it come together.

Can you see yourself working with these same guys in the future?

GLEN: I would love to work with Dave and John again, Ji as well. It was a great team. I’ve made a couple albums with John before. We had a project called Remote Tree Children which was very weird, quasi-electronica, ultra-nerd kind of songs. It’s a really fun and silly record that no one has ever heard. We co-wrote and co-produced the Secrets of the New Explorers EP that’s all about privatized space travel so when I’m with him that side of me tends to come out a little more. Dave and I nerd out on a lot of the same music so it was really fun catching each other’s references. I would love to do another record with them.