When Toad the Wet Sprocket recently entered the studio for the first time since they broke up in 1998, the group made progress but no promises. The Santa Barbara, Calif., foursome feels like a band again. The men, in or near their 40s, are recording together and acknowledging a future for the first time in more than a decade. But frontman Glen Phillips warns against any expectations of new material.
"It's a distant possibility, but that's all," Phillips, 39, said in an interview with Boise Weekly. "We're enjoying each other's company and the lack of heaviness and tension. That's a great starting place."
The quartet--comprised of Phillips, co-songwriter and guitarist Todd Nichols, bassist Dean Dinning and drummer Randy Guss--has been recording new versions of Toad hits from the band's '90s heyday for licensing purposes. But no new stuff, at least for now. Saying otherwise would imply a commitment, something Toad has avoided since the band called it quits.
"The breakup had to happen," Dinning said. "It was clear at that time people in the band wanted to go in completely different directions. Half the band wanted to get louder, half the band wanted to get quieter."
Toad had been together since Phillips was 15, when the band was known as Three Young Studs and Glen. Phillips' mother taught chemistry, his father physics, and the guitarist planned to teach high school theater after graduation. But then opportunity knocked. Musician Brad Nack caught the band--then called Toad the Wet Sprocket--at Pat's Grass Shack in nearby Goleta.
"They were super young and already amazing," he remembered. Nack ushered Toad into the studio to record its debut, Bread and Circus. Before long, word of the group's sound spread beyond Santa Barbara, and by 1990, Toad's second album, Pale, had the ear of several major labels, including Columbia Records. This from a band that never sent out a demo tape.
"It went from no one being interested to every company wanting it," said Pale producer Marvin Etzioni, who has since worked with Counting Crows. "It really captured the soulful innocence of a very young band. It was like Polaroid film, like watching the picture come to life. Had they stayed together without breaks and maybe taken more chances, maybe it could have been America's U2."
On the strength of melodic rock gems like "All I Want," "Walk on the Ocean," and "Something's Always Wrong," Toad's next two albums, Fear and Dulcinea, went platinum during a time when grunge ruled rock radio. The band didn't play to pick up chicks; they played for women's rights rallies and at President Bill Clinton's inauguration. Toad had come a long way from their first tour, when "the band didn't want to get out of the van because they were all reading," remembered Nack, Toad's first manager. "So much for trashing hotel rooms."
While Toad's 1997 swan song, Coil, proved to be the band's highest-charting record, it failed to outsell the group's previous albums. Band members clashed over how to proceed, and the following summer they decided to preserve morale and parted ways. During the next decade, Toad sporadically regrouped for a handful of shows, usually as an afterthought--side projects consumed each member, and Phillips toured heavily to support solo records and earn a living for his wife and three daughters.
"Given long enough, all bands become Spinal Tap," Phillips said. "[Toad] got together previous times and there would be managers or agents trying to force us into a corner. And we would get psycho, all of us. Especially me."
But they gave it another try earlier this year, and they've never felt closer. Toad reformed to re-record selections from the band's six-album catalog. With the advent of digital download websites like iTunes, many musicians argue MP3 song and album sales entitle artists to more money. Surviving members of the Allman Brothers are the latest to challenge their record company on such grounds and are suing for a bigger cut of the label's licensing fee. Similarly, roots-rockers Cracker ("Low," "Get Off This") once took on Virgin by recording an independent greatest hits compilation to compete with the label's similar collection.
In the meantime, Dinning and Nichols have frequently traveled to Nashville to write songs with several musicians. One of them was an old friend, Darius Rucker, whose solo career has flourished as a major country artist since his days with Hootie and the Blowfish. Mark Bryan, Hootie's lead guitarist, remembers touring with Toad during the '90s.
"They always take an interesting lyrical approach and write about obscure subject matter that you never expect," Bryan said.
Earlier this month, Phillips wrapped a tour with Works Progress Administration, his Americana project featuring Nickel Creek's Sean and Sara Watkins. Toad's Tuesday, July 27, stop at Knitting Factory will mark 12 years to the day since the band's split. Phillips now admits Toad's recent studio time has helped him reflect on what brought the group together 24 years ago.
"We said, 'Enough with managers and defining what it is we're doing. If we want to play, let's play,'" Dinning added.