Glen Phillips has fans that don’t know they are fans. His work with Toad the Wet Sprocket still inspires musicians to pick up instruments and for fans to keep coming back to treasured pieces of their younger lives. Toad’s breakup came in 1998 amid some dissension with the members and rumor has it, their label. Phillips has issued several solo records in the past decade, and has stayed on the road supporting those songs. Starting with Mutual Admiration Society, a bluegrass trio with Sean and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, he began warming up to the idea of the support of others and the rewards of sharing achievement. While he was always have Toad fans that will clamor for his new material, he has chosen not to rest on his laurels, but to keep striving to deepen his relationship with fans through newer avenues and most recently, unexpected musical experimentation.
After helping his daughters with breakfast, he spent a generous half hour talking about his new music, old band and how he feels about the direction the country is headed. Phillips is whole-heartedly honest, serious and intense about the subjects he tackles. There can be no mistake about the side of the proverbial fence he rests upon, and he has obviously given ample time to each thought that accompanies the words that comes out of his mouth.
To be fair, I have been a Phillips disciple since I heard the opening chords of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s debut, “ Bread and Circus”. My brave cocker spaniel and best boy, Sprocket, was named after the band. I offer no defense of my deep affection for Phillips’ work, and never plan to. This love affair continues with the new album by Works Progress Administration. Phillips’ wrote the lion’s share of the material, and believes that it rivals anything Toad ever put out. It does have a busier sound than his previous material, as would any offering from an octet. There is still space to let the music breathe, and the songs are not burdened by the instrumentation. But what do I know? I’m a homer for Team Phillips. The album hits streets on Sept. 15th.
II. The first five songs of the new album, and in fact the lion’s share of the album, seem to be Glen Phillips penned. Was this always a WPA project, or was any of it intended to be a solo record of yours?
GP. I just always write. I knew we had this project coming up, and I was setting aside the songs I felt would be the best suited for it. It wasn’t a certainty that they would make the cut, because the band wasn’t together at that point.
II. Was Luke one of the primary co writers you worked with for this album?
GP. We worked on one together. But there were several combinations for this record. I did about half of it.
II. Who are the core members of WPA?
GP. We had to figure that out after we recorded the record. We just all went to record, and then figured out we would have to figure out how to tour it. There were eight members. It’s one thing when you’re twenty and don’t mind sleeping on floors. It’s another animal when you have a guy who has been touring for thirty years. After having been on in nicer hotel rooms, a sofa isn’t very appealing. It didn’t take long to realize that it would be impossible to tour as an eight piece. We redefined the band as Sean Watkins, Luke Bulla and myself as the core and main songwriters. From there it expands to Sara Watkins, and also includes Greg Leisz and Benmont Tench. We’re going to try to never tour as less than a four piece, hopefully a five piece. The songs are served really well in any configuration, but it sounds best as an eight piece.
II. Have you guys toured at all?
GP. We all played at Telluride, and we’re playing the Strawberry Festival together. There’s a group of west coast dates we’re all going to do. Sometimes it comes down to money, and we don’t have a record label. All of the money for this comes out of our own pockets, and we have to be smart about how to spend it.
II. Let’s discuss the new album. How about “Always Have My Love”?
GP. First off, all of the songs were produced by all of the members. I like to write love songs that are a little more weathered. You stay with a person long enough, and you will play every character in every drama. It’s the idea that you have to take that person as a whole package, and you’re going to disappoint each other and mess up. The point is not if that happens, but if you show up when it happens. It’s more about what happens when you come out the other side of it, and not being perfect , but being honest.
II. How about “Good As Ever”?
GP. That song went through a whole lot of changes. It’s about Heinrich Dreser, a Bayer chemist who invented heroin and died as a heroin addict. He invented heroin as a cure for morphine addiction. I kept rewriting it, and really like the way it turned out.
II. “End This Now” sounds like it might be directed toward a female.
GP. That was more of an effort to write an anti-love song. It was written from the point of view of a person who was really guarded, and not about to open up their heart. It’s about wanting to run away. It takes a lot more strength to just show up, instead of just running away. More and more our culture has embraced running away. I know so many people who have had divorces, and when things got sticky, they decided to end it. Upon looking back, they figured out things weren’t so bad. Now they’re fifty, and realizing that no one really knows them. I got rid of the one person who really gets me. This song encompasses the desire to wreck it all and walk away.
II. Do you think that WPA will continue to put out records?
GP. Yes, we will. We want to carry it on, and we’re excited about writing for the next record. Sean has a bunch of new songs. I’ve been writing in earnest again. It came together in such a natural way that it is going to be interesting to do another record after having defined the band on the road.
II. How did it all come about?
GP. Sean and Sara played with Luke since they were kids. I’ve been hanging out with the Nickel Creek people since 1999. After Mutual Admiration Society was recorded, we hung out with Luke and went played with Grant Lee Buffalo. The other members were loosely affiliated with the Watkins Family Hour, a show that Sean and Sara play at Largo once a week. Pete played with me on one of my solo records. We decided to do it, and booked some studio time and completed the record in five days. Months after having finished, we decided that this thing needs a name.
II. The name sounds like a program from the New Deal.
GP. It was a program from the New Deal. The WPA did art programs, tons of local theater programs, concerts and construction of public buildings. The idea was synergy through worth. The idea was that all of this stuff needs to get done and can be done without a massive profit motive. We’re just better for having it around. That’s why the original WPA was so heavy on the arts, because society needs a way to express itself.
II. How is this experience different from having a huge corporation writing a check instead of you all bearing the financial aspects?
GP. Toad was actually very frugal in our recording. Our first two records were done all at once. The following ones were big records, so you take all this time. A band like WPA is going to be better served by all of us being in the room, and taking on a psychic connection. We did it really quick, and no one is asking what the single is, and nobody is second-guessing who is a musician.
II. When is the album coming out?
GP. It will be in stores on Sep. 15th, and there will be a vinyl version. We have a deal with Disc Makers and RED, and we retain full ownership of the record. It ‘s an era of more modest numbers, but done like this, the artist can actually see the money right away instead of never. The vinyl version will have a booklet with all these remixes of old WPA posters from the 1930s.
II. How will you spend the next six months?
GP. Mostly WPA touring. There will be another solo record as well. It’s a left brain project, it has more in common with MGMT or Flaming Lips than anything I’ve ever done. It’s called Remote Tree Children. It’s me and my friend John sitting in front of computers slicing and dicing, and resampling. There is a disco song about World of Warcraft. I love being in the folk and acoustic world, but I’m also a geek. It has some of my Peter Gabriel and Talk Talk influences in it.
II. That seems really different than what you’ve done in the past.
GP. My Toad songs were really all over the map. We played the way we played, and they all sounded like us. When I started doing solo albums, I realized how much I took for granted how the band took care of that sound automatically. I didn’t take enough time to figure out how I was going to sound as a solo artist. They seemed to lack a center, and I was going in all directions at once. Now I feel like I can define what a song should sound like.
II. Are there any plans for Toad to get together and write and record?
GP. With all the personality difficulties, I think it’s best to leave it where it is. Recording might throw that off. I think that all peaked. We were a good band, we can play those songs and fans can relive those memories. I like the projects I have going on now, I didn’t stop being a good writer when we broke up. As much as I respect the songs and like going out playing them, I don’t think we could top them. If would could ever do a record because we wanted to, and not because it was a good business decision, then maybe we would do it.
II. Was the end of Toad more of a business thing?
GP. No, it was a personality thing. But I don’t dwell on it. I have three bands and a solo career. I’m artistically satisfied. The only reason to do a Toad record is because people would buy a Toad record rather than solo projects because they know the name. Going into a band like WPA, I feel like it’s the best work I’ve ever done. I would hold these songs up against anything I ever wrote with Toad. There would be difficulties in going back, and right now Toad has a balance. We went from some of us not being able to speak, and now we can go out and play twenty shows and get along and have a good time. We can respect what we’ve done, and give the audience what they’re after. That’s as good as I could hope for. I love the music and the people I’m working with, and am happy to let that be in the past.