Learning the Tao of Toad the Wet Sprocket, geek to geek

Crave's Eric Mack has spent a lifetime geeking out over Toad the Wet Sprocket. Here's what it was like for him sitting down with lead singer Glen Phillips to talk about life and the band's new Kickstarter-funded album.

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When your heroes are geeks like Glen Phillips, it can be easy to be a dork. Glen Phillips

Editors' note: This post is a play-by-play behind the scenes of writer Eric Mack's apparent sangfroid. To learn more about the musicians in question, check out the actual interview with Glen Phillips.

TAOS, N.M. -- I don't swoon during my extended conversation with the object of my adolescent admiration -- at least, not until the very end.

Sitting down on the eve of my 35th birthday with Glen Phillips, lead singer of Toad the Wet Sprocket -- best known for a string of alternative rock hits and soundtrack appearances in the 1990s -- I have the benefit of experience conducting these sorts of interviews to help me keep myself together and remain professional.

My goal is to hear about the band's successful Kickstarter for their latest album, "New Constellation," and to get Phillips to talk a bit about his geeky side (read more about that here). But to get there, I need to suppress the urge to geek out on a musician whose work has resonated with me more than any other individual over the past two decades.

So I do not tell him how his approach to songwriting -- taking the raw sadness of the world, mixing it with sincerity, a dash of humor, idealism, and an unapologetically great pop hook to drive it home -- is something I try to emulate in my own writing, whether for Crave or something a little more personal.

Instead I ask my first question, smile, nod, laugh when appropriate. I am such a dork.

Good intentions

I do come close to accidentally geeking out once. Responding to one of my questions about the decision to do a Kickstarter campaign, Phillips remarks, "We're not the coolest band...we're not like the Pixies."

I immediately pose what I earnestly think to be a valid and thought-provoking question: "Why are the Pixies cooler than Toad the Wet Sprocket?"

To be fair to the Pixies, who are also awesome, Phillips is about 8 years older than I am and grew up in the midst of the peak of the iconic band. So I do not tell him that I have owned music by both the Pixies and Phillips for many years now, but I know far fewer Pixies or Frank Black songs by heart.

"Well, that's a weird question," Phillips replies with a befuddled look. "They're the Pixies, man."

I nod and give a smile that breaks into a nervous laugh, smile, nod. I'm such an effing dork. Next question.

Crazy life

I knew a lot about Phillips going into our interview, but also learn quite a bit from our chat. The 1998 breakup of Toad had been harder than I imagined.

I do not tell him that when my college roommate heard the news on CNN before me, he felt compelled to rehearse how he would break the news.

The band hit big when Phillips was barely old enough to drink, and by the time he turned 30 he found himself unable to get a record contract on his own. He touches briefly on his struggles with depression while transitioning from life as a part of the popular culture to a suddenly more obscure independent musician. I ask him how he got through those times.

"Well, in a way I had to, right?"

There it is. Glen Phillips is human.

He tells me that he considered giving up on music during those years but wasn't sure what else he could do with himself. Coincidentally, at the same time near the turn of the century I was drinking away my own depression daily until I met my wife in a tiny Alaskan village.

But I do not tell him that his first solo album played a role in wooing the woman I love and his next album was the soundtrack for my emergence from the emotional and literal darkness of those long Arctic nights. Maybe I should.

Instead I nod, and present what I hope seems like a knowing smile, still feeling dork-tastic.

I will not take these things...

I still can't decide if it is unfair that the majority of the Toad concert that follows our interview consists of songs from the '90s rather than the many great tracks Phillips and his bandmates have written in the past 15 years, including the concept record about privatized space travel, which I do not tell him that I own in duplicate.

Or perhaps it's just incredible to be able to play a song written when George H.W. Bush was president and still delight a crowd.

I decide not to tell him about the time I wrote all the lyrics to Toad's 1994 hit "Something's Always Wrong" on my mirror when I was 15. I thought if I then broke that mirror maybe things would always be right for 7 years. Instead that mirror stayed in my mom's basement until just recently.

I smile again, fumble with my notes for another question...

I ask Toad's frontman to look back on a career that began in the spotlight, transitioned into an underappreciated period of great solo and collaborative works, and has landed now in a fan-funded second coming of sorts. Unlike other artists at similar points in their career who exude concentrated bitterness, Phillips is all gratitude.

"I think I took a lot for granted," he tells me, referring to the deal with Columbia Records that he initially signed as a teenager in the late 1980s.

While I think he's probably being a little hard on himself, I can confirm that the final track on Toad's first hit album from 1991 on Columbia, titled "I Will Not Take These Things For Granted," refers to canyons, flowers,"laughter in the hall," and "music in the park" but contains no lyrical references to "early career record deals with a major label."

So glad I didn't say that out loud in front of him. It feels like 1991 again and I Smell Like Dork Spirit.

Smile, nod, listen.

Spirit of Shackleton

Around this point in the interview, Phillips brings the conversation around to his geekier interests without my prompting, and soon we're having a more relaxed chat about Minecraft and space elevators.

Nod, smile, laugh. Feeling less dorky.

Now, after more than 20 years that included 15 making his own way without Toad and recovering from a severed nerve that hampered his guitar-playing, Phillips tells me he's more fully able to appreciate touring, and each and every member of the band's crew. He says he looks forward to whatever his next project might be, whether it's another independent Toad album or other projects.

Smile, nod... I'm out of questions.

Smile, nod for no reason, deep breath. It's time to drop the curtain and let the geek flag fly.

The Moment

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Phillips signs a piece of Toad history. Neill Hope / Eric Mack / CNET

"I have one last request, and it's a little weird," I warn, before pulling out a drumstick that my longtime friend snatched for me from the stage of Denver's Bluebird Theater when Toad played there in 1997.

"I was there," one of my cameramen pipes up for the first time in the past half hour. Actually, the two cameramen I have with me are my cousin and the same friend that gave me that drumstick 17 years ago.

Phillips graciously signs the stick for me, and I instantly begin considering how best to write about the moment without coming off like a total dork. I still haven't quite figured that last part out, and hopefully, I never will.

You can read the more official interview with Glen Phillips here.

 

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