Monday, March 8, 2010

Toad the Wet Sprocket interview 2010

A version of my story originally appeared in the North County Times. The band appears at Anthology in San Diego on Wednesday and the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana on Friday.

Whenever a successful band reunites and tours, people want to know whether fresh material is imminent. Pop/rock outfit Toad the Wet Sprocket, which split in 1998 and resumed performances in the mid-2000s, is still pondering that question.

Meanwhile, singer/guitarist Glen Phillips has been busy performing and recording other projects, including two solo efforts, one with Plover and last year’s self-titled album from Works Progress Administration. The latter group features Sean and Sara Watkins (formerly of Carlsbad bluegrass trio Nickel Creek and fellow collaborators in Mutual Admiration Society), among others.

According to bassist Dean Dinning, he and other members of Toad – guitarist Todd Nichols and drummer Randy Guss - are up for modernizing the band’s sound.

“Glen knows the three of us are ready whenever he is, [but] I don’t think any of us want to do something that he’s not fully invested in. We talk about it all the time; it’s not a forbidden subject.”

They wouldn’t rule out a live album, either. “As long as we keep playing, all kinds of things are possible,” said Dinning, from his home in Ventura.

But financing and the fact that “we have a very taper-friendly policy - people come to our shows with good microphones and high quality digital recorders” and post various Toad shows on - would make a standard concert recording less appealing.

Dinning was pleased when Columbia Records decided to put out the fine CD “Welcome Home: Live” in 2004. Recorded at Santa Barbara ’s Arlington Theatre on the “Fear” tour, “it captured the band coming back to our hometown after having our first real taste of national success. If we could do another one at some point, I’d like it to be a ‘Storytellers’ or ‘Austin City Limits’-type thing; maybe like [The Eagles’] ‘Hell Freezes Over.’”

Once Toad began doing its old material onstage again, Dinning came to a realization.

“We had good material that seems to resonate more [now]. I’m so glad that we weren’t writing about things that were too topical or trivial. I can’t imagine being 45 years old and having to play Blink-182 songs. Our material was meaty and had a lot going on. The arrangements are nice and complicated. The songs are always satisfying to play.”

Taking its name from a Monty Python comedy skit, Toad the Wet Sprocket formed in 1986 while members were high school students in Santa Barbara . Three years later, they self-financed debut album “Bread & Circus,” which drew minor airplay on college/modern rock radio. Columbia came calling amid the recording of sophomore disc “Pale” and eventually issued both releases.

Dinning was already well-versed in the music biz because his aunts comprised popular 1940s and ‘50s harmony vocal trio The Dinning Sisters and uncle Mark had a chart topper in 1960 with “Teen Angel.”

Still, “my parents used that as a cautionary tale, saying, ‘you can try, but make sure’ [you have something to fall back on]. All of us in Toad stayed in college up until the day we got a record deal. Nobody quit and said, ‘this is what I’m going to do no matter what.’ We all had a Plan B.”

The quartet hit pay dirt with 1991’s platinum-selling “Fear,” bringing their jangly, R.E.M.-inspired sound to the next level and notching two top 20 pop singles (“All I Want,” “Walk on the Ocean”) at the height of grunge. Dinning believes the disc still stands up today, even though “there may have been some digital reverb overuse back when it was made.

“It was our first time having a real budget and going into a real studio…We had no idea whether the band was going to break through or not. I think we were just swinging for the fences. It really worked. We managed to get great performances and all the sonic fun things we wanted.”

Later, Toad saw 1994’s “Dulcinea” go platinum and B-sides collection “In Light Syrup” reach gold status amid the punk revival. More multi-format radio hits (“Fall Down,” “Something’s Always Wrong,” “Good Intentions,” “Come Down”) followed.

“We were just doing our own thing…All these pop stations were turning into modern rock stations and needed to have something that wouldn’t frighten their listeners away. We were a safe choice and I think that really worked to our advantage. It still does today too. As you get older, the less you want to listen to really heavy stuff. I think your ears are just tired.”

After Toad folded, Dinning and Nichols returned in the band Lapdog, emerging with the album “Near Tonight” in 2000. Dinning left that to do acting, soundtrack and scoring work on several indie films.

Recently, he and Nichols have immersed themselves in Nashville ’s country music scene, pitching songs and collaborating with tunesmiths who have penned hits for Toby Keith, Montgomery Gentry and Blake Shelton (check out their demos at

The guys even reconnected with longtime friend and country sensation Darius Rucker (Toad and Rucker’s Hootie and the Blowfish toured together in the ‘90s) for a writing session.

“I don’t care if it comes out on an outtakes album in five years. Just to have done it was a wonderful thing.”

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