20 Questions With Glen Phillips

December 17, 2003 No Comments »

Once the lead singer for Toad The Wet Sprocket, Glen Phillips has moved on to a solo career more in step with his family-first lifestyle. His newest release, Live at Largo can be purchased with ease from Amazon. We caught up with Glen before the release of Live, and got some candid answers to our 20 Questions.

1. If the phases of your career were broken down into courses of a meal – appetizer, entrée, dessert, etc. – which course were you eating when you were performing with Toad The Wet Sprocket, and what course are you on now?

I think life is more like a multi-course tasting menu (with accompanying wines) at a highly creative but casual bistro. Toad was an early course, lively but not too filling. Perhaps a ceviche, bright with lime and cucumber, matched by a light, dry white wine. I’m in a couple of courses further now, with medallions of game meat (venison or buffalo, most likely) roasted with rosemary and served in a cabernet reduction. The wine would likely be a Zin, fruity but not too sweet. Many courses to go, still….

2. The band didn’t take off all at once, but rather slowly built an audience on college radio. Did that make it easier to adjust to a recording artist lifestyle?

I’m not sure I’ve adjusted. I still usually feel like an alien. But to answer the question: Yes. The slow build helped us to keep in line what was important and what was not. Also, meeting my (then future) wife at age 18, and having a close community of friends, was the most helpful in that regard. I’ve always had people I can trust around me, and haven’t had to fill up the empty spaces with sycophants.

3. What was the main difference in your life after “All I Want” became successful on mainstream radio?

I couldn’t go out without being looked at, which was disconcerting. Toad wasn’t cool any more, either, because you weren’t allowed to be on the radio back then and maintain credibility (especially if you weren’t heavy and loud – subtlety is not easy to pull off in America). Also – it was easy to make ends meet. And I liked being liked.

4. When Toad broke up, was there a moment when you thought, “Screw this. I think I’ll go be a plumber or teacher or something”?

After Toad, I had a big chip on my shoulder (still there, by the way) to make a name for myself. Quitting isn’t an option. It’s the only thing I can do, really, and people still seem to like the music if they have a chance to hear it. I’ve torn my hair out about how insane the music business has become, but it hasn’t driven me to stop. Yet.

5. Did you feel fear, in December of 2002, when Toad got up onstage in San Francisco to open for the Counting Crows, knowing that fans had been waiting years for a reunion?

Yes, I felt fear, but not about the expectations (aside from the idea that it should be a permanent reunion). I was deeply grateful for the audience. It was amazing to see how much people cared about Toad, and how ready they were to support us again. Unfortunately, most of the reasons we had for breaking up were still there, waiting in the wings and winking at us knowingly while we played. I thought we could overcome them, but it was clear pretty quickly that there wouldn’t be a future without all of us making a Herculean effort.

6. Which of your songs are you secretly yearning to turn into a fully choreographed, synchronized, pyrotechnic spectacle?

“Darkest Hour” [from Live At Largo] is going to be expanded to a medieval-themed musical, about the emergence of reason from the Dark Ages. It will star myself as a Franciscan monk intent on preserving the knowledge of wildcraft during the pogroms against wise women and midwives. Angry Dominicans bring me to trial after I save an accused witch from drowning. I am killed on the wheel, an ordeal which lasts the entire third act, with the inquisitors dancing and nuns spinning wildly in the foreground, their singing barely audible over my agonized screams. For some reason, I’m having trouble finding funding for the production. Genius is never rewarded…

7. What is the biggest difference between touring solo and touring with a group? Are you glad that you were able to experience touring as a group when you were younger and new to the music industry?

The shows are more immediate as a solo performer. There’s a lot more room for subtlety and storytelling, which I enjoy. I also am able to make a living, which would not be possible with a band right now. Touring with bands is incredibly expensive. Touring with a band was wonderful at the beginning, when everyone was excited and full of gratitude. It’s a gift to make music, and it’s amazing how quickly people (myself included) can forget that. I feel I’ve gotten back the joy that Toad had on our earlier tours, and even increased it.

8. From the beginning, you’ve performed songs that dealt with violence against women, and sometimes there was backlash and misunderstanding. How do you handle those situations?

Once again, people don’t deal well with subtlety. “Hold Her Down” was meant to place a listener in the middle of violence, to feel the confusion and anguish. It’s not a pleasant place to be, and some people took it as instruction rather than description. I think we’re used to songs that pander, that reinforce what you already know and make you feel good about yourself. That, or they actually celebrate the worst that humanity has to offer (a disturbing recent development). Basically, if people don’t get it, I can safely assume that they are idiots and I shouldn’t care what they think.

9. You’ve described your solo work as American Intellipop. How would you define that, and whom do you feel are at the forefront of the American Intellipop surge?

There’s some subset of music happening now, and Intellipop is one of the names I’ve heard attached to it. I think there’s a whole genre waiting for a name, and someone just needs to coin it. Intellipop doesn’t quite work. Almost, but not quite. Magazines like Paste are finally noticing these artists and writing about them. They would include Aimee Mann, Neil Finn, Grant Lee Phillips, Rhett Miller, [the late] Elliot Smith, Damien Rice, and so on and so forth. All of these artists make harmonically interesting music with nonstandard lyrical content, but still exist in the realm of pop music. Unfortunately, radio and mainstream press no longer favor these types of artists so it’s hard to find them. There’s no collective presence that makes them easy to locate unless you’re already looking for them. Every once in a while there will be a feeding frenzy or a film that features their music, but aside from that there’s a serious visibility problem.

10. Some songwriters draw upon personal experience, and some draw upon general human experience. Your songs seem intensely personal, but are they, really?

Some are, and some aren’t. There’s a healthy amount of fiction in my writing. Songs can’t answer any questions, really. I think they just allow a few more to be asked. It’s easier to ask those questions if there’s good storytelling, and real life doesn’t always provide the best details and storylines. Also, lots of songs are just emotional gumbo, not really about anything in particular except a set of feelings.

11. At this point in your career you must have written hundreds of songs. What do you do to keep the material fresh? Does it just come naturally, from someplace inside you?

I keep material fresh by leaving it out on the counter in wicker baskets. I’m not really into the airtight containers and refrigeration.

12. Has the inclusion of computers in the songwriting, producing and editing process made you more experimental than when everything had to be done the old-fashioned way?

I don’t use computers in the writing process. I like to walk into the studio with completed songs instead of futzing around to see what happens (most of the time, at least). Computers are like any other tool. Some people use them to innovate, many people copy the innovators, and some people just use the tools as they need them. I’m more in the latter category. I like to experiment more in the physical realm. Also, there are so many ProTools tricks being overused by so many people that I think the best way to make an album that sounds original is to avoid those tricks like the plague. The world does not need another Auto-Tuned, Beat Detectived, loop-based record.

13. You’re not shy about discussing politics at your shows, but do you ever censor things you say to avoid conflict?

I don’t plan what I say, so sometimes I mess up. When I was younger, there would be a lot more “us and them” talk, and I still sometimes speak in a polarizing way. I like to be inclusive, instead of partisan (I’m a Green, so my party is fairly small). At my best, I try to appeal to people’s sense of compassion. Of course, the Bush administration tests the limits of rational behavior. I recently heard the term Kleptocrat applied to the current rulers – people who live by stealing (elections, resources, the infrastructures of other countries). There seems to be no limit to the hubris of this administration. There’s so much work being done in the government and media to polarize people, to make us fight amongst each other so that we won’t question the crimes being committed in our names. I don’t want to further separate people, but it’s not easy in the current environment.

14. What advice did you have for your pals in Nickel Creek, when they were suddenly thrust into the spotlight?

They don’t need my advice. They’ve got their shit together like nobody else.

15. You seem to be a fan of organic collaborations, but would you be open if your record label wanted you to record with another artist in the hopes of producing a hit single?

If I liked the artist, who cares? If I didn’t, I’d have to say no. Luckily, my chances of being groomed for stardom seem slim these days.

16. If you knew that by wearing a small, sparkly, midriff-bearing top you would sell a million more records, would you do it? What if it only got you a thousand more sales?

For a million? Yes, I would. For a thousand, not very likely. I’ve got three kids and a mortgage to support. Once again, I’m not sure that many people would pay extra for my tummy…

17. Of what use is fan feedback to you?

At a creative level, I won’t let it affect the work I do. At an emotional level, it serves to remind me that I’m not just doing an exercise in selfishness. It’s important to me that my music is important to other people, and can make things a little better for someone for a few moments.

18. Do you feel pressure to release more albums? If it doesn’t come from an outside source, do you put pressure on yourself?

I feel a huge desire to put out more albums. I’ve been recording them whenever I can, but I’ve had a serious blockage problem at the release end. It’s hugely frustrating. Hopefully, it will end soon. I like the idea of putting out an album of some kind once a year, and working on growth as an artist instead of trying to nail some kind of hit single. Of course, that hasn’t happened for me yet, and there’s still a lot of pressure for singles, which I do my best to ignore. Toad never got pressured for singles and we seemed to do just fine.

19. You just released a new album, Live From Largo. As an artist, do you hope for commercial or critical success; or, are you happiest when an album satisfies something in you?

As an artist, I just want to make beautiful music. I am trying to write a perfect song, and I’ll spend my life working towards that. It would be nice to be loved by critics, but I’ve lived long enough without that so I can handle not having it. Aside from that, I have to have enough success that I’m not always stressed about making ends meet. It’s been a few years of uphill battles and I wouldn’t mind a few of level ground right now.

20. You are, essentially, a family man first, and a performer second. Have there been people in your life that haven’t understood that priority?

Yes, but I’ve tried to keep them at a distance. It’s hard to keep the balance, especially when I have to be gone so often. I try to surround myself with people who respect my family. Steve, my manager, is in love with my kids, so he’s always in my corner. I decided after Toad only to place myself in situations where there was mutual love and respect. It’s been working well in my home life, and I see no reason why I can’t translate that to the business world.

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