Toad the Wet Sprocket (Contemporary Musicians)
Image Pop-UpToad the Wet Sprocket
"I'm not deaf but I/Can't hear everything," warns Toad the Wet Sprocket's lead singer-lyricist Glen Phillips in his song "Unquiet." The bandhich supposedly took its name from an obscure Monty Python skit that mocked rock news reportsave "a certain flair for the absurd," according to Josef Wood-ward in Musician. Guitarist Todd Nichols, bassist Dean Dinning, drummer Randy Guss, and Phillips often gloss their traditional rock tunes with equally unusual titles, such as "Sounds Like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," and lyrics that depict barbecues gone bad because of hallucinatory potato salad.
Although their roots are in the eclectic music scene of Santa Barbara, California, Toad found most of their success as a college band. James Hunter of Musician described their music as "a rich autumnal flow of steely strumming" with "variations on 3/4 time, suspended or extended folk chords [and] swirling vocal harmonies" that are "clearer with textures than words." This indirectness has become part of the band's strategy: in a 1989 interview with Rolling Stone, Phillips remarked, "If a song is ambiguous, you can bring out a feeling in somebody else.... They'll get a lot more out of it than if you give them everything."
Yet unlike most alternative bands that shy away from hype and publicity, Toad seems to give everything to their fans, at least materially. In 1994 their free grass-roots mailing list boasted 50,000 names of people who were sent a yearly Christmas card, concert information, and photos. "We made a concerted effort to make sure that everyone who ever came to our gigs got a mail-in card," the band's manager, Chris Blake, told Billboard.
Hopped Onto the Santa Barbara Scene
Although Toad credits the mailing list for their touring success, the list can't be held entirely responsible for their rapid rise in popularity. For example, after being signed by Columbia in 1988, they were paid $25,000 for a music video that originally cost them only $100 to record. "[Toad's] act is unique," commented Steve Tipp, vice-president for alternative music at Columbia, in Billboard. "They're real Santa Barbara kids who stick around for hours after sets just to talk with their fans, and their audience has grown because of this."
Yet however homegrown they may initially seem, the band with the unforgettable name undoubtedly blossomed because of their commercial ventures: appearing on the Tonight Show and Late Night With David Letterman; recording tracks for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer film soundtrack; and releasing four albums on Columbia, one of them, Fear, reaching gold sales status in 1991.
Former schoolmates with no specific musical aspirations in mind, Toad the Wet Sprocket got together to combat boredom and first rehearsed in a storage unit complex 15 miles north of the University of California-Santa Barbara campus. The units were owned by 70-year-old Sid Goren, whom Billboard called "the God-father of the Santa Barbara scene." Goren rented almost entirely to bandsncluding Overdrive and Ugly Kid Joend asked dirt-cheap prices. Santa Barbara has never been known for its music scene; in the 1960s, Strawberry Alarm Clock came out with the pop hit "Incense and Peppermints," but the areanlike Seattle for exampleas yet to earn fame for producing a particular sound.
Leapfrogged to Stardom
Originally calling themselves Three Young Studs and Glenn, Toad began to play for free at a local club called the Shack. "The owner would sometimes give us free beer and peanuts," Randy Guss told Rolling Stone in 1989, "so we played for peanuts because we weren't old enough to drink." Yet when they changed their name to Toad the Wet Sprocket in 1986, they caught the attention of Brad Nack, former lead singer and founder of the early 1980s band and local flop Tan. After catching a Toad gig at the Shack, Nack introduced the band to his former manager, Chris Blake.
Although they had plenty of original material, Toad had never set foot in a recording studio. Nack and Blake agreed to manage the band, and together the six of them produced a recording in a garage studio for $650. In 1988 this recording made its way onto a cassette titled Bread and Circus that was sold at cash registers in local music stores. The cassettes quickly began to sell out, and news of the new band made its way down to Los Angeles, where major labels began to show interest. At Toad shows in early 1988, as many as five record company representatives at a time were in attendance.
The money Toad made selling cassettes was used to finance their next recording, Pale. This second album cost considerably more to record ($6,500) than Bread and Circus, yet when the band finally signed with Columbia, the LPs were licensed for $50,000 each. Toad chose Columbia not because it offered them the most money up front but because the label agreed to re-release Bread and Circus and Pale without any new production. By 1989 the band had developed a following.
Soon after Bread and Circus was nationally distributed, Toad began touring as the opening band for acts like the B-52's, Deborah Harry, and Michael Penn. In the meantime, Brad Nack, who had renewed interest in his formerly defunct band Brad is Sex, relinquished his role as manager to Chris Black so that he could spend more time touring. Over the course of two years, Toad developed a slow but steady cult following, continuing to play what Josef Woodard of Musician called "evocative folk-tinged rock."
Yet in 1992, the unpredictable happened: Toad found itself jumping into the popularity pool with a Top 40 hit titled "All I Want," a song off their third album, Fear, released in 1991. More commonly known for their ironic, bittersweet sound, the band neither planned nor wanted a pop hit. "It's strange to have 'All I Want' be the song because it's kind of a fluke," Glenn Phillips told Musician. "Normally, if anything sounded half that poppy, we wouldn't even finish it." In the interview, other band members stated that the song was almost left off the album 12 times, partly, Phillips added, because it "sounds like a Toyota commercial."
Jumped "Weird Band Name" Hurdle
In 1992, when Toad the Wet Sprocket toured England, the British press picked up on some of the band's own criticism of their new pop sound. Writing for Melody Maker, Peter Paphides quipped that the band had so much jangle that he was "convinced Santa's started his rounds early." In a November issue of the same magazine, review columnist Stephen Trousse called the band "a fifth-form retard Monty Python's obsessive excuse for a name," praising the jangley sound but stating that "sadly, whenever singer Glenn Phillips bleats lines like 'He nudged the moth to make it fly away/But moths are fragile things' it all come crashing back to earth with a pathetic thump. It's a small pleasure," he continued, "rather like watching someone trip over the pavement." And of Toad's onstage persona, Paphides commented that Phillips is a singer who plucked "[rock group] the Waterboys' 'Spirit' from the heavens and smear[ed] it with cat-sick."
In the United States, however, Toad received the opposite response. By 1992 Fear had sold approximately 750,000 copies, and "All I Want," which had climbed to Number 15 on the BillboardHot 100 charts, was followed by another hit at Number 23, "Walk on the Ocean." Columbia originally worried that Fear would fare poorly; the original single, "It's for Me," flopped on modern rock radio. Yet the band continued to sell as many records as they always had, due in part to heavy touring total of 275 dates in support of Fear. Columbia sent "All I Want" to alternative rock, album rock, and Top 40 format radio stations. "Top 40 went bonkers," manager Chris Blake told Billboard, and to the pop market, Toad the Wet Sprocket essentially became a brand new band.
The third single off Fear, "Hold Her Down," created some controversy that ultimately earned the band more fame than negative press. Originally misinterpreted as pro-rape, the song was pulled from alternative radio, creating much discussion. "In the process of the moderate discussion about the song, people got over their problems with the band's name," Blake told Billboard. "They used it enough times so it became acceptable. To a general extent that had been a real hurdle for us."
Although Fear was eventually certified gold, it was the result of three solid months in the studio and exhibited a recording style that, according to Jim Bessman of Billboard, "cut against the essence of a band that had structured a loyal core following on constant touring." While Fear was layered in production, Dulcinea, released in May of 1994, had a more stripped-down quality closer to Toad's live touring sound.
Diarmuid Quinn, West Coast vice-president for marketing at Columbia, told Billboard, Toad "built [themselves up] to where they became a viable radio band by touring incessantly and creating demand." Yet the success of Fear did not seem to change the band's original vision. "If anything," wrote Jim Bessman in Billboard, "Toad the Wet Sprocket's commercial break-through has returned the band to its original ethos: live sound."
Primarily a concept album, Dulcinea dealt primarily with the theme of idealized love. Four songs, "Wood-buring," "Windmills," "Listen," and "Something Always Wrong," allude to the story of fictional character Don Quixote and his somewhat misguided love interest. Phillips related in Billboard that the album stemmed from "kind of a weird year" during which he got married and travelled to India. Because Dulcinea is a concept album, it lacks the slick definition of the singles present on Fear. Although the songs may not be as radio-friendly as those on the band's previous LP, the tracks appeal first and foremost to fans. "Hey, sometimes you get it right. And when you don't, two years down the road, maybe you will," Dean Dinning told Musician in a 1992 interview. "When you're a live band you have a thousand second chances. That's a great luxury."
In the summer of 1994, Toad the Wet Sprocket was on the road again headlining with British alternative rock band the Cranberries and promoting Dulcinea.
Bread and Circus, 1987, reissued, Columbia, 1989.
Pale, 1988, reissued, Columbia, 1990.
Fear, Columbia, 1991.
Dulcinea, Columbia, 1994.
Contributed to Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack, 1992.
Billboard, September 19, 1992; February 13, 1993; April 7, 1990; April 4, 1994.
Melody Maker, October 31, 1992; November 7, 1992.
Metro Times (Detroit), July 27, 1994.
Musician, November 1989; October 1992.
People, February 10, 1992; August 1, 1994.
Rolling Stone, October 5, 1989.