They chose the name for their band because it sounded funny, and it was meant to be temporary. Now, alternative rock band Toad the Wet Sprocket will be celebrating 30 years as a band at two hometown shows at the Lobero Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 30 and Friday, Jan. 31.
Both shows are nearly sold out, but click here to see if tickets become available.
Toad the Wet Sprocket actually formed more than 30 years ago, in 1986. The band members — singer/songwriter/guitarist Glen Phillips, guitarist/songwriter Todd Nichols, drummer Randy Guss and bassist Dean Dinning — knew one another from San Marcos High School. Phillips was only 15 when the band formed; Nichols and Dinning were 19, and Dinning was 20.
The band had a breakthrough with their third album, “Fear,” released in 1991. This spawned the hits “All I Want” and “Walk on the Ocean,” which still find their way into the rotation on our local radio stations. Later hits included “Fall Down” and “Good Intentions.” The band broke up in 1998, but now has been back together for more than a decade.
Phillips talked to Noozhawk about the band’s history.
• • •
Jeff Moehlis: Can you give a nutshell history of how Toad the Wet Sprocket formed here in Santa Barbara?
Glen Phillips: It was just your typical high school band that started playing at San Marcos. We were in the theater program there, and Todd [Nichols] knew how to play the riffs from the Boston song “More Than a Feeling.” I thought that was pretty cool [laughs], so we just started writing songs together. The next thing, we put out one record in town, recorded another record, and then somehow by accident found ourselves getting a record deal. So it’s all been one big happy accident.
JM: Most high school bands don’t really go anywhere. Why do you think it work out so well for you guys?
GP: I don’t know. That’s a good question [laughs]. I am unsure of the answer. I mean, we believed in working hard, and I think our songs resonated with people. We were doing something that was vulnerable and honest, and aside from that I don’t know.
Maybe because we weren’t trying hard at the other stuff. We were kind of poor marketers, and poor at image creation and thinking about that side of things. So I think maybe our lack of business acumen hurt us, but it may have also helped because I think people felt comfortable with us. We weren’t trying to be something we weren’t.
JM: Can you tell us about what the Santa Barbara music scene was like back in those early days of Toad the Wet Sprocket?
GP: It was pretty cool back then. We mostly played in this place in Goleta called Pat’s Grass Shack. The guy who ran it, Larry [Riley], was kind of a curmudgeon, and he thought that [music publishing companies] ASCAP and BMI were pirates trying to take his hard-earned money. He refused to pay for music licensing, which meant that you could only play originals. So there was this club where you could only play original music, but it wasn’t like he was a major local music fan, it was more that he was just a cheap bastard [laughs]. If you started playing “Happy Birthday” he would shut you down, because that was copyrighted, and he could get fined for it [laughs]. Which also meant that he couldn’t even play the radio. There was no music except for live music.
So it ended up being a great thing, because there were all these bands — The I-Rails, who later turned into Primitive Radio Gods, The Mudheads from Ventura, bands such as The Woodburning Project, who’s actually going to be opening for us at the Lobero, which I’m terribly excited about. There was this great music scene happening in town, and all these bands who were really happy to support each other.
Once again, this was before everybody was looking at their phones, before you could stream stuff, back when there were less channels. You had to get a big box on top of your TV if you wanted more than 13 channels. I think that people did more, and went to see live music more. As kids, you had to come up with something, so there were a lot of bands around, and a lot more support for live music.
And the scene here was really great. It was, like, healthily competitive, if that makes sense. Bands would really support each other, and there were clubs like the Noise Chamber that Matt Ballesteros had — he had a goth band called This Ascension. It was set up like a goth club, but at the same time it was tiny. You could only fit, like, 30 people in there. But the shows there were awesome. The variety of bands was great.
We’d play out at Isla Vista at The Red Barn, which was ostensibly a punk venue. It was owned by the city, and people would rent it out and put on these punk rock shows, where there’d be five bands. And there’d be a pit going and everybody’d be dancing, and then we would get on and everybody would sit cross-legged on the floor, and we would do our mellow, vulnerable thing. And then the next band would come on, and everybody’d get up and start the pit again [laughs]. It was pretty great. We had a number of places to play, and as a teenager it was the best thing to do with all those hours in the day.
JM: My favorite song from Toad the Wet Sprocket is “All I Want.” How did that song come together?
GP: That song was a funny one because we really thought of ourselves as this indie band. We had a chip on our shoulder — we were on a major label, but we weren’t going to sell out. The funny thing is that “Good Intentions,” which was one of our other biggest hits, we didn’t put it on the record because it was too pop. There was a lot of debate about whether “All I Want” should be on the record, because “it’s too candy-coated. We’re more dark” [laughs]. It almost didn’t make it onto the record. Then we ended up putting it in there. We were like, “It’s a mood. It’s good to have one moment where there’s some light coming in.”
Even as a single, it was released I think at least nine months after the record. It was the third or fourth single. So the record was going to be over, and our product manager, Tom Gibson, insisted on the label trying just one more song: “I think something special could happen.” He convinced the label to fund another single, and then we had a career, which is crazy [laughs].
I mean, it’s funny, because in retrospect, the head of the label and everyone like that was saying, “You need to another one like that. Everybody knew that that’s where your hits were. We all knew it from the beginning, as soon as I heard that song.” Uh huh. That’s not the story I remember [laughs]. If you knew that, you would’ve put it out first, and saved yourself a lot of money [laughs].
And the song itself, it is a little melancholy. It’s about feeling good for a moment, and wondering where that goes, and how to hold onto it, and why we forget all the things in life, and how do we get back to them. And that’s pretty universal, right?
Click here for the full interview with Glen Phillips.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his website, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.