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Toad the Wet Sprocket

Toad the Wet Sprocket


September 11 - 4:00 PM @ Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard

Toad the Wet Sprocket

The tale behind Toad the Wet Sprocket’s sparkling New Constellation album, its first set of new material in 16 years, has the elements that have made so many of the band’s songs cherished by fans: It’s a story of embracing the power of love, finding the strength to overcome struggles, renewing the unbreakable bonds of friends and family, striking a balance of romantic ideals and sharp realities, reaching beyond oneself and learning to live in the utter glory of the moment.

“The Moment” is, in fact, the title of the song that all four members of the group — the same quartet that came together as teens at Santa Barbara, California’s San Marcos High School nearly 25 years ago — cite as New Constellation’s keystone.

“It’s about being present,” says singer-songwriter Glen Phillips of the song, a showcase for the thoughtful, aspirational lyrics, vibrant spectrums of guitar-based rock and evanescent three-part harmonies that remain the Toad hallmarks.

Present applies to this album and its evolution in every sense of the word — from the band coalescing with a new sense of purpose to the fans who’ve stuck with them through the off years and went above and beyond supporting the new album via a Kickstarter campaign.

Phillips, guitarist-songwriter Todd Nichols, bassist Dean Dinning and drummer Randy Guss transcended time and tensions to renew, revitalize the Toad magic. The result is true to its beloved past but even more so to the musicians’ collective growth, the course of their lives moving apart and coming back together.

“Glen came in with these lyrics that were exactly saying something I’d been thinking about for all the intervening years since the last album,” says Nichols. “Getting into the present moment and realizing control is an illusion and what good does it do to worry.”

It’s the thread that runs through every aspect of the album, a realization that let the four musicians get back to the core of the band, the spirit they had as teens, to transcend whatever differences may have been.

“For me, whenever we would come back from a break, it was always the first soundcheck that did it,” says Guss. “I count off a song and they all come in and there’s something honest about it.”

The songs on New Constellation tackle those themes of the everyday struggles — and the rewards that come from sticking with them — with the musical and lyrical poetry for which the band is known. “California Wasted” at once embraces and looks beyond the myth. Similarly, the yearning “Is There Anyone Out There?” and even “Life is Beautiful” explore life’s depths and complications, not so much about answers but about ongoing discovery. And new layers of richness come from new ways of working, a fuller sense of collaboration and unity at the core, mining the depth of the varied experiences of each of the four members’ lives in recent years — new understandings leading to new creative freedoms.

“California Wasted” slots into the great tradition of the state’s rock legacy, evoking such spirited leaders as Jackson Browne and the Eagles with its life-perspectives and involving vocal arrangements.

“That was always the goal with that song, to make it a grand, epic California rock song,” says Dinning, who with this and other songs took on a greater role in writing collaborations with Nichols and Phillips than it the past. “And ‘Is Anyone Out There’ started with a piece of music of mine. Glen put some new spins on the themes that go through the album. ‘We build the fences and call them homes,’ about isolation, being in your own head.”

Recognizing that tendency, and overcoming it, was the key to the band’s new life, Phillips says.

“‘The Moment’ is less of a romantic story than it seems, or at least that’s just one aspect,” Phillips says. “It’s about not getting hung up on recrimination and anxiety, and that’s been a big thing for me since the band broke up.”

And present, very much, were the fans who showed overwhelming support, backing the album via a Kickstarter campaign in numbers beyond the band’s wildest imagination.

“Doing the Kickstarter campaign was a really happy kick in the teeth!” Phillips says with a laugh. “It was so surprising to have so many people show up and give a damn and throw in. We were shocked and pleased with the response.”

It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise.

“They’ve been showing up for us consistently, even in the 16 years where we didn’t put out anything new,” says Dinning. “They’d come out and know all the words and sing along and it’s part of their lives."

But they also clearly wanted something new. The Toad members all say that those 16 years were filled with a constant question from fans: When are you going to make a new album?

The band, eventually, started asking themselves the same thing. Increasingly regular concerts had been joyful. And the recording of All You Want, featuring re-records of Toad’s greatest hits — tied to the band reacquiring publishing for its catalog — went very well. So, in secret, with no label, no pressures and expectations other than their own, Toad found itself working on new material.

Each had considerable experiences outside Toad in the intervening years. Phillips had pursued a solo career with some success, as well as such projects as the Mutual Admiration Society and Works Progress Administration collaborations with the alt-bluegrass trio Nickel Creek (including a MAS tour in which they were backed by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and the Attractions drummer Pete Thomas). Nichols and Dinning made two albums as Lapdog (with Guss on board some of the time) and headed to Nashville to hone their songwriting skills with notable local talent. Dinning also took up acting and film scoring. Guss moved to Los Angeles and played with “a bunch of people you’ve never heard of.” It was fun, he says. But it wasn’t Toad, for them or for the fans who only seemed to crave new music more and more as time went by.

Still, the level of support was astonishing. The band launched the Kickstarter campaign with a goal of $50,000 — the cost of the album’s production. The pitch, featuring 10-second clips from each of the album’s 13 songs, went on-line just as the band took the stage for a club show. By the time they could check the status, the numbers were piling up faster than could have been expected. The goal was reached in less than 20 hours, and when all was said and done, Toad’s fans kicked in more than five times the goal — a whopping total of $260,000.

It was emphatic, gratifying validation not just for the new album, but the entire Toad legacy — even more for the rough road taken to get to this point.

When Toad the Wet Sprocket broke up in 1998, it stood as one of the decade’s icons of engagingly thoughtful pop-rock — an achievement for any band, let alone one that took its name from a Monty Python skit. The band recorded its first two albums, 1989’s Bread & Circus and 1990’s Pale, as self-financed projects through its own Abe’s Records label, signing a deal with major Columbia Records before the release of the latter, but only on the condition that it maintained its artistic independence, with no interference from the label. It was a good move for all, as third album Fear, powered by the breakthrough single “All I Want,” reached platinum status, as did the next album, 1994’s Dulcinea, which featured the No. 1 Modern Rock hit “Fall Down.” The four showed steady artistic growth, as did the fifth album, 1997’s Coil. But with mounting pressures from both inside and outside the band, Toad split the next year.

“Right after we broke up I realized it was a mistake and always regretted it,” says Nichols. It’s something he hopes won’t happen again — for his and his long-time friends’ sake, and for the fans.

“I never want to take that away from them again,” he says. “Or from myself.”

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