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One-Part Harmony

Glen Phillips Seeks the Right Mix of Musical Styles as a Solo Act After Breakup of Toad the Wet Sprocket

October 14, 1998|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This year has been a difficult time of adjustment for Glen Phillips, who fronted Toad the Wet Sprocket for 12 years. Phillips' father died in January of colon cancer, and escalating tensions within the veteran pop-rock group led to its breakup in July.

During a recent phone interview from his Santa Barbara home, a soft-spoken, reflective Phillips said serious reevaluation has left him anxious yet excited about the challenges he faces as an emerging solo artist.

"After my dad died, I started putting my life in perspective," he said. "I decided that the things that weren't giving me a lot of pleasure probably weren't worth doing.

"Stuff had been brewing in Toad for a long time. [Lead guitarist] Todd [Nichols] was really coming into his own as a songwriter, but we had differing ideas where we wanted the band to go.

"What was cool, though, was instead of ending Toad angry and bitter, we cleared the air. I mean, we had been compromising just to keep the band together, and parting ways was a good thing to finally get done."

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While Nichols and bassist Dean Dinning were recording demos in Vancouver, Phillips began work on a solo debut he plans to release sometime next year. But writing new material proved to be difficult for Phillips, and before long he realized just how alone a fledgling soloist can be.

"It's weird. . . . In a band, everything automatically is taken care of," Phillips, 27, said. "If I write a song and bring it to the band, Dean and [drummer] Randy [Guss] would come up with some great rhythms, and Todd would add these amazing guitar parts. So I didn't even have to think about those details. It's interesting to write a song now and say, 'What do I really want this to sound like, and how I am gonna get there?' "

"It's the old freedom versus responsibility thing. What I'm interested in now is a mix of styles--some quirky folk, more earnest, Toad-like pop . . . even some funky R&B and loops. The trick is figuring out how to make it all come together . . . to sound cohesive. With a band, it was a given. Not so anymore."

Phillips takes a breather from the rigors of writing to join singer-songwriters Pete Droge, Steve Poltz (Rugburns) and John Doe (X) for a monthlong trek of solo-acoustic shows. The tour, which kicked off Tuesday in Solana Beach and stops tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, offers a welcome change of scenery, Phillips said.

"I've been wanting to do something different for a while," Phillips said. "Touring with Toad, everything seemed geared to shutting yourself off. You go from comfortable hotel room to comfortable bus . . . and then you relax backstage after the gig without having to see or talk to anyone. It was all oriented toward solitary comfort, and it became a bit numbing. Sometimes I'd come home from a tour [feeling] just comatose--and I'd much rather be exhausted from overstimulation.

"For this tour, we'll all be traveling together in a van, and as uncomfortable as that can be in comparison, there's a vitality there that I was missing. Being in close quarters with these three songwriters . . . I'm sure we'll hang out some together. I imagine by the time the last week of the tour rolls around, we'll have gotten to know one another pretty well."

(According to Phillips, the tour has been incorrectly publicized as the Frazier Tour, a reference to the popular TV character Frasier Crane, a radio psychiatrist with an ex-wife named Lilith. "That name came out of left field from a premature press release," he said. "It was kind of a cute idea, but having a name linking us to the Lilith Fair is tacky.")

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After years of playing electrified folk-rock, primarily at larger venues, Phillips is looking forward to a more intimate, unplugged setting.

"I felt with Toad, there's a big rock show you're expected to deliver, and I'm more comfortable doing what [confessional singer-songwriter] David Wilcox does . . . just standing there, telling a stupid little story and be vaguely amusing," he said. "That I can do pretty well."

Although Phillips will preview some new songs, he's not turning his back on the Toad the Wet Sprocket catalog, which quietly has sold more than 3 million albums. Some of the Toad material will require tweaking.

"A lot of Toad songs are built around three-part harmonies, like 'Something's Always Wrong' and 'All I Want,' " Phillips said. "Others have two counterparts, and I can only do one of them. So what do you do?"

Referring to the tandem vocals of X's Exene Cervenka (now Cervenkova) and John Doe, he added, "It's like, 'How do you sing an X song with just one singer?' So part of the challenge--and fun--for the four of us is to be more inventive and experimental than maybe we're used to."

Will that include onstage collaborations among the singer-songwriters, who perform separate sets of 45 to 60 minutes?

"That all depends if anyone feels like jumping in," Phillips said. "I'm kind of hoping we do. I think over time some duets or something may unfold, but who really knows? If we end up zoned out with four Walkmans and sullen faces, then I guess we won't."

In any event, Phillips said, he's eager to write a new chapter.

"It's great just being a part of a tour like this," he said. "To be able to say, 'I'm in the mood to do this, and I kinda want to do it this way' . . . and then see it actually happen. Toad was a very slow-moving beast because all the decisions were democratic. Now there's really no limit placed on anything. Sure, it's a little scary, but going solo is very healthy and exciting for me right now."

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* Glen Phillips, John Doe, Pete Droge and Steve Poltz perform solo acoustic sets tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $19.50-$21.50. (949) 496-8930.

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