We’re going out on a limb and guessing most indie rock bands today have at least one member who’s too young to remember the heyday of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Green Day, Counting Crows and Toad the Wet Sprocket. Now that Sirius XM and terrestrial radio play bands like these all day, every day, they’ve become the younger generation’s “classic rock.” REO Speedwagon Aerosmith Journey Foreigner who?

While you can to some degree blame Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains for vomit-inducing later acts like Creed and Staind—and Green Day for Good Charlotte and Bowling for Soup—you really can’t do the same with Toad. You can hear their influence, sonically, on a lot of the better up-and-coming acoustic pop princesses and princes (or their songwriters). It was Toad’s understated acoustic-meets-electric guitars, dialed-back solos, folk-rock-y aesthetics, crunchie-conscious lyrics and earworm choruses that helped make music listenable. They didn’t have any machine to rage against, which is pretty refreshing when you think about it.

The band was founded in 1986 by four young friends from the Santa Barbara, California area: Glen Phillips (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Todd Nichols (lead guitar, backing vocals), Dean Dinning (bass, backing vocals), and Randy Guss (drums). (The name, incidentally, was drawn from a Monty Python sketch called ‘Rock Notes’ and meant to be temporary. Whoops.) They went on to define the adult-contemporary side of Top 40 music in the ’90s. Some people turn their nose up at that, but Toad’s music has actual depth, unlike a lot of the loud-soft-loud-soft bands of the era. There’s only so many times you can step on a distortion pedal and scream before it gets really, really old.

“It was the first time I broke down in tears in the studio, because I couldn’t make it in tune. Finally, after this day of torture, we took out a tuner and checked the bass, and the bass track was totally out of tune. It was a really painful recording process. And we almost left the song off the album.”

The best evidence of Toad’s influence is the sheer amount of memorable radio songs the band produced throughout the decade, many of which get a lot of play today: ‘Good Intentions,’ ‘Come Down,’ ‘Something’s Always Wrong,’ ‘Walk On the Ocean,’ ‘Fall Down’ and ‘All I Want.’

Since the band’s initial breakup in 1998, lead singer and primary songwriter Phillips has kept up the songwriting tradition. When not home with his wife and three daughters, he has toured as a solo artist, putting out six albums and two EPs, and worked on side projects with friends like Grammy-winning bluegrass outfit Nickel Creek and Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s multi-instrumentalist, Benmont Tench.

Last year, Toad Voltron-ed up again and with the help of a Kickstarter campaign released its first album of new songs in 16 years, New Constellation. You can catch the guys on the road this summer with fellow ’90s alt-rockers Counting Crows and young outfit Daniel and the Lion (among those princes we referred to above). Meantime, Phillips was happy to chat with us about the band’s first and biggest hit…

Let’s jump in the time machine. Before your 1991 album Fear, where was the band in terms of notoriety?
We were considered a college band instead of a pop band. I think the first tour was opening for Debbie Harry [of Blondie], and we were opening for Michael Penn. Just out in a van, playing a ridiculous number of shows for a few years and building up an audience. So I don’t know if we were doing great, but I think we had a solid college-rock following. We grew up listening to Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. It was all that stuff that took some of that energy of punk and that feeling of not being of the mainstream but really bringing melody back in. R.E.M. was the leader, because they were melodic and a little bit arty, but they certainly weren’t mainstream at that point.

What was going on in your life when you were writing the album? Your future wife’s voice is featured on one track, correct?
Laurel did the spoken-word thing on ‘Butterflies.’ We got together three months before I went on the road for the first time, and we’ve been together now 25 years. I think a lot of people go into [the music business] and think it’s going to give them their identity, and I really had my identity at home. A lot of the songs on that record [are] about my friends, my attitude—it’s a little more personally based. I wasn’t all excited about going out and living this great dream I had. It always felt a little like I was just living someone else’s ideal life when I was with the band.

We feel a lot of your songs are about how people in committed relationships love each other. Would you agree?
Yeah, I think so. I was crazily resistant to even the idea of love songs through Fear. I never wanted to write a ‘baby, baby, I love you so much’ kind of song. So there’s a lot of ‘relationship’ songs, more than ‘love’ songs. They’re about how we negotiate our weak points or advocate for each other when it’s difficult or try to remain aware.

We actually had your publicist send us the lyrics to ‘All I Want,’ so we could review them. It’s incredible how many of these online lyrics sites mess up the words to famous songs.
It’s usually the bridge that the Internet gets wrong most of the time. I was the one that went back in and corrected it for you. [You can find Phillips’ corrected lyrics below.]

So when ‘Fear’ broke out with songs like ‘Walk on the Ocean’ and ‘All I Want,’ did it feel like a big step forward for the band, or were you guys already over the crazy crowds and girls?
Well, we didn’t ever really do the girls. Honestly, Todd had a girlfriend and Randy, Dean and I were all with the women we’re still married to. So we have statistically impossible, 100-percent-rated-intact marriages in the band. The strangest thing I would say about getting played on the radio and all the stuff that happened with ‘All I Want’ was, up until that point, there basically wasn’t any reason to want to listen to us except that you liked the music. We weren’t on TV. So people found the music on their own, and if they dug it, they’d come to the show. You’d meet these really interesting people.

And [after ‘All I Want’], you’d finish the show, and there’s a whole bunch of people that want your autograph, and the really interesting people would kind of stand at the back of the crowd and wave sheepishly good night and realize you probably had too much on your plate. It’s different, because people start wanting to talk to you about the fact that you’re on TV and they want to [know] ‘Have you met any famous people?’ At that time I was reading a lot of Elaine Pagels books, and you’d meet people and get into these great discussions about apocrypha or Christian history or politics. And once you’re in that fame mill, it’s really boring.

Even now, I love the people that want to talk after the show, and I love that the band has meant something to them. But it’s really bizarre to have people [say], ‘Man, I saw you in ’97 at this place. Do you remember that? It was an amazing night!’ On one hand, it’s not fair to say, ‘I played a couple thousand shows since then; I really can’t recall that night.’ You gotta respect that it meant something to them and respond with some gratitude. But at the same time, it’s just a different conversation.

toad-the-wet-sprocket-glen-phillipsPhillips in Dallas last year, hitting slightly lower high notes.

Do you remember where you were when you wrote ‘All I Want’?
No, [but] we had one of those Akai cassette 12-track machines with an integrated mixer. We were [at our] demo studio, and I remember we’d gone in and recorded the music and had this melody on the verses which never ended. Dean was like, ‘Can you sing half of that, instead of all of that?’ We had this 12-string [guitar part] on it—I have always been a kind of craft-hack guitarist; I’m left-handed and not that confident. And we couldn’t get anything in tune. The 12-string was near-impossible; everything sounded wrong; we cut the bass, drums, [and] guitar live; and I was trying to do harmonies. It was the first time I broke down in tears in the studio, because I couldn’t make it in tune. It sounded wrong. And it was so hard to sing. Finally, after this day of torture, we took out a tuner and checked the bass, and the bass track was totally out of tune. We’d been trying to build this track over this out-of-tune bass. It was a really painful recording process. And we almost left the song off the album.

That’s interesting. We noticed it’s sort of buried in the track listing, 10th out of 12.
It would’ve been at the top of the record if we thought it was a single. We were an indie band, and felt as [far as] a single goes, it was just way too pop, and we weren’t that band. So the fact that ended up being a single, and ended up being the single, was kind of hilarious.

Let’s talk a bit about the intricacies of the song. It’s anchored by that great Randy Guss drum lick. It’s very Ringo Starr-esque: simple yet memorable.
Yeah. [Beat-boxes] boom chuck boom-boom chuck. He has that ability—in the ‘Ringo style’—to have a simple part that’s got just enough swing and response to the lyric. He is a ‘feel’ drummer. It is pretty iconic.

‘All I Want’ really shows off how high you can take your vocal range. Have you had to drop the song down a few octaves throughout the years, or can you still sing it in the same key?
No, we dropped it. I play most of the old songs a full step down now. Everybody loved the way my voice sounded when it was breaking; right when I was pushing at the very end of my range, people would go, ‘Yeah, it sounds like you’re working really hard!’ And by the end, we played 300 shows for the ‘Fear’ tour, and I basically had to shout my way through every show. I went to a doctor and had massive polyps on my throat, and had to have throat surgery. So, yeah… it wasn’t until the band got back together that I moved all the songs down, and there was some grumbling about it, but now I can sing every night.

You talked about the demos. Where did you guys end up actually recording the song and the album it’s on?
We did it in Reno, Nevada, at a place called Granny’s House. At that time, the guy who owned it was trying to develop Rob and Fab of Milli Vanilli—the post-Milli Vanilli version of themselves. So all these Rob and Fab videotapes and material were around the place. We went there for a month, lived in the studio and worked 14 hours every day. It was amazing. Everybody else was 21, and they’d all go out to the casino, and I’d sit around and watch Rob and Fab interviews.

Throughout ‘All I Want,’ you refer to the air as a person “saying,” “speaking” and “confessing” things. Your parents were scientists. Scientifically speaking, could air be a living thing and communicate with people?
No. [Pauses.] I think I was speaking metaphorically. Although Neil deGrasse Tyson was saying that it’s possible that you could have life forms based on pure energy. So it’s possible that there could be a gestalt consciousness that could be vaporous in nature. But not on this planet. At least not that we’ll communicate with.

In the end, did you get all you wanted out of the song, or are you still seeking a happy conclusion?
Well, [for] any narrative, the ending or happy ending is where you choose to stop telling the story. So, the narrative is still going on. ‘All I Want’ changed my life in a huge way.

OK, last question: If your daughters ever went to a karaoke bar, which Toad the Wet Sprocket song would you want them to choose to sing?
Does it actually have to be a song that would be popular enough to be on [the] karaoke [list]?

Unfortunately, yes.
I would probably say ‘Walk On the Ocean.’ Why not? Any of them would be fine. I should tell you, as far as karaoke goes, I did a very short Japanese solo tour and took my 12-year-old with me. We went out to karaoke twice, and I think one of my favorite moments was singing ‘Paper Planes’ at a karaoke bar with [her].

The M.I.A. song?
Yeah [laughs]. After which I sang ‘Blue Valentine.’ If you’ve ever done karaoke, Tom Waits is a lot of fun.

‘All I Want’ [Official Lyrics]

Nothing’s so loud
As hearing when we lie

The truth is not kind
And you’ve said neither am I

But the air outside so soft is saying everything
Everything

All I want is to feel this way
To be this close, to feel the same
All I want is to feel this way
The evening speaks, I feel it say…

Nothing’s so cold
As closing the heart when all we need
Is to free the soul
But we wouldn’t be that brave I know
And the air outside so soft, confessing everything
Everything

And it won’t matter now
Whatever happens will be
Though the air speaks of all we’ll never be
It won’t trouble me

All I want is to feel this way
To be this close, to feel the same
All I want is to feel this way
The evening speaks, I feel it say…

And it feels so close
Let it take me in
Let it hold me so
I can feel it say…