The Band


Any music fan who grew up in the ‘90s, before the rise of streaming platforms, will tell you that when a record store clerk made a music recommendation, you took it seriously. Often well-studied music nerds, these unsung tastemakers had their finger on the pulse of lesser-known, excellent bands. So it speaks volumes that many of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s earliest champions were record store clerks who put the Santa Barbara quartet’s early albums into unsuspecting listeners’ hands, convincing them to overlook their unusual band name and give them a shot, perhaps comparing them to R.E.M.  

And that’s all it took. Lead singer Glen Phillips’ heartfelt, introspective lyrics expressed in his deep, buttery croon backed by the earnest instrumentation, catchy melodies and vocal harmonies of guitarist Todd Nichols, bassist Dean Dinning and drummer Randy Guss had fans hooked from the outset. Toad’s debut album, Bread & Circus, recorded DIY-style in a tract home for a meager $600 and released independently in 1988, was raw and unvarnished, but clearly captured Toad’s magic as a band. The record caught the attention of major label Columbia Records, which re-released it unchanged the following year. Columbia also put out Toad’s acclaimed sophomore album, Pale, which the band recorded in Los Angeles while they were shopping for record labels, in 1990 — also in its original form at the band’s insistence. Although Pale may not have been a huge commercial success, it was a critical one, revered by journalists, with AllMusic recently raving, “Its exquisite songs mope without wallowing… Pale is early Toad at its old-soul peak.”

These four friends who met in a high school theater group were still just kids when they named themselves after a fictional band from a Monty Python skit and recorded Pale. Unbeknownst to many who thought they were fresh-faced and mild-mannered, Toad the Wet Sprocket had a grass roots DIY aesthetic, refusing to be pushed around by their record label and insisting on doing things their own way – an independent spirit they still maintain to this day.

“We were young and it was us against the record company,” Todd recalls of the band’s early days. “We turned down big amounts of money to sign with Columbia so we could have creative control. But we were always fighting them. They wanted us to appear on Dick Clark New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and lip sync, but we didn’t want to do that. We had a bit of a punk-rock ethos.”

This DIY mentality also included ensuring that fans on their mailing list of 70,000 received postcards, Christmas cards, concert info and photos via snail mail, which the band credits with helping cement their loyal fanbase who still come out to their live shows more than 30 years later. “We made that initial connection with those first 70,000 people on our mailing list, and they still come out to our shows today,” Dean says. “It’s like a reunion of sorts. It’s almost like having family in the audience every night.”

This extreme fan loyalty can also be attributed to the fact that Toad the Wet Sprocket make music that comforts, connects and soothes in places you didn’t realize were aching. “When you hear songs about sadness, grief, loss or difficulty, you know that you’re not alone,” Glen says. “The idea of offering hope is important to me. But it’s not a sunny platitude or a guarantee that everything will be okay in the end. A happy song works better when there’s shadow in it. Our older songs, as much as they’re about sadness, they’re always reaching toward the light.”

Toad’s third full-length album, Fear, put them on the mainstream map, catapulting them from alternative college rockers to heavy pop radio rotation, late-night talk show appearances and major tours, sharing the stage with everyone from The Cranberries to Hootie & the Blowfish. Fear went platinum after its 1991 release and spawned hits “All I Want” and “Walk on the Ocean,” both of which made it to the top 20 of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.

And let’s not forget all the quintessential ‘90s shows and movies that featured Toad songs including Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Little Heaven”), Dawson’s Creek (“All I Want” and “Amnesia”), Fear (“Something’s Always Wrong”), I Know What You Did Last Summer (“Hey Bulldog”), Empire Records (“Crazy Life”) and the platinum-selling Friends soundtrack (“Good Intentions”).

What’s more, hot on the heels of Fear’s tremendous success, Toad released Dulcinea in 1994, another album with countless incredible songs, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Dulcinea went on to sell over a million copies and was certified by the RIAA, giving the band its second platinum album in a row. Recorded almost entirely live in a studio in the woods in Marin County in a room lit by hundreds of candles, the album features fan favorites “Fall Down” and “Windmills.”

Several tunes from Dulcinea are still a staple of Toad’s live set, and “Fall Down” was featured on the popular Showtime series Billions in 2023, charting the next week on Shazam.

“I think the enduring appeal of our band is the songs,” Dean says. “Even though we were young when we made those early records, they don’t only speak to youth. As people have grown older, the songs have taken on new meaning in their lives.”

The band took a break in the late ‘90s, due in part to internal squabbling, and the members left to pursue solo projects. They reunited in 2006, maintaining the original lineup for the next 15 years until drummer Randy Guss departed in 2020 due to health concerns. After reuniting, the band released New Constellation in 2013their first new album in 16 years which featured beloved tracks “California Wasted,” “The Moment” and “Enough.” Critics praised it for being an evolution for the band while still maintaining their signature sound and songcraft.

“I’m really grateful that the band has been on an upward trajectory internally,” Glen says. “There’s more joy, purpose and supporting each other instead of in-fighting. We did all the typical band drama but we never tore each other apart publicly so there’s less damage to overcome, and everyone’s been willing to put in the work. It’s good to be in a band that feels happier and healthier.”

Todd agrees. “For Dulcinea’s 30th anniversary, I was going through cassette tapes of our rehearsals and live shows from back then and there’s a tape where we’re all talking over each other, arguing,” Todd recalls. “All four of us wanted to get our opinions in. Now we know when to lay back, let things ride and how to pick our battles.”

Starting Now, released in 2021, was Toad’s first album without Guss. Recorded by sending shared digital files back and forth due to pandemic restrictions, it was a huge departure from the band’s usual approach of tracking songs together in the same room. While they’d prefer not to repeat that formula again, the band was happy with the results, the record was well received and it featured stand-out tracks “Hold On” and “Transient Whales.”

“As an artist, it feels good to know we can still make music that’s resonating,” Glen says. “When we play ‘The Moment’ or ‘Transient Whales’ at our shows now, there’s a huge percentage of the audience who know every word of those songs, too.”

With a remastered “greatest hits” collection, All You Want, released in 2023, and Dulcinea’s 30th anniversary celebration in full swing, Toad will tour with old friends Barenaked Ladies and Gin Blossoms throughout 2024 and are working on material for a new album.

Even with everything that’s changed over the last few decades, one of the band’s main drivers has remained the same since they first started performing together in high school: bringing people together to experience music as a binding force and to help them feel like they belong. “If you’re feeling isolated and you need to gather yourself back to remember how much you love your life, music is your friend,” Glen says. “We want people who come to our shows to feel at home for a while.”

By Brian Koppelman

Time is a world class editor. Something you just know you will never forget is gone, replaced by the new thing you are sure you will always hold onto.

The things that stay lodged in your memory matter. They are significant. They changed you in one way or another. Enough so that they were selected as the keepers.

For me, one of those keepers is a concert— no, concert is way too big a word— is a performance by Toad The Wet Sprocket in Los Angeles, California, in 1990.

A friend kind of dragged me to this small bar where we were to see the latest hyped up indie combo try to impress the music industry crowd.

On the way there, my friend and I popped the band’s first, self-recorded, self-financed album into the cassette player. It was more a long form demo than a proper album (at that time, I think maybe 600 of them were pressed and recorded to tape).

As soon as the music started, we stopped talking. That was unusual. Record biz guys, which we were at the time, were way too cool to let something like a band’s tape stop them from regaling each other with stories of conquests professional and personal.

Yet there was an urgency to this music. A confident, laid back urgency, that demanded attention. I rewound Way Away two or three times to try and get the words. And also to decide if this was merely another competent Athens influenced combo or a band singing and playing something that mattered to them.

Before I made up my mind, we were at the gig wearing the stock record biz dude implacable expressions on our faces.

Then the band came out on stage. And I saw they were kids. I was only 22 at the time. They were even younger than me. And the lead singer seemed so uncertain about performing for this audience, that he began hugging himself as he started to sing.

I was transfixed. The singer, Glen Phillips, might have been of two minds about selling himself to the highest industry bidder, but he was clearly of singular purpose in the putting across of the songs.

As I watched him, and the band behind him of Todd Nichols, Dean Dinning and former drummer Randy Guss, I knew I was seeing something rare: the real thing.

The songs were great. The playing was great. And Glen sang with the clarity and style of someone who’d been at it for decades though he was only seventeen. But it wasn’t the individuals that convinced me. It was the collective spirit of what was going on. These guys vibed off each other.

At the time, I had no idea they’d met in high school in Santa Barbara. Or that the band had started as half hobby/half something to do. Or that they had already recorded a second album, Pale, that represented the kind of artistic leap it usually takes bands four albums to make.

But I could see that this was a real band. And that they were truly alive as they were up there doing it for us.

Over the next two weeks, I replayed that performance in my mind hundreds of times, especially the way Glen seemed to warm to his task, to trust the audience, to open himself up to us, invite us in, eventually getting us to sing along to songs we had never heard before.

And then I started driving to Santa Barbara to see them play, spend time with them, talk to them about their future.

Which is all to say, I have had a very good perch from which to watch Toad The Wet Sprocket over these past 30 plus years.

After all this time, it still blows my mind that they are this good. And that they are this underrated. Yes, they have a loyal fanbase that comes out to see them year after year. And yes, they have millions of streams on all the services.

But the sheer quality of the music they have made seems to sometimes get lost in the era they came from, the name they gave themselves, their own refusal to compromise their integrity for wider acclaim.

Here’s something fascinating about Toad: they have never made a bad album. Never even made a mediocre album. When they go into the studio, they go in with great songs, and they don’t stop until they nail ‘em.

On this, their newest album, that tradition continues. Song after song hits with power and melodic precision. And once again, Glen opens himself up and invites us in to see the world as he does, with love, hope, communion, despite eyes that miss nothing of its darkness, loneliness and despair.

It’s easier, as we get older, to not allow ourselves to really feel anything. To kind of half-listen, half-engage, so as not to get stirred up. I urge you not to do this with Starting Now. Or with Toad in general.

This is a band still committed to music, each other, and us. And in a world that seems to want to divide and conquer, it’s more important than ever to lend them an ear and to try to sing along.

Today, I posted a list of my favorite Toad songs on Twitter. And I was immediately besieged by rival lists, by additions to mine, by friends and strangers who were thrilled to get to talk about Toad again.

Time is a world class editor. There are whole months in 1990 that are gone for me forever. But that one night— the night I first saw Toad the Wet Sprocket, that night will stay with me until I am no more.

If I close my eyes right now, I’m there, with Todd and Dean singing harmony and playing their guts out, and Glen holding onto himself, his eyes closed too, as he screams out the words to Know Me. And the best news is, you have the chance to make a memory like this with Toad, too. Just put on Starting Now, or buy a ticket to one of the shows, and listen.

– Brian Koppelman, filmmaker, screenwriter, co-Creator/showrunner of Billions.

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