Positive Vibrations: Toad the Wet Sprocket Sounds Upbeat on First Studio Release in 16 Years

Toad the Wet Sprocket released five albums between 1988 and 1997 and racked up three Top 40 hits in that time. The Santa Barbara band's breakthrough success came along thanks to its third album, 1991's Fear. Driven by heavy radio and MTV airplay for the singles "All I Want" and "Walk on The Ocean," the album eventually went platinum. However, members of the band went their separate ways after touring wrapped up for their fifth album, 1997's Coil: Frontman Glen Phillips pursued a solo career, while guitarist Todd Nichols and bassist Dean Dinning  moved forward with a new project called Lapdog, which eventually also included drummer Randy Guss in its line-up.

However, Toad (as hardcore fans call them) came back together for a series of well-received shows in late 2002 and would continue to play together sporadically for short series of dates over the next decade. As Phillips says during a recent phone conversation from his California home, the reunions would be short-lived; the band would play shows together and then, as he puts it, things "would get weird again and we'd stop." Eventually, the weirdness disappeared, and as Toad became more of a regular concern for all involved, the idea of recording a new album together was "the next logical step." They were writing new songs and playing some of them live and discovered that the fresh material in the set list provided a good spark.

"Whenever we did that, we felt like a band again," he says. "You know, playing a bunch of 20-year-old songs is all well and good, but we're not done as writers and we're not done as musicians. It finally just felt like the next logical maneuver was to give ourselves a bunch of [new] songs to play so we'd have a better time."

The results of their labor — New Constellation — is Toad's first studio album of all-new material in 16 years. The album is a solidly constructed, energetic collection with an emotional depth that sounds current and, at the same time bridges the gap nicely with where they left off with Coil. The ability to road test the material for the record clearly had its benefits when it came to helping to develop the songs prior to recording them, but the band also approached that style of woodshedding with some caution, as many groups do in the YouTube age. As Phillips tells it, a lot of that had to do with wanting to maintain an element of surprise.

"We're in a strange era in that it used to be that you could really test stuff out live, and it wouldn't be everywhere. We wanted to make sure that we were able to work some of these out but also that when you get the record, you would actually get to unwrap a little gift and hear something new," he says with a laugh. "So we kept a fair amount of it under wraps for a while. I think any song that we did tour with benefited greatly from it, but we didn't have that luxury with all of the material. But some stuff is more studio-oriented anyway."

Phillips says that with New Constellation, the band wanted to make an album that would be fun to listen to and "buoyant." With a chuckle, he allows that in the past, the group wrote "simple pop songs" which often had "fairly heavy lyrics." He describes the new album as one that isn't always necessarily void of that previous "darkness," but within the songs, there's a "positivity to them that wasn't necessarily in the old stuff." The springy pop nature of the title track bears that out: Even as Phillips observes things such as the "fractured view through faulty lenses," there's also an upbeat feeling as he pledges to "write your name in a new constellation" and "declare my love to all creation."

This positive outlook certainly didn't come easy, however. The members of Toad had been together since high school, and success came relatively quickly, which Phillips says didn't really allow them the space to properly process how lucky they were at that time. Some dark times during his solo career also helped calibrate his perspective.

"I learned a lot," Phillips says. "I mean, to go from being in a platinum-selling band to selling 500 copies on Bandcamp and not even bothering to press CDs [and then also] going out on the road, booking my travel, doing my tour managing and [maintaining] my [own] website — I was a one-man show for a very long time and it got very, very small. "

One word that frequently comes up in conversation with Phillips is "gratitude." The time the members of Toad spent apart gave them room to appreciate what they had together as a group. Phillips in particular admits he's battled depression over the years, and as he found his way back to the light personally, he would also have an opportunity to return to his former group with a new-found appreciation for what they had accomplished together.

"When I go back out with Toad now and we have a guitar tech, I think I'm the luckiest person on the face of the earth," he says. "I know every job that's getting done, because once again, I haven't done them all well, but I've done them all. The idea that we have an audience waiting for us and that we have a crew [and] like we have a sound guy — it's frickin' amazing. So I can come back to Toad and rather than resent how different it is from how it used to be — and I know I've done that in the past — right now I can be really, really grateful for what it is.