He's a Webmaster, Art Director, Social Media strategist, and Manufacturer. But his weirdest job of all? Musician.
Best known for his work with the 90s alternative band Toad the Wet Sprocket, Phillips, who has "major fantasies of some job with medical benefits and regular hours" is still cracking away at the job he's most suited for, one that he's been working at for more than twenty-five years: songwriting.
Having sold millions of records, Glen continues to hone his craft. "It’s a real skill to actually get back to remembering why you’re doing what you’re doing and loving it and finding freedom in it," he says.
He's writing and recording new material for a Toad the Wet Sprocket album that should be released at the end of the year, as well as working on songs for an upcoming solo album.
Our conversation with Glen is in two parts. Below is part one. Check back tomorrow (6/15) for part two.
What was the first piece of music you heard that made you want to make music of your own?
When I was really young, I was into the Bee Gees and Earth, Wind & Fire. Big disco bands really did it for me. Horns, strings…the whole deal.
The first stuff that really got under my skin in a different way was Rush and Ozzy Osbourne. I desperately wanted to be Randy Rhodes except I was a terrible guitar player.
There were two bands who really changed everything – The Waterboys and Replacements. I heard “Unsatisfied,” and I wept uncontrollably. I was wondering how you can do that to somebody with a song. Feeling like you’ve just been exposed. Somebody saw inside you and said the things you were thinking. All of a sudden there was this revealing element with music. I had no idea that you can do that. That was the kind of stuff that made me want to write.
Were your first songs like Rush songs, virtuosic, or were they songs that made you weep uncontrollably?
Well, I’ve never been virtuosic. I’m left-handed and play the guitar right-handed. I’ve always been kind of a hack. Since I ruined my left hand, I’ve kind of given up on virtuosic. The early stuff was geeky, a lot more in the Rush realm.
You’ve been writing songs for more than twenty-five years. What was the first song you wrote that you were proud of?
“PS” was probably the first song I wrote that Toad played. I think I was sixteen or seventeen when we did Bread and Circus. I started kind of early.
Does the song still hold up for you?
Oh, they all have major problems. Most of them. Especially the first two Toad albums, Bread and Circus and Pale. I get why people might like those records; they’re really imperfect, raw and real. But nobody really wants to see themselves imperfect, raw and real again at sixteen and seventeen. Lyrically, really embarrassing. I didn’t know who I was. I still don’t know who I am. I just can’t handle looking at them, but I understand why people might find them fascinating.
By Fear your songwriting had really matured.
Definitely. There is a real sweet spot in your early 20s. By my early 20s, I had been on the road, working hard at both my craft and my life. I had a lot of experience for somebody my age. I also had, not a narcissistic ego, but the ego of a twenty-something.
When I’d go home, I’d see my friends and go on long, quiet walks. I didn’t have this feeling like I was wasting my time. There was a lot of time to creatively wander and see where I wanted to land. I felt like that was my only job: Be close to the people I love and write music. So, the 20s were a grand old time.
I was playing in a band in my 20s as well. I never thought about a career just the next song I was going to write. You know?
I am in full recognition of the fact that it’s a dream job with great perks. I get that.
I think it’s an interesting thing for people who haven’t made a living as an artist to really wrap their heads around this: There’s something about having music be the thing you run to. You’ve got your job, your life - everything is always complicated no matter what your job is - and when you can run away to music when you’re thinking, “My god this is just a crap day; all I want to do is go home and pick up the guitar,” but when your crap day involves picking up a guitar, it’s hard to find that place to run to.
If you don’t expect anybody to ever hear a song maybe you live in hopes that some day this will be the song somebody will hear. And that’s kind of a positive energy. But if you’re thinking, “Wow, if nobody listens to this song then how do we buy food? How many days of the year am I going to have to spend on the road to afford to be home with my family?” If you’re thinking in those terms, it gets really hard to write a song. You got to trick yourself out of your head. It’s a different set of problems - obviously an enviable set of problems - but it certainly makes it a whole different practice.
I hadn’t thought about that. So where do you turn after a crap day? Long walks? Books? Movies?
Probably my best outlet is cooking. It’s a thing I can do around the house that’s creative, that’s appreciated. I have a busy mind, so if I’m not doing something I feel that I’m wasting time. Creativity usually comes out of open space. It doesn’t come out of “I have to sit down and write a song today because I have to not because I want to but because I’m supposed to” (laughter).
When you were playing with Toad in your early 20s, was it like "Us against them."
I never had the “Us Against the World” thing. We made the first two [Toad] records on our own. We planned on being done, and I was going to go up to San Francisco.
I had this drama teacher freshman year of high school, and he said, “Well, the reason I’m here is because I love the theater; I never want to leave it as long as I live, but I know I don’t have the ambition or the ego to go out and be an actor and compete in that way.” I was like, “Yes, I get you. I’m going to be a high school teacher.” That was my plan. So, the band was going to break up, and I was going to be a teacher. I knew I didn’t have what it took to compete.
Toad the Wet Sprocket has had such great success.
If you split absolutely everything four ways…you break even. We kept reaching that break-even hump. We did go platinum. We were supposedly the cheapest band on Columbia. We got our first royalty check when we sold a million and a half records.
On the one hand, I can go out and play shows. Enough people know who I am. But I can’t actually afford a manager or assistants or anything like that. It’s the way it is. It’s a really weird job.
There are a ton of musicians in your boat, making a modest living and yet having the opportunity to make music and reach an audience on a smaller scale.
It’s a really interesting era. There are these incredible opportunities. You can write some great songs, like I think “Rise Up” from the W.P.A. record is possibly the best song I’ve ever written. That’s the only relief I’ll get out of it. It’s never going to get covered. It’s never going to get placed. I’m never going to make a dime off of it. It’s just the best song I’ve ever written.
A lot of people have in their minds a very magical equation. Someday somebody is going to discover them, and once they’re discovered everything will be all right. And that happens. There’s Loreena McKennitt. Faith Hill came along and cut eight of her songs. She’s still working and trying to get new cuts, but having eight Faith Hill cuts doesn’t hurt. She’s a friggin’ brilliant songwriter. There are stories like that, but they’re so rare.
I go to a lot of songwriting conferences and there is so much emphasis on making it and when your dream is going to happen. I don’t mean in any way to be a killjoy or take away hope, but the one thing you’re going to have at the end of the day is the pleasure that writing a good song gives you, the one thing you don’t want anybody to be able to mess with. Having ambition and having hopes are great joys in life but be realistic and not think something magical is going to change everything for you. It’s a combination of incredible skill, incredible luck, and incredible amount of work that makes anything happen ever. Between those three there are still no guarantees.
My advice to songwriters is always - no matter what you do - protect the part you love because if you lose that it’s a lot of work to get back (laughter).
A lot of work! That’s if you can get it back. I’m not so sure you can.
Sometimes you get it back. It’s like when you meet the love of your life. It’s a Mack truck. But if you’ve been with each other for twenty years it’s a different kind of love and you live for the moments of clarity. The same thing with writing songs and music.
If you get back there and lose yourself completely in the craft and in the music then you’re still succeeding. It’s the part you don’t want anybody to be able to take away from you.