I’ve been following your career since the early 90s. You’ve collaborated with so many musicians. Who has had a big impact on your songwriting?
I’d say less on my songwriting but more on my attitude about life and playing and music and understanding how much joy and effort people can bring to what they do - Nickel Creek. They have been the most profound influence on me personally. They are so omnivorous musically, so in love with music, and so freakin’ good at it. They are just amazing people.
It was about fifteen years ago when my dad passed away and a friend of mine gave me a copy of Randy Newman’s Sail Away for the song “Old Man.”
He kind of writes songs the way Kurt Vonnegut writes novels. He can be so sarcastic, so sardonic, so topical, and utterly human. He can be ripping humanity apart and at the same time he’s exposing a deep affection for it (laughter). Vonnegut condemns us for WWII and for the Holocaust…he’s looking at history with a deeply humanist point of view and yet he’s still hopeful somehow. Randy Newman kind of does the same thing. They’re deceptively simple songs about really big issues that take really uncomfortable positions and throw you up against yourself. He’s brilliant.
I wonder how many people miss his irony.
Lots (laughter). Most, probably.
Working with Nickel Creek, your friends, is a different kind of experience than working with somebody the record company suggests. What is it like working with Toad the Wet Sprocket?
We’re very different people. We met when we were very young. We went through a lot together. We care for each other, but we’re not people who call each other up and say, “Hey, you want to have dinner?” It never happened. We tried to do that. It never worked. We’d see these other bands bonding and we wanted that. We’d try to go camping and do stuff socially together. It just never worked. We have a great musical collaboration, and we don’t have to cook dinner for each other (laughter).
In contrast with W.P.A., the amount of joy that you can have on stage. I need to give myself room to have that in my life. It’s been a big struggle the last few years, figuring out how to afford those experiences. There is only so much money you can lose on labors of love. I have major fantasies of some job with medical benefits and regular hours, so I’m hungry for music and I can only do labors of love (laughter).
After “All I Want” became such a tremendous hit, did your approach to songwriting change at all?
We were in this era that hated their hits. College music was turning into the mainstream. Radio was really changing. “Losing my Religion” had just happened, and all the hipsters were like, “Don’t take our R.E.M. from us.” R.E.M. used to be an underground band. This was pre-internet. You had to go find these bands. You wanted it to be your secret. It really pissed a lot of people off that R.E.M. started getting played.
We came from that background. We signed on an uncool label. We made a very uncool video that looked way too much like “Losing My Religion” frankly. We were mostly in pain about losing our alternative status. We were getting ripped apart by the critics for having a hit, and we weren’t enjoying it much. We were so obsessed with no longer being cool (laughter). We didn’t feel like we were from the mainstream.
We had a top 40 hit, but hey, I was into Bauhaus and Cocteau Twins, Husker Du and The Replacements. I wasn’t this pop kid. So having a pop hit didn’t really change much. We weren’t trying to have pop hits. We were always more mainstream than we felt.
Part of what made Toad work is that I was really weirder than the world and the kind of music we made. My tastes were always stranger. The pop thing was always really bizarre to me. I always felt like a real outsider. It didn’t change things too much.
As far as advice to hopeful songwriters who are trying to write the next “Somebody That I Used to Know” the only way to write that song is to stop trying to write that song and write something that makes you excited.
Look at Norah Jones. Wonder why she was such a massive hit? Because every other woman was trying to be as edgy and sexy as possible in this really gnarly, I’m tough and I’m brutal, I’m super-sexual but I’m liberated way. But she just made the most beautiful album she could. People were starving for that because everybody else was working on this other thing.
It’s worked the other way. The reason The White Stripes broke so big was because everybody else was so perfect and auto-tuned and trying to be so pop and nice and happy and they were just friggin’ great and edgy. If you’re trying to follow, you’ve already lost. If you want to be a great artist, do something that just gets you off. Period.
And then maybe people will appreciate it...or not.
At least at the end of the day instead of having a bunch of songs written for the template of a hit that has already past you’ll have stuff that you’re going to be really proud of. No matter what. And that’s worth something. It’s worth a lot more than a bunch of should-have-been number one hits that nobody ever heard (laughter).
How’s the writing going for the new Toad album?
It’s been fun. I want to be writing songs that are a little more happy - not even happy - I want to do stuff that reminds me of how good things are, reminds me that there is more to reach for. A little more positive, not quite as bleak…I mean it’s me so it’s not exactly going to be happy (laughter).
Todd and Dean have been working together. They’re bringing in some great music and some really cool phrases to write the lyrics around. I think we’ll get a good record out of it. I really like the songs.
We’ve been giving ourselves a lot of space to take our time as we do this and not pressure ourselves too much because I know if we start to pressure I’ll get all weird.
It’s been good to produce it ourselves. Right now there’s no management, there’s no label, there’s nobody but us. We got two songs done and we’re really happy with them.
The Toad thing is slower and more overdub oriented. We’re handing things back and forth to each other. I need to get into a room with musicians, make a record and mixed the second it’s recorded. I like kind of high-pressure environments like that. That was the great thing about W.P.A. Eight people live. It was an awesome record.
Do you write all the lyrics?
Traditionally, in Toad I wrote all the lyrics. There were a couple of songs, well-known ones, where Todd, who wasn’t a lyric guy, kind of mumbles if he has a melody and occasionally there are words based in it. (Glen mumbles something and then sings, “When will we fall down.”) And the other one was “Something’s Always Wrong.” (Glen mumbles something then sings, “Something has gone wrong.”) And I liked that and changed it to “Something’s always wrong.”
The challenge with Todd’s stuff is that he would usually be singing something that had this internal rhyme scheme but it would be non-words or sometimes half-words and half- mumbles, and I would end up writing lyrics to a rhyme scheme that was defined by babble, which was really hard. His babble always sang perfectly against his melodies. I was really trying to work with the completely appropriate sound of what he would come in with. He would just sing what felt right for the melody and it was up to me to figure a way to get as close to that as I could while having it mean something (laughter).
Writing the lyrics to those songs is like a really weird, hard puzzle. They are so fucking hard to write. When I do my own I can change the melody. I feel more at liberty to make everything work together and keep changing as I go.
Are you working on the follow-up to Mr. Lemons?
Yeah. I had this period where I did Mr. Lemons and there was Unlucky 7, Secrets of the New Explorers, W.P.A. I had a ton of output, but I had no way of getting it to people, so nobody ever heard any of it (laughter).
W.P.A. was the one where I was like, “Okay I’m going to give the next year of my life and everything I got in the bank to it.” Musically and personally and as far as the joy in that band it was the best experience ever. But it was a strange one. It’s weird.
The weird thing about these days is I’m starting from scratch again. I’m really lucky to be able to start from scratch, and if I’m gone half the year I can make a living. But it’s really weird to start again. I got a booking agent and there’s a publicist I hire on occasion, but aside from that I’m everything else. I’m the Webmaster; I do the manufacturing; I’m the art director and I run all the social media and I have one fan, Laura, who does a little data entry for me. I’m starting from scratch again at 41 (laughter). It’s a heavy thing to do every time you do a record.
I hate to say this, but I have to go. I’ve been circling the block for a meeting. We’re taking advantage of the new interest rates and refinancing our house. Is there any closing question?
Yeah, how did the sofa concerts come about?
Evan Lowenstein sat me down one day - we were at a songwriting conference - and he kind of forced me to do one. He was like here, “We hook it up. We turn it on. People show up. We do a concert with fifteen minutes notice and you made twenty bucks sitting in front of a laptop making an ass of yourself.” Oh, I can do that. That’s great.
I love Stageit. It’s a great service, and he’s come up with a really smart system and implemented it pretty well. I think it’s pretty brilliant. It really helps me stay home. It enables me to book a few less shows and to be able to be with my family more, which is pretty phenomenal.