Pop-rock purveyor prefers to be busy, solo or in a group
Riding the train from New Haven, Conn., to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he is going to catch one of his three daughters performing at the annual DUMBO Dance Festival, Glen Phillips reads off his packed schedule for the next few weeks, which includes a mini solo tour stopping in Memphis this weekend and preparations for the long-in-coming new album from his band, Toad the Wet Sprocket.
“I like to work. I’ve got a family to support,” says Phillips of his itinerary. “I like to stay busy. Some people mellow out when they’re not busy, and I get panicky.”
For Phillips, who performs Friday at St. Mary’s Episcopal School’s Buckman Performing & Fine Arts Center, that restlessness has been a defining trait throughout his career. He was just 16 years old when Toad formed in 1986 in his native Santa Barbara, Calif. Three years later, the band made its first album, sparking a run as one of the ’90s most dependable crafters of smart, catchy pop rock. Even while the band was touring and logging hits such as “Fall Down,” “Walk On the Ocean” and “All I Want,” however, Phillips was filling what little free time he had left with side projects like performing with flapping, Flapping, which released the album Montgomery Street in 1996.
After Toad broke up in 1998, Phillips embarked on a solo career that now includes seven studio releases, including 2005’s Winter Pays for Summer and last year’s acoustic collection Coyote Sessions.
But even while doing that — and periodically reuniting with his former bandmates for Toad shows — Phillips was padding his resume with a number of surprising outside collaborations. In 2004, he teamed up with the bluegrass outfit Nickel Creek for the aptly named Mutual Admiration Society.
In 2008, he joined again with Sean Watkins and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek as well as members of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Elvis Costello’s Attractions in the band Works Progress Administration. The same year, he worked with Garrison Starr of Hernando, and her frequent partner, Neilson Hubbard, in the group Plover.
“I like getting to play the role of the lead guy, but I also really like being in the position of serving,” Phillips says of his various side projects, most of which, much to his frustration, have been dormant in recent years.
“Music is best as a team sport,” he said.
“Even a solo show, the audience is a huge part of it. If they’re disengaged, it’s not going to be very good. And if they’re active, it’s going to be great.
“Working with other people is great. Music can be a very egotistical endeavor, and I think having people where it’s your job to make their song as good as you can make it and your job to stay out of the way and to listen, that’s where the best music happens.”
Despite his penchant for collaboration, Phillips’ latest recording, Coyote Sessions, is a starkly solo affair.
The digital-only collection is made up of song scraps left over from various projects over the years, including tunes he helped co-write with Matthew Sweet, Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins for their early-2000s super group the Thorns.
In a deliberate nod to such influential recordings as the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session, the album was cut with a single microphone recording Phillips’ acoustic performance.
“I like capturing something live and not messing with it,” says Phillips. “I wanted to take that to an extreme. That’s how we ended up doing the one-mike record, and we just mixed it with air and physics instead of faders. It was a lot of fun.”
Phillips says the stripped-down affair was also a conscious choice in light of the fact that he was about to go into the studio to make a new Toad the Wet Sprocket record, which he knew was going to be a much more elaborate, produced project.
After years of flirting with reuniting, the band made it official in 2009 and began working on their first new album since 1997’s Coil.
Like a lot of groups with a fan base but no label support, they turned to the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to finance the record.
Setting a goal of $50,000, Phillips was shocked when fans ultimately ended up giving more than $264,000 to produce the project.
When he plays Friday, Phillips says fans can expect to hear some tracks from the new record, titled New Constellation and due out Oct. 15, as well as material from his various side bands and solo albums, including a new one he is prepping for 2014.
“It’ll be a bit of everything,” he says. “Instead of doing a set list, I tend to just write down the names of 30 or 40 songs and just throw them together in whatever way seems right at the time.”
8 p.m. Friday
The Buckman Performing & Fine Arts Center, 60 Perkins Ext. at St. Mary’s Episcopal School.
Tickets: $35, available at the box office and online at buckmanartscenter.com. 901-537-1483.