Toad the Wet Sprocket hadn't put out an album of new material in 16 years — until October 15th, 2013. That's when the band released New Constellation, on their own label, Abe's Records. It was crowd-funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The band had hoped to raise $50,000 over the span of a couple of months. The goal was hit within 20 hours.
"In the past, on the day your record came out you would be deeply in debt to a record company and you would just have your fingers crossed," says singer/guitarist Glen Phillips. "It was this gigantic gamble. At this point, the amazing thing about putting the record out is that we're in the black already, and we own it. That means if it does well, wonderful, and if it does OK, then it's alright, 'cause we're not in the hole. It's a really great way to get the record out there and make sure that the people who care the most get it first."
By the time the Kickstarter campaign had ended, the fan-sourced cash reserve amounted to $264,762, more than five times what they'd asked for. Toad's fan base is fiercely loyal and when it came time to put up or shut up, they overwhelmingly proved their support, monetarily. They'd been waiting 16 years for the album, and didn't want to risk losing the opportunity to hear their heroes creating something new. The band had broken up in 1998 due to creative differences and had a brief reunion in 2002-03, but old tensions had proved enduring... for a while at least. By 2006 the band was back in action, albeit in a lower capacity.
"At some point we were playing shows and were starting to have more fun again," Phillips says. "It just kind of grew naturally into wanting to have some new songs to play. I had a lot of solo records, and our other guitarist had a band on the side, but when we would get back to Toad all the songs were 15 years old. Since it was working better and we were having more fun together, it seemed like a good idea to add some new material... It's not easy out there as a musician. This was the first band any of us had had. We got signed when I was 18 years old, and none of us really expected that's how our lives would go, and I think we all took it for granted in a pretty profound way, because it was all we knew. For all of us, having had a few years to look at it, we realized we weren't entitled to anything that happened. And we learned to really be honestly grateful for it. And I think once we started being more interested in being grateful than we were about internal status among the four of us or who got credit for what... it's like whatever old squabbles we may have had, they really pale in comparison to how lucky we are to get to do this at all."
In 2011 the band went and did what many former major-label-signed groups have toyed with the idea of doing: They re-recorded their hits and released them as an album called All You Want, reclaiming the publishing and licensing rights to the songs that Columbia Records still owns the original versions of. It wasn't done out of spite or resentment, though. Phillips is very grateful for having had Columbia behind his band in the '90s, and he acknowledges that they wouldn't be able to raise money through a Kickstarter campaign today without having had that powerful support back then.
"But we're also not on their radar — we're not at the top of Columbia's list," he says. "The thing is, if somebody wants to use a song for a TV show or whatever, it's harder if you go through a major label. It takes a lot longer, it costs a lot more, you may or may not get a call back. If somebody wants to use a song and they call us directly, we can just say 'yes' now, and we don't have to go through the Sony Music legal department. It means we'll get more placements."
The unique thing about Toad the Wet Sprocket's core fan base is its extreme passion and loyalty. Most bands with cult followings work beyond the walls of the system and attract fans that adore them for their outsider statuses. But Toad was on one of the biggest labels there ever was. They had multiple radio hits, like "Walk on the Ocean," "All Fall Down," Something's Always Wrong" and "All I Want." They were huge. What gives?
"I think it's because we're nerds," says Phillips. "I mean, at the time we came out we were really bad at being rock stars. We weren't very cool. We stole our name from Monty Python for Chrissake... We got played on the radio, and we were dorks — and it was before it was OK to be a dork. It was before Apple took over the world, it was before the dot-com boom. When we grew up, you still got your ass kicked for being a dork, and now it's cool. Now it's OK to be good at math, and it's OK to like science, and it's OK to be into 'Doctor Who' and 'The Prisoner.' Nobody else was doing what we were doing. I think for people who resonated with it, I think it meant a lot to them that there was some band on the radio that was fucked up in the same way they were."
Toad the Wet Sprocket
Sat., Nov. 2, 8 p.m. Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 East Ridge Rd., Ridgefield. (203) 438-5795. $47.50. ridgefieldplayhouse.org