As a 14-year-old skateboarder in the early ’90s, I was surrounded by a lot of music I didn’t like much. It was loud and angsty. It was grunge, punk, and rap. There wasn’t a whole lot in those sounds that appealed to me.
But thanks to MTV and the radio, I quickly discovered a genre of music I’d many years later proudly refer to as “wuss rock” (I’ll give Alfred Howard credit for being the first person I’ve heard use that term even though I’m kinda sure it was me). I fell deep. I ravenously collected every CD, tape and VHS from bands like The Gin Blossoms, Ben Folds Five, Counting Crows, Better Than Ezra, and Marcy Playground.
But there was one band above all the others that I became completely smitten with. The music was like nothing I’d ever heard. Melodic, peaceful, mature, and pretty. And the lyrics lacked the sort of aggression and ego I was so used to hearing in music at that time. The songs were about the human condition, relationships, and looking within to figure things out. It was music written by sensitive and thoughtful people, and my teenage self ate it up completely. That band was Toad the Wet Sprocket.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of their breakthrough album, Fear, a lush piece of work peppered with accordion and mandolin. To celebrate this anniversary, the band is taking the album on the road for a three-month tour. That tour will bring Toad the Wet Sprocket to San Diego’s Observatory North Park this Saturday, July 9.
In anticipation of that San Diego stop, I was fortunate enough to speak over the phone with bassist Dean Dinning from his Ventura home.
Owl and Bear: Well I wanna say thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I’m super excited. You guys have been my favorite band since I was 12 and I can honestly say you’ll be my favorite band til the day I die.
Dinning: Wow! How did I get lucky enough to talk to you? [laughs]
Owl and Bear: Hey I’m the lucky one! I’m stoked!
Dinning: Well alright. This should be interesting! How did you first hear Toad? I’m going to ask you the questions!
Owl and Bear: The song was “All I Want” and it’s a really lucid memory for me. I was at a toy store buying little green army men and that opening beat and those first lyrics “Nothing so loud as hearing when we lie” caught my ear in a whole new way. It was one of those moments where you kinda get woken up out of your childhood. I remember feeling like I got a little glimpse into what music was going to mean to me and what kind of man I’d become because of it. Since then, Toad has informed the way I view the world and myself more than any other band and I just wanna say thank you so much for being a part of that.
Dinning: Oh man. Wow. Yeah. That’s really awesome! You just summed up the whole reason I do music.
Owl and Bear: Oh good. I’m relieved! Thought I might be fanning out a little too hard there.
Dinning: Oh no not at all. That’s exactly the experience I had when I was younger with music. It’s one of those things that when it happens you just know it. There’s no going back and you can’t live without it. It turns something on inside of you that changes you forever. And to be able to do that for someone else is the greatest privilege that I could possibly imagine.
Music is special in that way. It gets lodged in our brains and attaches itself to our memories. My entire life is marked by different songs along the way. And I think it’s like that for everyone. I mean, everyone remembers the first time they heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “My Generation,” you know? Songs that just seem to cause the world to pick up, spin around, set back down, and move forward in a different direction from that day on. It’s an incredible thing. I’m so glad I was able to be a part of that for you. Thanks for sharing that with me. That’s amazing.
Owl and Bear: Yeah of course!
Dinning: And that it’s that you first heard us at a store. I hear our songs at stores still and it’s always a kick. You know, it’s really important your songs sound good coming from a very small speaker in the ceiling of a drug store.
Owl and Bear: Or crappy speakers on a computer or a cell phone.
Dinning: That too! We actually have to take that into consideration when we’re recording.
Owl and Bear: What band or musician has flipped your world upside down or continues to speak to you over the years?
Dinning: I remember seeing the movie of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees. I wanted to buy the soundtrack, and my next door neighbor who was a year older than me said, “Hold on a minute. You can’t buy that version of the record. You gotta get The Beatles’ version.” And I thought, “The Beatles?” I immediately thought of their pop stuff like “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” And that stuff is great, but I had no idea they played the sort of music I was hearing in that movie. So I went out and got that record, and yeah, that definitely changed everything for me. I mean there’s been a few. Hearing Led Zeppelin for the first time changed my life too.
But as far as my history with me and the band I gotta say the album I spent the most time with in the dark with headphones on was REM’s Murmur. If I could have worn out a CD, that one would have been worn out. It’s completely mesmerizing. It’s got such a dreamy quality to the sound, and you couldn’t always understand what Michael Stipe was saying, but you knew damn well whatever it was was important. Those early REM albums were so poetic.
Owl and Bear: I need to spend some time with them. I feel like Toad and REM inhabit the same sort of space. And speaking of early albums, Toad’s first two albums were really dark. I remember being surprised because I started with Dulcinea and worked back. By the time I got to the first two records, Pale and Bread & Circus, I was shocked at how different those two albums are from the rest. There’s such a desperate and heavy quality to the music which I found a lot of refuge in as a teenager. Was the mood on those albums a reflection of how high school was for you guys?
Dinning: Not exactly. I mean, it was more of a reflection of the music we loved back then. Our two favorite bands were The Cure and The Smiths. They wrote lyrics that were very dark and a lot of times the music was in direct contrast to that. Take a song like “Girlfriend in a Coma” for example, where there’s a humorous edge to it. A lot of our early stuff was like that.
Owl and Bear: Like “Corporal Brown.”
Dinning: Yeah exactly. That was the kind of stuff that really appealed to Glen. That whole first album was basically written by him as a 16-year-old staying up late playing those songs in his room after his parents had gone to sleep. And that feeling of desperation you hear on those albums probably does come from where he was at that time. It’s something we’ve all felt as teenagers or even throughout our lives as adults.
And as far as our second album Pale goes, that record was a little different. We recorded that in downtown Los Angeles on Skid Row so a lot of the somber quality of that was a product of its environment. You’d look out at night and see people warming themselves around trashcan fires. That definitely contributed to the mood. So those two records were a product of the people who were making them for sure, but also products of the environments in which they were made.
Owl and Bear: This is the 25th anniversary of Toad’s third and breakthrough album, Fear. You guys are starting a tour coming up here in July. Will you be playing the album in its entirety?
Dinning: We will be for some of the shows, yeah.
Owl and Bear: What about the San Diego show?
Dinning: That one will not be an album show, no. But even the non-album shows will be very Fear-heavy sets.
Owl and Bear: Ah, well that’s too bad. I was really looking forward to hearing a few tracks on that album you guys don’t normally play live.
Dinning: Which tracks are those?
Owl and Bear: “Pray Your Gods” and “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted.”
Dinning: I can safely say we will be playing at least one of those two.
Owl and Bear: If you see a man crying his eyes out during “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted,” that’s me! [laughs]
Dinning: You’d be surprised from my vantage point up there how many full grown men I see in the audience balling during that one.
Owl and Bear: That makes me feel better about that.
Dinning: Yeah you’ll be in good company.
Owl and Bear: When Toad broke up in ’98, Glen Phillips (lead singer and songwriter) went on to start his solo career, and the rest of you guys formed Lapdog. Was the idea then that you’d all do your own stuff for a while and then get back together eventually, or did it feel like something more permanent?
Dinning: First of all I want to say I think the whole thing was pretty misguided. We needed a break more than we needed to break up. We just needed to get away from the grind and from each other to rethink things. It was overly dramatic but, that said, we did it properly because we were eventually able to get back together.
I never once thought Lapdog could be as big as Toad, but when you’re in the middle of it, and you’re getting offers to go into the studio and record and someone else is paying for it, you kinda just go along with it. But I never really saw Lapdog as being an equal with Toad. It was more that we just had a whole lot of material written for what was going to be the next Toad record. We had all this material that we really loved that we wanted to get out.
Owl and Bear: Oh okay. I didn’t know Toad was working on a new record during the breakup. The last track on Toad’s final album, Coil, is about two estranged entities not giving up hope that they’ll be together again someday. I always thought that the track was last on that album as a way of you guys saying, “Hey this isn’t the end, we’ll be back someday.” I thought you guys knew while recording that it was over.
Dinning: No we didn’t. In fact, that song never got recorded from way back in the Fear days. That last album ended up sounding way too dark. It wasn’t where it needed to be. So we brought back “All Things in Time” and reworked it and put it last because it’s so hopeful. I really wanted that album to end on a hopeful note, and I couldn’t be happier with how it came out.
Owl and Bear: Well I’m happy you did. It’s one of my favorite songs you guys have ever done. It was some sort of synchronicity then, because “All Things in Time” ended up being something I took solace in when you guys broke up. And let me tell you I was devastated when I heard you guys were calling it quits.
Dinning: I apologize for putting you through that. [laughs]
Owl and Bear: You bastard.
But, you guys are back! And congrats on how great the new album New Constellation came out. I love it just as much as any of the stuff you guys put out before, and it’s weird because it’s speaking to me just as much now as your work did 15 years ago, even though my life is completely different now and so are all of yours. It’s pretty astounding to me actually.
Dinning: That’s great to hear and that’s also what we were going for. We wanted to make something that was relevant to who we are now. I always thought it would be hard to be in a band like, say, Blink 182 where your songs are kind of fun, poppy, and rooted in youth. It’s like how do you keep that going as you grow up? I suppose a band like The Beach Boys pull it off, but we wanted to make something that reflects where we are in our lives because our fans tend to be around the same age we are. We wanted to stay true to that.
Owl and Bear: One of my favorite tracks from it, “I’ll Bet on You,” was originally a Lapdog song called “See You Again.” What was it like seeing that song’s lyrics rewritten and its music rerecorded to be a Toad song?
Dinning: It was interesting. It was a song I played for the producer of the new album where he basically said, “Play me everything you have.” That was one of the tracks I played for him and he loved it, but he thought it wasn’t arranged correctly in terms of the song structure. So he asked for a copy of it to cut up and put back together. And that is something [Toad guitarist, Lapdog front man] Todd Nichols has always dreamed of having a producer do. So I said yes, and we loved what he did with it, and then we gave it to Glen to write the lyrics and the rest is history.
Owl and Bear: So after this tour, what’s next for you? I know you do a lot of producing of your own.
Dinning: I’m doing a ton of producing right now. A lot of writing too. I’m also playing bass on some major stuff too. Todd and I have a loose plan to do a Lapdog EP that we’ll record in the winter. But the main thing we have coming out soon is we did a song for a Roger Miller tribute album. His estate is releasing this major two-disc album with all these really great artists on it. People like Willie Nelson, Kacey Musgraves, Dolly Parton, and Brad Paisley are all kind of representing the country side of it but there’s also this alternative presence with Cake and Ben Folds playing songs as well.
Owl and Bear: What, no way? That sounds so rad!
Dinning: It is! I’m really excited to be a part of it. Lapdog does a song called “Nothing Can Stop My Love,” and it’s one of my favorite things we’ve ever done.
Owl and Bear: Oh man I can’t wait to hear it!
Dinning: It’s pretty special. It’s got a spirit to it that’s like nothing else we’ve been a part of.
Owl and Bear: Well Dean, thank you so much for your time and if you’re hanging out after the San Diego show, I’d love to shake your hand and say thanks in person. I’ll be the bald guy with red eyes from crying and a big ole smile on his face. [laughs]
Dinning: Sounds good! I’ll see you there!
Tickets to see Toad the Wet Sprocket (and to see Webb cry) at the Observatory North Park on July 9 can be purchased here.