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Glen Phillips
By Brian Smith 
 
Glen Phillps was lead singer and songwriter of toad the wet sprocket, a group that is credited with influencing the sound of many Christian artists including Jars of Clay, Nickel Creek, Caedmon's Call, The Elms, The Waiting, Five O'Clock People, and Derek Webb.
 
An upcoming album with Nickel Creek, entitled Mutual Admiration Society, will be released in July. Heís also the only singer to ever collaborate with Kings X. 
 
On the eve of his reappearance into public life Brian Smith interviewed Phillips who was transparently honest about the music industry, especially the Christian music industry, and the attractiveness of his moralistic outlook on life.
 
Brian Smith described him as someone who is able to discuss his opinions without becoming overbearing. ďHe is engaging, witty, charming, silly, and at times, philosophical.Ē 
 
On Christianity and spirituality:
Smith: There are lots of Christian bands that have listed toad the wet sprocket as one of their biggest musical influences. Is that based upon the popularity of the band, or a spiritual connection, or something else entirely?
 
Glen Phillips: I think not the popularity, but there is a spiritual bent to a lot of the lyrics. Iím not a Christian, but Iím pretty intensely moral, and think a lot about similar subjects, and thatís the territory of all religions
 
Christian bands who manage to be Christian by faith and not directly by lyric where you can write songs about your place in the world--Switchfoot is a great example. You could be Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, anything, if youíre thinking about your life and how you want to be compassionate, giving, moral, good in the face of whatís around you. Thatís universal stuff. Often, many who are religious are thinking along those lines very actively. But, they have a working vocabulary for it through their religion--their religion informs that search and so(sighs).
 
Smith: That type of band, Switchfoot, among others, is usually about three steps above the ďthis could be about Jesus, or my girlfriendĒ approach from the groups that are out there making money without actually saying anything at all.
 
Phillips: Well, thereís not saying anything at all, and then thereís being very direct and very overtly religious and saying even less. If God is in heaven and looking at the state of faith-based music right now (grimaces). Go back to Bach, and I picture God being very pleased. 
 
I mean, you can write about it, once again, just as you can be intensely religious, and you can use your religion to inform a sense of superiority, and a sense of judgment, and a sense of entitlement, and you can just use your religion. Or you can be like Nickel Creek, and use it to affirm your intelligence, your spirituality, your compassion, and your morality.
 
Smith: And then you can actually live out the things you profess, which is when itís real.
 
Phillips: As a non-religious person, I donít know if I see a link between those who practice a particular religion and how they actually act. I see people who are able to take all of that and use it to affirm who they already are, or donít care to affirm who they are. 
 
Itís just an interesting thing. Most intensely religious people I know go through this at some point; a sense of seeing so many hypocrites around them that they want to throw out God altogether, because God has been so narrowly defined in a way that allows unkind, unthinking people to be saved and to be OK, and to be on top of the game, while allowing compassionate, kind-hearted people to be left in dust or burning in hell for eternity.
 
I understand there are many levels of faith and beliefs that are that stringent to some degree, but as many people get older, the question of why that occurs becomes more important, and I see people straining: Is it real? Is any of this real? as they see so much hypocrisy around them. 
 
When I was younger, I used to love reading religious history. I used to read Irene Pagelís Gnostic histories. I like the Apocrypha, because Iím very curious as to how these books have all been selected over a period of time. You have all of this work that was in the popular canon, and somehow became whittled down. Was that Godís hand leading the whittling, or manís hand? Thatís a good question.
 
Where I was heading with all of that when I was young and aggressively agnostic and atheistic, I would probably say yeah, itís all a crock. Itís mind control and political games and now I find myself lobbying very hard for people to keep their faith as long as it affirms them and their questions and their attraction to love is so strong that theyíre raising these questions. There are C.S Lewis types and people who are constantly questioning and constantly seeking within that faith and it can be [about] to break because so much can be dogmatic. You can get raised in a sect that is exceptionally dogmatic and it no longer works for you and then how do you keep God while throwing out that one bit of ultra-dogmatic belief?
 
You can go into Islam, some of the most incredible poetry even written, some of the most beautiful, spiritual, wonderful art theyíve created. And you know most people these days are talking about Islam: Yeah, they tell their people to go and kill and thatís why were having all of these problems. 
 
And Iím thinking, Crusades? Any hands go up for the memory of the Crusades? Manifest destiny? Letís be consistent here. Look at it all in a broad historical sense and you will find in the name of religion great feats of love and great feats of hate, and no one has exclusive territory.
 
If anything, one of the things about not having a practice [of religion], and I think of it less as religion and more of a spiritual practice, is meditation, and Buddhism. When Iíve meditated, Iíve been a lot kinder. Iíve been almost as kind to myself as to other people. Almost. I like to give other people a lot of slack. I donít give myself any. Its amazing that after a week of intense meditation I find myself going [to myself] you SOB, you bastard, I hate you, thoughts that I would otherwise find amusing and just let them pass and move on its a great thing to achieve. And not having that context confession is a beautiful thing, just as a ritual of absolution. Itís an amazingly powerful thing to have to go through. Not having a religious context in which to post these things, itís odd to try to do so. Thereís the California hodgepodge of all religions thrown together that I find myself in. Itís interesting to try to create a context that provides for all of those needs.
 
On Music :
Smith: Who are you listening to these days?
 
Phillips: Keiko. Los Lobos. Dire Straits. P.J. Harvey. Joni Mitchell. Digital Underground. Stevie Wonder. Sly and the Family Stone.
 
I love Sex Packets. Some Zappa. Policesome Patti Smyth, Pretenders. Good mix tape. It was like a five hour drive, with me playing DJ on the Ipod. Oh, and the Chris Rock live album, but thatís comedy relief.
 
Writing, reading, acting:
Smith: We got off a little on the religious tangent. Iíve noticed a lot of those themes running through your songs on occasion. A lot of your songs seem at times like a three minute movie scene. Have you considered movies in regard to what the songs convey?
 
Phillips: Acting is what I was going to go to college for, but I never made it. I did two years at UC-Santa Barbara and did music there. Theater was everything, so I figured Iíd end up being a high school theater teacher, and English, possibly sociology, but that never happened. Theater, acting--I always wanted to do, but its kind of embarrassing being the singer that wants to be an actor. Itís not very typical.
 
Smith: I guess that depends on what direction it takes.
 
GP: ĎIll probably find a director and end up in something someday, I hope. I love acting. Writing is weird. I think a lot of doing what is artistic is when youíre unblocked. As a songwriter, itís a matter of tricking myself into not over-thinking everything. Having situations where I am unconcerned enough that I can get out of the way and let things happen. Whenever Iíve tried to start writing, Iíve had stories, a lot of screenplay ideas, a whole file of them. But I canít start writing because itís like thereís no point if they never get made, and I donít really know what Iím doing. Iíve co-written a couple with a friend of mine, but never by myself. I wrote a musical, and another film that was really kind of out there, but then I saw Adaptation and about fifteen minutes into, I realized our film would never get made, because our pitch would be its a lot like Adaptation, a film within a film.
 
Writing is really intimidating. When I write music, I donít think, ďI donít have a right to do this,Ē meaning that sometimes I get very frustrated, but I donít sit there thinking, ďBjork is better than me. This is useless. Iíll never be Thom Yorke. Iíll never be Bob Dylan. This is an exercise in futility.Ē I donít get that feeling, except in tiny doses. I feel like I have a right to make music. I can add something thatís good, that is useful for people. It's OK to try to express myself that way.
 
When I do short stories, immediately, thereís this inner voice, ďWho do you think you are, you idiot? Youíre not Salmon Rushdie.Ē The bar is too high.
 
Smith: What are your influences? Inspirations?
 
Phillips: Good company is inspiring. The thing I miss the most about being in toad is having someone to report to. Having to practice, and knowing that Iím supposed to have something new; I had someone waiting there, a constant need for new material. When itís just me, I really let it slide. I donít have that final kick to get it done. I have thirty songs that havenít been released on record. Any time I have to get things together, I can. 
 
Company is being around people who inspire me and challenge me. When I was on the road with Nickel Creek, I wrote a ton. We had the game. I kept writing after that for a Write Club in Santa Barbara, a song per week.
 
Itís a matter of practice. I've gotten away from it. It doesnít matter if the record ever comes out. I love doing it.
 
Favorites:

Smith: Favorite book?
 
Phillips: So many. Currently reading Russo, re-reading Hitchhikers Guide
 
Smith: Movies? 
 
Phillips: Kaufman; Adaptation, Big John Malkovich. Older, dialogue-driven movies like The Philadelphia Story. P.T. Anderson; I loved Magnolia
 
On being Indie: 

Phillips: Thereís this genre-less clump of artists that needs a label: Grant Lee Phillips, Aimee Mann, Jon Brion, Neil Finn, Gus Black, me, Lisa Germano, Ben Folds, other writers, it's not rock. Thereís no name for it. I think people just find it. Paste Magazine pulls in a lot of this stuff, No Depression did for awhile. They just started writing about Finn and Grant Lee in the absence of everything else. 
 
Weíre not in the folk scene, per se. I think itís a fascinating question of who will coin the phrase that allows people that like this kind of music to find it. Thereís no shortage of great music, or those that want to find it. People are hungry for it, thatís why when something authentic breaks through, and people are allowed to hear it, itís fantastic. If Norah Jones, or Jack Johnson, or someone that doesnít sound like anyone else get played--wow.
 
On todayís music/current career: 

Phillips: One of the reasons I left toad; I get so excited about music. I saw Ani DiFranco at this big event with Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits, Eddie Vedder, and Michelle Shocked; it was ridiculous, it was so good. And Ani comes bounding out on stage, screaming, ďI love my job! I love my job! I LOVE MY JOB!Ē 
 
I just had these two days where I was sitting in the hall listening to Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and Nickel Creek doing ďGirls Just Want to Have Fun,Ē just jamming between sets, and Iím thinking Iím laying down a harmony on top of Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings, and Chris Thile, which are people I worship, and Iím standing there hearing them, which is a gift I cannot imagine. And I feel like I love my job now.
 
More on the industry: 
 
Phillips: I think of the music industry as this guy in Vegas, whoís been at the same slot machine, pulling that crank over and over. Heís so far behind, he's lost his wife, heís lost his house, heís lost his family to this machine, and heís going out and borrowing $20,000 from a loan shark who's eventually going to take his kneecaps off, because heís sure that this machine is going to eventually pay off. Theyíre playing a losing game, thatís a high stakes, unwinnable game. They spend so much money on things that they think might be a huge flash in the pan, thatíll be a one hit wonder at best, and 90% of that stuff never gets heard, and doesnít really need to be.
 
Did you read Moneyball? Iím astounded at how close baseball is to the music business where they were hiring a pitcher not because he has good stuff, but because he looks like a natural-born pitcher. Babe Ruth wouldnít get signed today.
 
And itís exactly the same in music. Why do people not have access to art that works? You get in front of an audience, and you can bring a room full of people to tears, you can keep them pin-drop silent for two hours and then you get someone who cannot sing in tune without mechanical help but theyíve got that look; they get millions of dollars.
 
Why Wilco is such a great story; you have to pay for placement at Best Buy, and at any major record retailers. You can spend up to half a million dollars to get a song played on the radio, and then you have to sell two million copies. Theyíve allowed these things to grow, and now they break even at best when they sell a million. 
 
On the new record: 

Phillips: John Fields produced. Pete Thomas played drums; heís incredible to work with, inspirational to be around. Steven Miller (Windham Hill) engineered, and essentially volunteered. Jon Brion plays on half of it; Andy Sturmer (Jellyfish) did background vocals. Michael Chavez, Sam Phillips, Sara Watkins, Jim Anton all appear on it.
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
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