Provocative Sprocket Toad The Wet Sprocket Jumps At Chance To Spoof Commercialism Of Music Industry And Thumb Nose At Mtv
For its latest MTV video, Toad the Wet Sprocket chose to fight fire with fire.
Irritated by the music channel’s relentless commercialism, this quartet of jangly popsters from Santa Barbara, Calif., went completely over the top when it came time to film a video for “Something’s Wrong Again,” the single from their latest album, “Dulcinea”: They made a video that looks just like a home-shopping channel.
The screen is split. In the upper portion of the screen, the band performs the jaunty “Something’s Wrong Again,” while the numberof-items-sold ticks off in the lower left corner. Items for sale include intangibles: “friends,” “unconditional love,” “selfesteem.”
The video provides a telling slice of Toad the Wet Sprocket: infectious college-rock pop and mildly thought-provoking themes, often delivered with a touch of sarcasm.
The band slowly built an audience with two early releases, both selfproduced on shoestring budgets, and opening slots on tours with the B-52s and Michael Penn.
In 1991, “Fear” spawned national success with two Top 40 singles, including the shimmering “All I Want,” whose wistful quality is echoed in “Something’s Wrong Again.”
“The song itself is actually more centered around blaming your happiness and unhappiness on things that are kind of symptomatic,” says Toad’s singersongwriter Glen Phillips. “‘As soon as I get this new job or guitar, everything’s going to be better,’ instead of dealing with real problems. Putting that in the commercial sense - of trying to sell something - (you’re) not selling an item, you’re selling something that’s intangible. So (in the video) we sell the intangibles themselves. ‘You can get your perfect mate or scapegoat.”’
“Perfect mate” is a relative term, he says.
“I’ve said this in shows, that relationships work not because you’re not screwed up, but because you’re screwed up in ways that don’t bug each other,” he says.
All this talk of the perfect mate seems fitting since Phillips got married last year. He wishes he and his wife weren’t so darned compatible.
“We’ve found that the thing that gets hardest is getting along so well all the time,” he says. “There’s something about making up and having to work through something that does get you closer. Finding noncombative ways of challenging yourself can be difficult. With the pleasant, average day-to-day, you realize passion can be slipping.”
Toad the Wet Sprocket suffers the same plight.
“None of us are tortured artists,” he says. “We started in high school; we’ve played together for nine years. The problem is challenging ourselves. There’s the need for deeper inspiration.”
It seems impossible that anyone could emerge from beautiful, resortlike Santa Barbara with much of an edge. But the university town has created a musical scene, one with a reputation for odd names including Ugly Kid Joe and alternative group Spencer the Gardener. Toad took its name from a Monty Python skit about a fictional rock band that couldn’t play its instruments.
Toad’s members can play, and the band’s fans include Kiss’ Gene Simmons, who invited the quartet to contribute a cut (a country version of “Rock ‘n’ Roll All Nite”) to a Kiss tribute album released earlier this year. But Toad’s press isn’t entirely laudatory. Some critics took them to task for the ambiguous lyrics of “Hold Her Down,” a commentary on violence against women that some misinterpreted as glorifying rape.
Their sound also has come under scrutiny.
“In the national press, we’re either ignorable or insultable,” Phillips says, unperturbed. “I think it was Entertainment Weekly who called us R.E.M.-lite posers. We’ve also been ‘R.E.M. as interpreted by Air Supply.’ That’s definitely our heritage - R.E.M. was one of the first bands that made me realize I could do whatever I wanted to, I didn’t have to be pop or punk. But it’s like R.E.M. took that one slot that was available.”
R.E.M. may have landed the “jangly-pop” slot, but Toad’s members aren’t crying.
“We get played on the radio,” Phillips says. “The way I hope it’ll go is something like (the career of) Tom Petty; he’s my big example these days. He just worked for so many years, that at some point he kind of became undeniable. I like the idea of being around for that long. When a band gets a lot of hype, it usually backfires or fades away. You don’t know what you’re left with. The only reason to like us is our songs, because there’s nothing else there.”
Well, that and the video.
“I think MTV is bad for music as a whole,” he says. “Have you seen any new band these days with an unattractive singer? A band like Blues Traveler can fill any place, but they don’t get played on MTV.”
So of course Phillips shuns the station, right?
“I get sucked into it,” he says. “It’s like eye candy. But it doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”