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Loyal fans lend momentum to Toad the Wet Sprocket

It might surprise you to learn that Toad the Wet Sprocket is still making music more than 25 years after they first picked up instruments. But no one is more surprised than the band itself.

If there’s one thing that unites the long career of the California-based group, who had such radio hits with “All I Want,” “Walk on the Ocean” and “Fall Down” in the 1990s, it’s lowered expectations yielding unanticipated results.

The band, whose name is derived from a “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketch, started jamming when they were in high school, learning cover songs in drummer Randy Guss’ basement. Dean Dinning, the group’s bass player, said they weren’t inspired to write their own music until they started playing regularly in a Santa Barbara club.

“You couldn’t play covers because (the owner) didn’t pay his ASCAP or BMI fees,” Dinning said from his home in Ventura, Calif. “So even you started playing ‘Happy Birthday,’ he’d run up to the stage and stop you.”

That limitation forced lead singer Glen Phillips and guitarist Todd Nichols into writing their own tunes, and by the late ’80s, Toad the Wet Sprocket had opened for Blondie’s Deborah Harry and the B-52’s at the height of their popularity. Even then, the band was still sort of a lark.

“I don’t think any of us had that burning need to make it at all costs with the band,” Dinning said. “We always kind of had a backup plan; we were always doing something else.”

The L.A. music scene started to take notice of the group, something Dinning said they weren’t really aware of until more and more people started showing up to see them play. And even though they were signed to Columbia Records in 1990, the band still didn’t consider mainstream success an attainable goal.

“They just weren’t playing stuff like we were doing on the radio,” Dinning said. “We just kept plugging away, and what was popular kind of moved into our neighborhood for a while there.”

Dinning recalls hearing the band’s first self-released cassette played on a local radio station, the analog hiss so intense as to make it almost unlistenable. By 1992, Toad the Wet Sprocket’s sound had become commercially viable, and the group had music videos on MTV’s late night alt-rock showcase “120 Minutes” and two Top 40 singles under their belts.

Following two platinum-selling albums – 1991’s “fear” and 1994’s “Dulcinea” – the group dissolved: Frontman Phillips took off for a solo career, and the rest of the band continued writing and performed as Lapdog.

“We didn’t really need to break up as much as we needed to just take a break,” Dinning said, and in 2002 the original Toad lineup got back together to open for Counting Crows.

This led to more shows and a few small tours. “I remember one time we played in Chicago and expected maybe 1,000 people to show up, and instead there were 4,000 people there,” Dinning said. “And this was eight years after our last album had come out. For some reason, the music has really stuck with people.”

For a band that seemingly stumbled into success (and which hasn’t been on the national radar since the grunge era), Toad the Wet Sprocket still has an avid fan base: When they attempted to raise funds for a new studio album on the crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter, they accrued more than $50,000 in donations in a single day. The result of that funding, an LP titled “New Constellation,” was produced by Mikal Blue (OneRepublic, Colbie Caillat, Jason Mraz) and released independently last October.

Having raised $260,000 in Kickstarter contributions alone – which was, naturally, far more money than the group expected to receive – Toad the Wet Sprocket has been able to create an album, its first since 1997, on its own terms.

“We’ve a got a little family record business,” Dinning said. “While it’s not huge, we’re able to do this and make it work. It’s better than it has been in – gosh, I can’t remember when it’s been as good as it is now.”

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