Don Quixote went questing to honor his Dulcinea and wound up covered with bruises and heaped with ridicule and scorn.
The band Toad the Wet Sprocket is about to end a long trek of its own on behalf of “Dulcinea,” the 1994 album it named after the nonexistent lady love of the noble but delusional don. After about 175 concerts over the past year and a half, these four melodic-rock troubadours from Santa Barbara are three concerts away from the end oftheir “Dulcinea” tour. They’ll be one closer after tonight’s show at Irvine Meadows, on a bill topped by the Cranberries.
Unlike Don Quixote, Toad (to simplify one of the more unwieldy handles in pop history) comes to the end of its trail not a beaten laughingstock, but as one of the most successful young bands on the contemporary rock scene.
With “Dulcinea,” Toad has cleared the million-sales mark for the second time in two tries (not counting the two albums it made independently before signing a major contract six years ago with Columbia Records). The band did have to change steeds last week after somebody broke into its touring bus in St. Louis and started a fire in the on-board bathroom, singer Glen Phillips reported in a recent phone interview from a Dallas hotel. Otherwise, the tour has marked another unperturbed phase in the career of a band that has followed a path more moderate than mercurial and likes it that way.
The Cervantes-inspired album title, explained Phillips, Toad’s primary lyricist, “Is like an allegory for faith. I see [the Quixote allusion] as [symbolizing] believing in something and trying to move toward it. Movement is better than sitting around wishing there was something to be excited about.”
Brandishing such traditional pop-rock virtues as Phillips’ sturdy, melodious voice, sharp band harmonies, thoughtful lyrics and a cleanly honed rather than a noise-oriented instrumental sound, Toad has been able to keep its quest moving. If anything, Phillips said, the band has moved too much.
After the “Dulcinea” tour--and the even longer, 283-show trek that supported the band’s 1991 breakthrough release, “Fear"--Phillips said, “we feel very justified if we scale down the tours a little in the future--or a lot.”
But the 24-year-old singer and his band mates--bassist Dean Dinning, drummer Randy Guss and guitarist Todd Nichols--don’t plan on vacationing soon. Back in Santa Barbara, they will outfit a new rehearsal space/recording studio and set about writing and recording, the part of Toad’s work that Phillips likes best.
In October, the band plans to release an album of B-sides and unreleased album outtakes, dubbed “In Light Syrup.” Toad has also placed “Crazy Life,” a previously unreleased cut, on the new “Empire Records” film soundtrack, and will tackle “Instant Karma” on an upcoming John Lennon tribute album.
Despite its two platinum albums, Toad remains fairly free of ballyhoo and notoriety. The band is made up of stable citizens who began playing together in their teens, took their name from a Monty Python skit and took their musical cues from the likes of R.E.M., U2 and the Waterboys.
The Toad members hail from white-collar, professional families; no tales of devastating childhood dysfunction to relate, a la Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and Eddie Vedder. Nor does Toad fit the “angry band” or “punk band” categories that have gotten the most attention over the past few years. Phillips’ lyrics tend to be cerebral in their scope but emotional in their impact (notwithstanding “Nanci,” a whimsical valentine to country singers Nanci Griffith and Loretta Lynn).
“Dulcinea” opens with “Fly From Heaven,” a meditation on the apostle Paul’s role in shaping early Christianity--a subject inspired by a book Phillips was reading on Gnosticism and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The album ends with “Reincarnation Song,” a philosophic imagining of the soul’s post-mortem options. Phillips said the latter song’s lyrics came to him over breakfast one day while he was reading “The Doors of Perception,” Aldous Huxley’s account of altered states of mind.
“The scream aspect, being abrasive--we’re just not good at it,” Phillips said of Toad’s resistance to trends. “I like Pearl Jam, I love King’s X, but I don’t write heavy music very well, so I stay away from it.” Toad has become best-known for such wistful, harmony-driven fare as “Ocean” and “All I Want,” from the “Fear” CD, and the two “Dulcinea” hits, “Something’s Always Wrong” and “Fall Down.”
The band hasn’t established any extracurricular notoriety nor found itself embroiled in controversy. Its main slant outside its shows, videos and records has been support for women’s issues, especially the campaign against sexual violence. Last April, Toad played at a rally in Washington, D.C., for the National Organization for Women. It has also helped promote the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an emergency victims’ hot line spearheaded by Tori Amos, the pop diva who came to prominence singing “Me and a Gun,” a harrowing song that recounted her own ordeal and means of survival as she was violated by an armed rapist.
Phillips said the band’s involvement in the cause flowed from its own song about the horror of rape, “Hold Her Down,” an angry anthem from “Fear.”
The song, he said, “was less an agenda I picked out than [a reaction to] the stuff that’s most affected me and the people I’m close to. When you talk to women you know and find how few have not been sexually assaulted, it’s scary as hell.”
Supporting women’s issues isn’t as big an attention-grabber as jousting with Ticketmaster, like Pearl Jam, or being singled out as a moral menace by a presidential candidate, like Nine Inch Nails. Nor have Toad’s million-selling albums generated the buzz of multiplatinum successes by the somewhat kindred Live, Soul Asylum and Counting Crows.
“It’s been kind of a lucky thing for us that instead of trying to outright insult us, the primary media have chosen to ignore us,” Phillips said. “It’s helped us achieve an audience which is based pretty much on music. I don’t know if we’re cool to like. You have to like the albums. I think it’s a plus. We don’t have anything to gripe about. We have a good audience that seems to know our whole body of work and isn’t interested in our image.”
Toad’s skepticism about the rock ‘n’ roll star-making machinery came out in the video for “Something’s Always Wrong,” a sendup of home-shopping TV in which sales offers flashed on the screen while the band played. Toad wryly cast itself as one of the commodities for sale--which every MTV video band inevitably is.
“I don’t think the sale of art is an evil thing,” Phillips said. “People have always bought art. The weird thing MTV does is they’re not selling songs; they’re selling personality and celebrity, which has no value at all. I think celebrity is fairly evil.
“In some degree, I’m willing to sell out: We’ll make videos, which is necessary to get people to listen to our music. Everybody is hypocritical to some degree. . . . I grew up in the United States, so some part of me swallowed the celebrity thing and wants to be on TV, ‘cause then my life would be perfect because everybody would love me.”
An ironic lilt crept into Phillips’ voice on those last words, but he is completely sincere in discussing the major challenges that lie immediately ahead of him: making more good Toad the Wet Sprocket records and being a good father to the child his wife, Laurel, is expecting in November.
Since Toad invited the Quixote connection with its album title, it seemed fair to ask Phillips about his own Impossible Dream.
“My impossible dream would be to try to make a lot of music with a lot of people, have it be good, and also have a life,” he said. “I don’t want my kid to miss me all the time. I want to be a good father, and I think that’s more important than being a rock musician.”
* What: Toad the Wet Sprocket.
* When: Today at 7:30 p.m., opening for the Cranberries.
* Where: Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine.
* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Irvine Center Drive exit. Turn left at the end of the ramp if you’re coming from the south, right if you’re coming from the north.
* Wherewithal: $20.50, $26.50 and $29.
* Where to call: (714) 855-6111 (taped information) or (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).
IN CARSON: H.O.R.D.E. FESTIVAL
The annual trek of rootsy bands that like to jam hits the Olympic Velodrome at Cal State Dominguez Hills on Saturday; the main stage bands are the Black Crowes, Blues Traveler, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers and Wilco. (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).
IN SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO: THE PLIMSOULS
This respected ‘80s band continues its ‘90s comeback, led by front man Peter Case. The Plimsouls play Sunday at the Coach House, (714) 496-8930; also Friday at the Strand in Redondo Beach, where Laguna Beach’s superb Missiles of October will open. (310) 316-1700.
IN IRVINE: THE WARPED TOUR
Punk rock and skateboard exhibitions are becoming as common a combination as baseball and hot dogs; this tour is the latest, at the Irvine Meadows concession concourse Monday, with L7, No Doubt, Sublime and the Ziggens among the 15 bands on two stages. (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).