An Interview with Toad the Wet Sprocket's Todd Nichols

Paul Caparotta
Toad the Wet Sprocket (Photo: Caroline Murray)
Toad the Wet Sprocket (Photo: Caroline Murray)
Toad the Wet Sprocket thrive on stage, and you can see for yourself with two upcoming shows at the Great American Music Hall on Saturday July 21st (tickets here) and Sunday July 22nd (tickets here). We had a chance to catch up with guitarist, vocalist, and (co)-songwriter Todd Nichols a few weeks ago as he prepared for their upcoming summer tour that kicks off on July 18th. He's also been keeping himself busy building guitars over the past few years and you can see some of his recent designs on his Instagram page here.

SFBayAreaConcerts: Your debut album from 1989, Bread and Circus (iTunes), struck me immediately on the first listen—it wasn’t quite like anything I’d heard before, though there were elements of other sounds. It was obviously a strong statement of purpose. What drove you to release the album exactly as you recorded it?

Todd Nichols: It’s interesting looking back on it. I’m not sure it was the best decision at the time. What we did was get to put out two independent-style records—we recorded the first one for $600 and the second for a couple thousand—on a major label. We got to put out these raw records on a major label. People were expecting something polished—it was a big deal. I remember at the time really not liking it and thinking we should re-cut it. But that’s not how we did things back then. We did them and didn’t care about things too much. Major labels were kind of a joke to us. The name “rock and roll” we took as a joke—I don’t anymore. Music and rock and roll saves peoples lives, I think, to varying degrees.

SFBAC: Have you ever thought about revisiting that album? Possibly re-recording it?

Todd Nichols: That would be fun and torturous at the same time. It never turns out how you expect it. It’s best to move on, usually. At the time I wish we made a little bit bigger impact. We could have taken the best songs from both those records and teamed up with a great producer and done some stuff with those sounds. But instead we made these little records, and that kind of got us a cool following where people read into the lyrics, read into the songs—a little band they could call their own. It wasn’t like Nirvana or a band for everyone.

SFBAC: Bread & Circus introduced us to all the parts of the Toad the Wet Sprocket sound—the acoustic guitars, the arpeggios, those open chords. You guys layered all this cool stuff and it rarely feels crowded.

Todd Nichols: Back then we didn’t really know what we were doing! We only had one guitar and one amp—and it was probably the guitar our parents gave to us. It was before we were gear heads. We just kind of did it. We recorded those albums live—it was pretty much how we sounded at the time; it was a cool thing to capture.

SFBAC: When I first heard Pale (iTunes) I was floored. Bread & Circus felt technicolor while Pale was this stark, numb set of songs—fascinating and angst-ridden. Were you reacting to anything going on at the time?

Todd Nichols: We were recording it in a studio on skid row in Los Angeles; I think that inspired the song "Come Back Down". It was a depressing area, but I don’t remember feeling depressed at the time. I agree with you: Bread and Circus has color and depth. Pale is a little bland. When we recorded it, our producer was sleeping a lot—he was tired from another job.

SFBAC: I don’t know if “bland” is the word I’d use—but it does have this washed out feel. The songs still burst off there. Specifically I’m thinking of that opening riff for "Jam". There’s a lot of tension—explicit and implicit—relationships falling apart. Do find some inspiration in frustration?

Todd Nichols: I think everyone does…It’s interesting to me; I’ll bring in musical ideas, mumbling some words. I’ll record it and pass it on to Glen. What he used to do is sing to my mumbling and replace the words—keeping some of the words that he thought I was saying! This was how half the songs were done. I never really know the tone. I know what I’m thinking and feeling, but I’m not putting it in to words necessarily. Glen puts these words and meaning into things. I’m never really sure if it’s going to fit the music or not fit the music. The biggest surprise was "Crazy Life". It was a pretty upbeat song for us—pretty poppy. Glen wrote this song about Leonard Peltier… It’s always interesting to see how Glen will interpret it, since he’s the one who puts actual meaning to it. I write from a feeling and a vibe—I get a good melody and a good little riff. To feel something without words there. I know that when we get words on top of it, it gets even more powerful. And that’s what Glen adds his melancholy—or whatever! It’s always a big surprise what comes back.

SFBAC: Much of your sound is about fighting for what you believe in—or fighting against something. There are elements of sadness punctuated with hopefulness and joy. Are you recording something new to give us some hope?

Todd Nichols: I hope so! This is a tough era—I didn’t expect it to be so tough.

SFBAC: Your music is about authenticity and that strikes a chord with people.

Todd Nichols: We were hoping to do something this year, but the fires and floods kind of threw us off—we didn’t get to record any new songs. Our idea now is to move away from an album now. It takes too much time and money…So we’ll try to put out a song or two every year before we tour. Hopefully that will be fun. I don’t know if we’ll do another full album; though I hope we do at least an EP.

SFBAC: It’s great to see you still making high quality music nearly 30 years on.

Todd Nichols: Yeah I’m stoked. I’m always proud of that—surviving after all the hardships and then coming back with some of the best songs I think we’ve written and recorded.

SFBAC: With New Constellation (iTunes), there are these ideas of being small, weightless and then bursting into the infinite cosmos. Is there a freedom to smallness?

Todd Nichols: I think so. Freedom to be small—to not be loud. We’re saying things without screaming, without heavily distorted guitars. For people who are popular it has to be tough. They’re second guessed, and things are reworked over. That’s gotta be a tough way to live.

SFBAC: Speaking of forests and fires—how has what’s been going on in California impacted your songwriting?

Todd Nichols: Yeah—we haven’t written anything since then…I think Glenn definitely writes about what’s going on…Right now we focus on being a touring entity. I’m enjoying touring more and more. I think we’re playing better in our older age if that’s possible!

SFBAC: If Neil Young is an example…

Todd Nichols: Oh yeah, some people just keep getting better.

SFBAC: I wasn’t sure whether to talk about Fear (iTunes) since, for so many people, it feels so immediate and familiar. With Fear, did you know that you nailed it?

Todd Nichols: Not at all. It sounded big because it was the first time we were in a real studio. It felt like a big deal—there was a lot of money behind it, for sure. We weren’t sure about "All I Want". We felt initially that it was kind of fluffy. Maybe too poppy. At first we had too much stuff on it, so we stripped it down to make it sound better. That song almost didn’t go on the record—"Good Intentions" didn’t make the record. We had no idea, the company had no idea. "All I Want" was the third single on our third record. Today that’s unheard of; for a label to stick with a band three songs—let alone on your third record. That’s crazy to think about. Finally it paid off for them and us. We had no idea.

SFBAC: Fear’s success must have had a impact on you.

Todd Nichols: It set us on the path to making music as a career. If we hadn’t had that success, I doubt we’d have gone on to a fourth record. All of us would have probably done another thing, I’m imagining. I was seriously thinking we could have a career in music. The other guys went to college—I dropped out. I saw us getting signed and had a vision for us. It basically validated us, let us continue on. Unfortunately we made the stupid mistake of breaking up. I count it as one of my stupidest mistakes ever. We could have just gone on hiatus and let things cool over. Then we could have gone back to it when we wanted to.

SFBAC: It’s fortunate that you’re part of a band where the live performances are so strong. If you were part of a ‘bedroom rock’ band, it would be a different story.

Todd Nichols: Exactly. We’re so lucky that we’re still getting to do this. So many bands of our size would have just fallen away and been forgotten about.

But the fans have really gotten us back and kept us going—it’s cliche to say that, but it’s true. Because of them, they’ve allowed us to be what we are.

SFBAC: Your fans were a huge factor in getting New Constellation made.

Todd Nichols: Yeah. With Kickstarter and crowdfunding coming along at just the right time. I don’t know if we’d do it again, but it was right for the time. It gave the fans a great way to feel part of us after all these years.

SFBAC: Well Todd, thanks for taking the time to talk with us—we're looking forward to seeing you in the Bay shortly with two back-to-back shows at the Great American!

Todd Nichols: Hopefully we’ll see you up there. Thanks!

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