Port City Music Hall will host the quartet of Californians known as Toad the Wet Sprocket Sept. 18. In 1986, the four teens — Glen Phillips, Todd Nichols, Randy Guss and Dean Dinning — took their group’s name from a program created by Monty Python’s Eric Idle called “Rutland Weekend Television” in 1975. From 1989 to 1998, when the lads called it quits, the group made five studio albums which sold more than four million copies and had five major radio hits combined. Well, they are back together with an album called “New Constellation” and it was about that new project and their return to Maine that dominated a conversation I recently conducted with bassist/vocalist Dean Dinning when he was home in Ventura, Calif., on a break between legs of the tour.
Q: I interviewed all four of you live in the Pit on the University of Maine campus in Orono back around 1989 or 1990, Do you remember more about the first time we chatted?
Dinning: That was our second tour and we were opening for the B-52s — that was a long time ago and you and I are both still in the business … you’ve been with us since the beginning!
Q: You bet, and I saw both of your 1994 shows in Maine. It’s so neat that, almost 20 years later, you guys are coming back.
Dinning: Yes, we are! You know, we’ve been on tour a lot this summer and one of the things we did was play at Willie Nelson’s 80th birthday celebration in New York. After we did that we got a call from Willie asking us if we wanted to do Farm Aid so we, of course, said “Yes!” and rather than just come all the way out there and do one show we decided to put together a few other shows and that’s what brings us up to your neck of the woods.
Q: Well, I’ve got to tell you that “New Constellation” is probably one of the best albums you’ve ever put out.
Dinning: Wow, thank you — that means a lot because I feel like you know our whole history, so thank you so much!
Q: In my opinion, there’s not a throw-away track of the 10 on here — it’s strong start to finish. And I’m just a huge fan of vocal harmonies and this album is just loaded with them.
Dinning: Well, what we were really trying to do was just keep the things about the band that really worked well while updating the sounds to make it, you know, be current. Try to make a record that sounded like we had never stopped making records. And certainly when you have three people and three mics across the front we can do those harmonies live — it’s great — that’s certainly been a big part of the band so writing for this project that was certainly in the forefront of our minds. To have these songs with the big harmonies and then be able to do them live, well, that’s one of the things about this band that’s so much fun.
Q: Now since getting back together after the initial break-up and subsequent sporadic shows from 2006 to 2010 to going back into the studio in 2013 for album number six … is all of this working out for you guys?
Dinning: Yes, it is really — it’s invigorating and it’s fun. I mean, I suppose we could have gone on and continued to just go out and play the old material. We got offered tours where you go out and play for a half-an-hour and basically run through your hits from the 90s, but we didn’t want to do that. We kind of wanted to get back to doing our own thing and the missing element for all of us was new songs. We wanted to bring the band into this millennium and be current again … and I think that that’s what we’re accomplishing out there every night. It’s so fun, we’re playing five new songs every night and it’s so exciting to see the reaction to those songs and the fans are so happy to have this record after all this time. They just really love it.
Q: Is there a single off it out there?
Dinning: Yeah, actually the single is “New Constellation” — the title track — and it’s fun because we’re putting it out pretty much under our own label this time so we can see where it’s getting played on the radio all across the country — the instant radio plays — and then we can go out to those areas and play our show. To see the response we get is a lot of fun. We made a really modern-sounding record. It’s classic Toad yet it’s brought into the future … it pretty much plays to all the strengths of the band which we really like, and having the same four people, well, that’s really what makes it sound like no time has passed. We do have a certain way of playing together because this is our first band — this is the band we started in high school and we didn’t know how to play when we started and we learned how to play by playing with each other.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to pass on to the folks reading this article?
Dinning: People are really enjoying the new songs and we’re getting good feedback on Facebook and things like that. The new songs are starting to sink in. Hopefully in a few years these songs will just be part of the whole canon — part of the catalogue — and by then we’ll have a couple more hits to add to our set … or keep in the set, hopefully!
Lucky Clark has spent over four decades writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.