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An Interview With Dean Dinning of Toad the Wet Sprocket

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The band performs at Shadow Ridge Music Festival Friday with Barenaked Ladies, Collective Soul and The Samples

Formed in 1986 in Santa Barbara, California, Toad the Wet Sprocket would find four high school acquaintances getting together to become a big part of the 1990s music soundtrack with hits such as “Walk On The Ocean”, “Good Intention”, All I Want”, “Something’s Always Wrong” and “Fall Down”. The band split to work on other projects in 1998 and in 2010 they reunited. This year, their second run became longer than their first. The band has released two albums since reuniting: 2013’s New Constellation and Starting Now in 2021. The band’s latest release is a deluxe version of 2011’s All You Want compilation, updated with hits and fan favorites from both of the band’s runs.

Toad the Wet Sprocket will join Barenaked Ladies, Collective Soul, and The Samples this Friday for the 5th Annual Shadow Ridge Music Festival at Shadow Ridge Country Club. Tickets are available here. I spoke on the phone with Toad the Wet Sprocket bassist Dean Dinning about choosing setlists, writing songs, getting Michael McDonald on an album and My So Called Life, and Dawson’s Creek.

Omaha Buzz: Is the band on a break between tours right now?

Dean Dinning: We are on our mid-tour break. We started at the end of May and went through mid-July, and then our singer, Glen (Phillips), got married. So, we kind of built this summer around his wedding when we had the time in the middle of the summer to do that, and then we are coming back out, starting with you guys. Shadow Ridge is our first show back on the September and October shows.

Omaha Buzz: How many dates a year is the band doing right now? 

Dean Dinning-This has been an extraordinary year, and we decided to hit it a little harder. We did a nice package tour last year with Barenaked Ladies and Gin Blossoms, and Barenaked Ladies are actually playing with us in Omaha at Shadow Ridge, as you well know. We played for a lot of people, though, and we wanted to see if we could get out and energize our touring a bit, so we decided to do more shows this year. So we are doing it, spread out over two blocks, about three months. It is going to be around sixty-five or seventy shows by the time we are done. Which is a lot for us.

Omaha Buzz: I have been asking this question of the less experienced artists that I have been talking with. We are seeing a lot of artists stop touring, take some time off, or postpone shows because of various things, including listening to their bodies, taking mental health time, or things involving VISAs and tour bus shortages. As someone who has toured for a long time, do you feel it is harder to tour now, or do you feel like there is more transparency?

Dean Dinning: I do think there are both things. I do know for a fact that it is hard to find buses. During the pandemic, there was a chip shortage and a lot of spare parts for the tour buses. Everybody uses the same buses; they all pretty much come from this one company in Canada, and if they can’t get spare parts from wherever they get them in the world, then the buses sit in the yard, and it doesn’t matter if it is missing a crucial computer chip that regulates the engine. We just got off of a bus tour, and we had issues just like that. There are almost always things that need to get fixed when you are out there on the road. I have seen people go through two or three buses, and it is just a hard life for a vehicle to be running like that every day because if they are sitting, they are not making money. Everything is more expensive; fuel is more expensive, and hotels are more expensive. It really comes down to the strength of your audience and whether you can support doing a tour, or doing a live stream, or finding some other way of promoting your music. For somebody like us who has been doing it as long as we have, there is no comparison to going out and doing shows, and we have never been more thankful for our audience because they allow us to do that.

Omaha Buzz: It has been out for awhile now, but when I initially put on your album Starting Now, I looked at the song title “Transient Whale,” and I kind of hesitated, but that song ended up being a beautiful song. What is your songwriting process for the band, and with the album being interrupted by COVID, did that change the writing process?

Dean Dinning: The whole process for Starting Now was different. We only got together at the very beginning of the album because lockdown happened, so we were able to get the rough tracks, some of which ended up being replaced later. Getting the tempo, the key, and the groove right in the beginning and also knowing that if you need to go back and fix it, you can go back and fix it. So we tried to get as many as we could right at the beginning. We didn’t know at the time, but then we worked remotely, with everyone sending files back and forth. I don’t like doing vocals by myself, so I put on a mask, and we went in the studio. We worked with Mikal Blue again, and I went in and did all my vocals. It was totally different, and I wouldn’t do it that way again, but out of necessity, it turned out pretty good. We are established, and we know what the sound of the band is. If I hand Todd (Nichols) a song and he needs to come up with a guitar part, he knows exactly what kind of part to play because he has been doing it for thirty years. A record where you are working remotely is probably not the time to get too experimental; you tend to probably color inside the lines more than when you are playing inside a room together where you can say, ‘Roll tape and play the weirdest thing you can think of.’ You are not going to get that. That wasn’t what we were going for on that record. “Transient Whale”, Glen a lot of the time likes to write from having a title before, almost in the country tradition. That was a title that was given to him, and so he had to make sense of it; he just liked the phrase. He wrote this beautiful song about this transition period he has been in since he got divorced and found himself floating for awhile. Regardless of what the process is the end result, you can’t beat it.

Omaha Buzz: How did Michael McDonald end up on that record?

Dean Dinning: We recorded a very early version of “The Best of Me”. We were at this recording seminar as the hired guns musicians for the day, a few of us, and we recorded that song, and we didn’t put that backup vocal part on it. I had always called that part the Michael McDonald part because Michael McDonald, as a backup singer, is always given his own space in the song. Like on the Christopher Cross song (“Ride Like The Wind”), he is going ‘I have got such a long way to go’ and there is space and he goes “such a long way to go”. He fits his part in between the lines; he doesn’t necessarily sing harmony along with the lead. So a Michael McDonald part is a counterpart that can be stacked up with a few vocals. I walked around the studio singing that part like Michael McDonald, because I love Michael McDonald. When the record was done, I said, ‘Do we want to just ask if Michael McDonald might be willing to do this’? I am always trying to add some flash or make things a little more special than they would be if they were just left alone. So Glen ran into a friend of his in Santa Barbara who is kind of the guy who built everybody’s home studios, and he was actually working with Michael McDonald at that time. So he asked Michael if he would be willing to do it, and Michael said yes, but he had a solo album that he needed to finish before he would have time to do that. So priorities. We waited a bit, and luckily we didn’t have a release date that was coming up too quickly. We were able to be patient, and one day, this is a dream right here: you wake up, you check your email, and there is a folder full of vocals from Michael McDonald. I am just telling you—that’s the dream, right there. I took these vocals down to Mikal Blue’s studio in Westlake and mixed his vocals in, and it was just uncanny—we had created our own little yacht rock, and we did it during the pandemic, so go figure. That was fun. The version we put on the new release, All You Want Deluxe Edition, is the version of the song before we added Michael McDonald. So it is us doing the quote-unquote Michael McDonald part.

Omaha Buzz:I was studying your setlist and saw that you had been covering “Closer To Fine” from The Indigo Girls, which is now having a moment with the Barbie movie. When you go on tour, how do you decide your setlists, and what factors come into play?

Dean Dinning:Every year is different; last year we were on this package tour, so we had a shorter set every day, so we were only doing forty-five minutes, and that is tricky to try to make a forty-five minute set. It’s been thirty something years since we have started. We wanted to really put something together. We learned a lot touring with Barenaked Ladies; they do this acoustic block in the middle of their show, and we wanted to try that. We would do a lot of that, but we would mostly do it at radio stations and record stores; we have never done it as part of the show. A lot of the time when we were touring, it was the idea of changing over, that is extra guitars, extra percussion, or whatever. It was too much for us because of the logistics for a while, but now it’s not, so we sought out ideas to do that. So we started doing three acoustic songs in the middle of the set, which kind of shapes the set. There is a first act, then there is this middle section, and then there is more of a big finish at the end, so we get to show more of a three-act structure, I suppose. It’s cool because we also have a lighting designer now, so we can really go with the drama of these scenes. It just feels like a bigger show when you do it that way. I have gotten so many compliments about the set so far that we have been doing this year; people are saying it is the best show that we have ever done.

Omaha Buzz: You have been on some big soundtracks and TV shows over the years. What is your favorite placement of one of your songs in a TV show or a movie, where you are like, ‘Yeah, that worked out perfectly’?

Dean Dinning: My favorite of all time—now this is going back—is on My So Called Life, when Rayanne Graff spirals out of control. That is Angela’s best friend.  Rayanne spirals out of control, all set to the pulsing beat of “Fall Down” from Toad the Wet Sprocket. Also, when Dawson Leery is attempting to lose his virginity with Jen, Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “All I Want” playing on a boombox.

Omaha Buzz: Dawson’s Creek is what I was hoping for. I was reading where the song “Good Intentions” was left off of the album Fear, possibly because it sounded too much like an obvious hit. What was the band going for in terms of how you wanted your music to be seen at that time?

Dean Dinning: At that time, you have to take yourself back to 1991. It was not cool to have your song on a TV show. It was not cool to have a hit on pop radio. We had released two albums independently; they were both licensed to Columbia: Pale and Bread and Circus. We were building a live following, and we were a very small band. One thing we were leery of was getting too big too quickly. We wanted to have a fan base in place already. Fans of what we were doing live before we had a hit. We were trying to manage that timeline, I think, a bit. On Fear, I think it was the song that everybody at the record company loved, so I think we instinctively said, ‘I guess we won’t put it on the record’. Columbia had given us full creative control in our contract, so we could do stuff like that. We were probably just being brats. It would’ve probably been a great follow-up to “Walk On The Ocean”, because “All I Want” was technically the third single on the record, and then “Ocean” would’ve been the fourth. Essentially, a lot of people think “All I Want” was the first single, but it would’ve been a great song, but at the same time, when “Walk On The Ocean” was done as a single, we had been on the road for such a long time, and I can’t complain because the next record we made, Dulcinea, turned out great. The basic goal was achieved of not being a one-hit wonder. Managing the flow, I guess. In fact, the only thing that prevented “All I Want” from being a number one song was that people were not buying the cassette single of the song; they were buying the actual album. Which was fine with us. That robbed us of a number-one song in a way.

Omaha Buzz:I saw you here in our small rock club at that time, and then six months later you were already playing a much larger venue here. Did you spend a lot of time playing clubs? 

Dean Dinning: We did. We had opened up for a lot of people, and we had done some bigger shows. We had done a club tour with Deborah Harry; it was our first tour in 89, B-52’s Cosmic Thing tour; we were playing a lot of college gyms and arenas; and then we went out with Michael Penn, who had a great album March with the song “No Myth” on it, which was produced by a friend of ours named Tony Berg, who almost produced Fear; he was in the running. We went around and opened for people in these clubs, and then we decided that we wanted to be a headliner; we wanted people to think of us as a headliner. So we stayed in the clubs a little longer; we went around so many times on the Fear tour. We would go around in one size room, and then the shows would sell out, and we would go around in a bigger room, and we probably did that three times on that tour. We like to vary it up. There are all kinds of great gigs out there. I am thinking about booking a show at the Troubadour when we get back because we haven’t had a proper show in Hollywood in a long time, and that is such a great room, we should probably do it.

Omaha Buzz: What can people expect at Shadow Ridge? What can they expect from Toad the Wet Sprocket in 2023?

Dean Dinning: More and better. The band is probably playing and sounding the best that we ever have; we have great people playing with us. That is going to be a great show because we are reunited with friends—some we have hung out with a lot, like the Barenaked Ladies, and some we haven’t hung out with in a long time, like the Collective Soul guys, who we used to see a lot. I am looking at it as a nice reunion thing for us, as we all used to work together a lot. I remember running into the Collective Soul guys at awards shows backstage, and these are your friends, and it will be great to see everyone.

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