History Offers Glen Phillips a Fresh Perspective
Text and Photographs by Brett Leigh Dicks
Berlin has long held an intimate embrace with art and culture. In fact, at various points throughout the city’s convoluted history, Berlin has been the cultural center of Europe. From the dynamic cabaret scene of the Golden ’20s to modern-day carnivals and parades, the city has fueled countless movements that have embraced both decadence and decay.
But the city’s cultural heritage is merely the tip of its historical iceberg, and there are countless intentional and haphazard homages to Berlin’s past in its Friedrichshain district. There’s the canyon-like Karl-Marx-Allee and its towering examples of Stalinist architecture, the thriving Simon-Dach-Straße with its countless bars and restaurants, and the infamous River Spree, which once divided East from West.
There are also the domes of the Frankfurter Tor, which I stood below while I placed a call on my cell phone. Shortly after, a figure emerged and made his way toward me. Huddled under an overcoat and wearing a familiar and welcoming smirk, Glen Phillips reached out and shook my hand. And with that, we ducked into a pub to escape the elements, have a beer, and catch up.
Affair with the Arts
For the past four months, life has been somewhat of a whirlwind for Phillips, who comes home to S.B. Wednesday, February 7, with a special Sings Like Hell show at the Lobero. After leaving Santa Barbara last August, just after Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Rape Crisis Center benefit show at the Marjorie Luke Theatre, he and his family took a leap of faith and headed into the unknown. Europe beckoned and after a handful of weeks, an assortment of shows, and a multitude of museums, Phillips and family settled in both Amsterdam and Berlin for extended stays.
Since arriving in Berlin, the Santa Barbara transplants have explored almost every facet of the arts. And as Phillips and I toured the Raw Temple, it quickly was apparent why Berlin became his artistic focal point. Housed on the ramshackle grounds of an abandoned railway maintenance facility, the center fuels all forms of artistic expression. As we wandered the grounds, guitars wailed, hammers pounded, children shrieked, and feet pounded upon dusty floorboards. Among the decay of the buildings exists a fertile artistic landscape.
“Seeing people working so hard to do something that has no commercial gain whatsoever is incredibly refreshing,” offered Phillips. “What is happening here is solely about the beauty and experience of creating.” Not that Phillips’s own creative undertakings are motivated by anything else. His time fronting famous homegrown rock band Toad the Wet Sprocket might have brought glittering rewards of commercial success, but this has never been the driving force behind his music. It has been the journey of discovery that’s led Phillips through a variety of musical incarnations.
His musical baptism with Toad helped Phillips’s voice develop in the surrounding of an ensemble. But with the dissolution of the band, Phillips then slipped into troubadour mode. He has now recorded three sublime solo albums and toured extensively on his own. But after recently teaming with newgrass wonders Nickel Creek — dubbed the Mutual Admiration Society with the addition of Phillips — his curiosity for collaboration has once again been sparked.
“The thing I miss about not being part of a band is the structure,” mused Phillips. “Being solo, I hold myself to my own expectations which can never be met. They are too high and too random. So having other people to answer to is a good thing for me.” In an effort to center himself, Phillips is in negotiations with Nickel Creek siblings Sean and Sara Watkins — who will join Phillips at the Lobero — to do another Mutual Admiration Society recording, and is also planning to record with Garrison Starr and Neilson Hubbard.
Breaking Down the Wall
It was a wet Tuesday night and I was making my way to a headlining performance by Phillips at an intimate bar nestled in Berlin’s vibrant Kreuzberg district called Avastar. As the taxi hurtled across the Oberbaumbrucke — a gothic-looking bridge over the River Spree that joins Friedrichshain with Kreuzberg — I was reminded that the bridge was a cultural and political melting pot during the Cold War.
During that time, Friedrichshain resided in the Russian-controlled sector of East Berlin while Kreuzberg was under American control in the West. Considering the relative state of peace in which Germany currently finds itself, the bridge now stands as a reminder of Berlin’s heavy history and the city’s bright future.
It’s a metaphor to which Phillips can certainly relate. His dream had always been to form a band, be offered a major-label record contract, and have his music grace the top of the charts, which he did. But having produced three post-Toad recordings, the irony is, of course, that Phillips is creating more skillful and enchanting recordings solo than he did with the ensemble. Yet, despite this, there is still an accountability to the past from which he can’t free himself.
“Something I have liked about this trip is that I’m now present tense,” Phillips said. “Back home, I’m an old story I’m very bored with. Being here has been very liberating. I know it’s just an attitude and it’s not like that everywhere, but I do sometimes feel like that kid in ‘What Do You Know’ from the movie Magnolia. I have a past and people make a lot of assumptions on the basis of that. I don’t have that here.”
As Phillips tours through Europe, he is bringing his music to a completely new audience. He recently played a series of dates with Teitur as the Faroese band made its way through Germany. Many in the audience had not heard of the American who opened the shows, yet Phillips captured more than their gaze.
“It was amazing to be playing as their opening act,” Phillips said. “Having people completely willing to partake in the performance was incredible. Occasionally there would be one or two who would throw out the names of a couple old songs, but that was very rare.”
Europe is well-known for its overt musical appreciation. There seems to be an uninhibited emotional investment in music, which bodes well for Phillips. “Audiences here want to feel something and show up very prepared for that,” he said. “But there is also a German brusqueness to it. They are completely engaged and with you, but no one wants to make you feel at ease. It’s a little like German software: extremely powerful and very configurable, but it’s not opener-friendly, nor is it easy to figure out.”
Something Phillips has been figuring out while in Berlin is the future. While his expedition through Europe offers the chance for the troubadour to present his music to a new audience, he also has found his feet constantly shifting ground. Perhaps for stability, he’s currently looking a little farther down the road and high on his list of collaborators — among others — is the Mutual Admiration Society.
Born from a union forged by S.B. guitar technician John Mooy, Phillips, and the Grammy Award-winning Nickel Creek, the crew was soon traipsing the same musical path. The Watkins siblings, along with childhood friend Chris Thile, were raised among traditional roots music and bluegrass. In fact, it wasn’t until much later in their musical evolution that the threesome actually encountered more contemporary sounds.
“They never listened to rock music until around the time they were 16, and they discovered Toad the Wet Sprocket and Counting Crows,” explained Phillips. “That was their introduction into the world of rock music. Sean [Watkins] had written a song he wanted me to sing and John put us in contact. So I invited them along to a show I was doing at Largo and they ended up playing half my set on the first night we met.”
A more decisive connection was formed when Phillips and Nickel Creek joined forces to record the Mutual Admiration Society album. Recorded in Santa Barbara with Ethan Johns at the production helm, the recording offered Phillips the opportunity to hang out on the front porch, and Nickel Creek the chance to rock things up a little. As the name reflects, it is truly a union of shared appreciation. “Glen was my earliest rock-star hero,” enthused Sean Watkins. “He has such an amazing sense of melody and words.”
When taking the Mutual Admiration Society to the road, the foursome decided to enlist a little assistance. The songs beckoned for a more traditional rock dynamic and having recently worked with the iconic Pete Thomas, Phillips made a call and quickly brought him on as drummer. And as for a bassist? “We had a few choices for a bass player, but then someone got to thinking about John Paul Jones,” recalled Phillips. “We thought if we don’t ask, we’ll never know, so we made the call and surprisingly, he said yes.”
After the tour, each of the players returned to their respective undertakings. Phillips released the stunningly beautiful Mr. Lemons, Nickel Creek gathered more Grammy nominations, Pete Thomas went back to Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and John Paul Jones sided with the Foo Fighters before heading back to the U.K.
New audiences and old friends, changing destinations, and age-spanning histories — on this adventure, Phillips’s life keeps taking new turns. With so many new experiences, it will be interesting to see how all this has seeped into Phillips’s own artistic psyche.
“Writing has actually been really hard,” Phillips said. “I tend to be hashing over the same old things recently. It is either I’m so depressed or I need to be much more grateful. While they are both very true, some variation in theme would certainly be nice. But I did start to get some new ideas in Amsterdam.”
While his European time might not have translated into a new album just yet, the experience has surely planted deep seeds. And no experience seems more influential than the time he spent in the Netherlands. History is at its most poignant when it is personally realized, and while in Amsterdam, the Phillips family read the diaries of Anne Frank.
“She lived just around the corner from where we were staying,” explained Phillips. “You soon realize how divorced we are from history. Being here and seeing what this place has been through, you soon realize how much history has to teach us.” And in turn, Phillips’s future lyrical teachings will be all the more moving.
4•1•1 Sings Like Hell presents Glen Phillips and Friends on Wednesday, February 7 at 8 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). Call 963-0761 for tickets and more information.