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APostcardfromBerlin

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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

Glen7.jpgFor 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.”

Mutual Admiration

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.

Historically Speaking

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.

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