It's not a Bolivian polka album, but Secrets Of The New Explorers stands pretty far apart from the records Glen Phillips made with Toad The Wet Sprocket and those he's made as a solo artist. The non-commercial sounds of Abulum, the bare bone songs of Mr. Lemons, and even the pop sounds of Winter Pays For Summer are all pretty far removed from the sounds on this new EP.
"For basically zero budget, John (Askew) and I went in and started recording," he said, laughing. "I didn't know what we were going to do. John suggested the privatized space travel theme and I just read a bunch on that. As soon as he said it, I knew what the first four songs would be about."
Phillips had been making records based on the realities of his solo career. His current place in the music industry doesn't generate enough revenue to take a big band around the world. Those constraints had been forcing his hand when it came time to work in the studio.
"I'd been doing things that were very purposefully more compatible with live solo acoustic touring," he said. "After Winter Pays for Summer, which was such a huge production, I felt compelled on Mr. Lemons to make something that was extremely stripped down because I tour mostly by myself. It's easy to make an album that can expand to a bigger band, harder to make an album where people feel like it's the same thing if it's one guy and a guitar. I feel like I can do that well but I needed to make albums that were closer to that."
After making Mr. Lemons, Phillips made a record with Sean and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, Luke Bula, Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), Pete Thomas, Pete Thomas, David Faragher (Elvis Costello's Impostors), and Greg Leisz. That record was done live in the studio, with the only overdubs being harmony vocals. He had a lot of fun making that kind of record with such talented musicians, but was ready to make a new kind of record when he returned to working on his own.
"I'm a total tech head," he said. "I'm the son of geeks. I love recording technology. I love the studio and I love really elaborately produced albums."
Longtime listeners of Phillips may not have known about that side of his musical personality, but it's been apart of him for as long as he can remember.
"I think the second CD that ever made it to our house — my dad won a CD player in a contest — he bought the first Dire Straits album and So by Peter Gabriel and that just totally changed my world," said Phillips. "That and Songs From the Big Chair by Tears for Fears and the Talk Talk records, especially the late ones are just these insane, beautiful-sounding records. I could go on and on — Bjork's records and Radiohead's records — records that really use the studio as an instrument."
With a theme in hand and a willingness to try making a record in a new way, Phillips and Askew dug in.
"We had a blast," said Phillips. "It's so fun to go in and use these tools. Even if you're not that good and your drummer can't play in time and your singer can't sing in tune there's all these amazing studio tools right now that can make it some idea of perfect and can fix everything for you.
"It's so easy to fake it now and so I've stayed away from those tools but at the same time they're so fun to play with. If you're using them to amuse yourself instead of fix yourself, they're really fun. I kind of got over some of my phobia of overproducing and just had a lot of fun."
The idea of having fun making records was something Phillips needed. The eight years since his solo debut have been turbulent from a professional perspective. He's signed with labels and seen them absorbed. He's signed with labels and been dropped. He's tried handling almost everything as a one-man company. All of those aspects of working as a musician outside of actually making music were overshadowing what matters most to him.
"I can't afford to let it ruin music for me so I've mostly been making steps to enjoy music again and let the business be the business."
That perspective and the new approach seems to have been a revelation and a breakthrough for him.
"It's the reason the word is 'play' when you're talking about working with instruments," said Phillips. "It should be play, it should be high level play with a strong vocabulary of what you're doing. Play is essentially exploration. Play means a process of discovery. To have a record be based on that, it's going to work well. It's not to say play isn't work, but it's certainly not drudgery. It's just wonderful to get to do something that was so fun, and also like I said before, to force myself to give up on anybody caring.
"It was so nice to do this and think, 'I'm not trying to get a record deal. I'm not trying to get on the radio, and I'm not trying to get my credibility that I so desperately want.' I'm just trying to have fun. It was so good to just get back in and remember why I do this."
A good attitude, a good time, and good songs didn't remove all the obstacles in his path. There was still no one financing the record, but that hurdle opened a new door for Phillips.
"It was also the first record I've mixed, which was a big step for me," he said. "Once again, there was no budget so I had to see if I could do it. I love this stuff but I always knew there are people who can do it better than I can. I could rattle off a couple dozen names off the top of my hand who are far more qualified than I am to do anything on this record, including playing instruments. It was fun."
You can order Secrets of The New Explorers from Phillips' web site, GlenPhillips.com. You can also read BC Magazine's review of the new EP.
This article is part of BC Magazine's feature on Glen Phillips. Check out the whole series. Phillips was interviewed on The B-Sides Concept Album program on BlogTalkRadio. You can also hear the interview in its entirety by following this link to the BSCA.