Tobin Sprout on Guided By Voices: “There’s no reason to stop unless we get bored”

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times


Guided By Voices said farewell at Metro in 2004, but didn’t stay away for long. Since reforming in 2010, the band has released six full-length albums as well as many singles, EPs, and solo records.

The maestros of lo-fi, psychedelic-tinged power-pop is on a familiar tear, having already released two albums this year — including “Cool Planet” in May — and a summer touring schedule that brings them to the Green Music Festival in Wicker Park Saturday. There, ringleader Robert Pollard, accompanied by wingman Tobin Sprout, the band’s co-songwriter and guitarist, will front the “classic lineup” of the band, which includes bassist Greg Demos, guitarist Mitch Mitchell, and drummer Kevin March.

Sprout leads a double-life: Besides his stint in Guided By Voices during its golden era, 1987-1997, he is also a solo artist and an acclaimed visual artist whose surrealistic paintings are frequently a subject of gallery shows throughout the United States. If Pollard is the mad genius of GBV, Sprout is its quiet engine keeping this band motoring forward as long as Miller Lite (the band beer of choice) remains in stock.

We talked recently via phone. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

You and Bob are insanely prolific songwriters who also make your own solo albums. What goes into figuring out which song ends up where?

Usually whatever songs I’m writing at the time go on whatever album is coming up. I was working on a solo album and [the new Guided By Voices song] “All American Boy” was supposed to be the single. When Bob said we’re making another album, I decided to put it on there. I have plenty of material for solo albums, but it seemed to fit better for GBV because it’s more of an anthem.

Is there any musical distinction between the band songs and your own?

Much of the solo stuff is more piano based. I’ve had piano-based songs on Guided By Voices stuff but usually the mellower stuff goes on my solo albums. GBV is still the best place to showcase my songs, though. I’d rather they go on GBV albums, although I still love making solo albums.

What connects you and Bob as collaborators?

We both grew up in the same era. I’m getting close to 60. [Pollard is 56.] You can draw all of our influences in “All American Boy” where I threw a lot of sounds from the [David] Bowie, Ian Hunter and Thin Lizzy era. It’s not really from any particular song, but it’s a feeling you have from living those days. Those were my high school days.

GBV is indelibly linked to Dayton, Ohio, but you actually live in Leland, Michigan.

I grew up in Dayton but moved up here probably 15 years ago right after I left the band. I grew up in Centerville, which is south of Dayton. We met in the 80s, in the little music scene that was happening there and just started hanging out. Eventually he asked me to join the band.

You’re also a prolific visual artist, which means you’ve spent a life switching between painting and recording studios.

I had always been an artist. I could always draw. I always thought it would be great if I could make a living doing my artwork. I always loved music too and I always wanted a band. I had a band in the third grade in my garage, and then in college, I’d sit around in the dorms and make music. Finally, when I got out of school, I got together with a friend and did the folk thing, playing Neil Young songs in little bars. Then I put my band Figure 4 together and started writing songs. I was 23 when I started getting into music. I never thought about making a career out of it. When [Guided By Voices] signed with Scat [Records], I thought, “that’s it, I made it.” I have gone beyond my dreams and to be able to make a living with both, it’s a great way to live.

How do you balance both lives?

I usually know when we’re going to take a break which is when I’m able to get a lot of painting done. I just did a gallery show in Chicago. It just depends on what’s down the road. Lately it’s been pretty much all Guided By Voices. Whatever is on the menu is what I work on. I’m painting every day unless I’m doing Guided By Voices.

Why is the current lineup promoted as “classic?”

It’s not the original lineup but it’s the lineup when we first started playing out. There were a lot of lineups when we were making the records. This is the lineup when we first went to New York City and started making the circuit. The idea of the “classic lineup” came from the fans.

You so much touring, do the songs matter more or less to you the way they were recorded?

I see the records as a way of recording a song-oriented band and we may do many different things that we don’t pull off live. On the live stage, we just work things out and don’t worry about keyboards. The songs take on a different feel live, and lot of times we play much faster. I really like the studio part. But even in the studio, we go in and knock it out. First take or second take and we may be done.

A lot of times these songs come out between albums. Like the [2013] song, “Down by the Racetrack.” I missed the deadline and so it was between albums. Bob liked the song enough that he said “we’ll put out an EP for it.” A lot of times you don’t want to wait, you want to put out songs. We’re writing all the time. Bob writes a lot more than I do. When an album is coming out, it forces me to write. So I need that to chase after it. It’s kind of an addiction. You get to the point where you write a song and you feel good about it fairly quickly. I used to sit around and think, “When something pops into my head, I have to put it on tape as soon as I can.” Now I’ll write when I’m ready instead of waiting for these magic moments.

You’ve written hundreds of songs. How do you keep track of every one?

You have to register songs with BMI so that’s where I go to find the listing. When I go to look at them, there’s tons of songs I don’t remember. It turns out some of them are Bob’s that I did something on. There are others where it’s like, “oh yeah I did write that a long time ago.”

What led to your decision to rejoin the band?

I left for family reasons. It was hard to leave and watch it go on, but that’s his decision to come back full circle. I can’t believe it sometimes. Bob called and said Matador wants to do an anniversary show. He almost sounded hesitant, like I wouldn’t want to do it. We were going to do that show and be done with it. But we thought, if we’re going to take the time to practice, why don’t we throw more shows in? So we ended up doing a West Coast to East Coast tour and it did so well, Bob decided, why not do an album? When [the 2012 album] “Let’ Go Eat the Factory” came up, we couldn’t kill it. It keeps going and there’s no reason to stop unless we get bored.

Do you still enjoy performing live?

I really like to go on tour, especially the way we do it: we go out once a year for five or six weeks and then do weekend work. I’m not away that long, but it’s long enough to work the albums and then come back and do my artwork and be with the family. It seems better now than before when no one was really established and when we were starving and barely making a living. It’s just easier to go out and have fun than to worry about other things.


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