Music Interview: Guitarist and Singer Tobin Sprout — the George Harrison of Guided by Voices

Since 2010, Guided by Voices has remained as indefatigable as ever in terms of writing, recording, and touring.

Guided by Voices

Guided by Voices will be performing at the Paradise Rock Club this Saturday. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan.

By Blake Maddux

Guitarist and singer Tobin Sprout is the George Harrison of the Dayton, Ohio-bred indie rock group Guided By Voices. Although he writes only a fraction of the dozen-and-a-half or so songs that appear on each of the two or three albums that the band releases each year, his contributions are every bit as essential to the quintet’s sound as any four or five tunes by the preternaturally prolific lead singer Robert Pollard are.

Trained as a graphic designer, Sprout became a full-time member of GBV in 1987 and performed on such pioneering lo-fi albums as Bee Thousand (1994) and Alien Lanes (1995). However, a number of factors – some good, some bad – led to Pollard’s recruiting of new lineup of musicians after the 1996 release Under the Bushes Under the Stars.

Sprout moved with his family to Michigan and became a professional artist after leaving Guided By Voices. He also recorded several solo albums and worked with Pollard in the side project Airport 5.

In 2010, the “classic” Guided By Voices line-up – Pollard, Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos, and Kevin Fennell – reunited and in 2012 released Let’s Go Eat the Factory. Since then, they have remained as indefatigable as ever in terms of writing, recording, and touring.

Sprout spoke to The Arts Fuse by phone in advance of his appearance with Guided By Voices at the Paradise Rock Club on Saturday, July 12.

Arts Fuse: I am also from Ohio. Do you have any specific memories of first hearing or seeing any bands from the Buckeye State?

Tobin Sprout Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

Tobin Sprout — He’s noticed lately that little kids are getting into GBV. Photo: Jason Kempin.

Tobin Sprout: I saw Devo when I was at Ohio University. They were playing on campus at Kent State. It was right after [1977 album] Are We Not Men? came out.

It was the first time that I saw all these punk clubs were popping up. Back then, it was sort of like you had to have your master’s to play music. I went into this record store and I saw Elvis Costello’s first album. I picked it up, and just by looking at it you could tell there was something there. I took it home and played it and most people in my dorm didn’t know what was going on there. But I just thought, “Yeah, something’s happening here, and rock is coming back.”

Arts Fuse: A surprising number of great punk, alternative, and indie rock artists are from Ohio, including Pere Ubu, The Pretenders, Devo, The Breeders, David Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Trent Reznor, The Afghan Whigs, The National, and The Black Keys.

Sprout: It’s isolated, but every now and then it breathes new life into the music scene, I think. Like us!

Arts Fuse: What did you study at Ohio University, where I spent a couple of years as a graduate student?

Sprout: I studied graphic design and illustration. When I finally got into it I did graphic design. I was painting at night and eventually started showing my work and that just sort of took off. So I was able to get out of graphic design and just paint. It all sort of wrapped around the Guided By Voices stuff that was going on. I was able to do that at the same time.

Arts Fuse: Were you a professional artist before you were a professional musician?

Sprout: I would say I made a living as an artist before I made a living as a musician.
I was always into both. I had a guitar when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and we had bands in the garage and stuff, but nothing ever really took off. Drawing and art were things that just came really easy to me. It always seemed like that’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I ended up doing. It was always easy for me and I couldn’t figure out why other people can’t do that. But you get into other things, and I can barely balance my checkbook.

Arts Fuse: What do you think of the fact that former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney is a big Guided By Voices fan?

Sprout: I guess he’s been a fan for quite a while. He was there in D.C. with his son and he introduced us at the show in D.C. A couple days later he resigned.

Arts Fuse: The GBV song “Motor Away” played as he took the podium for the last time.

Sprout: “Motor Away” has been played there and it’s also been played on Mars. When they wake the Rover up, they have to play a tune to get everything working, so they play a song every morning. One morning they played “Motor Away” to get things rolling up on Mars.

Arts Fuse: Is there anyone else, high-profile or otherwise, who are noteworthy fans of Guided By Voices?

Sprout: One of the biggest things that I notice is little kids are getting into GBV. We’ve been doing these all-ages shows and there are these five and six-year-old kids that are there with their parents. And they’re right up front and they’re singing. They know all the words. It’s like we’ve got this whole new generation coming up, and that’s pretty exciting. We were in Chicago, and about four or five rows out there was this mother holding her daughter, who was singing every word to every song. It’s incredible. So we have a new generation to write for.

Arts Fuse: The “classic” Guided By Voices line-up has released six albums since it reunited in 2012. Does is seem strange to you that more bands aren’t as prolific?

Sprout: We write all the time, so whenever we have something is ready to go, it goes. And we’re not tied down to a record label. The record labels, the way they are now, they need time to promote the albums, but whenever we’re ready we put one out. I also think that [other] bands probably tour more than we do, so they don’t have as much time to put the albums together. We spend a lot of time writing.

Arts Fuse: How long does it take to write a one-minute long song?

Sprout: Sometimes they come out right away if I have the lyrics already written. Other times I’ll spend all day on it. It just depends on the song. It doesn’t matter the length of it, it’s just a matter of how long it takes to get all the pieces together. A lot of times I’ll start with just the instruments and them maybe throw a vocal at it and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, the next day I’ll go back in and hopefully you forget about what you did and things will happen. Some days just fly by because you’re just involved with the song, but it varies. It’s usually done within the day.

Arts Fuse: How do you decide if a song that you wrote will be on a Guided By Voices album or a solo album?

Sprout: It’s usually just a matter of what I’m working on at the time. If we’ve got a GBV album in the works, I’ll work on that, and then, in the meantime I’ll work on a solo. There are some times when I will be working on a solo album and I will think, “This would be really good for a Guided By Voices album.” Like “All-American Boy” [from this year’s Cool Planet] was going to be on my solo, and I just really wanted it to be on the GBV album. So I moved it over. But I pretty much have my solo LP together now. We’re going to do another GBV album, so once I get this wrapped up I’ll start working on the next GBV album. I’ve already started writing lyrics for it. Wherever I am at the time is where the songs go.

Arts Fuse: Most Guided By Voices songs are written by you or Robert Pollard. How does the occasional collaboration come about?

Sprout: On “Noble Insect,” [from 2013’s English Little League] I had some instrumentals that I’d sent him, and that was one he kind of did the vocals over. I think that’s one of my favorite songs on the last few albums.

The only one that we actually sat down and wrote together was “14 Cheerleader Coldfront” [from the 1992 album Propellor]. But for most, I would do the instrumentals and send them to him and that’s pretty much the way we do it. I wouldn’t mind sitting down and writing some songs with him, but we just don’t seem to have the time. I don’t live in Dayton anymore, so it’s kind of hard just to run over there and sit down and write some stuff.

Arts Fuse: What do you think are the unique contributions that your songs make to an album?

Sprout: We’re similar in a lot of ways but then, we’re not. There’s definitely a different style, and I think the two styles complement each other. They segue really nicely. I don’t write nearly as much as he does, so I usually have four or five songs per album. They’re nice little segues in between his songs and they work well together.

Arts Fuse: What can you tell me about the solo album that you mentioned a few minutes ago?

Sprout: It’s pretty much finished and it’s going to be called The Universe and Me. I’m still kind of wrapping up the deal with the record label. I’m not sure when it going to come out yet. Hopefully soon.

Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to DigBoston and The Somerville Times. He recently received a master’s degree from Harvard Extension School, which awarded him the Dean’s Thesis Prize in Journalism. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts. He will be teaching a class during the spring term on the First Amendment in American History at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Cambridge, MA.

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