Keep It in Motion: An Interview with Guided by Voices' Tobin Sprout
Tobin Sprout has been one of the most important songwriting voices for a long while, part of Guided By Voices' "classic lineup" if you will. Now, with the band's fourth post-reunion album just getting released, Sprout talks to PopMatters about why he left the band to begin with, being inspired by Brian Epstein's death, and his surprising side-career with children's literature.
Tobin Sprout might not technically be a founding member of Guided by Voices, but he is inextricably linked with the band's basic identity in most fans' minds.
The band had been knocking around basements in Dayton, Ohio for a few years in the 1980s before Sprout joined, but his sweet harmonies and whimsical songs were a crucial presence on the cracked 1990s masterpieces that made the band famous in indie rock circles.Sprout left Guided by Voices in 1997, and band leader Robert Pollard ultimately disbanded the rest of that lineup. Guided by Voices continued for another seven years, with Pollard backed by other musicians aside from occasional appearances by Sprout, but the earlier recordings remained closest to most fans' hearts. So much so that when the 1993-1997 lineup re-formed for a Matador Records 21st anniversary concert in October 2010, it was quickly dubbed the "classic line-up."
The band stayed together after that reunion gig, and almost immediately returned to prolific form. In 2012 the band released three full-length albums, with a fourth, English Little League, on the way in April. The new albums might not have quite the same everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink inventiveness of the band's 90s pomp, but happily the band's eye for a catchy melody and deliriously weird lyrics remains intact. And while Pollard remains Guided by Voices' creative engine room, the new albums have again illustrated how much the band benefits from Tobin Sprout's presence, with each showcasing several excellent Sprout songs.
Sprout was asked in an interview way back in 1997 whether he could see himself being part of a Guided by Voices reunion in 20 years time, at the time he sounded doubtful ... and yet here he is. "I don't think this would have happened without the Matador reunion," he says by way of explanation. "The show went well, and things just fell into place for an album. And then three more. It just seemed to pick up where we left off in the 90s."
That it did. Given lead songwriter Robert Pollard's famous hyper-productivity it's not a total shock that there have been so many new recordings since Guided by Voices reformed. But the consistently high quality has probably been a surprise to many people. Of that productivity, Sprout says "we were just writing a lot. I had songs left over from Let's Go Eat the Factory [their first album since reuniting], and many became B-sides, but others went onto the next album."
Similarly, "Islands (She Talks to Rainbows)", a track on the upcoming album, was a song he had left over from his 2010 solo album, The Bluebirds of Happiness Tried to Land on My Shoulder. "The song didn't strike me at first and so it got filed away," he says. "I found it later, and wondered what I didn't like about it. Must've been in a bad mood when I wrote it or something. Playing it with the band gave it new life. I did an acoustic demo for Kevin that I like a lot. I like Kevin's drumming on it, and Mitch played the power guitar."
Robert Pollard has talked in interviews about how writing songs for this group feels different to writing solo, or with other Guided by Voices lineups, and Sprout agrees. "I think there is a style to writing for Guided By Voices albums. It also gives me a chance to write with Bob [Pollard] (on 'Noble Insect') with Mitch ('Down By The Racetrack') and with Jimmy, Mitch and Bob (on 'God Loves Us'). I also had a chance to take some songs to the studio in Dayton and record live with the band, for 'Islands'. I would like to do more of that. It has that live energy."
This Guided by Voices line-up was always strongly associated with a kind of ramshackle lo-fi sound, with their recordings featuring numerous short songs full of tape hiss, production glitches and serendipitous mistakes. Their first, self-released albums were so buried in murk that at times the music was barely discernible, although even in the early recordings the band's talent as songwriters is apparent. By the time of their 90s albums for Matador the production had cleaned up a little, but they were still very much known for their slapdash recording approach.
"We don't labor over production," Sprout says. "Mostly we just record and then mix. The early 4-track stuff was recorded very quickly. Drum and guitar bounced down to one track; bass to one track; vocals and background vocals recorded live to one track; then lead vocals and keys to the final track. The hiss was just part of the Porta-1."
As technology has advanced over the years, the band now has access to better quality recording equipment. "Now we have unlimited tracks. I have a 16-track, 2-inch which I use often, but mostly I use Logic", Sprout says. "I love the 16-track but it has a mind of its own and doesn't want to record sometimes, so most of Factory was recorded on Logic."
But even if the technology has changed, in recording the new albums the band did make some deliberate nods towards the sound for which this line-up is known. "We wanted a sound like the early albums had, so we used limited mics on the drums," Sprout says. "I don't think we used more than 16-tracks of Logic. I wish now that I had mic'd the drums better though, it was hard to get a good drum sound. Seems things that worked well with tape (4-track) don't work as well for digital."
In speaking of the time he left the band, Sprout has talked in the past about the period being a stressful time, and rumours abound of personality clashes and drug issues in the band around that time. Of that, Sprout is diplomatic. "We all had things other than the band to think about. Greg had law school to think about, Bob had things going on too. Me ... getting married. It just seemed like I needed to get my life in order, even though things were taking off with the band." Sprout had also started out his life as an illustrator and artist, and had to decide between his two careers. "I had pressure from my family about what my future was to be. I had gone to school for art and was working at a plumbing supply place! It was a good job ... but I wasn't doing art."
"We were in our 30's, and very young as I look back," Sprout goes on. "I thought I was old though -- 30 seemed a lot older than most other bands. When you are that young you can tell the difference between someone that is 20 and someone that is 23. Nowadays, I can't even tell between someone 40 and someone 50. I remember I was about 27 and playing a show at UD, and I felt like an old man. Someone even said something about our age. An old man at 27?!" Ultimately, the pressures all got too much. "Bob said he 'can't do this anymore,'" Sprout says. "Sometimes things just go where they go, and the band split up. I left after my daughter was born."
After the ‘classic line-up' split up back in 1997, the new Guided by Voices released albums from Mag Earwhig onwards that were a pretty significant change in sound and direction from their earlier material. The new tracks focused on the bigger, power-pop anthem side of the band, and Pollard's new band worked with big-name producers like Ric Ocasek to produce a more glossy Guided by Voices sound.
There has been a perception in the past among fans that the split might have been partly about the band's music direction, and I wondered whether Sprout would have wanted to be part of some larger-scale, more professional and commercially successful version of the band. Sprout quickly puts to rest any idea that he is a lo-fi puritan. "Larger studios and bigger budgets? Arenas? Sure! I would have liked that," he says. "I missed being there for those years. It was definitely hard to see it happen and not be there. But I would have missed my kids growing up."
"I did manage to be on almost every GBV album in one way or another, though," he notes. "A lot of Mag Earwhig was recorded before I left, I played bass and lead and sang harmony on "Jane Of The Waking Universe". I love that song!
I think it is one of Bob's best and was happy when we played it live. "Little Bit Of Dread" and "All Used Up" might have ended up on Mag Earwig if I didn't leave, and I wrote "Hit Junky Dives" for Mag Earwig," Sprout continues. "Bob wanted me to do something like the song "Carnival Boy" [from Sprout's first solo album, of the same name, released while he was still in the band]." Instead, after he left the band, all three songs appeared on Sprout's second solo album, Moonflower Plastic (Welcome to my Wig Wam), released in 1997.
One of the things that fans missed most about the new-look Guided by Voices lineups was Sprout's singing, which is reminiscent of 60s British psychedelic and folk acts like Donovan and Small Faces. Sprout's cheerful, soaring voice acts as a pleasant counterpoint to Pollard's rougher edges, both when singing backup and on his own songs.
Of the development of his singing style, Sprout says "I'm sure I picked up the style of the 60s singers because that is what I grew up listening to. My grandmother gave me the first three Byrds albums for Christmas, and I would listen to the radio at night -- The Ronnettes, Left Bank, The Bee Gees, The Hollies -- and I'd pick out all the parts and add some of my own. So I think it's a cross between American and British psychedelic, with a bit of Elton John -- I was a big early Elton fan. I learned to play the piano because of him.
"By the time I got to High School I lost my voice, maybe because of my voice changing or from smoking", he says. "It took some time to get it back, but it never seemed as strong as when I was a kid. I had a great voice as a kid and could hear natural harmony for as long as I can remember." Apparently, it's a talent that runs in the family. "I just found out my daughter can do the same thing," he says. "When she told me ... it was like when Tabatha on Bewitched made her stuffed animal fly. The gene was passed on!"
His voice aside, Sprout's songs have always had their own distinct character within the wider body of Guided by Voices' work. His lyrics have a kind of earnest, dark whimsy to them that often plays interestingly off his singing. His lyrics are generally abstract or surreal, hard to pin down, more about creating a mood or playing with interesting imagery than necessarily reflecting personal experiences or expressing emotions. "I write a lot of lyrics from a distance, in images," he says. "Maybe like a painting."
To give a little window into his creative process, I asked Sprout to talk about the inspiration for one of his recent songs, the excellent, strange "The Sudden Death of Epstein's Ways" from the upcoming English Little League. "I was reading about the sudden death of Brian Epstein and other things in the 60s, like Jesus freaks," he says. "The high that some people get when they find God, and how it can change people for the better.
"In this song, I wanted the words to rise like the spirit of getting that euphoric feeling of belonging to something," he explains. "The line 'the sudden death of Epstein's ways' just got stuck in my head. It's not about Brian, it's about a generic lost person named Epstein who finds his way. I like the line 'it's so lovely sitting down'. I find it very British. And comforting."
Outside of Guided by Voices, Sprout has had a long and successful career as an artist and illustrator, including winning awards and heading art gallery shows. He also wrote and illustrated a children's book, Elliott, published in 2009. Those other interests keep him busy, and as a result there was a period between 2003 and 2010 where Sprout didn't release much musical material. Sprout says that he got away from music and mostly painted. "I was also working on writing, and was very into putting Elliott together," he says.
"I find when I write for something like a book, I have to stay on it 'til it is finished," he says. "All the parts of the story have to be working. If I get away from it for too long, I lose track of where the story is going and how it works with the parts that were already written. So for at least a year of that, I was all into writing Elliott, and painting and drawing the illustrations."
It was Elliott, though, that eventually drew him back into making music. "After it was published I began writing music for the book, and also did a video for school readings of Elliott," he says. "From there I began writing music again, and came up with the songs for Bluebirds. I think "Field In May" [from Bluebirds] is an Elliott song, and would work well in a movie."
Interestingly, Sprout's approach as a writer and artist, especially in Elliott, shares a lot of similarities with his style a songwriter. Elliott, with its story of a carnival magician's rabbit looking for a new home when the carnival closes down, would make perfect material for one of Sprout's songs. The darkly surreal paintings that populate the book would also be perfectly suited to illustrating his musical output. Of the links between his different artistic vehicles, Sprout says "I think it comes from the same place, in that it has to mean something to me.
"Inspiration is a funny thing, it comes and goes and I never know when it will hit me," he says. "If I'm not inspirited to write music I might be inspired to paint. I feel better if I create something everyday. It's kind of a work ethic thing. But it doesn't always happen and I sometimes get down on myself about it, so I have to remind myself I'm not a machine.
"When it does come," he says, "it completely takes over the day. One minute it's 9am ... and the next thing I know it's five or six at night. I love those kind of days. They make all the dry days worthwhile."