"My son was born when I was on tour with Guided by Voices, and I was still touring with them when my daughter was born. It got to the point where I wanted to be home with the kids instead of on tour with the band." It's been close to 10 years since Tobin Sprout was a full-time member of Guided by Voices and he's finally ready to go back out on the road after a lengthy absence. "With the kids getting older, they're in school and it's easier to get away. I can finally start thinking about touring the songs again."
Alongside principal singer/songwriter Robert Pollard, Sprout helped thrust Dayton's Guided by Voices out of the Ohio backwoods and into the spotlight of American indie rock cool during the mid-1990s. He played guitar on such seminal GBV releases as 1994's Bee Thousand and 1995's Alien Lanes, singing and writing some of those albums' most memorable tracks. Yet just as the band was beginning to hit paydirt, Sprout left the group amid sessions for 1997's Mag Earwhig! in favour of family life and more time to devote to his twin love—painting. "[Guided by Voices] was getting ready to go to Australia, and the band was just starting to really take off. We were playing big rooms like the Roseland in New York but we hadn't yet really busted into the 'big time.' I miss a lot of things about touring with Guided by Voices, but there are a lot of things I don't miss. I think it's an age thing in the end; you can only take so much of it after a while."
The years since have been spent raising his children in Leland, Michigan, where the Sprout family has lived since 1996, painting, and releasing increasingly obscure solo albums, the most recent of which is 2003's Lost Planets and Phantom Voices. The accompanying tour is Sprout's first as a solo artist. "I haven't played solo since I left Guided by Voices except in Chicago and Indianapolis. This time out, we're going to start in Milwaukee, instead of Chicago, and then work our way down through Nashville, North Carolina and then back north."
Sprout's ability to combine stellar melodies with bursts of velvety guitar haze has typified much of his solo work, and the music he produces has a warmly familiar quality to it. As a lifelong fan of The Byrds, The Beatles and the Nuggets band, he knows the value of a solid pop hook, yet much of his songwriting inspiration comes from a more personal place. "I get a lot of my song ideas from my day-to-day life. My lyrics can get pretty abstract—different ways of looking at life and stuff. I write about everyday things, and I can't really complain about those, so I guess that comes out in the music."
In addition to his songcraft, Sprout is an accomplished photo-realism painter. His remarkably lifelike images have fetched over $6,000 a piece and have allowed him to live off of his work for over 15 years. "I did a lot of illustration work when I was younger, and I stumbled upon a lot of techniques that the photo-realists were using to get the illustrations completed faster. I basically took a lot of those techniques home. You just become obsessed with the detail. It's tedious work. Some nights I can't even think about going down to the basement and painting."
While he formerly worked out of his Leland-based Petrified Fish gallery, Sprout has recently chosen to exhibit his work at more select locales, such as the Ann Arbour Art Festival, and forgo the hassle of maintaining his own art space. "I ran [Petrified Fish] for about three years, and I wasn't all that crazy about it. It took up too much of my time and became too much of a business. I got rid of that, and now I'm back to painting a lot more, which is just a better situation all around."
When asked if Petrified Fish was ever invaded by rabid GBV fans seeking to have their copies of Propeller or Vampire on Titus autographed, Sprout was quick to point out, "For the most part, the people who bought my art didn't really know about the music and vice versa, except maybe the album covers. Usually the collectors were a lot older, so they might have heard that I was in the band before but didn't know anything about Guided by Voices. I kinda liked it that way."
Tobin Sprout plays the Horseshoe Tavern on Monday, April 19, 2004. To learn more about his music or see samples of his artwork, please visit www.tobinsprout.com
Writer: Cameron Gordon