Tobin Sprout :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Tobin Sprout was the other songwriter in early-1990s Guided by Voices, the wistful pop genius who wrote “Awful Bliss” and “Mincer Ray” from Bee Thousand and “Donkey School” from Vampires on Titus, “A Good Flying Bird” on Alien Lanes and “To Remake the Young Flyer” on Under the Bushes Under the Stars, before mostly bowing out to paint and write and raise his children. (He returned to the fold around 2010 for a “classic line-up” tour and the album Let’s Go Eat the Factory.)  

But, in addition to his historic stint with one of lo-fi’s most exuberant bands, Sprout has done a lot of other stuff. He’s a well-regarded photo realist painter, an author and illustrator of several books and, every few years, a solo artist. In 2020, he released his eighth solo album, Empty Horses, a gorgeous but somewhat unexpected detour into Americana sounds and Civil War imagery. We talked about his new focus on country sounds, his art and his books and the band that started it all for him, all those years ago. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: Empty Horses, the title, connotes death, horses coming back with an empty saddles, is that right?

Tobin Sprout: Somewhat, yes. It’s sort of being left behind is part of it. And yeah, I love that scenario, too, where the rider doesn’t return.

AD: Were you thinking about mortality and getting older?

Tobin Sprout: I think in the back of my mind. Turning 65, you start to think about it. Fifty didn’t bother me, 40 didn’t bother me, 60 didn’t bother me, but you start getting to 65 and start thinking about 20 years from now or 30 years from now … you’re a lot older. I feel fine. I still feel the same. But you do start thinking about things when you get to this age.

AD: You don’t make a lot of records, and I know you have a lot of other things on your plate. Can you talk about why it was time to make this record now?

Tobin Sprout: It took about two years to get it finished. I actually wrote two albums at the same time, and when I went to the record company and talked to the guys in the band, they all thought that this sounded like two albums. So, we kind of stripped it down.

I really liked the Americana style of it. I had written “Antietam” about 10 years ago. There was a single that I just sold out of the house, but I didn’t really give it the attention that it needed. It was the last one that I put on the album. It fit perfectly with what the album had become. “On Golden River,” there’s a lot of history, a lot of Civil War references and just a lot of American history. It was an album I’d always wanted to make. I always admired other people that did that sort of work. I don’t think I intended to go this way, but it just became this album, this sort of warped into this album, Empty Horses.

So, I’m really happy with it. I want to keep going in that direction, maybe a little more to the rock side, but it opened a lot of new doors for me as far as writing.

AD: Have you been interested in the Civil War for a while?

Tobin Sprout: Yeah, I wouldn’t say I’m a Civil War buff or anything, but I’ve read about it, and my grandfather would take us to Shiloh and Gettysburg. Back then, you would travel south, and you really noticed the difference in the culture. Now it seems that everything is blended together. You don’t have that southern culture anymore where you’d stop at a restaurant and they’d have grits and collard greens and that sort of thing. There are still little pockets of that, but you don’t see it as much anymore. I think it’s mainly because of the highway.

AD: I wanted to ask you about the country elements to this album which are a little bit different from what you’ve been doing in the past. There’s some really nice pedal steel on a couple of tracks. “Breaking Down” for instance.

Tobin Sprout: I love that.

AD: Can you talk about that? What is it about that sound and aesthetic that appeals to you?

Tobin Sprout: I’ve always loved the old school country. George Jones was one of my favorites, and Johnny Cash. They made such heartfelt songs that always seemed very real. You had people talking about their actual heartbreaks.

I always wanted to use a pedal steel on something. And then when I wrote “Breaking Down” it seemed like the ideal song to try it on. So, we had Drew Howard come in and put the pedal steel on it. He was only there for 20 minutes. He just nailed it. And then since he was there, we just thought why not try “All of my Sleep” and see what he could do with that? He just went in and knocked it out, and it just really added to the song. I was going to put some lead guitar on that instead, but the pedal steel just gave it this mystical tone hanging around in the background. It’s really interesting.

AD: I’m picking up a lot of spirituality and mysticism in this album. Is that something you’ve been thinking about especially this time around?

Tobin Sprout: Yeah. I’ve always been spiritual. I mean, I took the kids to church when they were little. I don’t go to church anymore. I believe in God, and it’s something that’s been in my life the whole time, as far as I can remember. So, I just…. every once in a while it comes out. I think it’s partly related to the Civil War references. You question god’s motives and why he would have these wars. I think a lot about the Civil War and what it would be like to have brother fighting against brother, really the whole country fighting. You think things are bad now, and it must have just been horrible back then. The whole South was burned down and had to be rebuilt. So yeah, there are a couple of songs where, like in “Antietam,” the narrator questions god and asks if god needs him. It’s sort of a way to try to make sense of it all. You have to believe there’s a reason for it.

AD: Your voice sounds different than I remember it. It’s a little bit lower and more resonant. Was there something you were doing differently with the singing?

Tobin Sprout: I’d always done harmonies, so I was always used to being in that higher register. My wife Laura constantly would say, why don’t you sing lower? And I would say, I don’t know how. I just started singing, or more speaking than singing, and found this new range that I had. I would use it before sometimes, but not consciously. It’s sort of like the writing. I’ve found a new voice.

AD: Interesting. You mentioned Johnny Cash, and I think the title track has such a Johnny Cash feel to it, though it’s a little bit more fanciful and surreal than his stuff. Can you talk about him as an influence and what you get from him?

Tobin Sprout: I like his phrasing. He’s very clear. If you listen to his songs, he makes it so you can understand every word. And he speaks it. He sort of sings it halfway, but there’s a lot of speaking. When I wrote that song, I just sort of put some guitar chords together and recorded them and just sort of threw these train of consciousness lyrics out there, and it worked out. At first I just thought it was kind of a joke. It was just sort of an exercise. Let’s see what happens. I wasn’t going to do anything with it. And then the more I listened to it, the more I liked it. I went back in and changed up some of the lyrics that didn’t make any sense, and then it just seemed to be good for the album. It just sort of worked with the album. And then I liked the title too, so I just used that for the title of the album, too.

AD: How do you see this album fitting into your body of work? It seems like a departure for you.

Tobin Sprout: Yeah, I think it is, but I also think it hearkens back to Moonflower Plastic. Because it was a second solo album, and I felt like, okay, I don’t have to write for GBV, which isn’t a bad thing, but there are a lot of songs on Moonflower Plastic that would never work for GBV. They’re more traditional or ballads. So, in that way, I think I’m not really departing but maybe reliving some of the things I started back with Moonflower Plastic.

AD: It’s interesting that you have a song in here that’s 10 years old. A lot times the songs on an album come from a specific part of an artist’s life. But it sounds like this is more extended.

Tobin Sprout: When I put “Antietam” out in 2010, I got an email from a guy who said, “You ought to do a Civil War album.” Ten years later, I’m doing it.

AD: You’ve been working with same band for a while now. Can you talk a little about who they are and what you like about working with them?

Tobin Sprout: Oh sure. Steve and Gary [Vermillion], and that’s Gary the drummer and then I have his brother on bass. They’re twins.

AD: Are they identical?

Tobin Sprout: No. I mean, a lot of times when people first meet them, they can’t tell them apart. But I can see a difference. But there’s something about twins. They’re perfect for playing together because they can almost communicate without speaking. They just kind of look at each other, and all the sudden it comes together. Tom Schichtel came to me ten or 15 years ago. He’s had a studio in Grand Rapids and is pretty well known for his studio. He was more of a surf guitar guy. He can do rock, too, but he has this surf thing that he brings to the leads that I think is really interesting. Everybody in the band gets along. It’s nice especially when you’re touring. You can all hang out together. There’s no problems between people.

AD: I think I read an old interview where you were talking about working on what must have become this album, and you said you were writing it on piano?

Tobin Sprout: Yeah, I write a lot of songs on piano, or I’ll start writing on guitar and try them on piano. It changes it up quite a bit. Sometimes they work better on piano, and sometimes they work better on guitar. There’s a lot of piano on this album. We’re going to be doing a virtual show. I’m thinking it’s probably going to be in November. We’re going to do it in my studio, and there’s a piano there. Usually, we can’t do that. Unless the club has a piano, we just have to play it on guitar. It’s kind of nice to be able to do a live show with the piano in there. And I think we’re going to be doing some shows in January, hopefully. There are plans for it.

AD: You’re also a visual artist. How does that fit in with the music that you do? Is it related? Or do you have to block off separate parts of yourself? How does that work?

Tobin Sprout: It’s pretty much two different things. I’ll block off time to go up there and write. It’s kind of just…what do I feel like doing today. Or nothing, you know. Sometimes I can’t do anything. I even have different followings. Like GBV has a following. Some of them also follow along with the art, and sometimes buy the smaller ones. Actually, the older they get, the more they can afford the larger ones. There’s a mix. There are people that know me as an artist and don’t know I’m in a band, and then there’s people that are the other way.

AD: I was looking at the work on your website. And the prints are really wonderful. I especially like “Stilted Men.”

Tobin Sprout: Oh thanks.

AD: Can you tell me a little bit about how you developed your style as an artist?

Tobin Sprout: I’ve been a photorealist. I’ve had different styles, but mostly as a photo realist. But when I did the book, Elliott, have you seen the book Elliott?

AD: No.

Tobin Sprout: That’s what the “Stilted Men” are from. As I wrote it, I imagined what these things would look like, and my wife helped me develop the characters. So, when I did the illustrations for the book, I developed Disney backgrounds and the colors and played off of that and played off some other things. So, it was kind of fun. It was a nice departure from the photo realism, where you know what things are going to look like when you start. You think about the character and just try to imagine what he looks like and the background.

AD: I was thinking it reminded me of Dali and a little of Miro with the organic shapes.

Tobin Sprout: Oh yeah, that’s interesting.

AD: I know you’ve written at least one children’s book, or is it several?

Tobin Sprout: I’ve written two. One I was writing on the side while I was writing “Eliot.” It’s just sort of a simple thing called Tinky Puts His Little Moon to Bed.  

AD: Are you doing any more of that?

Tobin Sprout: Yeah, my wife wrote the girl version of it and we’re trying to…she’s got it all written down, and we’re trying to separate the pages and figure out what we’re going to do for the illustrations and we’ll put that out, too. And then there’s another Elliott book. I just need to put that together. I don’t know when that would come out if it even would. I still work on children’s books every once in a while. It’s not easy. I can remember having brain freezes, and it’s a lot of work to write.

AD: I think we have a child about the same age. Mine is 25 now. And I know that you were a super hands-on dad, very involved in that. Can you talk about how that affected your work? I’m sure it meant that you had less time than you wanted for things. Were there any positives in terms of being an artist?

Tobin Sprout: Yeah. When I left Guided by Voices, it was my plan to be home with the kids. I didn’t want to miss that. We moved up to Leland [Michigan] when my kids were two, Turner was two and Martha had just turned one. So, when I built the house, I built a studio above my garage so I’d be able to work during the day and still be at home. I’m just really glad I did it. For a long time, I thought, why didn’t I stick with Guided by Voices and play out more, and now looking back, because I didn’t want to miss it. I wanted to be there. So, my son’s 25 and he was in LA for the last three years, and he’s home now. He’ll probably go back after the first of the year. My daughter just turned 24. So, they’re out of the house.

AD: Do you mind talking about the past? People are super interested in Guided by Voices.

Tobin Sprout: Sure.

AD: You came up through what sounds like a really amazing lo-fi scene in Ohio in the 1980s. Can you tell me about what you remember about those days?

Tobin Sprout: Yeah, I remember the studios when everything was to tape, back then, and the studios weren’t that expensive, but they were enough that we couldn’t afford them. I had this four-track that I bought, a cassette four-track, a TASCAM, and we just started using it to get the songs down. Bob was using a boom box. We just sort of started to like the sound we were getting, and we were like why bother going into the studio when we have this four-track? I don’t think we intended to be lo-fi. It just sort of happened, and when things started taking out, there were a lot of other people doing the same thing. So, the lo-fi movement started, and we were kind of in the top part of it. I remember it was great. We could spend all the time in the world working on these songs, and it was affordable. They’d get to my house or Bob’s or to Kevin’s or wherever we were at and record on the spot.

AD: What do you think happened around Columbus that made it such a hotbed for music?

Tobin Sprout: I don’t know, there were a lot of bands coming up at the same time. They had one club called the 1001 Club. It was all these touring bands that were around at that time from all over the country were coming through. For some reason, they would always come to Dayton and play at the 1001 Club and we would, when I was in Figure 4, we were sort of the house band, so we got to open for all these bands. So, it was kind of a good thing for a long time. It may still be. I haven’t been back in a while. There were just this little happening pocket that happened during that early to mid-1980s to 1990s, 1995 or so.

AD: How did you meet Bob Pollard?

Tobin Sprout: At the 1001 Club. We were doing a show there and I remember looking out and seeing these guys standing right in front, and they had dusters on. I don’t know if you remember the band, Thin White Rope?

AD: Yeah, I do.

Tobin Sprout: They had that western look. They just stood there and watched the whole thing and loved it and then after we took a break or after the show, Pete Jameson came over and said Bob would like to meet you. So he took me over the table, and Bob was sitting with five or six other guys and we met and the next thing, we went over and met him at his house and started talking and eventually just kind of rolled it into Guided by Voices. He didn’t have the name Guided by Voices yet. Shortly after that, he came up with the Guided by Voices. I did the Figure 4 album and then I moved to Florida for three years. Sarasota. After three years, I decided to move home. When I moved home, I just stopped by Bob’s and he had just started Propeller, so I kind of re-joined and was there until Under the Bushes. It was …I miss those days. It was really exciting. Things were just happening fast. It took off, and we were touring all over.

AD: You’re the only other member of Guided by Voices besides Pollard to get a songwriting credit, aren’t you?

Tobin Sprout: There’s some other ones. Greg had some. Sometimes we would work on songs together so we had a group effort. But Bob would always come in with lyrics and maybe an idea and we’d knock something out. Bob would throw a lyric over it. There’s a lot of group credits, especially on Propeller.

AD: Is it possible to contrast the way he writes songs and the way you do. Do you have different approaches or different styles?

Tobin Sprout: Yes, he usually has lyrics. He has a whole book full of lyrics, which I admire. I wish I could do that. A lot of times, you’ll record the song, and I’ll just put in scratch lyrics and then go back and rewrite them. Sometimes you can’t re-do the performance and so you suffer that way when you go back and re-do the vocals. When you have them all written out, the song is done. You sing it, and it’s catalogue.

AD: What are you working on now that the album’s done?

Tobin Sprout: I’m actually working on an album of my daughter’s. She’s been writing some very nice songs lately, and we’ve been going down to Tommy’s in Grand Rapids. He’s got a nice two-inch tape machine and a nice studio. I thought it would be good to get her out of dad’s studio and into someplace that seems a little more professional. So, we’ve got about five songs down, and they’re really turning out nice, and we hope to put that out in the next year or so.

Other than that, I’ve been painting and working on my own stuff, and trying to get this virtual show together.

AD: How have you been affected by the pandemic and the lockdown? I’m sure it’s played havoc with your touring plans.

Tobin Sprout: Yeah, I think that’s the worst. I feel for the clubs and a lot of the bands that are having trouble surviving it. I can get by just because I’ve got my artwork. As far as the lockdown, I work out of my house anyway for the last 20 years. But I think it’s tough on everybody emotionally. I see people losing their tempers where you wouldn’t imagine them losing their temper. I think it’s just really…I’m hoping that it’s going to go away in a little bit.

AD: It’s weird because some days it seems fine. And then every once in a while, you get one of those days where you just can’t deal with it anymore.

Tobin Sprout: Right, the masks. I was on the board of the historical society, and we had to wear the masks for an hour and a half for this meeting. It was devastating and claustrophobic. We were far enough apart that we could take the masks off if we wanted to, and then there were a couple of people that didn’t want to, so everybody had to wear them. It is what it is, I guess. For the first two weeks of the lockdown, I thought, this is great. You don’t have to anything. And you don’t have to feel guilty about not doing anything. But it seems to be opening up quite a bit here. We can go out to dinner now, as long as you have your distancing. At least we can get out and have a social life again.

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