Interview: Tobin Sprout of Guided By Voices

Tobin Sprout

When Guided By Voices released Let’s Go Eat The Factory earlier this year, one thing stood out on that release: The Tobin Sprout songs are really good. It wasn’t shocking as Sprout contributed many sing-along favorites to a handful of GBV albums in the 1990s, but not since Under The Bushes Under The Stars in 1996 had his songs been featured on a GBV release.
Sprout’s musical output didn’t slow down during his absence from GBV. The singer-guitarist released five stellar solo albums in that 16-year span and also collaborated with Robert Pollard on two Airport 5 albums in the early 2000s. Fast forward to 2012: GBV’s three albums with a reunited “classic” lineup this year mark a return to the band’s brilliance which made them popular in the 90s, and it also marks a return to hearing Sprout’s songs sprinkled in, which work so well matched alongside Pollard’s magic.
Ghettoblaster recently caught up with 57-year-old Dayton, Ohio, native Sprout, who now lives in Leland, Michigan.
Interview conducted by Mark Toerner.  Photo by Beowulf Sheehan (from the photo shoot for Ghettoblaster issue 30)
The Bears for Lunch is getting some really positive reviews. What are your thoughts on the album in comparison to the other two GBV releases in 2012?
I’m glad to see Bears getting good reviews. I think it is a strong album as is Class Clown. A lot of what I’ve read seems to say they are growing better with each album, but I think Let’s Go Eat the Factory is as strong as any of them and I think works from a larger pallet.  Every song on Factory is a very different tempo, style and sound. I see Factory as an abstract, where Bears and Clown have more of a polished feel.  Not that one is better than the other. 
Tell me about the process of recording your songs for the new albums. Are they mostly recorded by you in your home studio?  
I record most of my songs here in Leland but have started taking songs into the studio with the band. A song on (forthcoming 2013 album) English Little League called “Island (She Talks In Rainbows)” is a song left over from my solo Bluebirds. I re-worked it and had Kevin and Mitch play on it.  I think it really turned out great and hope to do more with the band. When I record here in Leland, things that start as demos often end up being the final work. Sometimes it’s hard to redo something and get the same feel that the original had. I’ve gotten better as a drummer (straight beat with little fill). It’s simple but it works in most cases.   
Do you have a different vision when writing/recording a song for a GBV album rather than a “solo” Tobin Sprout song? 
I have a lot of songs that after I’ve recorded them, I will go back and record them again on piano. “Atom Eyes” is one that is out there, but I also have versions of “Starfire,” “14 Cheerleader Cold Front” and “Indian Ink” where I sing and play the piano. I also found a version of “My Back Pages” I did back around the time I recorded Circus People. I sat down and played the song on piano and sang it, then went back in and recorded the vocals again. Added some strings. Very pretty. I’m thinking of releasing them on a demos and outtake album, might call it Tanks and Whatnots
Do you go back and listen to any of the GBV/Pollard-related material? What’s your favorite release?  
I do go back and listen to older material. I hear them differently than when they were first recorded. I don’t remember the chord structure or how the parts and vocals were put together. I can hear them as one finished piece. I feel the same when I see a painting I did a long time ago. I can just see the painting, and not what happened the day I did that part. I sometimes wonder, how did I do that?
The sequencing of songs really shines on Bears – and particularly the placement of your songs. How involved are you in the sequencing process on the new albums? Was it a different process in the 90s?
I send the songs to Bob and that’s all I do. I have the feeling Bob spends a lot of time on the sequencing. And also is there for the mastering. I don’t think the process has changed much from the 90s.
With the success of the new material and a fourth album coming out next year, can fans expect any more touring to showcase more of the new songs? 
I hope so. I really think the new songs need to be played out.  By the end of the last tour I could tell the new songs were as welcome as the older songs.  
Any plans for future albums? 
There is talk of a fifth GBV album next, and also an EP due in January called Down By The Racetrack.
Looking back on the last few years of Guided by Voices, do you feel like the band has hit its peak? 
I don’t know. I still love to write songs. I like playing out. Some people will always say our peak was Bee Thousand. I guess you should stop when it doesn’t work or you lose your drive, but I don’t feel that.