Monday, October 24, 2011

Tobin Sprout interview, 1997

Tobin Sprout: Carnival Boy
by Daniel Coston and Benjamin Robinson
Originally posted on Tangents Magazine website, 1997

Guided by Voices fans will note that the "new GBV record" that Tobin is talking about is Mag Earwhig, which was eventually released in 1997 after GBV singer and leader Robert Pollard scrapped most of the album done by the band's best-known lineup (which included Sprout), and re-recorded it with another band. I have another interview with GBV drummer Kevin Fennell, done on the same day as this interview, where he also talks about the album in progress. An interesting glimpse into where everything stood, at that time.

I also like the end of this interview, for reasons you will soon realize.

With the recent release of his first solo album, Carnival Boy, Guided by Voices guitarist Tobin Sprout has stepped into the spotlight role for the first time since the demise of his pre-GbV band Fig. 4 ten years ago. But any GbV fan can tell you how important his guitar work and falsetto voice, plus his occasional compositions, have been to the group’s sound.

On August 8 of 1996, Tobin granted us this phone interview while he was home caring for his fifteen month-old son, Turner. Sprout, who has a surprisingly deeper speaking voice than his singing voice, is very modest and gracious, and talked with us about his solo album and several other GbV-related topics.

Tangents: Did you do the whole solo album in your basement?

Sprout: There’s 14 songs on the album, and half of them I did everything on four-track and the other seven were done at Cro-Magnon [Studios], and [GbV drummer] Kevin Fennell played the drums on them.

Tangents: Was this something that you had been planning to do, or did Matador ask you to do a solo project?

Sprout: I kind of had been thinking about it for awhile, and Bob [Pollard’s] been doing one for a long time, and it just came to a point where we were done with the Guided by Voices album, and we had a long time before we had to work on the next one, so it seemed like a good time to put out a solo album during the break.

Tangents: Are you kind of surprised that they’re putting out both records on the same day?

Sprout: No, not really. They agreed to put ‘em out together. They wanted to do a single where it showed us boxing on the cover, like it was some big challenge, but we said, "No, I don’t think so."

Tangents: Are you gonna make a video for Carnival Boy?

Sprout: No, I kind of doubt it. It’s gonna be kind of low-profile, we’re just gonna put it out there. They’re gonna advertise a little bit, but we can’t tour for it. So it’s kind of, here they are, and we’ll move on to the next Guided by Voices album.

Tangents: Would you even want to do a video? Is that something that would interest you?

Sprout: Yeah, it kind of does. I’d like to do it myself. But videos can be so expensive to do ‘em, and then not to have ‘em played, so it seems like it is a waste of time unless you’re really gonna push to have it played. I wouldn’t mind doing one for myself. Do it myself and see how it turns out, and if Matador wants to use it for something, that’ll be fine. They haven’t said anything about it yet. I don’t even know if there’s even gonna be a single from the album.

Tangents: We heard that you guys did a John Peel session when you were in England this summer.
Sprout: Yes, we did.

Tangents: How did those turn out?

Sprout: I thought they turned out great.

Tangents: Did you get to do any of your songs?

Sprout: We did "Atom Eyes," and I co-wrote "Wondering Boy Poet," which was on Vampire On Titus, we kind of redid that with a piano version. It turned out really nice.

Tangents: What else did you do during those sessions?

Sprout: "Your Name Is Wild." I can’t really remember which songs. I think we did six songs.

Tangents: Do you know if there’s any plans to release that?

Sprout: Well, we pretty much have to license them from Peel. We’d thought about using "Wondering Boy Poet" for something, but right now we really don’t have any place to use it. It’d be easier to just re-record it than to license it from Peel.

Tangents: Do you know if they any plans to air it anytime soon?

Sprout: I don’t know what the plan is. They’ll definitely air it, but it’s pretty much you record it, and when they can arrange to have it played, they’ll put it on.

Tangents: Did you do any musical stuff when you were living in Florida for those three years, after you left Dayton? Did you play in any bands?

Sprout: No. Actually, I barely picked up a guitar the whole time while I was down there. That’s where I got started painting. I’d come home from work, and paint. So I got that career started, and when I moved back, I started playing again.

Tangents: What made you move back to Dayton?

Sprout: Just because getting art work was much easier up here. I came back for about three weeks to see what it would be like, and I was just getting tons of work. I just wanted to move back anyway because, I don’t know if you’ve ever lived down there, but I didn’t really care for it. It was too hot, and I just got back here and decided to stay.

Tangents: So you came back for the art stuff, and ended up playing music again.

Sprout: Yeah. I had stayed in touch with Bob the whole time I was gone, and when I got back, he had just finished Same Place The Fly Got Smashed and was ready to go in and do Propeller. So he asked me to come in on that, and I’ve been with it ever since.

Tangents: How many songs do you bring in to the sessions? Do you write three or four, or do you bring in more?

Sprout: It depends. The longer I’ve been with them, the more songs I’ve been bringing in. For the next record, I’ve already got two, and there’s about five or six that Bob and I co-wrote where we did all the instruments on four-track, kind of the way we did "Hot Freaks." By the time we’re finished, I may have another one on there.

Tangents: What do you think you guys would’ve done if you hadn’t been picked up after Propeller? What you have continued producing your own stuff?

Sprout: Yeah, I think we would’ve just kept putting our own albums out. Even with Propeller, we kept saying that was the last album, and then we did Vampire On Titus and we would’ve done it anyways, whether Scat put it out or not. But every time that we say that this was the last album, we just keep putting them out. In order for us to feel that the songs are finished, we have to have them on vinyl, or they’d just get lost, and we really don’t want them to be lost, so I think we would’ve kept putting out albums.

Tangents: When you guys did Bee Thousand, did Scat do a small pressing, and then Matador picked upon it, or were they in it from the beginning? Because I know a lot of it got distributed by Matador.

Sprout: I think [Scat] distributed in Europe, and they might have done some distribution a little bit over here. I think Scat tried to handle most of that, and whatever the overload was, Matador had it. They had a deal going, I’m not sure how it worked. It still belongs to Scat.

Tangents: Are you guys happy on Matador?

Sprout: I’m happy, yeah. They kind of push us to tour a little bit more, but they understand that we can’t. They’re real reasonable, and when we really want to push an album, they’ve got Capitol [Records] with them now. I think it’s an ideal situation. We’re still on an independent label, but they can push it if they need to.

Tangents: So all you guys have pretty much quit the day jobs, right?

Sprout: Yeah. I still paint.

Tangents: Yeah, I was gonna mention that. So you just paint and make music?

Sprout: Yeah. My wife works in the morning, so I get to watch my son, and then she comes home, and I can get stuff done.

Tangents: Has "power pop," as "athemic rock," as Mitch called it, always something that appealed to you?

Sprout: Yeah, I always liked the pop, the Genesis and Big Star, and the Beatles and stuff like that. But I also like the big Pink Floyd shows, the David Gilmour stuff.

Tangents: Is singing your stuff live something that you don’t do very much?

Sprout: Occasionally, we do. "Atom Eyes," we’ve been playing on the last tour, and "Awful Bliss" was one I used to do. A lot of times, it has to do with the flow of the show, ‘cause I’ll usually play that, "14 Cheerleader Coldfront" or "Atom Eyes," at least one of them. It just depends on how the show’s going, or whether we have a certain number of songs we have to get done in an allotted time, or we get encores. It just depends on the feel of the show.

Tangents: When are you gonna be laying down tracks for the next Guided by Voices record?

Sprout: We have been. It’s pretty much almost finished. We’re gonna go in next week. I just finished a song yesterday, and Bob’s got a couple more that he wants to do, and then we’re gonna put it together. It will be finished, but we’ve got so long until it comes out, I’m sure it’ll be tinkered with.

Tangents: When is it coming out?

Sprout: Probably not until next spring.

Tangents: Where did you this one?

Sprout: Half of it was done in my basement, and half of it was done at Cro-Magnon.

Tangents: And who produced it?

Sprout: John Crosland from Spoon. He did some of the songs, he didn’t do all of them. We produced some of the stuff at Cro-Mag, and some of the stuff in the basement.

Tangents: How does it sound?

Sprout: I think it sounds great. It seems like another step ahead. I think it’s going to be a great album.

Tangents: Any working titles yet?

Sprout: No. I’m sure Bob has some. It seems like the working titles are usually the first one that seems to stick, and we then go through all the other ones, and we go back to the first one.

Tangents: I didn’t recognize that Under The Bushes came from the lyric of a song until I heard that the album was coming out.

Sprout: Yeah, it’s a lyric from a song, and it’s title of a song that we kind of lost. We were in Refraze the other day, and we couldn’t find it. Hopefully, it’ll turn up someplace.

Tangents: Yeah, it was a lyric from a song that was on the "I Am A Scientist" EP. That’s what I like about the songs. The music references itself so much. Because like "Buzzards And Dreadful Crows," that guitar hook from that song was on two other records. Plus, when I got the [GbV] box set, hearing all the little song fragments become real songs, it was a very neat experience. I can’t talk about Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand and make tapes out of them, because the whole album seems to be one song the way it’s put together.

Sprout: Well, we try to put the albums together that way. You go from the beginning to the end, and you need all the parts in-between.

Tangents: How many songs do you guys bring in for an entire album? Because it seems like with the album, and then all the singles, it just seems like you have an innumerable amount of songs.

Sprout: I think for the last record we had like 60 songs, and we took if not the best, or if not the best, the ones that seem to fit for that particular album. And then a lot of times, the songs that don’t make get on that album will get on another album, or an EP. It just depends on where they seem to fit better.

Tangents: Do you have plans to release any more singles from Under The Bushes?

Sprout: They were talking about "Your Name Is Wild," but I don’t know if Matador’s gonna do it. Last time I heard, they were.

Tangents: I think "It’s Like Soul, Man" would make a great single.

Sprout: Actually, I wasn’t really happy with that version. I redid it on my solo album, and I think it sounds much better.

Tangents: Does the solo album kind of jump around, musically?

Sprout: It kind of jumps around. There’s an acoustic one on there, and there’s some pretty good rock stuff on there, some anthem stuff. And then there’s some melodic pop tunes on there, too.

Tangents: So how do you want to be remembered as in Guided by Voices? George Harrison, John Oates or Art Garfunkel?

Sprout: John Entwhistle. [all laugh] I would’ve rather been referred to as Entwhistle than George Harrison in that [Magnet] article. But what could you do?

Tangents: And then calling you the "Dark Horse," too. I thought it was terrible.

Sprout: Yeah. The whole thing made me sound like I was moping around...

Tangents: I know, and I had a feeling you weren’t cranky about it, or anything like that...

Sprout: Yeah, I wasn’t. I was kind of glad that Eric wanted to do the side[bar] on me. I think he felt bad that he was just doing it on Bob. I don’t know. Maybe it was just the way I looked at it, but it just seemed like I was whining or something.

Tangents: It was also a very kind of reflective picture they had in there of you, too.

Sprout: Uh-huh. I remember when they set that up. They were like, "Put that one hand there, and look to the side, look down and keep your eyes straight." It was kind of posed.

Tangents: You can always send it in as your head shot for a guest appearance on "Melrose Place."

Sprout: Yeah, the soft focus and everything. The new teen idol.

Tangents: Is there any musical direction that GbV is going in now, with your album or albums? Robert said in one interview that the stuff he was writing now was more off-the-wall.

Sprout: I don’t think we really look that far ahead. We usually just let the writing dictates which we we’re going, and a lot of times, that’s why it ends up being a little bit of this and a little bit of that. ‘Cause we’re never in the same vein for a long time, so there’s still some of the real weird stuff, and there’s some of the straighter pop songs on it.

Tangents: How do you feel about a lot of the press you have gotten? Have you generally liked what they’ve written about you guys, or do they get it at all?

Sprout: I think it’s about half-and-half. Some of them, and some get it even better than I thought they would. Than there’s other people that just don’t get it at all, and then there’s a lot in-between. I read some of it, and it seems like if it starts off right away by going into the lo-fi thing, the "ex-schoolteacher," then I just put it away.

Tangents: That’s like what Mitch said word for word! [all laugh]

Sprout: Some of the stuff’s the same, but occasionally you do get some people that get it.

Tangents: Do you see Guided by Voices doing a reunion tour twenty, thirty years from now?

Sprout: [laughs] I don’t know. We’d all be seventy by then.

Tangents: I know. That’s why it’d be a beautiful thing.

Sprout: We’d come out in our wheelchairs.

Tangents: Hey, the Rolling Stones do that every year!

Sprout: Yeah, that’s true. They’re still out there. Maybe...

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