We’re only going to say this once: If you’re expecting this interview with artist/musician Tobin Sprout to reside mainly in his multiple terms with venerated indie band Guided By Voices, look elsewhere. There’s far too much about Sprout to say to fixate on such a (relatively) small portion of it. For instance, aside from the paintings, the children’s books, the implication in this interview alone that he’s going to animate one of those children’s books, Sprout has a large and varied solo discography that rivals some of the best that came through the GBV pipeline. Sprout’s new album The Universe and Me is now available and well worth seeking out if you have followed his (and his former band’s) work.
POPDOSE: It’s my assumption that the new album The Universe and Me was written and recorded primarily in 2016, the 20th anniversary of Carnival Boy, your first solo album. What were some of the major differences between then and now, aside from the primarily technical differences?
SPROUT: I pretty much write the same way. I make things up as I am recording then put it all together. Once I have the idea down, I will either re-record it or just work with what I have already recorded. Sometimes I have the lyric ready at the beginning and other times I will just have a title and expand off of that. The Universe and Me is a mixture of recordings from 2016 and some demos left over from around 2010 to now.
POPDOSE: Is The Universe and Me mainly performed by you or are there additional musicians with you on it?
SPROUT: Gary Vermillion has been working with me on some of the recordings. We had been just setting up, getting mic sounds using the Ampex MM1000 (tape machine). It’s an old machine and works when it wants to, but when it works, it sounds great. Along with a tech guy, we have worked out most of the kinks, so it’s becoming a lot more dependable. One of the songs we used it on is “Heart Of Wax.” Others Gary played drums on are “Future Boy” and “Just One Kid.” Other than those three, I play everything.
POPDOSE: I read you’ll be touring the album in 2017. Who is the band composed of and what can fans expect to hear on the road?
SPROUT: The band is Gary Vermillion on drums, Steve Vermillion on bass. I’ve toured with them a few times. Tommy Schichtel I have known for quite a while and recorded some to the songs on The Bluebirds Of Happiness Tried To Land On My Shoulder (2010) at his studio, “She’s On Mercury” being one of them. He offered to join the band if I ever toured and is a perfect fit. We work well together and, as a band, it all seems to be blending in a great way. The live songs are coming together very quickly. Songs like “Jupiter Spin” and “Waves” have a very harmonic sound that works well with this band. I think it’s going to bring new life to the songs live.
POPDOSE: The new album is coming from Burger Records, which is also advertising that both Carnival Boy and Moonflower Plastic will be returning as reissues. It will be good to have both of those available again (I’ve had the Matador CDs since they came out). How did the relationship between you and Burger Records come about?
SPROUT: I asked (Guided By Voices manager) David Newgarden to see if there was any interest in some of the labels in putting out my album. I sent a rough mix of the record to shop around, and after some interest Burger just seemed like the best fit. There were a few changes to the album from there.
Carnival Boy and Moonflower Plastic will be re-released at the time we are starting the tour, so we can promote all three albums at once, along with Bluebirds of Happiness (which) I put out myself in 2010.
POPDOSE: I hope this isn’t taken the wrong way — the ’90s was a decade with an awful lot of dire, angry music. One of the best things that came from those years, however, were your solo records which displayed — to me — a certain sense of whimsy, which was a quality in short supply. Do you feel that is an accurate attribute toward your work and do you aim in that direction, or does it merely happen this way?
SPROUT: I just write what I feel like at the time.
POPDOSE: There was a bit of a gap between the Matador records and the Luna/Wigwam records, and the time in between each — Let’s Welcome The Circus People, Lost Planets & Phantom Voices, and we can add the Eyesinweasel album in too — seemed to grow. Was this just the nature of being an independent musician, of also making a living in other fields like painting, or were there other barriers?
SPROUT: The albums come out whenever I have the time or interest in getting them together. I split my time between art shows and music. I was also building my studio during some of (that) time — built it mostly by myself — a full two-car garage with the studio above it. I asked Gary to help set the rafters. We manhandled them up to the second floor and the two of us set them. Took about a year or so to finish the whole thing. That was during the Circus People to Lost Planet time. But for the most part, I was doing gallery shows, so I was painting and didn’t really have time to write music. My kids were young then, too.
POPDOSE: I’ll be perfectly honest. I had no idea that The Bluebirds Of Happiness Tried To Land On My Shoulder even existed. Could you fill me in on this one?
SPROUT: Bluebird was the first record I did in my studio. I released it myself on my Moonflower label. I have also released a single “Antietam” on my label. Both didn’t get any exposure except for word of mouth and Facebook. So it will be nice to be able to promote them on the upcoming tour. Bluebird also has some songs with this band on it. Gary and Steve played bass and drum, and Tommy recorded some of it at his studio. He also added vocals to one of the songs.
POPDOSE: This is probably one of those questions that make me sound like I’m 80, so please oblige me in any impertinence…one of the charms of your music, even the digitally recorded stuff, is that you can hear the breath in it. It’s not a broadside against modern pop necessarily, but it is so compressed and micro-edited, and “heavy,” and not always in a pleasant way. The original lo-fi aesthetic came about mainly because artists and bands used what they had. There was no bigger statement to be made than “let’s make an album.”
Again, even though home recording has progressed to the point where a lot of these big pop deals are made at home too, is there a sense out there that it necessary to make records don’t sound nearly so…inhuman?
SPROUT: Sometimes I hear some of the songs we recorded on 4-track and think how great they might have sounded in a big studio. But I think it was more about capturing the moment, and the limited tracks. You had to work with basic drums, guitar mixed to one of the tracks, leaving three tracks for bass, lead guitar, and vocals. On “Exit Flagger” (from the GBV album Propeller) I put the lead guitar on the same track as the lead vocal. You can hear the vocal end and the guitar punch in. It was a risky move because If I missed it I would record over the vocal. I had to hit the punch and get ready to play at the same time.
I think the limited options made you be more creative. Also, the lack of compression, except for tape compression, might have given it what you called “breathy.” No gates to block out breathing and pops.
SPROUT: Hoping to tour a bit more…we will see how it goes. I have some other projects I’m working on: a couple children’s books, one like Elliott in style, and another I’m doing with my wife Laura. She wrote the story and I will be doing the illustrations. I want to get more into video, maybe animate the Tinky book. And then, I’m also painting.
POPDOSE: Aside from the work with GBV, you have a very impressive repertoire to pull from — Airport 5, Fig. 4, Eyesinweasel, the Tobin Sprout albums. What songs bring a smile to your face when you think about them and contemplate doing them live?
SPROUT: There are a few songs that have really surprised me that we are doing live. Like “The Corners Are Glowing” and “Jupiter Spin,” for whatever reason, I wasn’t sure if they would work live. But we worked them out and they work very well live. “Corners” is very interesting in that it’s easy to expand off of. It has a lot going on, the part can move about and still have the same structure. It sounds different every time we play it. Hearing the song I wrote and played alone, and then hearing how good they can sound as a band, is very exciting. I think it will just get better as we play more and more and add songs as we go. I don’t want to count any songs out until I see what we can do with them live.
SPROUT: I think both albums got a band studio version. The Under the Bushes version was recorded at Steve Albini’s studio, one he had in his home at the time. It might have been run through the 4-track for the final mix. The Carnival Boy one was recorded at Cro-mag in Dayton. There is a 4-track demo that is on a boxset or something…I’d have to look it up.
Tobin Sprout’s new album The Universe and Me is available at Burger Records on multiple formats by clicking here.
You can find out more about everything Tobin Sprout at his site (by clicking here).