Salvaged: Tobin Sprout

This is a “salvaged” Q&A from a telephone conversation with musician and artist Tobin Sprout (of Guided by Voices fame). It was distilled into an article scheduled for publication in the June 5, 2014 issue of the Inlander, but the article was axed when the band suddenly cancelled its June 6 concert in Spokane, WA.

Tobin Sprout (with GbV) at the Black Cat in Washington, DC on May 24, 2014. Photo by Photomixt.

Tobin Sprout (with GbV) at the Black Cat in Washington, DC on May 24, 2014. Photo by Photomixt.

Who came up with the “classic” designation for the reunited lineup?

It was the first lineup when we started playing live. I don’t know who came up with that. I think it was just a way to describe who was actually in the original live band, because originally we didn’t play out. We were just doing albums. And it wasn’t until after Propeller where we actually started playing Columbus (Ohio) and then heading out to Cincinnati, and working our way out. And then we did the New York City show at CBGB’s, and that was kind of when we had a solid band together and this was the lineup.

Would you say there’s a noticeably different sound with this (re)incarnation of GbV?

I think there’s definitely a different sound. It seems rougher than some of the others because I think the musicians are — well, you know, not that I think we’re bad musicians, but Doug (Gillard) was a really good guitar player. There’s definitely a different sound that Bob (Pollard) had with Doug as a guitar player and some of the other bass players. This is the sound that was on the original albums, same players, and so I can hear a difference between the ones that I played on and the ones that were in between when I left. There’s just a different sound to them.

Was listening to GbV albums like Do the Collapse an odd experience for you, then?

I left. It was up to me. It was my decision to leave, and I wanted to. It was still hard to see them go on, but now it’s gone full circle, something I never thought would happen. And I’m just really happy to be back in the band, especially the way it happened, that it wasn’t just — that Matador got a hold of us and it just sort of became its own thing. It wasn’t that we just decided, ‘Let’s get the band back together.’ It was a decision we made after somebody else asked us to get back together, and then we did the tours, and the tours went so well that we decided to do an album, and one thing led to another, and here we are on our sixth — Cool Planet is the sixth album we’ve put out since we’ve been back together. Plus the EP, Down by the Racetrack.

But it wasn’t long ago that Bob was hinting that GbV was about to call it quits again.

Well, that’s not the first time that’s happened, either. Propeller was going to be the last album. I remember going to a practice session, and after we were practicing, Bob came out and said, ‘This is it. I’ve got to kill this. This will be the last album.’ And the next morning he called me up and said he had a song, ‘Exit Flagger,’ and he came over, recorded that, and we were back in business. It happens quite a bit.

Doesn’t that make things a bit touch and go, or do you feel like GbV is stable?

Kind of both. We’ve all got our own lives, so if it doesn’t work, we’re still established somewhere else. Like, Greg’s (Demos) an attorney and Bob’s got his own things going, and I can always do my art and my solos, so it’s just sort of — I’m just glad that it is working and at this point it seems like it’s going to keep going for a while. As long as everybody’s happy and we feel we’re actually putting out some nice albums, we’ll probably just keep doing it.

Does having a fallback alleviate some of the psychological pressure?

I think we can just write because we like it instead of, you know, trying to write things that are going to make us money. It’s more of a labor of love than it is a job, so I think that makes a big difference. I mean, if you’re trying to put out an album because you need an album because you’re going to go on the road, I think that would be a different thing than the way we do it. It’s just, ‘Okay, we’ve got all these songs together, the album’s coming out, and we just happen to be doing a tour.’ Right now, I mean, the album’s coming out (May) 13th, and it just happens to be three days before the tour starts in Cincinnati. So it’s nice that we can do it without worrying about whether the record’s going to sell or not.

So there’s no grand strategy?

We just put the albums out when we’ve got the catalogue, and we’re just writing quite a bit now. It’s not like we decided, ‘Let’s put two albums out right away.’ It’s just that’s when all these songs come together. We can’t sit around and wait. Once the package is together, we want it to come out because we’re already on to something else. We’re already into the next solo or the next album.

Creative restlessness?

Yeah, we’re always into the next album or an idea for the next album or where we’re going to go. Bob will send me a cover and a title for the album, and you kind of have that to work off of, whatever idea that is that pops into your head by looking at those images.

That’s unique, no? To write songs primarily based on visual inspiration?

Not all of it, but for a lot — even my solo, I got the cover there, and I started writing to that. I think [Bob] sent me Motivational Jumpsuit, and then he sent me Cool Planet. What he had for that wasn’t exactly the one that came out, but it was certain images that ended up on it. It just kind of gives you this feel for maybe what the album’s going to sound like, and you sort of write toward whatever that feeling is you’re getting.

It all seems to come from the same place. I’ll either have the energy to paint or I’ll have the energy to write, and even with the paintings, you just get this spark of inspiration to do something, and you go from there. And the same with the music. Certain days I can’t do anything, and the next day it’s like I can’t even believe the day’s over because I’ve been so focused on getting these songs out.

About that songwriting: Your contributions have always provided a natural counterpoint to Bob’s. Is that partly intentional?

I’ve always had sort of a pop edge, and Bob’s been able to go all over the spectrum. I’ve kind of pushed myself, writing with Mitch (Mitchell), to write harder songs like ‘Psychotic Crush.’ And even ‘American Boy’ I kind of pushed myself. Why do I have to stay where I think I should be? Why can’t I just expand into something different than what I’ve tried before? So that’s kind of what I’m trying to do now, just to reach out and try to do something that I haven’t done before and push myself a little more. Mitch sends me these demos, and he just really pounds the guitar out, so I have to rise to the occasion to match his energy. That helps me to push myself to rock a little harder.

I’ve always thought there were some similarities in our voices. We actually noticed it on, ‘You Get Every Game.’ And there’s a couple of other ones where I was singing with Bob, and it was almost to the point where we didn’t know whose voice was whose when we mixed it because they sounded so similar. But then, on the other hand, I think Bob’s got a lot harder edge to his voice, more of a rock voice, and I have more of a pop voice. As far as writing, I think they blend together because we’re listening to each other’s songs all the time, so we start picking — I definitely pick up what he does, and vice versa.

What about touring? Does it get harder to face the marathon live shows?

This time it was. We had such a long winter and I was just laying around for so long, I thought, ‘How am I going to get the energy to actually be able to stand on stage for that long?’ I mean, your age does catch up with you. So I just had to make a plan. I had to go out, and I started running, and I’ve been running — it’s just a mile, but it’s enough to get me — I feel like I can do it now. You deal with age; I think you get to the point where you really start feeling tired and that sort of thing, and it isn’t until you get out and start exercising again that you realize you do still have the energy. You know, and it isn’t like it was when we first started touring. You could go all day and night and not get any sleep. And nowadays we’ll get to the venue, we’ll go in and we’ll soundcheck, and then we’ll just go back to the room and hang out there until we do the show. And then after the show we generally go right back to the room and go to bed, whereas before we used to party and then go out to eat and all this other stuff and be up until four or five in the morning. You can’t really do that anymore. Not that you necessarily can’t, but you don’t want to. It just gets to the point where you’re, ‘I’ve had enough of this. I just need to go rest and recharge my battery.’

Aren’t you worried about your rock ‘n’ roll creds?

I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I know what it is and I don’t want to do it anymore. I can get up and rock — and then I’m going to go home. I gave you all the energy I’ve got.

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