The Michigan artist and former Guided by Voices member opens his Midwest tour Friday at Grand Rapids’ Listening Room. The Local Spins interview, with his picks for songs and bands that influenced him most.
SCROLL DOWN FOR VIDEOS AND SPROUT’S PICKS FOR SONGS THAT CHANGED HIS WORLD
Support our coverage of
West Michigan's music scene
When Tobin Sprout was growing up, his grandfather would bring out a Civil War-era pistol and fire it every Fourth of July.
“I’ve always been … interested in American history and my grandfather was a big Civil War buff. He took us to Shiloh and he took us to Gettysburg, and he was constantly reading up on the Civil War and telling us stories and things about it,” the northern Michigan indie-rocker and songwriter recalled.
Those childhood memories helped inspire Sprout’s most recent, Americana-leaning studio album, 2020’s “Empty Horses,” which will be the focus of Sprout and his band’s upcoming performance Friday at Grand Rapids’ Listening Room.
The 7:30 p.m. show is not only the first performance of the band’s August Midwest tour, but the first official concert inside Listening Room since March 2020. (Tickets are $18 and available online here.)
“I sort of wanted to do an Americana-themed, Civil War-type album and it just sort of grew out of these songs that we were putting together,” said the Ohio native and former Guided by Voices band member who’s made his home in Leland, Mich., since 1997.
PopMatters described the departure from Sprout’s usual musical focus as “a study in Americana” with “stories that evoke the rich past of similar songwriting.” NarcMagazine praised “the power and breadth of his magical melancholia” unfurled in a “wonderfully beautiful album.”
VIDEO: Tobin Sprout, “Every Sweet Soul” (from “Empty Horses”)
But the tracks on “Empty Horses” are really only half the story of Sprout’s recording sessions with his band at Tommy Schichtel’s Goon Lagoon recording studio in Grand Rapids.
Other more “typical rockers” recorded at the studio but didn’t fit the vibe of “Empty Horses” were released as singles (“Supersonic Chairman”) or set aside for the follow-up album that Sprout hopes to begin “knocking out” this fall. (Scroll down to listen to “Supersonic Chairman.”)
“I think we came together in a different way and I think that’ll carry through with the next album,” Sprout said of sessions at the all-analog Goon Lagoon for which he had high praise.
‘IT’S JUST NICE TO GET BACK ON STAGE’
It’s the latest chapter in a story that began back in 1983 when the guitarist and visual artist formed a new wave Dayton band called fig. 4, which opened for touring artists such as The Del Fuegos. Sprout later was asked by Guided By Voices founder Robert Pollard to join the indie-rock/psych-rock band, which attracted a buzz and eventually signed with Scat Records in the early 1990s.
“We finally got signed to a label and I thought, ‘Well, OK, that’s it, you know.’ That’s all I wanted to do,” Sprout said. “It kind of went beyond what I had imagined.”
Indeed it has. Beyond his work with Guided By Voices, Sprout has released an extensive roster of solo albums, published children’s books and continued to paint, with regular art gallery exhibitions of his work (which is also available on his website).
He said he’s even turned to silk-screening as of late, something he finds “kind of exciting. It’s always exciting to start a new medium and learn what you can do with it. So that’s kind of what’s gotten me fired up.”
But the 66-year-old singer and guitarist is also eager to get back to touring and performing live after a pandemic that scuttled the band’s plans for playing Austin’s South by Southwest and forced musicians into isolation where “you sort of lose your identity.”
“It’s just nice to get back on stage and, you know, get that feeling that, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this,’ ” Sprout said.
Sprout and his band – Schichtel on guitar, Gary Vermillion on drums and Vermillion’s brother, Steve, on bass – will be joined by award-winning, Michigan pedal steel guitarist Drew Howard as a special guest. Sprout raved about Howard’s work in the recording studio on “Empty Horses.”
“He’s amazing. He came in to record on those tracks … and hit it right away,” Sprout said. “I mean, we maybe ran through it twice and he had it down.”
With Howard on board, fans can expect a heavy dose of “Empty Horses” at the Grand Rapids show. But band members also have been “talking about getting into the old files and finding some stuff that we haven’t played live before.”
Sprout said he’s especially looking forward to playing Listening Room with its reputation for “nice acoustics and sound system” after such a long hiatus from the road.
“Yeah,” he said, “it’s good to be out there again.”
LISTEN: Tobin Sprout, “Supersonic Chairman”
EDITOR’S NOTE: All musicians trace their inspiration to key recordings that captivated them and influenced their own music. Writer Ross Boissoneau today showcases the songs that changed the world for Tobin Sprout. Scroll down for a Spotify playlist of his picks.
As a painter, Tobin Sprout has shown his work at galleries in California, Chicago, and in his now-hometown, at Leland’s Main Street Gallery. As a musician, he’s traveled the country and abroad. He was a longtime member of the indie-rock group Guided By Voices before decamping to Florida to work as an illustrator. After returning to Dayton in the 1990s, he again joined the group before moving to Michigan.
1. The Nightcrawlers, “The Little Black Egg” (1965) – The first record I remember loving was “The Little Black Egg.” I learned D and A on guitar. That programmed me for the way I’d play guitar the rest of my life. That was the song that got me into this folk-rock trip.
Listen: “The Little Black Egg”
2. The Byrds, “My Back Pages” (1967) – That was the song that got me into The Byrds, that song with the 12-string guitar. I do that live. That bright, electric folk sound you heard in all the early Byrds songs.
Listen: “My Back Pages”
3. The Rolling Stones, “The Last Time” (1965)/The Yardbirds, “Heart Full of Soul” (1965) – That simple riff comes out, the way the chords change behind it. They were the bands that excited me about guitar. I grew up with the Beatles and all that and started playing guitar at eight years old. I also liked The Who.
Listen: “The Last Time”; “Heart Full of Soul”
Currently Loving: The Easybeats, Rolling Stones, Zombies – I’m going back to older stuff: The Easybeats, the Stones, the Zombies. Bill Fay, I sounded like him. Tom Waits. I’m always exploring all kinds of stuff, the song structure.
Listen: The Easybeats, “Friday on My Mind”
RECORDS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD: Tobin Sprout’s Playlist on Spotify
Copyright 2021, Spins on Music LLC