The much-respected, Leland-based indie-rocker and painter has added Grand Rapids guitarist-producer Tommy Schichtel to his “very special” band, with two Michigan performances this spring.
Whether painting, creating a children’s book or assembling reflective songs for another solo album, Tobin Sprout appreciates the solitude of winters in northern Michigan.
At one time in the late 1980s and 1990s, the guitarist and songwriter was a key member of indie-rock’s influential and revered Guided by Voices, helping mold the singular sound of the popular and energetic Dayton, Ohio, band led by Robert Pollard.
But as an innovative painter and musician who’s made his home in the quiet community of Leland north of Traverse City since leaving Guided by Voices (aside from a 2010-2014 reunion), Sprout has continued to impress critics and devoted fans. Even the ever-finicky Pitchfork has described his music as a “reliable blend of lo-fi” with lyrics that “pop with personality and wisdom.”
With release of his new album, “The Universe and Me,” in late January, Sprout is calling on Grand Rapids guitarist and producer Tommy Schichtel, Chicago drummer Gary Vermillion and his brother, bassist Steve Vermillion, to serve as his backing band on a tour supporting the recording.
It’s a pairing of musicians that not only bodes well for the national tour which officially kicks off April 20 in Cincinnati – with a special “pre-tour concert” at the Old Art Building in his home Leelanau County on Saturday night – but for Sprout’s next studio album as well.
“We started talking analog and recording and just really hit it off,” Sprout said of Schichtel, who first met Sprout at an art gallery in 2009 and who runs the all-analog Goon Lagoon recording studio in Grand Rapids.
“I went down to his studio and did some recording for (2010’s) ‘The Bluebirds Of Happiness Tried To Land On My Shoulder’ album and we have just been friends ever since. We seem to come from the same place as musicians and love the sounds he gets in his studio.”
SPROUT’S ‘VERY UNIQUE’ VOICE, AND GETTING ‘RAW AND LOUD’
The admiration is mutual.
Schichtel, frontman for surf rock’s The Concussions, cites Sprout’s “form of structure and melody,” his lyrics and his “very unique” voice – not to mention the band’s unique camaraderie.
“It’s been a blast really. All really wonderful people that are like brothers now,” Schichtel said. “Doesn’t hurt you to get to play music you really like and would listen to even if you weren’t involved. Toby loves it when we really get raw and loud. There will be some of those moments (on tour) as well as quite beautiful moments.”
For the Ohio-bred Sprout, it’s another chapter in what’s been a fruitful period of creating visual art and music since settling in Leland in 1997.
“Our family goes way back in Leland. My mother vacationed here as a child and my grandmother retired to a cherry farm in Leland,” he said. “I met my wife, Laura, when I was doing an art show here. We started dating and were married in Northport. Leland seemed like a great place to raise kids and I could paint from anywhere.”
Indeed, his painting and music have flourished amid northern Michigan’s environment in the serene town of Leland, population 377.
“It’s very quiet and the winters can be very isolating – plenty of time to just paint or write and record,” he said.
“When I’m working on an art show for the next summer, I will start in the fall and have nothing on my studio walls. During the winter, as I complete a piece, I will hang it on the wall. As the winter goes on, my walls fill up with more and more art until there isn’t any room left. I take photos of the walls before the work goes to the gallery.”
PAINTING ‘WITH WORDS AND SOUND’
Sprout said there are similarities between his songs and his artwork. “Both start with an idea and sort of just go where they want. I start with a title with both, something to use as a starting point. I paint with words and sound, and the other with color and images.”
Just as he paints at home, he also records there. The new album released by Burger Records was recorded at his home studio, aka Moonflower Studio, with Sprout playing all the instruments except for three songs which feature Gary Vermillion on drums.
“The goal was just to finish it and get it out,” Sprout said of the project that took some time to “get it all together” with the musician moving older songs around and creating new ones for “The Universe and Me,” his sixth solo studio album since 1996.
“I didn’t have a theme in mind, but there is a feeling of searching the past, childhood and reflections of that in my life now. The title is from an old book my wife had used for an art piece she did. I ended up using a different art piece of hers (for the CD cover artwork) but kept the title.”
With his new band in tow, Sprout will tour the United States through April and May, after which he hopes to complete another new studio album while working on a pair of children’s books – one of his own and another written by his wife that he’ll illustrate.
The next album, he said, will be recorded by the touring band at his studio, at Schichtel’s Goon Lagoon in Grand Rapids and at Gary Vermillion’s in Chicago.
A SPECIAL COMBINATION THAT ELEVATES THE MUSIC
“We will be using all three of our studios,” he said. “They all have a different sound to them so it will give the record a nice mix of recordings.”
As for his bandmates, “there is something very special about this combination. We really work well together, it’s a band,” Sprout said.
“I am really looking forward to the tour. I think as a band we bring the songs to a new level. I don’t feel 61; I might look 61, but don’t feel it. I guess that’s good. The touring is easier, I think — kind of have the drill down.”
Saturday’s concert at the Old Art Building, 111 S. Main St., Leland, begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 per person or $25 per couple, with proceeds going to support the Leelanau Community Cultural Center. Call 231-256-2131 for tickets or go online to mynorthtickets.com.
The tour also makes another Michigan stop on April 27, with Sprout and his band playing El Club in Detroit, with opening act Busman’s Holiday. Tickets are $14-$16; the show begins at 8 p.m. Get details online here.
Sprout plans a tour of the West Coast in June.
VIDEO: Tobin Sprout and Band, “Future Boy Today/Man of Tomorrow”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Local Spins often asks musicians to supply a playlist of their favorite songs, current and/or classic. Here is the list supplied by Tobin Sprout, featuring everything from Small Faces to Mott the Hoople.
LOCAL SPINS PLAYLIST: TOBIN SPROUT
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