Guided by Voices broke out of Dayton, Ohio in the ’90s with their bevy of brief power-pop anthems, and since then the prolific five-piece has issued a seemingly endless supply of guitar-fueled earworms and albums. The band seemed to strike a chord with a generation of four-trackers figuring out how to do it themselves; their lo-fi, home-recorded albums, Propeller and Bee Thousand, put the band on the map, got them signed to independent labels, and garnered critical acclaim, their popularity coinciding with the rise of the DIY movement.
The godfathers of Generation Hiss have gone through several lineup changes, broken up, reformed, and cleaned up their recordings. The classic lineup reunited in 2010 and have already released six full-length albums and an EP, and longtime fans of the band say it is a triumphant return to rocking form. Cool Planet, the band’s latest effort, was just released in May.
Bob Pollard is the ringleader of the band while Tobin Sprout (yes, that’s his real name) plays guitar and piano and is his musical foil. Sprout sings and writes about a third of the band’s material, and he is also the author of two wonderful children’s book and an acclaimed photo-realistic painter. I spoke with him about getting a second chance to play with his old friends and the current state of Guided by Voices.
Local Current: This is the band’s first tour in a couple years. How are the shows on this tour?
Tobin Sprout: The tour is going great. We just finished the first leg, east coast, with most of the shows sold out. Everyone is very excited to be on the road again. We haven’t been on the west coast since 2010. The crowds have been amazing. Cincinnati was our first show and we were a bit nervous but the show went well thanks to the energy of the fans. It was really great to see them again.
Guided by Voices only played a couple shows last year. Bob even sounded like the band was over in one Magnet interview. Was that a conscious decision by the group to take the year off?
I’m not sure why it slowed down a bit, but my wife Laura put together a set of children’s blocks on our deck that read “I want more GBV.” I came around the corner at the time she was taking a photo of it. She posted it on Facebook and the next thing I remember is Bob seeing the photo and wanting to use it for the cover of the next album. It ended up as a cover for a single but it seemed to get things rolling again. I know sometimes with my art and music you just need that spark of something to get you fired up again about making art. Inspiration requires the fuel of feedback sometimes.
What bands are you listening to lately?
Been into Bowie, Mott the Hoople, and Thin Lizzy. Also some newer stuff like the High Strung—great band.
Who are some of your biggest musical inspirations?
Harry Nilsson, Beatles, the Who, and Stones. I was into early Elton John and taught myself piano because of him. I had a Chord ‘O Matic that you turned on and it told you the notes to play for different chords. I mostly just pound it out on piano.
You quit touring with Guided by Voices just when the band was breaking out in the 90’s to raise your kids, focus on painting, and make the occasional solo album. Are there any differences playing in the band this time around?
Not really. The first time we got together at Mitch’s [GBV guitarist Mitch Mitchell] to practice for the Matador show, it just seemed to take off where we left off.
Are you still doing photo-realistic painting?
I still paint, although lately we have been so busy with recording and touring I haven’t had time to paint. But I will get back to it sooner or later. I’m at a place where I need to reinvent myself. Break into doing something with art I haven’t done yet. It’s always hard because of the trial and fail part. But once I get to where it begins to work, it makes it exciting again. If I’m not excited about my work I don’t see any reason to do it.
Is there a story behind the writing of the GBV classic song “14 Cheerleader Coldfront”?
It is the only song where Bob and I sat down and wrote together. I had a rough idea or melody. I went over to Bob’s just to hang out and we started talking about songs we had. I picked up his guitar and started singing this melody I had, pretty much what “14 Cheerleader” sounds like but with just fake words. Bob ran upstairs and came down with some lyrics he had been working on. One of them was “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.” We started putting the lyrics to the song. He had one verse and a chorus, so we just started making up lines for the next verse. I would add one, he would add one, and it was finished. He put his boom box on a table in the snakepit, a room in his basement where he had all his records, and we sang the song live into the boom box. The first take my vocal wasn’t loud enough so I moved in closer to the mic and Bob moved back. With the second take we had the version on Propeller.
The B-side to GBV’s single “Trash Can Full of Nails” is your tune “Build a Better Iceberg.” How does a song as immediately catchy as “Iceberg” not make it on to a proper album?
I think at one time “Build A Better Iceberg” was going to end the album. It was too long so was moved to the B-side [writer’s note: this song is only two minutes long]. It kind of has the feel of a Townsend/Lane song to me. Like from Rough Mix or something. I like the song a lot. I’m speaking to my son about life, all the things I wish I could tell him, hoping someday he would understand.
Is “Down By the Racetrack” about GBV’s powerhouse guitarist Mitch Mitchell?
I wrote “Down By the Race Track” with Mitch. He sent me the music and I put the melody over it. The lyrics were formed in train of thought. I know Mitch would have my back if something bad happened, so I just went with that. “Throw me a line Mitch, Hand me your hand Mitch,” and it just went to us hanging out at the racetrack.
Is there any chance of a non-classic Guided By Voices era song making it onto the set list?
We are playing “Fair Touching” and “Teenage FBI.” I would like to add some others from that era. I think the “classic” is gone; with new drummer, Kevin March, we are a hybrid GBV now. I could even see adding some solo works, like Bob’s “I Killed A Man That Looked Like You.” That is a great song.
How did you join Guided by Voices?
It’s a story I like to hear Bob tell. I was playing in a club in Dayton with my band, Fig.4. Bob, Jimmy [Bob’s brother], and Pete [GBV’s first “manager”] used to come see me. They were just silhouettes in duster jackets. We met and he asked me to join the band. He was just tossing around the idea of the name Guided by Voices at the time.
What was the first Guided by Voices album you were on?
Devil Between My Toes was the first. I played the lead on “A Portrait Destroyed by Fire” and some parts on others.
What kind of beer does GBV drink at practice?
The same as on stage: Miller Lite.
Watch Guided By Voices consume a cooler full of Miller Lite as they play their version of arena rock at the Current and Walker Art Center’s Rock the Garden this Sunday, June 22. Guided by Voices are currently on tour supporting their latest album, Cool Planet.