By Peter Sloggatt
If your college had a radio station in the ’90s or you listened to internet radio back then, you know Guided By Voices. A Dayton, Ohio-based, rock indie band, Guided By Voices got extensive airplay on the college circuit and was a favorite of DJs on internet radio, a precursor to today’s satellite radio.
For the rest of us, it’s likely we’ve had at least a brush with a Guided By Voices song. There are, after all, hundreds of them. The band, which first formed among high school friends in 1983, spit out songs and albums at a prolific rate during a 20-year run. It disbanded in 2004, but in Cher-like tradition, has put out six reunion albums. A cult-like following has filled concert halls on reunion tours, the most recent of which brings Guided By Voices to The Paramount in Huntington on Friday, Aug. 22.
Guided by Voices, often referred to by fans as GBV, has 22 albums to its credit, but with its members making appearances on one another’s solo projects, GBV’s musical lexicon is difficult to pin down in terms of numbers. It’s even harder to define the borders where individual songs are concerned. The hard-partying band is known for short-burst songs, most under two minutes long. A single album could have two dozen tracks.
We caught up with Tobin Sprout, one of the original members of the band, guitarist and the songwriter responsible for penning about a quarter of GBV’s catalog. (Frontman Robert Pollard accounts for the rest.)
In a phone interview from his home in Michigan, Sprout said he has pursued a parallel career – as a painter, author and book illustrator – since first leaving the band in 1996, but is happy to hit the road to tour with the near-original lineup.
Since the first incarnation in 1983, there have been more than a few band replacements. On the current tour, “the lineup now is pretty much the original except for Kevin [March],” Sprout said.
GBV’s beginnings are classic garage band.
“We all grew up in Dayton. We started playing places like Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland, usually for the door. Once we started touring we were playing to more and more people,” Sprout said.
Fans came to party. GBV generally delivered two-and-a-half alcohol-fueled hours of hard-rocking, staccato songs – most running under two-and-a-half minutes.
“That’s kind of the way they were written in the ’60s,” Sprout explained. “It was two verses, a chorus, a verse, a chorus and done.”
The band is perhaps better known for its prolific output. Early releases were limited-run, self-financed projects: “Devil Between My Toes,” “Sandbox,” “Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia,” and “Same Place The Fly Got Smashed.” The 1992 album “Propeller” was an edition of just 500 copies, each with a unique, handmade cover.
As the album names might imply, “A lot of the lyrics are stream of consciousness,” Sprout said. “People read more into it than is there sometimes.”
Either way, fans are still responding.
“We’ve established a pretty good fan base. That fan base is having kids, and now we’re seeing a lot of kids at festival shows,” Sprout said.
The next generation of listeners is getting pretty much the same hard-rocking band their parents listened to.
“We’ve maybe changed a little bit. Maybe the songs are a little mellower, and some of the songs got over three-and-a-half-minutes,” Sprout said. A new album – coming out “real soon” – is marked by more straightforward lyrics and more traditional writing.
Sprout lives something of a double life these days. When he’s not on the road or collaborating on reunion albums, he is a successful author/illustrator of books for children and young adults, and also exhibits paintings at gallery shows.
“People who know me as an artist don’t necessarily know my music career,” he said. But the musical success has allowed him to pursue a career as an artist. “I originally saw myself being an artist. The music is something that came later,” he said.
It’s a whole different ball of wax, he added.
“Putting lyrics down is pretty simple,” Sprout said. “I have written a couple of children’s books, and it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It’s pretty tough writing.”
His first effort, “Elliot,” a chapter book, was followed by one for younger kids, “Tinky Puts His Little Moon To Bed.”
For now, however, he’s wearing the musician’s hat.