(Expanded from story originally published in the Asbury Park Press August 22, 2014)
Their discography alone Wins Show Business, just in terms of sheer volume, with close to fifty LPs, EPs, box sets, comps and curiosities — seven of them since 2011, when a supposedly one-off reunion turned into a full-tilt frenzy of creativity. Add in all the non-LP singles, splits, solos, side bands and postal projects and you’ll easily pass 250 unique releases — an intimidating listening pile for which you’ll probably need to buy a bigger “desert island.”
As garage-rock elder statesmen and Jedi masters of the two-minute pop song, Guided By Voices have staked their unique place on the scene through quality even more than quantity. This, after all, is the band of middle-aged, working-dude family guys from Dayton, Ohio who first achieved national notice in the 1990s with a string of homegrown indie recordings (including “Bee Thousand,” “Alien Lanes” and “Vampire on Titus”) — lo-fi, four-track masterpieces recorded on the cheap in laundry rooms; burning with pent-up energy and bursting with surprising hooks that emerged from the sonic muck like the next evolutionary step of a band that was in it for the long term.
Those records were the work of what came to be known as the “classic” lineup of GBV — a configuration that teamed Robert Pollard (the founder, frontman and former public school teacher who’s been the band’s one constant through the years) with guitarist Mitch Mitchell, bassist Greg Demos, drummer Kevin Fennell, and a singer-songwriter-guitarist and visual artist by name of Tobin Sprout.
It’s that lineup (with Kevin March returning to replace the departed Fennell) that takes it inside The Stone Pony on Saturday, August 23 — a rare Jersey Shore jaunt for Guided By Voices; part of an itinerary that finds the pushing-sixty rockers competing on a youth-oriented playing field, and touring behind not one but two 2014 album releases.
Following hot on the heels of February’s “Motivational Jumpsuit,” the band’s most recent self-issued long player “Cool Planet” stands as something of a return to a rawer vibe; eighteen tracks that find Sprout continuing to step up his vocal and songwriting contributions to the mix — a set that, the guitarist concedes, carries an after-chill of the polar-vortex winter in which it was recorded.
“It was fifteen below zero outside, and Dayton got smacked with a lot more snow than usual,” recalls Sprout from his home in Leland, Michigan. “Of course we’d have to go out to the car to listen to what we just did.”
While the silver-haired Pollard commands the stage with his signature blustery bravado, high kicks, mic twirls and epic consumption of alcohol, Sprout presents a much more lower-key persona, ceding the rockstar moves to his bandmates and taking lead vocals on just “five or six” of the nearly fifty-song sets.
In the studio, as on his carefully crafted but far less frequent solo albums, Sprout explores lush arrangements, layered harmonies and a more direct lyrical approach that stands in stark contrast to the crunchier riffs and word-warrior weirdnesses of Pollard’s prodigious output. Graced with his gentler, folkie-flavored singing and heartbreakingly perfect rhythm guitar (an element that really came into its own on the underrated but “movie-like” songs of the Sprout-Pollard “postal project” detour group Airport 5), Sprout’s songs are like discovering a whole other band within an already eclectic and prolific combo.
“My songs are more fleshed out, you could say — a lot of them have bridges in them,” says the gallery-exhibited painter who also happens to have created some beautifully illustrated children’s books (“Elliott,” “Tinky Puts His Little Moon to Bed”). “I like to experiment with different harmonies, textures — it’s a little bit of a change from having just four tracks to work with.”
As much as it’s secured a sturdy cult following for the guitarist, it’s also largely regarded as a change of pace for the man who sees himself as “an artist first…a self-employed illustrator who dabbles in oils, watercolors, and some 3-D work. I have a series of weird fish, with mouths that open, made out of junk.”
“I’m doing what I love…and I’m also building a house for someone; from digging the hole on up,” adds Sprout, whose tour with Guided By Voices continues, off and on, through mid-November.
“It’s great to watch it all take shape…and it’s nice to get paid!,” he adds. “I continue to do my songs and my art, and it seems as if you’re just doing it and waiting for it to generate an income. But this is something new and exciting for me…I may yet end up a contractor!”
UPDATE! It wouldn’t be surprising to anyone if Tobin Sprout trades in the rock life for the sheetrock by this point…as attendees for that August 2014 show at the Stone Pony were treated to an epic trainwreck of an event (live-streamed by Yahoo for a worldwide audience) that saw Pollard exponentially upping the alcoholic-beverage ante; subjecting the crowd to rants of 30 minutes or more, repeating songs and finally collapsing to the floor (see it all here). Days later, Guided By Voices announced that they had broken up for the fourth or fifth and maybe final time; canceling the remaining tour dates and going their separate ways. Pollard immediately resumed his ubiquitous ways; issuing new product under the Circus Devils and Teenage Guitar banners; releasing a new solo album (his fortieth?), and regrouping as Ricked Wicky for two albums and assorted singles.