Despite his own solo successes, Tobin Sprout will probably always be known as the onetime four-track wizard and songwriting sidekick to Robert Pollard in Ohio's lo-fi pop kings Guided by Voices. Though less prolific than his boss, fans of the group were quick to take note of Sprout's irresistible songcraft. Relegated to a handful of appearances on each release, the singer/guitarist penned GBV favorites like "Awful Bliss," "Atom Eyes," and "It's Like Soul Man." Sprout left the GBV camp in 1997, pursuing the solo career he launched a year earlier with Carnival Boy.
Born in 1955, Tobin Sprout began playing guitar at age eight, teaching himself on the Silvertone his parents purchased for 25 dollars. In his late twenties, Sprout began making his first appearances with his band fig. 4 on a Dayton, Ohio scene dominated by metal acts, cover bands, and the occasional coalition of fiery punk youth. Formed in 1983 with bassist Dan Toohey and drummer Jon Peterson, fig. 4 only released one 7" during their existence, breaking up before completing their full-length debut. After the split, Sprout enlisted the help of Dayton resident Robert Pollard to finish the album. A frequent attendee at fig. 4 shows, Pollard's early offer to join the group was (rather ironically) rejected. Needing an outlet for his own growing backlog of compositions, Pollard formed Guided by Voices shortly after. The band's Forever Since Breakfast EP was released in 1986, followed by the full-length Devil Between My Toes a year later. Sprout continued to stay in touch, adding his guitar to a couple of tracks on Devil, but eventually moved to Florida, taking a job as a designer and illustrator for See magazine.
Upon returning to Dayton in the early '90s, Sprout found Guided by Voices hard at work on their fifth album, Propeller (1992). Impressed with Pollard's songwriting talents, Sprout joined the group midway through the recording, making his GBV songwriting debut with "14 Cheerleader Coldfront." The band began using Sprout's home studio, pleased with the intimacy of four-track fidelity. Eventually a recording reached Scat Records, which signed the band for the Propeller follow-up, Vampire on Titus. The group's home until signing to Matador in 1995, the Scat era saw GBV honing their home studio skills, culminating on Bee Thousand. One of the group's best-loved releases, the album was cut entirely on Sprout's four-track. Token Sprout appearances followed on each subsequent album, peaking with his four contributions to 1996's Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. That same year, the singer released his first solo album (simultaneously with one from Pollard), Carnival Boy.
Shortly after, weary of Guided by Voices' increased touring, Sprout left the group and moved with his family to Michigan. Though much of his spare time was dedicated to painting, he continued to write, releasing the occasional 7" and two full-length collections, Moonflower Plastic (1997) and Let's Welcome the Circus People (1999). He also wrote a number of songs for his Eyesinweasel project, 14 of which were collected on 2000's Wrinkled Thoughts. Demos and Outtakes appeared in 2001, but Sprout was uncharacteristically quiet after its release, only popping up here and there on hard-to-find 7" singles. During this time he also cut a full-length studio effort in his Leland, Michigan home studio. The finished touches were collected as Lost Planets & Phantom Voices, which appeared in February 2003.
A concert recording documenting a Tobin Sprout show in Toronto, Live at the Horseshoe Tavern April 19, 2004, appeared in early 2005. Later that same year, Sprout contributed several songs to the soundtrack of the independent film Fortunes; the film was released in December 2005, and a soundtrack album was released in 2006. In 2010, Robert Pollard assembled a "classic lineup" of Guided by Voices to appear at a festival celebrating the 21st anniversary of Matador Records; this version of the band featured a number of performers from the group's heyday, including Sprout. The "classic lineup" was well received, and Sprout joined this edition of GBV for a number of tours and festival dates, as well as the recording of six studio albums, before Pollard pulled the plug in 2014. In 2017, Sprout teamed up with the celebrated indie label Burger Records to release his first proper studio album since 2003, The Universe & Me. ~ Nathan Bush