March 3, 2024

The Double Life of Tobin Sprout

Leland resident a dual artistic threat
By Ross Boissoneau | Aug. 7, 2021

Tobin Sprout has two different audiences. As a painter, his work graces private collections and displays at places like the Cincinnati Zoo and Ford Motor Company. Meanwhile, his music has been positively reviewed by Rolling Stone and garnered fans nationwide.

So which came first, the art or the music? In his case, it’s the former. “I could draw at an early age. I couldn’t understand why other people couldn’t,” he says.

The music came soon after. “I grew up with the Beatles and all that, started guitar at 8. The two grew together,” he says. In his case, “all that” means rockers like The Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, but also earlier influences like The Byrds and The Zombies.

His twin pursuits have served him well. He’s able to make a living while pursuing his passions, all while embracing small-town living in Leland.

Why Leland? He grew up vacationing in East Jordan and then heading to Leland to visit his grandmother. Plus there’s the fact he met his wife, Laura, at the Bluebird. Sprout enjoys the community and says it was a great place to raise a family. “I could paint from anywhere. We can live where we want.”

He can make music there as well, writing and recording at his home studio. “Leland is just beautiful,” he says. “The bad part is winter, but that’s when I can get busy painting and writing music. I’m not a big city person.”

Sprout grew up in Dayton, Ohio. That’s where he met Robert Pollard, leader of the indie-rock band Guided By Voices, and started writing and playing with the band. He was part of the band for a decade, from 1987 to 1997, his songs offering a counterpoint to Pollard’s. When he took a job in advertising with SEE magazine in Florida, the band continued on, recording three more albums, to which Sprout contributed some piano and guitar.

While working in advertising with the magazine — “Everything was on a board, using X-Acto knives. We’d constantly fight with the stripping department on colors” — he began doing spot illustrations as well. His artwork began to get noticed, and he had shows in Sarasota and other locations.

When computer graphics started to change the industry, he began casting his eye elsewhere. “Kids began doing illustrations for nothing. The market fell out,” he says. That led to a return to his hometown area and rejoining Guided By Voices. He stayed with the band from 2010 to 2014, during which it released six albums. 

So why ditch a music career with a successful band? “I needed to do it. I was playing Vancouver when my son was born. I flew back, then went to Vancouver again. When my daughter was born, I decided I’d rather be at home with my kids,” he says.

He admits the decision was rather bittersweet, but he’s more than happy with the outcome. “I’m still close to my kids. They’re musicians and artists,” Sprout says. 

Throughout his life, whether in Guided By Voices or working on art and illustrations, he continued making music as a solo artist. His brief pop songs have been the focus of several solo discs, as well as a host of others with Guided By Voices and other assemblages.

Along the way, Sprout also found time to become an author. He wrote and illustrated (of course) the children’s book Elliott, which tells the story of a rabbit who leaps from the safety of his magic hat to make a new life for himself.

When the pandemic hit, he was still able to work on his twin passions, just differently than he had intended to. “I had plans to tour. I was going to do South By Southwest. South by Southwest shut down, and the rest of the tour was canceled. So I was at home writing music and doing artwork,” Sprout says. “Now I’m getting ready to tour again.” 

Sprout appreciates the fact he can now return to the stage. He’s going on the road to Grand Rapids, Dayton, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. with longtime bandmates Tommy Schichtel (guitar) and Gary and Steve Vermillion on drums and bass, respectively. “It’s great. I did a festival a month ago. It’s wonderful to be out.”

On the art side, he’s open to new possibilities as well. “Oils are the main thing, but I’m getting back into silk screening. I’m now working on a five-color project. I like to do larger posters,” says Sprout. Actor Tim Allen is a fan, and Sprout’s art is also found in the commercial spaces of businesses such as Budweiser, CompuServe, Random House, Universal Studios, and others. 


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