Tobin Sprout is an American artist, musician and children’s book creator. As a musician, he was well known as a founding member of the indie rock band Guided by Voices before going out on his own, releasing his first solo album, Carnival Boy, in 1996. As an artist,Tobin is famous for his photo-realism large format paintings, especially the ‘Superchrome’ series, although he does paint in other styles as well. As a musician, Tobin has inspired a loyal fan base for his pop songs. He has released seven solo albums, and toured to support them. He has also performed in several bands, including recent shows with Guided by Voices. Tobin records many of his songs at his home studio, Moonflower Studios.
This 2020 Tobin returns with a pensive, expansive part autobiographical new album ‘Empty Horses’ due for release 18th September via Fire Records. The album is a meticulously observed study of America and Americana (not the music, but the state of mind). An alternative American Songbook, if you will, a collection of laments to simpler times and the struggle for what’s right, peppered with an examination of faith and the search for a sense of justice. And, as it unravels these gritty anecdotes span the generations from the dividing and the American Civil War through to today’s confusing times.
He’s part Townes Van Zandt, part John Prine, part Robbie Robertson at his retrospective best; his heart beats super-slow on his sleeve – he’s in the cabin at Big Pink, a raconteur on a mission to reminisce; telling stories as only he can. Close up and personal, Empty Horses is a poignant carefully etched experience, a rolling journey in modern times, nodding back to tradition, a personal snapshot filled with honesty.
We last toured in 2017. The first two legs, East Coast and South, went along well. Nice shows and no real problems. We had a week or so off between those and the West Coast tour. The West Coast tour began like all others. The day before the tour, I went and picked up the 15-passenger van from the rental agent. Most of the time the vans were well used, but this one was brand new. Only 250 miles on it. So clean. Still had the new car smell, no one had gotten sick in it yet, no stains or rips on the seats, and it had great pick up. It was going to be nice to ride through the west in comfort.
I took out the back two bench seats to make room for the equipment. Something the rental place frowned on, and something I would later regret. I left Leland, picked up Tommy in Grand Rapids, then headed to Chicago to pick up Gary and Steve. All loaded up, we were off to the West Coast.
The driving was split between all four of us, two-hour shifts worked best. With two people in the front, it left two bench seats for the other two. Plenty of room to stretch out and sleep, it was very comfortable.
First show was in Omaha, then Denver and Ogden. A day off to drive ended us in La Grande, Oregon. There we got some sleep and woke early for the drive to Portland. We left the room that morning, Tommy taking the first driving shift, we stopped to get gas before hitting the highway. In Oregon there is an attendant that pumps the gas for you by law. We were filled up and pulling out of the station when I could hear another attendant telling our attendant not to pump anymore unleaded. Not sure what to think, we started for the highway.
It wasn’t long before Tommy noticed that the van had lost pick up. And after a few miles the van began to get even worse. The engine began to ping and miss. At first we thought there was water in the fuel, and it would soon go away. But it didn’t go away. Gary found the number to the service station and called. The owner told us that delivery truck had put diesel fuel in the unleaded tank. After some talk about compensation Gary hung up, and we realized we were screwed. We were too far to head back, so we just drove (for what seemed like forever) over the Blue Mountains, hoping the van would just keep running. Out in the middle of nowhere, we held our breath and prayed we’d make it to a town.
We ended up getting to Pendleton, pulled into what we thought was a repair shop, and turned off the van. That would be the end of the comfortable ride. We were towed to Hermiston where we turned in the van at a rental agent, and were given a minivan to complete the tour. A bit cramped ,we finished the tour down the West Coast, and threw the southwest with the last show in St Louis.
This experience, along with a drug bust outside our room in Louisville, was the inspiration for some of the first songs for Empty Horses. “Bad Scenes” (left off the album) where you find yourself in bad situations that you have no control over, they just happen in your day to day. “The Man I Use To Know” is a song about losing yourself, from drugs, or just from everyday life getting the best of you, and trying to find yourself again.
On the first leg of the tour we visited the battlefield Antietam, and the second leg we stopped in Shiloh. I had actually written the song “Antietam” that is included on Empty Horses, back in 2010, but revised the theme when writing “On Golden Rivers” and “No Shame.” All three songs continue the everyday, simple man. An orphan that joins the Union Army, an officer with the task of sending troops into battle, and a wounded boy that crawls off into the woods to die, feeling guilt for leaving the battle.
All through the writing and recording of the album, there seemed to be two albums developing. First noticed by Gary, Steve and Tommy and again confirmed by James at Fire Records. We began dividing the songs that fit and the ones that didn’t, and then adding tracks to flesh it out. Book-ended with “Prelude/Wings” and the final song, “No Shame” written last for the album, Empty Horses was finished.
In the end the tour went great, but the cost of paying for two vans, and shipping the two bench seats back to the rental agents took it’s take. We lost money but gained the benefit of seeing the country and finding inspiration in the good and the bad of everyday life.
— Tobin Sprout