When Tobin Sprout got his chance to be a rock star, he decided instead to be a dad. Sprout was riding shotgun in Guided by Voices, the Ohio band that exploded from basement hobby to international cult phenomenon in the mid-"90s. Though less prolific than chief songwriter Robert Pollard, Sprout had shown a similar knack for tossing off brilliant pop gems with touches of prog-rock pomp and psychedelic whimsy, claiming or sharing credit on such GBV staples as "Motor Away," "Hot Freaks" and "Awful Bliss."
Sprout drifted out of the band sometime after 1996"s Under the Bushes, Under the Stars album. GBV had been on tour when his son was born, forcing him to fly home for the event. When another child announced her pending arrival, the band was preparing to tour Australia with Superchunk. "It just got to be too much when my daughter was born," Sprout says. "It became more important to be home with them." He moved the family to Michigan and returned to his first calling as a painter, illustrator and graphic designer, eventually opening a gallery. Pollard, on the other hand, replaced his old Dayton drinking buddies with a rock-solid Cleveland band and continued his quest to rule the power-pop universe. Sprout kept at his writing and recording, however. His output since then has included several projects on Indianapolis" Luna/Recordhead labels with his band Eyesinweasel and as Airport 5, a collaboration with Pollard. Recently, Sprout sold his time-consuming art gallery and vowed to get back to painting and rocking out. A new batch of songs fueled last year"s Sentimental Stations EP and the new full-length Lost Planets & Phantom Voices, released in February. Now, with the help of a Chicago pop band called Kevin Tihista"s Red Terror, Sprout is ready to hit the road again, although his goals are fairly modest. "My kids are getting old enough that it"s easier to get away for a week, or a week and a half," he says. "We"re going to start doing Madison and Minneapolis and just start working the Midwest and then the East Coast." The Red Terror usually starts the show with 30 minutes of Tihista"s material, which has been compared to Elliott Smith"s wistful guitar pop. Then Sprout joins them onstage for 90 minutes or more of his own compositions. Among that material will be songs from Lost Planets & Phantom Voices, the new release on Recordhead/Wigwam Records and Sprout"s first solo project in four years. He plays all instruments on most cuts but is backed on a few by veterans of the Breeders, GBV and other bands of his acquaintance. Bloomington psychedelia band the Impossible Shapes provides pleasantly twisted instrumental backing on one standout tune, "Doctor #8." Simple, guitar-based arrangements place the burden on the melodies and evocative wordplay, which fortunately are up to the task. Sprout"s gentle vocal harmonies sometimes recall the Byrds, as on the psych-folk of "Shirley the Rainbow," or even Simon and Garfunkel, as on the lovely closing track "Let Go of My Beautiful Balloon." Three of the least homogeneous tunes come from an independent film project for which Sprout was asked to write a score and original songs. Two instrumentals conjure spy and circus themes, respectively, and "Catch the Sun" is a Neil Young-style stomp with a bleating lead guitar. (Filmmaker Matt Salzberg is lining up distribution for the dark comedy, titled Fortunes.) For the most part, however, Sprout is still inspired by the psychedelic era, when top bands like the Beatles, the Stones and the Who weren"t afraid to push the envelope. "That just seemed like the classic time for them. It"s the most interesting, because you could go anywhere with it, and different types of instruments are used that you wouldn"t normally use for rock," he says. "That has always sort of been the background for all my music. That"s still the stuff I listen to. I still listen to "Nuggets."" That was his inspiration in early "80s Dayton, when he put together his band Fig. 4, then met Pollard and joined GBV. "There was a big scene in Dayton around that time," he recalls. "It was pretty exciting. It was everything from the psychedelic stuff to the new wave that was coming through. It was sort of the last gasp of everybody that was about to get married. People were getting their last rock days in. It was a good time." Now on the far side of 40, Sprout is ready to have a good time again. "We"re going to do as much as we can and just see how it works," he says. Opening Saturday"s show will be the National Splits, led by Illinois indie-pop veteran Mike Downey (Wolfie, Mathlete). The Splits" second full-length, Fontana, was released this week on the local Recordhead/Mr. Whiggs imprint. Downey is an unearthly vocalist with a lo-fi pop approach that owes something to Pollard and Sprout, but the record"s romantic sweep and acoustic heart create a surreal Western vibe. The effect is like Ziggy Stardust playing from the Glen Campbell songbook. Admission is $7 in advance at Luna Music locations (for a wristband that can be returned for a 10 percent discount) or $8 at the door. Scott Hall is the music columnist for the Daily Journal of Johnson County and The Zone in Columbus.