To hear the hippest quarters of America's Indie Rock Nation (and Magnet magazine) tell it, songwriter Bob Pollard and his band Guided by Voices are an innovation on a par with fire, sliced bread and Internet porn. Though hardly a blip on the commercial-music radar screen, GbV qualifies as a fifth food group for most diehard aficionados of underground rock and pop. Virtually since he began releasing his four-tracked tuneage in the mid-1980s, Pollard has been praised with a fervor that borders on the messianic.Sat.It is an amazing story, really. The beer-swilling elementary school teacher who began noodling in a Dayton, Ohio, basement more than 15 years ago, already of an age at which most pop stars' careers are waning, can currently be seen in a prominent role in The Strokes' latest video. He says he's written more than 5,000 songs, has released somewhere around 800 of them (through GbV and a plethora of other projects, including the acclaimed Fading Captain series), and, incredibly, one would be hard pressed to find one truly irredeemable track among those that have seen the light of day.
Still and all, while Pollard is undeniably its muse and driving force, Guided by Voices record and tour as a full-fledged band, and a spectacular one at that. It's a testament to Pollard's ability that some seriously adept musicians are so enthusiastic about getting into a situation where the name recognition factor stays so close to nil.
"I think when I joined, I thought it was going to be a little more collaborative than it has come to be, but I understand why. It's always been Bob Pollard's project," says lead guitarist Doug Gillard, a songwriter in his own right. "I understand that position, so it's something I don't mind at all, really. I know the drill."
Gillard began contributing stinging, lyrical leads and power chords to Guided by Voices in 1996, when Pollard split with longtime collaborator Tobin Sprout. Already an underground icon and pioneer of the lo-fi recording movement, Pollard went in search of a more muscular sound and found Gillard and other members of the guitarist's former band, Cobra Verde. Their first album together, Mag Earwig!, was GbV's last for cred-heavy indie imprint Matador. The group then signed with TVT Records, a much larger company that, though technically an indie, operates much like a major label.
Having utterly conquered the underground rock "n' roll landscape, the band and their new label set their sights on ensnaring new, more mainstream fans. Do The Collapse, the first GbV release on TVT, evinced a much thicker and shinier production, courtesy of lauded producer and former Cars mastermind Ric Ocasek, who created a bit of a situation by refusing to let the famously alcohol-fueled ensemble drink in the studio.
The disc still rocked, and made a dent at radio in more forward-thinking markets. Whether its success was worth the sizable backlash from longtime supporters, however, remains a question. For their next album, 2001's Isolation Drills, the band went with the more organic processes of Rob Schnapf (Foo Fighters, Beck, Elliott Smith), yet acquiesced to TVT's request that Pollard add a few more tunes consciously written with radio play in mind.
"Bob pretty much writes the same batch of songs for each record, meaning he'll have the same kinds of elements and styles running through there," says Gillard. "On the TVT ones, especially Isolation, the label asked him to try and write a single or two, after they knew the songs he wanted to record."
To hear the hippest quarters of America's Indie Rock Nation (and Magnet magazine) tell it, songwriter Bob Pollard and his band Guided by Voices are an innovation on a par with fire, sliced bread and Internet porn. Though hardly a blip on the commercial-music radar screen, GbV qualifies as a fifth food group for most diehard aficionados of underground rock and pop. Virtually since he began releasing his four-tracked tuneage in the mid-1980s, Pollard has been praised with a fervor that borders on the messianic.
Like Do The Collapse, the resulting disc was far from inferior, but its production values and relative lack of eccentricity again left some hardcore fans bitching. When time came to re-negotiate with TVT over the next effort, the label's offer made it fairly obvious that GbV weren't going to be much of a priority. The group was also concerned about again being faced with outside demands regarding its material.
"We were sort of seeking more creative control," Gillard agrees, though he adds that whole experience was by no means the cliched belly-of-the-beast nightmare.
"I think as big labels go, TVT certainly isn't one of the bad ones," he says. "It could have been a lot worse — we really didn't have a terrible experience. But they didn't have that much to offer us for this record."
While entertaining a host of solicitations, the band recorded a new album at various locations around their Midwestern home turf. The sessions yielded sounds and songs that didn't hark completely back to Pollard's lo-fi roots, but certainly held more of "the old GbV" in their charmingly uneven mixes and one-take vibe.
Eventually, the band (currently rounded out by Gillard, bassist Tim Tobias, guitarist Nate Farley and drummer Kevin March) decided to return to the comfort and creative freedom of Matador — now, ironically, part of a major conglomerate, the Beggars Group — and Universal Truths and Cycles was released this past June.
It's safe to say Cycles fairly splits the difference between the TVT years and earlier records, staying with a somewhat bigger sound but re-injecting their engaging mix of power pop, British Invasion rock and psychedelia with the off-the-cuff touches missing from the past two discs.
"We wanted every song to sound different, so we mixed it as we went along, and we made sure we got different sounds for each tune, which leads to a more diverse album," says Gillard. "We're not consciously trying to reclaim (the lo-fi cachet) at all. We're just trying to make records. It was never a decision to be less commercial."
Another big difference between pre- and post-TVT Guided by Voices concerns their emergence as a hard-touring and incendiary live act. Originally a recording-only outfit, years of professional musicianship have made the band into a rollicking, raging in-concert experience; their shows are energetic, drunken explosions that usually extend far beyond the two-hour mark without letting up on the visceral investment.
"Now we feel like we have the reputation for the long sets, so once you establish that reputation, you don't want to let the crowd down," says Gillard.
Putting on a gig twice as long, and twice as manic, as the average rock act 10 years younger has got to take its toll. As a result, GbV tour legs, though numerous, are generally a little shorter than the average jaunt. And while Gillard predicts that he'll be off the road and in the studio full-time before too many more years pass, for now there's always something to get him and the rest of the band psyched to take the stage.
"The whole pre-show ritual of getting there a little earlier, watching the opening band, the camaraderie of sitting backstage together, having a couple of beers and maybe a few shots — you get pumped up," he says. "You always feel like hell in the morning, but you also always know you'll feel better later."
Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or e-mail him at [email protected].