| Home | Fading Captain Series | GBV News | The Band | The Music | The Critics & Fans | Merchandise | Other Stuff |
Amplifier - Vol. 4, No. 5 1999
By Tom Semioli
apparently inebriated middle-aged singer stands on stage under the glare of a
single spotlight in the small prestigious venue nestled in the fashionably
gentrified derelict quarter of New York City. With his arms outstretched, a frothing
Budweiser clutched in one hand, a microphone gripped in the other, and a cheap
cigarette dangling from his lips, The Captain, as he is affectionately referred
to by his devout following, strikes an almost perverse Christ-like figure.
Within the first thundering riffs of "Submarine Teams", Robert Pollard
transforms into a suburban Roger Daltry. Twirling the mic, drop kicking it in
mid-air, throwing his head back, eyes closed, and pointing upward towards the
heavens, he forges a shameless emulation of the quintessential teen idol. It's
the sort of thing you're either born with, or have to practice hours on end in
front of a wardrobe mirror with the bedroom door locked. His vehicle is aptly
named Guided By Voices, the Beatles, to others they're a bunch of clowns. As a
swirl of energy envelops the faithful, one thing is certain: they can play songs
that make the young girls cry.
During the early 1980s when rock 'n' roll was in the process of being marginalized by a 24-hour cable-TV program, a group of average guys in Dayton, Ohio formed a patchwork ensemble that paid loving homage to classic 1960s pop and late 1970s punk. Singer/songwriter, fourth grade school teacher Robert Pollard, sand paper factory employee Mitch Mitchell, along with with regular nine to fivers Greg Demos on bass, drummer Kevin Fennell, and guitarist/songwriter Tobin Sprout casually thought of GBV as a hobby and never dreamt of pursuing music as a serious career. Evenings after work, weekends, and endless hours of spare time were prodigious opportunities to down plenty of six-packs while writing and recording absolutely everything they did on inexpensive four-track decks, battered boom boxes, and cheap cassette players. In the grand tradition of DIY (do-it-yourself), the members would chip in a few bucks every so often to fund the release of vanity LPs, then stock them in the mom and pop record shops that were kind enough to give their product some shelf space. With families to raise, day jobs, and other pressing obligations, GBV forgot to perform in public for nearly six years. Their long lost homemade gems Devil Between My Toes (1987) and Self Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (1989) did little more than collect dust.
Four years later Robert Griffin, who headed the tiny Scat label, accidentally came across a copy of Propeller (1992) and was exuberant over what he heard. Although the company was far from the big leagues, the group signed on and Vampire On Thus (1993) was issued. In support of the record, GBV ventured to Manhattan to appear at the trendy New Music Seminar, and latched onto the infamous Lollapalooza tour as a second stage feature where they were well received. Beastie Boy Mike D. and Sonic Youthís Thurston Moore were early supporters. When Scat was taken over by Matador the following year, the band created their defining opus, Bee Thousand. Accolades poured in from Rolling Stone and other important publications and GBV suddenly found itself in a class with indie luminaries Sebadoh, the Grifters, and Pavement as leaders of a new revolution in rock. Low-fidelity (lo-fi) became the last true bastion of artistic credibility as the major labels scooped up hordes of college dorm acts and apportioned them the same high budget luxuries as the established stars. Few, if any, of the bands that made the mega-buck leap survived when their much anticipated and highly publicized debuts failed to generate massive sales. The ďalternative eraĒ was over almost as quickly as it began.
than seize the financially lucrative offers that were being thrown their way,
GBV remained with Matador and continued to flour≠ish with the critically
acclaimed Alien Lanes (1995) and Under
The Bushes Under The Stars (1996), in addition to countless EPs, singles,
and various side projects. By the time of Mag
Earwhig (1997), Pollard was the only original member left standing. Although
others had drifted in and out of the line-up over the years, mainstays Mitchell,
Fennell, and Sprout were replaced by fellow Ohio rockers Cobra Verde for the
ensuing tour. Sprout, considered by many to be McCartney to Pollardís Lennon,
continues to release solo albums (Carnival
Boy, Moonflower Plastic, Letís Welcome The Circus People), as does Pollard
(Not In My Air Force, Waved Out, Kid
Marine). By Robertís own estimation, there have been approximately fifty
musicians who have passed through Guided By Voices.
that the band had gone as far as it could on independent labels, and wanting
security for his wife and teenage children, in 1998 Pollard sought major label
distribution and a way to advance their music above the realm of cult status.
With ex-Car Ric Ocasek in the producerís chair, Bob enlisted guitarist Doug
Gillard (Cobra Verde), bassist Tim Tobias, drummer Jim MacPherson (the Breeders,
the Amps) and guitarist Nate Farley to capture a sound that would be
commercially viable, yet maintain their idiosyncratic artistry. Farley and
Gillard had served in GBV before, with Gillard having been part of the Mag
Earwhig sessions and live ensemble. ďIíve always wanted people to have the
chance to hear Guided By Voices on the radio, and no one knows that Ďradio
soundí better than Ric.Ē Upon presenting the tapes of Do
The Collapse to Capitol Records, hopes were running high that this was going
to be the organization that would ensure crossover into the mainstream. Capitol
passed, however, due in part to company restructure, and TVT (Brian Jonestown
Massacre, XTC) came along and offered Pollard the marketing support as well as
the artistic freedom to do as he pleases. The first single from the new disc,
ĎTeenage FBIí has topped modern rock radio playlists, and proving Pollard
was right all along indulging himself with alter egos such as Nightwalker, and
Lexo & The Leapers, Bobís prolific output shows no signs of subsiding.
neither does his quest to please the people that afford him a liv≠ing. What
Austin Powers is to James Bond, Bob Pollard is to rock stardom. Imagine every
great moment in pop history from the British
latest incarnation of GBV retains their classic persona and strives for the
ever-elusive domain of mass appeal. However, if youíre expecting precision,
buy a ticket to a Steely Dan reunion. Kicking off their most ambitious tour yet
at the Bowery Ballroom, mayhem and disorder are just part of the fabric. That
crumpled piece of paper on the floor next to the monitor is the set list.
Throughout the evening, as in every GBV gig that Iíve ever been to, the mobile
band members and their leader huddle together with brows furrowed and eyes
squinting, trying desper≠ately to read the scribble that has launched a
timeless canon of three minute rock operas. They never bother to tell the
drummer what the next song is. Not that it really matters since MacPhersonís
ability to suss out the tune within the first few bars is letter perfect.
Besides, none of the renditions require a percussive intro. Mixing Pollardís
solo material (ďGet It Under,Ē ďMaggie Turns To Flies,Ē ďCircling
Motorhead MountainĒ) with assorted GBV chestnuts (ďI Am A Tree,Ē
ďBulldog Skin,Ē ďHot Freaks,Ē ďI Am A Scientist.Ē ďGame Of
PricksĒ), they are, in essence, marathoners set on playing ďuntil our mom
sayís itís time to go home.Ē Begging tolerance (ďbear with us when we do
the new stuffĒ), Bob leads the assault through Do
The Collapse with reckless abandon. The new songs find Pollardís
inimitable genius still intact. Falling over the drum kit, chain-smoking, and
sharing a bottle of lack Daniels with anyone in armsí reach, the faux British
accent never falters during the official debut of ďDragons Awake,Ē ďLiquid
Indian,Ē ďZoo Pie,Ē
like Elton John and Paul McCartney have enjoyed over thir≠ty years of heavy
rotation radio air-play, so you can expect to attend a show where most of the
audience responds to every word. On the other side of the coin, GBV has been
completely ignored by the mainstream, yet your concerts eventually turn into
you acknowledge this devoted behavior?
Itís one reason why we keep the old songs in the set. so the fans can do that. We have such a hardcore underground following that are com≠prised, in my opinion, of very smart and diligent music fans that were coal enough to dig Guided By Voices out in the first place.
Yes, but I have to be careful now. Unfortunately I conked one kid on the head pretty good. She was crying and I felt bad. But we did give her a t-shirt.
Do you get this reaction elsewhere?
What about the bandís reputation for low fidelity?
of the best rock albums of all time were not state of the art recordings. For
example, the Beatlesí White Album, REMís
Murmur, The Who Sell Out ... were all
fairly rough edged and less than perfect.
Exactly. Those albums have a distinct personality. The thing with us is that there were a bunch of bands doing it at the same time, and essentially it was viewed as a movement. How that happened I don't know. So, in essence, lo-fi became a genre, kind of like the new punk rock. But youíre right; itís always been there. Heck, Robert Johnson was lo-fi
My guess is that most folks listen to music on either a car stereo or a beat up walkman.
Why the move towards technological & commercial acceptability?
Under the Bushes and Mag Earwhig were gradual steps towards a refined sound.
How did you come to choose Ric Ocasek as a producer?
Did you rehearse for the sessions?
This is a complete 360 from the way GBV usually operates.
Which brings us to your solo career
Which is the Fading Captain series I created for myself. The name is kind of a joke, it doesnít mean Iím going downhill or anything like that. The main reason I did that is because we have this other label called Rockathon Records with friends of ours that consist of four or five bands, and I donít want to interfere with that schedule of releases. So I created my own label so that I can do what I want at all times and just pump things out.
On Do The Collapse, were the songs conceived as a whole or chosen at random?
Did Ric ask for any re-writes?
Like George Martin, who was one part catalyst two parts editor.
How do you approach the songwriting process?
GBVís back catalog is a study in fragmentary writing.
It all has to do with the context of the record.
Bee Thousand gave me the impression of the ultimate low-budget rock opera.
Your favorite contemporaries?
The concept of ďstandardsí has all but vanished.
In the 1960s artists were required to be prolific.
I love that! I can crank out four records a year!
Now the market is bigger, and itís takes time and a tremendous amount of money.
Elvis, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Nirvana: Given the current diversity of pop culture, do you think that weíll ever see something that captures the publicís imagination in a big way again?
Elvis and The Beatles certainly spawned imitators.
Outlets like MTV and the film industry have overexposed rock to the point where itís no longer vital.
We have a whole new generation that views rock music as just another channel on TV.
Will GBV film a video for the new record?
GBVís committed legions thrive in cyberspace, not unlike the Deadheads.
Making the jump from school teacher to rock musician was quite a risk.
Will the rising prices of CDs make it harder to reach new audiences?
Long Players have a special place in our lives.
Although compact discs do have some redeeming qualities...
What about the inevitability of artists going directly to the public via the Internet and bypassing the machinations of the music industry?
Thatís a true fact and that scares the music industry. At this point I do not understand what the implications to the artist would be. I like the thought of getting my music out to more people. Though as far as the Internet is concerned. Iím not that knowledgeable with it right now. But you never know. Whatever happens with it, we have yet to under≠stand. But Iím very primitive. I like to keep my life simple, just like my songs.