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Amplifier - Vol. 4, No. 5 1999
By Tom Semioli

An 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.

Rather 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.

Feeling 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.

And 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 Invasion, to the punk onslaught, right on down to the angst filled grunge explosion, shoveled into a blender and ground into compositions that youíd swear youíve known all your life. The Captain has literally written hundreds of them.

The 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 ďMuch Better Mr. Buckles,Ē and ďOptical Hopscotch.Ē Even MacPherson takes a stage dive amidst the carnage. Two hours into the set, the house lights go up, and GBV are forced to continue the party at the bar until the wee hours.

 

Artists 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 massive sing≠alongs.

Thank God, thatís what keeps us going. My guitar player Doug asked me the other day, Ďdo you see those kids looking at you and singing every lyric?í Actually I donít because it would mess me up, so I just look above everybodyís heads. But Doug has his eyes on the first two rows and he notices stuff like that.

Do 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.

I remember a show from 1997 at Irving Plaza in New York where you tossed the mic out to the crowd and let whomever caught it handle the vocals.

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?

It does happen in other cities, but New York seems to be the best. Itís like a-second home to us. A couple of other cities have been real hardcore for us, like Philadelphia. But New York is real fanatical. San Francisco is good, Chicago is good, L.A. too, and London. Actually, the bigger the city, the better. Small cities are receptive too, donít get me wrong. Weíll have a couple of hundred diehard fans. But the larger cities are filled with fans who are aware of everything weíve done, even the real early stuff.


What about the bandís reputation for low fidelity?

Yeah we are the lo-fi champs, or the lo-fi pioneers depending on which way you look at it. But that was a matter of timing. To our advantage, that tag eventually opened the door for us with everything that was happen≠ing on the indie scene. People wanted to see what we were all about. But looking over our career, we donít want to get stuck in one place.

Many 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.

Itís the music and the song that matters, not the fidelity. Thatís the way I am.


Why the move towards technological & commercial acceptability?

Itís the radio stations that need hi-fidelity, not necessarily the public. They need to have it sound a certain way and if we donít do it, weíre not going to get airplay. So thatís why we went in this direction. I want to be heard by more people than those that already know us. So we got a real produc≠er to make it sound better, and thatís really the angle.


Under the Bushes and Mag Earwhig were gradual steps towards a refined sound.

True. Everything with us has to be a slow process and a slow evolution. You donít want to burn yourself out. Do The Collapse is a natural pro≠gression. The songs are still there, as well as the imagery, which should keep our older fans interested.


How did you come to choose Ric Ocasek as a producer?

The main reason I wanted Ric is because heís a songwriter. A lot of pro≠ducers are not writers, and we needed that entity with him. So his role was to help me decide which songs to choose, and work on the arrangements. We went into pre-production, which is very new to me, and I talked with Ric on the phone every day. I sent him songs and we really planned. Again, thatís a hard process for me, because I had to have real patience with each track. This time out we made sure we had the right take, the right performance, the right amplifiers, and even the proper microphones. Ric made up for the technical stuff that I donít know since Iíve never really worked with that many producers. So to me, he was amazing. I donít know who to compare him with.


Did you rehearse for the sessions?

We did two different sets of demos. Usually our demos are the record. As a matter of fact, L just finished a solo album that still has that demo quality. Iíll never lose that. I like to hear things like Pete Townshendís records that are essentially demos. But the new album is a quality recording.


This is a complete 360 from the way GBV usually operates.

Absolutely. Weíve been doing these songs for a year-and-a-half in con≠cert. This record is a long time in the making. Itís old hat to us, almost. I know the recordís just come out, but Iím in the selective process of eliminating songs from the set already! Thatís kind of screwed up when you think about it. Since weíve recorded this disc last September, Iíve already done three or four other ones. Two solo albums, one which is not out yet, then this Lexo & The Leapers thing and a Nightwalker record. Thatís what I like about TVT. They donít care if I do other stuff. I have to be active all the time. Iím always working on something.


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.

What about the most recent version of GBV?

Theyíre awesome, they can play! They are the best musicians around, and real good guys. Itís perfect. I donít go through an audition process, that would be brutal. I did that a long time ago and it was never a good situation. I just go with who I know. All these players have a tremendous track record. I drink with them, and hang out with them. Thatís another thing that you have to be careful of when you select a band, the chem≠istry has to be right, and you have to be compatible.


On Do The Collapse, were the songs conceived as a whole or chosen at random?

I wrote 90 percent of the new album at one time. I went through my note≠book and two or three pages of titles, and I went down the list and started making things up. Perhaps skeletons of 50 or 60 songs. Then I choose the ones that I thought were the best. So most were written on one shot, then I added six or seven later on. Iím always writing.


Did Ric ask for any re-writes?

Oh no. Ric would only ask to repeat a verse again, add a chord or two here and there, suggest an idea for a bridge. For the most part, he did not change the songs. He was an objective set of ears.


Like George Martin, who was one part catalyst two parts editor.

Exactly.


How do you approach the songwriting process?

Very simple. I write on guitar and go straight into my cheap little tape player. I donít even have a four-track. Everything is live. What I do is go along until I think itís falling apart and then I just turn the tape recorder off. What you hear on the earlier records is exactly that.


GBVís back catalog is a study in fragmentary writing.

Yes, which is why the new one is so different. Now weíre doing com≠plete songs. Everything is fully realized, although some people will still prefer the fragments.

 
It all has to do with the context of the record.

Right, but Iím happy doing it this way, too.


Bee Thousand gave me the impression of the ultimate low-budget rock opera.

Wow. Thatís great. See the thing with Guided By Voices is that I always wanted our records to sound like Beatles and Who bootlegs. I love that quality. I still do that, and Iím still doing that on the side. Thatís whatís closest to my heart. But Guided By Voices has reached a new profession≠al level. We doing more things and trying to be more visible. Weíre work≠ing with well respected people in the industry, so itís a different level.


Your favorite contemporaries?

Modem songwriters? Thatís a tough one. Iím kind of stuck in the 1960s. Things have been twisted and mutated around where that kind of music is not being made anymore. Although I think there are some good songs out there, there are not that many writers that I focus on. I think my favorite writers are those who write as bands. Like the Grifters and Superchunk. I like Pavement also, especially lyrically. Iím not sure of the name, but thereís a guy (Pat Stolley) in a band called Multiple Cat from Iowa City that writes excellent songs. I like Chan Marshall from Cat Power. I think Lou Barlow of Sebadoh is a excellent songwriter. Sonic Youth write as a band too, which is very good. It shows in their recordings.


The concept of ďstandardsí has all but vanished.

Yes it has. See the thing about the 1960s is that you had people that wrote songs all the time, like Jimmy Webb. And back then, everybody covered each otherís songs, which Iíd like to see come back.


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.

Yeah I hate that. Weíre doing a record about every two years, which is pretty good considering how the industry is with having to push records for a long time. But I guess that you have to be compliant with that. If you want to sell records you have to give them time to work it. Again thatís why I have to do side projects.


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?

Well initially itís always good to have something big like that. Itís very exciting. But then you get all these copycat bands. Look at what hap≠pened with Nirvana, which resulted in all this post-grunge garbage. Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, and others to numerous to mention. All these bands that try to sound like Nirvana.


Elvis and The Beatles certainly spawned imitators.

Yes, the same thing happened with them. You get a lot of copy artists, and thatís a natural thing for people to want to be like that. But I think itís kind of boring actually. Although, the first bands that start to copy are really good, then it gets progressively diluted. But the initial explosion is always good. Quite frankly, I think it needs to happen. Whether it will is another story.


Outlets like MTV and the film industry have overexposed rock to the point where itís no longer vital.

Oh, I know, I know. And it makes it harder for people to listen to music.

 
We have a whole new generation that views rock music as just another channel on TV.

I know, and I donít like that at all. This era has really hurt music, but there is nothing you can do about it. Itís here now and we have to deal with it. But thatís the reason I have a band. Iíve been listening to music all my life and yeah, Iím somewhat jaded and disappointed about where itís all gone, so I just make my own music.


Will GBV film a video for the new record?

Having said all that, I think we will. Thatís what I like about TVT. Theyíll push a song first and if radio picks it up weíll do a clip. I really prefer that methodology, because in most instances I tend to think music videos are a waste of time.


GBVís committed legions thrive in cyberspace, not unlike the Deadheads.

Thatís really amazing, especially since we have nothing to do with it. Itís all our fans whoíve put that together. I hear we have a very impressive official web site, but I never check it.


Making the jump from school teacher to rock musician was quite a risk.

The reason I quit being a teacher was to do this for a living. And I have kids to support so if it was something that I couldnít make a living at, I would never have quit a job with benefits and security. But thanks to our grass roots support, when management and the record label snaps its fingers, I donít have to jump. I do have that incredibly loyal fan base to fall back on. I can always put out my own records and theyíll buy Ďem. Now Iím not at the point where I want to do that. I want to see what Guided By Voices can do on this label. But itís always nice to know that if I want to back off from all these obligations I have that option because of this fanatical group of people. Itís a unique position to be in.


Will the rising prices of CDs make it harder to reach new audiences?

I didnít like compact discs to begin with. Especially when you know that discs are very cheap to make and they cost more than vinyl, which really angers me. Now itís kind of backfired on the music industry, because you have MP3 where people can download things for free. Actually, I think thatís very funny.


Long Players have a special place in our lives.

I miss albums. Theyíre warmer and the jackets were a work of art. Theyíre nice to look at and you can de-seed your weed on the gatefold covers. There is something too impersonal about plastic disc covers. Although the digi-pacs are nice since thereís no plastic involved.


Although compact discs do have some redeeming qualities...

The only thing I like about CDs is that theyíre reissuing old obscure stuff. Especially the late 1960s psychedelic garage records. And I like the compilations of music that have not been available for many years. I bought all the old Captain Beefheart records that came out on the Buddah label. And the bonus tracks on the Who records are also great. Thatís the stuff I really care about.


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.