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The Dayton Voice March 12-18 1998
By Don Thrasher
The Vampire On Titus Gets Another Infusion
When I was a kid jumping around my room lip synching to Rubber Soul and Revolver, I wished I was in the Beatles. That would have been impossible because I was not even 5 years old when those particular LPs were recorded. Besides, I didn't get my first drum kit until around the time Abbey Road was released.
Later I was lucky enough to get involved with Robert Pollard and his musical outlet, Guided By Voices. This was the closest a post-rock kid from Ohio, by way of Alabama, was ever going to get to being in the Fab Four. Pollard's endless stream of melodies, penchant for experimentation and surreal lyrical imagery, filtered through some new wave and punk noise machine, made them, for me, the logical extension of the Beatles with a razor thin attention span.
The first time I saw Guided By Voices they were in the opening slot on a bill that included Columbus' great, lost psychedelic institution, Boys From Nowhere, and mono-garage-rock legends, the Lyres. It was May 16, 1985. The club: Gilly's on Fifth and Jefferson Streets. In that day's issue of the now-defunct local morning daily, The Journal Herald, Nick Weiser wrote, "Don't get there late because the opening act is one of the best new bands I've seen in ages... they are still developing, but I believe the group's material is strong enough right now to land a major recording contract." Weiser was right, but it would be another eight years before anybody outside a small circle of music fans would believe that
My friends and I arrived at Gilly's in time to see this local band we had never heard of, Guided by Voices. I was surprised to see they were a group of scruffy looking anglo inspired popsters with a bag full of jangly guitars, Who-ish breaks and a whole mess of melodies. The line up was Robert Pollard (guitar and vocals), Mitch Mitchell (bass), Paul Comstock (guitar) and Peyton Eric (drums). The quartet was dressed sort of thrift-store weird with a nod to the paisley underground (REM meets the Dream Syndicate). The band was good, in a college rock way, but not earth shaking. The Second time I saw them was at Brookwood Hall a few months later on a local showcase with Pleasures Pale (featuring Louis Lerma fromTasties, Amps, Dates) the Highwaymen, the Obvious (featuring a young Nick Kizirnis) and Rhino 39 (with Dan O'Couner of Mink/OOOO WA fame). This time out, GBV had dirtied up the guitars a touch and was working a more psychedelic rock angle. Still, what stuck out and remained in my head were the melodies. From there, the band dropped quietly out of sight.
At the time I was hosting a kitchen-sink type underground/ punk rock show called Radio Free Dayton on Wright State University's campus station, WWSU 1O6.9 FM. One day about a year later while going through the new releases a record called Forever Since Breakfast by Guided By Voices caught my eye. I rushed into studio B and put it on. On the first listen I thought it was a collection of simple folk rock songs in the REM-mode, a genre explored by a lot of white bread Midwestern bands at the time.
For some reason, because they were local, I guess, I decided to tape the record. As I began to listen to the tape and play cuts on my radio show, I found there was a lot more to this record than the cryptic kudzu inspired sounds of REM There were melodies out the ass. The songs were well crafted pop songs with some interesting almost prog-rock-anges. The lyrics were homespun tales about Ohio blue collar characters, fighter planes and riding around town.
In those days I was playing drums in a band called The New Creatures. Shortly after Forever Since Breakfast came out, the Creatures were opening for Die Kruezen, an early Touch And Go band, at the Building Lounge on East Third Street in Dayton. Toward the end of our set, bass player Bill Hustad broke a string. Greg Demos, the lead guitarist and vocalist, began playing the old Spirit tune, "Natures Way," while Bill changed his string. I was sitting behind the drum set with my head down, catching a breath, when I heard someone harmonizing with Greg and it sounded good. 1 looked up to see a man I recognized as Robert Pollard, lead singer and guitarist for Guided By Voices.
After the show we approached Bob and GBV manager, Pete Jamison, and started talking. That began what has been a long friendship arid musical collaboration between the two bands. Through the years, Demos and myself have appeared on a number of GBV albums and we have both achieved shared member status of Guided By Voices, a club or guild, if you will.
I hope my passion for Guided By Voices will not distort my testimonial of the greatness Robert Pollard and his revolving roster of musicians have created over the last decade. I said for years that in a perfect world of wine and greenbacks, Pollard would have free recording time for an eternity and a full dance card of labels willing to release said output, and Billy "Smashing Pumpkin" Corrigan would be working at a Gap in some nowhere Chicago mall and the Gallegher brother of Oasis would be selling eel pies on the beaches of Brighton.
Since Forever Since Breakfast came out-a record that featured the lineup of Pollard, Comstock, Mitchell and Eric - more than 30 musicians have become members of this most unlikely guild and countless others have contributed instrumentation to tracks.
"I think the changes are good," Bob Pollard says over coffee at Cold Beer and Cheeseburgers on Jefferson Street. "I think it keeps it fresh. Every time I change the line up it's like a transfusion that keeps the vampire alive. Only with hindsight can you tell which lineups are better than others, but initially, it's always a breath of fresh air.
"My secret desire is to have one band," he continues. "I would like that, but it just happens that it doesn't work out. Sometimes it doesn't work out more quickly than other times. With Toby (Sprout), Mitch (Mitchell) and Kevin (Fennell) it lasted for three years, and it was good, ya know, but some circumstances led to where that had to break up, too."
Pollard went from a 16-track studio on the debut in four records in a row (Devil Between My Toes, Sondbox, Self~Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia and Same Place the Fly Got Smashed ) done on a much smaller scale (8-track and 2-track). During this time in Steve Wilbur's garage studio, without the pressures of pleasing any one but himself, Pollard began to fine-tone the sound and work out the melodies that were forever spinning around his head.
By the time of Propeller, a record I feel honored to be a part of, Pollard was firing on all
Six cylinders. He took some of his best songs and recorded them at Encore Studios on 16-tracks. The record was then fleshed out with 8-track, 4-track and 2-track recordings. This shining moment was Pollard's first true classic album He jokingly called the collection of songs Propellor because he said it was going to "propel us to the top". And it did, in fact, only not as quickly as Pollard would have liked. This lo fi arena rock LP, released in a limited edition of 500 vinyl copies, with hand
made covers, attracted many ears including two very important ones: those belonging to Robert Griffin of Scat Records. The Cleveland-based independent label subsequently re-released Propeller on CD packaged with Vampire on Titus.
Fur the first time people were taking the school teacher and songwriter seriously, and, AND, there was an unending stream of people willing to foot the bill for his prolific output. By this point, GBV was recording exclusively on a 4-track cassette machine that proved to be the perfect tool for capturing Pollard's unending stream of songs.
Magnet magazine publisher Eric T. Miller wrote that Pollard had written more great songs than the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones combined. A bold statement, but the true GBV-devotee knows there is more than a hint of truth to it. Detractors say that Pollard merely mimics the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks and Cheap Trick (to name but a few); but, let's not forget that the Beatles borrowed from Little Richard, Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers and the Beach Boys (to name but a few). It's this type of musical cross-pollination that keeps rock 'n' roll alive and kicking.
Over the course of eight albums and countless 7" singles and EPs, Pollard has crested his own world and given fans a twisted glimpse of small town America populated by a cast of characters who left "Twin Peaks" because it was too tame. Lyrically, his logical ancestors include Lennon & McCartney,
Nick Drake, Pete Townshend, Roky Erickson and Robyn Hitchcock. In the land of Pollard's creations, the Magnificent Earwhig, giants, elves, Creep Doctors, aardvarks and the Weed King co-exist with dusty bushworms, black ass buffalos, volcano drivers, vampires and crying cooks.
Pollard also draws heavily from some of the city's biggest industries like the U.S. Air Force (Wright
Patterson) and automobiles (General Motors, Chrysler arid Honda) for inspiration. His songs are filled with rich imagery of airplanes, cars and space aliens.
Its Wednesday evening at the Monument Club, the garage cum bar in Pollard's back yard. A group of regulars have gathered for the weekly night of basketball and beer consumption. In the background a Pollard mix tape is playing songs by Robert Gordon, the Beach Boys, the Cars, Scott WaIker and of course, the Beatles. Excitement about the newest lineup -Cobra Verde's Doug Gillard (guitar), former Breeder Jim Macpherson (drums) and on-again/ off-again bassist Greg Demos - is mounting thanks to recent demos recorded by Dave Doughman at Gas Daddy Go! Studios and John Shough at Cro-Magnon Studios.
"A band is like a team," says Pete Jamison, "Manager for Life" and head of GBV's merchandise and fan club wing, Postal Blowfish. "You try to get the right people with the right feeling and perspective on what you're trying to do. I think he has that with this crew now. They can go inside each others minds. I think Doug knows the riffs Bob wants. I know Macpherson has the beat he wants.
And, Greg Demos, I mean, you can 't top him."
"At the level Bob's at, he could pretty much have anybody he wanted in the band," Jamison continues, "but that doesn't count because everybody has to fit and know their part. I think Bob's whole goal from the beginning has been to get people around him that are of his caliber, with the same musical frame of mind, and hear the same little things he hears. I think he finally has the lineup he wants and it makes the songs better."
"This is a great lineup," Pollard says. "It's probably the most talented bunch that I've worked with, not to take anything away from anybody who's played with me in the past. Doug is a really talented guitar player, but that's not the reason he remained in the band and the rest of the Cobra Verde guys didn't. The main reason is because he was always enthusiastic and had a lot of input. I felt that the other guys thought of it just like it was a job and I didn't like that. If you get the opportunity to do music for a living and that's all you get to do, you should be thankful and enjoy it."
"I know these guys. I've spent time with Doug. I've known Greg for over 10 years and I know what kind of guy Jim Macpherson is. I've wanted to work with him for a long time. I've got a really, really good feeling about this."
"The new bunch is really enthusiastic and excited," he continues. "Granted, when you first start with a new line up it's always like that, it was like that with Cobra Verde even. Sometimes it takes a while to find out the chemistry isn't there and it isn't going to work."
At the end of this month Pollard will debut the newest incarnation of Guided By Voices at a private party in Columbus. Over the next few months the band will play a couple of weekend shows. Sometime in the near future the band will be entering the studio, most likely with Ric Ocasek, to record album number four for Matador Records. Unfortunately for GBV fans, that record probably won't hit the stores until February 1999. However, to appease the hardcore fans, Pollard will be releasing his second Matador solo record in April. In the meantime, you can bet this mad scientist of rock will be conjuring up more twisted, melodic gems to carry us singing into the next millenium.
Don Thrasher is the music editor for The Dayton Voice