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The destiny of Guided by Voices seems to be firmly locked into
Cleveland. It was a Cleveland effort that first launched the critically acclaimed band
into the spotlight several years ago, and now GbV has partnered with local guitar star
Doug Gillard to record a big Ric Ocasek-produced release.
The Cleveland Free Press
Voices Guided By Cleveland
By Cindy Barber
In the early 90s, Cleveland indie label entrepreneur Robert Griffin came across some self-produced albums by a little known Dayton garage band that sounded punk one minute and like the second coming of the Beatles the next. With the help of a Cleveland-area investor, Griffin began releasing GbV material, new and old, on his Scat Records label, beginning with Vampire on Titus in 1993. The CD version included 33 tracks in 68 minutes of music (half of the tracks represented the reissue of the bands 1992 Propeller album). Then came Bee Thousand in 1994 with twenty songs in 36 minutes.
The mad genius guiding GbV was revealed as elementary school teacher Robert Pollard, an outwardly stable human being who parties with his friends every Wednesday and Sunday in his Monument Club garage and has a gift for writing catchy melodies to brain-twisting lyrics. A non-stop songwriting machine, if Pollard can only manage a couple dozen words, then the song is just short. The one-minute "Kicker of Elves" on Bee Thousand finds Pollard on an acoustic guitar pattering "Kicker of elves on high seas in search of the sickly sweet milk of selfish love, and knife these for warm fresh blood... and one more verse, sounding much like the eccentric acoustic tiles of 60s British duo T. Rex. Pollards lyrics often sound like hes writing adult fairy tales, fables that hold important secrets we need to decipher. When he does hit his stride with a three-minute song, Pollard can have GbV sounding like the Kinks or some other British Invasion reincarnation.
Bee Thousand created a big buzz for GbV. Griffin packaged four early GbV self-releases and some unreleased tracks into a boxed set as his final contribution and the band moved on to a contract with Matador in 1995. Until then, GbV had basically recorded in someones home studio in Dayton, on either four-track or eight-track equipment. But the lo-fi sound, which they became famous for championing, was not really a conscious choice; it was just what was available.
Last year, Pollard shed his long-time GbV bandmates. Guitarist Tobin Sprout became a father for the second time and decided to quit the band. But Pollard also parted ways with his long-time bassist Mitch Mitchell and drummer Keith Fennell; the three began playing together in 1975 in a band called Anacrusis.
Although, according to a biography, there have been 50 different GbV line-ups, many including Pollards brother Jim, the Sprout-Mitchell-Fennell incarnation was the one that was in place when the band started to attract rave reviews by national critics. This was also the core line-up that could blow the roof off the Euclid Tavern with their high-energy, alcohol-fueled show. A full-blown rock show that was often contradictory to the quirky recorded GbV.
Pollards dream has always been to really rock, on record and on the stage. Although he plays guitar, on stage he leaves that up to his bandmates so he can jump and jerk before a crowd, After GbV fell apart, Pollard pressed Clevelands Cobra Verde (John Petkovic, Doug Gillard, Dave Swanson and Don Depew) into service as his back-up for a Matador release entitled Mag Earwhig. He came to Cleveland to record at Verde bassist Depews 609 Recording studio, creating a more produced and, yes, rockin record. The new record was well received by critics, even though many lamented the departure of the old GBV lineup.
Pollard and his Cleveland-based band took vacations and sick days from their day jobs to tour. "Last year was hell," says Gillard, about trying to tour and work a forty-hour job, even though he enjoyed the playing. "It was really grueling. We werent on salary. We were just making touring money. But Bob made the same amount of money as we did."
This year, Gillard is the only Cobra Verde member back in the GbV fold. "Bob made me a little bit of an offer," says Gillard, who has finally been able to quit his day job. Pollard has tapped former GbV bassist Greg Demos, now a lawyer in Dayton. and Jim Macpherson, drummer from the Breeders and The Amps, to round out his new recording line-up. This time Matador seems to be upping the ante for the band, hoping .for a bigger-selling record.
Gillard says he has been driving back and forth to Dayton to work with Pollard and the others. The band put together demo recordings of new songs last winter and early spring and recently spent nearly three weeks recording in New York City, working in the 48-track Electric Lady studios with Cars man Ric Ocasek as producer.
Ocasek was turned on to GbV after "the Holes bass player played him songs," says Gillard, then the bands management tracked him down. Tapes were mailed back and forth, and 19 of Pollards many songs made it into the studio, one co-authored by Gillard, "Avalanche Aminos."
The tracks, obviously the most produced efforts Pollard has ever attempted, are lush and full of sound, a far cry from the lo-fi of early GbV. Gillards aggressive, yet melodic, guitar work and background harmony vocals seem to be a good fit with Pollards singing and own sense of melody. Gillard says Ocasek didnt change too much of the songs structure, adding a few keyboards parts himself, layering the backup vocals. He also brought in a modern composer with a string quartet to add parts to three songs, creating a beehive of high-pitched buzzing on a song called "Wrecking Now."
Though "Tropical Robots" is only thirty seconds long, most of the new songs are two-three minutes. But all of the compositions still have those odd Pollard names, like "Dragons Awake", "Zoo Pie" and "Surgical Focus," and mystical lyrics.
Gillard says Pollard, the Dayton family man about to turn 41, never wanted to be stuck in the lo-fi category, that he always aspired to make big rock records. Now they have to wait until February for the release of the as-yet unnamed CD to see how the fully produced GbV is received. In the meantime, the band is playing shows on the weekends, when Demos can get away from his law practice, and planning a big supported and salaried tour in the spring, which may mean a different bass player and the addition of a rhythm guitarist. In addition to GbV, Gillard is releasing a five-song solo EP on Athens, Georgia-based Cushion Records and a new release on Spare Me Records out of New York by his own band, Gem.
This Friday, it seems appropriate that Guided by Voices previews the new songs in Cleveland at the Phantasy Nite Club. When Gillard lays down his ringing guitar part as Pollard sings his "Picture Me Big Time" song, remember GbV is just a rock and roll fantasy come true