Interview #2

Science Friction - Interview #2 with GBV

They've been together 10 years; they box Peter Buck's sox; they're the uncrowned kings of lo-fi loveliness; they're mad as a hatstand.

They're GUIDED BY VOICES and Sharon O'Connell flew to Dallas to meet them.

It's getting pretty crowded in here. I'm in a backstage cupboard in Dallas, nursing a couple of bottles of Samuel Adams in the vain hope they'll settle my cataclysmically jet-lagged equilibrium. I lost my grip hours ago and now this bunch of video makers has piled in with their lights and leads and furry mics, having decided it would be a great idea to film me talking to the band for their rockumentary.

"We wanna do, like, a DW Pennebaker kinda thing", one of them enthuses. "Like with Bob Dylan in 'Don't Look Back'. The band are totally cool about it," he adds meaningfully.

Great. The only thing I remember about that movie is the journalist in it suffers a complete bollocking. Luckily, I'm too whacked to protest or to fully comprehend how painful this could be. Even more luckily the band in question is Guided By Voices. They seem to know exactly how I feel. But they have, I guess, built their whole career on fragmentation and confusion.

If you wait long enough, history will eventually catch up with you. Ohio's Guided By Voices have been around for 10 years and released nearly as many albums, but ears have only just tuned in to their gently bewildering beauty. Now, Peter Buck reckons they're "totally cool" and fellow Daytonans The Breeders saw fit to cover "Shocker In Gloomtown" on their last single and have them make a cameo appearance in the video.

Bands like Pavement and Sebadoh would be nowhere without GBV. They were lo-fi when Steve Malkmus and Lou Barlow were still in short pants, rushing out a flood of audaciously abbreviated songs thick with hiss and with titles - "Jar Of Cardinals" and "Perhaps Now The Vultures", for example - That could give Shonen Knife a run for their money. Imagine Magazine in a basement recording Roky Erickson songs on a four-track with Paul McCartney on vocals and you're getting close.

While the band, video crew and I make ourselves as comfortable as 11 people can be in a cupboard, I wonder if Guided By Voices aren't pissed off that people like Pavement and Sebadoh have snatched the lo-fi crown that is rightfully theirs.

"Yeah, Maybe", admits chief Voice Bob Pollard, thirtysomething ex-schoolteacher and insanely prolific songwriter, "because we were doing it in 1986 or something. I like to think the first lo-fi record - where you're doing things in the basement and it doesn't really matter how you record it - was our second album. It was called 'Devil Between My Toes'

"But I dunno," he adds, "because there were people who'd done it before us - Jad Fair, maybe, and a band called Godz who recorded stuff on the spot in 1967 as nasty as they could. And they were really good"

"Lo-fi is almost like the new punk," reckons Bob. "With punk, you didn't have to know how to play. With lo-fi, you don't need to know how to record, you don't have to have the equipment and you don't need to have any money. But I don't like too much of this lo-fi aesthetic thing because it implies that you bash out any trash, and that's 'Lo-Fi'. We try to write songs and record them in a classic sense, but we happen to have access to a four track."

It was, they claim, their technical expertise which led GBV to record their early stuff so primitively - a lot of it on a boom box with dual cassettes, dubbing Bob's vocal over what they had just put down. They liked the immediacy too.

"We're kind of impatient," says Kevin Fennell, GBV's drummer. "Because Bob writes a lot and we record a lot, sometimes out of necessity everything's pretty quick. And sometimes quick is good. First takes are - nine times out of ten - better"

What's the appeal of the cardboard box drumming, the muffle and the hiss?

Explains Bob: "I grew up listening to transistor radios and Sixties music and it has that feel. It's really trebly and I like that. It is a little bit nostalgic for me - I'm inspired to write mainly by things in the past, like the original British invasion stuff when I was a kid; then American bubblegum like Ohio Express and The Monkees; late Sixties, freakbeat, psychedelic stuff; then prog rock; after that heavy metal; then punk; post-punk..."

What about the obvious influence of GBV of "White Album" - era Beatles? Who do you prefer, John or Paul?

"John Lennon all the way," says Bob, emphatically. The others nod. "He was a lot cooler and he was more serious and I think his songs could touch you more than McCartney's. He wrote some sweet stuff, but Lennon's stuff was a little deeper. They could have put Syd Barrett in Paul McCartney's position and the Beatles probably would have been better!" he cackles.

If John Lennon's so cool, how come you sing like Paul McCartney?

"I used to sound like Michael Stipe," explains Bob, "and, to me, that sounded a little bit too Southern and I didn't want that, so I used a British accent. That's how I learned to sing - from the first British wave - when I was a kid. If I try another way, it sounds too hick or something"

"Michael Stipe should adopt a British accent. He'd probably sound better," Jim Greer chips in. He's GBV bass player of five months, errant Spin writer and beau of no less a star than Kim Deal. (They are, apparently, "engaged or something")

"We always wanted to be The Beatles on record and The Who live," Bob jokes.

Jim: "And Cheap Trick backstage."

Guided By Voices didn't always want to be Guided By Voices. In case they get bored, they've created a whole range of pseudonymous bands to ring the changes. This alternative persona shtick started when Bob was in high school. He and some classmates wanted to be in a band but couldn't play any instruments, so they did the next best thing.

"We just sat around in art class and designed album covers for our non-existent band," Bob smiles. "We were called Dead, or something equally ridiculous like that, and we made covers that were good enough for the teacher to quit giving us assignments. We even made T-shirts for this band! So it started out as a fantasy."

One of GBV's more recently adopted identities is Freedom Cruise, under which (fantastically bad) name they've recorded "Sensational Gravity Boy" for a compilation album due out in March. Then there is a split single with another band called Night Walkers, which is...GBV again.

Bob attempts to explain their schizophrenia.

"It's mainly a vehicle for inspiration for the songs. I've gone as far as cutting out pictures of kids from high school and making these covers for a compilation album. I did this not too long ago - giving the kids names, titles for songs - and I was inspired to write a song for that by looking at the 'band'. Is that insane or what?"

That's insane Bob.

By any standards, GBV are kind of mature to be doing what they're doing. Is being in a rock band just a way of prolonging adolescence?

"Oh, yeah," grins 38-year-old Bob. "I hope to be a kid forever, but I've already entered the adult thing. I taught for 14 years, so I had to be in both worlds. When you teach 10-year-olds for 14 years, you are 10 years old!"

"We can jump around on stage a lot better than some of these young punks, though," he adds.

Jim: "Yeah, wait until you see Bob jump around on stage and see if those guys from Blur can jump around like that."

"We belong to The Church Of Rock," he adds, solemnly.

Bob: "Yeah, The First National Church Of Rock. And Beer!"

And the Future according to GBV?

"We've got such a nice deal I'm sure it's going to afford us all a living for the next four or five years," muses Bob.

Jim: "After that, Bob will enter his porch-rock phase."

Bob: "I'll sit on the porch with my acoustic guitar and kids will come over and go, 'Weren't you Robert Pollard?' And I'll go, ' guess I was.'"

Guided By Voices - history in the making, nothing less.

Melody Maker February 4 1995