"Who gives a fuck about lyrics, anyway?" Credit Bob Pollard (the regal lead voice in Guided by Voices) for so ably articulating the central problem with the state of rock and roll in 1995.
Say what you will about the rise of "alternative" from the commercial dungeons of college radio to the head offices of the corporate airwaves, but one thing's for certain: with all of the new-found "sympathy" from mainstream media, and the glut of cottage magazines that have arisen in the last few years, there's no lack of coverage for the, uh, "culture," created in the image of a certain dead rock star. Which, of course, begs the question: if the current scene is designed to make amends for the journalistic oversights of the last 15 years (should've-been-superstar omissions like the Clash, Smiths, and Pixies come immediately to mind), why are we still stuck with Live, Trent Reznor, and Courtney-goddam-Love?
The answer can perhaps be traced to the Village Voice's 1994 Pazz and Jop Poll, an annual tally of the year's best albums according to the nation's critical elite. Compelled by an obsessive need for closure or, worse, their "social conscience," that incestuous community chose as their top five no less than four albums bearing the distinct sign of Cobain--Nirvana's own Unplugged, REM's arena-rock homage, Monster, Neil Young's vastly-unfortunate "tribute" album, Sleeps With Angels, and atop the list, Courtney's de facto post-suicide note (critics seemed to conveniently forget that the album was released before the tragedy), Live Through This. How Pavement's brilliantly-poppy, decidedly un-mournful Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain managed to slip in at number two remains a mystery, though one suspects that the offending voters have since been hunted down and punished for their cultural irresponsibility.
So, as our rock press locks into an eternal apology for the suffering of a generation, making celebrities of dour opportunists like Reznor and the ubiquitous Miss Love in the process, the real rock stars in Guided by Voices not-so-quietly continue to turn out yearly greatest-hits collections for God's jukebox. Their most recent release on Matador records, Alien Lanes, finds the band much as we found them on the last two (Bee Thousand and Vampire on Titus/ Propeller)--gloriously-disheveled archivists tinkering around in their 4-track laboratories for the formula to the perfect ninety-second pop song, and, from parts both hallowed and unheralded (a little Beatles here, a little Blue Oyster Cult there), recreating it in their own image. Granted, it's nothing too surprising for those already familiar with the group's work, but those who would criticize the album as static (as a couple of critics have) sorely miss the point. Alien Lanes isn't about complacency; it's about a band becoming comfortable with its many gifts, and in doing so, beginning to realize the remarkable possibilities those gifts present for the future.
URMusic had the good fortune to sit down for an hour and talk Guided By Voices--past, present, and future--with both the group's founder, singer Robert Pollard, and its newest member, bass player and one-time senior editor of Spin magazine, Jim Greer. Besides getting the word on the bands new 24-track studio effort (produced with the aide of high-profile friends like Steve Albini and Kim Deal), we were also able to gather insight into the bands take on the creative process, the current scene, music stardom, and, of course, the (un)importance of that peculiar phenomenon known as the rock and roll lyric.*
Jim: The title of the new album is "Under the Bushes, Under the Stars."
UR: Rumor had it for a while that you were going to do the lyrics for it. Any truth to that?
Jim: That was a much earlier version, when we were talking about doing a concept album, and I was going to write a story to accompany it, like Quadrophenia or something like that, but we trashed that.
Jim: It was just starting to look a bit corny, too contrived or something It's still something that I think would be cool to try to do, to try to pull it off without being uncool. It's just that we had so many ideas about what we were going to do, and then it ended up just being a normal album. I mean, it definitely represents a departure in that we were in the studio for at least half of it, 24 track stuff. Then theres stuff that we re-did later on 4 track, like some of the vocals and stuff. But in general, the songs are longer. The new album has a more slow, melancholy feel to it, definitely more so than "Alien Lanes."
UR: Some reports were touting this one as Guided By Voice's bid for rock stardom.
Jim: Not really. We haven't tried that one yet. We were gonna try it with this one, but except for a couple of songs, the production isn't really appreciably "improved." There are a couple of songs on there that are produced, but they're not hits. I mean they could be hits, they should be hits, they should all be hits, but they're not in the standard modern rock format. I mean, at one point we were gonna make a Cheap Trick record, a real power pop thing, but that just kind of fell by the wayside. Despite our best efforts to have some conceptual framework when we make an album, it's a much more organic process than that, especially when you write as many songs as Bob does.
UR: So, when will the album be finished?
Jim: It's done. It could come out now, but the label doesn't want it to, especially since we have a new EP coming out in September.
UR: How does the band anticipate the release of its first "proper" album? Most assumed that, after the label signing frenzy, Alien Lanes would've been the one.
Jim: Well, we finished that before we were signed. We were actually carrying it around with us saying, "Listen, if you're gonna sign us, you have to put this out as it is," kind of our last completely four track deal. And everybody said they would. It's not as if we deliberately being contrarians or something. At the time, we really didn't have the money. And actually, there's some 8 track stuff on there, too.
UR: Which inevitably leads me to ask: how integral is that basement-tape production to the GBV sound?
Jim: We like the 4-track for two reasons: for one--we like the way it enables to be more spontaneous. If we have a song, we can just go into Tobys basement and record it that day. You can't really do that with a big studio. Second, some things just sound better on four track. We've spent a lot of time in the studio trying to get the vocals to sound as good as they do on the four track, that natural compression that you get. There are other things that we like about the four-track: the way it simplifies the arrangement, the way it allows you to get away with maybe not being technically perfect, which you're not going to be anyway because you just learned the song. Like the rhythm section is usually buried on four-track, all the low end gets kind of squashed out of existence, and the high end is really emphasized, so mainly what you hear is guitar and vocals, and this kind of clatter. But that's kind of the way that you used to hear songs on transistor radios back in the 60s, which is cool.
UR: Then why fight the band's natural tendency by doing 24 track at all?
Jim: There's nothing wrong with the big studio. I'm happy with the 24 track. Its just that when it came down to it, we didn't want a whole album's worth of it. Couldn't do it, just couldn't. Maybe we'll move towards that, but I think there's always a place for the 4 track. There is an element of our recorded sound that is lo-fi, and we like it that way, whatever that means. Whether it has to do with the spontaneity of it, or deliberately leaving in mistakes, but there's just something about that that we always want to keep.
Bob: Whenever I hear phrases I like, I write them down in a notebook, and then when I feel like writing lyrics, I'll usually come up with the title first, and then I go from point A to point Z in a stream-of-consciousness-kind-of-way. And when I need a line, sometimes I use phrases. Most of the time it's for the imagery, and the look of the words on paper, and the sound of them.
UR: Is it really that random? Occasionally, I get the sense reading some of your stuff that its more linear than you let on.
Bob: Sometimes I feel like I'm being inspired in an abstract way, like I'm trying to write something about something but not specifically. Usually we can analyze it later, so I just write it and then look at it and say, "well, maybe that's a song about ecology or--"
Jim: All the songs are about the environment [laughs]. That's what they're all about.
UR: Are you ever worried that that sort of abstraction might be a commercial impediment? The kids want their angst, you know.
Jim: I don't think it was any sort of impediment for T-Rex or Peter Gabriel.
Bob: Blue Oyster Cult had great weird lyrics, Bowie. . .
Jim: There's like this fad now for confessional songwriting, like Lou Barlow type stuff.
Bob: Yeah, who wants to hear that shit?
Jim: But I don't think that in the overall historical perspective people are going to care. I don't listen to lyrics.
Bob: I listen to the sound of the words.
Jim: I don't listen for deep inner meaning. From a rock lyric? Come on. . .
Bob: I like lyrics that are grand, cosmic, and--
Jim: Cool. [laughs]
Bob: Yeah, cool. What's that lyric? "I will be immersed, queen of the fucking universe." I like to use profanity with really grand-type lyrics. It talks to me more.
Jim: At the same time, I think lyrics allow people to glean what they want, which is cool, too.
Bob: Titles are important. Titles are what used to make me buy records as a kid. If I wasn't too familiar with the band, and they had a good band name, and the titles were cool on the record, and it had a fairly neat cover, Id buy it. I use other points of reference now, because now I know certain producers and engineers and labels and stuff better, I use that. But I used to just go on titles and covers.
Jim: I mean, if you're a kid, and you go into a record store, and you see this album by a band called Blue Oyster Cult, and you turn it over and see the title: "Shes As Beautiful As A Foot," youve gotta buy it.
Bob: Who was it who said, "how could you be a good band, if you can't even come up with an interesting name?"
Jim: I think you said it, Bob. [laughs]
Bob: We went through a lot of names before we came up with Guided By Voices. I used a lot of feedback from people. We went through some stupid names.
Bob: Beethoven and the American Flag. We were gonna be that. Then we were the Instant Lovelies. Then we were Acid Ranch or something like that. They were all pretty bad. Then I went through my book of names with somebody, and said "what about Guided By Voices?" And they were like, "hey, not bad." And there you have it.
Bob: I hate to get negative on bands, that's not my thing. All the Nirvana and Pearl Jam wanna-bes, and these punks that aren't really punks, my son likes that. Which is fine, but I can't believe he won't come into my room, the rock library, and investigate the real punk stuff.
Jim: Youve got like every fucking punk record.
Bob: Hear the real stuff--Wire, the Stranglers, stuff like that.
Jim: He's not interested.
Bob: He would be if he listened to it. He's a slackard.
UR: So how do you guys figure into "alternative rock?"
Bob: I dont know. We're just wanna-be classical rockers, really. We've just always had access to our basements and living rooms and four tracks and stuff. We used to go into big studios and it never worked. We were working with people who didn't have the slightest idea what we wanted, and at the time, neither did we.
Jim: Well, you knew what you wanted, you just didn't know how to articulate it.
Bob: I didn't know anything about recording.
Jim: Put some mustard on those vocals, you said.
Bob: But now we're in the business of selling records for a living, so we don't wanna say, "hey, we have complete artistic control, so we'll give you a piece of shit."
Jim: Well, as long as that's our decision, that we don't want to turn out a piece of shit. Once you start looking at it as anything more than a hobby, you do have considerations, but I think that's part of the artistic process. I've always thought that a certain amount of commercial striving actually helps some records, a lot of records, or otherwise you've got all this self-indulgent art crap forever. Everyone would be Sonic Youth. [laughs] No, I'm just joking.
Bob: We can afford to go into a big studio and make a record, but we're still not doing it, because we've gotten used to the four track process, so we can't completely quit that. We're in the enviable position of having been around for 15 years. We're a new band, yet we're an established band. We're considered peers with Sonic Youth. We've been around as long as REM. But we want to show signs of progression, whatever that is.
Jim: It's good that we have a background, a history, so we're not likely to fall victim to trends, plus we're a little bit more mature [grimaces]. Plus, being on Matador has allowed us to be one step removed from that big corporate ogre, because even if they're funded by Warner Brothers ultimately, we still don't have to deal with those people if we don't want to.
UR: Speaking of Matador, what was the signing frenzy like before you settled with them?
Bob: A lot of the labels came around, and I personally told most of them that Id had my mind set on Matador from the beginning. I kind of had always wanted to be on Matador when I first started buying the records. Then we started getting advice from people saying to examine some of these other labels, and see what they were offering, so we could also get the huge dinners and all that. We did that for, like, eight months, and then all of a sudden we're in the middle of two friends who were just fighting over us. In the end, we narrowed it down between Warner and Matador, and that went on for eight months.
Jim: Until the guy from Warner finally made the mistake of taking us to a Chinese seafood restaurant. [laughs] We hated it, so we had to sign with Matador.
Bob: The major mistake was one visit we took to the vice presidents office, whos gone now. Isnt he gone now?
Bob: He got us in his office, took me aside, and said, "I want to play you a tape of you Ive found. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but is this the way it's supposed to sound?" He says, "because this lo-fi stuff's gone too far if this is the case." So he played it for me, and he's staring at us, and I go, "well, that is a bad dub, but it doesn't sound much better than that, no." Right then I realized that they're telling us that we can do what we want to do, but. . .
UR: So, you guys have officially signed to a major, and all of a sudden this isnt just a hobby anymore. What does the prospect of a career in rock and roll mean to the band?
Bob: It's all about prolonging childhood as long as possible. That's what Im able to do now. Im able to go back to my second childhood. I taught for 14 years, so I got to learn how to see the world from a child's perspective anyway, so I now I can actually experience it again.
Jim: And still be able to drink.
Bob: Exactly. See, the best of both worlds. [laughs]
UR: So how does rock stardom mean in all this?
Jim: Two words--aluminum siding.
Bob: Big dick, and coolers full of beer.
Jim: And aluminum siding.
Bob: I got to put aluminum siding on my house recently.
Jim: Because of rock. [laughs]
Bob: Rock did that for me. Education couldn't afford it, but rock can. I've been renovating my house with rock and roll. That's what rock does.*