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The Octopus (Champaign IL) 
March 8-14 2002
By Doug Hoepker

Picture Me Big Time
An Interview With Guided By Voices

Bob Pollard, singer/songwriter of Guided By Voices, probably isn't the only person in the history of rock and roll to have written well over 5,000 songs. However, he might be the first person to have recorded and released a significant portion of a catalog that massive, especially while still alive. Including all of Pollard's various side projects (his collaborations with Superchunk's Mac McCaughan, several solo records and his alter-ego bands Lexo and the Leapers and Airport 5), he has released somewhere around 750 of those 5,000-plus songs. And that's just since 1986.

So why should you care that some middle-aged ex-elementary schoolteacher from Dayton, Ohio, has written all these songs? Because Guided By Voices is the best rock band of the past decade. If I sound like a biased fan, it's because I am. I've experienced the power of Pollard's sickly sweet, sweaty and sexy songs. The man is a rock and roll genius. "Bob has all the elements it takes to be a good songwriter," related Doug Gillard, the band's lead guitarist, during a phone interview. "He has the ability to make up a great chord progression, the ability to make up a great melody on top of it and then add on top of that great lyrics."

Pollard's subject matter is an ever-evolving mixture of non-familiar characters-twilight campfighters, volcano divers, teenage FBI and wandering boy poets-and sometimes mystical, often detached themes. Pollard is a poet whose lyric sheet, if left in the hands of an average songwriter, would cause a mad stupor of frustration. But for Pollard, lyrical phrasing as odd as "I'm a born-again boot-stomping witch humper / Are we there yet? / The skips and flips are taking sips of Liquid Indian" roll off the tongue like second-nature. Wrapping his words around the band's tight, melodic sound, Pollard is often efficient and always musical in his vocal delivery.

Guided By Voices, which began as a group of friends drinking a drunk's quotient of beer and recording tape reel after tape reel of two-minute pop-rock anthems, has transformed into a professional band with immense potential, yet little realized commercial success. In 1997, Pollard began a new chapter in the band's life, saying goodbye to talented and popular band mates Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell and enlisting the help of Gillard (formerly of Cobra Verde, currently also in Gem) to define the band's new, somewhat heavier sound. Really, Guided By Voices simply transitioned into being a full-time rock band, choosing to focus on polished production and a more muscular sound. After years of meager four-track recordings, long-time fans of the group were slightly dumbfounded by the band's 180-degree turn. Guided By Voices left the hip indie label Matador Records for greener pastures, saddling up with TVT Records who, Gillard was quick to point out, is simply a larger indie label-not a major label. "We wanted to shoot for something bigger. We tried to get radio singles, but haven't had the success that we wanted."

"Shooting for something bigger" equated to the group's first real downer. Choosing to work with producer Ric Ocasek, who is known for a heavy hand behind the boards, the group began the recording process for their 1999 TVT-debut Do the Collapse. "The end result we thought was a little too glossed-over sounding," said Gillard, who thinks it's still a great-sounding record. Critics and fans agreed that the record's production sounded lackluster, noting the classic Guided By Voices sound had been unfortunately stamped with Ocasek's signature keyboard-driven production. "I always envisioned Do the Collapse being more like our White Album. And I wasn't happy with the way the drums were mixed, and some of the keyboard ideas were a bit quirky."

If the band sounded a bit out of their element on Do the Collapse, it's because they were. Ocasek wouldn't allow the group to drink alcohol during the recording process-which is a bit like asking Keith Moon to not decimate his hotel room. For their 2001 TVT release, Isolation Drills, the band turned to producer Rob Schnapf (Foo Fighters, Elliot Smith, Beck). "Rob let us drink and hang out. There was even one time he thought we were lubed up enough to do a better take of a song, and it actually worked," said Gillard, who credits Schnapf's "ear toward rock and guitar" with making the band sound more natural. Indeed, the band sounds like one would expect Guided By Voices to sound like, having recorded in a bigger studio. Gorgeous pop-rock gems like "Glad Girls" and "Chasing Heather Crazy" sound like the Guided By Voices of old, turned up to eleven.

The group is once again at a transition point-one that will probably excite fans who were a bit disappointed with the group's new makeover. Citing a need for creative control, Gillard says the group is parting ways with TVT but has yet to decide upon a new home despite peaked interest from several labels. "Whoever we go with we're definitely holding out for complete creative control. I don't think it's too hard to get if you don't go with too big of a label," said Gillard. In addition, the band is self-producing their next record, due out sometime around June. "We're getting back to the approach that we're happy with ... meaning taking chances with the production. The guitar might be too loud here and there. There might be a snare drum popping out that's not tucked back in and you know, you leave them. You need those eccentricities to give character," Gillard explains. The new album, which was recorded in smaller studios in the Dayton, Ohio, area, is completely recorded, produced and mastered.

Guided By Voices will also be performing several new songs in concert. And if you haven't seen the group before, you're in for a lesson in rock and roll excess. "People don't see bands getting hammered on stage that much anymore ... so I guess it tends to stand out more when they see us doing it," Gillard says. "But we need to relax and a few drinks calms the nerves." As soon as "The Club Is OPEN" (a neon sign that usually accompanies the band on stage and is switched on to signify the beginning of a long set), all bets are off. Guided By Voices usually performs for at least two hours, sometimes closer to three. It's really a matter of how soon the alcohol takes hold. Rhythm guitarist Nate Farley and bassist Tim Tobias usually share a family-size bottle of Jack Daniels while the rest of the band is liberated by an entire cooler of beer. "By that two-and-a-half hour mark it's going to start hitting us," joked Gillard. If you-a smarmy, exhausted rock and roll fan who just spent $12 to see the decade's greatest rock show-are still standing when the club is no longer open, it will probably hit you as well. Satisfaction guaranteed.


Doug Gillard on his faves:

Listening to:
I always listen to Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb, either together or separately.

The band always gets Miller Lite. I like a lot of different beers. Maybe Sam Smith's Nut Brown Ale followed up by a lot of light beers.

Spare time:
I write songs and watch TV. Lately I've been leaving TV Land on all the time. Either that or Comedy Central.

Band to tour with:
Those Bastard Souls. I like their music and we got along with them as people. And now their drummer [Kevin March] is our drummer.

Guided By Voices song:
"The Official Ironmen Rally Song." It's always struck me as a really cool song. A great melody, guitar line and chord progression.