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Special thanks to Rhys Davies
Mike D, Thom Yorke and Courtney are all long-standing disciples of venerable alt-rockers Guided By Voices. Your conversion starts here...
Rob Pollard, Guided By Voices' singer, has
an all-encompassing theory about small-time bands who suddenly achieve
"They always seem to hit this level where everything they do seems to suck," he observes in a deep Midwestern drawl. "They get too successful or receive too much critical acclaim and then they start compromising their songs or even changing genres. We were going to release an album about this called 'The Power Of Suck'."
A sudden hoist up to the level of Suck could never be a problem for Ohio's Guided By Voices. Despite being championed by the likes of Mike D (Rob plays basketball with the Beasties), Thorn Yorke and Courtney Love, GBV have always remained stubbornly on the sidelines of American alt-rock. They've always been one of those bands more talked about than listened to, their albums being gloriously unwieldy affairs featuring 20-odd tracks, hiding astonishing gems among much lo-fi doodling.
But all this could change with 'Do The Collapse'. Released on Creation (GBV are their first US rock signing since Sugar), it's their most commercial and streamlined album to date - a mere 17 tracks recorded in a studio rather than Pollard's garage. Although this new direction may have something to do with producer Ric Ocasek banning alcohol during recording sessions.
With even Yank oddballs like Royal Trux getting daytime airplay on Radio One, these are fine times for the US alt-rock milieu. And the newly-accessible GBV have always had a better attitude than most leftfield heroes towards infiltrating the mainstream.
"We never wanted to be 'lo-fi'," claims Rob, the word bringing an almost involuntary shudder. "We always wanted a big. Cheap Trick kind of sound, but we never had the money to do it."
Well, no-one's going to accuse them of sounding like Sebadoh anymore. 'Do The Collapse' flies so far from any trace of past tinniness that one track almost reaches the lighter-waving heights of stadium rock.
"I sent a load of songs to our producer," explains Rob, "and I put in an apology for 'Hold On Hope' - "Sorry about the big creamy '70s ballad.' But he got really excited about it. We're gonna release it as a single and make it even more over the top with a big-time hit producer.'
In the same way that Mark E Smith is The Fall, Rob Pollard is Guided By Voices. A burly, 42-year-old ex-schoolteacher, he formed the band as a hobby while teaching fourth-graders in his home town of Northridge back in 1981. "It was kinda demoralizing all those years," he remembers, without bitterness. "I kept on threatening to quit and just be a regular, full-time teacher. It was just so ridiculous to keep putting money into this thing. But then I'd keep writing all these songs and I'd really want to see them on a slab of wax."
It's hard to imagine the music-obsessed Pollard being particularly happy as a school-teacher, but he has mixed feelings about his old day job.
"I miss the kids a whole lot, but I don't miss the pressures of the job - the state evaluation, or the principal getting down your neck, or parents coming in pissed off if you did something they didn't like."
Still, he's never been tempted to leave the town where he used to teach.
"We're kind of famous there now, but slightly under appreciated," he sighs. "They knew us when we were nothing and they still think we're nothing. My parents have changed a little though. When it went from being a hobby to me making a good living, they were like, 'We knew you'd be successful all along.' A lot of the townspeople used to poke fun at us, so I always said that if we ever got successful I was gonna rub it right in their faces. But you can't do that. Unfortunately...".
His persistence during all those gloom-filled years at least ensured one entry into the rock legend books: over the years Guided By Voices have probably recorded more songs than any other band in history.
"That was deliberate," giggles Rob. "I always put lots of songs on the albums because I wanted to catch up with The Beatles. I've got boxes full of demo tapes, too. I always say I've got 5000 unrecorded songs but there's no way of telling, it could be 50,000."
His last record company told him to slow down but Rob still has four more album releases this year on top of 'Do The Collapse', under names such as Kid Marine and Lexo & The Leapers. He's no Justine Frischmann.
Rob's prolific approach is partly because of the way he thinks of a title first and then crafts a song around it. Even while chatting, he'll stop mid-sentence to grab a pen and note down a phrase that could make it onto the next GBV album ("'All The Birds And The Rats Were Fooled'-that's cool!").
With new single 'Teenage FBI' at the top of the US college chart, GBV now have a chance to capture the bigger audiences they've always craved. But they've no intention of compromising their unique stagecraft.
"Nope, we're still gonna get drunk and jump around," laughs Rob, whose loose-cannon stage presence dominates GBV live shows. "We're not gonna change that, unless we start playing arena rock. Then we're gonna fit a bar onstage."
The Guided Tour
1981 Graduate and teacher Rob Pollard
starts playing with old college friends in groups that have names like Instant
Lovelies and Acid Ranch. These loose collaborations gradually evolve into a band
by the name of Guided By Voices.
1986-92 GBV release six self-financed records with pressings of between 300 and 1000 copies, many of which they have to throw away because they can't sell them. Rob calls it a day.
1993 GBV's big breakthrough - the band reforming to play the New Music Seminar to an audience which includes Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and the Beasties' Mike D.
1994 Release of 'Bee Thousand', the first album to receive rave reviews from mags like Rolling Stone. They also play at Lollapalooza with The Breeders, who later cover their lo-fi classic 'Shocker In Gloomtown'.
1995 They sign to hip label Matador and release what they describe as their 'White Album' - 'Alien Lanes' - featuring the mini-rock epic 'Motor Away'.
1996 Tension and fatherhood leads to the existing line-up disintegrating. Despite this, Rob records one of the best GBV albums -'Under The Bushes, Under The Stars' - backed by Cobre Verde, featuring the splendid 'The Official Ironmen Rally Song'.
1997 Yet more Fall-esque monkey business when the newly-assembled band walk out mid-tour after Rob tells a journalist that he wants to work with other musicians.
1998 The first year since God-knows-when that Guided By Voices don't release a new studio album. Fans are placated with a live album and a warts-and-all documentary entitled Watch Me Jumpstart.
1999 The band leave Matador for the bigger TVT label and sign to Creation in the UK. The single "Teenage FBI' tops the US college charts for four weeks. This autumn they're touring with their all-time idols Cheap Trick.