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Members include Robert Pollard Jr. (born October 31, 1957, in Dayton, OH), guitar, vocals; Kevin Fennell, drums; Mitch Mitchell, guitar; Tobin Sprout (joined band c. 1990), guitar, vocals; Greg Demos, bass; Jim Pollard, bass; Jim Greer (bandmember c. 1995), bass; Dan Toohey, bass. Addresses: Record company--Matador Records, 676 Broadway, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10012. Internet website--www.gbv.com.
The Ohio-based band Guided By Voices toiled in obscurity for years, their penchant for melodic-yet-noisy pop ditties appreciated by only a tiny cult following. Eventually, the band gained the attention of the rock press and signed with a major label, but refused to abandon the do-it-yourself ethic they'd followed all along. Their devotees compared the group's prodigious output to the songwriting of such rock giants as Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney and the Who's Pete Townshend.
PDXS writer Michael Velez proclaimed that on first hearing their music, "Even the most jaded can be reminded why they began to listen to rock in the first place: the GBV listening experience is a reminder of that eerie and thrilling sense of one's life as rendered by bass, guitar and drums. True to their name, the collected oeuvre of Guided By Voices is akin to a capsule summary of the best rock/pop of the last thirty years." Lead songwriter and vocalist Robert Pollard, discussing the band's name in Magnet, seemed to affirm Velez's contention: "the voices of rock are in my head," he declared, "guiding me to make music."
Pollard grew up in the Dayton-area neighborhood of Northridge, where he excelled at sports from a young age. Though his father pushed him toward athletics and discouraged his burgeoning interest in rock music, it was through his father that Pollard first discovered many of the bands who become huge influences. "In the 70s, I started getting into album rock because my dad joined the Columbia Record Club," he told CMJ. "You know, where you get 12 records for a penny? He let me choose the albums. I really knew nothing about albums, I was into bubblegum-single rock. So all I went by was the titles and the names of the bands and stuff. I started choosing [progressive-rockers] King Crimson and [Sixties psychedelic blues-rock band] Moby Grape, stuff like that. That was good stuff! So I was into psychedelic music, nd then prog, and later punk and postpunk." Such influences helped shaped Pollard's own fledgling attempts at songwriting.
After high school, Pollard attended Wright State University in Dayton. His interest in sports waned, and he began singing in a slew of rock bands. After graduating, he took work as a schoolteacher; this occupation afforded him the opportunity to devote his free summers to music. With high school pal and guitarist Mitch Mitchell, Pollard played in a metal band in the 1970s, but their tenure ended when they became fascinated with such new-wave experimenters as fellow Ohio band Devo. They then recruited their friend Kevin Fennell as drummer and formed the loose collective that would eventually become GBV. Initially, the band went through a variety of other names first, notably Instant Lovelies and Beethoven and the American Flag. "Guided By Voices was a name I had written in a notebook, and I thought it was cool," Pollard recalled in Puncture. "I pictured a record store bin and the names: 'Genesis...Gentle Giant...Grateful Dead...Guided By Voices...'"
The band was merely a recreational enterprise, gathering only to learn Pollard's prodigious catalog of twisted pop songs and record them with whatever equipment was available. "We weren't really good enough to play out anywhere," Pollard insisted in Puncture. He noted that the group began "playing our weird pop at these seedy redneck bars" and mainly confusing whatever audiences happened to see them. They did at last release a recording, 1986's Forever Since Breakfast EP--which Pollard has since described as a reflection of his mid-80s obsession with modern-rock pioneers R.E.M.--but the record didn't make it into many stores. "At first, recording was just a hobby for us," Pollard declared in CMJ, adding, "the local feedback we got was really negative. That probably contributed a lot to our lack of confidence." The group reverted to the basement again.
The GBV aesthetic, forged during these lean years, involved home- recorded and often under-rehearsed tunes drenched in tape hiss, song fragments, noise, and odd titles such as "Ergo Space Pig." Pollard sang with an affected English accent because British rock had so strongly shaped his style. Now magazine described his compositions as "timeless twisted power-pop classics destined to confound historians for generations to come."
After several more releases--most of which piled up in boxes at Pollard's house--the group was no closer to fame and fortune. By the release of 1992's Propeller, he was prepared to call it quits. "We were still having fun," he told Puncture's John Chandler, "but people kept asking when I would quit...[messing] around with this band [stuff], if we weren't actually going to play anywhere." After the band was dissolved, however, their work was discovered by Robert Griffin, head of the Cleveland-based independent label Scat. Griffin signed GBV and in 1993 re-released Propeller. He also released an EP as well as the album-length Vampire on Titus.
With the following year's album-length Scat release, Bee Thousand, GBV became a hot item in the rock underground. The album, which CMJ's Chris Molanphy declared "a work of offhand genius, a sampler of great tunes that fused all of Pollard's 60s and 70s influences into a fuzzy, dreamy whole," led to a showcase gig at New York's New Music Seminar. The band was then snapped up by Matador Records, a prominent independent label. Soon, their alcohol-fueled live performances were almost as legendary as their mysterious recordings. Schoolteacher Pollard was soon a legend in his own classroom. "The kids think it's an opportunity to take advantage of me," he told Rolling Stone. "'Hey, Mr. Rocker'; all that stuff. I'm kind of a nice guy. Discipline isn't my strong point." He admitted, however, that teaching fourth grade had greatly influenced his songwriting, which is rife with werewolves, witches, and robots.
At this point, Guided By Voices--which included guitarist Tobin Sprout, who wrote and sang his own songs with the band, Pollard's brother Jim on bass, Mitchell, Fennell, and a rotating crew of friends--faced the dilemma of a high-profile debut after nearly a decade of toiling in obscurity. Their "lo-fi" recordings had become fashionable in the new alternative rock world, yet GBV never thought of their recording methods as anything but expedient. Their first album for Matador, Alien Lanes, preserved the home-recorded feel, however. In conjunction with Scat, Matador also released a box set of early GBV recordings on vinyl.
After being joined by Spin writer and GBV fan Jim Greer on bass, the group traveled with the alternative rockfest Lollapalooza, made a television appearance on The Jon Stewart Show, and briefly served as the opening act for power-pop superstars Urge Overkill. The latter expedition was disastrous. Pushed offstage by UO's roadies after short sets--even when their fans begged for more--Pollard finally snapped and ended up in a tussle with the crew. Eventually, he told the Chicago Sun-Times, "the bouncer, whom I'd been spilling beer on all night, came up and punched me."
Pollard was nonetheless afforded the opportunity by his newfound success to quit his teaching job. Married and the father of two, he was at last able to support his family with his band. "My wife cries every time I leave" to go on tour, he confided in Magnet. "I tell her, 'I'll be back.' She worries about me. My kids don't mind, but kids are weird." Pollard's children have been the subject of the songs "My Son Cool" and "Your Name is Wild." The latter appeared on 1996's effort Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, which Pollard described to CMJ as "more anthemic, a little bit more spiritual, and to me, a bit more serious" than previous recordings. Initially recorded in sessions with Breeders frontwoman and GBV fanatic Kim Deal--wife of Greer, who eventually left the band and returned to full-time journalism--and famed indie-rock producer Steve Albini, the album was mostly re-done in Dayton. "The thing about the stuff we did with Steve is, I think we gave him inferior songs," Pollard told CMJ. After returning from the road, he claimed, he wrote a superior batch. These were recorded quickly at the Dayton studio.
Critics largely praised Under the Bushes, as they did the simultaneously released solo discs by Pollard and Sprout that Matador put out the same year. Of Pollard's Not in My Air Force-- recorded with current and former GBV members--Billboard claimed, "the songs are off the cuff and sometimes underdone, yet they still boast hs inimitable, irresistible melodic genius." Air Force was "the best GBV-related project since Bee Thousand," according to CMJ, which noted in the same issue that Sprout's solo debut Carnival Boy was "not to be ignored."
Pollard's sense of mission as a songwriter has continued unabated, fueled by ideas that clash strongly with often apathetic views of the alternative age. "Music today lacks love," he lamented in Magnet. "Music from the '60s talked about love--not personal love, but this universal sort of love. I really miss that. People are afraid to express themselves and express love. In the '60s, rock was about people getting together and having fun. That needs to come back." Whether or not Guided By Voices can help bring about such a return remains to be seen, but their prodigious output and devotion to melodic, energetic music has certainly set more than a few hearts racing.
by Simon Glickman
Guided by Voices's Career
Formed c. 1981, in Dayton, OH; released debut EP Forever Since Breakfast on own I Wanna label, 1986; signed with Scat label and released EP The Grand Hour, 1993; signed with Matador Records and released Alien Lanes, 1995; appeared on Lollapalooza tour, 1995; appeared on The Jon Stewart Show, 1995; Pollard and Sprout released solo albums, 1996.
- Selective Works
- Forever Since Breakfast (EP), I Wanna, 1986.
- Devil Between My Toes, Schwa, 1987.
- Sandbox, Halo, 1988.
- Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia, Halo, 1989.
- Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, Rocket #9, 1990.
- Propeller (includes "Ergo Space Pig"), Rockathon, 1992.
- The Grand Hour (EP), Scat, 1993.
- An Earful O' Wax (EP), Get Happy (Germany), 1993.
- Vampire on Titus, Scat, 1993.
- Static Airplane Jive (EP), City Slang (Germany), 1993.
- Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer (EP), Domino (UK), 1994.
- Fast Japanese Spin Cycle (EP), Engine, 1994.
- Get Out of My Stations (EP), Siltbreeze, 1994.
- Bee Thousand, Scat, 1994.
- I Am a Scientist (EP), Scat/Matador, 1994.
- Box, Scat/Matador, 1995.
- Alien Lanes (includes "My Son Cool"), Matador, 1995.
- Tigerbomb (EP), 1995.
- The Official Ironmen Rally Song (EP), Matador, 1996.
- Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, Matador, 1996.
- Robert Pollard, Not in My Airforce (includes "Your Name Is Wild"), Matador, 1996.
- Tobin Sprout, Carniva Boy, Matador, 1996.
- Alternative Press, September 1996.
- Billboard, February 24, 1996; September 7, 1996.
- Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1996.
- College Music Journal (CMJ), May 1995; February 1996; October 1996.
- Magnet, April 1996.
- Melody Maker, February 4, 1995.
- Musician, November 1994.
- Now, October 19, 1995.
- PDXS, April 26, 1996.
- Puncture, Fall 1993; Summer 1995.
- Rolling Stone, July 14, 1994; April 4, 1996.
- Spin, July 1994.
- Washington Post, November 3, 1995.
- Additional information was provided by an interview by "Miss Mo" on the America Online internet service, February 24, 1996, and by Matador Records publicity materials, 1996.
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