Guided By Voices - Biography
Indie rock band Guided by Voices evolved from the part-time recording project of leader Robert Pollard to become one of the most fiercely beloved and highly respected groups of the 1990s and early 2000s. Though never a success in terms of chart positioning or award nominations, GBV (as they are often called) became the standard bearers for the DIY recording aesthetic of their generation, as well as a widely admired and greatly appreciated band by their musician peers. Without ever going Gold, Guided by Voices nonetheless changed the face of rock 'n' roll.
A 30-year-old teacher from Dayton, Ohio seems an unlikely candidate to become a future icon of rock, but that was singer, songwriter and guitarist Robert Pollard's lot in life when he and his bandmates at that time — Kevin Fennell on drums, bassist Mitch Mitchell and Pollard's younger brother, Jimmy — self-released their cheaply recorded debut album, Devil Between My Toes (1987 Schwa). More amateurish than lo-fi, a debt to early R.E.M. is more obvious than on subsequent Guided by Voices releases. Pollard's vocals are barely recognizable as coming from the same reedy throat that would later sing the band's greatest songs. That same year, GBV also issued the 27-minute, studio-recorded and Beatles-esque Sandbox (1987 Halo). A small yet noticeable improvement in every way, the record sees Guided by Voices slowly finding its way. Less than 500 copies each of these early albums were pressed, and the band played infrequently at the local bars. No one would have predicted future fame.
Guided by Voices' product began to improve over the course of its next three releases, as the band truly came into its own and found its sound: lo-fi, psychedelic-tinged, hook-filled, power pop. Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (1989 Halo) sounds intentionally DIY, rather than being a result of budget limitations. Still, neither the songs nor the execution were anywhere near the material released at the band's peak. GBV hadn't played any shows for an extended period of time, leading to Mitchell and Fennell's temporary departures. They were quickly replaced by bassist Greg Demos and drummer Don Thrasher. The relatively somber Same Place the Fly Got Smashed (1990 Rocket #9) is a concept album about the travails of a Midwestern alcoholic. Despite the topic, it displayed the beginnings of Pollard's range as a songwriter, from bittersweet acoustic ditties like "Drinker's Peace" to glam-spangled rockers such as "Mammoth Cave."
Pop-loving guitarist and singer Tobin Sprout joined the band at this time, contributing to the fifth Guided by Voices full-length. Propeller (1992 Rockathon) is widely considered GBV's first great record. Though captured partly in a recording studio, many other of the album's tracks were laid down on Sprout's four-track and with the traditional GBV method — the boom box. Its rough aesthetic makes it less accessible to some listeners, likely the reason All Music Guide having dubbed it a "stepping stone." On the other hand, Pitchfork awarded its 2005 reissue a rapturous 9.2/10. To be sure, Pollard's budding genius is apparent on numbers like the seething rocker "Weedking" and acoustic pop ditty "14 Cheerleader Coldfront." On the other hand, "Particular Damaged" is nearly unlistenable and "Back to Saturn X Radio Report" is little more than gimmicky pastiche. Scat Records was impressed enough to sign the band, just as the 36-year-old Pollard was on the verge of quitting music. Within months, Guided by Voices were played a sold-out show at legendary New York club CBGB.
With the critics buzzing, the band got back to recording. Demos and Thrasher were absent and Mitchell returned to the fold. The drummer-less quartet and Sprout's trusty four-track produced GBV's next album, Vampire on Titus (1993 Scat). Noisier, less distinct, and even more lo-fi than Propeller, the new record was a bit of a step back for the band, but not without its merits. "Jar of Cardinals," for instance, holds its own in the vast GBV catalog of songs.
Sometimes, taking a step back is merely the prelude to making a leap forward. Guided by Voices' eighth full-length, Bee Thousand (1994 Scat), became the band's surprising breakthrough. Amazingly, Pollard and company expended less time and money on the album's recording than any of its predecessors. The result was a lo-fi masterpiece and a blueprint for many future DIY indie rock groups. Bee Thousand's 20 brief tunes ranged from the buzzing power pop of "Buzzards and Dreadful Crows" to the lean garage rock of "Hot Freaks" to acoustic ballad "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory" to the bouncing indie pop gem that is "I Am a Scientist." Rock critics everywhere took notice, with Rolling Stone awarding the album four stars and both Spin and The Village Voice placing it in their lists of the ten best records of 1994.
These accolades led to Guided by Voices signing with Matador, which — after releasing classics by Liz Phair and Pavement — was asserting itself as the flagship label for American indie music. GBV's first LP for their new imprint was Alien Lanes (1995 Matador). With 18 tracks in 41 minutes, the album is a mad dash through songwriting ideas, some lasting as short as 18 seconds. The approach yielded mixed reviews, from Robert Christgau's “bomb,” to All Music's moderate enthusiasm, to another four-star rating from Rolling Stone. While some of the very short cuts are less rewarding, there are plenty of meatier tunes, such as "As We Go Up We Go Down" and "My Valuable Hunting Knife," which rank among the band's best.
The recordings for Guided by Voices' ninth album found the band back in real studios with sessions directed by a variety of producers, including Steve Albini and Pixies bassist Kim Deal. This scattershot approach to crafting Under the Bushes, Under the Stars (1996 Matador) yielded somewhat uneven results although which earned tepid reviews from Spin and Rolling Stone. On the other hand, NME, The New York Times and Alternative Press all appreciated the strength of songs like the buoyant opening cut, "Man Called Aerodynamics," the buzzing, post-punk influenced "Cut-Out Witch," and melodious rocker "The Official Ironman Rally Song." Still, the record is a bit front-loaded with its best numbers.
Following a tour, Guided by Voices' "classic lineup" dissolved. Kevin Fennell was fired due to drug abuse and legal entanglements, Tobin Sprout had tired of life in an indie rock band and Greg Demos had become a lawyer and less frequent contributor. With only Mitch Mitchell remaining, Robert Pollard called on Cleveland rockers Cobra Verde to be his new backing band. While recording the next GBV album, Mitchell's interest also flagged. Thus, an almost wholly new Guided by Voices was born with John Petkovic on guitar, Doug Gillard on lead guitar, studio owner and engineer Don Depew on bass, and Dave Swanson behind the drums. Led by Pollard, this new team recorded Mag Earwhig! (1997 Matador), a concept album about an aspiring musician. It was another fine collection of Pollard-penned classics, this time with a cleaner sound and a more authoritative rock 'n' roll punch. While it may have brought GBV's Who influence to the foreground, the general appeal and scope of the songs held true to Pollard's consistent vision.
An Internet-leaked quote from Pollard about his dissatisfaction with his new backing band brought about the hasty end to his relationship with Cobra Verde. Doug Gillard remained on, however. Pollard then recruited ex-Breeders drummer Jim Macpherson, whom he'd used for a 1998 solo album. Greg Demos returned on bass, guitarist Nate Farley leapt aboard and this re-tooled lineup joined former Cars frontman and veteran producer Ric Ocasek for what Pollard intended to be Guided by Voices' big studio album. The result was Do the Collapse (1999 TVT), their major label debut and the band's most polarizing album. Many long-time fans (and some critics) hated its slick production and derided it as a sell-out, but the quirkily beautiful ballad "Hold on Hope" and super-catchy pop-rocker "Teenage FBI" have wide appeal and the album earned the group new fans. The truth is that Do the Collapse is just as good a collection of songs as most GBV albums, but the lo-fi aesthetic that many die-hards considered emblematic of the band is undeniably absent.
Guided by Voices' next effort, Isolation Drills (2001 TVT), traded the slick pop veneer of Do the Collapse for a muscular rock sound. The reviews were very positive and the album actually charted, skimming into the Billboard 200 at #168. On Isolation Drills, Pollard crafted a big-sounding major label album that also managed to adhere to the core GBV appeal. "Frostman" has a lo-fi feel while the power pop "Chasing Heather Crazy" packs a wallop. The Who-like "Glad Girls" is an instant classic while the sadly beautiful "How's My Drinking?" is achingly autobiographical. Around this time, Macpherson quit his role as drummer. Kevin March was brought on to occupy the vacant throne where he remained through 2004.
Despite their success, Guided by Voices returned to the comfier environs of Matador for their final trio of LPs. Though a consistently good batch of albums, none are truly great or overly distinctive. Universal Truths and Cycles (2002 Matador) returned to the group's mid-‘90s penchant for a greater number of tracks with shorter running times. Several of the album's 19 cuts feel more like sketches than songs but "Cheyenne," "Back to the Lake," and "Everywhere with Helicopter" are all full-fledged, catchy, indie rock gems. In 2003, after Greg Demos decided he could no longer remain in the fold, Chris Slusarenko joined as the group's final bassist. The band's next LP, Earthquake Glue (2003 Matador), ping-ponged back to the standard song lengths and rock 'n' roll vibe of Isolation Drills but with a decidedly more mid-fi sound. One of its most understated numbers, "The Best of Jill Hives," is among the best of GBV’s work. Half Smiles of the Decomposed (2004 Matador) would prove to be Guided by Voices’ final album. The band didn't go out with a bang, but the album was also far from a whimper. Another solidly GBV-ish record, Half Smiles boasts the excellent indie popper "Girls of Wild Strawberries" and the wonderful Byrds-meets-Who of "The Closets of Henry."
After a final show on New Year's Eve of 2004, Guided by Voices was no more, and Robert Pollard embarked on a solo career. Though mostly good, his albums lack the magical chemistry of the bulk of Guided by Voices' 15 studio full-lengths. The band left behind a legacy of lo-fi masterworks, establishing an approach to music making that had a huge influence on 1990s indie rock and which still resonates today.