Lights out: Guided By Voices sign off after 20 years
By Mark Guarino
Bands may retire, but it doesn’t mean their music has to.
Thousands and thousands mourned the end of Phish in 2004. While the band’s passing was, no doubt, significant for their fans, the jam band’s decision to end things for good does not feel so fatal. They left countless hours of concert tape behind and no worries — the solo projects are just starting.
On a lesser-known scale, the same is true of Robert Pollard and his ever-shifting group of conspirators he calls Guided By Voices. Twenty years after releasing 500 copies of a homemade EP called “Forever Since Breakfast,” he is also taking early retirement, marking the decision with a New Year’s Eve show at Metro.
Guided By Voices never came close to filling the number of arena seats of Phish, but their music was no less mighty. A Midwestern version of The Who in performance and a lo-fi Beatles on record, Guided By Voices seemed especially created for the most obsessive pop music aficionados schooled in the British Invasion bands but who grew up in the underground rock era of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. For them, Pollard created a discography of EPs, albums, bootlegs and unreleased songs, singles and B-sides one could pour over and disappear into for years (his publishing name is, appropriately, Needmore Songs).
The key to appreciating Guided By Voices is its blue collar soul. Pollard believed in work and professed to write a song a day. He was often quoted saying he took rock and roll’s deal with the devil seriously and it wasn’t necessarily hedonism that he was after, but a wholehearted commitment to releasing as much music as one could, playing shows as often as possible and play those shows — in the absence of fancy costumes and light shows — with a lunatic fever that included massive high kicks to the ceiling and a cooler of Budweiser nearby.
Over 40 musicians have served at one time or another in Guided By Voices, making the group less a band and more of a union brotherhood. Before Pollard, 47, received national attention in 1993, he was busy cranking out volumes of music regionally for 12 years in Dayton, Ohio. His homemade method of recording — cheaply on four-track tape machines with little attention to overdubs — defined the noisy and unkempt “lo-fi” sound that influenced the leading independent rock bands of the ‘90s like the Breeders and Sonic Youth and also Pavement, his labelmates on Matador, his long-time label. Guided By Voices never reached the commercial heights of those bands but by the end of the decade, amassed a devoted cult following and was recognized as a vital influence by its peers.
Pollard started Guided By Voices as a hobby in 1983. At the time he worked as a fourth grade schoolteacher in Dayton, Ohio. In the beginning, he focused just on recording and neglected playing live. In the years that followed, Pollard made it clear he was seeking pop perfection at the level of the Beatles and wanted to write more songs than they ever did in his lifetime. He began singing in a fake English accent. His early recordings reflected his unique transformation of his two greatest influences — the psychedelic pop melodies of the Beatles and the dark and cerebral heaviness of early ‘70s arena rock monsters like Genesis and Blue Oyster Cult. When Pollard siphoned both through the noisy aesthetic of basement recording, he created his band’s signature sound.
Pollard scored his first record deal in 1993, releasing “Vampire on Titus” on Cleveland’s Scat Records. Fortuitously, the label had wide distribution and Guided By Voices started seriously touring for the first time in years at the same time receiving major kudos from high profile peers like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. The next year, Scat entered a distribution deal with Matador Records. With the release of “Bee Thousand” in 1994, Guided By Voices had finally reached the masses, receiving national press, MTV airplay and extensive touring opportunities. The same year Pollard quit teaching.
To curb his notorious stage fright, Pollard took to drinking beer before and during shows, usually setting up a cooler of longnecks on the stage. His high kicks and stage rancor were soon part of the act. Unlike his more cerebral peers in the indie rock underground, Pollard made it clear that it was essential that rock and roll should teeter on the brink of danger.
That’s not to say they shouldn’t be accessible. His songs, however eccentric, were always tuneful. They showed their roots in Pollard’s record collection, but had their own signature stamp of their own, one that could not be tagged to any specific region, but were instead full of whimsy and winking wordplay. By the time Guided By Voices was categorized as ‘90s college rock, Pollard was considerably older than most of his peers on the playing field. A significant difference was he hadn’t cultivated a particular mystique that easily played into MTV’s hands. The only conceivable association he had was as the big, lumbering outsider voiced in his songs. It was a role that required dissatisfaction, mischief, eccentricity and a big heart. Listen to any of their records — including this year’s “Half Smiles of the Decomposed” (Matador) — and they’re there.
Pollard may have chosen to end his band in the same venue where the Smashing Pumpkins called it quits in 2000, but after that, the comparisons stop. Up until New Year’s Eve and most likely beyond (a considerable solo discography is already in place), Pollard bridged the barrier between rock star and rock fan in a way not many bands could, or even cared to. He was hitless up to the end, but to his fans, it was golden to be marginalized.