Guided by Voices has always been something of a puzzle in the music world.
The prolific act broke out of Dayton, Ohio, in the early ’90s on a deliciously crunchy, lo-fi recording wave. They have never adhered to a single sound or aesthetic, and their messy, homespun history and insanely large discography (singer Robert Pollard has written and released more than 80 albums under different names) has always been more intimidating than welcoming to would-be listeners.
Old-school indie rock nerds helped fuel the band’s renown, with wild-eyed tales of breakneck home recording (all true), drunkenly ebullient concerts (ditto) and a rabid release schedule (which continues to this day). The magnetic but mercurial Pollard, the only constant member since the band’s 1983 inception, is an ex-jock schoolteacher with a penchant for surreal lyrics, addictive British Invasion melodies and a ramshackle internal mythology to rival any sword-and-sorcery kingdom.
Not exactly lifestyle music for Urban Outfitters shoppers.
Part of GBV’s appeal is the fact that Pollard and his blue-collar, Midwestern high school buddies managed to grab so much attention almost by accident. College kids, MTV veejays and avowed fans like R.E.M., Sonic Youth and The Strokes, as well as director Steven Soderbergh, found them both mysterious and confounding. And indeed, the band began as something of a pose, continued that way for awhile, and fought its way into the pages of major music publications with undisputed indie classics like 1994’s “Bee Thousand” and 1995’s “Alien Lanes.”
But GBV remains a biographer’s nightmare, with the band breaking up and reforming under different recording and touring lineups at Uncle Bob’s whim.
Now a weathered 58, Pollard continues to create his art somewhere between the legit music world and the fiercely DIY underground. He still writes, records and releases dozens of songs per year; 2016 has already seen his solo album “Of Course You Are” and new Guided by Voices LP “Please Be Honest,” on which Pollard played all instruments.
It’s the band’s 23rd officially released full-length of original music, not counting more than a thousand other songs on singles, side projects, vault compilations, live albums and tributes. Good luck choosing a set list, kids.
We caught up with Pollard via e-mail in advance of GBV’s Saturday, April 30 concert at Summit Music Hall with openers Safe Boating Is Not Accident and Strange Americans. The band’s new touring lineup features Pollard’s latest instrumental muse Nick Mitchell (guitar), Mark Shue (bass), Bobby Bare Jr. (guitar) and longtime GBV drummer Kevin March.
Reverb: How did the new GBV album come about? A fit of inspiration? A feeling that this new batch of songs just felt more like Guided by Voices than anything else?
Robert Pollard: I had a new batch of songs that felt fairly unified. I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to do with them so I thought why not try to play everything myself, down at Cyberteknics (a Dayton-area recording studio). I had already done one in a similar, albeit looser manner under the name Teenage Guitar. I had everything mapped out, song for song, as to what I wanted to play and Phil Mehaffey, the guy that owns the studio and does the recording, set up stations for me with headsets at each station. I came up with the notion that if I could pull it off and it wasn’t too clunky, I would record it under the brand name Guided By Voices, which is really the flagship for all my projects. If not I was going to call it Teenage Guitar. I did one song per day in sequence. I thought it worked and sounded like a GBV album so that’s what it is.
How long did it take to write?
A couple of days. I had the lyrics first, for the most part.
Why did you choose to record all the instruments yourself? Correct me if I’m wrong, but the last time you did that was on (1993’s) “Vampire on Titus,” one of the band’s most beloved releases.
I played a lot of the instruments on “Vampire on Titus.” Maybe 60 percent. Toby did some things and a few others were involved. I forget exactly who. But “Please Be Honest” is the first one that I did 100 percent of everything. Where I thought it was worthy of the name Guided By Voices.
How was the new album recorded?
There was a station for vocals and every instrument. It made it very easy to record the parts very quickly. And I was well prepared. I had planned all the parts. We recorded on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, four hours a day. As I said before, we did it in sequence, completed and mixed one song per day with the exception of a couple of days, where I think we did three. I think it was a total of seven days. When we were finished with the last song, “Eye Shop Heaven,” the album was done, mixed and mastered.
In terms of the touring lineup, what do you feel each member brings to the stage? You’ve got varying amounts of history with all of them, although Nick and Kevin would seem to be the closest thing to veterans here.
Well, they’re all very good and have been playing music for a long time. Even Mark (Shue) who is the youngest member at 32. With the exception of Kevin, all of them front their own band, so you know it’s got to be a pretty talented band. Everyone can sing. We’re like Queen or Journey. Not really.
You’re only playing a handful of tour dates as of this writing. How did you choose them? Will they expand or stay where they are in terms of volume?
No, we’re going to be playing a lot of shows all over the country, and a few festivals elsewhere. I like to go out for a week or two and then come home for a few weeks. You know, kinda do shows sporadically up until the New Year.
What’s your thinking on the set lists for this tour? Given the lineup, I’m guessing we’ll hear some of “Of Course You Are,” some of the new GBV album, some Ricked Wicky, etc. In other words: a good mix of projects and names. Or will it be all GBV?
Well, we’re supporting “Please Be Honest.” That’s the new album and we’re called Guided by Voices. But beyond that I decided to play, in my opinion, the best songs that I’ve written up to date. The top 50, which included the best songs from my two new albums, “Please Be Honest” and “Of Course You Are” by Robert Pollard. We’re doing probably about 50 percent Guided by Voices (from all periods) and the other half is divided up between solo stuff, Ricked Wicky and Boston Spaceships.
What’s your on-stage drinking regimen these days? Do you still “train” for touring in that way? What specifically gets you through a show, beverage-wise?
I do the “Bob Pollard Stationary 30 Minute Workout.” It involves stretching, a few push-ups, jumping jacks, leg kicks, squats and running in place. It’s not too rigorous but I get a sweat. A shot or two of tequila and about a dozen light pilsners, beverage-wise.
I notice your release schedule with Todd Tobias seems to have slowed down in recent years. Do you feel like you’ve gone as far as you can with him, or is it just a matter of timing and finding the right person for each project?
I’m recording in Dayton now. I’ve got two places: Nick’s house and Cyberteknics. It’s a matter of proximity and convenience. It’s a very comfortable, productive situation.
Has your creative process stayed basically the same over the years (i.e. waking up early, making a pot of coffee and cranking out songs)? If not, how has it changed?
You nailed it. Brainstorming and editing early in the morning with coffee. Sometimes working on songs. Sometimes I work on my visual art.
I always enjoy seeing certain celebrities tout your work, or watching various comedians and actors pop up in GBV videos. I know you’ve never been one to name-drop, but who surprises you as being a GBV/Pollard fan? Do random folks ever reach out of say they’re fans?
Some of the more surprising names are Jay Carney (former White House press secretary), Patton Oswalt, Fred Armisen, Paddy Considine, Steven Soderbergh and Chloe Sevigny. I don’t know if you can call it reaching out but occasionally someone will come into my dressing room after a show and say “Hi, I like your new record” or something.
Are you still living in Dayton? Do you feel pretty comfortable there, or have you ever thought about leaving? (If not, what keeps you there?)
Yes. I have thought about moving to New York or L.A. or Austin or Nashville or somewhere. But it’s just a pipe dream. I am a ghost that haunts the Miami Valley.
What have you been listening to and/or watching lately (old or new) that’s either inspiring your work or keeping you happy?
I listen to music from 1966 to 1980 for the most part. That’s the most inspiring stuff. Same thing for movies. Mostly ’70s. Other periods pop in and out but ’66-’80 is the golden age. They were my formative years. I saw a lot of good movies this year: “Carol,” “The Revenant,” “The Hateful Eight” and “The Witch.”
How often do you make collages these days? Would you like to do more gallery shows in the future? Has that become a source of income for you?
I make collages at an alarming and disturbing rate. It’s too much fun. I’m afraid I might be losing my mind. Yes, very much so. It supplements the musical income nicely.
What other new projects should our readers be looking forward to?
We’re re-issuing “Not In My Airforce” for its 20th anniversary — LP (with download) only. True to my original intentions we’re breaking it up into an LP and a 7-inch EP (both included in the package of course) with the last six songs as the 7-inch.
I remember seeing a video of you and Toby playing five songs impromptu at C2G Music Hall a couple years ago, and to my surprise/delight you busted out “Indian Fables,” which is easily my favorite GBV song. It amazed me how you recreated the nuances of the recording, even though I’ve never seen or heard you play it live in the 20-plus years I’ve been going to GBV shows. Did you just pull that out of your head?
Toby and I came up with a list of songs that we thought we could pull off pretty quickly and easily with basically no practice time. We went over the set in the hotel lobby before we went over to the venue. I can remember some songs off the top of my head but in general, no. The catalog is too vast and for the most part I need some practice time.