I Love You, I Must Confess: 40 Years of Guided By Voices

We spoke with Robert Pollard about four decades of history around one of Ohio's most-beloved bands

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I Love You, I Must Confess: 40 Years of Guided By Voices

Guided By Voices have been around for my entire life, and it’s likely they’ve been around for all—or most—of yours, too. I used to work for a clothing company in Columbus, Ohio—called Homage—and they made this yellow T-shirt in honor of Robert Pollard throwing a no-hitter while playing for Wright State University in 1978. When interviewing with Homage, I—and anyone else who got a call-back—was encouraged to wear one of their branded shirts. Supposedly, doing so wouldn’t make your application any more desirable than that of other interviewees, but I think we all know the truth there. I wore that Pollard shirt, one with a design featuring a ballcap that brandished a “GBV” on it, and got the job. I’m sure I was likely a good enough job candidate on my own, but I’d like to think that Guided By Voices had a small part in me getting a part-time gig to help offset the no-money prospects of freelance journalism and survive in a city I most certainly couldn’t afford to live in.

Admittedly, I became hip to Guided By Voices late in life—but, then again, isn’t that always the case with a band that was formed 15 years before you’re born? It was 2016 and my favorite band at the time, Modern Baseball, had done a “What’s In My Bag?” video at Amoeba Records. Co-bandleader Jake Ewald picked Alien Lanes and explained that the only way he could get into Guided By Voices was by listening to their greatest hits record. I didn’t understand what he meant by that at the time, but I enjoyed the track that Amoeba played after Ewald’s point—which was “Game of Pricks.” For a long time, that was the only Guided By Voices track I listened to, until I finally shuffled Alien Lanes and found the wonders of “Motor Away” and “My Valuable Hunting Knife.”

It was in college that I started to understand what Ewald was talking about. Scroll through Guided By Voices’ catalog on any streaming service and you’ll be bombarded with four decades of archives. Pollard has written hundreds of songs, and many of them are at our instant disposal. Though they formed in 1983 in Dayton, Ohio, the band didn’t make their first record—Devil Between My Toes—until four years later, and they remain unequivocally Ohio. When you grow up here—or in any Midwestern state, to be honest—having local musicians to latch onto is essential. For me, it was Kid Cudi and then Devo, then it was (begrudgingly and embarrassingly) Machine Gun Kelly; in high school, I’d fall in love with The Black Keys, The Breeders and The National; after college, I put my focus on older acts like the Pretenders and the Michael Stanley Band. You take greater stock in buying into the work of the band’s who make music where you grow into yourself; it’s easy to find hope where others have found inspiration.

But I don’t think I’ve had a relationship with the music of any Ohio band in the last five years that is as intimate as the one I’ve had with Guided By Voices. From Propeller to Bee Thousand to Do the Collapse to their most recent records, La La Land and Welshpool Frillies, the dozens of records the band has created—across lineup changes, changing cultural landscapes and band hiatuses—have become a treasure trove for me and so many others. Even now, I know that I can still tap into the Guided By Voices catalog and find something worthwhile and new and noisy—and so few acts can offer that same kind of still-growing curiosity and depth.

Across 38 studio albums (so far) and 40 years, Guided By Voices have changed the DNA of alternative and indie rock forever. It goes so much further than “Game of Pricks” and Alien Lanes. I can’t think of a more consistent band out there right now, as every entry into their canon is just as good as the one that preceded it and, even at nearly half-a-century in, they continue to challenge and outpace themselves with kaleidoscopic color and vivid construction. It’s an impressive feat, and I’m glad I can share a state with Guided By Voices and their extensive, rewarding history. It’s like seeing your neighbor win the lottery; you aren’t a part of their immediate success, but you can’t help but take a piece of it with you wherever you go. I sent some interview questions to Pollard over email ahead of the recent Guided By Voices anniversary gigs in Dayton this month, and he was kind enough to reply with some insights.

Paste Magazine: Being from Ohio, I’m always curious about the various music scenes that have spawned in different corridors of the state. Of course, Dayton birthed great soul and funk acts like Ohio Players, Faze-O, Slave and Lakeside. But it took a turn towards alt-rock when Guided By Voices formed and then the Breeders came later. What did the city’s music life look like when you were starting to really focus on forming a band, and then how did you see it begin to shape in the years afterwards?

Robert Pollard: It was pretty cool, at least from my perspective as someone trying to get a foot in the door. There was a handful of interesting bands. The Dates, Toxic Reasons, Dementia Precox. And there were some good venues. The scene didn’t really progress that much though, in my opinion. There was still Canal St. Tavern but other than that, there weren’t that many places to play. There were still good bands popping up, but a lot of the gigs were played in make-shift venues. I say this in sort of a vague way because, honestly, I wasn’t that closely in touch.

PM: And Scat records started in Cleveland and had bands like GBV, The Mice and Speaking Canaries, who I really dig. How focal were labels like Scat and Drome in changing the DIY, lo-fi landscape in the state—because even homegrown, beloved acts like the Michael Stanley Band were signed to Epic and EMI.

RP: They were important and instrumental in giving bands like ours an opportunity to get their records out to a larger audience, and then maybe go on to a bigger label after that. To ease into that kind of pressure at a little more comfortable pace, not that it’s necessarily important to progress beyond that level of making records.

PM: I grew up near Warren, and I feel like there was some point in history where the greater eye of the USA took its gaze away from Ohio—leaving great rock bands from Akron, Cleveland, Columbus as bygones, almost. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame brings folks in from all over, but it never zeroes in on the really incredible world still being built in this state. You’ve traveled all over the country playing GBV tunes a couple dozen times over, but what makes Ohio a home worth not only starting a band in but returning home to once every tour concludes?

RP: Ohio’s a great rock state. So many interesting bands and I’m proud to be a part of that. But I like to come home because I love Dayton and the people I’ve met and continue to stay in touch with through not only music, but I would say even more so through the sports that I played most of my young life.

PM: When Propeller was called a “farewell record,” how keen were you on really saying goodbye to Guided By Voices—especially when Vampire on Titus came out a year later? Was it a wink or did you really believe that 10 years of being a virtually unknown band had finally become insurmountable?

RP: No, we just couldn’t afford financially to make records on our own anymore. So that was going to be it. But then Scat came along and offered us a deal. We were able to continue making records and it just took off from there. Very rapidly, actually.

PM: A lot of bands I’ve interviewed have talked a lot about how label resources can change the trajectory of a musical destiny. But back in the 1990s there wasn’t Bandcamp or streaming services making AI-generated playlists that help boost musicians into the public eye. When you signed with Matador and made Alien Lanes, how crucial was that to the band’s survival? If that hadn’t happened, how long does Guided By Voices last?

RP: Well, signing to Matador was a fantastic opportunity and actually had been a personal aspiration for a few years. I never thought it was possible, but had it not happened I would have been perfectly content to continue on Scat or any other small label. Or no label at all.

PM: Matador had Pavement and Liz Phair and Superchunk. How willing were bigger alt-rock labels back then when it came to taking a chance and signing more obscure acts? Because not everyone can put out Nirvana’s first album like Sub Pop did.

RP: I think the alt-rock labels were kind of looking or hoping for a next Nirvana. Labels just wanna be the one to find a good band. Any good band to be a feather in their cap or make them a lot of money. I think Matador and Sub Pop were in competition in that respect, although I think they both truly care about their artists and want them to make the kind of records they want to. It is a business, though. The only pressure I got from Matador was to stop putting out so many singles and EPs with other labels. They were generous enough to allow us to do it, though.

PM: After leaving Matador once Mag Earwhig! arrived, how did that open up a new world of freedom to be prolific and work at your own pace—which was obviously at a much greater clip than what many labels can offer to their rosters?

RP: We had an enormous amount of freedom with Matador. Chris [Lombardi] and Gerard [Cosloy] were great. I love those guys. We had far less freedom after that.

PM: You’ve worked with many producers over the years, from Ric Ocasek to Rob Schnapf to Steve albini. And you’ve also self-produced quite a bunch. Being such a steadfast songwriter and bandleader, how does having a great mind behind the boards affect the way a Guided By Voices album ticks and turns?

RP: It helps to get what you’re after but I’m very interested in a variety of sound and sensibilities. And that’s why during that period we were working with a lot of different people. Also at that time, the label we were on was looking for a breakthrough hit which never happened. I didn’t care that much. I’ll record an album on a boombox. I also like a semi-polished sharp, big rock sound. The important thing is diversity and I think we’re getting that now with Travis Harrison.

PM: Critics weren’t initially stoked about Ocasek’s production on Do the Collapse, but many of them have seemed to soften up about it in retrospect. Did you have a hunch that folks might take the full transition from lo-fi alt-rock to shiny hi-fi as a little jarring?

RP: Yeah, I know some people were weirded out by that. We had to give it a shot. I wanted to work with Ric and he wanted to work with us. So we did it and I like it, for the most part. There are a couple of things I would change…maybe a song or two I would replace. I think Doug [Gillard] does some brilliant guitar things.

PM: You once said in an interview 20 years ago that your solo work was initially intended to prevent the market from being flooded with Guided By Voices stuff. It’s been seven years since your last solo album, a period where you’ve been tightly focused on Guided By Voices. Do you think there’s still a need to separate some Bob Pollard work from the band, or has the warm reception by fans pushed you to just throw the Guided By Voices title above all the songs these days?

RP: With this lineup we’ve hit full stride and there’s no need to break the continuity. It’s a recording formula and chemistry that really works and I don’t want to mess with that. I’ve done a couple of side projects but I really prefer to focus or place more emphasis on the material I work on for Guided By Voices. Also, Guided By Voices is a brand name that even the non-hardcore fans are familiar with. They’ll take a chance on buying a record or checking us out live.

PM: Will we ever see another Cub Scout Bowling Pins album?

RP: I don’t know. Possibly.

PM: You’ve tinkered around with some longer songs recently, like “Who Wants to Go Hunting” or “Slowly on the Wheel”—both of which eclipse the 6-minute mark. Welshpool Frillies has a similar brevity to the shorter stuff you’ve made Guided By Voices a household name with. How has your relationship with runtime changed over the years, now that you’ve amassed thousands of tracks?

RP: I have a different method of arranging and structuring songs combining various sections in sort of a collage-like way. Sometimes I combine a lot of the sections and the song just happens to be a lot longer. I just started doing that in like the last six or seven years.

PM: When you returned in 2016 with Please Be Honest, the entire band was different except for you. Of course, Doug was back in the band for the first time in a decade. But after spending so much time with Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennel, and Greg Demos, how does the alchemy of Guided By Voices change? With you as the constant, does ushering in new members open the chance for Guided By Voices to become something even more ambitious or powerful?

RP: Yes. Definitely with this current lineup. Everyone is very ambitious to make each album as great as it can be. Very eager for the next one once an album is finished. Now it’s in perpetual motion.

PM: I remember reading your SPIN interview from 1994 a while ago, when I was consuming everything Guided By Voices-related that I could find, and you said you’d shoot 100 foul shots a day. What’s your preferred avenue of downtime these days?

RP: Spending time with my wife, Sarah and our cat, Nicky or going to a bar with a circle of friends I hang out with. Watching the Reds or the Bengals. I like Ohio State football and basketball.

PM: It made sense at the time, of course, but at what point did it become clear to you that leaving teaching and doing Guided By Voices full time was a success? Was there a point where you had that “a-ha” moment, so to speak?

RP: I thought it was a successful move immediately. That’s why I did it. At first I didn’t think I would be able to quit working. I didn’t think I could play music for a living. It somehow, in my mind, wasn’t possible. Who does that? Kim Deal asked me, “Why are you still teaching?” and I was like, “I figured I have to.” But then, I saw she was right. Everything was moving in a very positive direction. We were becoming very focused and getting great feedback and reviews. I just had a strong sense of confidence that it would continue. And it has.

PM: Thinking about the 40th anniversary shows, was there ever any debate as to whether they’d take place in Dayton?

PM: No, I wanted it to be in Dayton. That’s where I started. We had a few different ideas. One was to play at one of the big, outdoor venues, like The Rose or Fraze Pavilion. One was to do another thing like we did with the Breeders, Afghan Wigs and New Bomb Turks at Hara Arena in the mid 90’s. Another one was to perform with the Dayton Philharmonic at the Schuster Center. I really liked that idea because I wanted to experience how it would feel to play with the backing of a full orchestra. I abandoned the idea because I started getting bad vibes about the general atmosphere of the venue and expectations of behavior and I don’t know. Possibly volume, lyric content. I wasn’t sure it would be the greatest experience for not only us, but the fans coming to take in a 40th anniversary celebration. I think the idea of playing the Masonic Temple with a lot of other great bands is the best idea. The most fun for everyone. It also coincides with our annual fan fest.

PM: It’s always interesting to watch bands hit a milestone like that, but I imagine it’s never been a number that’s really ever been in your focus. Thinking back on those pre-Matador years when you made Propeller as a “farewell” album, how does a band’s relationship—in your experience—with mortality change as you add more years in your pocket and more albums to the catalog?

RP: I’m always thinking of the possibility of wrapping it up. Not recording but playing live. I can’t seem to do it. It’s too much fun and the crowds are still great. We’ve got a lot of good songs to play and we just keep amassing them.

PM: With the way the music world works now and most artists write, record, and tour for about two years around every album they make, you’d think it wouldn’t work for the Guided By Voices model. But has it been easy to push against the restrictions of album cycles and keep doing your own thing?

PM: I don’t pay attention to cycles, trends and advice. I do what I want. What my heart tells me. I entertain myself first and foremost, and hope that others will enjoy it, too.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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