TOM PINNOCK SITS DOWN WITH THE DRIVING FORCE OF INDIE’S ULTIMATE CULT BAND
At the risk of stating the obvious, rock’n’roll is as much about stories as it is about the music. There’s nothing as exciting as a brand new band, potential untapped and future unknown, but veteran bands have a story arc. For example, The Beatles’ rise from working-class Liverpool to sprawling global fame, to their regal period, which broke down the limits of what a band could be, and their subsequent bitter disintegration, is almost Shakespearean in its perfection as a story. It wouldn’t be surprising if it all turned out to be invented by a Bond Street ad man.
On a smaller scale, there’s something mythical about the story of Guided By Voices, almost too perfect to be true. Discovered by the wider world just as they reach their mid-30s and decide to pack it in, they go on to define lo-fi indie rock with a series of gloriously collagey records such as ‘Bee Thousand’ and ‘Alien Lanes’. By the time they sign with a major label to make a glossy bid for mainstream acceptance, though, their leader and principal songwriter, Robert Pollard, is the only remaining original member. A few years later, after a few more indie-label minor classics, the band breaks up.
It’s a great story, one that wouldn’t be so fascinating if it didn’t sum up the wish fulfilment of every ageing rocker in every small town and feature a huge number of outstanding songs. Unless you’re a geeky aficionado (GBV have no ‘casual’ fans, mind you, you either love them or you haven’t heard them), you might not know ‘Weedking’, ‘King And Caroline’ or ‘Lord Of Overstock’, but trust us, almost every song from the mid-’90s period is worth your time.
So when Guided By Voices’ classic line-up reformed in 2010, it seemed like the first time they had ever looked back. But their live shows were so transcendent (and characteristically drunken) they’ve decided to make a new album, ‘Let’s Go Eat The Factory’, out now. Still collagey and lo-fi, and packed with 21 miniature gems, it’s a surprising and stunning return. But is it all just a cosy nostalgia trip for the band?
L&Q: When ‘Half Smiles Of The Decomposed’ was released in 2004, did you genuinely think there was no chance of another record being made under the GBV name?
Robert Pollard: “Yes. That’s why it was called ‘Half Smiles Of The Decomposed’, but that corpse has been re-composed or re-animated. Actually, re-animated from older body parts. And it lives again under the same name.”
L&Q: And how about when you guys got together to play again – did you think then that it would result in a new album?
RP: “No, I had no intention of recording again as Guided By Voices, but everything went so swimmingly that we decided it might be a good idea to try an album, being that the chemistry and enthusiasm seemed to still be present.”
Tobin Sprout: “I didn’t think we’d reform properly as Guided By Voices. The Matador 21st anniversary show opened the door to the reunion and things just seemed to work out. We got calls to do some shows and then more shows became a tour. The next step seemed to be an album or two.”
L&Q: Can you imagine this reunion continuing for more albums after this one then?
TS: “One more, ‘Class Clown Spots A UFO’.”
RP: “I don’t know how long we’ll keep doing GBV. I will always keep doing my own projects.” [Since we spoke to the band, a third album has been confirmed].
L&Q: What exactly happened when the ‘classic’ line-up dissolved during the making of ‘Mag Earwhig!’?
RP: “Well, halfway into the recording of it, Toby decided that he should spend more time with his family and Kevin got into a little bit of trouble and it just started tumbling, so I decided to give it an overhaul and see if I could keep it going by hiring a completely new band, which of course was Cobra Verde/Death Of Samantha, a band I greatly respected.”
L&Q: Was there any bad blood you had to get over before you could all play together, let alone record? And do you think anyone resented you for carrying on with GBV?
RP: “A lot of time had elapsed, so I think the ill feelings created by the break-up had subsided. Everyone was excited to get back together, but yes, a couple of people weren’t happy about Guided By Voices moving on without them. I haven’t seen a lot of Mitch [Mitchell, guitar], Toby or Kevin [Fennell, drums] in the last 10 or 12 years. I see Greg [Demos, bass] a lot. He’s my lawyer.”
L&Q: Tobin, you and Robert collaborated a number of times after you left the band – so I guess you remained friends?
TS: “I seemed to be on every GBV album after I left in one form or another. Sometimes as a guest, others as songs we had written together like ‘I Am Produced’. There was never a break up, so to speak. I had to leave for family reasons and Bob understood that. He had even said the band could wait and tour when I was ready. We did two Airport 5 albums together during that time, and I played on the last (at that time) Guided By Voices album [‘Half Smiles…’].”
L&Q: A lot of people were surprised (and delighted) at you guys reforming. Does the resurrection of GBV and the classic line-up feel nostalgic to you, or is it just unfinished business?
RP: “No, it doesn’t feel nostalgic, especially with the unexpected crowd and crowd reaction. The “GBV!” chant, the beer spillage.”
L&Q: The songs on the album do seem to hark back to the classic line-up time – did you have to write differently for this?
RP: “I just put myself in a sillier, less 54-year-old frame of mind. I never stop writing and I never worry about not being able to. It’s perpetual motion. It’s what I love to do and it’s all I know how to do. It’s not a great task or feat to release an album every other month. There are a lot of things that I’m not that I probably should be but one thing that I am is a songster.”
L&Q: Wacky question alert. If the album was a bird, or a town, what would it be?
RP: “It would be a fat bird from the mythological town of Dayton, Ohio.”
L&Q: In the original classic line-up period, a lot of imagery seems to have been taken from your time as a teacher – is there a coincidental theme to this record?
RP: “There seems to be an “eating” theme. ‘Fats’, ‘Doughnut’, ‘Chocolate’. It’s weird. Maybe we eat more now. If I tried to play basketball again, I might attempt to cram myself into an old jersey that I wore during the original line-up period.”
L&Q: Tobin, I guess you don’t write as prolifically as Robert?
TS: “I would say it’s about three songs to one, about the same on the ‘…Factory’ and ‘…UFO’ albums. Out of the 21 songs I wrote five of them and co-wrote one. I get into a songwriting mood and write for a couple of weeks, then go on to other things like painting for a while.”
L&Q: Was it strange returning to home studios after so long in more professional surroundings?
RP: “No, that’s the most comfortable place to be. We recorded on our own for many years.”
TS: “There were a lot of things that felt the same as when we recorded, say, ‘Propeller’. They were both piecemealed together with studio recordings and lower-fi recordings. Some recorded with different members and some as a group.”
L&Q: Tobin, what was it like recording/writing the record now you don’t live in Dayton?
TS: “I live in upper Michigan now. With the tech we have now it is easy to send songs back and forth. We also met in Cleveland to record together on ‘Class Clown Spots A UFO’. I don’t think there is a big problem with the distance.”
L&Q: Robert, it’s rare that someone so in control of a band restricts himself mainly to singing… Why is this?
RP: “I only restrict myself live. I like the freedom of not playing an instrument and having to stay in tune or fuck with an amp and pedals. All I need to bring onstage is a set list about three feet long. In the studio, it’s a different story.”
L&Q: You’ve obviously made a hell of a lot of albums over your career – if you had a gun to your head, which three would you choose as your favourites?
RP: “‘Bee Thousand’ [GBV], ‘Moses On A Snail’ [Robert Pollard], ‘Let It Beard’ [Boston Spaceships].”
TS: “All of them, but I have a special feeling for ‘Vampire On Titus’. It is the most crude
as far as recording, but that seems to be its charm. It sounds like a great band playing in the basement, and you are hearing it upstairs through the laundry shoot.”
L&Q: Have you ever seen The IT Crowd? GBV are mentioned a number of times…
TS: “It is funny, my son has a friend who was born in the UK and turned him on to the show. We all started watching it and loved it. We’ve seen every episode a couple times. Roy looks a lot like Bob [Pollard] and Moss for some reason reminds me of [former member] Jim Greer, I don’t know why, something about his face. But we started seeing the poster and T-shirts and freaked out. I heard the director of the show is a big fan. I love the show where Jen finds Richmond behind the red door.”
L&Q: Is Robert a difficult person to work with? He comes across to an outsider as a sort of benign dictator.
TS: “He started Guided By Voices and is the leader, and in a large part is the impetus of the band. It is inspiring to me to write for GBV. It is the superlative showcase for my songs and I think our songs play well off each other. I think everyone in the band contributes to the whole of GBV. We all write, and add our own bright spots. Mitch plays keys, and Kevin drums on ‘We Won’t Apologize For The Human Race’, and Greg plays smoking leads. And you can’t forget Jimmy [Pollard’s] contributions.”
L&Q: So what does your brother Jim do as the band’s ‘secret weapon’?
RP: “Coach. Editor. Amp dropper. Utility man. Comedian.”
L&Q: And, finally Robert, would you say you’re difficult to work with?
RP: “No. I’m difficult to fuck with.”
By Tom Pinnock
Originally published in issue 34 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. January 2012