Robert Pollard digs a good festival gig—so much, in fact, that it's not unusual for him to loosen up by cracking open a six-pack or two onstage. And if fans are in a particularly responsive mood, the Guided By Voices front man will even share his brews with the audience.
"We played New York once, and I threw beers out as far as I could," recalls Pollard while on the phone from his home in Dayton, Ohio. "Luckily, I didn't conk someone on the head. Occasionally, I flip people beers in the front row when I see people yelling for 'em. But now I make sure the cans are empty when I throw 'em out real far."
No booze was tossed during the foursome's free South by Southwest concert in Austin's Waterloo Park in March, but their live show still proved intoxicating. I hadn't heard a lick of Guided By Voices' music before that night, but my curiosity had been piqued by the critics who wet themselves with excitement at the mere mention of the name. Then, about halfway through their two-hour set, it happened: I got sucked in by the quirky-yet-catchy alterna-rock songs played by a band that somehow bridged the gap between the Replacements' freewheeling antics and the anthemic arena rock of the Who. Pollard danced around, did a few high kicks, and even engaged in some Daltrey-esque mic twirls. It was a tried-and-true, gimmick-free rock show, the kind you just don't see much in the '90s.
"There had been this slacker attitude of how it's not cool to [move onstage]," says Pollard. "When we started playing live again in '93 or '94, we were jumping around all over, and it took people by surprise. Bands weren't doing that very much. Someone told me we were the ones who brought that back."
Yet a return to animated, old-style concert performances wasn't the only factor that attracted Guided By Voices' massive indie following. Many people (and lots of rock critics) were surprised to find a highly productive, non-punk, 30-ish group of guys wrapped up in a D.I.Y. ethic in the technology-driven '80s. Pollard—who up until five years ago taught elementary school in Dayton—made primitive albums in the basement during his spare time with a rotating assortment of players (which usually included guitarists Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell).
"We were this undiscovered band that had already put out six records, and we were in our 30s," Pollard says. "People were like, 'How could this slip by?' They embraced us by saying: 'We're sorry we didn't know about you guys. We'll make up for lost time.'"
As far as Pollard was concerned, the group was just making music for the sheer pleasure of it. They didn't tour back in the early days, and he "didn't think we had any talent, either. I was going on the feedback of people around here. They had no idea what the hell we were trying to prove."
Essentially, Guided By Voices spearheaded the early '90s lo-fi movement, a less-is-more recording aesthetic that was later championed by such acts as Pavement, Sebadoh and the Grifters. The turning point came when Guided By Voices played the second stage at Lollapalooza in 1993 and signed to influential New York indie label Matador, which released the brightly schizophrenic and universally acclaimed Bee Thousand album. Like its predecessors, the disc was packed with a few dozen songs averaging less than two minutes each, a testament to Pollard's prolific writing tendencies—his song catalog is said to number in the 5,000-plus range. So far, the band has released about 11 albums, not to mention Pollard's solo discs, several EPs, compilations and 7-inch singles. During my chat with Pollard, he also told me about two additional titles just out under pseudonyms.
Now Guided By Voices are ready to make a run for the big leagues with an expanded touring lineup featuring guitarist Doug Gillard, ex-Breeders drummer Jim MacPherson, guitarist Nate Farley and bassist Tim Tobias. They have a new label (TVT Records) and a brilliant forthcoming set, Do the Collapse, which is ready for an Aug. 3 release. For the first time, the band used an outside producer for an entire album (the Cars' Ric Ocasek) and went totally hi-fi by recording at the legendary Electric Ladyland studios in New York.
Pollard was initially leery about going into a big studio. "It was a big transition, but Ric made it easy," he says. The band was allowed to retain some of their eccentricities, and "though it's a big and straightforward-sounding rock record, there's a lot of underlying weirdness and atmospheric things."
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Things like the dramatic use of strings on some Do the Collapse tracks, most notably on the majestic "Hold on Hope," a Bic-flicking tune if there ever was one. "That's our big monster ballad, the big optimistic song for the millennium," says Pollard. A folk-leaning slice of psychedelia called "Wrecking Now" and the eerie rocker "Liquid Indian" are the album's other standouts.
Pollard continues to write stream-of-consciousness lyrics and titles that keep everyone guessing. "There's actually quite a few songs about chicks on this record, like 'Strumpet Eye,' 'Zoo Pie' and 'Surgical Focus'—songs about silly relationships gone awry, strange things in a White Album style," he says. "I don't like songs like, 'Baby, I left you; I've been gone too long; I'm coming back,' and that kinda shit."
While Guided By Voices enters a new career phase, Pollard says he's curious to see if the group can reach a wider audience. "I think every artist secretly wants that," he says. "It's all about sustenance and perseverance. We've been around now for 16 or 17 years. We just keep going, and our popularity slowly increases."
Guided By Voices performs at the This Ain't No Picnic festival with Sonic Youth, Superchunk, Rocket from the Crypt, Sleater-Kinney and others at Oak Canyon Ranch, 5305 Santiago Canyon Rd., Irvine, (714) 740-2000. Sun., 11 a.m. $25.