The Robert Pollard interview

PT: What drives you? Is there some kind of creative force inside you just bursting to write new songs all the time?

RP: We're bored. We need to be entertained, and even though there are still a lot of great bands releasing excellent records, there are also elements and emotions from past eras of rock that are just never gonna return. So as I see it the only way to fill the void is to write and record our own stuff. It's purely self-gratification.

But you are pretty prolific though, right?

Yeah, I mean if we're so inspired or if our consciousness is sufficiently altered, we can crank out ten or fifteen skeletons of potentially good songs in an hour or two. Some go on record in their original form while others have to be re-worked. We've come upon a process recently where we take the old instrumental jams, the ones we like and are really familiar with, and we add a vocal or two and a lead and it becomes a new song. It's fun and it's easy.

Has it always been like this - when do you first remember writing songs and playing an instrument?

Well, I probably wrote 500 songs (acapello) from the time I was nine until high school. I would write lyrics down on notebook paper with drawings and staple them together... when I had about twelve or thirteen songs, that would be an album and I'd give it a title. I did a shitload of these, catalogued them and referred back to them occasionally to just look at or sing. Some of our L.P.s have bits and pieces of stuff on from this period - I wrote 'Weedking' from our Propellor LP when I was about 10. By the time I reached high school, I was making bizarre album covers with lyric sheets - but I had stopped writing songs. That started back up when I bought an acoustic guitar with my graduation money. Where I lived it was just impossible to be in an original band then. There were only cover bands, so it all had to be pretend. This was the period of time when my Dad ordered my brother to stay out of my room because he thought I was crazy...

When and how did Guided By Voices first get together?

GBV started as a three-piece band in 1983. We jammed in my basement ('the Snakepit') and as I recall we made up about four or five songs and did Gary Glitter's 'Rock & Roll Part 2'. I've got it on cassette somewhere.

Who was in the band then, and who's been in and out of it along the way?

I played guitar and sang, Mitch Mitchell played bass and Kevin Fennell was on drums. Both are still members, although they've been in and out for the past ten years. Along with them, current members are Tobin Sprout on guitar and vocals, Dan Toohey on bass and my brother Jimmy on guitar and amp noise. Others who have been with us include Greg Demos, Don Thrasher, Peyton Eric, Paul Comstock and Mitch Swann - and oh yeah, Captain Bizarre on lead guitar.

Had any of you been in bands before?


Yeah, Kevin and Mitch have been in bands since they were eleven or twelve. Mitch and I were in a metal band called Anacrusis. Toby and Dan were in Fig. 4, and I was in a songwriter's guild of sorts called '86' with Nick Weiser, a local rock journalist, and a guy called John Dudson. They were in the first Dayton punk band (so they claim), the Rulers. One of John's songs, recorded in '81, will be on our next Scat Records LP (a double) which is due out in March. Kevin, Mitch, Jimmy and I have also recorded under other names like Acid Ranch, Instant Lovelies and Mailbox.

Guided By Voices first record was a mini-album entitled 'Forever Since Breakfast' - can you tell us something about that?

It was recorded in Crescent Springs, Kentucky, in 1986 in a sixteen track studio. It was the first thing we released and the material was slightly folk/psych oriented. We were really into R.E.M. at the time and I think the LP embarrassingly reveals that, although a lot of people disagree. The songs are decent and well structured though - they're just covered in too much studio sludge.

Did you have a concrete idea of what your music should sound like this early on, and d'you think you've stuck to it since?

No. Actually, we fucked up. We just wanted to put out an album because there was some competition amongst local bands to get an album out before anyone else did. I think a band called the Highwaymen beat us to the punch, but anyway I wanted to record an LP similar to the way we had recorded with '86', which was to only put our favourite material on it despite sound quality or where and how it was recorded; in the basement, on a 4-track studio, live stuff, all thrown together in hodge-podge form with some fragmented and some complete. We got away from that with 'Breakfast', but I made sure we got back to it on 'Devil Between My Toes'.

You released five albums between 1987 and 1992 (not counting the latest), including 'Devil Between My Toes' which you've just mentioned. Could you quickly run through where and when they were recorded for us?

Yeah, in 1987 as I say we did 'Devil Between My Toes' - that was recorded in every room in the house and at Steve Wilbur's 8-track studio. We pressed three hundred copies and it was pretty successful - Thurston Moore even personally wrote to me for a copy. It's going to be re-released by the German label Get Happy, who did a compilation of our stuff last year. Later in '87 we did 'Sandbox', which was our first stab at semi/big-sounding power-pop/psych. That was recorded at Steve's 8-track and we rented a bunch of additional recording equipment - we're still paying for the loan we took out to finance it. 1000 copies were pressed. In 1989 we did 500 copies of 'Self Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia' which was recorded in the snakepit and again on Steve's 8-track. The sound got fucked up in the pressing, but I OK's it anyway because I'm so impatient. Once again we got back to the lo-fi 'Devil...' approach. We shit-canned a finished LP called 'Learning To Hunt' which was actually pretty good - we used some of the material on 'Self Inflicted...'. 1990 - we did 'Same Place The Fly Got Smashed', which was a concept album of sorts. At least, it feels that way because of its continuous feel. Recorded at the same places as 'Self Inflicted...' - this is a really dark, wasted record. 500 copies again. Our 'final statement' was 'Propellor' in 1992. I really think this would have been it, had it not been for Robert Griffin at Scat Records signing us. By this time I was frustrated. The material was recorded over two years on 4, 8, 16 and 24 tracks and were all put together in a pretty cool sequence. We took it to Mike Hummel in Columbus to re-EQ everything and gice it that "in the room" sound. Mike's very good at that and he taught us a lot. He's responsible for some outstanding releases since the late '70s. We did all 500 covers of 'Propellor' by hand and kept the label blank to give it the bootleg look. Some of the covers are amazing. This record got us noticed by our peers.

Virtually every record is on a different label - any reason for that?

All of our albums are on different labels because even though they were realized and finances by us, we wanted people who didn't know us to think we were frustrated with record companies and needed to keep jumping labels for whatever reasons one could care to conjure up. Actually we just wanted to keep things interesting for us.

There's a couple of other related releases around by members of Guided by Voices, care to tell me something about those?

Yeah, Dan and Tobe released a 7" EP and an LP with their early 80s pop band, Fig. 4. They were a great live band and had some really good songs. When I saw them I had to get a band and play out. In fact, I asked to sing with them and they turned me down. Greg Demos and Don Thrasher, who played on 'Fly...' and 'Propellor' were in a Grand Funk Railroad influenced power trio called The New Creatures. They released a 7" and an LP called 'Rafter Tag'. Guided By Voices used to play out with them. Mitch and Kevin recently released a 7" with their other band Fathom Theory.

Why the long gap between the releases in 1987 ('Devil Between My Toes' and 'Sandbox') and 'Self Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia' in 1989 - were you away touring, or what?

There was nothing going on. Until we played the New Music Seminar in NYC last summer we hadn't played live in over 5 years. I just couldn't decide on what I wanted to release. I thought the record we were going to put out sounded a little too much like things we had done before.

Have you toured much at all?

We only played regionally until this year. The shows we've played recently have all been memorable though, especially the Siltbreeze showcase in Philly with V3, Mike Rep and the Strapping Fieldhands. Tom Lax and Mac Sutherland are completely cool and we had a blast. There was a keg party/BBQ for the bands which started at three in the afternoon. We didn't come on until about midnight and I had only had about three hours sleep, so by the time we played I was so wasted I couldn't open my left eye. We met some really cool people at both of our CBGB shows as well.

The German label Get Happy Records recently released a collection called 'An Earful o' Wax' compiled from your first five albums - did you have much input to that?

Joachim Gaertner of Get Happy wrote to us constantly as a fan. He eventually asked for permission to do the comp and we said fine, and left the song selection entirely up to him. He decided to go with the poppier stuff, and did a really sharp looking freakbeat cover for it. It's a nice document.

How would you describe your own music, and which reviews have been closest to the mark in your eyes?


I think our songs are authentic. Byron Coley described us as the first band who can grab a Beatles-esque tone-hook without making him lose his puch all over the rug... I liked that. We've been compared to at least 200 different bands in reviews. Dave Segal in Alternative Press called us "very, very good lo-fi" which I liked because a good lo-fi band works within its own limited resources but doesn't limit itself creatively. The production values are real instead of push-button or knob-controlled. We get vocal sounds through guitar amps. Experimental in a totally listenable way, the way bands did in the mid-late 60s and in the post-punk late 70s.

I saw your first Scat Records release, an EP entitled 'The Grand Hour', desribed as "mutant post-Beatles psych damage" which would seem to tie in with what you're saying.

Yeah, I like to make records that sound like bootlegs of rare Beatle and Who studio fuck-tapes. We crank material out now really quickly. We're seasoned and shit just flows - we keep it fragmented and "damaged". It's more fun to have to dig for a melody than to have it thrust in your face...

What's the reaction been like so far to your latest album, 'Vampire On Titus', released by Scat Records?

Some were confused at first because of the abbreviated songs, the thick hiss and noise and so-on. But it grew on 'em. The reviews have been favourable though.

Are you going to tour to promote it?

Probably not, because I'm not that crazy about playing live.

Are GBV as popular in the US as they are in Europe, or are you another of those bands who seem to be appreciated more further away from home?

Well, a few years back I went to collect consignment on some of our records in a Columbus store and some smart-ass chick there remarked with a smirk on her face that we hadn't sold any. I told her we were big in Europe and that's become a joke amongst my friends... but it's funny, because things did kind of pick up for us first in Germany and England. Now there's a few influential people who know about us here in the States.

Do you consider yourselves to be a part of any particular "scene"?

I don't know about scenes, but I've sort of thrust myself upon the likes of Mike Hummel, Ron House and that Columbus circle of middle-aged eccentrics. We're all in our mid-30s - I think Mike called it "grey-beard rock". I read magazines like Forced Exposure and Your Flesh and I listen to the Grifters, Superconducter, Pavement, Frances Gumm... We're avid record buyers. Fans first and foremost.

So what bands have inspired you, and who would you claim to be influences?

Oh, 60s bubblegum because I was a kid. Freakbeat bands of the post-'Sgt Pepper' 60s, like Wimple Winch, Tomorrow, the Nice, the Godz. Early 70s power pop like Big Star, Cheap Trick. Late 70s post-punk - Wire, XTC, Nightingales, Buzzcocks. All the Flying Nun shit and right now the Grifters are highly inspirational to me. 'One Sock Missing' is the best.

What does the future hold for Guided by Voices? Scat Records mention there being a double album in the pipeline...


Yeah, we have a 33-song double album coming out in February or March called 'Bee Thousand - Hardcore UFOs'. Also coming up is a six-song 7" for NYC's new Engine label called 'Fast Japanese Spin Cycle', a six-song 7" for Berlin's City Slang label called 'Static Airplane Jive', a seven song 7" for Siltbreeze called 'Get Out of my Stations' and two split singles with Columbus label Anyway Records.Gaunt just released a 7" with a cover of 'Quality of Armor' off 'Propellor'.

(Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices was interviewed for the Terrascope by Phil McMullen, September 1993)

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