The Boston Phoenix December 21 - 28, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Voices carry

Robert Pollard unpacks his GBV Suitcase

by Jonathan Perry

Robert Pollard The new four-CD Guided by Voices box set, Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead), is more than just a mammoth collection of demos, outtakes, and aborted ideas culled from the bowels of a certain long-rumored piece of luggage belonging to songwriter Robert Pollard. It's the most vivid example yet of the fan fetishism that's surrounded Pollard for most of the past decade. The set's subtitle also offers an assessment of how Pollard has always defined his band and perceived its history. Of course, Suitcase doesn't represent failure at all. Its very premise is testimony to Pollard's and the group's success -- a cultish kind of success, yes, but one that he and his various partners in crime could scarcely have imagined a decade ago.

"I was afraid of putting that out, you know," admits Pollard by phone from his Dayton home, where he's just returned after spending a month in New York City recording tracks with producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith) for GBV's new Broadcaster House, which is due out in March on TVT (a bonus disc of live material from a CBGB show a few months ago is slated to be included). "It [Suitcase] is getting really good reviews and I'm super surprised. Some people probably like the fact that it's the old stuff, it's the four-track stuff, and there's a certain amount of charm in that. But it's throwaway shit, you know? It's kinda frustrating -- you spend $125,000 on a record and it gets kinda lukewarm reviews and you fuckin' grab this shit out of the suitcase that was in the basement forever and it gets good reviews."

Voices from the past

A GBV discography

Guided by Voices

Forever Since Breakfast EP (I Wanna, 1986)

Devil Between My Toes (Schwa, 1987)

Sandbox (Halo, 1987)

Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (Halo, 1989)

Same Place the Fly Got Smashed (Rocket #9, 1990)

Propeller (Rockathon, 1992)

Vampire on Titus (Scat, 1993)

An Earful o' Wax (Get Happy!!, 1993)

Bee Thousand (Scat/Matador, 1994)

Crying Your Knife Away (Lo-Fi, 1994)

Alien Lanes (Matador, 1995)

Box (Scat, 1995)

For All Good Kids (no label, 1995)

Jellyfish Reflector (Jellyfish, 1996)

Benefit for the Winos (no label, 1996)

Under the Bushes Under the Stars (Matador, 1996)

Sunfish Holy Breakfast EP (Matador, 1996)

Mag Earwhig! (Matador, 1997)

Tonics & Twisted Chasers (Rockathon, 1997)

Do the Collapse (TVT, 1999)

Hold On Hope EP (TVT, 2000)

Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 2000)

Robert Pollard
(solo and side-project releases)

Not in My Airforce (Matador, 1996)

Waved Out (Matador, 1998)

Kid Marine (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 1999)

Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 1999)

In Shop We Build Electric Chairs: Professional Music by Nightwalker 1984-93 (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 1999)

Lexo and the Leapers, Ask Them EP (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 1999)

Hazzard Hotrods, Big Trouble (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 2000)

Tobin Sprout
(solo releases)

fig. 4 (AF4 Records, 1987)

Carnival Boy (Matador, 1996)

Moonflower Plastic (Welcome to My Wigwam) (Matador, 1997)

Let's Welcome the Circus People (recordhead/Wigwam, 1999)

(Tobin Sprout's post-GBV project)

Demos & Outtakes (recordhead/Wigwam, 2000)

Wrinkled Thoughts (recordhead/Wigwam, 2000)

-- JP

Suitcase finds Pollard and GBV's revolving-door membership in various stages of fidelity, inspiration, and -- I'm only guessing here, but it's an educated guess -- sobriety. Despite its four-hour-plus playing time, the moments flash by like a series of aural snapshots, capturing a songwriter at his most candid. Pollard seems feverish as he hatches would-be hits in the company of friends one minute, wistful and alone as he conjures tuneful daydreams the next. Boozy rec-room jams and wacked garage trash give way to skeletal experiments and sparkling pop revelations-in-progress, with a few live cuts sprinkled in between. In other words, it's not so different from listening to the material on the solo albums Pollard releases on his own Fading Captain Series imprint -- or from a lot of GBV's earlier work.

Reviewing the band's ninth album, Under the Bushes Under the Stars (Matador), when it came out in 1996, I wrote that GBV's songs sounded as though they'd "always existed, suspended in space and time," that they were just "waiting to be discovered." What Suitcase makes clear is that indie rock's most prolific songwriter has spent a fair amount of time searching for them as well.

Pollard has talked about carrying around a suitcase full of tapes -- he once estimated he had 5000 songs in there -- for years. But the impetus to release some of the stuff came after Matt Davis (who with Todd Robinson helps distribute Fading Captain) and Kevin Poindexter, a friend of Davis's, dropped by Pollard's house with the idea of cataloguing the songs and preserving them on CD. Pollard warily gave them the okay; eventually he concluded that sifting through hundreds of tapes, some of them more than a decade old, was too "overwhelming" and suggested they abandon the task, but by then it was too late to turn back. Word had spread among fans that the fabled suitcase had been cracked open. "I don't think people even believed that it existed. They thought that it was some kind of mythological thing."

Robinson, whose Indianapolis-based Luna Music distributes Pollard's solo records (as well as those of ex-GBV guitarist/songwriter Tobin Sprout, who quit the band when he moved his family to Michigan in 1996), first met the singer nearly 15 years ago when he worked at a Dayton record store where Pollard was a regular customer with a penchant for special-ordering obscure releases. He claims the 100 songs on Suitcase only scratch the surface of what has yet to be catalogued and transferred to DAT. "I'm always amazed at the stuff he doesn't think is good enough to go on his regular albums. The guy writes melodies that you could get the genius of on a ukulele. But Bob had to be convinced that people wanted to hear Suitcase. I said to him, `Bob you're the kind of guy who would love this,' and he says `Yeah, but I'm only one person.' So I said, `Bob, you're a lot of people.' "

Still, if ever a band were guilty of thwarting their own commercial potential, Guided by Voices were, and are, that band. Here was a loosely knit collective of aging rock-and-roll lifers from Midwestern suburbia whose creative lifeblood revolved around a thirtysomething elementary-school teacher and prolific songwriter who, even as he continued to churn out more hook-filled pop songs than anyone knew what to do with, was paralyzed by the prospect of showing his tuneful little creations to the world. Back in 1992, having been met with indifference in the band's own back yard, Pollard was finally ready to throw in the towel. GBV had just recorded Propeller (Rockathon), and even though he joked that the album would be the one to "propel" the band to fame, Pollard believed it would also be their last. After seven years, five albums, and zero recognition, they just couldn't afford to continue.

In Watch Me Jumpstart, filmmaker Banks Tarver's superb 1998 documentary about the band, former Spin magazine writer and one-time GBV bassist Jim Greer recalled how the band pressed 500 copies of Propeller on vinyl -- each featuring a different handmade cover -- only to have the records languish, unheard, in Pollard's basement. "He was afraid," Greer explained. "He always says if he ever got a bad review, it woulda killed him. . . . People had to mail 'em out, kind of like without telling him, to magazines and things like that."

"I had been burned by my experience here in Dayton," says Pollard. "We tried to play out a little bit and let people check us out. They weren't throwing eggs at us or anything, but Dayton's rough. So I just had this total lack of confidence." He admits that even after GBV began building pockets of rabid fans across the country, "people would light their lighters and I thought they were making fun of us." Soon after Propeller had been smuggled out to critics, GBV were invited to play a showcase at the CMJ New Music Seminar in New York City. Pollard was petrified.

"We came to New York, and it was the first show that we played in six years, and people kind of went nuts. We played the show and we did it really fast. We only had 45 minutes, but we did like 20 songs bam-bam-bam-bam, Ramones style, out of nervousness. I didn't say anything between songs. Afterward I went off the stage and I went back in this little dressing room and was sweating and all of a sudden I got mobbed by people from Pavement and the Beastie Boys and shit and I was freakin' out a little bit. I was going, really? Are you shittin' me? You actually think we're good?"

Even at their peak of mid-'90s popularity, GBV seemed to be speaking a secret language. The band, like their fans, were an obsessive clique -- a society of pop worshippers, record-collector geeks, and flag-waving diehards who believed that the arcane could be universal. "The club is open," Pollard sang on "A Salty Salute," the opening track on Alien Lanes (Matador, 1995), and, yes, it was, but only to those willing to embrace the band on their own terms: limited-edition vinyl pressings; lo-fi static airplane jive and hiss as æsthetic statement; melodies in miniature; arena-rock aspirations subverted in cryptic pop-art esoterica; big gestures wrapped in small packages; songs with names like "Buzzards and Dreadful Crows" and "Burning Flag Birthday Suit." That was the Guided by Voices lexicon, a specialized world whose topography consisted of endless coded allusions and hidden meanings.

At the center of this universe was Pollard and his stubborn desire to construct for real the kingdom that had always resided in his head. It was a world that had nothing to do with prevailing pop fashion or industry trends. "In the lo-fi phase, I wanted songs to sound like outtakes from Beatles albums, like really bad copies. I wanted it to sound like you had this Beatles bootleg, like all those White Album outtakes that you found on some fourth-generation cassette. But as the ever-expanding entity of Guided by Voices -- which is kind of like my cosmic extension -- I want the sound to become bigger and bigger and spread out to more people. I think every band wants that."

Although GBV eventually moved from the four- and eight-track recording format of their early days to the realm of 24- and even 48-track studios, the die had been cast. It isn't about fidelity. It's about philosophy. And how can GBV ever hope to succeed in conventional commercial terms when that means winning at a game where chart position and units moved are the only yardsticks? GBV simply aren't a conventional band. Besides, for Pollard, making pop songs isn't a game. It's his life. "I have to always be working on a record, continually, or I'm not happy." He's not kidding: next month he'll begin recording another solo album. GBV's old label, Matador, is even said to have complained that Pollard was writing too many songs, saturating the market with too many side projects -- not to mention too often living up to his reputation for knocking back almost as many beers as there were songs in the set list.

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But the task of marketing GBV has never boiled down to something as simple as airbrushing the band's persona or streamlining their output. All the great reviews in the world -- and GBV got their fair share in the mid '90s -- weren't going to make Pollard's hyper-condensed, Beatles-by-way-of-the-Who æsthetic any more appealing to the mass record-buying public. And it would have taken a lot more than just one or two radio-friendly, higher-fidelity remixes to get GBV into heavy rotation even when alternative rock was king at commercial stations. By the time Pollard decided to shake up the band's line-up, go for bigger riffs, and enlist proven hitmaker and former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek to produce GBV's 12th album, Do the Collapse (TVT, 1999), it was probably too late anyway. GBV failed to conquer the world -- assuming that was ever a goal -- because their music has always turned inward rather than outward. They remain a band built upon a self-made myth sprung from a semi-imagined history and a basement full of rock dreams -- all of which lends itself more to underground cult fame than to mainstream conquest.

Almost all the tracks on Suitcase, for instance, are credited to different groups with names like Champion Hairpuller, Hazzard Hotrods, Artrock Unicorns, and, on the earliest recording, from 1974, Little Bobby Pop (that's a 17-year-old Bob singing "Little Jimmy the Giant"). "I did that with most of the songs I wrote for Bee Thousand [Scat/Matador, 1994] -- I cut out pictures of little groups of guys from my mid-1970s yearbook and gave them band names and song titles and put it together as a fake compilation album. The titles at the time were `I Am a Scientist' and `Gold Star for Robot Boy' and `My Valuable Hunting Knife,' and stuff like that. And so, by looking at the picture of the band names and titles, it kind of inspired me to want to write songs for them. As if I were that band. As if I'd assumed their identity."

For Pollard, those imaginary names took the place of something that was missing. GBV were the embodiment of everything pop was not, or had ceased to be. Pollard has always claimed that he began composing the songs he did because no one else was writing what he wanted to hear. The internal voice guiding him was his desire to make the kind of classic records that gave people the same rush he got when, as a kid, he'd dash home with the latest Beatles album tucked under his arm. He didn't just want to make great rock. He wanted to save it. "We've always been threatening to do that," he says with a laugh. "I think that keeps the major labels interested in us."

It's also what continues to drive Robert Pollard, who's now 43. "I've tried at different points in the last 20 years or whatever, to kill Guided by Voices, to create a different name, or to go solo. And I've always found myself going back to it as something I can't get away from. It's almost like Anthony Hopkins in Magic, where he can't make the dummy shut up. I can't seem to make the dummy shut up, man."

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