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The many voices of Guided by Voices

By Jonathan Perry

JULY 27, 1998:  I'm in the middle of leaving a message for Guided by Voices head honcho Robert Pollard on his family answering machine when a voice, breathless and flustered, interrupts. "Hello! Hey, it's me, Bob," he says, his slightly hoarse twang immediately recognizable. "Sorry. I was in the other room. An individual has some rare records he said he'd give me if I taped a private performance for him, so that's what I was doing." It's 10:30 a.m. and Bob Pollard is already at work on another song.

Although most of the indie-rock world outside Pollard's hometown of Dayton caught on to Guided by Voices following the release of their lo-fi masterpiece Bee Thousand (Scat), in 1994, Pollard was writing songs long before anybody was paying attention. And he's likely to continue doing so whether or not he has an audience. Pollard estimates he's penned some 5000 tunes -- most of which he keeps, literally, inside a suitcase that's packed with demo cassettes. So in theory he has enough material to fill at least another couple dozen GbV albums, not to mention the solo discs he's taken to releasing more recently.

Pollard's latest is Waved Out (Matador), which is credited as a solo album. Despite promotional claims that four-track Bob is finally getting comfortable with a formal studio setting and indulging his passions for Cheap Trick and prog rock, Waved Out doesn't sound terribly different from the last couple of GbV discs. (A slicker Bob may yet appear when former Car Ric Ocasek takes over the production of the next GbV album, which is scheduled for release early next year.) That said, the hooks do seem to be getting sharper with every new Pollard offering, and there's been less and less gray static and fuzz to cut through in order to hear the glorious sunburst melodies he writes. It helped that he ditched most of his backing musicians last year and recruited Cleveland's Cobra Verde as his new support band, though that arrangement has since fallen through.

At age 40, Pollard is the first to admit that he's older than much of his audience. "But it doesn't seem to bother the kids. I think they look at us like we're their silly drunken uncles. To me there's no reason to stop doing this until my voice gives out or my hip breaks." In fact, Pollard's hoping to take a new Guided by Voices line-up on a first world tour early next year. He says he'll be getting longtime creative foil Tobin Sprout, who quit the band last year for family reasons and released his own Moonflower Plastic (Welcome to My Wigwam), on Matador, back in the GbV fold full-time. They've talked about making a record together, but who knows? Keeping tabs on the GbV extended family tree is as exhausting as trying to collect the band's singles in a timely fashion.

"Well, at least it's slowed down these days -- not by my choice, but at the request of my label [Matador]," Pollard explains. "They asked me to stop releasing so many songs and take up fishing or something. The important thing to them, I guess, is not to call too many things Guided by Voices. Some people think this overwhelms the consumer too much." Hence the solo stuff. "It's my scheme, basically, of getting more GbV records out there."

In the meantime, some of Pollard's former bandmates have gotten busy with projects of their own. Dave Doughman, who turns up playing guitar on Waved Out, is also part of Swearing at Motorists, a duo with drummer Don Thrasher. Their new The Fear of Low Flying Cloud (Spare Me Records) should appeal to anyone who's enjoyed GbV's lo-fi pop. Doughman and Thrasher certainly follow Pollard's example of home-baked hummability and brevity -- The Fear of Low Flying Clouds features 12 tunes that clock in at a mere 20 minutes and 47 seconds.

Also from the GbV camp comes the recent EP Search for Omega Minus (Albert Ayler's Jukebox Records), by Terrifying Experience, whose line-up features former Guided by Voices windmilling guitarist Mitch Mitchell. The disc sounds as if it had been recorded while the principals were tapping a keg -- something that should come as no surprise to GbV fans. There are other echoes of Mitchell's former band, including its modest length (16 minutes) and the fact that four of its five tracks were recorded by Waved Out engineer John Shough at the same studio Pollard frequents, Cro-Magnon. Mostly, though, both Mitchell's Terrifying Experience and Doughman's Swearing at Motorists sound like well-intentioned tributes to the real thing. And when the real thing has a suitcase of 5000 songs waiting to be sung, why not just wait for his next album? In Robert Pollard's case, another one should be along any minute now.

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