Reaching 40: Rock band Guided By Voices continues defying odds

Dayton-based group celebrates four decades of music.



Guided By Voices has never had a hit single. Robert Pollard’s Dayton-based group will likely never be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. However, to legions of fans around the globe, this long-running act is as beloved as any rock band in history.

Guided By Voices celebrates 40 years of music with sold out shows at Dayton Masonic Center on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 1 and 2. The band will be joined by special guests Dinosaur Jr. and Kiwi Jr. on Friday and Built To Spill, Heartless Bastards and Wednesday on Saturday.

“This is kind of the coolest event that’s happened in Dayton since we did that show at Hara Arena with the Breeders and New Bomb Turks,” Pollard said. “Actually, this is kind of cooler than that because it’s two nights and there are a lot of good bands playing. We don’t get that too much in this town. There really aren’t that many venues to support something like that.”

For Pollard, who was still teaching school when he formed Guided By Voices in 1983, it is quite an accomplishment.

“It’s amazing it’s still going strong enough that we can play a show of this magnitude after 40 years,” said Pollard, who turns 66 on Oct. 31. “We couldn’t get anybody to listen to us at first, so this is pretty good. That’s perseverance and it’s gotten better, man. The shows have gotten better. Structurally, I’m a better songwriter. The records have gotten better although I don’t know how you define better.”



The early years

The long, twisted history of Guided By Voices is in many ways a classic underdog tale. It took a decade before the group went from rock ‘n’ roll dreamers to indie rock buzz band in the early 1990s. Pollard had already been playing music for years when he formed Guided By Voices with Mitch Mitchell (bass) and Kevin Fennell (drums). Since then, about 30 musicians, including this writer, have been part of what Pollard calls the Fraternal Order of GBV.

The group dropped its first record, “Forever Since Breakfast,” in 1986. While the EP bears the label I Wanna Records, the indie imprint then run by Jim “Rev Cool” Carter, the record was financed and self-released by the band. Because it was so expensive to press vinyl, Pollard and then manager Pete Jamison saved their pennies and took out loans to finance limited run albums like “Devil Between My Toes” (1987) and “Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia” (1989).

“It was hard to make a record back then,” Pollard said. “It was expensive. My parents said, ‘Why are you wasting your money? You have a family. What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m putting some records out.’ We didn’t have the money, so we had to get everybody to chip in and put these records out. When we got that first record back and looked at them, Mitch and I started crying. We couldn’t believe it.”



Defying expectations

Throughout the 1980s, Pollard was less known locally for his musical talents than his athletic exploits. He was a three-sport letterman at Northridge High School and the first baseball player to pitch a no-hitter for Wright State University. He continued to play organized sports into adulthood so there are plenty of highlights to discuss.

Not many local music fans paid attention to GBV in the 1980s, even as the group started self-releasing what are now highly collectible albums. Most of Pollard’s family and friends appreciated his obvious talent and drive but they didn’t understand what he was doing. They could be supportive but also dismissive. This never diminished Pollard’s desire to rock.

“My dad didn’t get it,” Pollard said. “He goes, ‘How are you a musician? You’re supposed to be an athlete.’ He thinks it’s something he didn’t show me or teach me himself, but he did, kind of, man. He had records and he had a good voice. He liked music so he kind of influenced me and he doesn’t really know he did. He just didn’t want it to get in the way of sports.

“The big thing he did that turned me on was he joined the Columbia Record Club,” Pollard continued. “I never had any albums, I just had 45s, and I got 12 records for a penny. I just picked them by the band name and the cover. That’s the best stuff anyway. I got King Crimson’s first album that way and Moby Grape and all that kind of stuff. I was only 10 or 11 and I got hooked.”

Watch the music video for “My Valuable Hunting Knife” from the 1995 Guided By Voices album, “Alien Lanes”:

Out of the basement

Pollard had started making up songs while he was still in elementary school. He was soon creating handmade collage art for album covers for non-existent bands. These early musical and artistic endeavors provided the blueprint for the Guided By Voices aesthetic. The sound and vision were well-established by the time “Propeller” (1992) caught the attention of Robert Griffin. What was supposed to be the band’s final LP led to a label deal with Griffin’s Scat Records the following year. “Vampire On Titus” (1993) and the follow-up, “Bee Thousand” (1994), made the group a darling of the critics, recognized as part of a lo-fi music explosion that included acts like Pavement, the Grifters and Sebadoh.

“It’s been going on pretty solid for 30 years, but it took us about 10 years to bust out of Dayton,” Pollard said. “Robert Griffin was the first to sign us in 1993. I was just happy somebody was putting out our records and we didn’t have to pay for them. I couldn’t believe anybody was even listening. When we started generating some interest, we became better. Most bands don’t become better when they get signed. They kind of freak out but we completely changed our whole approach. We started recording on the four-track. It sounded worse, but we became better.

“We started pumping out EPs and albums,” Pollard continued. “It was a very productive period because of the four-track. We got better. I became a better songwriter for some reason. We were rising to the occasion there instead of choking. We could’ve been like, ‘Oh, God …’ But don’t get me wrong, man, when the attention first happened and we went to New York, I was petrified. I was just horrified. I couldn’t believe it. I’m like, ‘I’m not supposed to be here.’ It was crazy but I had to do it.”



A live band

By New York, Pollard is referring to GBV’s official coming out party, a showcase at CBGB during the New Music Seminar in July 1993. It wasn’t just a major show because it was at a historic N.Y.C. venue but also because Guided By Voices wasn’t known as a live band at the time. The group had played less than a dozen shows between 1984 and 1986. Its first gig in six years was in Philadelphia in 1992. The band had only done two dates so far in 1993 so few people knew what to expect when Pollard, Fennell and Mitchell, now on guitar, took the CBGB stage with Tobin Sprout (guitar) and Dan Toohey (bass).

The much hyped showcase was attended by Henry Rollins, members of the Beastie Boys and Pavement, record collectors and assorted NYC hipsters. The members of GBV more than rose to the challenge, they defied expectations by turning Pollard’s lo-fi pop-rock gems into full-on stadium-ready anthems. While the albums are highly regarded, the group’s legend was solidified by its high energy, booze-fueled sets, which became more frequent after Pollard quit teaching in 1994.

“When I quit my job, my parents were freaking out,” Pollard said. “They go, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m going to go for it. If it falls short, I can always go back to what I was doing. I’ve got try.’ I’d been making fictitious rock bands my entire life, basically. I made up songs and made album covers since I was a little kid, so, if you get the opportunity, are you going to say no? I had to do it.”

Watch the music video for “Glad Girls” from the 2001 Guided By Voices album, “Isolation Drills”:

High profile period

Pollard was in his late 30s when the group entered a decade that mixed heavy touring with now iconic albums like “Under the Bushes Under the Stars” (1996) and “Do the Collapse” (1999) for labels like Matador Records and TVT Records. The band’s lineup changed frequently during this period, including stints by beloved characters like Greg Demos (bass), Jim MacPherson (drums) and Nate Farley (guitar). In 2004, GBV put out the album, “Half Smiles of the Decomposed” for Matador. Pollard announced he was breaking up the band at the end of the year following a pair of sold out shows at the Metro in Chicago on Dec. 30 and 31.

“That’s when I decided to go solo,” Pollard said. “I had recorded ‘From A Compound Eye’ and I was really psyched about it, so it felt like a good time to do a Peter Gabriel thing. I thought people would really accept it. It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to break up the band, but I didn’t want them to be my backing band for a solo tour.

“I just wanted a different look,” he continued. “There was no falling out. Nobody got fired. I gave them a heads up that we were going to tour another year and that was it. I called that album ‘Half Smiles of the Decomposed’ because that was it.”



A new era

While the band was over, Pollard was far from done. He had launched his own imprint, the Fading Captain Series, in 1999 with the release of his solo album, “Kid Marine.” With GBV over and no label deal, the infrastructure was in place where Pollard could control and release his various projects. He performed infrequently but released a string of Robert Pollard solo albums and side projects like Circus Devils and Boston Spaceships. The Fading Captain Series came to an end in 2007 with release number 44. Since 2008, Pollard has put out his projects under the banner of Guided By Voices, Inc.

“I have something like 120 albums out and we didn’t actually start making records until 1986,” Pollard said. “That’s almost three a year for 40 years. That’s ridiculous. (laughs) I can’t stop. You can’t stop the Robot Boy. We’ve released most of that ourselves too, which we’ve done for quite a long time. It started with the Fading Captain Series and now it’s GBV Inc., under the flag of the good ship Rockathon. I like it because I can put out whatever I want whenever I want. You can’t do that on a label.

“I gave it a shot at going solo, which in my opinion was not as successful as I wanted it to be,” he continued. “I put out a few good records for Merge Records that I’m pretty proud of, but people go for that brand name, Guided By Voices. You’ve got your hardcore fans that are going to come whether it’s Robert Pollard or Guided By Voices. Then you’ve got the general public and some people will be willing to take a chance on Guided By Voices just because of the name. We still had good shows, but it wasn’t quite the same.”



GBV Classic

Pollard returned to the name Guided By Voices in 2010 but it wasn’t a contrived reunion. He reconvened what was known as the Classic Lineup with Mitchell, Sprout, Demos and Fennell. The reformed GBV planned on doing a one-off performance for the 21st anniversary show for Matador Records that October in Las Vegas, but it went so well the band stayed together. This lineup ended up recording six albums before it came to an end in 2014.

“I wasn’t going to do that anniversary show in Vegas, but we did it at Matador’s behest,” Pollard said. “They wanted us to headline, which I was flattered by. They offered us a lot of money, so we had to do it. Then, once we did that, I was like, ‘Well, we might as well start making records again.’ We did but that was not as successful as I would have liked it to be either but whatever. We made six or seven albums so that’s cool.

“It was exciting at first and then it seemed like we started going through the motions a little bit,” Pollard continued. “At that point I decided that was enough of the Classic Lineup. I did Ricked Wicky. We didn’t play any shows, but we did all three records in a year.”

Pollard decided to bring back the GBV moniker for the album “Please Be Honest” (2016).

“I made that by myself at Cyberteknics with Phil Mehaffey,” Pollard said. “I did one song a day in sequence, which was interesting. I was going to call it Teenage Guitar, which is the project I do where I play everything, but I thought it sounded good. Even though it’s clunky and sloppy it’s a good album. I liked the songs, so I decided to call it Guided By Voices even though it was just me. That’s what prompted me to get the best band I could get.”

Watch the music video for “Never Mind the List” from the 2022 Guided By Voices album, “Crystal Nuns Cathedral”:

Present day band

That brings us to the current version of the group, or the New Classic Lineup (GBV/NCL), which has been together since 2017. It features longtime Pollard associate Doug Gillard (lead guitar) and former member Kevin March (drums) with Bobby Bare Jr. (rhythm guitar) and Mark Shue (bass). This crew first appeared on the double album, “August By Cake,” followed by “How Do You Spell Heaven,” both in 2017. At this point, these guys are not only part of the most prolific incarnation of GBV but also the longest consistent lineup.

“This lineup is just something that doesn’t need to be fixed,” Pollard said. “They’re all so good. Our records are getting a lot more structurally ambitious because I have a band that can pull it off. You’ve got to have that. They make it easy for me. I don’t have to learn the song, other than the vocals, so I can get as crazy as I want and not worry about having to play it. I can give them something ridiculous and they can do it.”

“Welshpool Frillies,” the 38th full-length credited to Guided By Voices, was released on July 21. The next album is already finished.



Making it count

“We have an album called ‘Nowhere To Go But Up’ coming out in November,” Pollard said. “I think that’s our 16th album with this lineup. It’s incredible. We have kind of a format, a formula, but they’re all a little bit different. Every album has its own personality. We’re actually really pumped about the next album. It’s great. We’re not touring it this year, so we’ll definitely start touring in March. People will have had a chance to digest the album. It’s pretty solid. It sounds really good.”

Pollard admits he was impressed with his latest output after going back recently and listening to every release he’s made with the current lineup.

“I’ve been listening to two albums every day,” he said. “It’s kind of blowing my mind how much stuff we have. ‘Zeppelin Over China’ really blew my mind. I can’t believe we made that. To me it sounds like a double album of ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ which is ridiculous. Um, you know, to blow my own horn a little. You forget about songs so it’s almost like you’re hearing them for the first time. It makes you cry a little bit sometimes, like, ‘Wow, there’s a reason I keep doing it, man.’

“I’ve done the demos for the album after that,” Pollard continued. “It’s probably going to come out next August. They’re going to start working on that next. It just never stops. We go from one album to the next. People say, ‘Do you just write constantly?’ No, I hardly ever write but when I sit down, I make it count.”

Watch the music video for “Weedking” from the 1992 Guided By Voices album, “Propeller”:



Finding inspiration

There are few songwriters of the modern era that have written and released as many songs as Pollard. The exact number is hard to calculate but it’s in the thousands. He admits the process is as confounding as ever.

“I don’t know where my songs come from,” he said. “I just crank them out. It’s got to come to me or it’s not worth having. When I pass away and go into the next dimension, I’m going to be sitting in a room and this little guy from ‘Twin Peaks’ will come out and say, ‘Give me back my songs.’ (laughs) He’s the guy who has been writing them through me the whole time. That makes sense to me. That’s basically how they come to you.”

Watch the music video for “5 Degrees on the Inside” from the 2017 Guided By Voices album, “August By Cake”:

And as long as that strange little man continues feeding him songs, it’s unlikely Pollard will retire.

“We’re probably going to tour a little bit more extensively next year,” Pollard said. “I don’t know after that. It’s year by year. I keep setting retirement dates, but I did that when I was in my 20s. I don’t really know how long I can keep doing this but it’s difficult to stop. I guess as long as I feel good and the crowds are good, I’ll keep going.”

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Erika Wennerstrom’s Top 5 Guided By Voices Songs

Heartless Bastards, opening for Guided By Voices at Dayton Masonic Center on Saturday, Sept. 2, is known as an Austin, Texas band. However, leader Erika Wennerstrom is a Dayton area native. She formed her rootsy band in Cincinnati 21 years ago, but still remembers the lessons learned from hometown acts like Guided By Voices. She recently shared some of her favorite songs by the band, which are a good starting point for any fledgling GBV fan.

“Hot Freaks”

“A Salty Salute”

“Game of Pricks”

“Cut-Out Witch”

“Striped White Jets”

“These are my five favorite GBV songs,” Wennerstrom said. “The band has so many great songs across decades, but these songs are attached to so many memories of my first few years as an adult in Dayton. My formative creative years were heavily influenced by GBV. It was so inspiring to see a band from my hometown making great art and sharing it well beyond Dayton, Ohio. Before that, I thought you had to live in cities like N.Y.C. or L.A. to really make any waves. They made it real and tangible. Without local artists like GBV I don’t know if I would have seen my own path forward possible. I cannot wait to celebrate their anniversary with them. It’s such an honor to be a part of the festivities.”

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