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Guided by His Own Voice

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2004; Page WE06

JUST A YEAR AGO, Robert Pollard was talking about how, two decades in, Guided by Voices was jelling, how good the chemistry was with what he considered the band's best lineup, how the shows were stronger than ever.

But Pollard, the creative fulcrum of the critically acclaimed band -- GBV has always been his songs, his voice, his vision -- also conceded he didn't know how much longer he could continue.

"I'm doing this to get back to ground zero and challenge myself," says Robert Pollard, left, of Guided by Voices' end. (Jeremy Balderson)

Turned out to be about a year.

Which is how "Half Smiles of the Decomposed" became GBV's 20-somethingish and final album. The band -- Doug Gillard, Nate Farley, Chris Slusarenko and Kevin March -- didn't find out until it was finished.

Now comes the Electrifying Conclusion -- the name taken from an old lyric for GBV's farewell tour.

"There are a lot of people who are sad, who think it's over," Pollard says from his Dayton, Ohio, home a week before the 25-date tour is to kick off in Boston (it stops at the 9:30 club Saturday).

But, he explains, "it's just another phase. I'm doing this to get back to ground zero and challenge myself, get back in the studio so I can play more guitar and do more things. It got to the point where the band was so good it could pull off anything, and so I've become complacent. I just want to get back and be a little more experimental and adventurous in the studio. To me, it's exciting; it's not going to change drastically. It's going to be different, but it's still going to be my dream domain or whatever it is that comes from my head.

"I think it's even going to be more interesting because I felt cornered with GBV," Pollard adds. "I painted myself into a corner, and I didn't know how to get out or where to take it."

That corner was originally situated in a Dayton basement where Pollard's Sunday afternoon hobby jam with friends began to coalesce in 1983. The idea was to give the grade school teacher a forum for quirky songs that melded abstract, whimsical lyricism, classic pop melodies and crunching power chords. Three years later, GBV pressed 500 copies of its first EP, "Forever Since Breakfast," mostly for their families and friends. And they ended a brief run as a live band.

"We were doing shows in Dayton from 1983 to 1986, and a few regional club shows," Pollard recalls. "I played guitar in the band at the time, and we might have 30 people and half of them were our relatives, those kinds of shows. One of the first shows we ever played in Columbus, Nick Nolte came -- they were filming 'Teachers' there. Weirdly enough, that's the biggest star that's ever come to one of our shows."

Over the next decade, the prolific Pollard released a dozen or so self-pressed GBV EPs and albums with such whimsical titles as "Static Airplane Jive," "Fast Japanese Spin Cycle," "Same Place the Fly Got Smashed" and "Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer." Few of the pressings were for more than 500 copies, yet the band began to build a little buzz, particularly with 1994's "Bee Thousand," which most fans consider GBV's masterpiece and which inspired an unlikely bidding war between Warner Bros. and Matador Records. Matador won.

"We didn't start touring until after 'Bee Thousand,' " says Pollard, who for a year juggled playing music at night and teaching fourth-graders by day. By the time he decided to concentrate on music full time, Pollard was already 37, not exactly a good starting position in a youth-obsessed medium that he wasn't necessarily dedicated to in the first place.

"I was trying to break the band up with [1992's] 'Propeller,' before we even started playing shows," Pollard admits. "Then the labels wanted us and we broke; there was some MTV stuff going on, then it became real and it became interesting. We were under the microscope, and people were analyzing us.

"For me, one of the reasons that I made the decision to break it up for real this time is GBV has gotten to be a bit too analytical. There's too much read into it, there's too much evaluation, too much comparison of this album with the last one and everyone with 'Bee Thousand' -- 'It's your masterpiece!'

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