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.
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!'
"It's nice that you would have a masterpiece, I guess, but that's not how I work. I write songs and we throw them together, we practice them and we go do them. And that's it and we go on to the next thing. For instance, I have my first post-GBV solo album ready -- it's a double album -- so I always have an album finished before the other one comes out. To me, it's about having fun and entertaining yourself and others if you can, not about whether this album is as good as that one. They're all different."
Or not. "Half Songs of the Decomposed" is not a startling departure from recent albums, a typically eclectic mix of the four P's of rock (pop, punk, prog and psychedelic) that are as essential to Pollard the musician as the three R's were to Pollard the teacher. There are the gorgeous melodies of "A Second Spurt of Growth," "Window of My World" and "Girls of Wild Strawberries"; the energized outings "Sing for Your Meat" and a Whoish "Gonna Never Have to Die"; and prog-rockers like "Everybody Thinks I'm a Raincloud (When I'm Not Looking)" and "(S)mothering and Coaching." Pollard's penchant for brevity remains intact, with more than half the songs clocking in under three minutes.
Pollard had previously said that when he made a record he was totally satisfied with as befitting a finale, it would be just that. "After I listened to ['Half Smile'], it had kind of a sad, melancholy but uplifting feel to it, and it felt like a fitting wrap-up and at that point I made the decision."
But, he adds, there were a couple of other factors in the timing of the split.
"I'd been going through this huge box of unmarked cassettes that I have," he explains. "I should be more organized, but the way that I write, I write fragments of songs, song ideas and tunes to the point of exhaustion, and then I'll go back and listen to what I have and immediately discard things that I don't want to use or things that I don't think fit, and then work on the songs that I do want to use.
"That process has left this huge box of cassettes with song ideas, so I've been going through the box and burning them to CDs so I can be more organized. And I've found so many really good songs and song ideas that in my opinion now should have been on record."
The box contains tapes dating back to 1978, songs that Pollard says "were more personal to me and didn't feel like they were particular GBV-lineup-type songs." Twenty-six of them were recorded with producer Todd Tobias for release early next year. You can also expect what will be Pollard's first-ever solo tour: He's only ever done one show with his name on the marquee, "way before anyone cared, in Columbus with [former GBV member] Greg Demos and New Creatures, which backed me up. I'm going to still tour, until I feel it's ridiculous up there. And for each album that I do, I can round up different people each time."
Obviously, there's no quit yet in Pollard, who jokes that "people are being very nice to me, like I'm going away!"
He notes his late bloom, admitting that "had we started and gotten some exposure earlier, like in my early twenties, I don't know if I'd be ready to hang it up yet. I'm going to be 47 years old, my hair is gray -- to me it makes a little more sense to go under my own name. It seems a little bit more mature decision; there's more integrity in doing that."
Pollard also seems eager to challenge himself in the studio, much the way he did after "Forever Since Breakfast," which was recorded in a professional studio "with unsympathetic engineers and in-house producers who had no idea what I wanted, and I had no idea what I wanted. I was completely unhappy with it, but since we were financing it ourselves and no one was listening but us, I said, 'I'm going to put whatever I want on the record, I don't care how it's recorded or what it sounds like, as long as I like it.' "
What evolved on subsequent albums were live jams, instrumentals, songlets and song snippets, as well as fully realized, coherent tracks.
"That became our signature," Pollard notes. "But I did it simply because I knew no one was listening but myself, and I wanted to make records that made me happy. Luckily for us, we fit into this movement at the time they were calling lo-fi. Some people were saying we were the kings, the pioneers of lo-fi, and at the time I didn't know what they were talking about. But then I guess it was true because 'Devil Between My Toes,' which was 1987, preceded Sebadoh's [1989 album] 'The Freed Man,' which many people considered the first album of that movement."
It took a while -- though not long -- for GB to find its V, says Pollard, an avowed student of rock history.
"When we first started, I thought we sounded too much like other bands," he explains. "It got to the point where I listened to so much music from the last 30 to 40 years, and so many different genres, that they all became a part of what I do. We kind of threw them in a pot and mixed them together until we had our own distinct sound. There's so much that's gone into it that we do have an original sound, where you can almost always tell, 'That's by Guided By Voices.' It has been the most difficult thing to do."
As is analyzing Pollard's lyrics, which are often fragmentary and enigmatic.
"It's for the listener to take whatever he or she wants to be meaningful or entertaining or whatever can help," Pollard explains, sort of. "To me, it's like a dream domain. There's obvious symbolism, things that mean things and other things that don't, and sometimes they tie together and sometimes they don't. My favorite director is David Lynch, and I don't understand what's going on most of the time, but to me it's uplifting and scary. And I enjoy that rather than when things are right in your face literally and easy to understand. I appreciate that in lyrics, and I think the most inspirational and influential lyricists to me have been people who operate that way, like John Lennon and Marc Bolan and David Bowie, where you didn't always need to know what was going on with what they were saying, and I don't think they did for the most part, either. Sometimes you feel like saying something, other times you don't."
Over the years, the lo-fi label became something of a millstone for GBV, particularly after former Cars driver Ric Ocasek produced their 1999 album, "Do the Collapse." Shouts of sellout were heard.
"We'd exasperated all the techniques we could do in a basement," Pollard answers, adding that GBV's lo-fi approach was dictated by their severely limited financial resources, a problem that lifted on their two albums for mini-major TVT. "You can only move your washers and dryer around and put microphones in them and drop amps to make different sounds on a four-track so much, and I thought we'd done all we could do. At the time, some people were saying, 'Okay, we've heard the lo-fi thing and we're getting sick of it,' so we decided to move on. And then some of the same people said, 'Well, now we miss the old lo-fi stuff.'
"That was the point at which I realized we can only please ourselves," Pollard says. "For the most part the people that have stuck with GBV are the people who realized it's all about the songs anyway, because even when we were doing lo-fi recording on four track, you realized you still had to have songs or it's not going to work."
Another millstone: GBV's reputation as a rowdy, out-of-control, often plastered-to-the-gills live band, though Pollard thinks "this schizophrenic thing is what infatuated people. When we played our first show at CBGB's at the  New Music Seminar, I think people expected us to be like the Residents; they didn't expect us to kick up a Ramones-type show where we banged 20 songs together and kicked ass with guitar rock. It was kind of confusing to people to have a completely different thing live and that was something that helped break us at the time. We don't sell a [lot] of records, but we sell enough to have a label keep us around. And I don't think that would have happened had we not been able to put on this kind of power rock live set. I thought it was cool that we had two different things going on."
There's also the issue of Pollard's seemingly endless canon: His songs number in the thousands, and his releases as GBV, solo artist, side bands and special projects number in the hundreds. The words prolific, obsessive and compulsive attach themselves easily to Pollard.
"Some people think it's diluting what I do, flooding the market," he concedes. "But I don't make music with the market in mind, I make it because it's what I do. It's an ongoing process, a part of my life, coming up with ideas and lyrics and titles. When I go to a friend's place or hang out at a bar, I keep a notebook even then. It's not work, but I'm working all the time. It's almost like breathing -- I do it all day long."
GUIDED BY VOICES -- Appearing Saturday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Guided by Voices, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)