Guided by Voices was sure a long-shot pick for rock stardom. Frontman Robert Pollard was a schoolteacher by day and compulsive writer of anthemic rock songs by night. The band was five guys recording in basements and garages. Their sound was muddy, and their shows were marathons, stretching over three or more hours and innumerable beers.
Guided by Voices ended up making some of the most galvanizing indie rock of the late ’80s and ’90s. And it didn’t feel like the end of an era when the band broke up in 1996, after years of intense touring had worn them all down.
But time has revealed the mark GBV left. Those early garage-recorded albums are now practically indie-rock scripture. Without GBV, there would be no No Age, no Japandroids, no Times New Viking. Those few short years before the breakup just might have been the heyday of indie rock.
Pollard hired a new band and kept Guided by Voices going for eight more years, but those five musicians from the early ’90s — Pollard; guitar players Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell; and rhythm section Kevin Fennell and Greg Demos — are the “classic” lineup, as inimitable as Bon Scott-era AC/DC or Van Halen circa David Lee Roth.
“It’s pretty much the first lineup that was introduced to a large audience,” Sprout explains. “Before that, it was more local. There were lineups before this one, but it’s the one everybody knows.”
Fourteen years after their last show together, that classic lineup has reunited to revive old songs on a new tour. Spurred by venerable indie Matador Records, the reconstituted Guided by Voices headlined the label’s 21st anniversary bash in Las Vegas, and that gig went so well that they added additional legs to their ongoing tour.
According to Sprout, it took a few shows for things to click into place, but already “it’s all gelling together. Every night it sounds a little bit better because we’re getting a little big tighter. It’s getting right back to where we were in 1996.”
They’re still chugging beer in vast quantities (Pollard has allegedly switched to light beer), and they’re still playing hours-long sets complete with high kicks, microphone windmills and riffs that sound just as urgent now as they did 14 years ago.
Devising a setlist, however, is a challenge.
During their few years together, the classic Guided by Voices lineup recorded roughly two albums a year, along with innumerable singles, EPs, and solo and side projects — even a five-CD box set of rarities. Their songs number in the hundreds, possibly exceeding a thousand. And those are just the ones they recorded and released. “It was a pretty productive time,” Sprout says with characteristic understatement.
Pollard is notoriously prolific. In the time it takes you to read this paragraph, he’ll have penned two supremely catchy anthems. Rather than wait for studio time, the band — usually just two or three members at a time — would record them in the nearest garage or basement.
“Exit Flagger,” from the 1992 album “Propeller,” is typical of the band’s off-the-cuff approach. “Bob had this song, and the two of us sat down to play it,” Sprout recalls. “He played drums and showed me the guitar riff. We got the song recorded in 20 minutes.” From such a modest process rose a fan favorite that anchors the band’s current set; the song’s heraldic chorus, warped guitars and wonky snare fills still sound peculiar, immediate and mercilessly catchy — a defiant rumble of rock noise.
For Sprout, the enduring appeal of Guided by Voices comes down to the quality of the songs. “You’ve got older fans who remember us from way back when, and you’ve got newer fans who have never seen this lineup before. And they still want to hear those songs we were writing back then. People are out there singing along with us. It’s just a really good time.”
For now, the band is taking it one long, beery show at a time. But the future is wide open: more touring, possible U.K. dates and hints of a live album to add to that stack taking up several cubes of your Ikea Expedit.
“I would be into continuing,” Sprout says, “and I think the other guys would, too. There’s a positive feeling about this tour, so we’ll just see what happens.”
Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner
Photo courtesy Matador Records