↬ Under the Tables, Under the Bars : An Introduction to Guided by Voices

I recently found myself having to explain why one of my favorite bands, Guided by Voices, is worth one’s attention. I totally understand it : Guided by Voices and Robert Pollard have had (and still work on) a massive output. According to BMI’s file on Mr. Pollard, he has published more than 1600 songs.

This is an incredible corpus to be drawing from, which means that it can be very hard to discover Guided by Voices alone, without any guideline. Here are my own biased notes.

Viewers of the british TV show The IT Crowd might have had their first contact with the american rock band Guided by Voices there. I, for one, had. A short clip of the song Game of Pricks played over a closing segment intrigued me and led me to Alien Lanes, which then got me to Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, to the first four albums in a boxed set, the DVDs commemorating long, sloppy, boozy and wide-ranging shows (The Electrifying Conclusion and Austin City Limits), then on to Robert Pollard’s solo endeavour.

A first sample

Obviously, there’s no accounting for taste. However, here is a 10 song sample of what I recommend to friends who’d like to get started :

One of the things you will notice is that GbV songs are short. Really short, almost jokingly in a few cases. This is why our first order of business will not take you that long. Another thing you will notice is that I included two songs from Mr. Pollard’s solo efforts and another from a band called Boston Spaceships. In fact, even according to Mr. Pollard (quoted by Harp Magazine quoted by Wikipedia) :

You know, a lot of people try to distinguish things between what is Robert Pollard and what is Guided By Voices. I tell them basically that there is no difference; I am Robert Pollard and I am Guided By Voices.

As of June 2013, the GbV catalog is spread across :

Fortunately, we have incredible luck : there is an exceptionnally well-researched website out there called GBVDB that catalogs everything in the vast GbV universe. Setlists, special editions, lyrics, personnel, nothing is omitted. The guys behind this site deserve a huge applause.

Back to the playlist : I think that it gathers the essence of the band. Ambitious anthems (Over The Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox and A Salty Salute), pop gems (Teenage FBI, Game of Pricks, A Good Flying Bird), slick productions (Go For The Exit, Don’t Stop Now, Gratification To Concrete), messy recordings (Alien Lanes’ Game Of Pricks, Echoes Myron) and intimate setups (Obvious #1, Go For The Exit). A lot of it can be sung really loud when intoxicated (and, boy, do they).

The history of Guided by Voices is made of several quite clear-cut phases based on their discography. The first few albums were extremely lo-fi and has a confidential distribution, then Propeller, Vampire On Titus, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes received recognition and sealed the “lo-fi” reputation of the band. Ensued seven “polished” albums poised to propell the band to the top of the charts, almost a decade of hiatus and a prolific return to a bare sound with the “classic” lineup.

A second taste

If you’re ready for some more, let’s take a few minutes for a few more songs :

Listen to the killer harmonies of The Official Ironmen Rally Song. Listen to the difference between both versions of My Valuable Hunting Knife and the interesting drum patterns. Listen for the “I am a lost soul, I shoot myself with rock’n’roll” line in I Am A Scientist. Remember that GbV titled one of their videos “The Who Went Home and Cried” when you hear Baba O’Riley. Listen to the dynamics of the classic sixties pop songs that are Window of my World and Best of Jill Hives. Listen to the almost yelled choruses of We’ve Got Airplanes and Exit Flagger.

Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, are my three favourite GbV albums. By themselves, they prove that GbV’s work, even though production varied, rely on the same basis : amazing songs.

First and foremost, a songwriter

A great way to recongnize an amazing song, by the way, is to hear it covered.

In a great interview in BOMB magazine (back from 2001) , Pollard explains his focus on songwriting and the process he goes through :

In the mid-period phase of the group, I came up with hundreds of song titles, and out of those titles I’d take one and write a quick poem for it, and then we’d work on a four-track. So I’d write the song really quickly, get my band together and teach it to them. I wanted everything to be spontaneous and fresh, and when I barely knew the song myself I’d go in and I’d play guitar with the drummer, and the drummer wouldn’t even know the song! We purposely wanted it to be fragmented. I craved—and still do—classic rock, like the Beatles; I wanted our albums to sound like bootlegs of long-lost demos and outtakes and shit.

And then I got to the point where we’d done that. And we’d done pretty much all we could with the four-track thing. And now I’d like to grow and mature as a songwriter, so I’ve started working more on structures. I hadn’t realized how long I could keep doing this crazy, whimsical, fragmented type thing; I thought it was getting a little bit old, you know?

In the same interview, he reminds me of Frank Zappa, who famously said in an NPR interview (quoted here) that he was, first and foremost, a chamber music composer :

I didn’t write a rock-n-roll song ’til I was in my twenties, and the only reason I put a rock-n-roll band together is because I couldn’t get anybody to play any of the chamber music or orchestral music that I had written when I was a teenager.

Pollard’s experience is similar (BOMB again) :

If this were the sixties that’s probably what I would be doing right now, being a songwriter for a company. Record companies used to employ songwriters to write for the bands on their label; everybody back in the sixties used to cover each other.

The part where I try to make it important

In fact, it is unfortunate that Robert Pollard’s fantastic work ethic is (almost literally) diluted by his ethylic reputation. One could very well make the point that Robert Pollard is a hacker in the noblest sense of the term : a lot of the proverbs, sayings and maxims apply to him and GbV getting things done, doing it themselves, shipping early and often and embracing loose collaborations. I’ve talked a lot about the importance of Robert Pollard in these notes, but his collaborators are also really noteworthy, starting with Tobin Sprout. Speaking of him, here he is, covering his own A Good Flying Bird :

But the main takeaway for me is Mr. Pollard and associates’ attitude toward side-projects : he was a teacher during the first GbV years and used his weekends and summer vacations to tour with Guided by Voices. Similarly, Greg Demos still works as a lawyer. This band is a side business that got quite big.

Further reading and listening

This article is definitely incomplete : I didn’t mention the great GbV collaborators enough (Tobin SproutDoug Gillard, Tim and Todd Tobias for example), I don’t have enough knowledge of Robert Pollard’s art and my chronology of the band is laughable. This leaves you a lot to cover, but this is the point of an introduction.

The best of album, Human Amusements At Hourly Rates, has a great selection. One great live album is Live in Daytron. One great DVD is The Electrifying Conclusion. I also love Alien Lanes. The Old GBV site has been archived (with some chords) and you can browse the new one too. Their MP3 store is exhaustive, you can also purchase Mr. Pollard’s art and the band’s t-shirts. The GBV songbook is another well-researched chords site. Online, Rdio unfortunately has a poor fraction of the catalog, but Deezer is better and iTunes is almost complete.