Departing Press Secretary Jay Carney isn’t the only Guided by Voices fan out there who loves the band so much that he wants to blast their music from the podium of the White House’s Briefing Room.
For some GBV die-hards, their devotion started the moment they saw Robert Pollard do one of his famous high-kicks. For others, it was the first time a friend slipped them a mix CD and they heard Pollard’s oblique lyrics coming through the lo-fi hiss of their headphones. But regardless of how they first stumbled onto the band, there is one common thread that unites all of the fans of the beloved Dayton, Ohio group: Once they found Guided by Voices, they were hooked.
“All of a sudden I got this really warm feeling that went over my whole body and I got this really big grin over my face, like it just clicked,” remembers Minneapolis fan Kim Horecka, who first fell for the band in 1999. “It was the weirdest thing! Because I’m not really that kind of person that gets really psycho about a band. But something just clicked. A lightbulb went off, and I got it. ”
Much ado has been made about Guided by Voices’ wild, tequila-soaked stage antics; Pollard’s incomprehensibly prolific output (to date, he’s issued 81 albums of original music, 21 with GBV); and the band’s passionate and breakneck shows, which often cram dozens of songs into the space where normal bands would play eight or 10. But if there’s one defining characteristic that rises above all others—and one that will most certainly be on display when they play Rock the Garden this Sunday—it’s that they’ve spent their 30-year career fostering an intense, fevered, downright rabid relationship with their fans. Of which there are many.
“I see it night in and night out,” says GBV tour manager Park Doing, who has known Pollard and the rest of the band since high school. “I’ve seen grown men cry. They’ll come up after the show in tears and be like, ‘I can’t believe I got a chance to see this. Thank you so much.’ We hold that in high regard. And that emotional connection is really the core of the whole project; it’s what rock ‘n’ roll is all about.”
When asked what it is about Guided by Voices’ music that inspires such furor, Doing takes a long pause before unpacking a lifetime’s worth of observation. “I’ve thought about this a lot,” he says. “I think you start with the poetry of the music; I think great poetry resonates with human beings at a deep level. That’s what Guided by Voices does: It raises rock to a poetic level. Bob is very anthropological and very psychological in his songwriting, and so he describes the world he sees around him in psychological terms, and he describes a world that’s kind of unspoken; he uncovers it and speaks about it and people feel very understood and connected by that.
“Then you add the secrets of rock ‘n’ roll, the hooks and the music and the rhythms, with that kind of psychologically resonant poetry,” he continues. “And then you throw in the third pillar, which is that Bob sings like Otis Redding. He’s a soul singer and he lets it out and he delivers it, and it’s emotional and it’s resonant, and he lays it out on the stage every night, and people really respond to that.”
The fans’ love for the music has only been stoked by the band’s longstanding tradition of keeping an open-door policy after shows, allowing the well-versed GBV enthusiasts to sidle right up next to Pollard and quiz him on the intricacies of his many songs. Doing says the band was aware of this heightened connection with its fans from the very beginning, and their relationship has only grown fiercer and more dedicated over time.
“A lot of fans consider themselves a friend of Robert Pollard, because it’s basically a blurry line,” he says.
In anticipation of Guided by Voices’ big performance at the Walker this Sunday (they go on at 7:15 p.m., just before Spoon), I caught up with a handful of the band’s most die-hard Twin Cities followers, including many who are musicians themselves, to learn more about a type of fandom that can only be described as a phenomenon.
First discovered GBV: “In ’99. I was sitting in the dentist’s office reading a People magazine, and they a little blurb about this band from Dayton, Ohio, who had a sound that was similar to the Who. It was for their CD that had been produced by Ric Ocasek [Do the Collapse], so it was very slickly produced and it was nothing like their early stuff. I listened to that CD like crazy. I jokingly refer to that CD as the gateway drug to GBV.”
Number of times seeing the band: “Maybe a dozen? The First Avenue shows kind of blur together. I ended up seeing them in Austin, Texas, and then some friends and I went out to New York, and we went to their ‘last’ two shows at the Metro in Chicago. Which were epic. Totally epic.”
Why is GBV fandom so intense? “Maybe it’s because they are just everyday Joes who seem like they could be your friends and neighbors. Maybe it’s because they are like the ruffian underdog team who you can’t help but root for. Or maybe it’s because you have to work to hear their music. They never got any mainstream radio play. The people who know about them and like their music are kind of members of a special club who just happen to ‘get it.’ Their music literally makes me smile, and when I look around at shows there are so many other people with big grins on their faces too. It makes me feel good!”
First discovered GBV: “I remember seeing the video for ‘Bulldog Skin’ on MTV’s 120 Minutes. I kind of liked it at the time, but never really paid much attention until 1999. That’s when one of my best friends suddenly became a hardcore fan. I was sucked in pretty much immediately. Three months later I saw them live at First Avenue. Bob came out, held a pair of socks above his head and said, ‘These are my socks…they also rock. 1-2-3-4!!!’ He pitched the socks into the crowd as the band launched into a massive wall of sound in the form of ‘Watch Me Jumpstart.’ That night pretty much cemented my path to becoming a lifelong fan.”
Number of times seeing the band: “If you include all Pollard-related projects, I would guess somewhere around 25 times?”
Most memorable concert experience? “If I had to choose one I’d say the 400 Club show back in March 2001. Something about that small, intimate venue really enhanced the charm of GBV that night. Bob had just the right amount of swagger, poking a little fun at Minneapolis rock royalty like Westerberg and Mould. The Toxic Twins (Nate Farley and Tim Tobias) practically had to prop each other up by the end of the show. They were trashed, the crowd was trashed, and it was all one great big sloppy, sweaty mess of pure joy. Years later I heard from an employee that this show set the all-time club record for beer sales.”
What about the times you got to perform with the band? “The first Heedfest [an annual party in Pollard’s hometown of Dayton] was probably the most memorable since that was the first time Bob got on stage to sing a song with our little tribute band, which was mind-blowing. But my favorite memory was probably Bob’s 50th birthday party. The Heedonists [Jueneman’s GBV tribute band] were the de-facto house band, so the night before at band practice, members of GBV showed up so that they could rehearse the five to six songs they would goad Bob into playing the following night. I never could have imagined that one day I’d be in Dayton standing in a dirty old basement watching GBV rock out, but it happened that night. At the party the following day, it was a rotating line-up of cameos by former band members joining in on various songs by GBV or tunes by other artists that Bob liked. In all, five different GBV drummers sat behind my kit. It was amazing.”
Why do you think GBV inspires such intense fandom? “First, they’re a feel-good story for anyone who has ever tried, or even dreamed of being in a rock band. A bunch of middle-aged guys from the middle of nowhere making undeniably great music on cheap, sh*tty equipment in their basement—that’s pretty inspiring! The fact that Bob had a day job well into his 30s but still managed to get his music out there and eventually earn a living makes him a bit of a hero to anyone who has wished for the same. GBV are the underdogs of rock-n-roll, and it’s always fun to root for the underdog… especially when they win in the end.
But to me, it all comes down to the songs. They are so damn good and there are so damn many of them. The last time I made a GBV mixtape for a friend (something every hardcore fan loves to do), I just started going through my files and dragging any song that I thought was upper tier into a playlist. After a while I stopped and looked down…there were 131 songs in the list and I hadn’t even gone through every album yet! To me, no other band pays off as consistently and as frequently as GBV. No one else even comes close.”
First discovered GBV: “Around 1994/1995 when Bee Thousand came out. I started reading about them in magazines… I think that I first checked them out because Kim Deal would talk about how great they were in Breeders interviews.”
Number of times seeing the band: “Probably around 20 times. I’ve also seen Robert Pollard many times in his various ‘solo’ bands like Boston Spaceships, Townshend Research, etc.”
Most memorable concert experience? “It would have to be ‘The Electrifying Conclusion,’ the so-called final concert at the Metro in Chicago on New Year’s Eve 2004. They played for something like 4.5 hours and it was as epic as any show I’ve ever seen. The vibe in the room was so awesome that night, it felt more like a party than a concert. My friends and I still talk about the show and really the entire experience of getting tickets and traveling to the show.”
Is it true you throw annual GBV parties? “We’ll call the parties ‘semi-annual.’ We started having GBV Day on National Tequila Day but I think we missed last year. Hopefully we’ll get one going again this summer.”
Why do you think GBV inspires such intense fandom? “It starts with incredible songs, but what really sold me was their live show. There is nobody else that puts on a concert like Pollard, complete with leg kicks, mic twirls, and a ton of attitude. Not only is Bobby an incredible songwriter and performer, but he is funny as hell, too.”
Number of times seeing the band: “I’ve only seen them four times, unfortunately.”
Most memorable concert experience? “A few weeks back in Des Moines, though it’s hard to not say First Ave in 2010. I went down with six other guys and we stayed a few blocks from the venue. The place was a little bigger than the Turf and, it being a Monday in Des Moines, the crowd was maybe 300 people. We were right up front with room to move for the whole show, the set was a great balance of new and classic stuff, and Bob and the band were in amazing form. Miller Lite baths all around. Afterwards we got to hang and talk with the band and a couple of them and their tour manager joined us at a nearby bar after they loaded out. They couldn’t have been kinder.”
Why do you think GBV inspires such intense fandom? “It’s probably been said, but GBV occupies its own universe. Not only is the catalog staggering in terms of output, but the shows inspire such camaraderie between band and fan. These are some regular beer-swilling sports loving dudes that oh, just happen to create perfect indie rock from out of the Midwest. Part of the inspiration for me putting together Crossing Guards was that they were done at the time and I couldn’t see them anymore. I wanted to do my best version of that kind of rock.”
First discovered GBV: “I think I first listened to them in earnest after my Paw got me Bee Thousand in 2006 for Hanukkah. I wanted to catch up with my friend Joe—he’d already gone through copies of Under the Bushes, Alien Lanes, and Propeller.”
Number of times seeing the band: “Three (so far).”
Most memorable concert experience? “When I went down to Iowa City with Joe and Daley on 4/2/2011. We got a flat tire on the way down but still got there on time. We all went to First Ave together on 10/12/10 so the setlist was pretty similar. They did play ‘Over the Neptune’ and ‘Squirmish Frontal Room,’ that was a nice surprise. I was hoping for ‘Dusted’ or ‘Office of Hearts,’ but a real solid set otherwise. Also, Paddy Considine was there.”
Why do you think GBV inspires such intense fandom? “I’m not sure. I like delving into large discographies; there’s always another gem around the corner. I’ve made around 15 of my own alternate-world GBV albums (‘What if they HAD put out Learning to Hunt?’). Even when you cut out all the material you don’t like, you’re still left with 200+ great songs.”
First discovered GBV: “In 1996 after I left active duty in the Air Force and moved to Saint Paul. My friend Jonathon Warnberg would often casually tell me to check out a certain band. He insisted that I hear GBV. He played Bee Thousand for me and I fell in love. That night I bought Vampire on Titus. Soon after that I picked up Alien Lanes. That started me down the road to addiction.”
Number of times seeing the band: “I am going to the Madison show on Friday. I will say that I have seen GBV at least 10 times. I went to the Matador at Twenty-One show in Las Vegas in 2010, opened for them at Grand Old Day in 2004, saw both 400 Bar shows in 2001, and have been to countless First Avenue shows since 1996.”
Most memorable concert experience? “The 2010 Matador at Twenty-One weekend at the Palms in Las Vegas was great, but I would have to say that my most memorable GBV concert experience was when my band Superhopper got to open for them at Grand Old Day in 2004 on the Dixie’s/Saji Ya stage. GBV never seemed to let a local band open for them, so this was huge for a GBV nerd like me. For me, to open for Guided By Voices would be like for anyone else to open for the Beatles or Led Zeppelin.”
What was it like meeting them? “I partied with Guided By Voices backstage at the Grand Old Day show. We emptied a few bottles of tequila and killed many beers. The subject of baseball came up at one point. I mentioned Bob Pollard’s no-hitter that he pitched in college. He looked at me and smiled, as if to say, ‘How the hell do you know that?’ He then passed me a bottle in approval. We talked for awhile and pounded down shots. As hazy as that day became, I will never forget that show and party.”
Why do you think GBV inspires such intense fandom? “I think that GBV hooks so many people because it is simply fun. It’s not serious. It’s a party. Listening to the early albums, it’s as if the Beatles and the Who got together on a Saturday afternoon, tied one on, and let the tape roll. Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes came out at perfect times. Sure Pavement was good, but to me they were missing an edge. GBV was an indie band that nailed the anthem rock too. I’d say that for forty-something guys like me who grew up on their older brother’s classic rock, GBV encapsulated everything that my rock and roll foundations were based on and bridged that across seamlessly to the indie realm. That is something that very few bands have been able to accomplish.
The unrelenting, high-tempo release rate of albums by Robert Pollard has pushed my GBV-related (solo albums and side projects included) CD collection to nearly 100 discs. I have to get every release because each album or EP has at least one gem; a song that drives me insane as a songwriter. How the hell does he continue to spew out this brilliance? I have many friends who feel this way too. We’ll make mixes and shake our heads in frustration that one CD doesn’t come close to holding the massive library of essential GBV tracks that everyone must hear. These are the songs that will save the world. At least from sobriety, Belle and Sebastian, and all things that do not rock.”
First discovered GBV: “I’d probably seen the Breeders’ video for their cover of “Shocker In Gloomtown” first, but the moment I fell in love with Guided by Voices was the premiere of the video for “Auditorium/Motor Away” from Alien Lanes on MTV’s 120 Minutes. I was just utterly swept away by that pair of songs, the shape of the melodies, the texture of Bob Pollard’s voice, the crunchy cassette tape hiss of it all. I made my mom drive me to the CD store at the mall the next day and, praise be to Matador and their demi-major label distribution, they had a copy of Alien Lanes. This was 1995, I was 15 years old, the club was open. I’ve been a lifer ever since.”
Number of times seeing the band: “10 or so times. Nowhere near as many as lots of my GBV fan friends. I’ve been on the Postal Blowfish mailing list since the late 90s, not the Disarm The Settlers mailing list, because there is a rivalry, and I am friendly with people all over the world who travel around to every single show on every single tour.”
Most memorable concert experience? “The Showbox in Seattle on the tour for Universal Truths & Cycles was amazing. The reunion tour at the Riviera in Chicago in 2010 was incredible. But their final shows before they broke up in 2004 at the Metro in Chicago were among the best live experiences I’ve ever had. The sense of fun & joyous abandon in the room were entirely palpable. For those final shows, Bob had flown in the bartender from his local joint to work a full wet bar on stage. During one of Doug Gillard’s solos (I think it was at the end of ‘Tight Globes’), Bob wandered over to the bar, ordered a few shots of tequila, and cracked some jokes with the bartender while the band was still raging next to him. Hilarious. They played at full power for nearly three hours both of those nights, very different set lists, and I imagine that GBV are one of the handful of bands you could watch play 65-80 songs for three full hours and still leave saying “That was awesome, too bad they didn’t play ‘Acorns & Orioles,’ though. Or ‘Marchers in Orange.’ Or ‘Frequent Weaver Who Burns. Or or or or…”
Why do you think GBV inspires such intense fandom? “It’s a body of work, much like the Fall, which appeals to a collector’s mentality. I think it’s similar to comic book fans, or fans of particularly long-lived sci-fi shows. The joy of GBV for me is in remembering all of the twists and turns, all of the different lineups, the side projects, the EPs and singles that hide in the various corners of Bob’s monstrous discography. All of that is subsidiary, of course, to his easy control of melody, his surprising and strikingly poetic lyrics, the true power of the various players who have been his long-term collaborators, the epic shows, the endless experimentation which plays out across his multiple bands and solo records.
For me, the drinking thing is at the bottom of the list. It’s highly amusing, sure, to see a rock band bring an enormous bucket of beers onstage, and, in the old days, fling them into the crowd to be caught by hyped-up fans, but that’s just a bit of showmanship. The meat of the band’s appeal, as far as I’m concerned, is the relentlessly creative and actually rather sensitive soul and brain of Bob Pollard. He has created his own universe of music and imagery for us to step into and wander around.”