Whatever your aspirations as a musician, there are lessons to be learned from the basement-tapes legacy created by Guided By Voices.
As far as I can tell, Disc Makers never made any records for Guided by Voices. This is kind of weird because we made the early records for so many of their peers in the mid-’80s and beyond, like Sonic Youth, Big Black, Mission of Burma, etc. etc. etc. GBV is like the most quintessential Disc Makers’ client that was never actually a Disc Makers client: indie musicians who dreamed big and who toiled away in obscurity for years in pursuit of that dream, releasing self-produced album after album, and who, thanks to hard work, dedication, and talent, finally made that dream come true. If you are an indie musician, you’ll find inspiration in their story, and also in their wonderful, messy masterpieces, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes.
(By the way, I was inspired to write about GBV thanks to a great podcast by Jeff Gomez called “Self-Inflicted Aural Nostalgia,” which covers every Guided by Voices album.)
Robert Pollard, like so many other indie musicians, wanted to be a rock star. He was born in 1957 in Dayton, Ohio, and he grew up loving the music of The Beatles, the Who, and King Crimson. He began forming bands in the ‘70s, and in 1983, one of those projects became Guided by Voices, a band that specialized in anthemic lo-fi rock. Between 1986 and 1991, GBV released four albums, all recorded in basements on four-track cassette.
Although the band and their manager, Pete Jamison, believed in GBV, apparently no one else did. They played a handful of gigs in Dayton, Ohio and audiences hated them. Their anthemic albums didn’t sell and all the while Pollard’s family was pleading with him to stop wasting money and time on his band, hoping he would focus on his wife and kids and his teaching career.
Finally, Pollard decided that perhaps his music career just wasn’t meant to be. But he decided to go out with a bang by releasing what they hoped would be their best album yet. He scraped together some money and whatever songs he had left and recorded 1992’s Propeller. They pressed 500 LPs in plain white sleeves and then hand-decorated every cover with a unique design. (You can see many of the designs here.)
After that, Bob broke up the band. There was no fanfare. No mourning by fans, because there were no fans. GBV simply ceased to be, just like so many indie bands before them and so many after. And that was that. RIP, GBV.
Except not quite. Turns out their manager sent a few copies out to some industry folks, one of whom was Robert Griffin at Cleveland’s Scat Records. Griffin fell in love with Propeller and called Pollard up to sign the band. Pollard thanked him for his interest but said there was no band anymore. However, they finished the conversation with Pollard saying he’d see what he could do. Seven days later, Pollard sent him a cassette of new recordings, what would become The Grand Hour EP.
Scat requested more material from GBV, and the band delivered Vampire on Titus, which was their lowest-fi record yet (and that’s saying something). At first, Griffin found this puzzling, but rather than request new songs or better recordings, after repeated listens, Griffin realized he had an album that sounded like nothing else, so he released it. The critics loved it, with Entertainment Weekly — incredibly — giving the album an A+ review. I’m amazed at the review, not because the album is bad, but it’s hard to imagine a mainstream publication giving such a glowing review to an album that features muddy production with vocals buried so low in the mix as to be practically inaudible, perhaps best exemplified by Robert Pollard/Tobin Sprout song “Sot.”
The band responded to the hype with what is widely considered their masterpiece, 1994’s Bee Thousand. Cobbled together by still more unreleased songs, Bee Thousand quickly became one of the most influential albums of the year (it was ranked as the 10th best album of the 1990s by Pitchfork).
Suddenly this band that had ceased to be in 1992 due to lack of interest was now, in 1994, “the next big thing.”
Soon the major labels, including Warner Bros., came sniffing around, but Pollard chose Matador Records, whose roster included other alternative artists he admired. The band received a $100,000 advance on their next album.
It was basically every musician’s dream: suddenly the world woke up and realized how amazing Pollard’s music was. There was no compromising or “selling out” by the band. They were making music the same way they had been for a decade; it’s just that audiences were ready to hear it. (It doesn’t hurt that other lo-fi artists were making it big at the same time, e.g. Beck and his massive hit “Loser.”)
According to bassist James Greer, “The cost for recording Alien Lanes, if you leave out the beer, was about ten dollars.” He’s not exaggerating. Rather than take the money to go into a “proper” studio, the band just did what they did best: they recorded the album in various band members’ basements on a Tascam 4-track PortaStudio cassette recorder.
Hearing these two albums today is a refreshing experience for any musician. An iPhone boasts better recording capabilities than the equipment GBV used in 1994-95, and yet there’s an unmistakable power to the band’s “let’s not overthink this” ethos. They recorded things quickly, opting to favor capturing a song’s energy, even if that meant including mistakes. “Hardcore UFOs” offers up a great example of this. The lead guitar accidentally cuts out during the most powerful part of the song (1:22), only to come crackling back in four seconds later. It sounds like someone yanked out their cord.
That song, by the way, is the lead-off track to the album. 99% of musicians and producers would be horrified by that gaff and force everyone to play the song again. GBV didn’t care. They knew if they over-thought it or practiced it too much, they’d lose the magic.
Greer describes recording “Game of Pricks,” and it’s a perfect illustration of how their method captured that magic:
By the time I got there Bob was playing guitar, as usual, running through a new song with Kevin two or three times until [drummer Kevin Fennell] understood the structure, which was not overly-complicated. I didn’t at first fully understand what was going on, which is to say that we were in fact already recording the song, and that this was the way we often recorded songs. When Bob was satisfied that Kevin had grasped the structure, he turned to [Tobin “Toby” Sprout] and said, “Okay, let’s do the vocals.” Toby had in fact been recording each of the two or three run-throughs, and I should emphasize that this was a song no one besides Bob had ever heard before. Bob put on a pair of headphones, picked up the mic, and sang in one take the entire song. He may have listened back once, and then, satisfied with the performance, handed them to me, and told me to record a bass line.
I’ll admit to a slight panicky feeling, especially when I listened to the song through the headphones and could barely make out the chord progression under Bob’s vocal, which was hypnotizing not just for the beauty of the melody but for the weirdly plangent lyrics. Everyone was watching me (I thought). Everyone was judging me (I thought). In fact no one was watching, and no one cared, but on my first run-through I flubbed badly a couple of the transitions. Bob picked up the guitar and ran through the structure standing in front of me, in double time. I got most of it, and had another go at recording. Somehow, I got through a mostly mistake-free take, and by the end had finally figured out what I wanted to do; but we were done. I don’t mean just that I was done. The song was done. And when I heard the mix that Toby played back a few minutes later, I realized: the song was perfect.
Compare that version, found on Alien Lanes, to the single, which was re-recorded at Matador’s request, a few months later. According to Greer, “The re-recorded version, done in a local studio, reflects the fact that we’d been playing the song live for quite a while already. In addition to the added intro section, which Bob came up with in the studio, we played it faster, tighter, and with a few more embellishments (harmonies at the end, additional layers of guitar).”
Sounds like the single version would be better, right? It’s not.
While Bee Thousand is the more critically acclaimed album, I prefer Alien Lanes, which, IMHO, is tied with The Beatles (aka The White Album) as the most perfectly sequenced album of all time. The whole thing clocks in at just 41 minutes but features 28 songs. Seven songs are less than a minute long; the longest is under three. Some of which are fist-pumping rockers like “Watch Me Jumpstart,” while others are fragments of songs, like the 18-second long “Cigarette Tricks.”
Not only did the band record quickly, they recorded everything, and they included songs most bands would leave on the cutting room floor and then burn the master tape afterwards. But the cumulative effect of all these songs and fragments adds up to more than just an album, it’s a mini-universe. And these fragments never overstay their welcome. “Pimple Zoo” is a good example of this.
Listening to the album is, thanks to its wide-ranging aural diversity, akin to hearing a series of Vine videos playing in the next room, if those Vines were curated like the greatest mixtape by your coolest friend.
To properly listen to the album, you need to hear it without interruptions between tracks, so don’t listen to it via Alexa, like I did. Instead, listen to it on vinyl, CD, or even Spotify. The sequencing is so important, I can’t hear one song end without expecting the next one to begin, like how the short “Auditorium” leads perfectly into the anthemic “Motor Away.”
To recap the lessons we can learn from GBV:
- Never give up. Your dream may be just around the corner.
- Don’t over-think your next recording session. If the recording captures the song’s essence, don’t worry if Kevin messed up the bassline.
- Got a song that doesn’t work, but there’s this one 15-second bit that kills? Keep that bit, get rid of the rest, and keep recording!
Pollard is still recording today. He is currently credited with having written over 2,000 songs. Had he hung up his music career for good in 1992, one wonders what he would have done with all that creative energy.
The latest Guided By Voices album, Space Gun, just came out in March 2018. It’s pretty damned great.
Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, a hilarious history book for middle-grade kids, is now available on Audible. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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