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"When most people come to see us play live for the first time, they expect us to be some strange, experimental band," explains Robert Pollard, frontman for America's latest garage-rock saviors, Guided by Voices. "But we're a fucking power-pop band. When we play live, we really kick it out and jump around and stuff. We're a regular circus of freaks, man."
At a time when most stone-faced college-rock refugees would rather be hog-tied to a monitor at a John Tesh concert than display any sort of enthusiasm for their craft, this brand of unrestrained zeal seems disconcerting. Then again, Pollard isn't your standard superstar-to-be. Rather, he's a 37-year-old former schoolteacher who started playing guitar in heavy-metal cover bands long before most alternative rockers could mouth the words "distortion pedal." Pollard admits to feeling stunned by all the sudden attention GBV has received in recent months, mostly from much younger musicians and fans. "When everything started happening for us, I was like, `Wait a minute. Do you know how old we are?'" he notes. "The whole thing really caught us off-guard. The first interview we did was with Melody Maker, and then all this shit started happening right away. Personally, I'm just glad that it started when I was mature enough to handle it. I never could have handled this kind of crap when I was a kid.
"I mean, we used to do these mock interviews with each other just to entertain ourselves--and we'd choke!" he continues, laughing. "So it was really strange when this stuff started happening for real."
And real it is: Everyone from the reviewers at Rolling Stone to Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore have been testifying about the exotic virtues of Pollard and his fellow players (guitarist/vocalist Tobin Sprout, guitarist/bassist Jim Pollard, guitarist Mitch Mitchell, drummer Kevin Fennell and bassist Jim Greer). In fact, the band's Bee Thousand appeared on practically every 1994 best-of roster this side of the international date line, including the Village Voice's esteemed Pazz and Jop music critics' poll. Kim Deal and the Breeders have also succumbed to Voices-mania: The group's version of GBV's "Shocker in Gloomtown" is due to hit the airwaves within the next several months. Clearly, Guided by Voices is well on its way to becoming indie rock's latest unsung heroes.
But while Pollard and associates may be new to the ways of rock-and-roll celebrityhood, they can hardly be accused of being overnight successes. The group's members have been writing and performing songs in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio, for nearly twelve years, during which time they've released ten albums. Still, it wasn't until album number six, Propeller, that people outside the greater Dayton area began taking notice of the sextet. Robert Griffin, guitarist for the band Prisonshake and founder of Cleveland's Scat Records, was among the converted: Upon hearing Propeller, he immediately signed the act and arranged for it to appear at New York City's high-profile New Music Seminar. Pollard says he can still feel butterflies in his stomach whenever he remembers the gig. "Robert thought it was important that we play at the Seminar," he says. "So we said okay, even though we hadn't even played live in six years. I was so nervous at that show that we did like 20 songs in 35 minutes. As soon as one song was done, I'd announce the next one right away. Everybody seemed to dig it, though."
The Voices' first release for Scat, 1993's Vampires on Titus, earned the group even more acclaim. Featuring such cryptic titles as "Superior Sector Janitor X" and "Gleemer (the Deeds of Fertile Jim)," Titus was teeming with the kind of eccentro-pop associated with Pavement and Sebadoh. Unlike those two outfits, however, GBV was content to leave its postpunk roots behind in favor of a more classic, albeit deranged, style of songwriting: One can hear traces of Cheap Trick and even Jethro Tull in the record's jumbled mix. When paired with Pollard's singing, which flaunts a shamelessly faux-British tone, the Titus songs recall long-lost art-rock gems of the sort you can only find by thumbing through stacks of wax at pawn shops.
It comes as no surprise, then, when Pollard expresses his fondness for vintage prog-rockers such as Genesis and Gentle Giant. "The prog, man. Oh, yeah, I'm a big fan of the prog," he enthuses. "In the early Seventies, there was metal and there was prog rock. I didn't know about Big Star then. I think prog rock sounds pretty much like an extension of the psychedelic music in the Sixties. I look back at it now, and it's sort of long-winded and melodramatic and there's too many keyboards. But there's still some strong melodies in there."
The latter can also be said about Alien Lanes, Guided by Voices' debut release on New York's Matador imprint. The followup to Thousand, Lanes is yet another schizophrenic take on traditional rock stylings. This time around, though, the Voices focus more on the deconstruction of jangly, British Invasion harmonies than on skewed tributes to Van Der Graaf Generator. "Watch Me Jumpstart," "Motor Away" and "My Valuable Hunting Knife" combine an early Beatles sound with the acid-gobbling style the Fab Four developed several years further down the road.