No band embodies the independent spirit better than Guided by Voices. Led by the beer-guzzling leader Robert Pollard, the group always sidestepped the zeitgeist and followed their creative mastermind’s sense of what music should be. Reflecting the extent of Pollard’s individualism, the band make a solid claim to being the most prolific outfit of all time, with the frontman having thousands of pieces registered to his name.
Hailed as lo-fi pioneers, this restrictive reading of their career actually diminishes the heights Guided by Voices reached. The band have never placed the restrictions of one genre on themselves, creating a kind of fusion that is wholly unique. In just one song, there can be the melodies of 1960s bubblegum pop, the grit of 1980s hardcore punk, and folk-rock inflexions reminiscent of The Byrds.
At points, electronic instruments have also had a defining impact. They have brought to life some of their most cherished pieces, including ‘Teenage FBI’ from 1995’s Do the Collapse. The song utilises a viscous keyboard arpeggio at the introduction, no doubt inspired by the album’s producer, Ric Ocasek of The Cars, who was an early master of the electronic instrument.
Essentially, the only defining feature of Guided by Voices is Robert Pollard. When he sang, “I am a scientist – I seek to understand me / All of my impurities and evils yet unknown / I am a journalist – I write to you to show you / I am an incurable / And nothing else behaves like me,” in the first verse of ‘The Scientist’, he was accurate. Never has there been a better description of his work.
With Guided by Voices having such an extensive history, there are many moments of note. To Robert Pollard, though, he thinks their “defining point” came in 1987, just before releasing their debut album, Devil Between My Toes.
Setting a precedent for the DIY brilliance that was to follow, the album was self-recorded on an eight-track in their friend Steve Wilbur’s garage. Although he played on some parts of the record, guitarist Tobin Sprout quit the band and moved to Florida, leaving it to Pollard, bassist Mitch Mitchell and drummer Kevin Fennell to complete the work. Despite Sprout’s departure, Pollard still feels that it is one of the band’s finest moments, saying that was where he “changed everything”.
“That’s where I changed everything,” Pollard told Exclaim in 2006. “It is where we really started making records for ourselves. Without a doubt, it is the defining point for GBV at that time.”
Hitting their creative stride, by the end of the year, Guided by Voices had recorded their second album, Sandbox, in Steve Wilbur’s garage again. Although it is much less respected than their debut, it’s still a great opus. It opened the door to a more experimental and prolific future than their debut suggested.
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