Photo: Terri Nelles
Every Moment Flame On: A Guide To The Expanded Universe Of Robert Pollard & Guided By Voices
The punk singer and drummer Ian Shelton was early in his Guided by Voices fandom when an unfamiliar song hit him like a ton of bricks. "I was watching the HBO 'Reverb' set," the leader of Regional Justice Center and Militarie Gun recalls to GRAMMY.com. "I was like, 'What is this amazing song, "Alone, Stinking and Unafraid"? I'm going through all the records, like, 'Which record is this on?'"
It turned out to be by one of GBV leader Robert Pollard's side projects, Lexo and the Leapers, who made one EP in 1999. "So, wait: This guy, who has a successful band, also does other bands that are intentionally less successful and harder to find?" Shelton thought. "That was kind of a revolutionary moment — the idea that the way you release music is that different things have different intentions as far as your audience reach."
To Shelton and the rest of Pollard's disciples, his lifetime outpouring is like an entire record store. As the prolific, prodigious and overlooked songwriter once sang, "This place has everything." Want to hear '60s-style pop? Make a beeline for Cub Scout Bowling Pins. Stadium rock? Check out Ricked Wicky. Unclassifiable noise experiments? Go with Circus Devils. Country and western? Cash Rivers and the Sinners.
And if you just want to hear one of the most idiosyncratic, emotionally impactful bands of the past several decades, go with his main vehicle, Guided by Voices, who have been running on and off since 1983 with members in and out. (If you're unfamiliar, start with their three indisputable classics — 1994's Bee Thousand, 1995's Alien Lanes and 1996's Under the Bushes Under the Stars — and report back.)
However, even their 33 full-length albums and counting don't tell the entire story. At the peak of their popularity, when their record label asked Pollard to stop releasing so much music under the name Guided by Voices, such was the Big Bang of his expanded universe. And the latest stop on this runaway locomotive is Clang Clang Ho!, the first LP by his latest project, Cub Scout Bowling Pins, which was released July 2. (Surprise! It's GBV under a different name.)
While Pollard's canon is catnip for collectors and completists, it's the music's quality — not quantity — that makes it resonate. The melancholic sway of Ricked Wicky's "Jargon of Clones, Robert Pollard's and Doug Gillard's creative call-to-arms "Do Something Real" and Boston Spaceships' jaw-droppingly melodic "Come On Baby Grace" have nothing to do with poring over Discogs minutia. This is purely ascendant rock music.
"Each album could be its own universe, and each song its own planet to explore, but instead he's created multiple universes and alternate universes within universes," Andrew W.K. once opined. "You could definitely only listen to Robert Pollard music and be super well-stocked with tunes for a long time."
Why does Pollard engender this distinction? With the help of the official Guided by Voices database, let's dig deeper into his songbook.
If you wish the hallucinogenic ballad "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory" from Bee Thousand was an entire project, go with this pre-GBV project from the early 1980s.
In Matthew Cutter's 2018 biography Closer You Are, Pollard described it as "The most interesting, spontaneously creative, and psychotic, moronic thing we did... Acid Ranch was fearless and ridiculous, because we knew no one would ever hear any of it."
As Cutter explains in the book, the ensemble consisted of acoustic guitar, bass, squeeze toys and plastic buckets. It's a trying listen, to be sure, but if Daniel Johnston or Beat Happening is your thing, check out The Great Houdini Wasn't So Great.
Airport 5 was a project between Pollard and ex-GBV co-songwriter Tobin Sprout, who's arguably the second most important figure in the band's story. Sprout took music he had lying around and mailed it to Pollard, who added lyrics and melodies.
The results were 2001's Tower in the Fountain of Sparks and 2002's Life Starts Here. While maintaining a raw, homespun edge, both are far more pop-oriented and accessible than Acid Ranch.
"A lot of times, Bob would show up with just a cassette, throw it on my four-track and flesh it out," Sprout recalls to GRAMMY.com. "He would just have an acoustic or something, and a vocal, and they we just kind of put that together."
It must be said that some of GBV's most famous works, like "A Salty Salute" and "Motor Away," were recorded by only Pollard and Sprout — as well as later oddities like "Noble Insect" from 2013's English Little League.
Boston Spaceships. Photo courtesy of Guided by Voices.
A fruitful collaboration between Pollard, bassist Chris Slusarenko and the Decemberists' drummer, John Moen, Boston Spaceships were a satellite band to GBV and nothing less.
"Bob always firmly stated that [we were] a band and not a side project," Slusarenko tells GRAMMY.com. "There's no waste in those Boston Spaceships records. That was the goal. All top-shelf material and a run of classic records in our minds."
Boston Spaceships' entire discography, from 2008's Brown Submarine to 2011's Let it Beard, is worth seeking out for its high-velocity melodicism. Still, Slusarenko points to 2009's Zero to 99 as the crown jewel.
"I felt like it had the most mania to it that matched an early GBV record," he says. "Short songs and scrappy inspirations."
In what would become a ramp-up to Boston Spaceships, Pollard enlisted Slusarenko — who played in the final lineup of GBV before their first breakup in 2004 — for Carbon Whales.
"I have a soft spot for the Carbon Whales 7" [South]," Slusarenko says. "I think we totally captured the spirit of post-punk England '78 in a real way."
Cash Rivers and the Sinners
Back to the metaphor of Pollard as a human record store: Cash Rivers and the Sinners belongs in the novelty section. What began as jokey country songs on 2018's Blue Balls Lincoln eventually spun out into Do Not Adjust Your Set, I Am The Horizontal and Vertical, that year's 69-track smorgasbord of genre explorations and inebriated ramblings.
Circus Devils. Photo: Rich Turiel
When asked what satellite band a GBV listener should start with, Pollard responds confidently. "Circus Devils probably first," he tells GRAMMY.com. "That's a complete study unto itself. 14 albums."
Listen to the Circus Devils' discography from 2001's Ringworm Interiors to 2017's Laughs Last, and you'll hear a progression from avant-garde meanderings to more song-based material. "I felt I had the freedom to shape sounds in an adventurous way," their co-pilot, the producer and multi-instrumentalist Todd Tobias, tells GRAMMY.com.
Circus Devils are such a point of study, in fact, that Tobias once wrote a book about the darkly psychedelic band called See You Inside. (Tobias's brother Tim, who played bass in Guided by Voices in the early 2000s, rounded out the trio.)
"Part of the magic of a Circus Devils record is that it cannot be pinned down and dissected without falling back on your own set of subjective reactions," he wrote in the preface. "Doorways will appear, leading to small adventures, each belonging only to you."
This collaboration with the Moles' leader, Richard Davies, produced one album, 2009's Jar of Jam Ton of Bricks. Despite falling behind the stove somewhat in ensuing years, the strength of Pollard's vocal performances and Davies' touch as an instrumentalist makes Jar of Jam a hidden gem.
Cub Scout Bowling Pins
After putting Cash Rivers and the Sinners to bed, Pollard sought another lighthearted outlet for the current GBV lineup. "I wanted something to kind of creatively take its place," he says. "Something not 'joke country,' but still goofy with everyone equally involved." The canvas, Pollard decided, would be '60s pop, with the potential to spiderweb into different eras and styles.
Like a GBV song, a Cub Scout Bowling Pins tune begins life as a boombox demo — albeit a capella rather than with acoustic guitar. From there, "We only have Bob's voice to guide us and we have to come up with all the music under his melody," guitarist Bobby Bare, Jr. tells GRAMMY.com. "He is singing along to music in his head and we had to figure out what those chords were in his imagination."
Featuring tender sunshine-pop songs like " © 123" and outlandish detours like "Everybody Love a Baboon," Clang Clang Ho! sounds like GBV in a blender — in the best possible way. "We basically have fun being creative," guitarist Doug Gillard tells GRAMMY.com, "bringing some nice or heavy or crazy sounds and ideas to the project."
ESP Ohio. Photo: Derek Asher
ESP Ohio was bassist Mark Shue's first recording project with Pollard, a musician he'd revered for what seemed like forever. When Shue first heard the songs, he was in tears.
"I remember getting the raw boombox demos and just poring over them," Shue tells GRAMMY.com. "The creative journey going from Bob's original demos to the final album is a beautiful process to be a part of — one I'm grateful to still be experiencing years later."
Pollard is more matter-of-fact about ESP Ohio's genesis: "I just wanted to get Travis [Harrison] involved in a recording project that he wasn't just engineering or producing," he says. "I wanted him to be an actual functioning member — the drummer."
While mostly setting the stage for the current incarnation of GBV, ESP Ohio's lone album, Starting Point of the Royal Cyclopean, is a heady and satisfying slab of tunes.
From Stingy Queens to Magic Toe to Huge On Pluto, Pollard has dreamt up a thousand band names and applied them to songs. Freedom Cruise makes this list because it actually led to a few released tracks, including a 1994 split 7" with Nightwalker.
Go Back Snowball
A match made in power-pop heaven: Pollard meets Superchunk's Mac McCaughan. The results are as sumptuous as similar team-ups with Beatlesque contemporaries, from the Moles' Richard Davies to the extremely missed jangle-pop maestro Tommy Keene.
Pollard, Sprout, Mitchell and their friend Larry Keller recorded these soused-sounding tunes at an after-hours video store. Note the song titles plucked from cinema, like "A Farewell to Arms," "Clue" and "A Star is Born."
Howling Wolf Orchestra
This brief collaboration between Pollard, his brother Jim and then-GBV guitarist Nate Farley led to a single EP, Speedtraps for the Bee Kingdom. Quick yet surprisingly diverse, it's full of jangly, trippy gems, like "You Learn Something Old Every Day," "I'm Dirty" and "Where is Out There?"
To GBV and their associates, the Keene Brothers were lightning in a bottle. "Tommy's great power pop musicality and Bob's genius melodies and lyrical sense work so beautifully together," Shue says. To their manager, David Newgarden, their only studio album, Blues and Boogie Shoes, is a "gem."
While generally overlooked, the album's influence has spilled out beyond their circle. "How can you go wrong with two indie-rock legends going head-to-head?" Shelton asks GRAMMY.com. "It's the ultimate soft-rock record."
Kim Deal & Bob Pollard
The Pixies' and Breeders' Kim Deal looms large in the GBV story: In James Greer's 2005 book Guided by Voices: A Brief History, he calls her "one of the few Daytonians Bob regarded as an equal." Their only collaboration was a cover of the Everly Brothers' wounded ballad "Love Hurts."
Another one-and-done between the Pollard brothers for an obscure compilation, Tractor Tunes, Vol. 2. On the flip was Mitchell's own band, the Terrifying Experience.
Lexo and the Leapers
The band that blew Shelton's mind with "Alone, Stinking and Unafraid" was a short-lived collaboration between Pollard and the Dayton band Tasties. Despite its obscurity, each of its six tunes are essentials.
"There are so many great side projects, but I really love Lexo and the Leapers," GBV's drummer, Kevin March, tells GRAMMY.com, "[Especially with] songs like 'Alone, Stinking and Unafraid,' 'Fair Touching' and one of my favorites, 'Circling Motorhead Mountain.'"
Whether heard in or out of GBV, Doug Gillard's aerodynamic guitar style has long proved the single most effective instrumental foil to Pollard. After first teaming up for 1999's Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, they made two excellent albums under this moniker.
When asked what his favorite side project is, Bare replies without reservation. "LIFEGUARDS," he replies over email in all caps. "The more Gillard, the better!"
This team-up with Gary Waleik, the leader of the Boston experimental pop band Big Dipper, is brighter, shinier and more Cars-like than most of the other entries.
The Moping Swans
Pollard is a decades-long Wire afficianado, and the Moping Swans are one of his most inspired testaments to this obsession. File 2005's Lightninghead to Coffeepot in the post-punk section of his figurative record shop.
As the story goes, Pollard was a vocal fan of the obscure experimental rock band Phantom Tollbooth. Noticing this, the band erased the vocals from their 1988 Power Toy album and allowed Pollard to do his thing over the music. The result was Beard of Lightning, whose outlandish premise alone makes this entry stand out.
Psycho and the Birds
One thrilling, vaguely disturbing detail about Pollard: He has the ability to write entire albums in one sitting. He did so with his 2010 solo album Moses on a Snail and he did it for Psycho and the Birds, a project with Todd Tobias. Both their LPs are worth hearing, especially 2008's We've Moved.
In 2014, Pollard suddenly broke up Guided by Voices, ending the latest run of — his words — the "so-called classic lineup." Before they fired up again with (mostly) new members, he took Ricked Wicky — himself, March, Tobias, and guitarist Nick Mitchell — for a three-album ride.
Pollard found Mitchell performing at the Dayton sports bar Wings, and his contributions are of the beery, Rod Stewart variety. On their debut, 2015's I Sell the Circus, Mitchell made a case as a new sidekick, slugging out the witty rocker "Intellectual Types" alongside Pollard's originals.
The band got deeper and headier with that year's King Heavy Metal and Swimmer to a Liquid Armchair before GBV fired back up with Mitchell on guitar.
That configuration didn't go well, and Gillard flew in to replace Mitchell at a moment's notice. But even with the band back at full bore, Ricked Wicky's triage of LPs stands tall on its own.
All through Guided by Voices' development, Pollard has released solo albums that (usually) showcase his most sophisticated side.
"I do consider Guided by Voices to be sort of 'ageless' and feel free to include any type of song whether it's 'mature,' or not," he told Rolling Stone in 2013. "In other words, Guided by Voices has no age. We're not really in our 50s emotionally. But Robert Pollard is 56 years old and I attempt to write and record songs accordingly."
While this list can't contain the arc of Pollard's solo albums, it can offer advice: Start with 2006's scrappy masterpiece From a Compound Eye then skip forward to 2010's stormy Moses on a Snail, 2013's pastoral Honey Locust Honky Tonk and 2015's muscular Faulty Superheroes.
Then, after that, check out his output under his own name with the Soft Rock Renegades and Ascended Masters.
Robert Pollard With Doug Gillard
Recently shone up with a 2019 remaster, Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department is a GBV fan favorite with a handful of Pollard's most powerful songs on it.
"I think Do The Collapse had just come out, and we were starting to tour on it," Gillard recalls. "Bob gave me a cassette of demos for 9 songs he wrote with acoustic guitar and vocals, and said he'd like me to record the music, playing everything."
There's nary a bad song in the bunch, but two of them are transcendent: "Pop Zeus" climbs and climbs until its zigzag melody becomes hair-raising, and "Do Something Real" is a fist-pumping clarion call to cut the nonsense and live an authentic, creative life.
Call it the artist alone in his chambers: Teenage Guitar is an outlet for some of Pollard's most bizarre, amoebic completely-solo works, like 2014's More Lies from the Gooseberry Bush.
"A lot of it is spontaneous. Building on top of an idea," Pollard explains. "The first one was recorded in my house. The second one in a big studio. I called it Teenage Guitar because it sounds like it."
The Sunflower Logic
Or, Pollard making blown-out fuzz epics with some of the usual suspects: his brother Jim, GBV ex-bassist Greg Demos and his art director, Jim Patterson. They made one album, 2013's Clouds on the Polar Landscape.
Within the morass, at the top of "I Wanna Marry Your Sister," is an answering-machine message with a catsmeowing in the background: "Call me back, please. Here, like, like sittin' by myself. Nobody...like, like eleven o' clock, ten o' clock, whatever. Sad ass. Sittin' on my own ass. Sad ass."
"That was my music with Bob doing all the lyrics and vocals," Slusarenko says. Which sounds interchangeable with the Carbon Whales, right? Or secondary to Boston Spaceships?
It's not: Turn up 2007's fuzz-rocking Bad Football and think about how this could be a peak for a thousand other bands. It speaks to the reason why this extended songbook endures: It's fun to listen to.
Every Pollard release is a joy — or at least a curiosity — in its own way. It's universes within universes, as Andrew W.K. described. Or, as the wizard himself once decreed in song, imbuing minutia with magical significance: "Every moment, flame on."