Why would a news reporter — who hasn’t written about music in five years — want to do it now? Because in 1995, when my longtime girlfriend stepped on my heart, Guided by Voices was my medicine, my punching bag.
I’d have an asthma attack every time I heard the words “gold-hearted mountaintop queen directory.” Undaunted, I would run around my room, bloodying my knuckles while screaming “dee, dee, dee, dee, kicker of elves.” Frankly, I don’t know what the hell those lyrics mean, but set on top of some of the best edgy, low-fi pop melodies imaginable, GBV made me — and a legion of other fans — swallow the hook.
Now touring in support of its 11th album, Do The Collapse (TVT, 1999), Guided by Voices is pulling into Asheville for the first time — bringing its thousands of songs and karate-kicking, binge-drinking antics.
This seminal rock outfit from Dayton, Ohio, has survived a revolving cast of band members with featuring founder/frontman Bob Pollard always at its nucleus. Pollard is a mad scientist (and reformed elementary-school teacher) who’s figured out how to put the glam back in a rock show.
When GBV’s New York publicist told me that Pollard was not available for an interview, I’ll tell you up front I was kind of pissed off. But hell, Mountain Xpress isn’t exactly Spin, either (yet), and it turned out that lead-guitar man Doug Gillard was a fine fellow to speak with, anyway.
Mountain Xpress: You guys are known as early risers, sports-crazed nuts (with amazing basketball prowess) — and still you manage to put on the total party show: bring out the tub of beer, drink a beer per song. Tell us some of the crazy s••t that’s happened on this tour.
Doug Gillard: Well, we just started it, and already there’s been some crazy s••t that’s happened.
MX: Like what?
DG: Oh, I don’t know. … Well, we played this show in Philadelphia the other night; a couple of us don’t remember the set at all.
MX: Drugs? Beer? What?
DG: No … yeah, beer.
MX: I heard you guys had trouble getting down to [Washington] D.C. Is that what happened?
DG: Umm, no, we made it up to D.C. in record time. We did an interview at a station, and then last night we did a really good show. Philadelphia was a pretty good show, too, it was just sloppy. And Bob’s brother came up from Dayton with a couple of buddies.
MX: Did they jam in the set?
DG: No they just [hung] out in our locker room and [drank] with us. So, you know, it tends to get pretty crazy. It’s always fun.
MX: I know you’ve been on the last couple of albums. … The band is, like, 16 years old; the fan base runs three generations deep — almost like the Rolling Stones — and it seems like you’re getting new converts all the time. You sure do produce loyalty. … What do you see when you look out in the audience now?
DG: Pretty much like you said, the whole gamut of age groups. There was some girl at one of our shows, in Kansas, that had to be chaperoned. She was still in high school, and she was doing a review of the show. And upper-middle-aged people like the band, and sometimes we’ve met some doctors that are into the band. There was one guy who’s the head of ABC News in L.A.
MX: Is the Web serving you guys well? I mean, it always seemed that your music would be well suited to be on the Web.
DG: Oh, yeah, it has, because that’s where our fan base meets and talks about the band.
MX: Let’s talk about Do The Collapse. I’ve been listening to it, and … my favorite songs are “Dragons Awake!” “In Stitches,” “Wormhole” and “Picture Me Big Time” — “Picture Me Big Time” mostly because I grew up around Boston, and I just like the one line “there was a band from Bean Town … they rocked the house down.” Which songs are the band’s favorites from this album? Which are you getting the best response from?
DG: Umm, “Surgical Focus” and “Zoo Pie.” Let’s see, sometimes we play “Picture Me Big Time,” sometimes we don’t. We [like to] play “Hold on Hope.” … Our favorites are [songs like] “Zoo Pie.”
MX: That’s the song you really rock out to?
DG: We rock them all out.
MX: This album, of course, was produced by Ric Ocasek. He always looked pretty creepy to me. What’s he like to work with?
DG: Well, he was an idol of mine when I was in junior high. I loved the Cars. And Bob has always liked his stuff. Yeah, so he was pretty good to work with.
MX: How much did he come into play on each song? Did he lay down a lot of keyboards and stuff like that?
DG: Not a lot, but he did a few. Obviously, he did “Teenage FBI” — it’s got his, you know, kind of keyboard sound. And I like the sounds he put on “In Stitches” — they’re kind of ominous and menacing, kind of dark; I like that. He had some pretty good ideas — just some minor rearrangements here and there. But otherwise he was pretty hands-off. He went for the best take, but in doing that, he went for the ones with the best feeling, not necessarily the most perfect-sounding ones.
MX: It’s always been rumored that Bob kind of wanted to do the arena-rock album, but at the same time you guys sort of validated that whole basement-ethic, low-fi sound. Is that gone, or is that [vibe part of Pollard’s side project], the Fading Captain Series?
DG: That’s pretty much on the Fading Captain Series. And in the past, before it was called Fading Captain, on Bob’s solo records [the lo-fi sound was] an outlet for the more experimental Bob. I mean, he’s always going to be doing that in some form or another, and things trickle out on GBV singles and B-sides. We’re always going to be doing that. Actually, on the next GBV album, Bob wants it to be a little bigger. Meaning, he wants it to rock with a little more energy, but it’s not going to be slicker at all, or less slick.
MX: I once read that Bob would try and write a new song every day. Do you ever try and play one of those songs the same night at a show?
DG: No (laughing), never. On the road, he just tries to write lyrics, but when he’s home, he is pretty prolific. He writes a batch of ’em. But, no, we don’t play a new song every night.
MX: At the show, what old ditties can we expect to hear? Tell me some of the antics we can expect to see.
DG: Ah, you’ll see [karate] kicks, you’ll see jumping, you’ll see a bottle of Jack Daniels or two. You’ll see kids going nuts.
MX: What old songs are you guys digging out?
DG: We do “Lethargy.” We do “Liar’s Tale.” It depends on whatever Bob wants to put into the set that night. People are yelling out songs all the time, but a lot of them we can’t do: Only Bob would know them. There are just so many GBV songs to play.
MX: Have you ever been to Asheville?
DG: No, but I’m looking forward to being there. Is it pretty? We have a couple of friends down there who helped set up this show — Brad and Steve, and they work for Lotus Designs, making clothing for extreme outdoor sports.
MX: I think the night before Asheville, you guys are playing the 40 Watt in Athens, Ga. Is there any difference between you playing in, say, Boston or New York, compared to some of these little towns?
DG: Yeah, well, the bigger cities have bigger venues that can hold a lot more people. We always get a pretty good crowd in the bigger cities. We never know what to expect when we come to small towns, but I’m sure Asheville is going to be better than Burlington, Vt. [Southern Culture on the Skids opened for GBV in Burlington, Gillard explained, and while the Skids had a bit of fan base there, Vermonters were downright unsupportive of GBV.]