Life starts here

“Um … I think … what happened,” says Guided by Voices leader Bob Pollard, “is that a guy that was with us punched someone in the audience.”

Pollard is struggling to recall exactly what transpired during the band’s last pass through the Motor City — a Majestic Theatre appearance that witnessed a punch-up, a minor melee and a boozy Pollard challenging the crowd.

“A buddy of ours who we take on the road sometimes, he’s Irish, so occasionally if someone rubs him the wrong way he’ll take a swing at ’em. I think he ended up knocking out one of our fans,” says Pollard sheepishly.

Scrolling through a collection of drink-obscured memories, the GbV front man can be forgiven if he’s a bit hazy on the details. For the most part Guided by Voices has kept such adolescent mayhem limited to the stage, where the mic-twirling Pollard and the rest of his windmilling, beer-swilling band mates have cast themselves as a besotted heartland version of the Who.

Gaining attention in the early ´90s as lo-fi trailblazers, this revolving collective of Ohio garage rockers — with the 44-year-old Pollard its guiding force and only permanent member — has proven one of the more compelling phenomena to emerge from the musical underground, turning out album after album of luminous Britpop and needle-in-the-red rock.

At the moment, Pollard is back home in Dayton, just off a West Coast tour that found the band road testing some fresh material and a new drummer, Kevin March (“He’s fitting in really nicely,” says Pollard of the former Damnbuilders trapsman, “he’s really picking up on his drinking.”)

More pressing on Pollard’s mind is finding a new label home for the band, following GbV’s recent split with TVT Records.

The group decided to part ways with the label — which financed the big-studio, big-budget forays of 1999’s Do The Collapse and 2001’s Isolation Drills — after the company proved unable to break radio-ready GbV singles like “Chasing Heather Crazy” and “Glad Girls” — the latter easily the most infectious three minutes committed to record last year.

“I tell you, if ‘Glad Girls’ and ‘Chasing Heather Crazy’ can’t become hits I don’t know what else I can do,” Pollard says. “I wrote those at the behest of TVT and my A&R guy. They said, ‘Write us some songs about girls and cars and the summer’ and I did that. In their eyes those were the kind of things that could’ve become hits — but they didn’t. So I decided I’ll write whatever I want to write about from now on.”

Aside from a need for creative control, part of the decision to break with TVT was motivated by a belief that the band had reached a plateau; sales of the past few GbV albums have all hovered around the 50,000 mark. To Pollard it seemed the point had passed where it was worthwhile to alter his approach for commercial concerns.

“At this point I don’t need anyone to telling me what I need to do, telling me how my music should sound,” he says defiantly. “I kind of let that happen for a while. Now I’ll decide how our music should sound.”

To that end, the band set out on its own to record a follow-up to Isolation Drills. Having worked with pair of name producers in Ric Ocasek (Weezer, Bad Brains) and Rob Schnapf (Foo Fighters, Beck) on its last two outings, GbV felt comfortable enough within the confines of a larger studio to handle the recording themselves — with aid from frequent collaborator Todd Tobias, brother of GbV bassist Tim.

Gathering together a sundry set of stadium-sized anthems, acoustic dirges, rambling punk songs and a sprinkling of odd aural snippets, the group self-guided efforts yielded a less structured and more spontaneous result.

“It’s like an earlier Guided by Voices record in the way it’s put together, but it still sounds hi-fi. It sounds like where we’re supposed to be right now,” says Pollard. “I’ve been telling people it’s like (1995’s classic) Alien Lanes meets Isolation Drills. I’m really happy with it ’cause it feels more like Guided by Voices should sound. It’s got more of our stamp on it.”

Pollard adds that the group is in final negotiations with a “prominent independent label,” with an eye toward releasing the album, titled Universal Truths and Cycles, this summer.

“Whoever we go with we want to be able to put out an album every year, ’cause we’d gotten to the point where we were only putting out an album every two years. The title, Universal Truths and Cycles, implies you’ll be getting a Guided by Voices album every year, and that’s a fact,” he says laughing. “We’re not going away.”

While it wouldn’t be accurate to characterize the forthcoming platter as a return to form — since Isolation Drills was considered by many to be the band’s high-water mark — lyrically, at least, the new disc does look back to a ferociously surreal strain found in Pollard’s early work.

With much of the material on Isolation Drills inspired by the domestic difficulties in Pollard’s life — a divorce with his wife of 21 years — the new album clearly heralds a return to his old muse. Indeed, with titles like “Christian Animation Torch Carriers” and “Wings of Thorn” it appears Pollard’s gift for Dali-esque imagery and dadaist wordplay will be at the forefront once again.

“Yeah,” chuckles Pollard, “it’s back to where you’ll go, ‘What the hell is this supposed to mean?’ It’s not as frivolous or mythological as some of the older stuff; I’m not singing about elves or robots or anything like that. But some of the stuff is pretty oblique and not quite as serious.”

“You know, I went through a period in my life when I was going through a separation with my wife,” he adds. “So the last record turned out kind of serious and somewhat sad. But this one really doesn’t have any trace of that.”

Although the new disc won’t bow until June, Pollard fans can sate themselves with a pair of new offerings from the singer’s own Fading Captain imprint.

The first disc, Calling Zero, is an indie-rock summit of sorts featuring a collaboration between Pollard and Superchunk front man Mac McCaughan, dubbed Go Back Snowball. The second, Life Starts Here, finds Pollard once again teamed up with former GbV band mate Tobin Sprout under the nom de plume Airport 5.

Both of the discs are results of a process Pollard has dubbed “postal rock” — with the singer adding lyrics and vocals to tapes he receives in the mail.

“Working like that is very simple and painless. Somebody sends you music and you just take lyrics and match ’em up to the tunes,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun, it’s a very spontaneous way of writing songs.”

Pollard plans to produce similar albums of long-distance dalliances, mentioning Dinosaur Jr. main man J Mascis and REM guitarist Peter Buck as possible future collaborators.

The ever-prolific Pollard, who’s released more than a half-dozen LPs of new material in the past year alone, is also scheduled to put out records by his psych-pop combo Circus Devils and another duo outing with GbV guitarist Doug Gillard under the name the Lifeguards before the end of 2002.

As Guided by Voices ventures out into an extended year of work and touring, more than ever Pollard seems genuinely comfortable with the band’s direction and chemistry, content to enjoy the group’s well-cemented status as critical and cult faves.

“We don’t need to strive to do anything else. We are who we are, we have a certain audience who digs us and that’s it. I compare Guided by Voices now to the level that groups like the Replacements, XTC, the Soft Boys and bands like that were on. And I’m happy to be in that company,” he says with no small amount of pride.

“There’s no sense beating our heads against the wall to get any bigger than that.”

Guided by Voices is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, April 3 at the Magic Stick, with Phantom Planet. Show time is 8 p.m. See our online events calendar for info.

E-mail Bob Mehr at [email protected]
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