By Sean Titone
May 7, 2018
Space Gun, the 26th studio album released in March from Dayton, Ohio’s Guided By Voices, is an album of undeniable vigor and hard-charging, melodic friction. A 40-minute rock and roll odyssey that breezes by in a flash, it is a grand statement from a band that continues to astound, astonish and inspire fans all over the world after 35 years. The fact that Space Gun sounds as refreshing as it does is a testament to lead singer and musical savant Robert Pollard and the formidable band he has been playing with over the last couple years. Pollard’s songwriting mastery, insatiable hunger to create lasting art, and bottomless reservoir of hooks and lyrics are a gift.
Guided by Voices has been the main outlet for Pollard’s muse since his foray into songwriting back in the early 1980s, after previously working as a grade school teacher for many years. In addition to GBV, his numerous side projects have amassed over a hundred albums and counting. The band has had a rotating cast of musicians since its inception, but one member that has been in the mix more often than most is guitarist and singer/songwriter Doug Gillard, who is also currently a member of perennial indie favorites Nada Surf.
We recently caught up with Gillard to discuss rejoining the band in 2016 after being a member from approximately 1996-2004, as well as the upcoming tour behind the new album. The group is currently scattered across the country: Gillard, bassist Mark Shue and drummer Kevin March are based out of the New York City area, guitarist Bobby Bare Jr. is in Nashville, while Pollard continues to live in his hometown of Dayton. The band was getting ready to travel to Dayton for a second round of rehearsals before their current tour when I spoke to Gillard on the phone.
“We have a master set list well in advance so, at home, we know what to brush up on, or learn as a new song,” Gillard said. “We have a lot of new album songs we’re playing. And new old material that we’ve never put in from past Guided by Voices and Robert Pollard releases. We’ll get together for a couple rehearsals before tour. We’ll rehearse somewhere between 50-60 songs. Obviously, some of the old ones that we do all the time, we don’t need to go over too much. No one’s calling out to go over the bridge in ‘Smothered in Hugs.’”
If you get the joke about the bridge in “Smothered in Hugs,” often a set closer in their epic live shows, then you are a true GBV fan (the punchline is that the song “Smothered in Hugs” doesn’t have a bridge). The thing about Pollard and the music of Guided by Voices is that the man and his songs inspire a level of fanaticism where listeners and aficionados of the band love to memorize the lyrics of nearly every track and want to collect all the albums, B-sides, and rarities. Digging through the massive discography to find your new favorite song is just one part of the appeal.
“It starts with good songs. When the band first got noticed back in the 4-track days, the main reason people were drawn to it was that it was so catchy. The songs are so good. And then to discover even from there, from the early ‘90s, there was a back catalog before that? I just think the mystery of ‘where did this band come from?’ inspires a word-of-mouth following,” Gillard told me.
Gillard has known Pollard since 1993, cultivating a relationship that has traversed not only several Guided By Voices albums, but also the fan favorite they recorded as a duo entitled Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, and additional side projects like the bands Lifeguards and, more recently, ESP Ohio. It’s been a fruitful collaboration for both musicians and has produced a dizzying amount of material.
“It’s extremely rewarding having a musical relationship with Bob. He puts a lot of trust in what I do. I have a lot of freedom in playing and making up parts to add,” Gillard said. “The band will get demos of just him on guitar and vocals, with the chords of the song, and we’ll kind of go from there. Sometimes he’ll have instructions or directions for the songs, things he has in mind or if he heard a drum part in his head, maybe, but just a general feel of the song. We try to stay true to that as much as possible. Sometimes there might be no notes on a song. But, Bob’s a master of melody and hooks. We do what Bob’s vision directs us to, and we’re really happy to be along for the ride and just make the songs sound great.”
The Guided By Voices live experience is renowned for its marathon-like qualities. Pollard lives out every rock and roll fantasy and, over the course of a set, one can expect microphone twirls, punk rock high kicks that would make the Rockettes swoon, swigs from a communal tequila bottle, and multiple dips into a cooler full of beers on stage, not too shabby for someone who turns 61 later this year. Pollard’s stage banter between songs is the stuff of legend. He’s even released albums of nothing BUT stage banter. There’s a camaraderie amongst the crowd where strangers will drunkenly put their arms around each other and pump their fists while belting out Pollard’s cryptic yet catchy lyrics at the top of their lungs.
Gillard summarizes a live GBV show succinctly, “It’s loud. We’re on stage for at least two and a half hours. It’s energetic, and it’s a good ride.”
When Guided By Voices comes to Charlotte on their upcoming tour, it will somehow be the first time the band has ever played the Queen City. But it won’t be the first time Gillard has spent some time here.
“I actually ended up living in Charlotte for a couple years,” Gillard said. “It was after Guided by Voices broke up in 2005. So after that, I moved to Charlotte in late 2005 and I was there until late 2007. I played Snug Harbor a couple times and I played the Milestone.
“I enjoyed my time there. There was a band named Fence Lions that I became friends with. I played a couple shows with them as sort of my backing band. Bruce Hazel was the guy. He still has his own projects in Charlotte, too. I felt like the Charlotte scene had a lot of bands that supported each other. I’m excited to play there.”
While it will be a homecoming of sorts for Gillard, it will be a rare opportunity for Charlotte music fans to witness one of the greatest rock bands of all time, out on the road supporting one of their best albums to date.