Lo-Fi Legends: Guided By Voices

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Forged in beer can littered basements of Dayton, Ohio circa 1983, Guided By Voices spent years making music before garnering interest outside their immediate circle of friends. Noted for their hissy, lo-fidelity sound, four track to cassette recordings and prolific songwriting, Guided By Voices have become an influential touchstone for indie rock bands.

The band disbanded in 2004 but reunited in 2010 when asked to play Matador Record’s 21st anniversary show. What began as a one-off reunion evolved into a full-on tour and six new albums in the past four years.

The Guided By Voices lineup has shifted many times throughout the years. While the makeup of the band has changed, singer/songwriter Robert Pollard has remained a constant presence in each of the band’s incarnations since their formation in the early ’80s.

Now, the 1993-1996 “classic” lineup of guitarists Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell, bassist Greg Demos and drummer Kevin March are back. With Pollard on the mic, the band is midway through yet another tour, this time to support the release of their newest album “Cool Planet.”

“It’s not classic anymore, I think it’s just Guided By Voices now,” Sprout said.

After a decade of work, Sprout left the band in 1997 to focus on his family and other artistic endeavors. Aside from his work with Guided By Voices, Sprout is an accomplished oil painter and has produced solo records of his own.

“I never expected it to go full circle and be back in the band,” Sprout said. “It was pretty hard to watch them go on without me, so it was kind of nice to be able to get back into it. The way it happened just seemed to be natural — it seemed to work.”

Earlier Guided By Voices records like “Devil Between My Toes” and “Sandbox” hardly made a splash. The band was on the brink of calling it quits, with 1992’s “Propeller” intended to be their last release.

“I remember we were in Kevin’s basement practicing and Bob [Pollard] announced that was the last album, that we weren’t going to do this anymore,” Sprout said. “The next day he called me up and said he had a great song and came over and we recorded. We put ‘Propeller’ out, thinking that was it, and it just took off.”

“Propeller” received a significant amount of buzz, particularly in the college rock circles of New York and Los Angeles, landing the band’s first record deal with Scat Records.

“I thought when we signed with Scat that we had made it,” Sprout said. “We were finally with a label and I was happy.”

1994 saw the release of “Bee Thousand”, what would come to be known as GBV’s most influential record. At 20 tracks and 36 minutes long, “Bee Thousand” was the band’s lo-fi aesthetic at its finest. The songs were sharp — monstrous power-pop melodies adorned with grainy tape hiss, pared down to a deeply intimate level with Pollard’s emotionally cutting lyrics.

“Smothered In Hugs” is a testament to this careful balance. The track opens like a massive rock song fit for a stadium, featuring crunchy power chords that nearly bury Pollard’s gauzy vocals. Pollard’s lyrics are surreal and story-like — “In the summer that you came / There was something eating everyone,” he opens. With lines like, “The watchers of the flood were busy in their chamber / Making sure there was new blood to sustain them / Dying in vain,” he crafts a devastatingly ambiguous tale of loss.

Like most of the albums in their discography, “Bee Thousand” was largely recorded on analog four and eight track machines. Even when GBV signed to Matador Records and received a sizeable advance for ‘95s “Alien Lanes,” they stuck with their bedroom recording style and didn’t shell out more than $50 for production costs.

“It was an interesting time because it didn’t really last that long, with analog four tracks,” Sprout said. “Until the digital age came in and anybody can go and make music now which is nice. I think a lot of people realized they could go in and record too, the same way we did. You don’t have to have a multi-dollar record deal to record anymore.”

The process of writing and recording music came organically, Sprout said. He or Pollard would write the songs and the band would meet up in a garage to learn and record them.

“We didn’t really ever labor over the recording process,” Sprout said. “We wanted to catch the energy up front. Any time we’d play over something, it just seemed to lose that energy.”

Along with contemporaries like Sebadoh and Pavement, GBV thrust their brand of low budget bedroom music into the hands of the public. Their influence has quietly underscored much of indie rock created in the last 20 odd years. In 2011, the tribute album “Sing For Your Meat” featured Lou Barlow of Sebadoh, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and fellow Dayton native Kelley Deal of The Breeders putting their spin on the GBV canon.

The freedom of lo-fi recordings still resonates with younger bands that have emerged in recent years. Just last year, a 7” paying homage to the band was released with the likes of Waxahatchee, Swearin’ and Screaming Females covering Guided By Voices classics.

“We just started recording lo-fi as a means of recording the songs and listening to them,” Sprout said. “We just liked the sound of it. It became an easy way for us to record our songs without paying for studio time and seemed to work out for us. Later on it became a genre, this lo-fi movement.”