Guided by Voices is an unlikely success story if ever there was one. Frontman Robert Pollard and his band of blue collar misfit friends from Dayton, Ohio recorded songs on a cassette four-track (a Tascam Portastudio, to be exact) in their basements and played shows to almost no one at local bars, for their own pleasure and free beer. It was a hobby — a very in-depth and time-consuming hobby, but a hobby nonetheless. And for about a decade, from 1983 until 1992, that's all it was. When 1992 arrived, Pollard was facing financial difficulties and family-pressures. He was prepared to put the band behind him, releasing one last album as his swan song, "Propeller," featuring what he considered to be some of his best work. Only 500 records were pressed, each with a one-of-a-kind handmade cover created by band members, family and friends (original copies now sell for thousands of dollars).
Pollard was too bashful at the time to solicit criticism, but his friends secretly sent copies out for review. The public was enchanted. The band traveled to New York to play and found crowds outside of Ohio to be much more receptive to their strange lo-fi sounds, created in semi-isolation by a 35-year-old schoolteacher from the land of drive-through liquor stores.
When the follow up to "Propeller," "Bee Thousand," was released in 1994, that's when GBV really took off. It's the most beloved album in the band's massive catalog. This year celebrates the 20th anniversary of its release, but guitarist Tobin Sprout doesn't think the material is inherently better than their other records.
"That's when we broke through and became popular," says Sprout. "But I like all our albums. They're all good, I think. 'Bee Thousand' just came out when things started going well for us, so I think there are good memories associated with that period of time."
GBV was featured on an MTV News segment, made their national TV debut on "The Jon Stewart Show" (pre-"Daily Show") and almost single-handedly spread the popularity of lo-fi recorded music to the indie masses. The next two records, "Alien Lanes" and "Under the Bushes, Under the Stars" continued where "Bee Thousand" left off, and the band could seemingly do no wrong.
By 1997, guitarist Tobin Sprout decided it was time to leave the group.
"I didn't want to miss my kids growing up," he says.
Pollard replaced the rest of the band with other players, and Guided by Voices 2.0 was established. That version lasted until 2004, ending with "The Electrifying Conclusion" tour. And that was it. The band was finally, officially done.
"I didn't have any reason to believe we'd ever get back together," says Sprout.
But in 2010, Matador Records asked the original lineup of the band to reunite for a single show in Las Vegas to celebrate the label's 21st anniversary. Much to the surprise of fans, they agreed to it. It was meant to be a one-off performance, but soon more show announcements appeared on their website. And then tours. And then album after album of new material. It's once again a fully-functioning band.
"I really enjoy it now, probably more so than the first time around," Sprout says. "I just appreciate everything a lot more."
GBV is currently touring in support of its sixth (!!!) release since the 2010 reunion, "Cool Planet." Friday, the band plays Toad's Place with the mostly "classic lineup" from the "Bee Thousand" era (Drummer Kevin Fennell was replaced with the GBV 2.0 drummer Kevin March after a very public internet fight last year).
Expect a cooler full of Miller Lite on stage that quickly empties, high leg kicks and microphone twirls from Pollard and a roomful of fans who know all the words, no matter how obscure. Especially if they're obscure.
GUIDED BY VOICES play Toad's Place, 300 York St., in New Haven on Thursday, July 10, at 9 p.m. Speedy Ortiz shares the bill. For more information call 203-624-8623, or visit toadsplace.com or manicproductions.org