Guided by Voices routinely perform three-hour shows and slug out multiple albums per year, but last New Year’s Eve, the cult rock band pulled off a feat remarkable even for them: a 100-song, four-and-a-half-hour blowout at Los Angeles’s Teragram Ballroom. Their first gig of 2020 turned out to be their last.
When COVID-19 grounded live music globally, guitarists Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare, Jr. put their heads down on home-recording projects. Bassist Mark Shue threw his clothes and instruments in his car and returned to his folks’ house in Virginia. Drummer Kevin March, the manager and director of School of Rock in Montclair, New Jersey, pivoted to remote teaching. Their longtime manager, David Newgarden, halved his four-person staff, loaded his Chelsea, Manhattan, office into storage, and began working marathon hours from home.
As for Robert Pollard, GBV’s 63-year-old singer, songwriter, and only original member? “I knew we were going to continue to be creatively active. That’s the most important aspect of being a band,” Pollard explains to Discogs. “We’re constantly making records in perpetual motion. It never stops. Projects overlap. We’re finished with a follow-up album or two before the previous one is released. It’s always been this way with this lineup, and COVID-19 has done nothing to disrupt the flow.” As such, Styles We Paid For, their third album of 2020 after Surrender Your Poppy Field and Mirrored Aztec, dropped December 11 — pandemic or no pandemic.
According to Fortune, Guided by Voices, who last cracked the Billboard charts in 2002 and has suffered declining record sales in the Spotify era, maintains equilibrium through constant creative output and financial self-containment. The band records their parts separately, releases music through their label, GBV, Inc., and raises funds through art sales, a fan convention, and brewery partnerships. How robust is this business model? A world-upending global health crisis is as good a litmus test as any.
But Guided by Voices, an underdog band with a message of fearlessness and self-realization, keep moving anyway. They do this by accelerating their output while in isolation, spoiling diehards with previously-unheard content via a weekly subscription service, and producing an audience-free streaming concert.
When Sarah Zade-Pollard realized her husband would potentially spend 2020 at home in Dayton, Ohio, “Honestly, on a personal level, my first thought was one of relief,” she tells Discogs. “No one here is happy when he is gone. I constantly worry when he’s on the road, and I knew having this time off from touring would allow him to address his severely arthritic hip, with plenty of time to recuperate.” Still, “He constantly works and at a very fast pace,” Zade-Pollard says. “Even post-surgery, Bob is on fire.”
The initial idea was to record Styles We Paid For live to two-track tape in producer Travis Harrison’s Dumbo, Brooklyn, studio, Serious Business Music. The working title: Before Computers. “When COVID hit, plans changed,” Harrison tells Discogs. “The production of the album became possible because of computers, which we constantly use anyway.” Gillard, Bare, and Shue tracked their parts at home in New York, Tennessee, and Virginia, respectively; Harrison tracked Pollard’s vocals in Dayton while socially distanced.
“We’ve been doing some parts from home for the albums since 2017, so the difference to me is not being able to track our basics straight to tape and all together as we have done for a few of the recent albums,” Gillard tells Discogs. “That was only a select number of songs for each record anyway, so now it’s just a bit more we have to do from home. I think Styles We Paid For is a pretty special record due not only to this year’s circumstances but also to this particular set of songs and how they turned out.”
For its members, Guided by Voices isn’t the only iron on the fire. The band is hammering out a new side-project, Cub Scout Bowling Pins, whose debut EP Heaven Beats Iowa is due in January 2021. “It’s a slightly different creative process than GBV,” Shue tells Discogs. “We’re all super-psyched on it.” Plus, the band’s surreal outlaw-country alter ego, Cash Rivers and the Sinners, released the 35-track smorgasbord Bad Side of the Coin this fall.
Last May, the band launched Hot Freaks, a subscription service that offers exclusive audio and videos every week for a year for a $100 flat fee. Newgarden first proposed this idea in 2005, but at the time, Pollard — who once infamously declared “writer’s block is for pussies” — demurred. The reason being: Pollard uncharacteristically feared he’d get writer’s block himself. “This hands me a laugh in retrospect,” Newgarden says, noting that Pollard has written more than 3,000 songs.
“The subscription series has kept us busy,” Newgarden continues. “I think it helped our morale, the band’s morale, and I think even GBV fans’ morale.” “It’s been really fun for all of us to dig through the vaults and find rarities, unreleased songs, demos, live recordings, et cetera, to share with fans,” Shue adds, and Pollard concurs: “The Hot Freaks thing is keeping a lot of people happy.”
Among Hot Freaks’ offerings have been live albums from Industry City in Brooklyn and the Metro in Chicago; the demos for How Do You Spell Heaven, Space Gun, and Sweating the Plague; and home-recorded compilations like Shaking Hands With a Ghost, Freak Anthem, and American Superdream Wow.
Regarding the kibosh on live shows, “We don’t tour that much anyway, so it wasn’t completely devastating,” Pollard says. Still, canceling Heedfest, their semi-annual fan convention in Dayton, Ohio, presented its own set of issues. Namely, when it became clear they needed to cancel Heedfest, the ticketing company Brown Paper Tickets barely trickled out refunds to event producers and ticketholders — which Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson to file a lawsuit. “About 35% of our ticket buyers haven’t been refunded,” Newgarden says ruefully.
While mulling over his clients’ onstage return, Newgarden surveyed the numberless live-from-home shows clogging social media. “Guided By Voices doesn’t ever play acoustic, and we certainly weren’t interested in doing what other artists were doing: acoustic guitar in the living room, wearing pajamas,” he says. The answer, GBV decided, was to film a full-length, honest-to-God concert — on a real stage, amplified, with professional lighting and a stellar mix by Harrison.
“We wanted to do the performance at the Brightside in Dayton,” Shue explains. “They’ve been so great to us, and that was where we had done our last Dayton-area show. They took every COVID precaution possible and made us feel comfortable.” To prepare for the show, each member got tested and self-isolated in their respective states. Then, Gillard, Bare, Shue, and March traveled to Ohio to rehearse as a unit — which, Newgarden notes, wasn’t cheap.
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“We took a risk with the live stream and invested a substantial amount of money in producing a good-quality, full-electric concert on a stage,” Newgarden says. “We had travel and hotel expenses to get them all to Dayton to rehearse and shoot the concert. We rented a venue with a big stage to keep the bandmembers socially distanced, and they played to cameras without an audience.”
“We just wanted fans to see us do a show on a stage,” Pollard says. “The preparation was pretty much the same as any show we play. We even had a dressing room. No rider. We brought separate, individual coolers. There were maybe 20 people there, all wearing masks and distancing. The people at the Brightside were great — very cooperative with everything we needed. It’s a shame right now. We finally get a great venue, and you can’t even put on a show with a live audience, so we did the next best thing.”
At first, having no crowd to reflect their energy — no screams of approval for new material, no distributed Miller Lite and Cuervo Gold bottles, no besotted “GBV! GBV! GBV!” chant for another encore — was uncomfortable for the band. “The lack of an audience was the least appealing characteristic of the project,” Harrison admits, “but the guys weren’t deterred, and Bob had a vision for the show which kept the music rolling with no interruption.”
“It felt really good to play live, but strange at the same time since there was no audience reacting to the performance,” March reflects to Discogs. “Especially since we played new songs from Surrender Your Poppy Field and Mirrored Aztec.” Still, “I was beyond excited about heading to Dayton to play this incredible music together again as a band and to hang with my friends and laugh, drink, and celebrate this rare opportunity.”
“That was a really fun thing to do, and was great to play all together,” Gillard says. “We had a small crew there, but it felt a little weird to have no crowd. Many songs in that set were brand new, so concentration on getting the parts right took precedence over thinking about the vibe. At least for me. The venue was so accommodating and went out of their way to make things easy for us.”
“It was a bummer not to have an audience,” Bare admits to Discogs, “but I spend most of my time turned sideways watching Bob all night during the show even when there is an audience. That’s the most exciting part of the evening!”
GBV broadcast the gig on the pay-per-view platform Noonchorus so they could charge admission straightforwardly. “Most of the platforms in the early months were free or just had digital tip jars, which felt tacky to us,” Newgarden explains. The show wasn’t technically live, but a concert film interspersed with what Travis calls “humorous vignettes and offbeat Lynchian imagery.” The rest of the flow came from Pollard’s knack for crafting cohesive, career-spanning setlists.
“There’s typically a relentless meta-rhythm to any GBV show that we tried to capture,” Harrison explains. “The scores of songs, old and new, flow through you at a dizzying pace. There’s a cumulative emotional effect that happens to you as you move through the show.”
At $20 to $25 per ticket, the live-streamed gig was a financial windfall, an enthusiasm boost, and a smart logistical choice: Harrison even tracked all of Pollard’s Styles We Paid For vocal parts during the trip. “The fan reaction online was heartening, as people needed the emotional release the show provided,” he says. “Overlapping project timelines are a common part of our workflow, and those very new songs were echoing in our brains throughout the process.”
Will 2021 mark GBV’s return to the stage? “It’s really hard to imagine live music returning to what it was, but I’m optimistic and hopeful it will become something no one ever takes for granted again,” March says. “Unfortunately, I think 2021 looks similar to 2020, but I hope I’m incorrect, and we can return to a normal life of performing and attending live shows. We all need it to connect with people and let loose. Live performances give that outlet to many fans and us as musicians.”
“Live music will return, but will it ever be the same?” Harrison asks. “In the meantime, I am grateful to be part of the team, making records with GBV. Records don’t fill the void that the dearth of live music has left, but they are very valuable to humans in hard times. I’m grateful to be able to provide that escape to listeners.”
“I anticipate 2021 to be just as unpredictable but also potentially fantastic,” Bare says.
Because they’re beholden to no one but themselves — and, compared to other rock bands, uniquely suited to working in isolation — Guided by Voices is thriving during a bust period for music. The band’s business will survive; Styles We Paid For is here; the Hot Freaks goodies continue to percolate; and GBV is in constant communication, dreaming up ideas and plans for 2021.
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As for the broader music landscape, “[While] we’re concerned about clubs, magazines, and record stores surviving,” Newgarden says, “we’re happy to see people buying records via mail order and Discogs making it easier for stores to do that.” Pollard and Zade-Pollard are avid users of the site themselves: “The only thing we don’t use Discogs for is to sell — at this point, anyway,” she says. ””Mostly, I’m looking up information, although, during the pandemic, it’s been an incredible source to find records to buy.”
Guided by Voices’ constant productivity doesn’t merely keep their lights on; it benefits the people behind the scenes, too. “Bob and the band staying busy means we stay busy,” Matt Davis, who co-runs Rockathon with Mike Lipps, tells Discogs. “One thing we have noticed is a big increase in people buying the back catalog,” Lipps adds. “I think that’s because of the inability to go to live shows. Also, we had a big bump in sales after the virtual show GBV did in the summer.”
Joe Patterson, who runs Rockathon’s art department and lays out GBV’s album covers, is happy to adjust his approach for COVID. “For the layout work, we are particularly safety-conscious about what we need to accomplish when we do get together in person to review,” he tells Discogs. “Since the quarantine started, we have not gone to any bars in Dayton to review the layouts. Rather, we moved those activities to our home backyard patios where we could keep a safe distance and stay outdoors.”
“The band is working on recording their parts independently and capturing Bob’s songwriting on the next GBV album,” he reports at the tail-end of the most grueling year of the 21st century thus far. “It’s a testament to Bob’s and the band’s enthusiasm, and their collective passion for Guided by Voices, that even during a pandemic that they continue their frantic creativity and album releases.”
Unlike their more well-known grunge-era contemporaries, Guided by Voices have undoubtedly had to tighten their belts this year. But now, it’s provable: not even a world-upending public-health crisis can slow their runaway train. Plus, there’s a silver lining for this legendarily booze-fueled band — one that involves tying one on without leaving the house. “The Dayton bars have been closed,” Newgarden points out. “Robert’s wife Sarah says they saved money this year!”
Feature image courtesy of Guided by Voices/Facebook.