Thirty-six years old before anyone outside a tiny circle of high school friends and drinking buddies discovered his gifts, Dayton's Robert Pollard became one of the most unlikely cult figures of the Nineties and a hero to countless indie-rockers. He led a revolving cast of players under the moniker Guided By Voices, pumping out music at an unparalleled pace, sometimes to his detriment. (GBV released nine albums and 11 EPs in the Nineties alone.) Pollard's best songs — many of them elliptical, oblique and highly catchy — resulted from his obsessive attention to songwriting, and his lo-fi production aesthetic set a new standard for the possibilities of home recording.
Pollard was still teaching fourth grade when he started spending his summers on musical experiments with drummer Kevin Fennell and guitarist Mitch Mitchell, mainly as a hobby. After playing a few early shows in front of mostly confused Dayton locals, Guided by Voices stopped performing live for six years and instead concentrated on making records. Small-time recording engineers had no idea what to make of the band, and early releases like 1987's Devil Between My Toes sank without a trace. By 1992's Propeller (on the band's own Rockathon label), the group had essentially broken up. Determined to go out on his own terms, Pollard revised the track order for the last-gasp Propeller many times over, discarding studio takes for four-track and boom-box recordings that he felt better represented his vision.
Against all odds, copies of Propeller managed to find their way to significant tastemakers, and Guided by Voices signed to the Cleveland-based Scat Records. In 1994, aided by a strong lineup with guitarist and second songwriter Tobin Sprout, Pollard delivered Bee Thousand, still considered the definitive Guided by Voices record. Critics, musicians and fans quickly heaped praised on the group, some going as far to call Pollard an undiscovered genius. The band reached an even larger audience after it signed to Matador, which released 1995's 28-track Alien Lanes. The accompanying "Auditorium/Motor Away" video hit MTV, and GBV's legend continued to grow.
Co-produced by Steve Albini and Kim Deal (Breeders, Pixies), Under the Bushes Under the Stars (1996) began as GBV's first attempt to make a big-budget record. But Pollard characteristically junked or re-recorded much of the material. Hectic touring wore down Sprout and the other older family men making up the original band, who all departed amicably during this period. By this point, Pollard branched out into solo projects, including releases under the name Nightwalker and Lexo & the Leapers.
Another Matador release, Mag Earwhig! (1997) was split three ways between recordings with the old lineup, all-solo efforts and jarringly slick studio sides cut with Cleveland's Cobra Verde. The fit with the rest of this much more polished combo didn't last, but Cobra Verde guitarist Doug Gillard came on board and would remain as Pollard's principle foil for the rest of Guided by Voices' career.
With 1999's Do the Collapse, produced by Ric Ocasek and released by large indie TVT, Guided by Voices completed their transition to a more accessible rock sound, with conventional guitar solos and more polished production values. But despite repeated attempts (including a ballad called "Hold on Hope" that Pollard later disowned), the band couldn't seem to crack into the mainstream. Two years after its release, Pollard conceded in an interview with Rockpile that Ocasek's stature intimidated him slightly, and that there were things he wished he'd done differently.
The band followed Collapse with another commercially-minded effort, Isolation Drills, which improved on its predecessor as the ever-irrepressible Pollard adapted quickly to writing strong songs in a radio-single style. And although the song "Glad Girls" found a home on some stations, it still failed to provide the mainstream breakthrough most fans thought the band had earned. In a later interview, Pollard described the band's TVT albums as "too samey."
In addition to his work for proper record labels, Pollard was notoriously prolific. To accommodate his seemingly endless string of new songs, he created a personal imprint called Fading Captain. Just before Isolation Drills, Pollard delivered a massive compilation called Suitcase, which featured 100 unreleased songs. Two additional Suitcase volumes would follow in 2005 and 2009, leading fans to wonder just how many unreleased songs Pollard could possibly still have left in his archives.
After their ill fortune with TVT, the band returned to former home Matador Records for 2002's Universal Truths and Cycles, hailed by many as a return to form. Though the songs retained a measure of the polish of Isoloation Drills, they also returned to the mix a bit of the classic GBV's charming amateurism.
The band continued in this vein for 2003's Earthquake Glue and 2004's farewell Half Smiles of the Decomposed, with Pollard and Gillard supported by a variety of bassists and drummers. Lacking the happy accidents and rapid-fire sequencing of the inspired 1990s work, these comeback efforts did not sell as well as the 1995-97 Matador albums.
The band did manage to go out with a bang, capping off their final tours with an "Austin City Limits" taping and a rapturously received four-hour goodbye show at Chicago's Metro on Dec. 31, 2004. Talking to the magazine Unpeeled, Pollard said, "[I felt I'd] come to a pinnacle in the way I wanted to make a record with Guided by Voices. I really didn't know what direction to take it in after that."
Having already established a prolific solo career of amateur and experimental recordings, Pollard issued From a Compound Eye, his first post-GBV solo album, in 2006. Releases continued to race out at a torrential pace, including two on a single day in 2007. But by this point only a few diehards remained to try and sort through the mess.
Meanwhile, Bee Thousand and the classic Matador releases continue to sell steadily, winning more new converts with each passing year. The influence of Guided by Voices at their peak is felt through the thousands of home recording enthusiasts and amateur musicians who cling to the hopes that they too will one day be snatched out of obscurity through the sheer force of the greatness of their songs.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Christian Hoard and Mark T.R. Donohue contributed to this article.