By Michael Lello
Guided By Voices is certainly not wasting any time. On May 13, GBV released “Cool Planet,” its whopping sixth album since 2012, when it first started releasing albums again after an eight-year hiatus, and its second record just this year following February’s “Motivational Jumpsuit.”
Why so prolific?
“I think we put the albums out when we have the songs, and we’re both writing quite a bit,” GBV guitarist and vocalist Tobin Sprout said in a recent chat with Highway 81 Revisited, referring to GBV frontman Robert Pollard. “With these last two, we just had this back catalog of songs. I keep talking about doing a double album, but he always wants to break it down to a single (album). . . . I think we almost could’ve with these last two albums, done a double album.”
The beloved and influential indie rock band which started in Dayton, Ohio, in the early 1980s rose to prominence during what many consider the golden era of college radio/underground/indie rock alongside groups like Dinosaur Jr. and went on to inspire a wave of bands like Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel and of Montreal with its sometimes jangly, sometimes crunching alt rock.
In support of “Cool Planet,” GBV kicks off a spring and summer tour Thursday, May 22 at the Trocadero in Philadelphia with Surfer Blood and Titus Andronicus, and Friday, May 23 at the Bowery Ballroom, with former GBV member Doug Gillard and Atomic Forces opening.
“Cool Planet’s” title is a reference to the conditions in which the band recorded it – last winter’s chilling polar vortex. Ensconced in the warmth of Cyberteknics studio in Dayton, the band would venture into the 15-below-zero temperatures to listen to the mixes in their cars, a typical process for GBV, with Sprout explaining that the studio systems are usually too good to give them a true picture of how the album will sound to listeners.
In typical GBV fashion, “Cool Planet” includes a lot of songs (18), and they’re mostly short; seven are even less than two minutes. In addition to Pollard’s songs, Sprout contributed several tunes, including the Mott The Hoople/Beatles-flavored “All American Boy” and “Psychotic Crush,” which takes a page from classic David Bowie.
The contrast between Pollard and Sprout’s material has been a cornerstone of GBV albums recorded by the “classic lineup” of Pollard, Sprout, Mitch Mitchell (guitar), Greg Demos (bass) and Kevin Fennell (drums), which disbanded in the mid-1990s and reconvened in 2010. ( Former GBV drummer Kevin March has since replaced Fennell.)
“I think from my perspective, Bob’s got a harder edge to his songs,” said Sprout, who works on his songs at his home studio in Leland, Mich., but travels to Ohio to record with the others as well. “I seem to stick to more of the pop edge. I wouldn’t say it’s mellower, but the poppier side. But lately I’ve been writing with Mitch, like ‘Down By The Racetrack’ (from last year’s EP of the same name), and there’s a song on the new album called ‘Bone Church.’ I kind of realized I don’t have to stay into the pop genre, I can kind of get into a little harder edges. When Mitch plays guitar, he really pounds it, so it sort of brings that out.”
Asked if he and Pollard influence each other as songwriters, Sprout said, “I definitely think so.”
“When I hear some new material he puts out of or the demos, it forces me to want to write as good a song,” Sprout shared. “I think it plays back and forth. You just want to keep going and see how you can top your last song, how you can write the perfect pop song or something.”
A hallmark of GBV, besides a foray into slicker production in the late-1990s, has been a raw, lo-fi approach to recording. That classic GBV sound permeates the new records, creating a seamless connection to its earlier days.
“I like tape, and I have a 2-track, and a lot of time I record to 2-track and mix down to Logic (a recording software),” Sprout said. “I think we like the sound we’re getting out of Cyberteknics, one, because it is analog and then two, it’s not like we’re stuck on analog.”
Having new albums every few months lately has also meant an infusion of new material in to the band’s concert setlists.
“Bob usually puts it together, and he throws in the ones he thinks he wants me to do, and if I’d rather do these other two, there’s no problem, I can switch them out,” Sprout said of the setlist-making process. “I think one of the neatest things that I noticed the last tour is the newer material is starting to blend with the older material. Like I start looking at a song like ‘The Head’ from ‘The Factory’ (2012 album ‘Let’s Eat The Factory’), and it’s sort of like ‘Pimple Zoo’ (from 1995’s ‘Alien Lanes’), it just sort of blends into the catalog now.”
While GBV as a whole is prolific, so are Sprout and Pollard away from the band. They both release solo albums – Sprout has another on the way – and Sprout has also worked as an illustrator and has published children’s books. But despite those artistic outlets he has outside of the band, he’s feeling fortunate that he’s back and that there seems to be no end in sight — if the recent flurry of activity is any indication.
“I don’t see any reason to stop,” Sprout said. “When I first came up here and left the band, I thought I would just retire and sort of hang out. But it gets boring after a while. I’m glad this is working out.”