Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Guided By Voices
Why it’s daunting: Dozens of people can say they were members of indie-rock institution Guided By Voices during its 21-year run, but the Dayton, Ohio-based band was chiefly a creative outlet for a music-obsessed former schoolteacher named Robert Pollard. And Pollard was very creative, capable of writing an album’s worth of songs in a single day, and recording and releasing them almost as quickly. After GBV achieved a measure of fame in the late ’90s, and its record label ordered Pollard to stop putting out so many records under the GBV name, he started releasing solo records and side projects at an insanely rapid clip—albums virtually indistinguishable from those published by his regular band. In essence, he was distributing his own bootlegs, ignoring whatever inner editor he might have had and allowing fans to hear everything he was doing, regardless of quality. The result is a discography cluttered with albums, EPs, and 7-inches that are wildly uneven at best, and flat-out atrocious at worst.
Possible gateway: Bee Thousand
Why: Since the early ’80s, Pollard recorded Guided By Voices albums with whomever he was hanging out with at the time, but it wasn’t until 1992’s Propeller that anyone outside his circle of friends cared. Much like the albums Pollard made later in the decade, Propeller has a relatively polished sound and fairly conventional, ’70s rock-inspired songs. It’s a really good record, and an important signpost in GBV history, but it isn’t a defining work the way 1994’s Bee Thousand is. While Propeller includes several songs recorded on a 4-track, Bee Thousand is exclusively lo-fi, and mixes up weird little song snippets like “Kicker Of Elves” and “Demons Are Real” with even weirder (but incredibly catchy and melodic) fully formed songs like “Tractor Rape Chain,” whose chorus (“Parallel lines on a slow decline, tractor rape chain”) typifies Pollard’s nonsensical, cut-and-paste lyrical approach. It’s also a more visionary record: Bee Thousand plays like a survey of rock ’n’ roll movements from 1965 to 1985—touching on British Invasion pop, Who-like stadium rock, and countless nameless psych and prog bands—but it never really sounds like anything else that’s come before. It’s big, epic music dragged down to an intimate, handmade level, and it’s so fresh and untouched that the creator’s passionately laid fingerprints are visible all over it.
Next steps: While Bee Thousand and its just-as-good follow-up Alien Lanes show how powerful mid-’90s, lo-fi indie rock could be, some had to wonder what Pollard would be capable of if he ever got the chance to make a real record. After a false start with star producer Ric Ocasek on 1999’s Do The Collapse—hampered in part by Ocasek’s refusal to let the hard-partying band drink in the studio—GBV created its arena-oriented, Who’s Next-style masterpiece with 2001’s Isolation Drills. Drills’ full-bodied sound turned off some hardcore fans, but Pollard matched the big-time production with consistently great songs that grappled directly (and uncharacteristicly) with his failed marriage in light of GBV’s increasingly busy tour schedule. Isolation Drills feels like the culmination of a dream that was hatched in an obscure, lonely basement years earlier.
Where not to start: Unfortunately, the sheer quantity of GBV-related releases means there are far more places not to start than there are good entry points. But basically, any record Pollard put out under his own name or any label other than Guided By Voices is for hardcore fans only. Pollard has released some excellent solo records—particularly 1998’s Waved Out and 1999’s Speak Kindly Of Your Volunteer Fire Department, with GBV guitarist Doug Gillard—but most of them are too idiosyncratic to be appreciated by the average listener.