Asymmetrical and Incomplete: Phil Estes and James Brubaker on Guided By Voices’ Please Be Honest and Dayton, Ohio
Phil Estes: Guided by Voices is a strange band to me because of their mythos: I grew up in Dayton—at the same time they emerged—and I was in high school during that whole Rolling Stone thing declaring my hometown "the next Seattle" ('96 I'm thinking?). Where I remember the Breeders sort of—"Cannonball" always seemed to play ahead of Beavis and Butthead—GBV existed in a more mythical space. Part of my consciousness but not really my actual life. They seemed like a fragment of something, like, say, Dallas the TV show to kids my age in Dallas or whatever. GBV always sort of represented the ideal for middle-to-upper-middle-class suburban kids, white boys like myself: true "artists," dug in, liked by the right people, but still able to go back to Dayton. No one who wants to live in Dayton can stay there unless they're into STEM. GBV could, though. Through sheer force of will. Ohio is one of those places that has that type of pull on its natives; LeBron jumps to mind.
So I didn't really sit with GBV much until the early 2000s, my first time consciously pursuing stuff beyond clear channel stations and MTV. I found WOXY too late. They came out of that consciousness into reality through the Strokes—both that video with the Family Feud thing then again in 2004.
I went to a show that year, in May, at the Egyptian theater in Indianapolis. The Strokes with The Walkmen opening (the more "real" reason I was there, this was Bows and Arrows). It was awesome, my favorite show. But what surprised me was that Julian Casablancas, clearly burned out and bored, sang about eight GBV songs in a row. Hailing them every time, vaguely confessing about terrible things he did between each one. It was the Bush Years, you could do that. Those eight songs maybe totaled fifteen minutes of performance time.
But they were good.
"Motor Away" was the big one. I started finding songs piecemeal through Limewire and Torrents. I don't want to go too far off, but hear me out: listening to this new one, Please Be Honest, made me remember a Pitchfork review about a Daniel Johnston album back in 2009. The argument was that Johnston's recordings—homemade, rough, sort of noisy—belie the fact that he really is a pop artist. He wanted to not be Capt. Beefheart but John or Paul.
GBV's stuff, at least the early stuff, Bee Thousand, has a similar feel, right—lo-fi, underproduced staticy—but Bob Pollard is a little weird. This album doesn't have that lo-fi sound, it is much more polished, but it still carries the same things the right-people seem to find appealing. They're not pop songs or even straightforward garage rock, but layered, heavily fragmented pieces of indie rock songs. The best fragments of larger, boring songs. They're prose poems. There were guys in Dayton in the early 2000s who were probably jealous—"its quality, not quantity Bob!" was the mantra—but those guys didn't get it. This isn't quantity, this is our psyche. I don't know, maybe I don't get it.
In ’95 or ‘96 I was driving with my mom to Hauer Music, downtown. I probably needed reeds for my saxophone. A street was closed or traffic was backed up or maybe there was just a mild commotion because Guided by Voices were filming a video. It must have been for “Official Ironman’s Rally Song,” maybe? That was the first I’d ever heard of them. I remember thinking they must be some kind of r’n’b act, or gospel—like, they were guided by their magnificent voices. Fuck.
Also in ’95 or ‘96, Dayton Daily News ran a feature on GBV’s rise to prominence and maybe their first (or second? Or third?) “breakup.” The article included pictures and descriptions of Alien Lanes and Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. I asked for both for Christmas and got them. That was the first time I heard Guided by Voices and knew about it. My first impression: like The Beatles, but trashed. I became a fan. I bought everything I could. I drove down to Trader Vic’s to buy seven inches. Drove to the Gem City Records on Brown to buy Box on CD. These were my first trips driving into Dayton after I got my driver’s license. I was discovering Dayton to buy GBV’s music. One night a few of us drove down to Page Manor for a midnight movie—Army of Darkness, or The Untouchables, or The Wall—and we were listening to Same Place the Fly Got Smashed. I don’t know why I remember that.
Long story short: I was a fan of Guided by Voices for the next decade. Nothing more, nothing less. It wasn’t until 2008 when I moved to Oklahoma that my relationship with Guided by Voices changed. This was the first time I’d lived outside of Ohio. For the first few-maybe-six-or-nine months after the move, I listened to more Guided by Voices than I’d listened the rest of my life put together. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but that’s what it felt like. GBV made me simultaneously miss home and feel closer to it. I’d always felt Dayton in their songs, but once I was out of Ohio I felt Dayton in their songs. I don’t know if I ever explained this, but when my parents told me they wanted to give me a celebratory gift when I finished my Ph.D., all I could think to ask for was a vinyl copy of Box. They got it for me. It made sense.
I don’t quite know why GBV feels like Dayton. I mean, I do, but I’m not sure I can explain it in any tangible way. But I feel it more in this new one than I maybe did in the last round of GBV revival albums that maybe should have felt more like Dayton because they were recorded with the classic lineup, etc… etc…
The truth is, I didn’t think I’d be into Please Be Honest. Something about Robert Pollard recording the whole thing himself made his use of the GBV moniker feel disingenuous, like he realized that GBV sells more albums than Robert Pollard, so why not use the name? But I was wrong. Please Be Honest is a Guided by Voices album through and through. Maybe it’s because it was recorded in Dayton, a mile or two away from a house I lived in for a year. Or maybe it’s something else.
Up above, Phil, you said, “this is our psyche,” and I think maybe you meant that the fragmented pieces of songs somehow mirror the human psyche, but I want to read it differently. I want to read that phrase as meaning that our psyche is Dayton—because Dayton has a way of sticking—and Guided By Voices is Dayton (or Dayton is Guided By Voices) and so Guided By Voices and Dayton and our psyches are all tangled up and bunched together. But maybe I don’t know. Maybe I don’t get it.
Estes: I get the Dayton as psyche; GBV definitely is. I annoy my friends not from Dayton by talking about Dayton. Dayton, like GBV songs, consists of fragments of bigger things: it isn't a whole, complete city per se, but a bunch of weird suburbs that connect into each other. It is made up of the fragments of much larger cities.
Please Be Honest is thoroughly GBV, from my experience of it, and thoroughly a little old. The title is soaked with earnestness, while covering up a more complex construction of songs (though I think "Grasshopper Eaters" sucks, it feels overproduced compared to the rest of it, sort of 1997-overpro). I mean, it is solid, but do we need it?
I don't mean to be totally negative, but it is interesting to think about; do we need Dayton as Daytonians? I think Pollard knows we sort of do—like I said, the people who want to live in Dayton never get to live in Dayton—and he sort of knows where we're from in that sense. A city not particularly distinct, one that is overshadowed by Cleveland (they get Pere Ubu), Cincinnati (do we want anything from them?), and Columbus (they get everything). I guess that's the fragment thing I'm trying to articulate: Pollard's work feels like a memory of something much larger never achieved—the songs so short, sort of pure in their energy, then they're done—and that's what makes GBV interesting. That's what makes them much more interesting than innumerable bands that followed them in Dayton and elsewhere. And that's why Please Be Honest, even though it sounds like an "old" album, an artifact, is still more interesting than new albums from lost '90s bands. Can anybody listen to the Smashing Pumpkins anymore? Does anybody want to? I don't. I don't care if Iha came back for a show. It’s a decade impossible to return to given so much of what has happened since. Pollard knows the fragment, though, and he somehow reached back (70s Ohio Art Rock) and forward (the fragment).
Brubaker: Yes—this album is certainly more interesting than most of what’s coming out from other '90s artists who are either “coming back” or are still just hanging around. And I never know if the reason I find GBV so interesting is because of Dayton, or because of Pollard’s consistent brilliance. Probably both. I mean, here’s a guy who tosses off nuggets of perfect pop like so many cigarette butts on the sidewalk outside of any Oregon District bar. Yeah, I agree, “Grasshopper Eaters” kind of sucks, and, though still very lo-fi, it almost feels a bit too knowingly lo-fi—but it dissolves out of the stuttering, slo-mo powerpop of “Come on Mr. Christian,” then explodes into the simple sloppy punk of “Glittering Parliaments.” It’s classic GBV patchwork—the unfinished fragments fitting together into something more satisfying, something gritty and real.
If we begin pulling songs out of the patchwork I don’t even know what the fuck some of them are. What is “Sad Baby Eyes”? It’s thirty-four seconds of Pollard doing bad cabaret at a supper club for goths—but it’s also exquisite connective material, it’s like when I lived on Fifth Street and would walk down to the Oregon Emporium and there were these four or five blocks that were as bombed out and boarded up as you can imagine, and there was always a scrawny guy wearing the same Grateful Dead t-shirt smoking a joint on his front porch (every day!)—“Sad Baby Eyes” is that guy between the places we’re trying to go—he’s not our destination, but my Dayton isn’t Dayton without him.
And some of the transitions are very jarring here. In the time since Pollard made a truly patchwork GBV album—Alien Lanes might be the last one—his sonic palette has grown a ton. The synthesized strings and sampled horns that frame “Hotel X (Big Soap)” would have never fit on an earlier GBV album. They aren’t particularly innovative or exciting here, but despite being a bit jarring, they’re still a fascinating part of the whole, somehow squeezed in around a two part suite of vintage Pollard—there’s the first movement of strummed acoustic guitar over which Pollard free associates (“I think of polygraph lines…I think of everything now/I think of nothing at all”), then the second, which is an instrumental mess of acoustic guitar with a few nasty, weird electric guitar tones thrown in for good measure.
I think one of the reasons Please Be Honest feels so much like classic GBV is that very few of these songs ever really take off and stand on their own. And I’m not saying that as a knock. Vampire on Titus and Alien Lanes are two of my favorite GBV albums, and, though Alien Lanes had a few standouts (“Motor Away,” “My Valuable Hunting Knife” and “Game of Pricks,” maybe a couple more), it was mostly about fragments, pieces. Please Be Honest? It doesn’t have those standouts. Maybe “Kid on a Ladder”? Maybe “Glittering Parliament”? Maybe album closer “Eye Shop Heaven”? In the late nineties and into the 00’s, Pollard’s approach started to focus more on songs. He gave us stunners—“Best of Jill Hives,” “Glad Girls,” “Teenage FBI,” “Chasing Heather Crazy,” and plenty of others—and the GBV classic lineup comeback was great, but almost seemed stuck between what they were doing in the '90s, and what Pollard did without them after they left. But now, GBV can just be. Now, GBV is on equal, or maybe even lesser footing than Pollard’s other projects, and so maybe those big songs are going to other projects and GBV gets the castoffs, the leftovers, the failed songs.
And maybe that’s another way that GBV sound like Dayton. Dayton is a blue collar city, an aspirational city, a city where people slip through the cracks. Dayton always seems to be on the verge of “coming back” but it always fails, at least a little bit, a little bit, a little bit more until the failed Dayton becomes the Dayton we love.
Estes: And I think that's why it’s good, that it survives the decade Pollard comes from. That's why GBV was good then and why, say, Smashing Pumpkins aren't good anymore. Pollard doesn't really seem to give a shit about legacy, and he never got that big, and he's kind of sloppy and not technical (sounding, at least). He only lingers in his hometown, not everywhere, like Corgan. It really is, ultimately, harder to appreciate craft/technical ability in the end. Because how you appreciate it destroys the bigger thing. I think that sort of sloppiness helps to appreciate Pollard. And I don't mean "sloppy" in a negative sense—he is accomplished—but he's working, or trying to work toward a whole, but he knows: who cares? The fragment is the thing. None of these sound like clear-channel radio plays, not even the title track. Maybe WOXY; I think this is good and why I say the "future," even though the future has been with us since 1999. Pollard is only grabbing back to what works and he knows his "sound," in some ways, is still "new." I could maybe hear these tracks in HBO shows or TV commercials.
"Sad Baby Eyes" sounds like something I'd hear by a guy at Elbo's. That sentence is probably only understood by Dayton natives. But it also makes sense, how you said it so nicely—you kind of need it there and it just sort of appears.
I've been thinking about this a little more. The fragments seem distinctive of both Dayton itself, but the region we came from—look at other artists from the area or who at least brushed it. Vonnegut novels have little things—"so it goes"—(he compared Dayton to a rebuilt Dresden after the bombing, but at least Dresden was Dresden before) but his novels are basically a bunch of fragments that coalesce. Brainiac—a deeper-cut Dayton band than even GBV—does the fragment a little bit. The funk band Dayton. Episodes of WKRP in Cincinnati feel more like clumsy dreams of their genre than the genre itself. Maybe it is an Ohio thing? I mean, the 1975 World Series, won by the Reds, is remembered for a moment they didn't even do to win the thing—Carlton Fisk's stumbling, his sheer willing of that fucking ball. It is all about loss, really, or a refusal of completeness, which could be winning. How many fellow buckeyes started rooting for the Colts in the oughts, creating a narrative of themselves that excludes Ohio, only when it benefits them? Fucking Kasich, that bed-hair sleepy piece of shit, does it all the time. He's a fucking Steelers fan! The Midwest, broadly, does it. Read Lorine Niedecker. Like the region we're from, Dayton is simultaneously complete and incomplete. Complete in the sense we know the city and the place and it won't change a whole lot beyond a Whole Foods in Centerville. Incomplete not in the sense of "what could've been" but just what's there. It is a messy, ugly, weird, place that feels interesting—what is "real" right?—when you hang out with it long enough. Probably what Pollard is like as a person and an audience. Once you accept the incompleteness, the asymmetry, you're totally down.
Brubaker: And we are totally down right? Down with Pollard, with GBV, with Please Be Honest? With Dayton? With Ohio? Not with Kasich or Fucking Steelers Fans. But with the beauty, the poetry in the incompleteness, the fragment. It wasn’t an accident that I asked you to have this conversation with me. I wanted someone else with Dayton in their bones to write this, and I also wanted a poet because everything GBV is known for, sloppy brevity, raw earnest emotion, big rock star dreams wrapped in tiny, threadbare packages—it’s poetry.
One thing about Pollard that seems to have been forgotten over the years is that he wanted to be a rock star. Sure, early GBV owed its biggest debt, sonically, to early R.E.M., but Pollard has always had big rock star ambitions, wanted to be Roger Daltrey or Mick Jagger. Nobody will ever confuse Pollard with one of those rock gods, but on Please Be Honest, as with all of the GBV albums that came before, what resonates most is the tension between those big dreams and the band’s miniature songs, is the raw energy coiled up inside the incompleteness, the asymmetry. It’s all here on Please Be Honest. And that counts for something. This isn’t the best GBV album by any stretch, and it likely won’t be remembered as its own thing. But that’s okay, because it’s still an excellent Guided by Voices album, and I can easily imagine coming back to this album every time I go on another GBV bender. When I do, I’ll think about the past, and I’ll think about the ways we fail, and I’ll think about the ways we succeed despite our failures, and I’ll think about the beauty in fragments, in incompleteness, in the unpolished, the messy. But most of all, I’ll think about Dayton. I’ll think about home.
Phil Estes is the author of High Life (Horse Less Press), as well as the chapbooks Slowjams (Living Arts), Gem City/Fountain City, and Children of Reagan (both Rabbit Catastrophe Press). His poems have appeared in The Collapsar, Diagram, Sprung Formal, West Wind Review, and others. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and lives in Shreveport, Louisiana.
James Brubaker is the Associate Editor of The Collapsar. He is the author Liner Notes (Subito Press) and Pilot Season (Sunnyoutside Press). His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Zoetrope: All Story, The Normal School, Heavy Feather Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Collagist, and Beloit Fiction Journal among others. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio and currently teaches creative writing at Southeast Missouri State University.