NadaMucho.com Interview: Guided by Voices
Q&A with Mitch Mitchell
By Jensen Rufe
The mid-1990s saw a glorious renaissance of “do it yourself” rock and roll. Artists like Sebadoh, Liz Phair and Guided by Voices (GbV) seized control of their own destinies, bypassing monster-sized record labels and high-end recording studios. Instead, each of these artists, and more like them, recorded lo-fidelity masterpieces on their own (often using standard cassette 4-track recorders).
No band carried the lo-fi torch like GbV. By the time they released 1996’s Under The Bushes, Under the Stars, band leader Robert Pollard (along with his buddies Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos, Kevin Fennell, Tobin Sprout and others) had already written and recorded 1,000 songs. The freedom of recording, mostly at home and on their own terms (albeit sometimes sloppily), unleashed a flurry of triumphant “hits” beloved by the D.I.Y. generation.
Starting with 1997’s Mag Earwhig, Pollard parted ways with his lo-fi local buddies and began recording and touring with long-time professional musicians, spending more time in fancier studios seeking higher fidelity. Some fans didn’t approve of the departure, longing instead for “the good old days.” Such a reunion seemed unlikely when Pollard officially disbanded GbV on New Years Eve of 2004.
This all changed when Matador Records came calling in 2010, inviting the “classic” GbV line-up to perform at the label’s twenty-first birthday party in Las Vegas. With greyer sideburns, the original crew of Pollard, Mitchell, Demos, Fennell and Sprout agreed to honor their old label (and their lo-fi legacy), teaming up for what eventually became a successful year-long international reunion tour.
Then came the icing on the cake: the “classic” line-up announced it would be releasing a new album recorded their way, literally homemade, in the garages and beer-stained basements of Dayton, Ohio.
I had the pleasure of a phone conversation with Guided by Voices’ iconic guitarist Mitch Mitchell about the new album Let’s Go Eat The Factory, which was released in January 2012. Not surprisingly, for a guy who’s been away from the eye of the hurricane since 1996, Mitch is ecstatic about a new era of GbV.
Mitch Mitchell: Initially, there was no plan to do even a reunion tour, definitely no plans to record. But dates started getting added. After awhile, I think Bob (Pollard) started to think recording would be a nice reward since the reunion shows were so well received. Even from the first time we got together to rehearse for the Matador thing at my house, the chemistry was there again, right from the start.
NadaMucho.com: Let’s Go Eat the Factory picks up where Under the Bushes left off: it’s predictably unpredictable (perhaps GbV’s most distinguishing trait) and has a drastic variety of different soundscapes.
MM: A lot of that has to do with where we recorded. Some in my garage, which I converted into a band space/recording studio, some in Greg’s basement, and a lot of it in Toby’s (Sprout) garage way up on the upper peninsula of Michigan. Each room has its own unique surfaces, and it creates different feels from song to song.
NM: The album begins appropriately with a lo-fi fist-pumper called “Laundry and Lasers,” an instant candidate for “Top 10 GbV Anthems of All Time.”
MM: “Laundry” is a good way to start the album. It kicks you in the ass. That one refers to Kevin’s garage. There’s a washer and dryer area next to where we used to practice that Bob called “laundry and lasers,” so that’s a little inside joke.
NM: Well, when you write songs about the utilities in your practice space, you are definitely playing “garage rock.” Tell me about the album’s many twists and turns – it’s a pretty good metaphor for the band as well.
MM: With Guided by Voices, you never really know what’s around the corner, even sometimes within the same song. And this album certainly has a lot of ups and downs, hills and valleys.
NM: My favorite tracks are “Chocolate Boy,” the epic “We Won’t Apologize for the Human Race,” “The Unsinkable Fats Domino” (a rocker about Domino’s survival of Hurricane Katrina) and “God Loves Us.”
MM: “God Loves Us” is a jam we worked on in my garage and then Bob mailed tapes of the instrumentals up to Michigan and Toby came up with the vocal part, which he overdubbed in his garage. “Chocolate Boy” is about a Dayton candy factory employee who perished after falling into a hot vat of chocolate. And “Human Race” is the big grand finale. It’s ethnic, almost spiritual – a great way to close out the record.
As a fan of GbV, it’s encouraging to hear how excited Mitch is about the album and GbV’s plan to tour Europe in support of it, including a co-headline concert with Slayer at this spring’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. He drops the bomb that a second GbV album (supposedly a more straightforward “rock and pop-oriented” record) is already in the can and slated for a May 2112 release.
MM: Let’s Go Eat The Factory is a perfect group of songs to play live. I can’t wait to get out there and see what people think of this record and the next one, which is called Class Clown Spots A U.F.O. And never in a million years would I have imagined sharing a bill with Slayer. I love Slayer.
And never in a million years, especially in the early days in the basements of Dayton, could Mitch have imagined the surreal moment on July 20, 2011, when indie-rock met political culture. During a televised briefing, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney (a proclaimed GbV fan) Freudian-slipped “Mitch Mitchell” when intending to say “Sen. Mitch McConnell.”
As Mitch and I wind down the interview, I can’t resist asking about his years outside of GbV (between 1996 and Pollard’s “breakup” of the band in 2004).
MM: After 1996, we all kind of went our separate ways. I’ve been trucking since then. Toby’s moved to upper Michigan to do his art. He also wrote a children’s book. Kevin went back and got his degree and works as a counselor. Through all that time, I’ve always been a GbV fan. I think those albums they did without me are awesome and I listen to them all the time – as much as I do the old ones. I would have been proud to play on them.
MM: I’m not sure. That’s up to Bob. It would be a real short tour and we wouldn’t venture too far from Dayton. Where it all goes beyond the European dates is hard to say.
Addendum: In a shocking turn of events, two days after we interviewed Mitch, Pitchfork and All Tomorrow’s Parties reported that GbV had once again disbanded and cancelled all of their 2012 dates. GbV’s management company promptly denied the break-up, and Mitch had made himself available for comment.
MM: I don’t think Bob’s feeling comfortable about a European tour, but I don’t know if it’s permanent or temporary. I don’t know if we’ll play shows again or maybe we’ll just record. There might be other records, you just never know. If it is over, it’s hard to complain. We had a good run.
Read Jensen’s review of Let’s Go Eat the Factory.