Guided By Voices
Photo: Michael Lavine / Matador Records

“Bee” Here Now: Guided By Voices and 1994’s ‘Bee Thousand’

Guided By Voices emerged from their Dayton, Ohio basement and launched into indie rock on their own terms with the endlessly weird and inspiring Bee Thousand.

Bee Thousand
Guided By Voices
21 June 1994

In 2011, my friends and I drove from Ohio to Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival. I had just gotten out of high school and, at this point, was a Pitchfork true believer. I read every article and listened to everything the music site gave an even slightly positive review to, so it made sense to pack up and head to the fest that shared its name. It was a hot and sweaty affair, a throng of Ray-Ban-wearing hipsters. I was mainly there to experience the danceable psychedelia of the headlining act Animal Collective. While zealously holding my spot in the front row, I was privy to quite a few bands, only two of which I remember now. There was the rather unbelievable instrumental gymnastics of Battles. Then there was Guided By Voices from Dayton, Ohio, who were often referred to as seminal to the history of indie rock.  

Pitchfork ranked Bee Thousand as one of the best of its decade, so I was sure to do my duty and illegally downloaded it (what you did before streaming). Surrealist, nonsense lyrics, lo-fi production, post-punk leanings, these are phrases that came into my brain that, back then, I was particularly interested in simplifying and labeling everything. When I first listened to their song “Hardcore UFOs”, I imagined a group that looked something like Pavement, who, in my mind, had the proper approach to rock attitude: sarcastic, skinny college guys wearing ironic, slacker fashion, who maybe moshed a little on stage here and there but always with an art school eye roll. 

When Guided By Voices took the stage hours into my vigilant clutching of my first-row spot, I assumed there had been some mistake. Surely, this was somebody’s dad’s bar band. There was nothing slacker, college, or even “indie” about what I saw erupting before me. First off, they were visibly older than I ever expected. Singer Robert Pollard was white-haired and scrawny, and even stranger, was whipping his microphone around like a lasso in a reverent and unironic homage to “Rock and Roll Dinosaur” Roger Daltrey of the Who. There were no Ray-Bans in sight. The guitarist wore regular dad-style sunglasses and slime-green pants and drank heavily from a bottle of Jack Daniels while miraculously keeping a cigarette cemented to his bottom lip at all times. The bass player was dressed like a pirate. He held aloft his instrument as if it were ejaculating holy water. 

Pollard whipped around with an unapologetically soulful delivery of absurd lyrics while my mind raced to figure out what layer of irony these old farts, who Pitchfork had proclaimed to be godfathers of indie rock, were operating on. Performance art? Did the real black-rimmed glasses-wearing wallflower members send their dads to play their songs? It couldn’t be. That voice that shouted “Gold Star For Robot Boy” like it was a campaign slogan was undeniably the voice from my illegally downloaded MP3 file.

Furthermore, that voice was not the only one I was hearing; beside me was a true believer, a fan (Guided By Voices fans, I would soon learn, were only one notch away from the zealousness of Grateful Dead followers). He was a slightly older guy who shouted every single word, raising his beer in celebration, irreverently shouting between songs. I had not seen such a display of outright hero worship and “rocking out” for any other act that day. At first, my reaction was a sort of snotty annoyance, but slowly, deep down, I started to feel a sort of longing, like I was missing something. Over a decade later, I am convinced I was missing something because I now believe that on that day, I saw one of the all-time great examples of what we call a rock band. 

Bee Thousand (1994) was not Guided By Voices’ break-out debut; it wasn’t their surprise sophomore sensation either. Bee Thousand, which to this day is regarded as one of the defining albums of independent rock, was the band’s seventh proper record. The band began in earnest 15 years before in Dayton, Ohio. They were working-class Midwesterners who, at first, pulled together what little money they could to go to “a real studio” and make “a real professional” album, hoping to create something that might fit in alongside up-and-coming acts of the day like R.E.M. or the Replacements. The old cliché goes something like this: for every band that “makes it big”, there are a million who don’t make it out of their garage, and indeed, Guided By Voices’ first professionally recorded EP went nowhere. In response, they never really gave up on being a band, so much as maybe started adjusting their expectations as many bands do when they don’t immediately become the Beatles

In hindsight, the year I saw Guided By Voices at Pitchfork was the beginning of a turning point for my music and art endeavors. Valley Girls, the band I was in (and am still in), recorded in “a real studio” later that year and shelled out some money to make it all look official. We sent it around to record labels and gave it a fair shake, but we didn’t exactly wind up on Pitchfork’s front page. In the years that followed, our enthusiasm for creating never truly wavered, but teenage dreams about being some world-renowned rock band seemed more and more like the fantasy that they were. What we found in the aftermath of running around and trying to play shows to get our record out there was life-affirming. As so many do, we discovered our local scene and further an entire midwestern network of artists, all creating together and encouraging one another in DIY venues and communities. Expectations for the future were slowly set to a more “realistic” but fulfilling level. 

Unlike my band friends and me, Guided By Voices had families to support, the stakes were higher in some ways, and the band did not appear to find much fulfillment locally, being relatively unknown even in Dayton for their first ten or so years as a band. I can’t help but infer from what I’ve read that my fellow Ohio rockers had a healthy amount of skepticism about “making it” from the get-go while never quite losing sight of their aim, which was at the stratosphere of rock. Dayton, Ohio, is not New York or Los Angeles. It had always been a long shot. They weren’t art school kids or the sons of oil barons. They took out loans and shouldered debt to create their first releases.

Their power pop tracks did not take the radio by storm, despite Robert Pollard’s apparent ear for catchy melodies, and as if in response, the band increasingly let things slacken, breathe, and get weird. They became a self-described “songwriting collective” of sorts, with Pollard being the only consistent member, recording with whoever would show up to play and record, more often than not in Roberts’s basement. Imagine finding out that you decided not to play on a track that would eventually be considered an indie rock anthem because you felt like watching TV or going to the bar that night instead. We all make our own choices. 

In the years after their first EP, Guided By Voices became a little less of a business venture and more of an arty hobby for a few drinking buddies whenever they had time away from their families or day jobs (the status of the majority of bands that have ever, and will ever form). Their energetically spontaneous approach spawned song after song (Pollard is notorious for sometimes writing multiple in a week) with little care for some dramatic album release model, which now seems like a sort of precursor to artists who record in their bedrooms and share spontaneously on internet platforms like Soundcloud and Bandcamp.

While this method is freeing and expressive, as many DIY artists know, sustaining the energy can sometimes be challenging without audience feedback. By the early 1990s, Pollard was in his late 30s and was feeling the natural pressures to make the band even less a priority and shift his attention to his work as a school teacher to support his family. Bee Thousand and the releases that lead up to it are strange and free as if each song might be their last before becoming “real adults”. You can hear the thought process. If this was it, there was no reason not to make it as weird and wild as they wanted. No one was listening anyway. Right? 

Ironically (it’s like some silly movie), 1992’s Propeller, which Robert had proclaimed would be their final album, fell into the hands of contemporary music tastemakers like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Matt Sweeny of Chavez, and word got around. In rather rapid succession, the band, who weren’t even popular in their local bar scene, were hailed as geniuses by far-off artists and intellectuals. In rather quick succession, Guided By Voices suddenly found themselves driving out of Ohio to play to enthusiastic rooms in New York (of course, nothing in reality happens “suddenly”. See the excellent book Closer You Are by Matthew Cutter for much more). Despite all the excitement, reports on the morale amongst the band during this time are conflicting and fittingly so. Despite the growing evidence that the dream he had been on the verge of abandoning was coming true, one can imagine that Pollard didn’t want to get cocky. It seemed clear that this was the moment, his first and possibly last chance at being heard. To his credit, what he delivered sounded like the furthest thing from a pandering, sell-out record seeking mass appeal. 

Bee Thousand, which would become Guided By Voices’ defining album, is a riveting listen because it overwhelms its listener with a storm of elements that border on contradiction. Just about every song, regardless of how incidental (some are only about a minute long), flows from an undeniably catchy hook, making the album, at least at first glance, feel like a catalog of demos, all of which could be expanded and made more palatable hits on 1990s rock radio. The caveat is, of course, the presentation. Every song seems to have been approached as a new experiment in eccentric home recording depending on what was going on at the Pollard residence that day (see the wild and pretty darn drunk process in the documentary Watch Me Jump Start directed by Banks Tarver). Tracks like “Smothered in Hugs” boom forth with roaring grunge distortion one moment and then shrink away to sound like the vocals are being shouted from another room. Electric and acoustic guitars are played with soulful vigor, whether creatively set in inventive tunings or carelessly out of tune altogether. 

Then there are Pollard’s notorious lyrics. “Oh, to speak on one’s feet, to beat on one’s brain, the popular mechanics are at it again” are lyrics that, on paper, look like gibberish, and maybe they are. Still, when sung by Pollard, they ring forth with soulful conviction, hinting at a poetry of feeling rather than definitive meaning. His surreal word games throughout the album call to mind psychedelia but also “brainier” things like the 1960s New York school of poets like John Ashberry and James Tate. These lofty comparisons seem like a far cry from the dive bars in Dayton until the album itself reminds you that there is psychedelic wonder to be found in literally every place you look. Like the music, the heady lyrics miraculously never feel pretentious or put on. Rather than empty stoned scribbles, they come off like legitimate nursery rhymes that seem aimed at teaching us the cultural finer points of some kind of crass, alternate dimension (Ohio?). 

The punk rock revolution asked important questions that artists still must reckon with to this day. Guided By Voices’ alternative rock contemporaries, like Nirvana and Pavement, seemed to struggle with their obvious adoration for the rock gods of old while also feeling a prickling anxiety and embarrassment regarding the seeming burden of the previous generations’ musical legacy. To this day, it has become a safer strategy for acts to roll their eyes and sneer at the guitar music they play, even if they and their audience obviously embrace it.  

In hindsight, Bee Thousand gives a fascinatingly paradoxical but perfect answer to the problem. Within a two-minute song, one can parse out a lean toward experimentation despite pushing a rock forward furry that is all at once Pete Townshend of the Who and the sloppy punk rock of the Sex Pistols, who rallied for such bands to be publicly executed. It all feels contradictory until you remember that the Who’s biggest song opens with an experimental electronic intro, and the Sex Pistols couldn’t help but lovingly do a cover of “Substitute” by the Who at one point. In other words, there have never really been any rules, and Guided By Voices know this instinctually.

Bee Thousand is all at once shooting for the stars and grounded in the energy of the common and the everyday. The sometimes amateurish playing techniques (rock is supposed to be a little dumb) and the almost performatively off-putting recording experiments on the record can easily fascinate noise musicians and outsider obscurest alike. In less skillful hands, a track listing that pairs together the almost John Denver-styled campfire dirge, “The Gold Heart Mountaintop Queen Directory”, alongside the post-punk scoldings of “Hot Freaks” would feel like a band without an identity. Still, instead, every ebb and flow comes at the listener like a dramatic beat in a greater narrative.

The rock here constantly drips with a sort of X factor that leans toward a Magical Mystery Tour psychedelia, an energy that gives Bee Thousand the feeling of being a trip. The result is a record that is often listened to as one giant song by fans. All this rock eclecticism on display seems to already be in sync with the sort of encyclopedic genre-hopping that has become commonplace for bands and listeners alike due to the advent of things like streaming services that make available every song ever written with the push of a button. 

A listener would be missing the point if they saw the story of Bee Thousand as being just another American lie about how “if you keep working hard, your dreams will come true”. Despite their genius, Guided By Voices’ success is a one-in-a-million story. In the aftermath of sticking to their guns and making a weird album like Bee Thousand, they were able to quit their day jobs. However, plenty of deserving, brilliant artists will never see greater notoriety or monetary success.

The legacy the story of Guided By Voices leaves behind will always be about remembering that some monetary success, and a vague idea of fame (in their case cult fame), is not what matters. Their example is one of a group of regular, everyday artists sharing their work in its most honest form, regardless of whether a crowded basement in Ohio was listening or the entire world was listening. Guided By Voices put in the work and felt the buzz from excited new converts, but as the weird and wooly Bee Thousand clearly stated, they would be remembered or forgotten for being exactly who they were. 

For listeners then and now, Bee Thousand stands as a reminder that despite the ever-splintering factions of popular music, the artist should be open and seeking new possibilities rather than shunning them away. Before home recording became as easy as having a cell phone in your pocket, these small-town drinking buddies approached the idea seemingly without fear, as if to motion for us all to come along, click the record button, grab a guitar, and make our own sounds. Despite all the anxiety that comes with our increasingly internet-dependent age, Guided By Voices’ example seems to look toward the silver lining of a more accessible age for those who wish to create and share their most personal noises with each other. It’s hard not to hear Pollard in the background of it all, singing the finale of the Bee Thousand track “Echo’s Myron”, triumphantly proclaiming: “We’re finally here. And shit, yeah, it’s cool! Or something like that!”