Why Guided By Voices Rocks

I bet if you think back to your high school days you can remember the soundtrack. And I bet that when you hear songs from that era, they often call up old memories. We bond emotionally with the music we hear through puberty and adolescence. As we learn our social roles with a little more sophistication, our tastes form and our identities crystallize to an extent. That soundtrack is likely to remain a familiar comfort through our lives.

Besides the constant rotation of Zeppelin and Sabbath throughout my youth, two bands played incessantly during my high school years. These bands are Pavement and Guided By Voices. Indie rock, lo-fi, and DIY recordings dominated my spare time. When I wasn’t being social, I was in my room listening to one of those two bands. I know every nuance of some of those mid-90s records.

Naturally, I began playing in bands. I felt the need to make music. The standard basement/garage accommodations prevailed, and a lot of my time went into jam sessions, practicing, tinkering, experimenting, and eventually playing shows around Windsor. This just seemed like the right thing to do with my time. Better than homework, anyway. I just wanted to be a part of the fun.

Lots of people get to know rock and roll this way. Like physical maturation, identity as a musician forms during those experimental years. In high school, if you want to play rock and roll, you have to do things yourself. You have to find spare time, people to play with, a jam space, etc. So maybe the amps aren’t crystal clear, there’s bleed from track to track, the vocals are buried and the drummer keeps fucking up. That’s all good because this is the sound of people playing for the sheer love of playing music. If they’re doing it right they aren’t worried about being lucrative or looking cool in those moments; they’re just trying to make something awesome happen.

Guided By Voices typified this ethos back in the day. They had a sturdy reputation as a prolific indie band but they treated music like a hobby and a passion, not like a business. Robert Pollard, the main creative force of the band, seemed unstoppable. He absorbed the British Invasion, classic rock, punk, and the spirit of DIY and subjected it all to a unique, Dayton-Ohio-brand drunken alchemy, rolling out one two-minute gem after another like an assembly line.

Their foray into the commercial industry eventuated in a collapse of the band (this detour arguably started with their album Do The Collapse). But after a headshake and a 2010 reunion tour, the band reclaimed their native sound. Even if they haven’t quite recaptured the magic of the glory days (Under The Bushes, Under The Stars, 1996), Pollard’s output has been downright phenomenal. His most recent solo LP Honey Locust Honky Tonk is a gorgeous, country-infused rock album that proves his total mastery and love of the craft. And he’s not showing signs of slowing down.

As recording and production techniques improve with technology, commercial producers seem to think that in order to deliver the fullest experience of music, each instrument should be recorded maximally for frequency and volume, and they accomplish this by isolating the instruments, generally enriching and rounding out the low frequencies and brightening the highs. This can produce amazing quality productions and songs with such aesthetic impact that you can’t help bob your head. And it all looks good on paper.

But not all music should be recorded this way. To isolate any instrument is to create a sonic vacuum around it, removing it from its environment and stripping it of its natural resonance. Lots of the magic in making music depends on the blending of tones. A musician’s inspiration comes from somewhere mysterious inside, granted, but it also comes from his or her environment, the other people playing, the way the amplifiers reverberate in that weird corner of the room and the resonance the bass picks up through the flue of the fireplace. Even the lighting in the recording space will have an effect on the performer and inevitably, on the recording.

Shut your eyes and listen to The Grand Hour, a 10-minute EP from 1992, and tell me if you aren’t transported back in time, to a magical, albeit dingy basement where some drunken buddies are doing their best to blast out some great rock and roll. Hear GBV’s narcoleptic friend snore through Ex-Supermodel, and try to imagine the spontaneous joy that must have been felt during the recording process. They bring you right into their process and let you share in their enthusiasm.

I enjoy everything from Aerial M to Zappa, but there will always be a special place in my heart for home recordings. My favorite psychedelic gurus Bardo Pond record their albums in their home studio the Lemur House. The sound of the room has evolved along with the band, and by now it’s part of the identity of their sound. The day may still come when I pester Michael Gibbons into letting me record there.

Bloemfontein, the post-rock band I played guitar with during university, jammed in a Windsor basement for years. It wasn’t a particularly good room for sound. It was pretty bad, actually, but we were comfortable there and our performances were enhanced by that familiarity. That basement has seen a lot of creativity over the years. When I think that the house is up for sale, and that I will likely never play there again, a little ironic grin breaks out over my face. I’d still love to do one last recording down there in all its sloppy, wood-panel-reverb, amp buzzing glory.

For anyone whose love of music grew up from the basements of high school friends, GBV captures the spirit of rock and roll for rock and roll’s sake. They are a bunch of guys having fun playing music together. If you ask me, the heart of rock and roll is in Dayton.

Anticipations

Can’t write a post tonight. I’m busy rubbing my hands together over these goodies.

Sleeper by Ty Segall – August 20

SleeperDrag City’s most exciting newcomer just released one of his best albums, and that’s no small feat considering his output. Sleeper is mostly acoustic and mighty touching. Segall draws inspiration from a recent loss and transmutes it into something beautiful and even joyful. Big notes of John Lennon on the palate, whiffs of Neil Young in the nose, and just dripping with Segall’s signature sound that’s just…what’s the word…San Fran-tastic.

 

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon – September 17

Bleeding EdgeThis countdown has been running on in my mind for a while now. Every Pynchon novel excites me, and this brand new Manhattan-set, dot-com-disillusionment tale has received a lot of positive buzz in advance of its release, which I have been trying, nearly successfully, to ignore. Considering how fun and funny his last novel Inherent Vice was, expect Bleeding Edge to deliver one of the hippest, most hilarious narratives of the year, with all the juicy esoteric details you need to feed your paranoia.

 

The Growlers play Toronto – October 1

Surf-rock outfit The Growlers are playing at Lee’s Palace. I’ve been spinning Hung At Heart a good deal lately and I expect this show to be non-stop entertainment. Their show should look something like this, minus Bill Murray.

 

Peace On Venus by Bardo Pond – October 28

Peace On VenusThe essential psychedelic rock experience Bardo Pond release their newest creations in October. These Philadelphian sherpas always reach for the most rarified gnostic noise to push yer head where it needs to be. The recordings out of the Lemur House continue to knit the band closer together while taking the sound farther out. I can’t wait to add this to my already-perversely-large Bardo Pond LP collection. They’ve even given us a little taste of what’s to come.

Signposts

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to find new music to listen to. Same goes for movies and books. There are websites that offer options like, “If you liked A, you’ll probably like B,” or “People who purchased C also purchased D,” and that can be helpful, but usually the recommendations are very safe, almost tentative, and the results are mediocre. A lot of the time the recommended artist or piece of media doesn’t live up to the connection.

I’m much more likely to trust a recommendation from an artist. The artists that I like (most artists, really) usually draw inspirations from other artists. So when an artist mentions a name or references a specific album or book, I try to pay attention. When there is a drought in good new music, for example, it’s easy to comb through artists I already like to find references, usually to older artists. People who create something that fits your tastes will usually have good taste themselves.

Led Zeppelin’s third album, arguably their best, ends with a song called “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”. For some reason it took me years to actually look up Roy Harper. It’s not a very popular name outside of its own niche. Roy Harper is a genius of his own variety and influenced his friend Jimmy Page. Harper’s innovative recording techniques, lyrics and intriguing decisions on albums like Lifemask or Stormcock are mind-blowing. Once I tracked it down, I took my hat off to Jimmy Page for “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”.

But even Zeppelin fans I know claim they’ve never heard of Roy Harper. I find this strange, and it makes me wonder why it took me so long to look him up. If artists are doing something innovative and new and they go out of their way to point out an influence or inspiration, it only makes sense to pay attention. But often the references go unnoticed.

The flip-side to this is that artists often name-drop because they feel it will increase their cache. Generally, I find that if the referenced artist is a household name, you don’t need to go on the hunt. This form of name-dropping acts similarly to the “If you liked A, you’ll probably like B,” recommendations. When the band Franz Ferdinand calls their song “Ulysses”, I don’t expect their fans will run out and read Homer or James Joyce, but the reference is there as fodder for critics and nerds. That’s fine too, but it’s not as exciting as discovering some obscure gem brought to light in a conscientious way.

When the reference is little-known, my natural inclination is to investigate. When Six Organs of Admittance named an album For Octavio Paz, it got me wondering about Octavio Paz. What was it in the poetry of Paz that inspired the songs of Six Organs? It’s worth finding out.

This all happens on a conscious level. But often references aren’t as obvious as these examples. A lot of artists like to drop references more subtly, and by that I mean wordlessly. These types of references won’t put you on the lookout, but they can be much more rewarding when they are stumbled upon, like hearing John Coltrane in “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds. A lot of the time I’ll catch a connection long after the reference and it will give me a rush of enthusiasm.

Imagery in David Lynch’s films, for instance, calls up the dark mystery of the paintings of Francis Bacon. When I see certain Bacon paintings I am totally thrilled, and I can trace the aesthetic connection back to something I’m familiar with (Lynch’s films). Now I have the entire oeuvre of Francis Bacon to look into, and that’s exciting.

For years now I’ve been a sucker for spiritual literature and philosophy. There’s something about witnessing a mind groping for truth that’s exciting to me, and to an extent I think we’re all on some sort of path toward understanding our existence. So when an artist chooses to leave signposts in this direction, I am drawn in. There are spiritual guides in my life. They are usually artists, and they’ve been ushering me along a path to self-knowledge.

The albums of Bardo Pond are my favorite example. Philadelphia’s ultimate psychedelic rock group know what they are doing. Take this recent vinyl reissue of Ticket Crystals.

Bardo Pond - "Ticket Crystals"

I see this picture and it makes an impression on me. So when I stumble upon the picture in Aleister Crowley’s Book Of Lies, a little masterpiece of Kabbalistic and philosophical puzzles, I know I’m on the right path.

The Book of Lies

Their albums are full of these symbols, and whether through coincidence or conscious decision, I’ve discovered a wealth of books, movies and music to get me further down the path, or at least let me know that I’m looking in the right direction. Even if I’m not drawn in by the referenced work, at least I’m looking at something new.

It’s as though certain artists exist to act as a psychopomp. The psychopomp’s role in mythology is to guide dead souls into the afterlife. In this real world version, artists use the symbols they have at their disposal to guide people out of the mundane world into new levels of understanding. It might sound high-flown, but I’ve been on the path for a while now and it hasn’t let me down.

Disregarded in the darkness, the fact of enlightenment remained. The roaring of the engines diminished, the squeaking rhetoric lapsed into an inarticulate murmur, and as the intruding noises died away, out came the frogs again, out came the uninterruptable insects, out came the mynah birds.
     “Karuna. Karuna.” And a semitone lower, “Attention.”
– Aldous Huxley, Island

The Sound of Confusion

The different types of music I’ve listened to throughout my life seem very clearly to be a reflection of how I saw myself at the time. I’ve played a lot of different types of music in my life and these too seem like outward expressions of my inward states. This seems like straightforward logic, and it should have been fairly obvious, but it’s impossible to say with certainty whether I was drawn to those types of music because of my state of mind, or if I found the music and it then affected my state of mind.

In high school I didn’t meditate. I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath instead. I had an interest in drums and my parents were masochistic enough to get me a kit. I made a ton of noise in the basement of Mike Beauchamp until we decided the world needed a new band, so we formed The Moon Patrol, after the Atari game. In those days, mentally, I was going a hundred ways like most high school kids and the music showed it. It was loud, influenced by rock, blues, punk, funk, dub, metal, and we had fun and burned off a lot of steam.

By University I began to think meditation might be for me. I read somewhere that David Lynch used Transcendental Meditation, and since I wanted to make films like his, I looked into it. I never went through with the TM course, but reading books about meditation (The Science of Being and the Art of Living, by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Raj Yoga by Swami Vivikenanda) did start me towards understanding and having the language to speak about states of mind. It was obvious to me that toning down the level of noise inside my mind would be a good thing. A few frustrating attempts at meditation didn’t lead anywhere because I think I was more excited to read about meditation than actually do it. But finally a few techniques got me over the hump and I began toning down that chaos.

Coming out of The Moon Patrol I started playing guitar. Banging around on drums was great, but there was something missing. Naturally I sucked at guitar pretty well, but I knew I needed a bit of melody. Friends in another band were having differences of opinion on – what else? – the “direction” of the band. I settled in jamming with these guys. The music didn’t have any definite direction at all. It just built and flowed and didn’t change much, and we all loved it.

Bloemfontein (with friends Brian, Matt, and Mike) was more like cinema score than anything you’d hear on the radio. (A little while after we started playing regularly, a similar band Explosions In the Sky got quite big scoring the movie Friday Night Lights.) There were almost no scripted changes in the music. We’d just start playing. Sometimes the music would build or shift or get quiet and it would just flow along until it broke apart or petered out. It was so simple we were almost embarrassed at how much we liked the way it sounded. We actually listened to this stuff. We played a ton of shows around Windsor and people actually came out and got into it too.

None of the music was abrasive. Some was cheery, some was sad, but it was almost all mellow. The music would just settle in and become almost background to your own thoughts. That’s how I remember it, anyway. And at the time I was getting very used to analyzing or simply observing the flow of thought during meditation.

But then I hit a wall in meditation. I could quiet my mind, but only to a point, and that point shifted around seemingly at random. I now think of this barrier as the intersection of three factors: 1) my will to master my mind and quiet things down in there; 2) my mental inertia (a pattern of scattered thoughts, loosely controlled for twenty years and change); and 3) my fluctuating frustration with meditation based on my successes and failures, how I slept, what I ate, and a host of different typical anxieties.

So despite some early successes quieting my mind, I could no longer reach that point where the mind lets go. When the rational mind lets go you can sometimes feel a surge of bliss and a feeling of unity with everything. I’m pretty sure that this feeling is something we can all feel. I think it’s what they mean when they say “religious ecstasy”. That feeling is what I was after.

Right around 2001 Bardo Pond put out their album Dilate and I saw their live show. Now, this music is distorted, druggy, and full of noise, so it might have turned me off. But it definitely turned me on. I realized that you can get back to that bliss feeling, that feeling of dilation, by soaking your mind in noise. That was a total revelation for me and I became a devotee immediately. And I mean devotee – the music had a the feeling of gnosis to me. I’ve had two out-of-body experiences at their concerts. Actually.

So of course Bloemfontein’s music became a playground for noise. I had a Line 6 Delay Modeler that, to this day, is one of my best purchases. I’d layer guitars with different levels of delay and distortion until it was just a droning wall that would slowly build up under the melody. So before you realized what was happening you’d be just buried in sound. I couldn’t get enough. I stayed up for hours just playing, looping, layering things by myself in a dark basement until it was time to go to school the next day.

I also read all sorts of far-out stuff at this time, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to David Icke. I loved alternate histories, disinformation, postmodernism, and anything that blended truth and fiction. And the stuff I read led me to other art forms, artists, ways of thinking. Once again, I cannot trace the causality of my own mental influence perfectly. I can only point out signposts. I know that Pavement came before Guided By Voices came before The For Carnation, but can’t define the why of it all.

It’s been a long time since Bloemfontein played together, and I’ve since developed new techniques for meditation. But lately I’ve been feeling like I need something more. In meditation I’m adding about five minutes of mental exercise to my regular routine. The urge to make this addition just came recently, but with it was the urge to play more music. I’ve been banging around on an acoustic guitar for years and I’ve worked out a lot of new material that’s a far cry from anything I’ve done before. At the end of the day I don’t care if one causes the other. Because whether it’s music or meditation, I just want something that gives me that feeling of ecstatic union.

I’ve recorded a scant few tunes since I’ve lived in Toronto. This one, called “Homecoming”, is only a demo so the quality isn’t great. But it’s probably as close as I’ve come to blending quiet and noise in one track. I recorded it under the name Dwale, an archaic term for a delirium-causing potion. Beware…it’s very, very mellow.

The Language of Enlightenment

The first steps on the road to enlightenment are fairly simple. Here’s what you do: 1) Sit still; 2) Stop thinking. If you can cover those two, you’re way ahead of the game. But most people don’t master either of those in their lifetimes. Those two little instructions can take years even to understand.

Talking and writing about meditation is tricky. Sitting down to meditate for the first time is a little like trying to paint a timeless masterpiece without practice; it’s pretty much impossible to have a game plan, or even know what you’re doing. One of the best arguments for reading books on meditation is that they provide us with a vocabulary. The vocabulary helps give intelligible form to nebulous concepts.

I notice while I’m reading religious or so-called spiritual books my meditations tend to be better, even though my meditations aren’t religious and I don’t consider myself a religious person. I just find that the concepts in such literature have an almost gravitational effect on the other thoughts in my mind. It’s similar to learning about a new car, or a new word, and then noticing it all over the place as though it just appeared into the world. When ideas about meditation or philosophy or spirituality are fresh in my mind, it focuses both my conscious and unconscious tendencies towards a positive use of attention. In other words, those books help me keep it real.

Over the years the lexicon I use to describe my meditations (in my journal entries, two per day) has developed into an idiosyncratic jargon with a few symbols and neologisms thrown in for fun. I doubt anyone who read it would understand it. That’s perfect, because the journal is only for me, and just like meditation, develops with me, and is something that nobody outside can comprehend. The fact is, if I wanted to explain what happens inside me while I’m meditating, I would have to adopt some kind of familiar language to use, and that’s where so-called spiritual literature comes in handy.

(Obviously I don’t like the term spiritual. Like the word God, it is spoken about often but rarely defined. I only use the term spiritual because of its relation to the Greek word pneuma, which I define as the action of Mind. Mind, of course, includes thinking, but also all conscious and subconscious content. See the problem with words?)

There are a lot of different definitions of meditation. The Buddhists have their stages of jnana, Catholics have contemplation, there are shamanic trances and Transcendental Meditation, and The Secret of the Golden Flower, then there’s Samadhi, dharana, zazen, prayer, petition, and on and on. Swami Vivekananda doesn’t define “meditation” the same way as Dr. Michael de Molinos. But it’s fair to assume that any meditation practice that survives hundreds of years or more must have some legitimate value to the people who use it.

When taking advice on interior matters, I prefer someone to speak in concise, concrete terms. Skip the flowery language about opening like a lotus above the surface of the water (flowery, get it?). The style of advice that motivates me most is practical. “Try A. What happened? Okay, now do X, Y, and Z.” I think clear language is a symptom of clear thinking, and clear thinking is something I want. Though to be fair, I think it’s good to balance things out with the occasional lotus vacation.

I don’t like hearing advice from someone less qualified than me. You are fit to speak authoritatively about those things in which you have breadth and depth of experience. You are not fit to speak authoritatively about those things in which you have little or no experience. A child looking up from the sandbox adorably, saying “We all go to heaven when we die,” is no excuse for believing.

You can have faith, but faith is belief without proof. Also, you can have faith in something without really believing in it. However belief is like pretended knowledge. You can believe something and still be wrong about it. It happens all the time. The real goods is the knowledge.

Real knowledge comes from experience. I’m going forward with a try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. If it works, it’s fair game. It doesn’t matter if your guru is charismatic, or brilliant, or ancient, or Hindu, it matters that the message resonates with you and the advice makes a practical positive change in your psychological welfare.

Now I would like to sign off with a sample of Bardo Pond lyrics for your collective consideration.

“I have to say
It’s opening up
Inside
Outside
It smiles at you
All the way to the door
And the hole in it’s middle
Runs out
We push our way

There’s a place
For those who came
All this way
With the clouds in your eyes”

Inside, from the album “Dilate”