The Anniversary

Isolation Drills Turns 20

TVT Records
2001
TVT Records
2001

The story of Guided By Voices feels like folklore. In the early 1990s, when lucrative albums were recorded in big-budget studios, Bob Pollard, a 36-year-old fourth-grade teacher, created Bee Thousand in his Dayton, Ohio, basement, spending only a few dollars on cassettes. The album became a sensation, sealing GBV’s place in the annals of music history. The kings of lo-fi had arrived.

To many coastal elites, the idea of groundbreaking art being born in a Dayton basement seemed unbelievable. But even in Dayton, the story felt improbable. Pollard was from Northridge, a small city north of downtown, where strip malls sprawl and teenagers tailgate at the Dixie Drive-In. By the time Bee Thousand broke through, Guided By Voices had been a band for nearly a decade, with six prior LPs to their name. After 1992’s Propeller, the band began to gain momentum, signing to Scat Records, then catching the ear of Chavez frontman Matt Sweeney, who subsequently attracted his label, Matador Records, to GBV’s nebulous garage-pop sound. During their live shows, Pollard commanded the stage, swinging his mic like Roger Daltrey, performing high kicks, and spitting cheap beer. He seemed destined for higher planes. Still, this was a band born in a Northridge basement, whose albums were shrouded in sometimes impenetrable layers of static.

With the success of Bee Thousand, Guided By Voices signed to Matador. According to Matthew Cutter, author of Closer You Are: The Story Of Robert Pollard And Guided By Voices, the label advanced the band $157,000, enough to create a colossal sound. But GBV weren’t ready for a cold, calculated big-studio experience — they felt safe inside the basement. The band spent $4 on some four-track cassettes and about $20 on beer, then handed Matador Alien Lanes, a lo-fi masterpiece that stoked a major-label bidding war.

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In the liner notes to Alien Lanes, a small entry reads, “God bless The Pine Club.” Established in 1947, the Pine Club, a windowless south Dayton steakhouse bleeding with old-world traditions, has remained ostensibly untouched for nearly 75 years. Dressed-up patrons dine in red leather booths, Royal Doulton steins line the ornate bar, stewed tomatoes are served alongside filet mignon, and credit cards are not accepted. This last piece became problematic when TVT Records A&R rep Adam Shore was courting Pollard at the Pine Club. The GBV crew offended a guest with a crass joke, TVT tried to pay with a credit card, then all parties were banned from the steakhouse for life. In the liner notes to Do The Collapse, GBV’s major-label debut, a small entry reads, “God damn The Pine Club.”

In the end, after zig-zagging across the nation to dine with numerous major labels — and releasing three more albums throughout 1996 and 1997, two for Matador and one through Pollard’s own Rockathon Records — GBV finally did settle on TVT, a now-defunct New York City imprint with a roster including Pitbull, XTC, Nine Inch Nails, and Naughty By Nature. And with the major-label signing came all the major-label froufrou. The Cars’ Ric Ocasek was hired to produce Do The Collapse, the Breeders’ Jim Macpherson joined the band on drums, and GBV aimed for the big time. It didn’t work. As of 2021, according to Orchard Music Distribution, Do The Collapse has sold 65,232 units, a figure which includes nebulous streaming calculations.

Ocasek was a misguided choice; not only did the Cars frontman intimidate GBV, he also forbade drinking in the studio. How do you capture the authentic sound of Guided By Voices, a group synonymous with drunkenness, by forcing the band to teetotal? Ocasek was like a Temperance Crusader trying to push sobriety upon their spouse — the tactic rarely works, and even when it does, the result feels disingenuous.

With Isolation Drills — GBV’s second TVT title, released 20 years ago this weekend — the band abandoned Ocasek and hired Rob Schnapf, a producer known for his work with X, Beck, and Elliott Smith. Schnapf loathed Ocasek’s work on Do The Collapse; having followed GBV since Alien Lanes, he knew the band just wanted to rock. This meant Schnapf allowed the band to drink, but more importantly, it meant he tried to capture Pollard’s true spirit, a frontman who grew up during the Golden Age of Rock & Roll.

Over 16 songs, Pollard takes listeners on a 47-minute journey through some of his finest work: “Fair Touching,” “Chasing Heather Crazy,” “Twilight Campfighter,” “Sister I Need Wine,” “Unspirited,” “Glad Girls,” “The Brides Have Hit The Glass,” “How’s My Drinking?” Pollard has an uncanny ability to write songs that are simultaneously sad, yet victorious — a sort of triumphant melancholia enveloped in garage-pop hooks, augmented by beautiful stream-of-conscious lyrics and sung with a British accent that masks his southwest Ohio twang. But on Isolation Drills, Pollard also exhibits unusual despair. During the recording of the album, he was divorcing his first wife — his high school sweetheart, the mother of his children. “To hell with my church bells/ And leave me die/ With you/ I won’t change,” he sings near the end of “How’s My Drinking?”

Schnapf, who co-produced Elliott Smith’s Either/Or, XO, Figure 8, and From A Basement On The Hill, was friends with the late songwriter. During the making of Isolation Drills, Smith was touring on Figure 8, and when he played New York City (where GBV was recording), Schnapf invited him to contribute to Isolation Drills. The Soldier String Quartet is also featured. But Pollard’s vocals are what make the album; he has rarely sounded better, matching a warm, melancholic timbre with some of his most outstanding lyrics. You might have missed this passage from “Glad Girls” while excitedly pumping your fist: “With the sinking of the sun/ I’ve come to greet you/ Clean your hands and go to sleep/ Confess the dreams/ Of good and bad men all around/ Some are lost/ And some have found/ The light that passes through me.”

Of all the iconic records Schnapf has produced, Isolation Drills is one of his favorites. For all its gloom, it’s also the sound of a band in top form, having one hell of a time. (Schnapf notes that by the end of the sessions he could drink three six-packs in one sitting.) But while the big-studio sound worked well for favorites like “Glad Girls” and “Chasing Heather Crazy,” GBV’s lo-fi approach perhaps works better for ancillary songs. Wherein Bee Thousand‘s “A Big Fan Of The Pigpen” or Alien Lanes‘ “The Ugly Vision” seamlessly stitch these records together, Isolation Drills‘ second-tier songs — tracks like “Want One?” or “Pivotal Film” — seem to interrupt the album’s flow. Every time Isolation Drills gains momentum, a minor song pulls the record off course. To the diehard GBV fan, this matters little, but it can cause the new listener to lose interest — and considering the band’s continued failure to break through to a wider audience, it almost certainly did.

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Recorded at Loho Studios in the Lower East Side, and mixed at Greene Street in Soho — one mile from the World Trade Center — Isolation Drills was released in April of 2001, five months before 9/11. The album’s cover, featuring airplanes branded with GBV iconography, was intended to pay homage to Blue Oyster Cult’s Secret Treaties. Less than half a year later, it also eerily evoked the World Trade Center attacks.

Along with Do The Collapse, Isolation Drills is one of the few GBV album covers Pollard didn’t design himself. Like so much about the record, the cover pulled GBV away from their DIY ethos and endeavored to make the band a household name. It never happened. As of 2021, Isolation Drills has sold even fewer copies than Do The Collapse.

After Isolation Drills, GBV left TVT Records and the major-label world. Pollard returned to Matador, then released three of GBV’s best records: Universal Truths And Cycles, Earthquake Glue, and Half Smiles Of The Decomposed. By 2004, Pollard grew tired of GBV, and on New Year’s Eve of that year, buried the band under a 63-song setlist at Chicago’s Metro. In 2012, Pollard revived GBV and continues to record at an incredible pace; in 2020, during a global pandemic, the 63-year-old songwriter released three GBV LPs in one year.

While Isolation Drills never broke the band into the mainstream, Bob Pollard is, after all, an artist that made his name recording polarizing songs — there’s a line some listeners simply won’t cross. In 2001, Guided By Voices tried to drag new ears to the other side, and while it didn’t work, the band created a beautiful record in the process.

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