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The Connected Citizens: How Guided By Voices Recorded 'Earth Man Blues' Remotely During A Pandemic

Guided By Voices

Photo: Tony Nelson

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The Connected Citizens: How Guided By Voices Recorded 'Earth Man Blues' Remotely During A Pandemic

The long-running rock band Guided by Voices recorded their astonishing new album, 'Earth Man Blues,' while quarantined hundreds of miles apart. Here's how they pulled it off—along with an exclusive premiere of the full album via GRAMMY.com

GRAMMYs/Apr 28, 2021 - 09:51 pm

Back in the mid-'90s, Robert Pollard and a loose affiliation of drinking buddies made their most celebrated albums in basements and garages. A quarter-century later, separated by hundreds of miles, there were no walls at all.

Last year, drummer Kevin March and engineer Travis Harrison snaked cables and lugged drum gear into a Montclair, New Jersey, parking lot. They were recording Earth Man Blues, the new album by the long-running rock band Guided by Voices. March has been in the band on and off for years; Harrison has been their unofficial sixth member for almost a decade.

Video courtesy of Renée LoBue​.

Imagining a uniquely splashy sound from the surrounding concrete, March and Harrison had been pondering recording outside since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. That idle notion became the only safe option. As viral spread goes, heavy breathing in an enclosed space would be tantamount to working out in a gym. Under a blue sky, with the rest of the band in different U.S. states, March laid into a 4/4 beat for the song "Child's Play" outside the Magic Door Recording studio.

How will "pandemic albums" hold up after our masks come off for good? It's too soon to say. But if you're prejudging Earth Man Blues as a tatty and Zoomed-in affair, this music might drop your jaw. Rather than being a thin approximation of what GBV could do in normal times, Earth Man Blues, which arrives Friday, April 30, could be their most adventurous, cohesive album yet. Below, it exclusively premieres via GRAMMY.com.

Pollard, March, guitarists Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr. and bassist Mark Shue never physically met up while making the album; in fact, they haven't recorded in the studio as a complete unit for years. So, how do tracks like "The Disconnected Citizen," "The Batman Sees the Ball" and "Free Agents" feel so complete, hanging together like a Who-style rock opera? The answer lies in their senses of communication, organization, malleability and perseverance. To that end, the veterans can teach young musicians discouraged by lockdown a thing or two.

"Use the technology at your disposal and try to make it as much of a collective effort as possible," Pollard tells GRAMMY.com, speaking to youngsters. "Concentrate on making records and don't be so discouraged that you can't get together or play live. Write songs and create art. Nothing beats artistic satisfaction. Be patient and stay creative." Without being physically together, here's how Guided by Voices pulled off Earth Man Blues.

Robert Pollard. Photo courtesy of Guided by Voices.

Demoing Informatively 

Guided by Voices operate by a self-contained business strategy uniquely suited to a pandemic. That said, Pollard's remote-recording strategy isn't exclusive to the pandemic; by now, it's old enough to drink on its own.

Between 2001 and 2011, Pollard has recorded remotely numerous times for collaborative projects with Tommy Keene (as The Keene Brothers), his old songwriting foil Tobin Sprout (as Airport 5) and others. But whether recorded remotely in person, a Guided by Voices album always begins life via a humble, quotidian tool. 

"It all starts from the boombox," Harrison tells GRAMMY.com. "Bob's use of this tool is legendary. It has a great, crunchy, compressed, mid-rangy sound. Bob works quickly. When he chooses a time to write, he uses the boombox to capture the songs. Sometimes he sings songs straight through, and sometimes he records the songs in parts, assembling and arranging them later."

"The demos are already sequenced into how I think the final album should be," Pollard adds. "Sometimes, that changes after I hear the instrumentals or add the vocals. Other times, it remains in exactly the same sequence as the original demos." 

After Pollard completes an album's worth of demos, he sends them to Gillard, Bare, Shue and March. "I love getting the demos. It's like Christmas," Shue marvels to GRAMMY.com. "I really enjoy diving in and unpacking a particular batch of songs. Through that listening process, you begin to hear what a particular song might call for, and where things could go."

Despite consisting of staticky acoustic guitar and a mumbled vocal, "There is a lot of information embedded in these demos," Harrison says, "Melodies, lyrics, chords with specific voicings, rhythmic patterns and grooves, instrumental lines and structural choices are all there. The whole album is mapped out. The album's shape is very clear even at this early stage."

This is due in part to Pollard's written annotations. "Bob gives us song-by-song written production notes for each album," Gillard says. "For some songs they're sparse, indicating just a general feel, and some are specific, such as 'synth here,' 'no drums in this section,' etc."

"I'm the acoustic-guitar-and-boombox guy," Pollard says. "I leave recording, for the most part, to the guys with the prowess."

Mark Shue. Photo courtesy of Guided by Voices.

Staying Connected

If COVID-19 hit 20 years ago, Guided by Voices might only have a landline and dial-up internet. But one silver lining of the pandemic happening now is that there are nearly endless digital tools for organization and quick communication.

Guided by Voices use Dropbox and a dedicated Slack channel. "We've found Slack to be a really helpful tool for us to stay organized with ideas and progress on various projects," Shue says. "In addition to keeping notebooks at home with charts and notes, I have a big whiteboard in my room where I can make charts and keep track of everything on the deck that we're currently working on."

Separately, the members of the band use Logic Pro X, Ableton, Pro Tools and any number of other DAWs, or digital audio workstations. The Focusrite Scarlett, an affordable M-box, is a favorite. "External hard drives are necessary to keep all recent sessions and tracks organized and free up space to do more," Gillard adds.

Doug Gillard. Photo courtesy of Guided by Voices.

By dutifully following Pollard's notes and staying in constant communication, the four musicians successfully execute his vision far more often than not.

"The demos are a constant guide," Harrison says. "I put the demos through an editing process that I call 'laundering.' It allows the band to play along naturally with Bob's vocals and the rhythmic feel of his guitar, even when he isn't in the room physically. Bob will usually send notes on the laundered demos."

"After I hear the finished instrumentals, I communicate with Travis as to what alterations or additions I think the songs need," Pollard says.

Because Guided by Voices stay on top of their progress via their digital tools, they’re able to complete a litany of overlapping projects. But creating distinct and vibrant art relies on exploding the rulebook as much as following it.

Remaining Receptive

"While we all love the electricity of being in the same room together, technology has also allowed us the ability to work fluidly and consistently together in any number of scenarios," Shue says. And the portability of the M-box means the band has recorded during soundchecks, in bathrooms and even in their tour van.

Plus, the band aren't strictly beholden to Pollard's instructions if they have an idea that could enhance a song. "I give them a lot of room for input," Pollard says. "There's a lot of trust and experience. Similar likes and dislikes as far as music is concerned."

For Earth Man Blues, the band used Pollard's notes as a launchpad and pulled out all the stops. Gillard used digital tools to create enveloping orchestral lines, as heard on tunes like "The Disconnected Citizen." 

"He sent in some tracks that made my jaw drop to the floor," Harrison says. "I think to myself, 'Did you hire the New York Philharmonic? How did you even do that?'" For the ambitious psychedelic throwback, "Sunshine Girl Hello," Shue laid down a percolating bass part worthy of Carol Kaye on Pet Sounds.

Bobby Bare, Jr. Photo courtesy of Guided by Voices.

"He puts a lot of trust in us, knowing we'll come out with something close to his vision, if not spot on," Gillard adds. "We welcome specific directions. He enjoys getting the finished music and tends to like the results upon first listen." "There is not usually any re-recording that happens, in my experience," Shue says.

When the music is complete, Harrison travels to Pollard's residence in Dayton to record the big guy himself. "Bob's vocal sessions are not long, tedious endeavors, but rather quick-moving, joyful unveilings of the vocals for the album," Harrison says. Pollard always sings the album in order; Harrison makes sure he's comfortable in the process.

"Bob is always very well prepared," Harrison adds. "His lyrics and melodies always blow my mind. The sessions are quasi-sacred events. We hear the new Guided by Voices album for the first time."

Kevin March. Photo by Ray Ketchem.

Never Giving Up

There are arguably better Guided by Voices songs than "Don't Stop Now," from their 1996 album Under the Bushes Under the Stars. But given that its title reflects both their message of resilience and uncontrollable creative output, it may be their ultimate song. (They didn't nickname it "The Ballad of Guided by Voices" for nothing.)

And with the prevalence of affordable, high-quality recording equipment in 2021, any musician with sufficient imagination doesn't have to stop either.

"Almost every person who owns a laptop or a tablet has pretty decent recording software built into their device for free," Harrison points out. "You don't even need to buy blank tapes. The technology is ubiquitous. You just need ears and skills. That's the tricky part."

"With the technology available today for audio recording, there is nothing to hold a band back from creating and releasing music," March tells GRAMMY.com. "Even when you are not able to get together as a whole band. In a way, if looked at with an open mind, it can be even better because each band member has the time to really work on and hone their parts."

"Our priority has always been to keep moving forward, to keep creating and elevating," Shue says. "We are always pushing ourselves with each project, and looking for new ways to make the creative process as seamless and streamlined as possible."

"Don't stop now," he adds, citing a GBV calling-card.

Photo courtesy of Guided by Voices.

Back to Pollard in his Dayton basement, making off-kilter classics like 1994's Bee Thousand and 1995's Alien Lanesyears before anyone carried around a recording studio in their pocket. There's a direct link between what he did then and now.

"The tools we use are not exotic," Harrison says. "The spirit of Guided By Voices has always pointed toward using whichever tools were available to animate the larger-than-life ideas that come from Bob's imagination. Technology has come a really long way since the band's early days.

"Bob embraced lo-fi because they were able to find a satisfying vocal sound from the 4-track in the basement," he continues. "Not because wearing the 'lo-fi' label brought any bona-fides. His brilliant songs always make him the most credible artist in the room. Nowadays, he still has the brilliant songs. He is a fountain of brilliant songs. I can guarantee you."

"Even knowing their entire career output intimately," their manager, David Newgarden, tells GRAMMY.com, "I would not have been able to guess that these albums were recorded separately in five locations and not as a band in one studio. Maybe the article will inspire others."

At the end of “Child’s Play,” the music gives way to traffic sounds, briefly revealing its unconventional, outdoor recording session. Together or apart; in a basement, bathroom, or parking lot; Guided by Voices will continue to push forward. 

And with the means available to virtually everyone on the planet, there are few excuses left not to create. No boundaries to be beholden to. No walls.

Remote (Controlled): The Recording Academy's Guide To Recording Music Remotely With A Producer & Engineer

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GRAMMY SoundChecks With Gavin DeGraw

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28 Nashville Chapter GRAMMY U members took part in GRAMMY SoundChecks with Gavin DeGraw. Approximately 30 students gathered at music venue City Hall and watched DeGraw play through some of the singles from earlier in his career along with "Cheated On Me" from his latest self-titled album.

In between songs, DeGraw conducted a question-and-answer session and inquired about the talents and goals of the students in attendance. He gave inside tips to the musicians present on how to make it in the industry and made sure that every question was answered before moving onto the next song.

 

Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

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Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

Annual star-studded gala slated for Nov. 4 in Las Vegas during 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Week celebration

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

 GRAMMY.com

 Internationally renowned singer/songwriter/performer Juan Gabriel will be celebrated as the 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, it was announced today by The Latin Recording Academy. Juan Gabriel, chosen for his professional accomplishments as well as his commitment to philanthropic efforts, will be recognized at a star-studded concert and black tie dinner on Nov. 4 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev. 

The "Celebration with Juan Gabriel" gala will be one of the most prestigious events held during Latin GRAMMY week, a celebration that culminates with the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards ceremony. The milestone telecast will be held at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 5 and will be broadcast live on the Univision Television Network at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central. 

"As we celebrate this momentous decade of the Latin GRAMMYs, The Latin Recording Academy and its Board of Trustees take great pride in recognizing Juan Gabriel as an extraordinary entertainer who never has forgotten his roots, while at the same time having a global impact," said Latin Recording Academy President Gabriel Abaroa. "His influence on the music and culture of our era has been tremendous, and we welcome this opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a voice that strongly resonates within our community.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Juan Gabriel has sold more than 100 million albums and has performed to sold-out audiences throughout the world. He has produced more than 100 albums for more than 50 artists including Paul Anka, Lola Beltran, Rocío Dúrcal, and Lucha Villa among many others. Additionally, Juan Gabriel has written more than 1,500 songs, which have been covered by such artists as Marc Anthony, Raúl Di Blasio, Ana Gabriel, Angelica María, Lucia Mendez, Estela Nuñez, and Son Del Son. In 1986, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Oct. 5 "The Day of Juan Gabriel." The '90s saw his induction into Billboard's Latin Music Hall of Fame and he joined La Opinion's Tributo Nacional Lifetime Achievement Award recipients list. 

At the age of 13, Juan Gabriel was already writing his own songs and in 1971 recorded his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero," which landed him a recording contract with RCA. Over the next 14 years, he established himself as Mexico's leading singer/songwriter, composing in diverse styles such as rancheras, ballads, pop, disco, and mariachi, which resulted in an incredible list of hits ("Hasta Que Te Conocí," "Siempre En Mi Mente," "Querida," "Inocente Pobre Amigo," "Abrázame Muy Fuerte," "Amor Eterno," "El Noa Noa," and "Insensible") not only for himself  but for many leading Latin artists. In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the only non-classical singer/songwriter to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the album release of that concert, Juan Gabriel En Vivo Desde El Palacio De Bellas Artes, broke sales records and established his iconic status. 

After a hiatus from recording, Juan Gabriel released such albums as Gracias Por Esperar, Juntos Otra Vez, Abrázame Muy Fuerte, Los Gabriel…Para Ti, Juan Gabriel Con La Banda…El Recodo, and El Mexico Que Se Nos Fue, which were all certified gold and/or platinum by the RIAA. In 1996, to commemorate his 25th anniversary in the music industry, BMG released a retrospective set of CDs entitled 25 Aniversario, Solos, Duetos, y Versiones Especiales, comprised appropriately of 25 discs.   

In addition to his numerous accolades and career successes, Juan Gabriel has been a compassionate and generous philanthropist. He has donated all proceeds from approximately 10 performances a year to his favorite children's foster homes, and proceeds from fan photo-ops go to support Mexican orphans. In 1987, he founded Semjase, an orphanage for approximately 120 children, which also serves as a music school with music, recreation and video game rooms. Today, he continues to personally fund the school he opened more than 22 years ago.   

Juan Gabriel will have the distinction of becoming the 10th Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year honoree, and joins a list of artists such as Gloria Estefan, Gilberto Gil, Juan Luis Guerra, Julio Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Carlos Santana among others who have been recognized. 

For information on purchasing tickets or tables to The Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year tribute to Juan Gabriel, please contact The Latin Recording Academy ticketing office at 310.314.8281 or ticketing@grammy.com.

Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013
Grizzled Mighty perform at Bumbershoot on Sept. 1

Photo: The Recording Academy

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Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Alexa Zaske
Seattle

This past Labor Day weekend meant one thing for many folks in Seattle: Bumbershoot, a three-decade-old music and arts event that consumed the area surrounding the Space Needle from Aug. 31–Sept. 2. Amid attendees wandering around dressed as zombies and participating in festival-planned flash mobs to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," this year the focus was on music from the Pacific Northwest region — from the soulful sounds of Allen Stone and legendary female rockers Heart, to the highly-awaited return of Death Cab For Cutie performing their 2003 hit album Transatlanticism in its entirety.

The festival started off on day one with performances by synth-pop group the Flavr Blue, hip-hop artist Grynch, rapper Nacho Picasso, psychedelic pop group Beat Connection, lively rapper/writer George Watsky, hip-hop group the Physics, and (my personal favorite), punk/dance band !!! (Chk Chk Chk). Also performing on day one was Seattle folk singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski, who was accompanied by the Passenger String Quartet. As always, Orlowski's songs were catchy and endearing yet brilliant and honest.

Day one came to a scorching finale with a full set from GRAMMY-nominated rock group Heart. Kicking off with their Top 20 hit "Barracuda," the set spanned three decades of songs, including "Heartless," "Magic Man" and "What About Love?" It became a gathering of Seattle rock greats when, during Heart's final song, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined for 1976's "Crazy On You."

Day two got off to an early start with performances from eccentric Seattle group Kithkin and Seattle ladies Mary Lambert and Shelby Earl, who were accompanied by the band Le Wrens. My highlight of the day was the Grizzled Mighty — a duo with a bigger sound than most family sized bands. Drummer Whitney Petty, whose stage presence and skills make for an exciting performance, was balanced out by the easy listening of guitarist and lead singer Ryan Granger.

Then the long-awaited moment finally fell upon Seattle when, after wrapping a long-awaited tour with the Postal Service, singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard returned to Seattle to represent another great success of the Pacific Northwest — Death Cab For Cutie. The band celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their album Transatlanticism by performing it from front to back. While a majority of attendees opted to watch the set from an air-conditioned arena, some of us recognized the uniqueness of this experience and enjoyed the entire set lying in the grass where the entire performance was streamed. 

Monday was the day for soul and folk. Local blues/R&B group Hot Bodies In Motion have been making their way through the Seattle scene with songs such as "Old Habits," "That Darkness" and "The Pulse." Their set was lively and enticing to people who have seen them multiple times or never at all.

My other highlights of the festival included the Maldives, who delivered a fun performance with the perfect amount of satirical humor and folk. They represent the increasing number of Pacific Northwest bands who consist of many members playing different sounds while still managing to stay cohesive and simple. I embraced the return of folk/pop duo Ivan & Alyosha with open arms and later closed my festival experience with local favorite Stone.

For music fans in Seattle and beyond, the annual Bumbershoot festival is a must-attend.

(Alexa Zaske is the Chapter Assistant for The Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Chapter. She's a music enthusiast and obsessed with the local Seattle scene.)

Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Neil Portnow and Jimmy Jam

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

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Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Jimmy Jam helps celebrate the outgoing President/CEO of the Recording Academy on the 61st GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Feb 11, 2019 - 10:58 am

As Neil Portnow's tenure as Recording Academy President/CEO draws to its end, five-time GRAMMY winner Jimmy Jam paid tribute to his friend and walked us through a brief overview of some of the Academy's major recent achievements, including the invaluable work of MusiCares, the GRAMMY Museum, Advocacy and more.

Portnow delivered a brief speech, acknowledging the need to continue to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in the music industry. He also seized the golden opportunity to say the words he's always wanted to say on the GRAMMY stage, saying, "I'd like to thank the Academy," showing his gratitude and respect for the staff, elected leaders and music community he's worked with during his career at the Recording Academy. "We can be so proud of what we’ve all accomplished together," Portnow added.

"As I finish out my term leading this great organization, my heart and soul are filled with gratitude, pride, for the opportunity and unequal experience," he continued. "Please know that my commitment to all the good that we do will carry on as we turn the page on the next chapter of the storied history of this phenomenal institution."

Full Winners List: 61st GRAMMY Awards