A very Happy 56th Birthday to Robert Pollard of the long-running Dayton, Ohio rock band, Guided By Voices. Pollard is, at this point, one of the few indie-rock artists who’s always made me feel young. Not because he’s even that old, or his music or sensibility is old, mind you. Naw, it’s just that, when you’re a “veteran” music journalist-critic of a certain age (a guy who actually grows up in the 1970s wearing butterfly collared leisure suits and mood rings, say, and not just a dude or dudette who references that decade in a retro hipster way), chances are the overwhelming number of artists and bands you wind up talking to, whose music you may adore, could be your nephew or niece’s age. You can feel a little sheepish after awhile geeking out or crushing on an album made by a band who were in diapers when you were in college, listening to all the music they discovered 20 years later.
Anyway, I digress (nothing new for me). I fell head over heels in lust, love, and fanboydom the instant I bought GBV’s “Bee Thousand” in 1994 on LP, cracked it open to discover the band had pressed it up in blue wax (Yes! and as, I would find out later, red and white too). I gave the album an early morning, pre-work spin on the turntable and my first jolt of thought, aside from being knocked out by the splendid ’60s-evoking inner sleeve artwork (more on that later), was that this band loved everything I did about rock & roll and probably listened to the same records I did. The lo-fi music was humming with tape hiss, seemingly spliced cuts, and homemade-sounding, but there was nothing cheap or crappy about the sunburst melodies, the diabolically stirring guitar chords, the lead singer who had adopted a faux British accent and sang like “Who Sell Out”-era Roger Daltrey. Damned if I knew who these guys were, but they sounded like they were having a blast playing out their make-believe rock star obsessions on the invisible stages of their basements and bedrooms. I didn’t know until later that this wasn’t too far from the truth of their beginnings.
I describe the music and their wonderful, underdog back story at some length below in the feature profile I wrote for the Boston Phoenix at the close of the last century, so I’ll leave that for you to peruse. Suffice it to say that, determined to deliver a then-definitive opus and final word on what I considered to be the greatest rock & roll band of the 1990s, I lobbied my editor for more and yet more space to talk about all those songs; I even put together a band discography by hand well before the Interwebs made all of that easy as the click of a mouse. (The full piece, which ran as the music cover story in the December 21-28, 2000 edition, follows below, as does a Q&A I had conducted with the birthday boy a year earlier for Rollingstone.com). I had by then already interviewed Bob a couple of times before and found him to be as fast a talker as he was a thinker; brimming with excitement and animated by a kind of joy and sustenance he drew from his music. In fact, my conversations with him were the single reason I broke down and bought a telephone tape recorder. My note-taking pen and hand could no longer keep up with his incisive, engaging and rapid-fire commentary, observations, the little asides and digressions that frequently led to a trenchant truth about music and art. When I reached out again on the occasion of his release of a behemoth box of music called “Suitcase” and told him that I wanted to devote some serious space to the music that had taken up so much of my head space, he seemed surprised that anyone might want to read such a thing. Which is exactly how he had initially felt about releasing a box set of his song drafts, demos, and lyrical doodles.
What’s truly remarkable, looking back now, is that the discography up through 2000 is less than half of what Pollard and his various cohorts, collaborators, and revamped versions and visions of GBV have amassed since. All told, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Bob more times than any other single artist for various publications over the past decade, including a lively chat for The Boston Globe timed to the release of “Town of Mirrors,” his compelling compendium of collages. For years, Bob had been adorning GBV’s albums with his own handmade cut-and-paste photo arrangements, drawings, and graphics whose images could be playfully abstract or allusively familiar. Those cover images were, on some level, nearly an equal partner in Pollard’s obsessively creative vision as the music they held. Before long, of course, the collages took on an artistic life of their own, attracting an audience drawn to the unique visual perspective, clues, and cues that complemented Pollard’s pop imagination. We talked about art and photography for “Town of Mirrors,” but the subject always came back to music. Bob Pollard lives it, breathes it, and it oozes from his every pore. Want proof? Check out the staggering and barely countable number of albums, EPs, and singles he’s released these past 25 or so years. He simply can’t not write music, sing it, make it for anyone who cares to listen. Even if nobody did (and for awhile there in the early days, few did), I get the feeling Bob would still be putting out albums, shooting them out like radio transmissions from his electric soul. So, happy birthday Bob, and thank you for staying — and keeping all of us — young.
VOICES CARRY: Robert Pollard Unpacks His Suitcase
The new four-CD Guided By Voices boxed set, *SUITCASE: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft* (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead), is more than just a mammoth collection of demos, outtakes, and aborted ideas culled from the bowels of that long-rumored piece of luggage. It’s the most vivid example yet of the fan fetishism that’s surrounded GBV songwriter Robert Pollard for most of the past decade. The set’s sub-title also provides an assessment of how Pollard has, in a larger sense, always defined his band and perceived its history. Of course, *Suitcase* doesn’t represent failure at all. Its very premise is testimony to the group’s success — a cultish kind of success, yes, but one that Pollard and his various cohorts could scarcely have imagined a decade ago.
“I was afraid of putting that out you know,” says Pollard by phone from his Dayton, Ohio home, where he’s just returned after spending a month in New York City recording tracks with producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith) for GBV’s new album, *Broadcaster House* [Pollard would eventually settle on another title, “Isolation Drills,” presumably a reflection of his marriage, which was breaking up at the time — JP] The album is due out in March on TVT (a bonus disc of live material from a CBGB show earlier this year is also slated to be included with the release). “It’s getting really good reviews and I’m super-surprised. Some people probably like the fact that it’s the old stuff, it’s the four-track stuff, and there’s a certain amount of charm in that. But it’s throwaway shit, you know? It’s kinda frustrating — you spend $125,000 on a record and it gets kinda lukewarm reviews and you fuckin’ grab this shit out of the suitcase that was in the basement forever and it gets good reviews.”
*Suitcase* finds Pollard and GBV’s revolving-door membership in various stages of fidelity, inspiration, and (only guessing here) sobriety. Despite its four-hour-plus playing time, the moments flash by like a series of aural snapshots, capturing a songwriter at his most candid, feverish and hatching would-be hits in the company of friends one minute; wistful and alone, conjuring daydreams the next. Boozy rec-room jams and wacked garage trash gives way to skeletal first takes and sparkling pop revelations in progress, with a few live cuts sprinkled in between. In other words, it’s not so different from hearing the material found on the solo albums Pollard releases on his own Fading Captain Series imprint — or much of GBV’s earlier work.
Reviewing their ninth album, *Under The Bushes Under The Stars* (Matador, 1996) a few years back, I wrote that GBV’s songs sounded as though they’ve always existed, suspended in space and time; that they were just waiting to be discovered. What *Suitcase* makes clear is that indie-rock’s most prolific songwriter has spent a fair amount of time searching for them as well.
Pollard’s talked about carrying around a suitcase full of tapes — he once estimated he had 5,000 songs in there — for years. But the impetus for finally releasing some of the stuff took hold after Matt Davis (who, with Todd Robinson, helps distribute Fading Captain) and Kevin Poindexter, a friend of Davis’s, dropped by Pollard’s house with an idea. They wanted to begin cataloging the songs and preserving them on CD. Pollard warily gave them the okay. By the time he concluded that sifting through hundreds of tapes, some of them more than a decade old, had become too “overwhelming” and suggested abandoning the task, it was too late to turn back. Word had spread among fans that the fabled suitcase had been cracked open. “I don’t think people even believed that it existed,” Pollard says. “They thought that it was some kind of mythological thing.”
Todd Robinson, whose Indianapolis-based Luna Music distributes Pollard’s solo records (as well as those of ex-GBV guitarist/songwriter Tobin Sprout, who quit the band when he moved his family to Michigan in 1996), claims the 100 songs on *Suitcase* only scratch the surface of what has yet to be cataloged and transferred to DAT tape. “I’m always amazed at the stuff he doesn’t think is good enough to go on his regular albums,” says Robinson, who first met the singer nearly 15 years ago when he worked at a Dayton record store and Pollard came in every day to special-order obscure albums. “The guy writes melodies that you could get the genius of on a ukulele. (But) Bob had to be convinced that people wanted to hear *Suitcase*. I said to him, ‘Bob you’re the kind of guy who would love this’ and he says ‘yeah, but I’m only one person.’ and I said ‘Bob, you’re a lot of people.’ ”
Still, if ever a band were destined to thwart their own commercial potential, Guided By Voices were, and still are, that band. In a way, they were doomed from the start. Here was a loosely knit collective of aging rock and roll lifers from Midwestern suburbia whose creative lifeblood revolved around Pollard, a thirty-something elementary school teacher and scarily prolific songwriter who, even as he churned out more ecstatically perfect songs than anyone knew what to do with, was paralyzed by the prospect of showing his gleaming little pop nuggets to the world. Back in 1992, having been met with indifference in the band’s own backyard, Pollard was ready to throw in the towel. GBV had just recorded *Propeller* (Rockathon), and even though he outwardly joked that the album would be the one to finally “propel” the band to fame, Pollard quietly believed it would also be their last. After seven years, five albums, and zero recognition, they just couldn’t afford to make anymore.
In *Watch Me Jumpstart*, filmmaker Banks Tarver’s superb 1998 documentary about the band, former *Spin* writer and onetime GBV bassist Jim Greer recalled how the band pressed 500 copies of the album on vinyl — each featuring a different handmade cover — only to have the records languish, unheard, in Bob’s basement. “He was afraid,” recalled Greer in the film. “He always says if he ever got a bad review, it woulda’ killed him … People had to mail ‘em out, kind of like without telling him, to magazines and things like that.”
“I had been burned by my experience here in Dayton,” says Pollard. “We tried to take it out a little bit and let people check it out. They weren’t throwing eggs at us or anything, but Dayton’s rough. So I just had this total lack of confidence.” (He admits that even after GBV began building pockets of rabid fans across the country, “people would light their lighters and I thought they were making fun of us”). Soon after *Propeller* had been smuggled out to critics, GBV were invited to play a showcase at the CMJ New Music Seminar in New York City. Pollard was petrified.
“We came to New York and it was the first show that we played in six years and people kind of went nuts. We played the show and we did it really fast. We only had 45 minutes but we did like 20 songs bam-bam-bam-bam, Ramones style, out of nervousness. I didn’t say anything between songs. Afterwards I went off the stage and I went back in this little dressing room and was sweating and all of a sudden I got mobbed by people from Pavement and the Beastie Boys and shit and I was freakin’ out a little bit. I was going, really? Are you shittin’ me? You actually think we’re good?”
Yet even at its peak of mid-90’s popularity, GBV were a group that sounded and felt like a secret language. The band, like its fans, were an obsessive clique unto themselves; a society of pop worshipers, record-collector geeks, and flag-waving diehards who believed that the arcane could be universal. “The club is open”, Pollard sang on “A Salty Salute”, the opening track on *Alien Lanes* (Matador, 1995), and yes it was, but only for those willing to make a leap of faith and embrace the band on its own terms. Limited edition vinyl pressings. Lo-fi static airplane jive and hiss as aesthetic statement. Melodies in miniature. Arena-rock aspirations subverted in cryptic pop-art esoterica. Big gestures wrapped in small packages. Songs with names like “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” and “Burning Flag Birthday Suit.” Say what?
At the center of this universe was Pollard and his unwavering desire to construct, for real, the kingdom that had always resided in his head. It was a world that had nothing whatsoever to do with prevailing pop fashion or industry trends. There was something at once naive and hopeful and tragic and heroic about them. “In the lo-fi phase, I wanted songs to sound like outtakes from Beatles albums, like really bad copies,” he says. “I wanted it to sound like you had this Beatles bootleg, like all those *White Album* outtakes that you found on some fourth-generation cassette. But as the ever-expanding entity of Guided By Voices — which is kind of like my cosmic extension — I want the sound to become bigger and bigger and spread out to more people. I think every band wants that.”
Despite the fact that GBV eventually moved from the four- and -eight-track recording format of its early days to the realm of 24-, and even 48-track studios, the die had already been cast. It wasn’t about fidelity. It was about philosophy. How could GBV ever hope to succeed in conventional commercial terms, or win a game that rarely asks questions beyond ‘what chart position’ and ‘how many units moved’? They weren’t a conventional band and it wasn’t a game for Pollard. It was his life. (“I have to always be working on a record, continually, or I’m not happy,” says Pollard, and he’s not kidding. Next month, he’ll begin recording another solo album). GBV’s old label, Matador, reportedly complained that Pollard was writing too many songs, saturating the market with too many side projects — not to mention undermining GBV’s chances for winning a wider audience by too often living up to his well-earned reputation for knocking back almost as many beers as there were songs in the set list.
But the task of successfully marketing GBV never boiled down to something as simple as airbrushing the band’s persona or streamlining their output. For the mass record-buying public, Pollard’s hyper-condensed, Beatles-by-way-of-The Who worldview wasn’t so easy to understand after all — even after Pollard shook up the band’s lineup, went for bigger riffs, and enlisted proven hitmaker and ex-Cars’ singer Ric Ocasek to produce GBV’s 12th album, *Do The Collapse* (TVT, 1999). The reason why GBV failed to take over the world — if it ever really wanted that in the first place, or believed they were truly capable of it — was that the band’s music has always, ultimately, turned inward rather than outward. It’s a band built upon a self-made myth sprung from a semi-imagined history: homemade album covers, fictional band names, and a basement of rock dreams.
Nearly all of the tracks on *Suitcase*, for instance, are credited to different groups with names like Champion Hairpuller, Hazzard Hotrods, Artrock Unicorns, and on the earliest recording, from 1974, Little Bobby Pop (that’s a 17-year-old Bob singing “Little Jimmy The Giant”). “I did that with most of the songs I wrote for *Bee Thousand* (Scat/Matador, 1994) — I cut out pictures of little groups of guys from my mid-1970’s yearbook and gave them band names and song titles and put it together as a fake compilation album,” Pollard says. “The titles at the time were ‘I Am A Scientist’ and ‘Gold Star For Robot Boy’ and ‘My Valuable Hunting Knife’ and stuff like that. And so, by looking at the picture of the band names and titles, it kind of inspired me to want to write songs for them. As if I was that band. As if I assumed their identity.”
For Pollard, those imaginary names compensated for something that was missing. GBV was the embodiment of everything pop was *not*, or had ceased to be. Pollard has always claimed that he began composing the songs he did because no one else was writing what he wanted to hear. The internal voice guiding him all along was his desire to make the kind of classic records that gave people the same rush he got when, as a kid, he’d dash home with the latest Beatles album tucked under his arm. He didn’t just want to make great rock. He wanted to save it. “We’ve always been threatening to do that,” he says with a laugh. “I think that keeps the major labels interested in us.”
At age 43, it’s also what drives Robert Pollard. “I’ve tried at different points in the last 20 years or whatever, to kill Guided By Voices, to create a different name, or to go solo. And I’ve always found myself going back to it as something I can’t get away from. It’s almost like Anthony Hopkins in *Magic*, where he can’t make the dummy shut up. I can’t seem to make the dummy shut up, man.”
VOLUME, VOLUME, VOLUME (a guided glimpse of the insanity)
Forever Since Breakfast (I Wanna, 1986) EP
Devil Between My Toes (Schwa, 1987)
Sandbox (Halo, 1987)
fig. 4 (AF4 Records, 1987) Tobin Sprout’s pre-GBV debut
Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (Halo, 1989)
Same Place The Fly Got Smashed (Rocket #9, 1990)
Propeller (Rockathon, 1992)
Vampire On Titus (Scat, 1993)
An Earful O’Wax (Get Happy!!, 1993)
Bee Thousand (Scat/Matador, 1994)
Crying Your Knife Away (Lo-Fi, 1994)
Alien Lanes (Matador, 1995)
Box (Scat, 1995)
For All Good Kids (no label, 1995)
Jellyfish Reflector (Jellyfish, 1996)
Benefit For The Winos (no label, 1996)
Under The Bushes Under The Stars (Matador, 1996)
Sunfish Holy Breakfast (Matador, 1996) EP
Not In My Airforce (Matador, 1996) Pollard solo
Carnival Boy (Matador, 1996) Sprout solo
Mag Earwhig! (Matador, 1997)
Tonics & Twisted Chasers (Rockathon, 1997)
Moonflower Plastic (Welcome To My Wigwam) (Matador, 1997) Sprout solo
Waved Out (Matador, 1998) Pollard solo
Do The Collapse (TVT, 1999)
Kid Marine (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 1999)
Speak Kindly Of Your Fire Department (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 1999)
In Shop We Build Electric Chairs: Professional Music By Nightwalker 1984-93 (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead), 1999
Ask Them (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead) Lexo and the Leapers EP (Pollard side project)
Let’s Welcome The Circus People (recordhead/Wigwam, 1999) Sprout solo
Demos & Outtakes (recordhead/Wigwam, 2000) eyesinweasel/Sprout solo
Hold On Hope (TVT, 2000) EP
Wrinkled Thoughts (recordhead/Wigwam, 2000) eyesinweasel
Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 2000)
Robert Pollard Q&A for Rollingstone.com/By Jonathan Perry/Spring 1999
When last we left Robert Pollard and his band of merry music makers known to the civilized world (and parts less civilized too) as Guided By Voices, the band was getting ready to enter the recording studio to make a new album with former Cars frontman-turned-producer Ric Ocasek (the first time the band was to use an outside producer for an entire album). Pollard finally hoped to realize his dream, with Ocasek’s help, of making the “big rock” record he said he had heard in his head for years.
Here it is a year later, and Bob was right. Not only is the new Ocasek-produced disc, *Do The Collapse*, sonically the cleanest, clearest-sounding album of GBV’s career (the darn thing’s even got strings! And ballads!), but the group’s on a brand new label, TVT Records, and Pollard’s even got a new imprint he calls The Fading Captain Series. And yep, in case you were wondering, the label’s really just a clearing-house for Pollard to feed his jones for the trusty four-track.
When we caught up with the man by phone at his Dayton, Ohio home, Pollard was getting ready to embark on the first leg of a 10-month worldwide tour — the band’s first ever — with one of Pollard’s old faves, Cheap Trick. No wonder he sounded excited.
RS.com: Last summer you said you wanted to finally make a ‘big rock’ record. So do you think you made that album?
Pollard: Sound-wise, definitely. I think the songs were strong to begin with, but whenever I come up with a new band I try to write and tailor the songs to ‘em. With Doug Gillard, I have a lead guitarist who can really play, so I’m writing big rock songs. I have a split personality. I like a big, polished rock sound, but I like the lo-fi hissy stuff too. In fact, I’m getting ready to make another four-track album that should be finished in a couple of weeks. This is the best situation I could be in, because with TVT I get to satisfy both urges. I’m sure there’ll be the four-track people who say they don’t like this record, but I was after a big, polished record and I think we got it with this stuff … The classic rock station here in Dayton has been playing “Teenage FBI”, which is the first single, and for the first time, I can turn on the radio and hear one of my songs. That’s the first time we’ve gotten any credit around here.
Pollard: Oh yeah, man. Everybody else seems to like my stuff, but they don’t ever give me any credit around here. So I’m done being a nice guy.
RS.com: What was it like working with Ric Ocasek?
Pollard: It was great. I tell people that I have relatively few experiences to compare it with, except for working with (Steve) Albini, and I worked with him only three days. Plus I took inferior stuff to him, so anything that didn’t work out was completely my fault. But the main reason I chose (Ric) was that he had empathy for me as a songwriter because he’s a songwriter too. And I’m obviously a big fan of Ric Ocasek.
RS.com: What did he bring to the recording sessions that hadn’t been there before?
Pollard: He was able to slow me down and teach me to be patient, and I learned about working through ideas a little better. Because I tend to get impatient with songs, crank ‘em out, get ‘em on tape. But it only took us five or six weeks to do the album, and that’s still comparatively a very short amount of time by the usual standards. (Ric) got us the guitar sound that we wanted. I’d always wanted that big guitar sound and he got that. I mean, *Mag Earwhig!* sounded good to me but (radio programmers) didn’t think it was quite *there* to get played on major radio stations. I don’t know what that means, but maybe this one will be different. I’m sure it can’t hurt to have Ric Ocasek on your record (laughs).
RS.com: So did you guys jam out at all, knock around some old Cars tunes, like “Best Friend’s Girl”, maybe?
Pollard: Oh yeah, we did “Good Times Roll.” I’ve been pretty surprised at my band’s ability to break into a cover, even though we never do covers. People call out for old GBV songs and we never even do those because we don’t know ‘em.
RS.com: The first song on *Do The Collapse*, “Teenage FBI”, kicks off with synths. It’s not exactly Gary Numan, but still, it’s not what we’ve come to expect from GBV. Were you at all nervous about making such a dramatically different kind of GBV album, that the band’s identity might be lost?
Pollard: When I first heard it in the studio, I was freaking out, saying this is unbelievable. You know, when they crank it up on those big speakers and everything, I was ready to cry. As far as being nervous — no man, because it was always something I’ve wanted to do, but we’ve never had any success. This time it really worked. I’ve always told people that it would be a slow evolution with GBV being brought into the realm of hi-fi. And now, we’ve crossed over.
RS.com: You’re on a new label, TVT Records. How’d that come about?
Pollard: We were trying to get Matador to put us through Capitol and the people we talked to at Capitol were all for it, or whatever — I’m not sure what happened, I don’t really keep with that stuff — but all of a sudden, they weren’t there anymore, and the deal kind of fell through. I had thought it was *our* time to get that shot. And when that time came, it didn’t happen. TVT were there and were all gung-ho about us. And I’m kind of into that three-album cycle anyway. We did three albums with Scat, and three with Matador, so maybe we’ll do three with TVT. Who knows? It was a good place to start over again.
RS.com: What have you been listening to, as far as new music goes?
Pollard: I haven’t been listening to too much new music. I think that’s the reason why I write so many songs. There’s not too much out there right now — I mean, there’s always good stuff like the Grifters, Pavement, Superchunk — but too much of what’s out there is a hybrid of something else. It’s not about straight-ahead rock and roll.
RS.com: Why, after all this time, do you think Guided By Voices continues to resonate with people, even through several lineup changes? What’s inspired such loyalty? Can you point to any one thing?
Pollard: It’s the songs, man. When I was a kid, I always waited for certain bands to put out a certain record, like the Beatles. And I’d go home and put ‘em on the stereo and I’d be in bliss, man. I *still* want to hear a particular song, and if it’s not there I’ll go ahead and write it. And I write songs because I think that maybe there’s other people out there who want to hear it also. Maybe it has something to do with age. Maybe it’s because I’m 41 years old and I’ve been listening to rock since I was a kid and I have this huge catalog of melodies in my head. That’s why I’m not too into a lot of what’s out there now — it tends to rely on grooves and beats. I just don’t hear melodies or music that moves the spirit anymore.
RS.com: What are you planning for New Year’s Eve 2000? Have you got anything special planned?
Pollard: We might even be playing somewhere, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you, if what they say is true about all this Y2K stuff, it scares me. I’d rather be at home here with family and friends when the whole shit-house goes up in flames.
Watch and listen to GBV’s “I Am A Scientist” from “Bee Thousand” right here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zN9x6zckn18
Watch and listen to “Auditorium/Motor Away” right here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rN3gmKltn88
Watch and listen to this great clip from filmmaker Banks Tarver’s wonderful (and highly recommended) documentary on the band, “Watch Me Jumpstart“:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTmRkKFbfpI
Watch and listen to GBV’s “Game of Pricks” right here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLINRoC4f1k&list=RD02HLINRoC4f1k
Link to my original Boston Phoenix piece on Pollard published online here:http://www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/music/00/12/21/GUIDED.html
…And another piece I wrote for Rollingstone.com (this one from July 1998) on Bob talking about ex-Cars frontman-turned-producer Ric Ocasek, his supermodel wife Paulina Porizkova, baseball great Mike Schmidt, and of course, beer here (and also published at the “On The Record: Artists Talk” section on my “RPM” Homepage):http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/guided-by-voices-founder-sounds-off-19980710