NEW WAVES, OLD TRICKS, AND GETTING LUBED: A Rolling Stone Convo With GBV’s Bob Pollard

A Pollard-worthy collage of covers and more

A Pollard-worthy collage of covers and more

Happy 20th Anniversary to one of my best-loved albums of, well, the past twenty years: “Bee Thousand,” by the Dayton, Ohio indie-rock band Guided By Voices. Like my first mad crush, I remember hearing this 1994 cracked masterpiece soon after it was released on June 21, 1994, as if it were only yesterday.  I had heard and read about the building buzz around this strangely named group of beer-swilling avatars of pop, and my reaction upon hearing “Bee Thousand” was as giddy and immediate as the music and songs on that record. I vividly recall instantly falling head over heels in lust, love, and fanboydom from the moment I bought the LP and cracked it open to discover the band had pressed it on blue wax (Yessss! And as, I would find out later, they did it up in red and white too). Still in bathrobe, bedhead, and sluggish before my morning mug of coffee kicked in, I remember  placing the album on the turntable for an early morning, pre-work liftoff, and sitting down on the couch across from the stereo, bulky headphones on so as not to wake my still-sleeping wife. My first jolt of thought — aside from being knocked out by the splendid ’60s-evoking inner sleeve artwork that boded well for what I was about to hear — was that this band loved everything I did about rock & roll, and probably listened to the same records.

Birthday Boy Bob: This photo was apparently taken during the seven second in between he wrote his last and next song, chugged six beers, and delivered a scissor kick onstage.

Birthday Boy Bob: This photo was apparently taken during the seven second in between he wrote his last and next song, chugged six beers, and delivered a scissor kick onstage.

The sound, as well as the music, on that  blue-plate special platter struck me like no other had to that point. The songs were frequently humming with tape hiss, and would often come to an abrupt halt or bleed into the next one, like some over-saturated re-recorded magnetic tape cassette. Sometimes the tunes would be interrupted, jarringly, by what seemed to be splices or cuts, or they would wobble in and out of focus like a guy squinting the scenery through the buzz of four too many beers.  Then there were the bodies of the songs themselves; compact little bantam weight zingers that bobbed and weaved and came at you at odd pop-art angles, with occasionally mismatched parts that sounded as though they had been grafted onto the limbs of melody like appendages of inspiration. I was convinced that the whole album had been cooked up with beer and weed and laid down in somebody’s garage or rec room.

But dicey sound production aside, 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. Add to that the heartening (for a then-30 year-old unreformed rock & roll head such as myself) bonus fact that they were all a lot older than I had imagined them to be only made me love them more.

It was refreshing and gratifying to FINALLY be able to unabashedly adore the music of a rag-tag bunch of  dudes who were actually older than I was (an event that had increasingly become a rarity when one gravitated toward scruffy indie-rock made by, and for, college kids ten years their junior).  Listening to my favorite artists and bands of the time — Pavement, Liz Phair, Beck, PJ Harvey —  gave me, on some subterranean level of  mortal bummerdom, the same vaguely disquieting feeling I encountered some years earlier when I had continued to collect baseball cards as a hobby into my early twenties.

One day, I  day flipped over a favorite player’s cardboard stat profile only to discover a birthdate uncomfortably, perilously close to my own in that familiar font of my childhood. And unlike me, this dude was actually on a big league baseball card! Immortal for all-time! While here I was,  inevitably hung over and standing alone outside a 7-11 in a dreary nowhere town, sticking a wad of  that stale cardboard gum in my mouth (although truth be told, I liked it), and gazing at the photo of a guy roughly my age who was far more rich and famous than I’d ever be. The Beatles and Stones were one thing. Jose Canseco and Roger Clemens were another. 

 But I digress (don’t I always?). Twenty years on, the story of  Bob Pollard and his long-running Guided By Voices is so damned endearing, so fundamentally charming, so ridiculously RARE amid the calculating, cold reality of  how the music business has traditionally operated, that it’s difficult to know, precisely, where the musical appeal of  “Bee Thousand” ends and where the appeal of the myth-worthy circumstances behind its creation begins.

Vintage Vampires On Titus: Guided By Voices before "Bee Thousand" made them the beery buzz of indie-rock

Vintage Vampires On Titus: Guided By Voices before “Bee Thousand” made them the beery buzz of indie-rock

With that bit of background, here’s an early piece on GBV I wrote for Rolling Stone on the music of  the man behind the melodies and magical mayhem: Robert Pollard (apologies to Bob’s fantastic foil, Tobin Sprout, who always makes Bob better). At the time of our chat, Pollard had recently begun branching out by releasing solo albums in addition to his work with GBV (unsatisfied, apparently, with churning out only an album or two a year). Indeed, it was clear from talking with him that no number or amount of side projects could ever hope to contain his exuberant need to sing, write, record, and release the music (pop, prog, garage, psych, arena rock etc.) he constantly heard in his head. Pollard, always spirited, sharp, and jovial in conversation, outlined his far-reaching philosophy of pop, the music business, and the alternate hit-making universe of his head.

Early GBV publicity shot, mid-90s. Bob expects a chilly reception, perhaps?

Early GBV publicity shot, mid-90s. Bob expects a chilly reception, perhaps?

Bob Pollard’s New Waves and Old Tricks/Rollingstone.com

Guided by Voices leader Robert Pollard doubts he’ll ever get a street named after him in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. “Sometimes me and my brother (on-again, off-again GBV member Jim Pollard) drive around town — my brother was one of the best high school basketball players ever here — and he’ll say why don’t we have a street named after us? Mike Schmidt and Irma Bombeck have one,” Pollard says, referring to the former Philadelphia Phillies slugger and syndicated humorist, respectively. “But I don’t think I’ll ever get one because I have kind of a bad boy image. Some of the local writers have said some really bad things about me getting drunk at our gigs and stuff.”

“I’ve been told that if we’re going to get to the next level, radio and that sort of thing, I’ve got to cut back on my drinking on stage and watch my behavior,” Pollard confesses with a laugh. “I do it because if I don’t get lubed a little, I’m really nervous out there. But there’s a line you can go over, and I know I’ve gone over that line sometimes.”

Bob doing what Bob does best besides sing and write songs, and more songs, and more songs.  (The guy's publishing company isn't called Needmore Songs for nothing).

Bob doing what Bob does best besides sing and write songs, and more songs, and more songs. (The guy’s publishing company isn’t called Needmore Songs for nothing).

It’s amazing Pollard finds the time to “get lubed a little” — frankly, it’s astounding the man even sleeps, given his habit of writing songs as frequently as people change their socks. At the moment, Pollard’s just issued his second solo album,  Waved Out (Matador) , a record that comes on the heels of last year’s Guided By Voices release Mag Earwhig! , which, in turn came on the heels of Pollard’s ‘96 solo debut, Not In My Airforce. And the man hasn’t even cracked the suitcase full of demo tapes he’s recorded over the years — by his count, about 5,000 songs’ worth.

GBV’s issued eleven albums in a dozen years, but that total doesn’t even begin to touch the dozens of singles and EP’s they’ve racked up since first switching on the four-track back in the mid-’80’s. The effect of listening to those early GBV albums wasn’t unlike straining to hear a startlingly perfect pop tune through the crackling, static-y airwaves of a distant college radio station and realizing, when it was over, that the filter of fuzz was somehow essential to the song’s mystique, a kind of keyhole to its hidden majesty. It was like being let in on a thrilling secret.

Although they’ve since ventured into the realm of eight and 16-track recording, GBV’s recent albums still have, at their heart, a homemade beer-and-brainstorm spirit. Whether by choice or necessity, Pollard loves wrapping his big rock & roll gestures inside small pop packages.

“It’s funny because I had never heard of that term ‘lo-fi’ before we got lumped into the lo-fi genre,” Pollard says. “I’ve always wanted to make Big Rock, but it was always a challenge for us to create in the studio what we heard in our heads. But we’re at the point now where we’re getting comfortable in that environment, and I think it’s time for us to make the Big Rock record we’ve always wanted to make.”

"Bee Thousand": The LP that made me want to live to be a thousand (you'd have to be to hear all those songs!)

“Bee Thousand”: The LP that made me want to live to be a thousand (you’d have to be to hear all those songs!)

Waved Out is certainly a step in that direction. While nobody’s going to mistake it for the Smashing Pumpkins, it’s an obliquely epic album steeped in arena-worthy hooks (“Subspace Biographies”) and gorgeous ballads (“People Are Leaving”); in the proper live context, this stuff could inspire an inferno of flickering lighters, and just might if Pollard gets his way — and, when it comes to GBV, he usually does. Last year, Bob’s (in)famously autocratic leadership led to the departure of the Cleveland-based rockers Cobra Verde, whom Pollard had recruited to round out the new GBV lineup (everybody but guitarist Doug Gillard quit shortly after making Mag Earwhig!). At present, the band consists of Gillard (guitar), longtime bassist Greg Demos, and ex-Breeders drummer Jim MacPherson.

“I’m happy with the new band. They do what I tell ‘em,” Pollard says, then catches himself. “I know it sounds tyrannical, but sometimes I think a band can be over-democratic and when that happens, you can’t get anything done. I don’t wanna take anything away from my last band (Cobra Verde) — they were maybe the most talented bunch of guys I’ve ever worked with. But it was just too much, with people wanting to make decisions on stage and everyone wanting an equal say. I felt kind of ganged-up on. But I feel a lot better now.”

Clearly. Next month, the new GBV heads into the studio to begin recording with one of Pollard’s pop idols. “Ric Ocasek wants to work with us and we’re really excited about it,” Pollard says of the former Cars frontman. “I was really anxious and scared to meet with him, but he turned out to be really nice.” Furthermore, Pollard says Ocasek’s wife, the supermodel Paulina Porizkova, told him that her neices were big Guided By Voices fans. “After that, I was able to relax.”

How do you follow "Bee Thousand"? Why, by releasing an album arguably as good: '95's "Alien Lanes."

How do you follow “Bee Thousand”? Why, by releasing an album arguably as good: ’95’s “Alien Lanes.”

It’s unclear whether Paulina’s neices miss the contributions of Pollard’s longtime creative foil Tobin Sprout, who left GBV last year and moved to Michigan with his family, but Bob certainly does. “I’ve talked to Toby about working together again,” Pollard says of the man who played George Harrison to Pollard’s Lennon & McCartney — or, as he puts it, the Who’s John Entwistle to his Pete Townshend. “We’ve talked about him sending me tapes of instrumental tracks and us working on stuff that way. But yeah, I’d very much like for him to be in GBV again.”

In the meantime, Pollard will continue in pursuit of his next melody — and the one after that. Despite turning 40 this year, he’s got no intention of slowing down. Plans are underway for his band to launch its first-ever world tour early next year, and after that, Bob wants to make another solo record. With all this activity coming from a guy who’s three times as old as Hanson, you’ve got to wonder: is the importance of youth in rock & roll over-rated?

"Mod Rocket": One of my favorite examples of one of Bob's many cool collages he regularly compiles into his self-published "EAT" periodical of art, poems, stories, and lyrics.

“Mod Rocket”: One of my favorite examples of one of Bob’s many cool collages he regularly compiles into his self-published “EAT” periodical of art, poems, stories, and lyrics.

“Youth is definitely overrated, but everything is geared to youth. Youth is pretty to look at, and youth is easy to market,” Pollard says. “But as a songwriter, nothing beats experience. And I think that what we do on stage is a throwback to the old days, where you go out there and sweat and kick ass. Nowadays, a lot of bands think they’re too cool to do that. They just stand there and there’s no show, there’s no enthusiasm for what they’re doing.”

Who knows? With that kind of attitude, Robert Pollard just might get that street in Dayton named after him after all.  I mean, think about it: Mike Schmidt hit 548 home runs, sure. But has he written 5,000 songs?

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

Listen to “Bee Thousand” in full here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCH8mX3scB8

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

 

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One comment

  1. I do not know the group but your description of them is vivid and fascinating

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