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Columbus Dispatch - Columbus OH - 4/1/01

Guided By Muses
Singer Listens to His Creative Inner Voice


Guided by Voices singer and songwriter Robert Pollard is happy with his band’s new release, Isolation Drills.

But Pollard said the album, to be released by TVT Records on Tuesday already feels like distant rock ‘n’ roll work.

“It’s the same process,” Pollard, 43, said from his home in Dayton.

‘You write the songs. Then you start practicing. That’s not too much fun. Then you go in and record it. That’s a lot of fun. Afterwards you have kind of this letdown. Then you wait for the buildup, touring and press and so forth. It’s gotten to be almost routine. But the songwriting process is not routine for me. I still ­really enjoy that”

Until 1994, Pollard taught at Lincoln IGE (Individually Guided Education) School in the Dayton school system. Toward the end of his 14-year teaching career, his rock ‘n’-roll life was bumping heads with his 9-to-5 life.

“Right around Bee Thousand, right before we actually signed to Matador, I still taught,” Pollard said “We played on the weekends, basically; and we’d pull a Friday; Saturday and Sunday; and I’d come into school and be like, totally unprepared, smelling like what I said was cough syrup. My principal knew what was up. She’d come into the room and catch me working on album covers and things like that, but she was cool about it I finally made the decision and had to go into the teachers’ lounge and do my farewell speech, and they all looked at me like I was out of my mind.

“You’re doing what?”

“I’m going to pursue a career in rock”

A year or so before Pollard quit teaching, Scat Records, a small Cleveland label now based in St. Louis, signed Guided by Voices. The band played a music showcase in New York City and left fans of basement-born rock gobsmacked.

“We exploded right there,” Pollard said. ‘There was no turning back, because everyone embraced us. I had to make a decision. A lot of big labels came swooping in on us, so I thought, ‘Well, do I give up my 14-year career with benefits and all that? Or ’Do I do what I’ve wanted to do all my life? It really wasn’t that difficult a decision.”

Guided by Voices eventually signed a contract with major indie ­rock label Matador Records and released album after album of catchy but brief songs.

For Do the Collapse, released in 1999, the band hired the Cars’ Ric Ocasek to produce. It was the first Guided by Voices album to include songs that Pollard could hear on mainstream radio in his hometown.

The group’s 12th album, Isolation Drills, produced by Rob Schnapf, who produced Beck’s Mellow Gold and Elliott Smith’s XO, features even more glorious rock songs than does Do the Collapse.

Songs such as Glad Girls, Fair Touching, Run Wild and Twilight Campfighter boom and ring. The roots of the songs’ melodies stretch back to the Who, the Kinks and Big Star, as many Guided by Voices songs have.

The band hinted at the move “to the big leagues,” as Pollard called it, with the songs on Mag Earwhig!,  the 1996 album Pollard recorded with members of Cleve­land’s Cobra Verde, and hinted even harder with Do the Collapse.

Isolation Drills’ songs, as on Do the Collapse, are more conventional in sound and length than those on the band’s earlier releases. Most meet FM radio’s two-and three-minute requirements. (Previous works may be heard on Suitcase, a boxed set of 100 songs from the past 20 years.)

Fans of the “pure” — that is, unpolished, cut-and-paste basement-rock records that Guided by Voices used to create — need not be concerned. The “listening experience” is continuous, with some songs used as glue to make the album more than a pile of songs. Pmstman, for one, clocks in at 55 seconds.

“I think of every record as a film. I’m a director and this is my new film,” Pollard said. “It has to be diverse enough to hold your attention the whole album the way a good movie does, kind of up and down; and the last song has to be the kick-ass song with the credits rolling. You gotta have a good cover and you gotta have a good title; it’s all important to me.”

Lyrics still might provoke fans to call Pollard’s home in the middle of the night and question his words. They remain as vivid and vague on paper and as catchy and memorable when sung as they always have — no mat­ter how much time has elapsed.

On Fair Touching, for example, Pollard sings: “Un­der the iron shop / The farewell ladles wink / Always promising / No one to crush them I Always poker-faced before bingo / Does it snap or just happen

On one of the three songs Elliott Smith contributes organ to, Skills Like This: “But what’s behind your scattered eyesigns? I want to reinvent you now / Fifty hats and bargain suits/We will wear them if we must”

On Want One?: “I have a positive hot gift / Want one?”

In Twilight Campflghter “Twilight Campflghter, you build your fire into an open wound / you want us to feel better.”

“When I write lyrics, to tell you the truth, I just kind of, like, channel through some weird spirit,” Pollard said. “I don’t know what they mean, either, until I look at them and discuss them with other people. Then they kind of start to have some focus.

“But this album is not quite as far out there. There aren’t many whimsical lyrics. There aren’t many crazy titles. They were written as poetry and, to me, I think my lyrics have matured. I think they’re better, actually. They started as poems and kind of reflected how I felt at the time.”

Guided by Voices toured for 10 months in 1999 and 2000 to promote Do the Collapse. The time together drew the band members closer, but isolated them from “everyone and everything else.”

“It took a toll on everything we were used to,” Pollard said. “The album is kind of a sad record, but it’s also uplifting. There are a lot of anthems and it means to me it’s a redirection and starting over.”

Producer Schnapf helped the band start over by allowing the members to drink beer in their New York studio. Ocasek’s in-studio prohibition to make Do the Collapse left the band tense.

“It was an easy and very painless procedure this time,”

Pollard said. “Rob came into town and hung out with us for a little while and sat with us and did some arrangements and went in and did it. It all took about three weeks. He drank with us and hung out. He’s kind of a blue collar guy like us..

He doesn’t say a whole lot. If I flubbed something on a vocal take, he’d kind of just look at me through the glass with this wicked smile, which means ‘Do it again.’

“He allowed us to do what we wanted to and drink and kind of create the atmosphere that we like in the studio. I think the performances were better because of that”