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"I don't want post-rock. I want rock!" And with that, Robert Pollard lays out the game plan that's enabled him to survive in the fickle indie-rock marketplace for the past two decades. Odds are 20 years from now most of the artists reviewed within this magazine will not be making records, but Robert Pollard, under the Guided by Voices moniker and elsewhere, will have written several thousand new songs and released 73 new albums.
The kids coming up today through the ranks of indie-rock call him Uncle Bob. At South By Southwest, for the past two years, tribute bands have sprouted up performing his material hootenanny-style. "They said the last one was really packed," he says. "Maybe next time I'll go." And he isn't likely to let old age get in his way "Why can't Mick Jagger quit?" he asks. After a drawn-out divorce, finalized last year, Pollard is happy and newly engaged.
"I was free for a while and I wanted to look for a woman my age," he pauses, "Women my age don't come to our shows, so I just said 'fuck it."' His is a modest, engaging laugh, and the world opens for Robert Pollard.
With Guided by Voices and a slew of side projects and solo detours, Robert Pollard has recorded an unfathomable amount music over the past 15-plus years. If anyone has made Dayton, Ohio, seem like the place to be, it's this unassuming, self-deprecating dude with the compulsive work habit. The reviews have been nearly unarninously favorable, critics stumbling over themselves to declare each new release the best GBV album yet (running out of adjectives in the process). Or at least the best since Bee Thousand, the band's seventh album and the 1994 Matador Records debut release that occasioned most folks piling on the bandwagon. Bee Thousand seems doomed to stand as the band's Exile on Main Street or Some Girls.
Each subsequent GBV album has been noticeably better than Undercover, Steel Wheels and that five-star inducing Jagger solo album Goddess in the Doorway; however, it's virtually impossible to define Pollard's work under such traditional 'grading' curves. How do you stack a 20-second tune next to a four-minute opus? The casual throwaways are sometimes his best ideas and often for their brevity. ("One guy made a compilation of all our short songs, twenty second songs. It's insane to listen to," admits Pollard.) The jumble that is Robert Pollard's work remains mor important than any clear-cut narrative the pundits superimpose. His world is one of constant activity, of another tour, another song, another album, another 7-inch. Don't like this song, kid? It'll be over in 30 seconds with plenty more coming your way. He may not be the fanciest chef in town, but the portions are super-sized.
"I've written all the songs for the next album, actually," he admits. "I like to stay ahead. I guess that's the paranoia on my part. I better have an album ready, in case I get writer's block." He laughs at the implausibility. Somewhere, Paul Simon turns in his bed. "I've never had that. I don't know what this is. How you get that? Is that like not being able to get a hard-on? Is there some kind of Viagra for writer's block?"
I think it's called alcohol, I offer.
"There you go. I stay pretty loose. I keep a notebook when I drink and I appoint a secretary for the night."
Earthquake Glue is the-depending on how you count- 15th GBV album. (Even their label, Matador, doesn't keep track, refering to it as "another fully realized album of rock'n' roll timelessness." ) And it's everything you've come to expect fron a GBV album: amusing song titles ("I'll Replace You With Machines, " "A Trophy Mule in Particular"), catchy tunes ("My Kind of Soldier," "The Best of Jill Hives") and lots of old-school rock and pop, guitar and harmonies. "All Guided by Voices albums have to have the four P's", says Pollard. "Pop, punk, psychedelic and prog. I want this album to be pop. I want it to be happy. I was going to call the album 'Happy Pills."'
The opening track and album's first single, "My Kind of soldier," was recorded at Steve Albini's studio and added last minute to the album, with the remaining 15 songs recorded at Cro-Mag studios in Dayton, where Pollard's been recording his side projects for years, and which, to his chagrin, is closing. "I'm trying to talk them out of it," he says.
The man who brought 'lo-fi' out of the basement and, uh, into the bedroom isn't actually a champion of home recording "I don't even have a home," he laughs, as he currently settles into another Dayton apartment. I have a boombox and an acoustic guitar. I had a four-track, but I lost it in the move. TVT (Records) bought me an eight-track which we couldn't figure out. My son, I think he loaned it out to one of his friends."
For the demos of Earthquake Glue, he did upgrade. I had been giving them demos on the boombox and the quality wasn't very good," he says. "So I went over to (friend) Todd Robinson's house in Indianapolis and did proper demos on a four track."
With so many songs the danger of repeating himself isn't just a possibility, it's a probability. "It's hard to not retrace things you've already done," he confesses. I don't want to write the same song over again. I want to mature as a songwriter
writer. I'm getting more patient, making sure it's the right line. Making sure that before we do it, making sure it's finished and that's the way I want it. In the early days as soon as I wrote a song we'd record it. It's best to get an idea to tape as soon as possible because that's when it's the freshest."
There are few hard, fast rules to the Pollard school of songwriting. After all, the point is to get the idea out and worry about it later. "It's more important that it's singable than it has a literal meaning. Sometimes they have personal meaning and sometimes I string things together. But it is more important that they sound good. I don't have a preconceived notion of what I want to write about, so I just kind of let it flow. I just brainstorm ideas and then knock them about. When I come up with a musical idea, I just start fitting pieces of lyrics together. I don't worry if it makes sense. It just has to sound good and not sound corny."
No matter how you break it down and analyze it, GBV is essentially the work of an obsessive music fan who grew up in rock's first bloom, before the music turned self-conscious and scattered into hundreds of little schisms. Hatched 15 years earlier the group might have been contenders for a larger stage, an idea that Pollard's certainly thought about, considering he was discovered at 36, only five years older than Keith Moon when the Who drummer-after 15 years of fame-died.
The band's current line-up-Doug Gillard, guitar; Nate Farley, guitar; Tim Tobias, bass; and Kevin March, drums does not feature anyone but Pollard from the first GBV record and any progression or regression rests solely on Pollard's shoulders, where no chip resides despite the years of glowing accolades. Growing up, Pollard collected vinyl (and still does) and implicitly understood its power and meaning, staring at album covers until their full destiny was revealed. He stole money from his mother's pocketbook out of a vinyl junkie's necessity for new records. "They werem't giving me enough money," he retorts. The Beatles remain his all-time favorite group, with Big Star falling in line just behind.
"I don't remember them when they were happening," says Pollard. "I was into progrock back then. Yeah, oh yeah, I still like prog rock. When I first started doing interviews I was telling people I liked Genesis and they were freaking out and they were 'you can't be serious.'Well, it was early Peter Gabriel Genesis."
Pollard's currently visiting with his girlfriend in St. Louis and making the daily rounds to the record stores. In fact, he's been at one shop for five straight days. "I like rock mainly, but I'll buy jazz," he explains. I like labels. The logo looks cool and they've got a strange stable of artists, like Kapp with the Silver Apples, the Nightcrawlers, Jack Jones, Peggy Lee. I'm not really into jazz, but the covers are great. I was going to start buying Blue Note, but it's really expensive and the guys who buy them are just sick record collectors and keep books, and I don't know what I'm doing there."
"When I first started buying records I bought them for the cover. I didn't know what shit was. I bought Moby Grape that way. You learn after a while: there's the cover, the band name, there's who produced it, look at the song titles. So with Guided by Voices, I try to be conscious of it. It's important how we sequence it. It's important how we package it. Everything that goes into it. I think that's been lost in the industry, especially the sequencing. They want you to put the hits on the top. To me, it's a film and it doesn't necessarily have to have the best part at the beginning."
For several records, Pollard deviated from his plan and signed to TVT, allowing outside producers-Ric Ocasek for 1999's Do the Collapse, Rob Schnapf for 2001'S Isolation Drills-to shape the sound. It was a learning experience.
"I think Do the collapse is really good," says Pollard. "We communicated over the phone. I sent (Ocasek) probably 40 songs, and we picked what we'd do. I think I gave him too much control on that. Some of the songs I don't like, and the ones we deleted I do. It's not his fault. I just wish Id been a little more assertive in my selection of the songs and what needed to be there."
Pollard doesn't afford himself ill will. He maintains he enjoyed the personal experience, even if the working experience ran contrary to what he prefers. "The one thing I wasn't too crazy about was changing the arrangements," he admits. "I wrote the song, I think I know what it's supposed to sound like. But you have to understand that they're making a product for the label and the label's watching them and they're paying them and they want the label to be happy. So there are compromises that have to be made, and I don't want to make compromises."
"TVT had some ambition for us to break through. But they were changing us. With TVT, I couldn't do the packaging anymore because we had moved onto a quote-unquote 'higher professional level.' I couldn't do my collages anymore, I had a hand in everything, but I want complete control-like it says in the contract."
After those two albums, Pollard returned to Matador for 2002's Universal Truths and cycles, an album considered a return to form.
Robert Pollard is a strong believer in the individual, that one man can make a difference just by putting an idea out there. Where, for example, did the idea come for marching bands through the country to begin playing "Rock N' Roll, Pt. Il" by Gary Glitter during football games? That was Pollard, you see. "I went in the bathroom in high school and I started banging on the trash can, playing it, he recalls. I came out and everyone was in the hall and the teacher grabbed me. I'm thinking I started that."
His influence in other areas is clearer. Or, perhaps, it is the music's influence on him that has made all the difference.
"I have all these different phases and eras from the time I started listening, which is the early to mid-'6o's and all these different genres and eras that I've been influenced by, so you can hear them in what I do," he stresses. "I'm pretty much straight rock. There's not a crossection of any other types of music. You don't hear reggae or funk. I'm kind of a purist in that respect."
For this, we can all be thankful. Sticking to what he knows and loves best is Pollard's best weapon against the trend-hopping consciousness of the music business. There will be no gratuitous hip-hop beats or attempts at rapping coming from this grandfather of the old school. The day he teams up with Nelly to let us know how hot it gets in Dayton isn't likely to happen.
"The reason I don't like that music-rap and hip-hop-is because I'm a melody guy and it's devoid of melody," he explains. "I think it's the most important element in music. I understand (rap and hip-hop) it's street. It's 'cool.' it's still here. It's like postgrunge, which I call heavy-metal country because it sounds like heavy-metal with a country vocal. Mainstream everything has gotten overblown and overproduced, pompous. It's just ridiculous. It's hard to get beyond the production, too sterile and it can't be produced live."
Critical of the massive scrap-heap of junk culture circulating outside his door, Pollard isn't one to sit around complaining about it for long. in fact, every Sunday night, he skips out to see his favorite cover band, the Dinosaurs. "They play old stuff, really painfully obvious stuff, a medley of 'Brown Eyed Girl' and 'The Lion Sleeps Tonite,' and we cheer for it like we're really into it," he laughs. "Some of the covers that bands plays are amazing. "
Even better, when in the mood for some good music, Pollard can always do what no self-respecting musician ever admits: he can crank up his own tunes. Because he does listen to his own stuff, right? "Yeah, more than I should," he laughs. "That's about all I listen to. That's why I do it. It's one of the main reasons I write music. Because I want to be entertained and I'm not hearing a lot of stuff out there that entertains me. Even in the early days, I would listen to my stuff and it wasn't very listenable. I think we've gotten better. There are people who are stuck in the 'classic four-track phase' who think we wrote better songs then. People love Bee Thousand. it's the one that everyone heard first."
As a music nut, he understands this. just as he understands the friends who still think he was loco for giving up his job teaching fourth grade to follow the call of rock stardom in his late 30s. And who still can't fathom how he makes a living since they don't hear his songs on the radio. Because for Robert Pollard the game he's playing is for his amusement and only he knows where the lines must be drawn to bring contentment. He straddled it with TVT and now he's found his home back with Matador.
"Along the way there were times when I could've made some decisions that the hardcore GBV fan would not have been very happy with. There were offers that could've made me money and I turned them down," he says. "Different bands we could've toured with, commercials and things like that. I want job security and I think as long as I make good decisions and put out records that have integrity then I think I won't have to go back to doing something else. What could I do next? Maybe porn director. Guys who come up with titles for porn movies, I think I could do that. 'Shaving Ryan's Privates,' that's not mine (laughs). Mine's 'Who's Eating Gilbert's Grape?"'
Some people were born to be famous for no particular reason, some were born to be quotable. Rather than wait for HARP Magazine's Uncensored Practical Jokes and Bloopers issue, here are a few random Pollard observations too notable to let go:
On the celebrity he most resembles: "People used to say I look like Mac Davis in my younger days, It's interesting because Mac Davis had a TV show and at the end he'd sit there with an acoustic guitar and people would give him titles and he'd make up songs. Call me the new Mac Davis."
On GBV's Greatest Hits: "Our hardcore fans think they're all hits, oddly enough, there is a best-of GBV coming out on Matador in October. I think it's going to be 30 songs. It's hard to cut it down to 30, though I know some people wanted to cut it down to 12."
On Guilty Pleasures: "My girlfriend likes the Jackson Five and I've been going around St. Louis buying them and people who know me look at me. I don't know if it's a pleasure, but I'm guilty"
On toturing his bandmates: "I like to scare them by disappearing the day before a show and arrive really late so they think I'm not going to show. Some night I might not show up just to see if they play without me."
On the latest additions to the Pollard Record Collection: I bought two or three hundred albums on this last tour because I read this issue of MOJO about soft rock and bubblegum and that was the last frontier."
On GBV's enduring influence over the masses: "I think part of the appeal was we gave a lot of people hope. 'These guys have been together for ten years and made six albums already that no one knew about.' 'I've been struggling with this and I'm 27 and I can't seem to make anybody pay attention to my music, so you give me hope.' I don't know what to tell them. It doesn't mean you're any good.