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15 YEARS ON, ROBERT POLLARD STILL GUIDED BY VOICES
by Michael Jolly (a postal blowfisher!)
from The Daily Texan (Austin), May 6, 1997
For a relatively unexciting state, Ohio has had its fair share of
rock pioneers, just think of Devo and Pere Ubu in the late '70s. Now
Dayton, home at various times to Rob Lowe, the Wright Brothers, Larry
Flynt, and the center of Ohio's mid-'70s funk scene (Ohio Players), can lay
claim to the state's current favorite rock son, former fourth-grade teacher
For almost 15 years, Pollard has been the leader and songwriting force
behind the highly acclaimed and highly prolific band Guided by Voices.
Since falling in love with British Invasion bands like the Beatles and the
Who as a kid, Pollard has channeled his deep love for music and bottomless
knowledge of rock into a highly reverent yet brashly original songwriting
approach. Pollard, who began writing songs at 8 or 9, estimates he's composed
over 6,000 songs in the past 30 years.
Pollard formed Guided by Voices in 1983 with fellow members of the Dayton
rock scene. Over the course of six self-released records that never made
it too far out of Dayton, Pollard and his pals developed a songwriting
style and sound free from the pressures of the music industry. Dissatisfied
with the sound they were getting in other people's studios, the discovery
that they could get the sound they wanted from simple four-track recorders
revolutionized the band's music. Along with short songs, many of which
failed to make it past the two minute mark, the inventive lo-fi production
values became GbV's calling card.
Since 1994 and the release of the Bee Thousand album, things have
moved rapidly for Guided by Voices, the band nabbing a record deal with
prestigious indie Matador and taking their roadshow all over the country.
Pollard has been able to quit his teaching job and devote himself full-time
Late last year saw the break up of the old GbV line-up consisting of
Pollard; the tattooed and scraggily-haired guitarist Mitch Mitchell, who was never anything less
than 100 percent rock 'n' roll; a second guitarist and excellent songwriter
in his own right, Tobin Sprout (still a part-time member); and powerhouse
drummer Kevin Fennell. Pollard opted to continue under the
GbV banner by enlisting the help of outside musicians.
1997 ushers in a new chapter in the Guided by Voices story with the release
of their 10th album, the eccentrically titled Mag Earwhig!, another
marvelous package of diverse tunes, ranging from the grandiose sweep of
Portable Men's Society to the intimate acoustic vibe of Now To War
to the knockout psychedelic whimsy that is Jane of The Waking
Universe. Though the band records mostly in a studio now, their music
still lacks the polish associated with most major label output.
That said, it's hard to imagine a song like the dreamy, enigmatic lullaby
Learning To Hunt given anymore sympathetic production, even with a
state-of-the-art studio and an unlimited budget.
Like most Guided by Voices records, the album may seem intimidating on the
first listen, but after five or six spins, you risk being hooked for good.
Mag Earwhig! features the accomplished backing of Cleveland rock
veterans Cobra Verde, who help lend the album a fuller, more monumental
sound than previous GbV releases. The twin guitar attack of Doug Gillard
and John Petkovic plus the tight rythmn section of Don Depew on bass and
Dave Swanson on drums gives rockers like I Am a Tree and Mute
Superstar an extra bite missing from earlier GbV albums. The album's first
single is Bulldog Skin a catchy and loose Stonesy rocker unlike
anything in the band's catalog.
"After [the old band] split up, I found out I was going to work with Cobra
Verde ... and I knew that finally I had a chance to record some stuff in a
big capacity and make some make some big booming-sounding, room-filling
music," says the 39-year-old rocker.
"It inspired me to write some big rock songs, like Bulldog Skin and
stuff like that. I did have in my mind that, yeah, I wanted to make a big
Probably much to the dismay of some rock critics who feel in love with the
hazy British Invasion pop of albums like Bee Thousand, the specter of
progressive rock looms largely over the new record.
"I always try to get that little prog-influence in there, you know,"
Pollard slyly admits, "Yeah, man, I love that stuff actually. Genesis - I
probably got into them harder than any band I ever got into in my life like
the early stuff with Peter Gabriel. The only thing is ... I don't have the
patience to do long songs, so I like to do little short songs."
Prog rock with a short attention span? Believe it or not, the tag fits
Guided by Voices fairly well.
Press releases for the new album have Mag Earwhig! tagged as a
full-blown conceptual rock opera, which wouldn't be too much of a stretch
for Pollard and his progressive rock tendencies.
"When I put it together... when I sequenced it, it felt like there was
something going on, like there was some kind of conceptual feel. So I said,
'I'm gonna make it a concept album.'
"As a matter of fact, in the first set of artwork that I sent Mark Ohe [the
art director] at Matador, I included characters of to the side like it was
some kind of a play, but I decided to take that out and not mess with that.
So it kind of feels conceptual, it feels like there's something going on
there, but not really. It wasn't intended anyway.
"And of course, Mag Earwhig, was gonna be the central character, kinda like
Ziggy Stardust or something. But now instead of messing with that whole
bunch of stuff I just said, Mag Earwhig is me now, it's my punk pseudonym,
my glam punk alter ego or something." (Pollard also mentioned a couple of
alternates for his new identity, managing to get out "Tax Revlon" and
"Romeo Stardust" before cracking himself up.)
"The first concept was supposed to be this insignificant little guy on
his journey through life from childhood to whatever the end is there. And
all the characters were supposed to be his distractions on his quest to
find his inner peace or his spirit or whatever. But I thought well ... that
sounds too pretentious, so I won't even mess with that."
While the album does have a conceptual feel to it, it's hard to pick out
any coherent theme in Pollard's wonderful, whacked-out lyrics. Pollard has
always chosen words for the way they sound, but strung together they always
have ended up meaning something.
On this album, Pollard's lyrics appear to be more direct and personal than
before. In a song like The Old Grunt, lines such as "firmly rooted
and quite hellbent" and "up and coming, but now he's strumming/the buzzing
one-stringer, always quite the singer" would seem to point straight to
"Line-by-line [the lyrics] are more literal, but overall I still don't know
what the hell they're about," says Pollard, suggesting that he's still guided
Somewhat contrary to their recording presence, GbV's raucous, drunken live
shows are known for their party atmosphere. Pollard has always refused to
play a gig sober, and fueled by prodigious amounts of Bud, he jumps around
like a true rock 'n' roll frontman, swinging his mic cord about and
unleashing incredibly high scissor kicks while still managing to remember
all his lyrics. With the new band will things tone down a bit?
"Well I'm gonna be the same," assures Pollard, "I'm gonna be jumping around
drunk, but I don't think these guys drink quite as much as some of the
other guys in my bands - it's going to be less drunken, but not with me
"It's gonna still be loud," he promises further, "You're gonna hear some
more guitar leads, I'll tell you that, which I like, because Doug [Gillard]
is a great guitar player. If it was a guitar player that was just over
there playing a bunch of notes just to hear himself play, I wouldn't like
Though most rockers are seriously past their prime at his age, Pollard
remains at the peak of his powers. Does he have any insights as to why
bands start to lose it after a certain point?
"You mean like R.E.M. and Cheap Trick and bands like that?" says Pollard,
singling out two bands that have influenced him considerably.
"One reason they get like that is because they've done it so many times and
expectations have come for what they're supposed to write and what they're
supposed to sound like and so they kind of become predictable to
themselves. And also I think they grow apart, they've got big money now and
they've got big houses and they live in separate places and it's not like it
"They also become jaded with the industry - they're part of it now. At
first it was fresh and exciting and they were new in the industry - and now
they're part of it. It gets hard for bands to listen to music and just be
"Hopefully, we won't do it," says Pollard. "I can see how it happens,
because I'm somewhat jaded myself ... I see how it works, I see how the
industry operates and I look at a record and I go, 'These fuckers have to
go through the same shit I do - this is not even exciting.'"
And as a firmly-rooted family man approaching his 40s, yet one hitting the
road once again, does Pollard ever wonder if he's getting - in the words of
Danny Glover's long-suffering Lethal Weapon cop - too old for this
"Oh, every fucking tour," says Pollard without the least hesitation, "Every
tour I say it's our last one. I go, 'Yeah, I'm done. I can't do this shit
anymore. It's going to kill me.'
"But it's different now," he adds, "I've got a new band now so it's kind of
challenging. It's kind of exciting now to see the reaction of the people.
These guys are really good. I think we're a much more solid rock band, not
to take anything away from the old band," he's quick to add, "because they
were very good.
"I like to say we were overachievers because none of us know really much
about music, but we still played and we still went out and did it, where as
these guys, they're veterans of rock from since the early '80s and they
really know how to play."
The Mag Earwhig! tour is already under way and this will be a GbV
summer if the band and their record label have anything to do with it.
Pollard and the Verde guys will hit Austin June 27 for a show at Liberty
"By the time we get to you guys, I think we're going to be really, really
tight," Pollard predicts.
The show will be an excellent opportunity catch the band, because, as
Pollard even admits, he doesn't know how long he can keep this up. But he
isn't ready to retire just yet.
"I wanna play some big rock before I get old," says Pollard, "Too old."
The new, limited edition 7-inch single Bulldog Skin is out now.
Mag Earwhig! follows on May 20. Guided by Voices will play at Liberty
Lunch on June 27. Tickets are currently on sale. More information about the
>band is available at - where else? - http://www.gbv.com.
LORDS OF OVERSTOCK
A quick survey of Guided by Voices' ever ballooning output, now topping
300 songs - most in only the past five years. Just make sure to check all
your preconceptions about acceptable production values and conventional
song structure at the door...
BOX (Scat, 1995) A collection of the band's first four, hard-to-find,
self-released albums plus a set of unreleased tracks might sound like a
proposition for die hard fans and indie rockologists only. Yet, these
albums yield a surprisingly high amount of sturdy songs as Pollard and Co.
progress through R.E.M.-inspired weirdness (Devil Between My Toes),
power pop (Sandbox), progressive rock (Self-Inflicted Aerial
Nostalgia), and full-blown concept album (Same Place The Fly Got
Smashed). Witness Pollard's songwriting abilities take a dramatic leap
as the recording fidelity takes a steady decline. Rarities collection
King Shit & The Golden Boys contains what may be the ultimate GbV
song title: Deathtrot and Warlock Riding a Rooster.
PROPELLER (Rockathon, 1992, Scat, 1996) Punk and progressive rock lock
horns Pollard-style in what may be the band's finest moment. Fist-pumpin',
tear-jerkin' anthem Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox provides
Propeller with one of the most thrilling album openers in rock
history. Other top tunes include rockers Quality of Armor and Exit
Flagger. Guitarist Tobin Sprout makes his songwriting/vocal debut with
oddly-affecting 14 Cheerleader Coldfront.
VAMPIRE ON TITUS (Scat, 1993) The band's most sonically delinquent platter
also contains some of Pollard's most beautiful compositions. From epic
rockers "Wished I Was A Giant" and Expecting Brainchild to
longing ballads Gleemer and Wondering Boy Poet, Vampire
pays handsome dividends to the dedicated listener. With Pollard's vocals
buried deep in the mix on many tracks, a lyric sheet is a must.
BEE THOUSAND (Scat, 1994) GbV's best known work, B1000 really sparked the
whole lo-fi buzz. (Pardon the double pun.) Quality meter registers in the
red for 20-track collection of unflaggingly appealing earcandy. Live show
staples Tractor Rape Chain, Echos Myron and Hot Freaks all
included here. Shimmering, fully-formed I Am the Scientist places
Pollard in the company of the best pop composers.
ALIEN LANES (Matador, 1995) Group's most cohesive and seamlessly
sequenced collection crams a whopping 28 tracks in under 45 minutes. Whew!
Contains two of their finest pop songs in Game of Pricks and My Valuable Hunting Knife.
Also amazing for how much emotion Pollard is able to lend a song entitled Chicken Blows.
UNDER THE BUSHES, UNDER THE STARS (Matador, 1996)
A mature, transitional album where the band makes the leap back to a proper recording studio.
Features Pollard at his most majestic on Don't Stop Now and Redmen
and their Wives. Sprout makes equally awesome contributions with To
Remake the Young Flyer and Atom Eyes.
FAST JAPANESE SPIN CYCLE (Engine, 1994) In addition to their albums, GbV
regularly spits out a wide selection of 7-inchers and EPs. This one's the
gem of the bunch. Ten blissful minutes from melancholy Volcano Divers to stirring Dusted.