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Special Thanks to Dave Heaton
Night Times July 1997.
"Guided By Big Guitar (and Voices, too) by Julia Gordon
Mag Earwhig [Matador], the latest album from Guided By Voices, is the most guitar-rocking, pop project ever produced under the GBV name by leader/founder/brainchild, Robert Pollard. But GBV followers know Pollard has had many incarnations of his band, with few aspects unchanging beyond his own participation. On Mag Earwhig, he's teamed up with old Scat Records labelmates, Cobra Verde, to produce what some are calling a 'classic rock' album. We caught up with Pollard to discuss who, what and where Guided By Voices are today.
Do you consider Mag Earwhig to be a Guided By Voices album, or a Robert Pollard with Cobra Verde album?
"To me it's like a Robert Pollard solo album. Anything I do, anything I do, is Guided By Voices, to me. I consider it to be Guided By Voices. And Cobra Verde, to me, although they are Cobra Verde, right now are Guided By Voices, too. It's the name of the club."
Is everything still cool with old GBV members, Toby, Mitch, and Kevin?
"Oh yeah. I haven't heard from Kevin- I think he's okay. But I know for sure that Mitch and Toby are fine. They're doing their own thing now. Mitch has got a band and Toby's doing some solo stuff, which I've heard is really good. So, like, everything's fine. They even got up on stage with us on the first show of the tour."
So you don't think they felt left out or anything?
"It was Toby's decision to leave the band. That kind of prompted the whole thing. His wife had a baby last year, so he had to stay home to help out there. He couldn't tour or anything, and he felt bad about it. I could tell he wanted out."
I read somewhere that there have been, like 51 different Guided By Voices lineups...
"That's an exaggeration. But it's probably, I bet, it's in the twenties. Yeah, there's been about twenty or so different lineups. I think that's a number that John just threw on the bio!"
Can we expect more lineups in the future?
"Probably, but you know, you can never tell. I don't say, like, 'well, I'm gonna use these guys for one album,' I do it until I become bored or someone else becomes bored, or it's just not compatible anymore. Right now, things are going well with this lineup, this combination of people. And so I at least hope to do it for one more album with these guys. And who knows? Maybe someone different after that. I don't want to be tied down, like it's some kind of marriage-type thing. That can be very constricting and I want the freedom to work with whomever I want."
What are YOUR words to describe the change in GBV's sound on Mag Earwhig?
"Guided By Voices has always been a slow evolution... it started out to do some big-sounding rock. It failed! So we kind of went to the basement, to do four-track, where we could capture the ideas in our head the way we wanted them. It started out as a project to be a big guitar-rock band. That was my goal, and now we've finally reached that we're making a big guitar rock album. I'm happy with that. Live, for years, it's always been big Marshall-Les Paul guitar rock. It just so happens that we had recorded then on a four-track in a basement, so we couldn't capture that big roomful of sound. I think we've finally reached what we want to be: a good guitar rock band. In the recording (of Mag Earwhig), we meet. We become the same thing."
So, even with the four-track history, there's always been some distance between you guys and the lo-fi movement.
"When we recorded our stuff, the thing that separated us from most four-track movements was that we recorded a full band, you know, with Marshalls and things in the basement. But it was only a four-track, so it's gonna sound thin and tinny and small. We weren't just like, banging on pots and pans. We were recording conventional, big rock music, only on a four-track. We knew, eventually, we're gonna have to get into a big studio- there's only so much we can do here. Now we have to incorporate some of those ideas we came up with in the basement, so there's still a challenge."
How do the old, die-hard GBV fans feel about the more polished, rocking sound?
"The ones that really understand what we're about think it's great. The people who post on the Guided By Voices website, they think it's great, it's the best thing. There are some kids who are a little bit disappointed. They maybe liked the old lineup a little bit better, they got used to it, or they like that lo-fi thing. But to me, you can only progress, you have to do something different. We have done pretty much everything we can do with lo-fi. It's time to move on. If some of the kids are disappointed with that, they can go find someone else or whatever."
And maybe you're moving on a little ahead of the game...
"Exactly. The whole conceptual feel of Guided By Voices is still there. I don't think it's lost that much, it's not that drastic a change. I'm glad you made that observation!"
There are two songs I found fascinating: "Sad if I Lost It" and "I Am Produced." How personal and real are those to you?
"Personally, they're real in more of an emotional sense than a literal sense, because I write stream-of consciousness lyrics. "Sad If I Lost It" is about persevering, and 'how long can I continue to do this?' Sometimes I want to stop it, but something doesn't let me because I think I would be very sad if I didn't do this. "I Am Produced" is basically about people in general. About going from childhood to adulthood, having to become some kind of active, constructive part of society. It's kind of a sad thing because you lose a lot of the spark and creativity, You just become part of the chain. I'm able to do what I want. Not too many people are able to do what they want. And so, I feel grateful for that. very few people can do what they want. It takes drive. I'm trying to teach that to my 16 year old son."
But you sound cautious. Are you scared for your son?
"I'm scared for everybody! I'm scared for myself! Life is scary! So that's in a lot of the songs. I have a little bit of a melancholy soul, I'm drawn to the sadder songs. But I also have a rock n roll soul. I'm kind of schizophrenic!"
Are you looking for radio airplay? The radio's never been that kind to you!
"Yeah...[pause], We're with a big label that lets us do what we want, and I don't want to be non-compromising and snobby all the time and say, 'hey, we'll do what we want!' They think our songs are accessible, and would like to have them played on the radio. In the past, we'd have to re-record them. I just want to make records that, when the stuff has commercial potential, we don't re-record. We've already done it. I think our songs are good. I think they should be heard on the radio. I want people to hear them. I want to hear good music on the radio. Anytime there's a good song, it should be played. We're not 'anti-,' you know [Pollard switched to a gruff voice.] 'Hey, we're not gonna do this!'"
How do you feel about getting the 'classic rock' label with Mag Earwhig?
"I like that. The best rock bands have been classic rock bands: The Who, The Beatles, Wire and Genesis, stuff like that, that's what I aspire to. I want our music to be as good as that stuff. We called ourselves a classic rock band when we did four-track. We called it 'lo-fi arena rock'! I have no problem with that tag. But, we've been getting great response, and the record's doing really well and we've been getting good press. People have been saying good things. I think people needed a change. There was a little backlash on our last album, and I think, myself as a fan, from a fan's viewpoint, things were getting kind of stagnant. We've turned a corner. And we're running now. It's gonna get even better."
How come you named the album Mag Earwhig? What's that about?
"I put the album together and I sequenced it, and I thought it had this conceptual thread through it that made it almost seem like a rock opera or something. I decided to give it characters and names and things. My favorite character, of all these names, was Mag Earwhig, so that was the title character. He's me, and he's kind of a David Bowie-Ziggy Stardust kind of thing. It was kind of a joke! Another thing to confuse our fans a little bit more, you know!"
Hmmmm...Ziggy Stardust? So you're obviously moving on to flashier clothes, eh?
"I have a maroon blazer that I wear now. Big deal."
Anything you'd like to say to St. Louis?
"I was a big fan of a band from St. Louis called Drunks with Guns. Every time I'm in your town I say 'this is the town where Drunks with Guns came from!"
Well, I will mention in the article that you hold them in high esteem. Maybe some of those guys will read it.
"No! I don't want to meet them, they're scary!"