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The Onion
AV Club

By Jeff Stratton
Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard is among rock's greatest and most prolific living songwriters. Through 11 albums released since 1986, all characterized by Pollard's fake British accent, acidic lyrics, tongue-twisting titles, and uncanny pop ingenuity, he's created latter-day classic-rock that still sounds contemporary, even futuristic. Tossing stadium-friendly flourishes into the gears of indie-rock with such notable albums as Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under The Bushes Under The Stars, the former schoolteacher and his shifting roster of musicians developed rapidly into critics' favorites and live legends. The group's new album marks a departure for an act once synonymous with low fidelity, thanks to well-financed production courtesy of Ric Ocasek. Do The Collapse is still overflowing with hooks, but the guitars are louder, the vocals stronger, and the cohesion greater than ever before. The aggressively catchy "Teenage FBI" and "Surgical Focus" rank with Pollard's most fully realized compositions--and considering that he's written thousands of songs, that's saying something. Finding a new creative outlet with a string of solo releases (dubbed his "Fading Captain" series), Pollard's output is always entertaining and illuminating. In a recent interview with The Onion, Pollard talked about his songs, his band, his kids, his addictions, and his love of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

The Onion: Since you've never really worked with a producer before, how did you decide on Ric Ocasek?

Robert Pollard: I chose Ric. I was exploring some possibilities for producers, and he was at the top of the list. And at the same time, he found out about us without me knowing about it. He was on tour supporting his own solo records, and Melissa [Auf der Maur] from Hole was his guitar player, and she turned him on to a compilation tape she had made of Guided By Voices. He was into us at the same time that we were interested in him, so it kind of happened at the same time, mutually.

O: Maybe someday you'll return the favor and produce one of his records.

RP: Naw, I'm a terrible producer. I'm only good at producing lo-fi music. I know how to fuck shit up. Technically, I'm an idiot; I just know what I want and what I'd like to hear. What I've always done with Guided By Voices is, if something sounded too sterile or too studio-like, I'd always fuck it up a little bit. I'm good at destruction, not construction. I think people approach me to produce their records to make them sound shitty, make them sound worse. I don't think Ric would like what I'd do with his stuff.

O: Were you pleased with how Do The Collapse came out?

"I want to do records with him all the time... That's how I get; I get comfortable. I'm not very ambitious when it comes to exploring other ways to do things."
RP: Yeah, I definitely was. His intention was to make a big, polished rock record, a guitar-predominant record, and he did that. That's what I wanted. The reason I wanted him as a producer, other than the fact that he's a songwriter, was that I liked the guitar sound on the Weezer record--that big, crunchy, in-your-face guitar sound--so I think he did exactly what I wanted. I don't have much experience working with producers, but the experience with Ric was great. Now I want to do records with him all the time, from now on, you know? That's how I get; I get comfortable. I'm not very ambitious when it comes to exploring other ways to do things.

O: You've changed the line-up of the band several times recently, and some articles have questioned whether members were unceremoniously dumped, and whether rivalries existed between you and Tobin Sprout, who left the band to make his own records. What's the truth?

RP: I'm sick of that. I'm really fucking sick of that. Some people are shit-starters. One of them was [Cobra Verde's] John Petkovic, who was in my band. He did an interview where he was trying to stir up some shit, and I can understand that--he might be bitter about the whole thing with Cobra Verde. [Cobra Verde recently, but only temporarily, worked as Pollard's backing band. --ed.] But there are a lot of misconceptions that Toby was an equal co-conspirator the whole time during Guided By Voices. I've even heard of people saying that I don't even deserve to be able to continue or carry the name Guided By Voices, as if it's not mine; like, when Toby was out of the band it wasn't fair for me to keep calling it Guided By Voices. That's bullshit, because I started Guided By Voices in 1981, and Toby didn't even come into the band until 1992. That's 11 years when there was a Guided By Voices without Toby. A lot of people don't check the history: They don't do their fucking homework, and they just start running their mouth. That's what created that whole thing. I like Toby. I think he's a good songwriter and musician, and I wish him the best, but for some strange reason, our albums just seem to come out at the same time. That's not intentional, but a lot of people even review them together, and I'm tired of that, too. In Guided By Voices, I wrote 90 percent of the songs, at least. Guided By Voices has been my band from the beginning and Toby knows that. It was created as a vehicle for my songs, it's been my band, and it still is my band. I have a perfect right to continue it. Sorry to be going off on that, man, but I'm glad you brought that up. That's my favorite question so far, because I'm getting irritated by those comparisons and shit.

O: There is no rivalry, then?

RP: No, and it's not necessary to invent one. Toby is a good guy, and I'm sure he doesn't want that shit. I'm sure he appreciated the fact that people are giving him credit for being a good songwriter and everything, but this whole thing about how it's not Guided By Voices without Toby... That's gotta go.

O: He was usually perceived as being in your shadow, and that generated some sympathy for his underdog status. He didn't have many songs on your albums and you rarely, if ever, played his songs live.

RP: But he didn't mind that. It got to the point where he wanted more of his songs on the record, but he started doing solo things, which was fine with me. And then he got to the point where he didn't want to be in a band anymore, but that was mainly because of his family. There was no bitterness between us. He chose to not be in the band anymore. So I don't understand the creation of this rivalry. There isn't one.

O: Was your solo career intended to give you an outlet for all your songs without flooding the market with Guided By Voices albums?

RP: Yeah, that's what it was created for. I can put out anything I want as often as I want now. I just finished another solo record. I'm keeping myself busy with the "Fading Captain" series; it's been a good thing for me. We're doing three songs from Lexo And The Leapers live, because to me, it's all Guided By Voices. That's what kills me, when people say, "You're putting your solo career in front of Guided By Voices." It's all Guided By Voices: My solo career is Guided By Voices, it's all Guided By Voices. It's my name, it's my fuckin' baby. It's all Guided By Voices! The solo records will be lower priority, but the songs will still be out there and our fans will still buy 'em. I write so many songs, and it's hard at the sales level we're at to be able to market and promote them. It's hard for us to put out albums less than a year apart.

O: Your songwriting seems like a compulsion.

RP: I have an addiction to songwriting. You know, there are people who like to play softball all the time, or basketball, or darts, or whatever. I like to write songs, so when I'm here at home, I get up in the morning and make myself some coffee, and I just get my guitar and turn on my tape recorder. I really love to write songs. Another reason is that I'm bored with music for some reason. I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's because we've become part of "rock" now, but when I was just a fan, I was an avid, enthusiastic record buyer and listener. Now I'm just bored, because I've found everything, I think. When I go into record stores, I don't look at the new-music section too much. It's pretty pathetic. There are some good underground bands coming from the same place we are, bands we've known for a long time that are still doing good stuff. Bands like Superchunk, Pavement, Sebadoh, and The Grifters are still doing good stuff. But if you look for good new music, it's just not there, so I'm always looking for old '60s and '70s compilations. If you're looking for a particular type of song that's not around or that doesn't exist anymore, the only thing you can really do is try to write it yourself, and try to find it in your own mind. So that's why I write, 'cause I'm addicted.

O: Is that why you keep things short, so you can just crank them out?

RP: Oh, yeah. When you write short songs, you can write more of 'em. A lot of bands like to labor over one song until they get it perfect, but I can't stand it. I don't have the patience to try to make it perfect, because it's pointless to try to labor over it. You can always make it better. The only important thing is that you capture what you heard in your head. It doesn't matter if it fits any kind of MTV standard, or radio standard, or whatever. You do the song, then you move on to the next one. That way, you get a lot of 'em out, and it's more fun.

O: How long will you continue to write songs at this rate?

"Some people accuse me of being a well that has dried up... I think I'm getting to be a better songwriter than I used to be, so I don't listen to that shit."
RP: Into the next world, you know? I hope that after I die I can continue to write songs there, too. It's not like a well that dries up. Some people accuse me of being a well that has dried up, and I don't understand that. I think I'm getting to be a better songwriter than I used to be, so I don't listen to that shit. I guess some people are upset that we're not this lo-fi, four-track band anymore, but I can't worry about that. You can't stay in one place, because you'll become stagnant. I know that for a fuckin' fact.

O: It's hard to stay inspired doing the same routine over and over.

RP: Inspiration comes from yourself. It comes from other things, too, but mainly it comes from your ability to channel ideas into something cool. I can still do that, and as long as I can do that, I'll still be coming up with good songs, I think. Some people are disappointed because I've fleshed my songs out and they're a little more complicated. But the lyrics are much better now. My last two solo records and this new one I just did, I think, lyrically, are by far my best stuff. I'm writing poetry and turning it into music now. A lot of the lyrics are really good; they're pretty strange and really cool. I've been having people come up to me at shows and misquoting lyrics, and I like that. People do these analyses of Guided By Voices lyrics; they like to analyze every little line as if it means something. And to me, it really doesn't. I write in this stream of consciousness, and it really doesn't mean anything until some time later.

O: Can you estimate how many songs you've written?

RP: I've got thousands of songs. I'd say there are 300 90-minute cassettes in my basement. We were combing through those and putting them on CD, and we weren't even a quarter of the way through one box before we counted 150 unreleased songs. Most of them are terrible, and that's why they're in there. Some of them are not bad, though. I keep all the songs that got bumped from records, and if I ever need a bridge or an intro or a little lyric or melody, I go back to that catalog and get a little scrap. They're good for that. Sometimes I'll grab a song and change it around and update it.

O: With the line-up fluctuating so much, do some songs get lost in the cracks? It must be hard to make sure every member knows every song from every album.

RP: We've practiced our asses off to try to get it together. We have a new bass player, so we had to teach him the songs. But we didn't have much time to get it together, so we probably only have about 50 songs we can play live. I wish we knew everything, and I wish we could be programmed so we could do every song in the catalog. A band like Cheap Trick can do every song they've ever recorded, because it's the same band that's been together for years, so they know everything. But with my band, it's the 15th incarnation, you know?

O: That must keep things fresh for you, though.

RP: I like it, but I still crave a solidified line-up, and I hope this is it. It feels really good right now. It's nice to get a new band occasionally, but I really do want to have one line-up.

O: Have you ever discussed a Guided By Voices best-of album?

RP: We had an idea, and I don't know if it will ever see fruition, but our idea was to do the best of Guided By Voices, re-recorded by Ric or somebody. Especially if we have a couple hits from this record, then maybe it'll be a good time for some of the songs that should have been hits in the past to become hits, you know? It's a good idea, and if we do it next year, we'll call it Bee Two Thousand.

O: You've managed to incorporate prog-rock influences into indie-rock, something nobody else has ever tried, and you're proud of it.

RP: When I first started doing interviews, and I first mentioned that one of my favorite bands was early Genesis, people were fucking amazed. They'd go, "How can that be?" Even in college in the late '70s, I listened to Devo and Genesis; those were my two favorite bands at the same time, and people were totally confused as to how I could do that. Selling England By The Pound is one of my top 10 records of all time. I love that record. Genesis with Peter Gabriel might be my biggest influence.

O: Wasn't Under The Bushes intended to parallel The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway?

RP: Initially. I even had characters like a rock opera, but it was so confusing that I decided to shit-can that idea. I didn't want to have to go on a press tour to explain what it meant, like the way Pete Townshend used to have to explain his projects. I can't do that; it's insane. But The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway... That album and Ziggy Stardust are probably my two favorite concept albums.

O: It's important to clarify that it was Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, not the latter-day stuff.

RP: Absolutely. It's The Bee Gees Syndrome, you know? The Bee Gees were great at first. Both The Bee Gees and Genesis went from being one of the greatest bands in the world to one of the worst bands in the world. A complete flip of the coin, the opposite of what they were, a big commercial fucking sell-out, whereas they used to be something spiritual and good. I guess that happens to bands. It's a complete sell-out for money and fame. They go for the fuckin' cash. Some people think we're doing that right now, but that's not true; it just got to the point where the sound quality had to get better in our music. It's the evolution, the progression. They're the same songs, just a little more fleshed-out. But we're not over-blown keyboard music. Where Genesis would have a 20-minute song with 15 songs in there, we break them down and separate them. We could just put a bunch together and turn 'em into one big, long song. In that way, we're like Genesis.

O: Though it's hard to imagine Genesis sitting around on stage with a cooler full of beer.

RP: No, no, no, no. That's us. That's totally original. That's the Guided By Voices thing, the whole beer thing. That's why we're great. We get comparisons to The Grateful Dead because of our fanatic following, but their following was about acid, and ours is all about beer.

O: But you don't drink as much as you used to.

RP: I've toned it down. When we first started, it was ridiculous. At that time, I'd start drinking when I woke up in the morning for that night's show, and by the time I came on, I'd be completely blind. Now, I start drinking maybe an hour or two before the show, so I've timed it perfectly. I have a perfect buzz when I get on stage. The people see me drink a lot of beer on stage, and we do have a cooler on stage; we do get up there and have a party. It's actually part of our stage thing. We drink beer and we like to party, but we're not ridiculous, you know? I also like to run and play basketball. And I drink Bud Light, which is basically water. Of course, we get drunk, and it is alcohol and everything, but it's not as bad as people would say. It's part of the image: "Look at those guys pounding those beers, man! They're gonna be dead of alcohol poisoning soon, so get 'em while you can!" Everybody's going to be dead from something eventually. I'm not that bad. I don't drink on my day off. But I like to drink beer. Here in the Midwest, you drink beer and you eat pizza.

O: The beer reportedly gave you the courage to play live when you first started the band.

RP: At first it was like liquid stage-fright reducer; I called it backbone juice. And so we relied on that. Now, people expect to see us do it. If I don't get up there and spit beer on people, I think they're disappointed.

O: And you don't even sleep the hangovers away.

RP: Yeah, I don't sleep late; I usually get up about 8:30 or so. That's when I write songs, in the morning. I don't like to stay on the road too long, because I can't write on the road. I need to get back for a few weeks and write songs. In the morning, my wife goes to work or goes shopping and my kids go off to school, so it's a good time for me to be alone, drink some coffee, and write.

O: Your kids must be getting to the age where they look forward to you going away on tour so they can get in more trouble.

RP: Oh, yeah, I know. They give my wife a little bit more shit when I'm gone, you know. She tells on them when I get back. But they're pretty good kids. I don't have to worry about them. They're all right. I have a song about my son, "My Son Cool," and my daughter, "Your Name Is Wild." Wild and cool--those are my kids.