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Robert Pollard pretty much is Guided by Voices. Sole constant member of the critically adored band, whose lineup seems to change almost as often as the seasons, currently including two ex-members of The Breeders, Pollard also releases record after record of solo material. At last count, there were at least three full-lengths bearing his name in the past two years, most recently Always Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, a collaboration with Guided by Voices guitarist Doug Gillard. That record came only two months after the Ric Ocasek-produced Do the Collapse, Guided by Voices’ latest and first album since jumping ship from Matador Records to TVT — a label that seems determined to turn cult hero Pollard into a Big Rock Star. It’s nothing he is afraid of.
“I can’t imagine anyone not wanting a hit single,” Pollard explains. “I know some people have that punk rock attitude or that kind of anti-industry stance — ‘We’re not going to do that, that’s not the kind of game we play’ — but anyone, as long as it’s on your own terms and it sounds like your band and you haven’t really sold out and changed things drastically, sure you’d like to have a hit. You’d like to hear your song played on the radio, but it means a lot of money, too. It’s nice to make a living and have job security in the future because you had a hit. Like I said, as long as you haven’t completely sold out and it’s like a rap song or a swing song or some shit.”
That’s a trap Pollard is hoping to dodge while his new label retools “Hold On Hope,” a song that features a string section, which would have been unthinkable for Guided by Voices just a few years earlier when it was still recording the bulk of its output on a four-track. “It’s a good song, but it’s kind of a sappy song that I was slightly embarrassed about when I wrote it. But Ric Ocasek assured me that it was a big monster ballad and ‘this is your big hit so you’ve got to do it,’ so I did and now it’s the next single,” Pollard rationalizes.
“TVT got the guy, his name is Jack Joseph Puig, the guy that produced ‘Closing Time’ and the Goo Goo Dolls song that’s real huge (‘Iris’). So he’s remixed it, and I’m back and forth saying, ‘You can’t do this and you can’t do that.’ We’re kind of finagling about like what’s going to happen with that song because it’s been changed drastically and it’s just a scary thing. I’m trying to get it where I can live with it because I guess it’s the one that they think is going to break us,” he says.
The process is turning into a lot of hoop-jumping that Pollard doesn’t necessarily see the reason for in the first place. “I don’t understand what’s wrong with the album version. I don’t understand why that can’t be a hit. But they’re saying it needs other things that the radio needs, that the radio people understand that I don’t,” he says. “We’re still in the process of revising the song and it’s driving me insane. But a hit is a good thing. It sells records, and when records sell, more people buy your record and more people get turned on to your music. That’s what I think all bands want, is to turn people on to the music.”
Like it or lump it, this is what Pollard signed up for when he left the independent universe, specifically planet Matador, whose distribution deal with Capitol Records was still in effect when Guided by Voices started recording Do the Collapse but had ended by the record’s completion. “We were going to stay with Matador, because we were hoping they were going to push us through Capitol. We went out and talked to Capitol and everything and they told us to make this big record and get a producer, so we did,” Pollard recalls. “Then the whole Capitol/Matador thing folded, so we said, ‘We’ve spent all this money and got Ric Ocasek to produce this record so what are we going to do now? Are we going to stay with Matador, who had gone back to a strictly independent format, or are we going to try to seek out better resources?’ We decided to do the latter.”
Pollard thinks Guided by Voices made the right decision. “TVT’s been good,” he says. “They’ve been really pushing the record on the radio and everything so, so far, I guess, so good. It’s always hard to tell, though. I’m always distrusting of all labels.”
Pollard has a simple reason for that, too. “I just think the artists get fucked. And it’s a necessary evil to have them if you want to promote your band and to reach a larger audience,” Pollard says, mentioning that he’s still sitting pretty with the deal he has. “I’ve got the best of both worlds. I’ve got Guided By Voices doing the whole press thing, doing the whole support-the-big-record thing, and then on the other side I’ve got Robert Pollard or whatever pseudonym I want to call whatever the project on my own label, the Fading Captain series. I can do whatever I want there with no obligations and no strings attached.”
Someday, no date specified, that’s what Pollard would like to do 100 percent. “That’s probably what it will be in the future. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing. That’s kind of like my retirement, but right now I’m into playing shows and saying, ‘We’re the best band in the world’ and all that kind of shit.”
That being said, Pollard has much love for the aforementioned Always Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department. “The songs are like fucking amazing. It might be the best record I’ve ever done — that’s what some people are saying,” he says, though also noting that he’s not holding out the goods on the project that doesn’t bear his name front. “It just happened to be coincidental that it was time for a Robert Pollard record. I had time in between after Do the Collapse was finished and I was ready for the next record, so it just happened that I wrote a bunch of good songs for it. I never know what batch of songs is going to be the best songs for whatever record. It just happens to be timing and coincidence. But I’m happy with the way that Do the Collapse came out. I thought there were a lot of good songs on it; I just think that the songs on Always Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department are better.”
Pollard isn’t holding out on the label, either, with a covert attempt to thwart its scheme to take him to the top of the charts. “TVT had the option to put it out if they had wanted to, and that’s the thing with my label. The Fading Captain Series is, like, I can do all I want, but they have the option to put it out if they want. They have 10 days to say yes or no and then they have three months to put it out and then they have to give me an advance and shit, so they chose not to put it out,” he says, adding that he wasn’t surprised when TVT declined. “I didn’t think they would put it out because it was done on a four-track.”
Perhaps surprisingly with his voluminous output, Pollard says he doesn’t actually spend all his free time composing. “I just write an amazing amount of songs when I sit down to write. I don’t spend all the time writing songs, but when I do write, I just brainstorm as many ideas as I can. When I sit down to write songs, sometimes I’ll write 30 or 40 songs and then I’ll go back and choose the ones that I kind of like and work on them — they’re just kind of skeletons of songs,” he says. “Then I’ll go back after I’ve listened to all the ideas that I just recorded and I’ll take the ones that I really like and work on them. I just kind of go into a trance, actually.”
And having said that, Pollard suggests he is Guided by Voices, figuratively, as well.
Guided by Voices
With Those Bastard Souls and Britt Daniel (from Spoon)
Saturday, Nov. 6
at The Bottleneck