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Revolver - May/June 2001
By Tom Beaujour

Arrested Development
Eternal Adolescent Bob Pollard Confronts Adulthood on Guided By Voices' Isolation Drills

"Tuck the ball, motherfucker!"

Bob Pollard punches the couch in the recording studio lounge, and curses a blue-streak at a butter-fingered Ohio State running back. "What a pussy", the 43-year-old Guided By Voices frontman growls, himself a one-time Ohio State baseball star. "A fuckin' pussy."

Unfazed by the outburst, bassist Tim Tobias and Doug Gillard, the group’s often-taciturn lead gui­tarist, heatedly debate the relative merits of vari­ous Midwestern fast-food milkshakes. “Steak N’
Shake sucks,” asserts Gillard. “You know why they suck? Because they use too much flicking ice.” Soon the conversation shifts to Tobias’ irrational fear of midgets. “Look, I’ve got nothing against the little people.” insists Tobias, puffing on one in an endless succession of Marlboro Lights. “It’s just that they freak the shit out of me, and they seem to follow me everywhere. Last time we were on tour, we stopped to put some gas in the van, and this midget who was washing his windshield was like, ‘Hey, are you fellas in a rock group?’

“It would have been fine, except that the little motherfucker was standing on his hood.”

Suddenly, the room is silenced by a thunderous crash. Drummer Jim MacPherson has accidentally torn a pool cue rack from the wall, and is doubled over with laughter. This is MacPherson’s last night with the band (he is “retiring” to spend more time with his family), and he’s determined to make his flight back to Ohio as hungover as possible.

With all this rec-room fun, its hard to believe that expensive minutes are ticking away on the studio dock, or that New York’s ultra-hip Lower East Side is bustling just outside the door. Final­ly, after going on a massive beer and McDonald’s run, Pollard and the current incarnation of Guided by Voices (the band has had more than 20 members since the singer started the proj­ect as a weekend-only hobby in the early Eight­ies) decide that it is time to get back to the business of recording basic tracks for the band’s new album, Isolation Drills. Except the session gets delayed again, as rhythm guitarist Nate Farley has disappeared.

“Where the fuck is Farley?” Pollard bellows,

“Farley’s puking,” Tobias volunteers, snick­ering. “He’s been puking all day.”

  Three weeks later, the band has actually managed to complete the album. When I ask Pollard — a little worse for the wear after a month spent partying in the big city — if the scene described above is typical of Guided by Voices’ recording sessions, he replies in the affirmative. In fact, he says, it’s typical of any day in his own existence. “That’s exactly what I do when I’m home in Dayton,” he affirms. “I don’t hang out with, like, artists and intellectual types. My friends are basically guys I knew in high school. We just basically drink and watch sports.”

Of course, such a confession from most 43-year-old Midwestern men would come as no surprise. But Pollard is not most Midwestern men: When he’s not hanging out with a bunch of buddies straight our of white trash central casting, he’s busy writing shitloads of infectious British Invasion—inspired rock anthems. So many, in fact that Pollard has been compelled to crank out a dizzying flow of solo records — indistinguishable in all but recording quality from official, big-budget Guided by Voices albums — just to keep up with his own output. His small corps of rabid fans consume them with an equally voracious appetite and eagerly await new material from a song­writer they consider a rival to masters such as: Lennon/McCartney, Townshend and Costello. The Guided by Voices songbook is a place where the two-minute pop song is pushed to the very limit of expressive capabilities, where melodies soar with unabashed grandiosity, and surreal characters and bizarre parables coexist peace fully with beefy riffs (imagine the Who performing an arena-shaking rendition of the Beatles “Nowhere Man”).

Considering his lowbrow routine, it’s difficult to see whence Pollard draws his inspiration. “My lyrics are mainly influenced by lyricists I’ve really liked,” he explains. “Marc Bolan, David Bowie, John Lennon, Wire — that kind of stuff. I’ve always thought lyrics are much more interest­ing when they really don’t mean anything on the surface.

Also,” he notes, “I don’t think anyone would want to hear about what goes on in my life, to tell you the truth.”

Far from being an expression of modesty, this last sentiment apparently reflects what is Pollard’s deeply felt need to deflect attention from a private life that is far more complicated than his happy-go-lucky demeanor would indicate. In 1994, Guided by Voices’ breakthrough album, Bee Thousand, was embraced by the indie-rock community as a lo-fi masterpiece. Sensing the chance of a lifetime, the 36-year-old Pollard, a married father of two, quit his job as a fourth grade teacher to pursue his musical career. Since then, the hard-drinking rock-and-roll lifestyle and the months he’s spent on tour have exacted a predictable toll on his marriage.

Actually, until last year, Pollard was able to defy the odds and successfully walk the tight rope between rock and responsibility. Then he lost his balance. “I’ve had some trouble this past year,” he acknowledges. “We toured much more than we ever did in support of our last album, Do the Collapse; so I was gone all the time. We met so many people, and different things happened that have caused a certain amount of turmoil in my personal life. I moved out of my house for, like six weeks, but I’m back now and we’re trying to get things right again. And hopefully we will.”

No sooner have these words escaped his mouth than Pollard feels the need to reverse himself “It may not be the moral thing to do, but I don’t let anything stand between me and my band. My kids are raised — my son is 19, and my daughter’s 16— and now I’m gonna tour until my hips give out,”

Pollard’s troubled marriage and his desire to reconcile his need to rock with the needs of his family permeate Isolation Drills. For the first time in his songwriting career, he has aban­doned the cerebral hopscotch that characterized his lyrics for less oblique, more heartfelt fare. “People used to always ask me about my lyrics when they were more surreal, and I’d say ‘I don’t wanna fuckin’ write songs about relationships and “I miss you” and “I’m coming back,” and all that kind of shit.’ And now I find myself writing about those very things.”

Pollard’s songs of love and loss are no less eloquent than his past work; Isolation Drills is a harrowing song cycle about separation and attempted reconciliation, with songs like “Brides Have Hit Glass” and ‘Twilight Campfighter” specifically addressing issues of marriage and fidelity, while others, like the haunting “Rim Wild,” attempt to grapple with the chilling consequences of living a life gloriously misspent. Pollard, it seems, is able to muster in his work the kind of lucid perspective that eludes him in life, a fact sadly attested to by the wailing “How’s My Drinking?”

‘When people come see a Guided by Voices show, they expect us to be drunk,” he explains. “It’s like a science experiment: ‘Are they gonna be too fucked-up to play? Is it gonna be just right?’ I try to gauge my drinking so that I can work up a nice buzz but not go over the edge during the three hours that we usually stay onstage. One show, I decided not to drink, as a kind of experiment, and it was horrifying. Everybody was all fuckin’ wasted and looking at me like, ‘Man he’s not even fuckin’ drunk. What’s up with that?’ So I do feel some obligation to be entertaining everyone, to be as drunk as they are. It’s kind of a scary thing, too, because I ask myself how long can I can keep doing that kind of fuckin’ thing.”

And with that question, Pollard hits the nail on the head. How long can a man his age keep acting like a 20 year-old on spring break with impunity? Will he return from the road one day to discover that his marriage has completely withered from neglect? Will he drink himself into a permanent stupor, or worse? The odds are that neither Pollard nor his fans are particularly keen to confront these questions. Because answering them threatens the existence of Guided By Voices. And as long as Guided by Voices lives, one thing is certain. There will be more songs. More great fucking songs.

A selected Guided By Voices Discography

Bee Thousand (Scat, 1994)

Striking a perfect balance between lo-fi slovenliness and celestial melodies, this is the album that put Guided by Voices on the map. Bob Pollard’s lyrics venture into absurdity with alarming frequency, but can you really fault someone for wanting to sing about kicking elves?

Alien Lanes (Matador, 1995)

In the wake of Bee Thousand’s success, Pollard was wined and dined by numerous record labels, but Alien Lanes makes it quite clear that he didn’t let the smoke blown up his ass go to his head. ‘Salty Salute” is indie rock’s answer to Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Nite,” while ‘Motor Away” and “Closer You Are” are as tasty as power pop gets.

Jellyfish Reflector (Jellyfish, 1996)

Even though Guided by Voices appeals primarily to the college music crowd, the band’s members are hardly effete shoe gazers, and this authorized bootleg goes a long way toward capturing the reckless abandon with which GBV performs. Chug a Bud Lite between each song, and it’s almost like being there.  

MagEarwhig! (Matador, 1997)

More polished and “rock” than prior albums, Mag Earwhiçj! was recorded with Cobra Verde — a well-liked, if unexceptional alt-outfit — as Pollard’s backing band. Some fans cursed Pollard for ditching the “classic” lineup, and bemoaned the album’s almost hi-fi production. Others got with the pro­gram and marveled that mere earthlings would be able to pull such songs from the depths of their deeply flawed souls.

Robert Pollard with Doug Gillard
Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department

One of the many solo albums that Pollard has released on the Rockathon label, Speak Kindly is a seamless collaboration with GBV guitarist Doug Gillard. Pollard did not misplace his trust: Gillard dips into his endlessly inventive playbook to make this collection of top-shelf Pollard anthems shine all the brighter.            — TB.