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Rockpile - June 2001
By Peter Bothum

Worshipers piled out of mini-van taxis and giant buses and scuttled across the pavement. The wall of freeze was there to greet them, and it closed in while they waited for the tickets that would get them in. The red hallway of a cave-like concrete church funneled the worshipers into a big room where warmth and a chance to bow down at the altar of Rock awaited. 

New Year's Eve, Dec. 31, 2000. Guided By Voices. The Cat's Cradle, Carborro, N.C.  It was the best night of the year to rock, and the best band to rock it with. Somewhere in this makeshift church, one Robert Pollard, the seemingly indestructible force that drives the pop-song and rock-anthem machine that is GBV, is downing beers and inhaling cigarettes at an amazing rate. He's holding court in a small room off of the main red hallway that connects to the stage. Surprisingly, the room is not packed with followers. One fan finds the room, pops inside and just stands there and drinks a beer without saying more than five words. Four of the band members are there. Guitar player Doug Gillard drifts away from the main conversation while he smokes away on his Marlboro Lights. Bassist Tim Tobias and guitarist Nate Farley watch and listen as Pollard tells a story about former GBV guitarist Mitch Mitchell. Seems that, at his drunkest, Mitchell was hell for launching into the wrong song with his overpowering guitar style. Pollard impersonates the erroneous Mitchell riffage, and goes on to tell how, on one occasion, he just went ahead and made up a new song to go with Mitchell's chunky power chords. 

Outside, in the Cat's Cradle's main room, the worshipers are waiting. After watching metal-loving jokesters Bandway barrage through a set of Quiet Riot-meets-Howard Stern scorchers, Pollard and GBV give the worshipers what they want. A new, 35-song batch of prog-rock pinpricks, post-punk pile drivers and perfect pop ditties for a New Year. But amongst the super-catchy tunes about hunting knives and iron men and the shout-it-out anthems about being a scientist and an electric newspaper boy, there were songs that were serious. Songs that were sad. Songs that were creepy. 

Underneath the bold, frontman persona that told stories about crazy old bandmates and swung microphones like a roaring Roger Daltry, Bob Pollard was hurting. He didn't need to tell you. The new songs - "The Enemy," "Fair Touching," "Twilight Campfighter" - told you everything you needed to know. 

Those songs are off "Isolation Drills," the new GBV album released in early April on TVT Records. It's the band's second foray into Big Rock. Ex-Cars leader Ric Ocasek turned the knobs for last year's "Do The Collapse," a giant-sounding record laced with strings and thick guitars and mountainous keyboards and multi-layered vocal tracks. Critics and fans were a little shaken at hearing the masters of lo-fi rock turn into a slick machine ala "Heartbeat City" or "Candy-O." At the New Year's Eve show, Gillard admitted that he was less-than-happy with the results. With time serving as a buffer, Pollard is a little more diplomatic about "Do The Collapse" as he discusses it in mid-February, 2001. Pollard and his bandmates are on the second leg of a tour supporting "Isolation Drills," which has yet to be released at this point. The tour takes them flying through the south, and Pollard spent two mornings gabbing it up with Rockpile. "No, I like it. I like 'Do The Collapse,'" Pollard says from an Orlando hotel room. "There are things that I would have done differently that I kind of was tentative about because I was working with Ric Ocasek. He's a good guy. He's a totally nice guy, and I'm sure he would have ... he would have taken suggestions. I just put the whole ball into his court. "I listen to it sometimes, and I think it's good. The thing about "Do The Collapse," there are songs, there are places where I'll skip. I'll skip songs. You know, I don't want to hear that. 'Hold on Hope.' I skip that every fucking time." He has a good laugh over the slightly sappy but genuinely heart-felt ballad that really doesn't fit into the GBV arsenal. No doubt, Pollard is a little embarrassed by lines like, "Always working, reaching out for ... a hand that we can't see." 

Now, he can have a laugh, because "Isolation Drills" blows away any thoughts that Uncle Bob was starting to soften up. The new record is kind of like "Who's Next" meets "Blood On The Tracks." (Though, while Pollard has claimed the former is one of his all-time favorites, he apologizes for not owning the latter, a Bob Dylan classic). The lyrics are dark, straightforward and serious. No more obtuse songs about demons and ghosts. The music, too, is bulky and no-nonsense. Gillard holds back on the wild lead riffs that marked "Do The Collapse" and focuses instead on power chords and guitar textures. Tobias, who joined the touring unit for a later leg of the "Do The Collapse" tour and is a member of Gillard's band GEM, turns in a virtuoso performance on bass. Farley, the former Breeder, adds guitar muscle behind Gillard's lead. "'Isolation Drills' is definitely the most serious record that we've done. I thought 'Under The Bushes, Under The Stars,' (a 1996 album off Matador Records) was kind of serious a little bit, but not so much as this one. It still had like, themes that were kind of out there," Pollard says, this time in an Atlanta hotel. "I know some people miss the craziness. The whimsical, the imagery and shit that I used to use. But I think my lyrics are better, I think they're a lot better on this album than they used to be. First of all, all the songs started as poetry. But I think I'm becoming a better poet. It's still not completely obvious. You have to kind of read into it, to see what's going on." 

What's going on is that Pollard is struggling through troubled times in his marriage, mostly caused by the loneliness of the road and the distance between his hometown of Dayton, Ohio and wherever a tour takes him. The result: years of keeping friends and family happy while also trying to keep the whole debacle quiet. But the pain had to come out, and Pollard bleeds it on "Isolation Drills." "I just fucking cried all the time. Things have kind of smoothed themselves out. I'm just trying to do the best that I can. I'm trying to make everybody happy. I'm trying to still be friends with my wife, you know, I'm actually still married." Some fanatics apparently went over the line, ignoring obvious but gentle requests for privacy and taking intrusion to whole new level. "There's been five or six people from around the country who called my wife to tell her what an asshole I am -- that don't even know her. You know, there have been people come up to me at shows, to fucking push me. I had a guy push me in San Diego: I've 'lost my integrity.' I was like, 'Fuck you, you don't know what the hell is going on. It's none of your fucking business.' "It's rough. It's just a situation that I've created that I've had to deal with. I was so depressed for a while. Now, I'm OK," he says. "I still have my family. My family didn't go anywhere. I mean, just like, things happen in people's lives. Especially when you're in a rock band, and you're gone all the time, you're on the road, you meet people that you kind of let your guard down and things happen. And that's what happened. And so, what am I gonna do about it now? You never know what's going to happen in the future. I don't know." 

In "The Brides Have Hit Glass," he points the finger at a loved one and also cops to his own selfishness in a moment of self-realization that recalls Dylan's "Idiot Wind." In "Fine To See You," he bottoms out, noting that "there is no where to go but up." "Unspirited," he says, is for his 20-year-old son, Bryan, who has accompanied dad to many shows, including a gig at New York's Irving Plaza a few years back. Pollard says Bryan was totally cool at that show, handling the girls, keeping his calm. When Pollard was in the deepest throes of the marital struggles, he says he felt "unspirited" - totally numb and disconnected from anything real. The lesson for Bryan - don't be unspirited. Ever. "I don't want him to be like that. I don't feel like I'm unspirited, but at the time I just kind of like didn't know what to do with the situation I was in. So that all that I could do was just, like, be a zombie. Fuck it. Fuck everything. I'll do whatever the fuck I want, you know? Unspirited. It's about becoming numb," Pollard says. "I see my son, he's 20 years old now. He's a man now. And he's going to be in this whole fucking mess. The same mess that I'm in. But he's much more mature than I am. He's smarter than me. He blows my mind, man. I wish I could be like him." 

The best way for Pollard to heal his wounds when he's not on stage is to work. And he's never had a problem keeping busy. Right now, he's involved in five separate bands, or projects, or entities. There's Airport 5, his project with former GBVer Tobin Sprout that's due out later this year. There's Soft Rock Renegades, which is the "backing band" for his forthcoming solo record. There's Howling Wolf Orchestra, a psychedelic grouping that includes Farley and Pollard and a whole lot of noise. The short album, "Speed Traps for the Bee Kingdom, was released this year as part of the Fading Captain Series, which is Pollard's vehicle for releasing the mounds of songs that he writes each year. There's Pollard's upcoming project with Mac McCaughan of Superchunk - Mac came up to Pollard at the New Year's show and told him that he already had half the music written for a Fading Captain Series album. Pollard told him to finish it up and mail it to him. And then there's Guided By Voices. The band changes and morphs as if it is a sports team caught in the throes of free agency. Every time it seems as if the line-up is solid, someone retires, leaves or is fired. The so-called classic line-up, as fans like to call it, disbanded in 1996. That group included Pollard, Mitchell, Sprout and drummer Kevin Fennell. Pollard then hired Cleveland's Cobra Verde to back him for "Mag Earwhig" in 1997, but then fired everyone except for Gillard after a grueling tour marred by inner strife. The main rift formed between Pollard and Cobra Verde's John Petkovic. There were two frontmen sharing the same stage - it was like Van Halen employing David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar at the same time. During a show in Chicago, Petkovic tripped over Pollard's ankle and unplugged both his guitar and Gillard's instrument, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of "I Am A Tree." Pollard laughed at Petkovic for three songs, and Petkovic didn't forget it. Perhaps he waited until an interview with an Australian radio station to stage his retaliation. In a move that still pisses Pollard off to this day, Petkovic told the Aussies that his favorite GBV song of all time was "I Am A Tree," a song penned by Gillard long before he even joined the group. Make no mistake. Pollard loves the song, and insists it's the best tune Gillard has ever written. Still, he saw it as a cheap shot that Petkovic would single out the only GBV song Pollard didn't write as his favorite. 

In the latest incarnation of the group - which also includes American Flag drummer Jon McCann in the place of since-departed Jim MacPherson -- there is no such acrimony. On stage, Farley, Tobias and Pollard carry on like a bunch of drunken brothers. Gillard - who also is known to get wrecked on occasion - focuses on his playing while the boys carry on. "You've got to have somebody holding it all together. You know?" Pollard says. Tobias came with Gillard's seal of approval - again, having been in GEM -- but Pollard also was a fan of Tobias' work in an old Scat Records band called Four Coyotes. He was a guitarist, but he easily switched to bass. So he was in. The story of how Farley came to the band contains a few more twists. Early on in his career, Farley was in a slew of bands including promising acts Method and The Haunting Souls. Things somehow fell apart, and Farley ended up as a roadie for a West Coast swing by the "classic-lineup" version of GBV. The night that they played Vancouver, Sprout's wife went into the hospital to have a baby. After the show, he flew home to be with her, leaving the band down a guitar player for the next gig in Seattle. Pollard was set to cancel, but Farley came to the rescue. "Nate, as our roadie, learned all the songs like in one night," Pollard says. "He stayed up all night with Mitch and learned the songs. So we actually played the show the next day in Seattle with Nate. Nate learned like 35 songs in one night. And he finished up the West Coast tour with us." Farley went on to join Kim Deal's band, The Amps (actually a Pollard creation in which he was to play the guitar and relinquish lead vocal duties to Deal), which eventually became the Breeders again and then fizzled. Farley followed MacPherson into the band after the release of "Do The Collapse." "Technically, we're the best we've ever been," Pollard says of the new line-up. 

After "Isolation Drills," the solo record, the Airport 5 project, the Bob-Mac project and scatter-shot EPs and singles, the next big thing to be released by Pollard will probably be "Suitcase 2." That's right, another giant batch of unreleased Pollard gems, following up the four-CD, 100-song behemoth that he released last year. Pollard says he just keeps finding old songs that he lost somewhere in his basement back in Dayton. "What happened was I recorded so much shit at the time on cassettes in my basement," he says. "But I didn't even label them, I just threw them into this suitcase. I should have labeled them, and made it a lot easier on me. I went through it again, maybe about three months ago, and I found like about 65 more songs. So there will probably be another Suitcase. I just don't know where everything is. I forget, you know? If you've done so much stuff, it's a mess." He lost them. That's how he explains why an amazing rocker like "Bunco Men" didn't end up on "Under The Bushes, Under The Stars." That's how he explains how a gorgeous piano-only version of "Wondering Boy Poet" (a rougher version appears on 1992's "Propeller") could sit silent in a suitcase all these years. But that excuse won't wash with the wonderful "Where I Come From," a fine slice of R.E.M.-like jangle pop. Pollard says that one didn't get lost - he hid it, because he was embarrassed by it. "I was always embarrassed by the lyrics. It's a ridiculous, kind of like, hometown lyric, you know? But Toby, a few years ago, was like, 'Do you still have "Where I Come From" anywhere?' Because he wanted to cover it on one of his records. And I finally found it. I was searching through things and I found it." Each song on the first "Suitcase" was assigned to a different band name, mostly depending on the era that it was recorded in. The songs recorded at a video store in 1990, for instance, are attributed to Hazzard Hotrods. Songs by Antler were recorded in 1989 -- outtakes from the "Same Place That The Fly Got Smashed" album. A batch of serious-sounding songs recorded in the mid-80s are credited to The Amazing Ben Zing. And, just like "Where I Come From," Pollard was ashamed of the Ben Zing immediately after he recorded it and he stashed it away somewhere. "I like all the Amazing Ben Zing stuff. I remember when I was trying to be really - (laughs) they just laughed at me - I remember I was trying to be like a really complex songwriter. I was into like Chris Stamey at the time. So I'd write all these complex, these really structured songs. Like kind of pop songs but kind of strange. So, I went in, and just did like, about, maybe 15 songs. That must have been about '85 or something. There's probably a few more Ben Zing songs lying around."

There's a song on "Isolation Drills" called "Twilight Campfighter," a pulsating anthem in which Pollard details a person's search - maybe his search? - for a savior. "You know, personal, or for the world or whatever, for rock or whatever. But the title means nothing. My friend said to me, 'I got a title: Twilight Campfighter.' I go, 'That's fucking great, man.' That's a hard-hitting title, you know?" He says the song is his favorite among the 16 new ones, and claims that, in an ideal world, it would be the first single off the album. Alas, the catchy ditty "Glad Girls" will be the first to take on the cesspool of a void that is commercial radio. But even if "Glad Girls" and the equally bouncy "Chasing Heather Crazy" fail to make a mark on radio or MTV, and even if the band never moves beyond four-star reviews and its legion of hardcore fans, Pollard is satisfied with GBV's place in history. "I'm totally happy to be where we are. You're also always curious to see how far it could go and how many people you can open up to listen to your music. And that's the main thing, it's not so much fame and money. It's for yourself, for the band, for Guided By Voices, to see how historically important they can become to everyone."