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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
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
Somewhere in this makeshift church, one Robert Pollard, the seemingly
indestructible force that drives the pop-song and rock-anthem machine
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
to the stage. Surprisingly, the room is not packed with followers. One
finds the room, pops inside and just stands there and drinks a beer
saying more than five words.
Four of the band members are there. Guitar player Doug Gillard drifts
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
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
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.
watching metal-loving jokesters Bandway barrage through a set of Quiet
Riot-meets-Howard Stern scorchers, Pollard and GBV give the worshipers
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
shout-it-out anthems about being a scientist and an electric newspaper
there were songs that were serious. Songs that were sad. Songs that were
Underneath the bold, frontman persona that told stories about crazy old
bandmates and swung microphones like a roaring Roger Daltry, Bob Pollard
He didn't need to tell you. The new songs - "The Enemy," "Fair
"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
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
Year's Eve show, Gillard admitted that he was less-than-happy with the
With time serving as a buffer, Pollard is a little more diplomatic
"Do The Collapse" as he discusses it in mid-February, 2001. Pollard and
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
"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
of was tentative about because I was working with Ric Ocasek. He's a
guy. He's a totally nice guy, and I'm sure he would have ... he would
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
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
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
little embarrassed by lines like, "Always working, reaching out for ...
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
(Though, while Pollard has claimed the former is one of his all-time
favorites, he apologizes for not owning the latter, a Bob Dylan
The lyrics are dark, straightforward and serious. No more obtuse songs
demons and ghosts.
The music, too, is bulky and no-nonsense. Gillard holds back on the
riffs that marked "Do The Collapse" and focuses instead on power chords
guitar textures. Tobias, who joined the touring unit for a later leg of
"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
behind Gillard's lead.
"'Isolation Drills' is definitely the most serious record that we've
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.
still had like, themes that were kind of out there," Pollard says, this
in an Atlanta hotel. "I know some people miss the craziness. The
the imagery and shit that I used to use. But I think my lyrics are
think they're a lot better on this album than they used to be. First of
all the songs started as poetry. But I think I'm becoming a better poet.
still not completely obvious. You have to kind of read into it, to see
What's going on is that Pollard is struggling through troubled times in
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
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
out. I'm just trying to do the best that I can. I'm trying to make
happy. I'm trying to still be friends with my wife, you know, I'm
Some fanatics apparently went over the line, ignoring obvious but
requests for privacy and taking intrusion to whole new level.
"There's been five or six people from around the country who called my
to tell her what an asshole I am -- that don't even know her. You know,
have been people come up to me at shows, to fucking push me. I had a guy
me in San Diego: I've 'lost my integrity.' I was like, 'Fuck you, you
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
with. I was so depressed for a while. Now, I'm OK," he says. "I still
family. My family didn't go anywhere. I mean, just like, things happen
people's lives. Especially when you're in a rock band, and you're gone
the time, you're on the road, you meet people that you kind of let your
down and things happen. And that's what happened. And so, what am I
about it now? You never know what's going to happen in the future. I
In "The Brides Have Hit Glass," he points the finger at a loved one and
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
dad to many shows, including a gig at New York's Irving Plaza a few
back. Pollard says Bryan was totally cool at that show, handling the
keeping his calm.
When Pollard was in the deepest throes of the marital struggles, he
felt "unspirited" - totally numb and disconnected from anything real.
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,
the time I just kind of like didn't know what to do with the situation I
in. So that all that I could do was just, like, be a zombie. Fuck it.
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
He's a man now. And he's going to be in this whole fucking mess. The
mess that I'm in. But he's much more mature than I am. He's smarter than
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
work. And he's never had a problem keeping busy.
Right now, he's involved in five separate bands, or projects, or
There's Airport 5, his project with former GBVer Tobin Sprout that's due
later this year. There's Soft Rock Renegades, which is the "backing
his forthcoming solo record. There's Howling Wolf Orchestra, a
grouping that includes Farley and Pollard and a whole lot of noise. The
album, "Speed Traps for the Bee Kingdom,” was released this year as part
Fading Captain Series, which is Pollard's vehicle for releasing the
songs that he writes each year.
There's Pollard's upcoming project with Mac McCaughan of Superchunk -
came up to Pollard at the New Year's show and told him that he already
half the music written for a Fading Captain Series album. Pollard told
finish it up and mail it to him.
And then there's Guided By Voices. The band changes and morphs as if it
sports team caught in the throes of free agency. Every time it seems as
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
That group included Pollard, Mitchell, Sprout and drummer Kevin Fennell.
Pollard then hired Cleveland's Cobra Verde to back him for "Mag Earwhig"
1997, but then fired everyone except for Gillard after a grueling tour
by inner strife.
The main rift formed between Pollard and Cobra Verde's John Petkovic.
were two frontmen sharing the same stage - it was like Van Halen
David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar at the same time.
During a show in Chicago, Petkovic tripped over Pollard's ankle and
both his guitar and Gillard's instrument, leaving a gaping hole in the
of "I Am A Tree." Pollard laughed at Petkovic for three songs, and
didn't forget it.
Perhaps he waited until an interview with an Australian radio station
stage his retaliation. In a move that still pisses Pollard off to this
Petkovic told the Aussies that his favorite GBV song of all time was "I
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
drummer Jon McCann in the place of since-departed Jim MacPherson --
no such acrimony. On stage, Farley, Tobias and Pollard carry on like a
of drunken brothers. Gillard - who also is known to get wrecked on
focuses on his playing while the boys carry on.
"You've got to have somebody holding it all together. You know?"
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
Four Coyotes. He was a guitarist, but he easily switched to bass. So he
The story of how Farley came to the band contains a few more twists.
in his career, Farley was in a slew of bands including promising acts
and The Haunting Souls. Things somehow fell apart, and Farley ended up
roadie for a West Coast swing by the "classic-lineup" version of GBV.
night that they played Vancouver, Sprout's wife went into the hospital
have a baby. After the show, he flew home to be with her, leaving the
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
"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
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
in which he was to play the guitar and relinquish lead vocal duties to
which eventually became the Breeders again and then fizzled. Farley
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
After "Isolation Drills," the solo record, the Airport 5 project, the
project and scatter-shot EPs and singles, the next big thing to be
by Pollard will probably be "Suitcase 2."
That's right, another giant batch of unreleased Pollard gems, following
the four-CD, 100-song behemoth that he released last year. Pollard says
just keeps finding old songs that he lost somewhere in his basement back
"What happened was I recorded so much shit at the time on cassettes in
basement," he says. "But I didn't even label them, I just threw them
this suitcase. I should have labeled them, and made it a lot easier on
went through it again, maybe about three months ago, and I found like
65 more songs. So there will probably be another Suitcase. I just don't
where everything is. I forget, you know? If you've done so much stuff,
He lost them. That's how he explains why an amazing rocker like "Bunco
didn't end up on "Under The Bushes, Under The Stars." That's how he
how a gorgeous piano-only version of "Wondering Boy Poet" (a rougher
appears on 1992's "Propeller") could sit silent in a suitcase all these
But that excuse won't wash with the wonderful "Where I Come From," a
slice of R.E.M.-like jangle pop. Pollard says that one didn't get lost -
hid it, because he was embarrassed by it.
"I was always embarrassed by the lyrics. It's a ridiculous, kind of
hometown lyric, you know? But Toby, a few years ago, was like, 'Do you
have "Where I Come From" anywhere?' Because he wanted to cover it on one
his records. And I finally found it. I was searching through things and
Each song on the first "Suitcase" was assigned to a different band
mostly depending on the era that it was recorded in. The songs recorded
video store in 1990, for instance, are attributed to Hazzard Hotrods.
by Antler were recorded in 1989 -- outtakes from the "Same Place That
Got Smashed" album. A batch of serious-sounding songs recorded in the
are credited to The Amazing Ben Zing. And, just like "Where I Come
Pollard was ashamed of the Ben Zing immediately after he recorded it and
stashed it away somewhere.
"I like all the Amazing Ben Zing stuff. I remember when I was trying to
really - (laughs) they just laughed at me - I remember I was trying to
like a really complex songwriter. I was into like Chris Stamey at the
So I'd write all these complex, these really structured songs. Like kind
pop songs but kind of strange. So, I went in, and just did like, about,
15 songs. That must have been about '85 or something. There's probably a
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
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
He says the song is his favorite among the 16 new ones, and claims
an ideal world, it would be the first single off the album. Alas, the
ditty "Glad Girls" will be the first to take on the cesspool of a void
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
four-star reviews and its legion of hardcore fans, Pollard is satisfied
GBV's place in history.
"I'm totally happy to be where we are. You're also always curious to
far it could go and how many people you can open up to listen to your
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."