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With the emergence of rock & roll as a popular music form, there has also emerged a tension between the stars and the underground. For every big-name, big-bucks bona fide Rock Star who symbolizes bloated excess, there is an unsung musical ideologue who wants to bring the bathos of celebrity crashing down with three chords and a sneer. What's often overlooked in this Ragnarok between the popular and the elite is the fact that each school of thought has its roots in the same place. The Sex Pistols' sound was really the bastard child of Chuck Berry's guitar licks, and the Goo Goo Dolls owe their entire careers to Paul Westerberg.
One of the few individuals to understand and exploit this unusual dichotomy is Bob Pollard, singer, songwriter, architect and only permanent member of Dayton Ohio's Guided By Voices. Since the 1980s, the hyperprolific Pollard has merged low-fi production values with insanely poppy tunes and created a rather obsessive cult of followers in the process. On stage, the often underrehearsed and always inebriated Pollard strikes the prototypical Rock Star Pose without a hint of irony. Witnessing the kung fu kicks, swinging guitars and shouted song introductions at a GBV show, it quickly becomes obvious that Pollard is channeling his inner Jagger (or Daltry, or Davies").
Away from the spotlight, however, Pollard is a much more voluble and low-key figure. In a recent phone conversation, he spoke at length about the songwriting process, his rigorous work ethic and GBV's upcoming album, tentatively titled Isolations Drills.
"Isolation drills means focusing on particular emotions," Pollard says. "The actual isolation drill was when I coached high school football with [GBV manager-for-life] Pete Jamison and we designed drills for certain aspects of the game. In conversations with people, I tend to isolate on certain phrases instead of what they say. This record is sort of like that, it isolates on certain fears."
The new album, he says, is grimmer than his previous work. "The album is dark and personal. Most of my albums usually deal with characters, fictitious situations. Isolation Drills reflects the last year, when a lot of people in the band, myself included, went through some personal problems with relationships. This is trying to exorcise them."
Despite the more introspective nature of the new album, Pollard claims it's not all dark. One example is "Glad Girls," a new track that generates a lot of positive reaction when the band plays it live. "'Glad Girls' is, on the surface, a happy song, but it's not if you look at the lyrics," he says.
For Isolation Drills, Pollard kept the hi-fi production of GBV's last album, the Ric Ocasek-produced Do The Collapse, while jettisoning the keyboards in favor of a harder-edged sound. "This whole album, it rocks a little harder, it's more guitar-oriented than my other stuff. It's a more serious record, so we got a more serious approach. It's more stripped-down, bare."
To help him in this cause, Pollard enlisted the talents of producer Rob Schnapf, who has previously worked with the Foo Fighters, Beck and Elliott Smith. Smith himself turned up to contribute some instrumentation to the new album, as did an old Pollard colleague, Tobin Sprout. Sprout, GBV's other songwriter from 1993 to 1997, left the band after recording Mag Earwhig! to focus on his art and solo projects. Pollard says he and Sprout also worked together on another project, called Airport 5, which will be released at some point in the near future.
As for Isolation Drills, its original release date has been pushed back from March to April to allow Pollard and his label, TVT, time to finish sequencing it. The legions of hardcore Pollard fans shouldn't be suffering too much from the delay, however. In September, Pollard released Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft on his own Fading Captain label. The four-disc set contains 100 songs dating back to Pollard's high-school days and includes outtakes, live performances and alternate versions of other songs. Each song on the collection is credited to a different pseudonymous band, such as the Hazzard Hotrods, Indian Alarm Clock, Elvis Caligula, Royal Japanese Daycare and Homosexual Flypaper.
The songs were among those collected by Pollard in an actual Samsonite suitcase over the years. "Originally, it was going to be 128 songs," he said. "I ended up taking the craziest stuff and sequenced it."
There's more where that came from, Pollard reveals. "I had a basement flood and I thought I lost a bunch of it but I found that most of them were okay when they dried out. Eventually they'll be a Suitcase II, probably."
As is apparent, Pollard does not care to rest on his laurels. When not touring or recording with the highly fluid GBV lineup, Pollard is working on solo projects or contributing to others' projects, such as J. Mascis' recent More Light.
"I don't like to take vacations. The last real one I had was, I guess, after Mag Earwhig! I was kind of legally not able to put out records." At the time, Pollard was switching labels from Matador to TVT. "It was some downtime and I was completely depressed. That's when I created my own label. The Fading Captain Series has put out nine releases so far, and there's going to be more."
Although the sheer amount of material Pollard has released is impressive, he says it's only a fraction of what actually exists. "I just keep everything, and a small amount of stuff comes out. Later, I'll consider stuff I've discarded, or just use part of a song in something else."
Pollard is not renowned only for his considerable output. He's also become infamous for turning GBV shows into beer-drenched marathons of debauchery. He uses alcohol to help him combat stage fright, and he predicts that the New Year's Eve show at will be no different.
"Yeah, it's New Year's Eve, I can imagine some drunkenness. It's a party. But we won't be so filthy drunk we can't play, that's no fun
Prolific or what? It's been years since we've heard from Axel Rose. Pollard on the other hand, is a force that can't be stopped. Here's a glimpse at his recorded output.
Guided By Voices:
Devil Between My Toes (Schwa, 1987)
Sandbox (Halo, 1987)
Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (Halo, 1989)
Same Place the Fly Got Smashed (Rocket #9, 1990)
Propeller (Rockathon, 1992)
Vampire on Titus (Scat, 1993)
An Earful O' Wax (Get Happy!!, 1993)
Bee Thousand (Scat/Matador, 1994)
Crying Your Knife Away (Lo-Fi, 1994)
Alien Lanes (Matador, 1995)
Box (Scat, 1995)
For All Good Kids (no label, 1995)
Jellyfish Reflector (jellyfish, 1996)
Benefit for the Winos (no label, 1996)
Under the Bushes Under the Stars (Matador, 1996)
Mag Earwhig! (Matador, 1997)
Tonics and Twisted Chasers (Rockathon, 1997)
Do the Collapse (TVT, 1999)
Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 2000)
Suitcase Abridged: Drinks and Deliveries
(LP only; Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 2000)
Forever Since Breakfast (I Wanna, 1986)
Delayed Reaction Brats (split w/ Superchunk; Fellaheen, 1996)
Sunfish Holy Breakfast (Matador, 1996)
8 Rounds/GBV vs. GVSB (split w/
Girls Against Boys; Radiopaque, 1997)
Hold On Hope (TVT, 2000)
"The Grand Hour" (Scat, 1993)
"Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer" (Domino, 1993)
"Static Airplane Jive" (City Slang, 1993)
"Get Out of My Stations" (Siltbreeze,1993)
"If We Wait" (split w/ Jenny Mae Leffel; Anyway, 1993)
"Fast Japanese Spin Cycle" (Engine, 1994)
"I Am A Scientist" (Scat, 1994)
"Hey Mr. Soundman" (split w/ Grifters; Now Sound, 1994)
"Always Crush Me" (split w/ Belreve; Anyway, 1994)
"The Opposing Engineer Sleeps Alone" (split w/ New Radiant Storm King; Chunk, 1995)
"Motor Away" (Matador, 1995)
"Tigerbomb" (Matador, 1995)
"The Official Ironmen Rally Song" (Matador, 1996)
"Plantations of Pale Pink" (Matador, 1996)
"Cut-Out Witch" (Matador, 1996)
"Brighton Rocks" (RCRPA, 1996)
"Wish in One Hand" (Jass, 1997)
"Aim Correctly" (split w/ Cobra Verde; Wabana, 1997)
"Bulldog Skin" (Matador, 1997)
"I Am A Tree" (Matador, 1997)
"Dayton, Ohio -- 19 something and 5" (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 1999) "Surgical Focus" (TVT, 1999)
"Teenage FBI" (Creation, 2000)
(Out of) Cowtown Vol. 3 (Anyway, 1993)
The Polite Cream Tea Corps E.P. (Ptolemaic Terrascope, 1994)
American Pie (Rubber, 1994)
Threadwaxing Live: The Presidential Compilation
(Zero Hour, 1995)
Volume 14: Reading '95 Special (Volume, 1995)
The Lounge Ax Defense and Relocation Compact Disc
(Touch and Go, 1996)
Split w/ Velvet Crush, Godstar, Bill Lloyd (Bob, 1996)
Split w/ Grifters, Heartworms, Sone (MAGNET/Darla, 1996)
Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy soundtrack (Matador, 1996)
Edgefest 96 (WXEG, 1996)
Rare On Air, Vol. 3 (Mammoth, 1997)
What's Up Matador (Matador, 1997)
Tard and Further'd (Siltbreeze, 1997)
Scorpion Lounge Shutdown (Ptolemaic Telescope, 1997)
Thank You, Bob! (PB, 1997)
Unreleased Tidbits and Niblets (Manage This! 1998)
God Save the Clean (Flying Nun, 1998)
Volume III (Rebound, 1998)
Everything is Nice (Matador, 1999)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack (TVT, 1999)
X-Fest '99 (WXEG, 2000)
Darla 1000 (Darla, 2000)
More Music, Less Parking (WFMU, 2000)
Crime and Punishment in Suburbia soundtrack
Not In My Airforce (Matador, 1996)
Waved Out (Matador, 1998)
Kid Marine (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 1999)
In Shop We Build Electric Chairs: Professional Music By Nightwalker 1984-93 (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 1999)
Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 1999)
Hazzard Hotrods: Big Trouble (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 2000)
Howling Wolf Orchestra: Speed Traps for the
Bee Kingdom (Fading Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 2000)
Lexo and the Leapers: Ask Them (Fading
Captain Series/Rockathon/recordhead, 1999)
Nightwalker/Freedom Cruise (Simple Solution, 1994)
"Firehouse Mountain" (no label,
Love and a .45 soundtrack (split w/ Kim Deal; Immortal/Epic, 1994)
Red, Hot + Bothered: The Indie Rock Guide to Dating (Red Hot/Kinetic/Reprise, 1995)
I Stayed Up All Night Listening to Records (Anyway, 1998)
Nightwalker: One Track Record (split w/ Figgs, Swearing at Motorists, Stupid Club; Sponic, 1998)
As he contemplates his upcoming releases and New Year's plans, the would-be rock god seems very removed from the quotidian concerns of teaching school, which he hasn't done in six years. When asked if he misses his job, he pauses to think.
"Not really. I mean, I miss the kids; I miss that feeling of having a job through the week and looking forward to the weekend. Because now, every day's the weekend."
Guided By Voices appear Sunday, Dec. 31, 11:45 p.m., at Cat's Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro. $20/18 in advance. 967-9053.