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Volume 9 Number 10 (#312)
August 9-16, 2001
By Lezlie Lowe
Toiling in indie rock trenches hasn't dimmed Guided by Voices' light.
Singer Robert Pollard brings his monumental band to town this weekend.
If cool is in the undercurrents (and it is), and you already live and
die by bands like Superchunk, Sebadoh, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Nirvana
and Smashing Pumpkins (and you should), then Guided by Voices doesn't
get much cooler. And neither does Halifax, since this indie music
powerhouse hits town for a storm of rock (and a little bit of prog)
August 10 and 11.
Robert Pollard, a former elementary school teacher from Dayton, Ohio,
is Guided by Voices' main songwriter and singer, and GBV's
lifeforce-in 20-odd years of jamming, touring and releasing records,
Pollard has been the one constant member in a line-up that has
included some 40 musicians.
Guided by Voices is an independent rock landmark. A monumental band
which, in light of the Britney Spearses and *NSYNCs of the world, has
toiled in relative obscurity for two decades. Not getting the
pre-teen vote hasn't dimmed Pollard's musical light. "I love making
music," he says on the phone from his home in Dayton, "just like a
painter likes to paint. I like to make records."
And so he has. Guided By Voices has released 17 albums since 1987,
including four live recordings. Then there are Pollard's side
projects-Lexo & The Leapers, Nightwalker and others-and his solo
career. Pollard's got so many projects and side projects and side
side-projects on the go, he can barely keep track of the last record
he released. "I've kind of lost track of the whole catalogue myself,"
he admits. "It's too much. But, you know, you have to keep doing what
you love to do."
Pollard's last record, a solo effort called Choreographed Man Of War,
came out two weeks ago. It's just one of many irons in the fire this
year, along with two new records from his band with Tobin Sprout,
Airport 5; a record with Superchunk's Mac McCaughan; and his Circus
Devils project with Tim and Todd Tobias. And of course Guided By
Voices' new LP, Isolation Drills, the disc that brings Pollard our
way this week.
Pollard's itching to play here. He knows several Halifax musicians
and has heard plenty about the fertile music scene. "We've been
wanting to come there for a long time," he says. GBV is so keen to
play Halifax, Pollard won't even let drummer Jon McCann's broken hand
keep him away.
"Jon broke his hand lifting a milk crate at a wedding. He's got pins
in it. Hopefully he'll be alright, but Jim MacPherson's going to do
these two shows in Halifax with us." Now that's commitment. Pollard
enlisted MacPherson, McCann's predecessor (actually the studio
drummer for Isolation Drills) for the Halifax shows. "It should be
alright," he says. "We need to practice. We're going to be sloppy.
But we're sloppy no matter how much we practice."
Sloppiness, Pollard's kind-unkempt musical brilliance bursting with
nuggets of songwriting genius-is GBV's signature sound. You hear it
all the time in The Grifters, Pavement and Sonic Youth, but those
bands have all learned their craft from GBV. Lo-fi sound is Pollard's
murky sovereign realm, and when he's immersed in it, he's happy as a
child in a dirty wading pool.
"I like doing things quickly," he says of his inclination for
one-take recording. "I don't like messing around too much. I don't
like pussyfooting. To me it just kind of squeezes the life out of it.
There's no use trying to make anything perfect, you know. I don't
mind mistakes. Mistakes add charm to the songs. Because everything's
been done. The only thing that hasn't been done is mistakes. It's the
only time you can go, 'Oh, I've never heard that one before.'"
Take track four on Installation Drills, a 55-second ballad called
"Frostman," as an example. Pollard recorded the song at home on
four-track complete with the sound of his own breathing and a flubbed
line he stops mid-way through. It's one of the disc's loneliest,
scrappiest and most beautiful songs. And even under one minute long,
it commands attention.
If Do the Collapse, the band's first record with Universal music
subsidiary TVT Records, was your first exposure to Guided by Voices,
"Frostman" and its scrappiness may come as a bit of a surprise. That
record, released in 2000, signalled a change in the band's sound-it
was suddenly more shiny, organized. And so is Isolation Drills. We're
not talking Foo Fighters or Offspring, mind you, but the "Do the
Collapse era," as Pollard calls it, brought GBV's sound to a new, far
more polished level, a level fans weren't quite anticipating from
these American lo-fi gods.
But it won't last long. Pollard already has the songs written for
Guided By Voices' next effort, which the band will record November or
December. "I think it's going to be sonically more experimental," he
says. "I'm hoping we can produce it, fuck it up a bit, get back to
that noise element."
The new record will be both a throw-back and a jump forward. That's
just how GBV deals with the world-by constantly shedding its skin. "I
want to get back to really interesting-sounding records," Pollard
says. "I think the way to do that is for us to produce it. Not to
take anything away from Rob Schnapf or Ric Ocasek"-who produced the
last two records-"because I think they did a good job on those
records and they are what they are. But I just would prefer to do it
ourselves. I mean, we know what we want to hear."
And what does Pollard want to hear right now? Prog rock. "It's
adventurous. You know, song-oriented." No plans to tour with a full
orchestra or getting nutty with the keyboards, but prog nonetheless.
Pollard's prog, that is. "There was punk," he explains, "and then
people started trying to do interesting things with it and that was
prog rock, you know like Devo and all that kind of stuff."
And that just might be this shedding snake's newest skin-what the
band becomes known for to a new crop of fans. "We're a relatively new
band, but we've been around for 20 years," Pollard says. "A lot of
our peers, Sonic Youth, Pavement, people like that, Superchunk, have
been around the same amount of time we have, but people have known
about them a lot longer than us."
It's hard to say whether Pollard's constant re-invention of the band
has been the albatross that's kept it hidden below the popular music
deck for so long, or if it's been the ship that's carried Guided By
Voices through 20 years of musical changes. "We're important," he
says, "because we've been doing it because we love to do it, not even
trying to sell ourselves. But we came to the surface anyway. But
we're also important because I think, more so probably than anybody,
we've touched just about everything in rock from the time it started.
We don't fall into one particular genre, you know. We're hard to
typecast. Plus," he says, suddenly serious, "we rock."
Guided By Voices rocks The Marquee Club,
2037 Gottingen Street, August 10 and 11.
The Joel Plaskett Emergency opens.
Tickets are $27 at the door, doors open at 8:30.