Robert Pollard -- one of indie rock's softspoken godfathers and the head voice behind Guided by Voices -- is a poet. Here's the chorus from a revolutionary little ditty called "Not Behind the Fighter Jet," from the new album, "Mag Earwhig! ":
"I'm not behind the fighter jet
I'd much rather back a simple girl
I've seen your plan and it's all wet
A noseload of prophecies coming to me."
He's also a minstrel. The bittersweet melodies he hangs off these lyrics are the supreme stuff of rock. And he claims that writing both comes easily.
"They come easily," Pollard said, "because I've been studying it and learning it for 30 years. I started writing songs when I was 10, and I wrote a cappella into a tape recorder, so it was nothing but melodies. That's all there was. "And part of it comes from the music I grew up on. Glam, freakbeat, British Invasion and other '60s stuff. Melody is what those things are all about."
Guided by Voices is a band in constant transition. Since Pollard kicked the whole thing off from his Dayton, Ohio, headquarters in 1986, the band's seen more lineup changes than the Dodger infield, with changes in musical focus to match. "I've met a lot of people over the years who find things they like in our music, and I end up working with a lot of them," Pollard said. "That's made us like this encyclopedia of rock. We've gone through so many lineup changes lately, that it gets confusing. But I think now we've got the same people in the same place."
A major house-cleaning occurred between 1996's "Under the Bushes, Under the Stars" and "Mag Earwhig! " Three of the GBV membership went solo, leaving Pollard without a band. So he recruited one: the Cleveland glam outfit Cobra Verde. He also used the opportunity to migrate, edging Guided by Voices away from its garage-style fidelity and into upscale studio sonics. "At first," he said, "I was in the dark going from lo-fi production to big studio sound. I'm more comfortable with it now. 'Mag Earwhig! ' is a mixture of lo-fi and big rock because I didn't want to have a whole album of big rock music right away. So, some of the album we did in the studio, and some of it we did on my 8-track."
Pollard wasn't always a shy, nerdish DIY type. His first band was a heavy metal outfit created almost entirely for the purpose of showing off and getting dates, the music a mere vehicle. Then, as the '70s evolved, so did Pollard's mission. "In Dayton," he said, "we didn't have any real rock scene, no cool record store, just a lot of arena shows. We started our own metal band so we could climb onstage and shake our butts. It was a joke. "But the post-punk music of the late '70s changed all that. When I heard bands like Devo, Wire, XTC and the Stranglers, that whole thing inspired me to become part of rock. After that, I got serious." Getting serious, for an unknown quintet, meant self-promotion and self-production. Gone were the slinky tights, replaced by guitar rock anchored in the loose, unwaxed sound of the independent underground. Guided by Voices sealed its reputation with basement cult-classics like "Devil Between My Toes," "An Earful of Wax" and "Vampire on Titus."
Not one to rely on cult notoriety, Pollard marked GBV's 10-year anniversary with a melodic about-face. "Under the Bushes" and "Mag Earwhig! " are a mighty one-two punch to the mug of modern rock, delivered with the guerilla humility of a true underdog. Behind their fractured guitars, unvarnished vocals and lyrical poetry reverberates an evolving talent. "What keeps me going," Pollard said, "is a new thing, coming up with a new way of working. For example, I just finished the songs for the next album, and I wrote them all in one day. It's the first time I've ever done that. One day, I started writing and came up with 50 titles, 20 of which were good, and that's the next album. And it's cool, it's got this conceptual feeling because it all happened at the same time." Songwriting doesn't come any easier than that.