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August/September 2002
Patrick Berkery

Guided By Voices
Universal Truths and Cycles
Matador Records

Universal Truths And Cycles isn’t quite the return to Bee Thousand/Alien Lanes form Bob Pollard’s frothing minions expected when word came down GBV re-inked with former label Matador. But the brick-shithouse-solid 19-song album has got it all over the band’s two efforts for TVT where consistency and urgency are concerned. Nothing against Do The Collapse or the too-personal-for-comfort Isolation Drills, but a somewhat disingenuous air wafted from both records. It could’ve been the souped-up production. Or it might’ve been the fact that regardless of how majestic-sounding “Hold On Hope” was, it wasn’t really too far removed from your average Train song. There’ll be none of that balladry here, as Pollard and Co. stick to a wholly rocked-out mid-fi approach (think Mag Earwhig!), with windmilling guitar heroics, bashing drums and dizzy wordplay (“Cheyenne, I’m sending out satellites,” from the maddeningly catchy “Cheyenne”) working overtime. Disparities range from the opening 30-second Anglo-rock blast of “Wire Greyhounds” to acoustic prog/pop like “The Ids Are Alright” and the indulgent torpor of “Car Language,” really the only blemish here. Among the lot lie some stone-cold Pollard classics. The title track sparkles like some ‘60s garage-pop gem fellow Ohioans the Lemon Pipers never got around to recording, and the chugging 6/8 anthem “Back To The Lake” sports the creepiest piano figure you’ll ever hear on a GBV record.

MAGNET visited Pollard with some ghosts at his Dayton, Ohio, home.

What was the major factor in parting ways with TVT?
Mainly it was trying to get back to doing things 100 percent the way we like to do it. We went with TVT for their resources. There were people asking me, “Why aren’t you guys being played on the radio?” So I was kind of gullible and said, “Maybe we should be,” and we gave it a shot. When we worked the contract out, it was the “complete creative control” thing, but you find that when you have people that are supporting you and putting a lot of money into you, you kind of have to play by their rules. And I found out that by working with a producer—even though I like the two records that we did, I think they did a good job—it’s like you lose a certain amount of freedom. They have their stamp on it, also. I find both records to be a little bit homogeneous. The quality of the sound is a little bit too much the same for us. On the early records, that’s what we were conscious of, to make everything sound different. And working with a producer, I found myself writing songs for them a little bit to fit the personality of the record. We made the decision to get away from that and to leave TVT because we wanted to get back to doing it that way again, where there’s a lot more diversity on the record.

Was there a comfort zone recording the new record in Ohio as opposed to New York, where you had done the last two?
Oh, of course. When we used to do four-track stuff, we did it right in our own home. There’s nothing more comfortable than that, you can do what you want. There are no inhibitions whatsoever. You get in the studio and you’ve already done the demo and you’re trying to recapture that same spirit. The thing I didn’t like about working in a big studio with a producer is we had to do demos in the studio. We used to do records in our living room, and now we’re doing demos in big studios! There’s a lot of money involved, and there’s people from the label in the studio making sure everything’s cool. It’s much better doing it on your own in a comfortable place. The other thing about the new record is I think the songs are better. I think being released from the obligations I had on the last two records I was able to lay back and write better songs. I just let them flow naturally instead of pressing.

Without the specter of “can the label get this song on the radio?” hanging over you.
Yeah, I had people telling me they want me to write certain kinds of songs.

Was “Hold On Hope” one of those songs?
It’s weird, but that wasn’t. “Hold On Hope” was like my own embarrassment. When I was sending all the songs to Ric Ocasek, I would talk to him on the phone three or four times a week and I’d tell him I’d written these new songs and he’d say to send them. When I was waking up one morning I kind of dreamt that chorus, and I thought, “Is that mine or someone else’s?” I told him I wrote this really pretty, ballad-type song, and he said send it, and I said, “Oh, man, it might be kind of embarrassing.” Naturally, he gets it and goes, “Oh, that’s the big one, that’s the monster ballad.” I go, “Oh, shit, here we go.” It got even worse. They did a remix that was really, really, creepy and creamy. I thought it was kind of career-threatening. I went through a complete tug-of-war with the label about that song. So, though it seems like that was one of the pop songs they coerced me into writing, no, that was my own thing.

Was Matador at the top of the list when you were shopping for a new deal?
No, we were talking to a bunch of indies, and then my manager told me that Matador was interested. And I thought immediately, “Wow, we’ve got to go back,” because no one really has. At the same time we were talking to Vagrant and Sub Pop. I liked the idea of Sub Pop because we would’ve been the only band, I think, that was on Matador and Sub Pop. And there’s always been kind of a nice rivalry going between Matador and Sub Pop. But I always considered us to be the house band at Matador.

Was it amicable parting with them the first time around?
Yeah, it was. The problem was that we were selling the same amount of albums every time. And we thought, “What can we do to break through and sell more records and get our music out to more people?” So we thought maybe we needed to go to a bigger label. Then after my experience with TVT, I had the realization that it doesn’t matter what we do. No matter how we record—we could record into a boom box or in a big studio—we still sell the same amount of records.

You up for some name association?
Yeah, sure.

Ric Ocasek.
I’m a huge Cars fan. Especially the first record—that would probably be in my top 50 albums of all time. I think he did a good job (with us). I listened to Do The Collapse the other day for the first time in a couple of years and I think it’s a really good record. The thing about Ric Ocasek is he still has the same intimidating presence he’s always had. He still comes flamboyantly into the studio with the same kind of stuff he used to wear. It was kind of an intimidating experience, but he was a really nice guy and I appreciate the fact that he showed us the ropes in a big studio. I think we learned a lot from that experience.

Jim MacPherson.
We’ve got Kevin March playing drums now, a really good drummer and a really good guy. But I had actually asked Jim to be back in the band. After Jon McCann decided to leave, Jim was kind of bugging me a bit about wanting to be back in the band. I said, “Well, you made a decision.” He’s working a job, he’s a carpenter and he’s spending time with his family, and I understand that’s why he left. But then I see him out every once in a while and he’d say, “I really want to be back in the band.” Then when the opportunity came, he couldn’t do it. It kind of bummed me out. To me, Jim is always going to be part of GBV and any time he can do anything to help us out, he’s always welcome.

Mitch Mitchell.
I consider Mitch to be my brother. He was in GBV for about 10 years, and the only one getting close to that now is Doug (Gillard). Mitch has got rock ‘n’ roll in his blood. He’s in a couple of bands right now. He’s hardcore.

(Scat Records owner) Rob Griffin.
[Howling, cackling laughter, followed by several coughs] I need a cigarette on this one. I appreciate Robert Griffin because he was the first one to be on the ball. Where no one else was willing to take a chance on us, he did. He made it possible for us, and I appreciate that. We’ve had our ups and downs, and we’re still going through some shit. I like the Scat years because, when he signed us, it gave me the confidence that “Now it’s real. Now we’re a real rock band.” We put out some really good records on Scat: Vampire On Titus, Bee Thousand, Grand Hour. We became a much better band once the pressure was on us. We kind of owe that to him.

Richard Meltzer.
He’s another guy who’s intimidating to me because I have so much respect for him. It’s almost like meeting Lester Bangs. He told us he’d seen us play in Portland and said it was the best show he’d seen since the Sex Pistols. He’s a sweetheart, a good guy. I’ve heard that he’s now a GBV completist and he’s trying to find everything. That’s very flattering for me.

Blue Öyster Cult.
They’re probably in my top five American bands of all time. I thought they were a great band. They had five good songwriters, and they had the concept. You felt like they were in their own alternative universe, especially the early stuff. And their lyrics were amazing, very influential on the stuff I write.

Mac McCaughan.
I would probably consider Superchunk to be out best friends in the indie-rock circle. In doing [the Go Back Snowball album] with him, I discovered he’s a much better guitar player and songwriter than I thought he was. We always want to do tours with Superchunk, but we usually just end up doing weekends because I think they’re a little worried about the drinking. They drink with us, but it’s kind of difficult for them. It’s kind of difficult for anyone, really.

The Deal sisters.
The Deal sisters are good drinkers. Kelly maybe not so much anymore, I think she’s clean now. Kim can drink with the guys. I think she takes pride in it. I haven’t talked to her in a long time, but I used to hang with her and we used to be good friends, we used to go out drinking a lot. She could always go the whole night. As a matter of fact, she could always go longer than I could and she would always want to go back to her house and work on things on her four-track and I was done.

(MAGNET writer) Jonathan Valania.
I like Valania, man. There have been maybe five or six people who have made the pilgrimage to Dayton and hung for a few days. He’s a trooper. He was able to spend some time with the natives and I thought he was really, really brave to do that. His band opened for us in Philadelphia, really good. He’s got the rock ‘n’ roll in his blood.