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Standing over a giant mixing board at the Greene Street studio in SoHo, late-blooming rock star Robert Pollard is wearing a T-shirt from his favorite New York City restaurant—and it ain’t the Four Seasons. La Mela, a Little Italy dive that serves tray after tray of food whether you order it or not, somehow suits the 43-year-old Budweiser-drinking ex-schoolteacher from Dayton, Ohio, who sings like a Beatle and talks like a truckdriver. Pollard has been churning out addictively catchy pop songs on album after album since 1986, a year after he started Guided by Voices with a bunch of his Dayton drinking buddies.
The 1994 lo-fi LP Bee Thousand (and its 1995 follow-up, Alien Lanes) turned Pollard and Guided by Voices into indie-rock icons. The loyal-to-vinyl set flipped for GBV’s one and two minute masterpieces with brash and off kilter performances gorgeous and occasionally heartbreaking melodies and lyrics that with a little help from controlled substances, can inspire impassioned wee-hours arguments.
Playing in the basement had its drawbacks, however. “After we did a few lo-fi records in a row, there were people who said, ‘I’m sick of this shit—do something else,” Pollard says. “Then, when we did something else, some people were like, ‘Aww, I like the old, lo-fi stuff better.’ But everyone likes to pick on me. I’m the Charlie Brown of rock.”
After weathering epic personnel changes between 1996 and 1998, the reconstructed Guided by Voices decided to take its music to the masses. “I think anybody in a band that’s making records wants to sell jillions of copies,” says Pollard. “You want people to hear your music. And then, you know, you get more money. Better-looking girls start coming to your shows. And you get better deli trays.”
Producer and ex-Car Ric Ocasek tried to clean up the group’s sound on 1999’s Do the Collapse, but die-hard fans found the result a bit too polished. Since then, the famously prolific Pollard has released Hold on Hope, an EP with additional songs from the Ocasek sessions; Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, a solo album; and Suitcase, a boxed set of 100 songs from the past 20 years. “I probably write about 100 songs a year,” says Pollard. “There have been a few times when I felt really inspired and wrote skeletons of, like, 50 songs in one sitting, and then went back and picked a whole album’s worth to work on.”
Pollard hopes that with the help of producer Rob Schnapf, whose credits include Beck’s Mellow Gold and Elliott Smith’s XO, the band will strike the right balance between authenticity and accessibility on Isolation Drills, GBV’s 12th album. So far, it sounds like the formula is working. “Rob Schnapf is not as intimidating as Ric Ocasek,” Pollard enthuses. “And we were allowed to drink on this record. The last one we weren’t allowed. Ric did not want us to drink.”