In which GBV’s Robert Pollard learns to channel his energy
Having reached the respectable age of 45, Robert Pollard is settling down again. The leader of the Ohio-based, internationally acclaimed band Guided by Voices still drinks too much, he admits, but he’s ready to cut back on the cigarettes and get back to running. The call of the muse cost him a two-decade marriage, but he’s happy in a new relationship.
Guided By Voices will perform saturday, AUg. 16, at Birdy’s. Call 239-5151 for tickets.
Musically, the key difference is that Pollard is trying to focus his energies on a mere one album per year, not counting a continuing parade of side projects to occupy his manic imagination. “I’m working on my songs longer now,” he says. “I’ve become a little more patient in what I want to present to the band and how I want to arrange it.” He’s even trying to limit each release to 10 or 15 songs, a paltry sum compared to the 30-title extravaganzas of his basement-tape past. “In the old days, the four-track days, however many songs I would write, we would record them all, because it only took 15 minutes to record a song,” he says. “Now I choose before we go into the studio, because now it’s more money. We’re talking money and time, you know?” The reason anyone might care, outside the band’s Trekkie-like cult of fans, is that Pollard may be the most prolific recording songwriter of the rock era, with more than 800 published tunes in less than 20 years. For comparison, the comprehensive catalog of Bob Dylan’s work, Lyrics: 1962-1985, includes less than 300 titles, many of them unreleased. Pollard’s guitar-based music is an odd blend of British Invasion tunefulness, psychedelic whimsy, prog-rock pomp and punk attitude. Some songs are throwaway sketches, and few ever get to commercial radio, but most are strong enough to put the albums regularly on critics’ annual top 10 lists, drawing comparisons to Paul McCartney, Prince and other hypercreative talents. Guided by Voices returns to the stage Saturday at Birdy’s Bar & Grill, and it returns to the marketplace Tuesday with Earthquake Glue. The 15-song disc — Pollard was shooting for 12 but just couldn’t help it — is the band’s second since returning to the relative autonomy of indie label Matador Records. Two previous albums on the larger TVT label — home of Nine Inch Nails, Sevendust and the Analyze That soundtrack — boosted the band’s mainstream visibility. Cars leader Ric Ocasek produced 1999’s Do the Collapse, spawning the sprightly “Teenage FBI,” which graced at least one film soundtrack, and the blandly earnest power ballad “Hold on Hope,” which landed on a network TV soundtrack and probably more than one channel of programmed office music. “Skills Like This” from 2001’s Isolation Drills is being picked up for sports highlight reels. Drills, produced by Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith, Richard Thompson) was the first GBV album to crack the top 200. The TVT experience was worthwhile, Pollard says, but left him a bit queasy. A man accustomed to designing his own album covers doesn’t fit well into a marketing campaign. “We had stars in our eyes at the time,” he says. “We had people blowing smoke up our asses that we should have a hit, so we kind of went for it a little bit. I don’t think we completely sold out, because the songs weren’t that much different; it’s just that the approach was. And so we kind of played the game a little bit with the bigger label and did things that they told us to and compromised a little bit, did the dog-and-pony thing. It was just a brutal time.” Last year’s well-received Universal Truths & Cycles on Matador Records was a step back to more comfortable territory, Pollard says. Earthquake Glue was an even more satisfactory studio experience, highlighting the skilled and relatively stable band lineup that has supported Pollard the past few years: Doug Gillard and Nate Farley on guitars, Tim Tobias on bass and Kevin March, who joined a couple years back, on drums. “It seemed like we knew what we wanted to do, and we were focused when we went in there and it came together really well. It just kind of flowed,” Pollard says. “I think I’ve got a really tight, accomplished bunch of guys right now. So I consider them. I write songs for us now, instead of just myself. It’s going into kind of an arena rock stage.” Producer T.J. Tobias, Tim’s brother, helps the band maintain tight, melodic song structure amid swells of ambient weirdness. Though not without its quiet moments, the album consistently rocks, with crashing cymbals and power chords galore. “She Goes Off At Night” and “Secret Star” are glorious, dreamy explosions. In “Beat Your Wings,” the players indulge themselves right into a Cream-style intraband showdown. “Dirty Water,” which is not a cover of the Standells’ 1966 chestnut, ends in a twin-guitar coda worthy of Queen. “It translates pretty good to the live setting,” Pollard says of the new disc. “There are a couple songs on the album I don’t want to play live, but we’re going to do most of it.” Returning to Matador, which released GBV’s 1994 breakthrough, Bee Thousand, and the follow-up, Alien Lanes, seems to have given the band a workable balance of creative freedom and commercial discipline. For the near future, Pollard is less driven to pursue solo projects. “Matador is allowing us to do one record a year now,” he says. “We were kind of slowed down to a record every year and a half, or something like that. But it’s kind of agreed upon now, since we’re putting the record out at the optimum time of the year, I guess, which is when the kids go back to school. I think we’ll be on schedule for, like, an album every August.” The next GBV record is already in Pollard’s notebooks, of course, but it will probably be recorded during a winter break in touring and released a year from now. Currently, the mission is to sell Earthquake Glue. To promote the new disc, which is due in stores Tuesday, Matador has cooked up a ploy Pollard seems to find embarrassing but charming. In Willie Wonka fashion, the first 20,000 copies include 25 with a “Golden Ticket” that bears his likeness. Each lucky prize winner gets a free copy of the upcoming box set Hardcore UFOs. Due for November release, the collection will include out-of-print singles, B-sides, live tracks, a DVD of videos and documentary footage, and a re-release of GBV’s out-of-print 1986 debut EP, Forever Since Breakfast. Another item is a “best of” disc, which also will be released individually. “Matador’s going pretty hard on promotion right now,” Pollard says. “The only thing about Matador that I don’t like that I have to do is, I have to go to Europe and do press for like a week, and it’s brutal. It’s just brutal. It’s like 10 interviews a day and then you travel to the next country. That’s the only part of the game they make me play, and that’s acceptable, as long as they let me put the record out I want to. There’s got to be a little give and take.” Pollard promises the usual two-hour-plus show Saturday at Birdy’s, with nearly 50 songs, including old favorites and more recent tunes from solo albums and the Phantom Tollbooth and Circus Devils collaborations. Detroit glam-punkers The Go are the special guests, and tickets are $16. The Indianapolis show is a one-off nod to local fans before the band embarks on several weeks of promotional visits to the coasts and Europe. Then comes a more intensive North American tour, which should wrap up around Thanksgiving, leaving December for recording the next record before touring again in 2004, maybe to Japan and Australia. Life has changed greatly for this former schoolteacher, who suddenly found himself the darling of the music press in the early ’90s. Extensive touring amid the lures of rock ’n’ roll excess often took Pollard away from his wife and two children. The marriage eventually ended in divorce. “At first we missed each other, but it got to the point where I’d come home from a tour and it was just like, ‘Here comes that guy again,’” he says. “I went through this period of a couple years where I was really depressed. Isolation Drills was a part of that. It’s kind of a sad record. I got some shit from some critics on that, too.” Family life is changing in other ways. Pollard’s daughter just graduated from high school and is entering college. His son just graduated from college and is heading off to Oregon. “Even though we haven’t had a lot of contact recently, just to know that he was within reach was nice,” says the unconventional dad. “Portland’s pretty far away, but I’ll see him in October because we’re going out there.” Pollard still lives in Dayton, in an apartment that reflects the contents of his mind. “There are collages and DVDs and albums just strewn all over the place,” he says. “When people come over, it’s kind of embarrassing.” Other aspects of life, however, seem to be falling into place. “I’ve kind of pulled it together,” Pollard says. “I’ve got a new place, and I’ve got a new girl and I’m pretty happy now, so the next record’s pretty happy.” Scott Hall writes for the Daily Journal of Johnson County. Visit him online at www.onthebeat.org.