Guided By Voices

The Prolific Lo-Fi Masters Slow Down & Tighten Up

Music Features Guided By Voices
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Bob Pollard is the king of funny names. His band, Guided By Voices, is about to release its 14th record, Earthquake Glue (Matador), which features such word-salad titles as “I’ll Replace You With Machines,” “The Best of Jill Hives” and “A Trophy Mule in Particular.” He’s also hard at work on Pinball Mars, the next record from his Circus Devils side project, and yet another GBV album—possibly to be titled Unconditional Saviorism, though Pollard is known for not committing himself until the last possible moment. And then there’s the new GBV box set, Hardcore UFOs, due out in November, which will give fans access to the high noon of Guided By Voices’ critical success—a period when Pollard and then co-writer Tobin Sprout created lo-fi, Cheap-Trick-channeling-the-Monkees-through-an-Edison-wax-cylinder classics like “Kicker of Elves,” “My Valuable Hunting Knife” and “Burning Flag Birthday Suit.”

“I find that if you come up with an interesting title, you have to write a song for it,” he explains, laughing. “A song with a name like ‘Kicker of Elves’—how can it not be good? When you see a title like that it makes you want to buy the record.”

Maybe. If you’re a longtime fan of the Dayton, Ohio-based songwriter, though, such a “technique” might also make you wonder how many more titles, let alone melodies, he can come up with. The notoriously prolific—and, some would say, notoriously uneven—Pollard estimates his lifetime songwriting output at around 4,000 songs, topping out at around 200 per year during the time of Bee Thousand (1994)—the album whose opaque cover art, enigmatic song titles (“Tractor Rape Chain,” “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”), and grainy production blindsided the rock-crit establishment and allowed Pollard to finally quit his school-teaching job and become a full-time musician. These days, he says, “I’ve slowed myself down”—meaning he now writes “around 50 [songs] per year,” most of which appear on the various side and solo projects released through his ever-lengthening Fading Captain Series, a numbered and continually expanding set of records released independently by Pollard.

“Any idea I had, no matter how half-assed or fragmented it was, we would record it,” he says of GBV’s early years—the “classic period” when the band, signed first to Scat Records and then to Matador, released the cluttered, addictive albums that garnered their reputation among indie rock fans. “We thought, we’ll record as many songs as we can, then we’ll sift through it later.” Thus albums like Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes (1995), Under the Bushes Under the Stars (1996) are landfills of breathtaking, poorly recorded melodies, some of them no more than fragments. Suitcase, the 2000 collection of unreleased Pollard demos that extends back to the ’70s and, Pollard insists, barely scratches the surface of his unreleased oeuvre. It’s no surprise to hear Pollard name The Beatles’ delightfully messy White Album as one of the five he’d take to a desert island: “You have to take the White Album. That’s the Bible.”

The band has endured many lineup changes—the biggest one in late 1996, when longtime member Sprout left, prompting Pollard to break up the lo-fi version of GBV and bring on Ohio rockers Cobra Verde as his new backing band. Afterwards, there was a stint at TVT Records, where he recorded the more conventional, big-rock albums Do the Collapse (1999) and Isolation Drills (2001) with producers Ric Ocasek and Rob Schnapf. But now, Pollard says he’s slowing down and tightening up. “I’m knocking around lyrics and working with structures until they’re perfect, something I do now more than I used to do,” he says.

Some of this stability he credits to GBV’s current lineup, which includes Doug Gillard and Nate Farley on guitar, bassist Tim Tobias and drummer Kevin March. “This band, more than any lineup I’ve had—and I’ve had some good lineups—they’re all able to do their homework and they come to the table with ideas. We don’t practice; we don’t need to practice. They’re very good at pulling off anything that I can come up with. It’s a bigger challenge for me as a songwriter; I try to challenge myself and them. It’s caused me to be a more mature songwriter. I don’t just bang things out; I find myself being more patient.”

Earthquake Glue is a self-produced record (like last summer’s Universal Truths and Cycles) that features three-to-four-minute full-band rock epics rather than the song fragments and grainy sound that pervade earlier efforts. “We did gain confidence by working in the studio with Ric and Rob—we knew we could pull it off. We didn’t like the fact that we were being told what to do, down to every detail, how we need to arrange songs, what songs needed to go on there, what the cover needs to look like,” says Pollard of the band’s TVT period, during which some fans accused him of selling out (especially after the widely panned Do the Collapse). They returned to Matador, Pollard says, because he missed having “complete creative control.”

“You’ve got the marketing people there who’ll tell you, ‘The kids that listen to albums at that Virgin Megastore and Tower Records, they’ve got these listening stations where they check out the record. You’ve got to have the best songs at the top.’ Well, it takes years for me to realize what the best songs are.”

Now that they’re producing themselves, says Pollard, it helps that Tim’s brother, producer Todd Tobias, “really has a lot of good ideas sonically. He does samples and loops and things.” (For example, a brick scraping against pavement forms the rhythmic backdrop of the punishing “I’ll Replace You With Machines.”) “He records these sounds and they totally take on a different sound … it doesn’t sound like what it is,” Pollard says.

“I feel we’re in a comfortable niche,” Pollard concludes. “We’re on schedule now for an album a year, to release an album every fall. It’s like clockwork and that’s something that I like.”

Despite his reputation as one of rock’s more spontaneous composers, the regularity of his recent efforts now extends even to his songwriting routine. “I kind of punch in a little bit. I like to do this; this is my morning routine. I like to get up early, which means 5:30, six o’clock nowadays, while my girlfriend sleeps for another six hours. I make coffee, sit around, look at my notebooks, write lyrics, pick up a guitar, write some songs.”

It should surprise no one that the composer of “At Odds With Dr. Genesis” writes his lyrics “kinda stream-of-consciousness. Things that are going on around me seem to filter into them,” Pollard says. “I write about things that my friends say, the way I’m feeling, things I hear and read and see on billboards.” That explains the relatively explicit post-9/11 skepticism that seems to seep into Earthquake Glue on tracks like “My Kind of Soldier” and “My Son, My Secretary, and My Country.” “I don’t sit down and say ‘I’m going to make this political statement,’ you know,” Pollard says. “It’s hard to avoid that sort of thing … I realize that we, in these times, we have to rally around the flag. I just don’t—can’t—get into it. I don’t know what the agenda is of world leaders. I don’t feel empowered.”

As a composer, Pollard has a way of combining the oblique, inward qualities of indie rock with the anthemic forwardness of classic rock. You’ll be lulled by a track’s elliptical melody or cryptic lyrics, only to have Pollard blast your ear with a loud macho riff or some glam-rock chord snatched from the arena and made to sound—through the tension with its new surroundings—richer than before. “I like contrast and contradiction,” Pollard agrees. “Even lyrically, like I would write this heavy lyric and then lay this goofy chord progression over it.”

This, along with Pollard’s “record-first-critique-later” approach, made the old Guided By Voices albums feel like an infinite, perfect thrift store to some. But the spottiness drove other listeners—who like their albums a little more polished and a little less crunchy, thank you—absolutely bonkers. The latter are likely to be pleased by the development shown on Universal Truths and continued on Earthquake Glue, while those who miss the old scattershot Bob Pollard can take comfort in his solo and side projects. These are blizzard-like in their profusion, and include the recent Motel of Fools, various collaborations with past and present Guided By Voices members, and Kid Marine, the 1999 solo album that Pollard considers his favorite of all his work: “It’s kind of just about living in Dayton, living in the Midwest, watching TV and drinking, and there’s not much more to do than to go to work and do that,” he says. Among his collaborations are various reunion efforts with Sprout, and the aforementioned Circus Devils, a band including GBV bassist Tim Tobias and his brother Todd, which Pollard says “allows me to showcase a little darker side of myself.”

Most of these works are part of Pollard’s Fading Captain Series. “In the interim period between Matador and TVT,” Pollard explains, “we were kinda contractually bound [not to release any new music]. When we went to the bargaining table, one thing we asked for was to give me this creative outlet, because when I’m not making music I just get depressed. They said ‘You can do what you want on this label, but it’s gotta be low-profile.’ It’s kept me active, kept me happy, it’s a second source of income … it’s allowed me to splinter my personality into different projects. [In the past], everything went into Guided By Voices—those records had slightly more diversity. All the weird shit, all the jams, all the fragments, even including stupid songs.” Now, he says, “I separate them by category: ‘This is gonna be a Bob Pollard record, this is a collaboration, this to me is Guided By Voices.’ Now I find myself saving my most mature songs for Guided By Voices.”

Among the most notable of his collaborations is last May’s Beard of Lightning, on which Pollard sings his own new lyrics over the instrumental tracks from the final album by ’80s power trio Phantom Tollbooth, Power Toy (1988).

Pollard considered himself a “fan” of Phantom Tollbooth’s music but felt that the original album’s vocal stylings went “too much in the direction of indie rock,” he said. “I told [Off Records president Chris Slusarenko] I’d be interested to make that into more of a classic rock album.” Slusarenko contacted Phantom Tollbooth’s original members, who gave both their consent and the original album tapes to the project, thus helping to originate an entire potential subgenre of Bob Pollard sing-along records—surely a postmodern theorist’s dream. “I’d like to redo Houses of the Holy,” he laughs. “I like Led Zeppelin, but I’m not a big Robert Plant fan … he always has to go to that high register, and it just goes right through you. On ‘Saturday Night Live,’ they had that sketch, ‘Plant or Animal,’ where they played a sound and you had to guess which one it was.”

Comfortably reinstalled at Matador, GBV completed major recording for Earthquake Glue in “about 10 days. The last one took about two weeks, the albums before that took a month. We had our shit together a little more on this record. We’d already worked with Todd [Tobias]; we already knew what we wanted.”

“Everything feels good with the chemistry,” Pollard says of the most recent—and, he hopes, permanent—GBV lineup. “I can’t see me having to ask someone to leave. Hopefully this’ll be the lineup. I don’t like changes, to tell the truth; most people that have left my band—there’ve been a few [exceptions], but for the most part people make decisions to leave based on some kind of personal problem of their own, their family.”

Some of those departed GBV-ers may briefly return to the band’s lineup around November, when the Hardcore UFO box set comes out. “I think we’re trying to schedule something around the release—a few shows where past members come onstage with us, everybody who wants to. I think we’re going to have Toby [Sprout], Mitch Mitchell if he wants to … it’s going to be fun. It’s Guided By Voices’ 20th anniversary, and it’s Dayton’s sesquicentennial.”

These reunion shows are for nostalgia’s sake only, no more than a quick look back from a securely inhabited present, much like the Simon and Garfunkel reunions (at least for Simon). “I’ve gotten to know Guided By Voices better, what it is,” Pollard says. “At one point I thought we were too derivative of other stuff. I thought we didn’t have our own personality. Now I think it’s all kind of twisted or molded itself into something people can identify—‘That sounds like Guided By Voices.’”

What is that sound? Maybe it’s the sound of lunatic, hallucinatory productivity… maturing.