Is everyone going to get hammered down there?” It’s 10 a.m. in Dayton, Ohio, and Robert Pollard is not only up but chipper as hell–we’re on the phone discussing Guided by Voices’ upcoming New Year’s Eve show at the Cat’s Cradle. Turns out he’s an early riser–years of being a father, as well as a fourth-grade teacher in the Dayton primary education system, have prevented him from developing a slacker lifestyle. His official rock guise is that of the melancholy, ready-with-quip drunk guy: a musical prophet whose path to eternal truth is littered with discarded Budweiser empties. A performer who’s been known to keep a cooler onstage, so that the elixir is always near … and cold. GBV is playing here and Athens, Ga., in a whirlwind two-day tour. Celebrating New Year’s Eve with GBV is like getting the Iron Chef to host your dinner party: You’re dealing with the masters.
Pollard’s touring days have changed plenty since Bee Thousand, the album that brought the band national recognition. While the alternative world marveled at this 20-song instant classic, Pollard was still doing shows on the weekends, working on album art in the classroom and trying to keep a low profile in the teachers’ lounge. “I’d have no sleep and get really drunk,” he says of his former life. “Sometimes I’d fake like I was sick and go home; the kids would get in my face and say I smelled like beer. I’d say it was cough syrup–Budweiser-flavored cough syrup,” he adds, laughing. He’d play the records for his class and they’d jump around. But, because they were fourth graders, Pollard thinks they were just thrilled to get to jump around on class time. He also gave copies of GBV’s first record to every teacher in his school. None of them gave him any feedback. “I think they all threw them away,” he says. But the band had the last laugh: The album–if you can even find a copy–goes for $300.
The band’s latest release, Suitcase: Field Experiments in Trashed Aircraft, is a sprawling, nonchronological batch of 100 pre-fame Pollard recordings–all credited to imaginary bands–an overwhelming, warts-and-all aural document of the best basement pop doodlings ever committed to tape. Because of his raw talent, Pollard’s influential low-fi breakthrough albums–Vampire on Titus and Bee Thousand–inspired legions of poor saps to do the four-track thing, not realizing that Pollard’s creative star outshone his crappy equipment, rather than being created by it.
Making the inevitable jump from Matador to sorta major TVT, GBV changed members (again), recorded with Cars co-founder Ric Ocasek and attempted to write a bona fide radio hit, all the while continuing in their eccentric ways. Famous for coming up with his non sequitur song titles first, and then fleshing out the tunes (some songs he’d leave as bones), Pollard insists that this is the first time where he’s written the lyrics–“poems”–first.
After working with the somewhat intimidating Ocasek on Do the Collapse, Pollard chose Elliott Smith producer Rob Schnaff after being sent a stack of his stuff to check out. Pollard was impressed that Schnaff had worked on everything from Odelay and the first Foo Fighters release to a Richard Thompson album. “I liked the diversity. Let’s make [the album] sound different for every song,” Pollard told Schnaff.
For a guy who spent countless years recording in his basement studio–his every musical idea allowed to flow like so much emotional overspill–was working with a producer a stifling experience?
“You have your idea in your head and they have theirs, and hopefully you can find some common ground,” Pollard says. “With Ocasek, I liked what he did on the record, but I was too intimidated to talk to him about songs–‘Whatever you want to do, you’re Ric Ocasek.’ He didn’t do too many things I didn’t like. But if he did, I said, ‘Oh … that’s great.’” Per record company orders, GBV were not allowed to drink with Ocasek during the session, whereas recording with Schnaff was a more relaxed (read: inebriated) affair. While TVT was dead set on breaking the band to radio with Do the Collapse, Pollard says that this next release (due early 2001) will be marketed as an album, “which I’m into,” he adds. The new album has a big, major-studio sound, but he also plans to include one of his four-track recordings, as well as two songs recorded “in our little studio” (in Dayton).
Although the working title of the new release has been Broadcaster House, Pollard now wants to call it Isolation Drills, the final track on the album. Ever the Who fan, he describes it as a Quadrophenia-style, conceptual work, dealing with “emotions … mostly sad.” Expect it to be Pollard’s most personal album to date. He wrote most of the lyrics after the last GBV tour; while the band flew home, he opted to drive (alone) from the West Coast home to Ohio. It was a mind-expanding experience. “I’d look up at the sky and write another line–I wrote most of them driving 90 mph across the desert in Texas.”
Of course, Pollard’s version of straightforward lyrics and Joe Average’s are worlds apart, which becomes evident as he lists the album’s 17 tracks. High points: “How’s My Drinking,” a rebuttal to all the Dayton scribes who’ve been riding his butt about his Budweiser addiction (“We’re going to make bumper stickers that say, ‘How’s My Drinking? Call 1-800-GBV’”); “Frost” (“Kind of like ‘Nowhere Man,’” he says); and the proposed first single, “Glad Girls” (“only want to get you high”). Of course, Pollard cautions, this all could change.
At any rate, expect cameos by Elliott Smith, who plays piano and organ on a couple of songs, as well as former GBVer Tobin Sprout. Pollard also played mellotron strings and says–vocal-wise–to expect a lot of background “oohs.” (“Sadness makes you go ‘ooh’,” he quips).
The kind of high-energy guy who keeps a squadron of side projects in a holding pattern, Pollard has another solo album in the works, as well as a release with old band-mate Tobin Sprout under the moniker Airport Five. There’s also the Howlin’ Wolf Orchestra, consisting of his brother Jim (an original GBV-member and high-school basketball legend) and present GBV guitarist Nate Farley. As far as touring goes, GBV is batting around the idea of an arena tour with Oasis and The Black Crowes, an event that would showcase “three of the biggest assholes [frontmen] in rock,” he deadpans.
For the Cradle show, Pollard is readying the band’s infamous “The Bar Is Open” sign; it’ll be plugged in onstage. Expect a preview of the upcoming album: “Twilight Campfighter” (“I don’t know what the fuck that means,” he says), “Sister I Need Wine,” “Want One?” and “Pivotal Film,” to name a few; along with a smattering of GBV classics. At least that’s the plan. Pollard intends to steer clear of covers, but as we discuss the show, he makes a note to brush up on The Who’s FM warhorse, “Baba O’Riley.”
Cool–as long as he doesn’t wear a long fringed vest when he swings that microphone.