I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Take all four Beatles (Ringo included), condense their songwriting abilities into one person, and you have Dayton, Ohio’s Robert Pollard, frontman of Guided by Voices. This 43-year-old ex-schoolteacher and object of hero worship is a beer-drinking, chain-smoking basketball-playing regular dude who happens to be obsessed with experimental and psychedelic pop music. He is gentle, kind, and has the mouth of a truck driver. He is something of a one-man factory, producing cool songs with huge hooks and obscure lyrics. He has written thousands and thousands of songs; between his various side projects he releases more music in one year than most artists do in ten. Remarkably, very little of it is crap. Songs like “Gold Star For Robot Boy,” “Tractor Rape Chain,” “Cool Off Kid Kilowatt, “Teenage FBI” are huge hits in the bizarre, alternate universe of listeners who give precedence to the quality of pop songs over marketing and presentation.
Begun in a basement in 1983, Guided by Voices is one of the most important underground rock bands of the last 15 years. On five albums and one EP self-released between 1986 and 1992, GBV laid the blueprint for a generation of bedroom tinkerers, alt-pop dreamers and Lollapalooza headliners. Their songs were recorded on the cheapest possible equipment, in a way that highlighted and even reveled in their lo-fidelity, perhaps similar to the way California assemblage artists like Wallace Berman and Bruce Conner flaunted the means of their work’s funky constructions of recycled pop detritus in the 1950s. The songs, some of which are very short, sound like tape collages of your favorite pure pop moments by the Who and Big Star, then cut-up by British art-punk act Wire and left out in the sun to bake.
On their newest disc Isolation Drills (TVT Records), the band has made a clear sounding Big Rock album in a way that’s consistent with their self-styled milieu. The album is not a sellout; it’s “mature” without seeming diluted or compromised. Drills has big, rhythmic guitar riffs that make you feel all tingly, like being in love for the first time with the visceral power of rock music. Perfect, taffy-sweet pop melodies combine with self-consciously artsy elements and words that don’t make a whole lot of sense until you think about them later.
I’ve known Pollard socially for years—well enough to say hey and talk about things such as how great the Grifters are, and what we’re both listening to—but I’d never had the opportunity to interview him. What follows was one of those conversations where the wait served us both well. We cut through the bullshit and talked for two hours straight.
Mike McGonigal What’s the first song you remember writing?
Robert Pollard I started writing songs when I was about eight; I’d write them a cappella. The first one was called “We Are from the Planet Mars,” another was “Jag Wire,” and then “Eggs Make Me Sick”: those are the first three songs I wrote. We’ve been thinking about doing an EP of all the kid songs.
MM There’s one song on Suitcase from when you were really young, right?
RP Yes, “Little Jimmy the Giant.” But even then I was already in high school. The earlier songs weren’t recorded.
MM Can you recall those earliest ones?
RP I know them still, yes. I’ve got this huge catalog of songs, and I constantly go back. For instance, if I’m working on a song that I just recently made up, if I’m having trouble and think it needs something, I’ll go back in my mind and search for really old stuff to see if it fits. A lot of the stuff I wrote when I was a kid is like bubblegum pop—really hooky. I’ll use that stuff sometimes, just for sections of songs. As a matter of fact, Bee Thousand was completely made up of old songs put together.
MM I love that record.
RP Thanks. I just said, I’m going back through my notebooks and through my head and I’ll find all the songs that I wrote, take their best parts and put them together to make new ones.
MM Is songwriting itself ever a challenge for you? Or is the challenge more in separating the wheat from the chaff?
RP Because I write so many songs and I work with other people, the challenge is making sure that I weed them out and make the right sequence and select the right songs for the record.
MM What about having other people cover your songs? Some of your tunes, I could really hear Joan Osborne, say, singing them.
RP I wish that would happen; I’m first and foremost a songwriter. I don’t know notation or chord structure or the names of chords, and I’m not that great of a singer. I can sing, I am adequate, but I would love to write songs for other people. If this were the ’60s that’s probably what I would be doing right now, being a songwriter for a company. Record companies used to employ songwriters to write for the bands on their label; everybody back in the sixties used to cover each other. Now it’s different, and I think it’s got something to do with the industry and the …
MM The greed.
RP Oh, yes, greed, with mechanical royalties and all that stuff, the bands all write their own songs. But I don’t think there has ever been a period, or probably ever will be again, where the songs are so brilliant and beautiful as those that were written in the ’60s. It was such a songwriter-friendly atmosphere then; people wanted songs.
MM Your songs have changed a lot structurally in the last ten years. They used to be morsels of songs and now they’re far more polished and you have, for instance, a verse, a chorus, then a verse again!
RP In the mid-period phase of the group, I came up with hundreds of song titles, and out of those titles I’d take one and write a quick poem for it, and then we’d work on a four-track. So I’d write the song really quickly, get my band together and teach it to them. I wanted everything to be spontaneous and fresh, and when I barely knew the song myself I’d go in and I’d play guitar with the drummer, and the drummer wouldn’t even know the song! We purposely wanted it to be fragmented. I craved—and still do—classic rock, like the Beatles; I wanted our albums to sound like bootlegs of long-lost demos and outtakes and shit.
And then I got to the point where we’d done that. And we’d done pretty much all we could with the four-track thing. And now I’d like to grow and mature as a songwriter, so I’ve started working more on structures. I hadn’t realized how long I could keep doing this crazy, whimsical, fragmented type thing; I thought it was getting a little bit old, you know?
MM Well, it would be easy for it to become a parody of itself.
RP Yeah, exactly. And the thing was, it just goes to show that you can’t please everyone, because a lot of people—fans and critics and shit—were tired of that. You know, When is Guided by Voices going to start doing something serious and upgrade their sound? and all that. And so I’m like, Yeah, I think it’s time. And then once I made the change, a lot of the same people were going like, We miss the old band, we miss the old crazy shit. So you just can’t …
MM You can’t please people.
RP You can only do what you want to do. Plus, I wanted our music to evolve to the point where it matched the way we sounded live. For a while we had this duality where we made these crazy, quirky, lo-fi records, and then live we were this big power rock band. It was two different things. So eventually, these two things had to meet. Now I think they finally have.
MM Guided by Voices had made records for some time before you were ever heard outside of Dayton, Ohio. And you had developed your own musical vocabulary as a result. I see groups today who haven’t even released a single on their own or played more than a few shows out and they get signed to a label. Do you feel there was an advantage to your having “toiled in obscurity,” as they say?
RP Yes! The advantage is that from a personal standpoint of entertainment, I have created my own world. I pop out so many records for myself that I don’t have to rely on the music being released these days, which is so boring and all the same. It’s all MTV-oriented and even the alternative stuff, or the alternative stuff you can buy, has either all been done before or it’s experimental noise. There will always be a few good bands, sure—but I’ve created my own world and my own music. Like you said, I have my own vocabulary, and it’s what I like. I’m 43 years old now and I’ve been through the whole spectrum of rock from the early ’60s. I know what I like, if I want new music I can create it myself instead of looking for it. Because you know, frankly a lot of the stuff that I like doesn’t even exist anymore.
MM So you listen to your own music?
RP Oh fuck yeah! (laughter) That might be egotistical, but …
MM No, I think it’s cool.
RP But what I listen to mainly is ’60s shit, especially late ’60s. I’m kind of a ’60s freak. I like the way they put records together back then. There would be fuckin’ little skits and psychedelic long shit and pop songs, you know, the way that the Beatles and Byrds and Monkees put records together. There was such good competition then. As if everybody was thinking, “Man, if we’re going to put out a record it has to aspire toward greatness, it has to be amazing—it has to be conceptually amazing, even.” Now it’s like, Let’s throw a bunch of shit together, get a producer to produce it, put the one or two good songs at the top and fuck the rest of it.
I live in this little fuckin’ apartment and I constantly lose shit! I just lost my cup of coffee now, I cannot fuckin’ find it! Oh there it is, it’s in the fuckin’ sink!
So have you seen the abridged version of Suitcase?
MM Yeah, I love your song titles, and the fake band names, too. I was going to start a fanzine called More Band Names when I lived in Chattanooga. I did three pages, and then ran out of steam.
RP The reason that I put all those fake band names on the songs on Suitcase is because I’d spoken to Thurston Moore and Byron Coley—they have a publishing company and put out books. I was going to do a book of nothing but band names, something like those books for baby names, because there are so many shitty band names. The names in my book would be public domain and anyone that wanted to use one could. I made a list of about 300 band names, and then I realized that in order to make a book I would have to have like fuckin’ 10,000 band names. It was just too arduous a task. So I figured, Well, I’ll just give each song on Suitcase one of my favorite names from the list. I had done things like that before with songs I wrote for Alien Lanes. I made a fake album cover for a fake compilation album. I took my yearbooks from ’73 and ’74—back when people had long hair and shit. I cut out all the little different pictures of clusters of guys that looked like rock bands, gave them each a band name and a song title. I had all these song titles laying around—like “Gold Star For Robot Boy,” “I Am A Scientist” and so on. Looking at that compilation album cover and all those song titles inspired me to write the actual songs. And I kind of assumed the identity of each of those bands as I was writing.
MM Would you ever think of doing a contest where people could come up with fake GBV titles and you’d write actual songs for the best ones?
RP That would be great. Actually, what I’m into now is having other people send me instrumentals, and then I’m going to put lyrics and melodies over the top of them and give each one a band name. Because that’s so easy, that’s one of the best ways to make music, it’s so spontaneous and quick. You don’t have to practice or anything. I’m doing that with Mac from Superchunk, and I’m going to see if I can continue with the idea. Maybe get J. Mascis to do an album of instrumentals. And I’m trying to think of other people I would be interested in working with. I wouldn’t mind doing some stuff with Lou Barlow or Steve Malkmus. That’s what I’m best at—melodies and lyrics.
MM Stuff just comes to you …
RP Uh huh. It’s really easy. Because in the studio, first of all, a lot of times I take a lyric and start singing over an instrumental, and sometimes it works all the way through. And if it doesn’t, then I just punch in all the way through the song, you know, line by line. It doesn’t take work, it doesn’t take practice, it just comes to me.
MM When I think about say, Graeme Downes of the Verlaines, and his music, and Barbara Manning’s music and your music—they all seem based on rhythm, the chords are so rhythmic.
RP Exactly. You’re totally right.
MM Were you into Loveless at all when that came out? My Bloody Valentine?
RP You know, not when it came out, but people were always telling me, My Bloody Valentine is great, Loveless is a great album. Since Wire I don’t like anything that’s come out of England. And that band is from England, aren’t they?
RP But then I got Loveless and that’s a beautiful record, and it’s totally wall of sound, like what we have been after. Matter of fact, sometimes when I want to write lyrics, I’ll listen toLoveless. Because of the way the vocals are buried, you can almost listen to the songs as if they’re instrumental pieces. Have you heard our new record, Isolation Drills?
MM Oh yeah—I’ve been listening to it at work, in repeat play mode on my computer.
RP Cool. Do you like it?
MM Yes, and I think it’s your best …
RP Best hi-fi thing so far?
MM It’s your best record in five years at least.
RP I like the way it turned out myself; it’s really solid. I think it’s well produced and the songs are really good. It’s our most serious record ever. It’s really personal and dark. There are a few happy, “up” songs, but lyrically they’re all about drinking, fucking, fighting and loneliness. That’s why I called it Isolation Drills—it’s about being separated from everyone, and realizing that you’re on your own. In the past year, the entire band has gone through serious separations, except for one person. It’s been a rough year because we toured more than we ever had before. We went all over the world for the first time. We acted like a bunch of fuckin’ idiots, and the repercussions followed. But it’s all part of rock… .
MM So it sounds like you’ve gotten pretty close with this new group of guys who you’ve been playing with the last couple of years.
RP Yeah, because of everything that’s gone on, we’re really close now. I mean we’re like a family, sometimes we feel like all we have is each other, you know? And this is probably the wildest bunch of guys I’ve ever had. I mean … I’ve had band members that are fuckin’ crazy, they like a party, but this band, this is a partying bunch of guys!
MM Are they a bad influence on you?
MM Are you a bad influence on them?
RP No. They’re a bad influence on me! Oh, I probably am. You know, I’m the elder, I’m the spokesman. I’m the oldest guy and I’m sure I influence them somewhat, but like, a couple guys in the band, I can’t fucking hang with them, I at least know when to go home and go to bed. So I had a meeting with everybody and said, We’re acting immature and we should focus on what we’re really about. We’re a serious rock band and we’re acting kind of foolish. And things have toned down now. I think everybody has thought about their lives and everything. Things have smoothed out. We did this record and we had a good time putting it together.
MM The lyrics on the new record have less of the sort of wordplay I associate with your work; there are far fewer jammed-together word associations and puns.
RP In the past, I’ve been carefree lyrically—especially in the mid-period phase, when I was still teaching. I was around kids a lot so the lyrics were whimsical and silly. Most of the songs on the new record started with poetry, but they’re more of a personal nature now. I used to make fun of guys that would write about breaking up and heartbreak and love and all that kind of shit. And now, although I don’t come right out and say, “I miss you” or “I love you,” my songs are still about that. When you’re sad and you’re having problems with the people that you care about in your life, it does put you in a seriously melancholy mood. But good stuff comes from it. I wrote most of the words for Isolation Drills in one burst. I drove on the last tour we did, all around the country. The last show was in San Diego, and then I drove all the way from San Diego to Athens, Georgia on my own. I’d get a hotel, sleep for three or four hours, then get back up and drive, so the entire trip took me less than three days. I was driving across the desert at 90 miles an hour, writing poetry. Then when I got home I put music to what I’d written. I had a lot of time to think, driving across New Mexico and Texas.
MM I have always been intrigued by the tension between a certain kind of lyrics that are, some people might say, depressing or dark, with positively lovely melodies—it’s a simple formula but when it works it’s very effective. You can find it in Big Star, Nick Drake, Cardinal, Richard Thompson, Emmylou Harris—this play of opposites between exquisite, sugary melodies and dark, depressing lyrical content. And now it’s happening with you and your music.
RP The best albums to me have been big, sad rock albums—Who’s Next is a big sad record. I’ve always wanted to make a record like that and this is the closest we’ve come. I’ve wanted to do it before but I just haven’t been in quite the right mood for it. Before, there was always this silliness that came through. It’s weird that you were talking about Richard Thompson, because we did this record in New York with Rob Schnapf who works with Richard Thompson; he produced his last record.
MM Right, Mock Tudor—that’s a fine album; and the first Elliott Smith record that guy did with Tom Rothrock is terrific as well.
RP I like the first Beck record he did, and the first Foo Fighters album—that’s what persuaded me to work with him. My A and R guy, Adam Shore, sent me all these CDs that Rob had produced and I had no idea who he was and I was really impressed. It’s been so diverse—the stuff that he’s done, the people he’s worked with—so I said, “I’d like you to get this kind of diversity within one record by us.” So the album has got little pop songs and it’s got anthems and ballads and shit. I’ve been telling people for a long time that we’re going to make a big, solid, serious rock record and we’ve finally succeeded.
Another thing I like about Isolation Drills is that we finally got that wall of sound approach that we’d been after. I would listen to the Pixies and stuff like that and think, Man I wish we’d get more dynamics in what we do—where it breathes for awhile and then it explodes. I like things that just kick your ass all the way through.
MM I don’t want this whole interview to be about classic rock, but I’m hearing it in Isolation Drills—the coda to “Skills Like This” strikes me as very late-’60s Who, while your singing on “Fine To See You” is really R.E.M.ish and “Pivotal Film” is almost like a T. Rex song, it’s …
RP “Pivotal Film” is definitely T. Rex—that’s my favorite one on the record. I think that’s the best rock song that we’ve ever done; I love the way that turned out! The weird thing is to take time and produce a song, a record, and for it to sound like it does in your head—when it was conceived you know—exactly the way it came out. To try to make it have that same feeling is really difficult and “Pivotal Film” is right on the nail. Almost every song on the record except for the ones that are obviously too short, could be singles. What’s weird is that our label TVT—we have a good relationship with them, but they say they don’t hear a single on this record.
MM What about “Glad Girls?”
RP Yes, “Glad Girls,” that’s going to be the first single. Maybe they’re talking about something that they can work with on MTV or big radio, that can break us in or something. I have people tell me that they have four-year-old kids who constantly sing “Teenage FBI” and “Glad Girls” and other songs of ours. And if four-year-old kids can sing it, then why can’t high school kids and college kids get into it? I don’t know. I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe we’re not capable of having a hit, we’re just not that kind of a band.
MM Well you’re doing all right for money, right?
RP I’m doing all right. I have enough money. I don’t need a lot of money, you know. But speaking of that, a guy I went to high school with—this is fucking wild—he’s always been this weird motherfucker because one week he’d be religious and like preaching hellfire and shit, and the next week he’d be doing drugs and shit, you know? So he’s got this little like 50-person congregation he preaches to and some fuckin’ old lady died recently and left him $20 million! Can you believe that?
MM What a racket.
RP That made me sick. I’m just wondering what he said to her when she was dying to get her to do that. Something evil is going on there. But I don’t need $20 million. He’s a preacher and I guess he still works at the factory, but he’s given himself a $20,000 allowance from the inheritance.
MM Well, I’d give myself a lot more than that.
RP I would too, but $20,000 a month is a lot of money.
MM Oh, a month?
RP A month, yeah. That’s his allowance, $20,000 a month. I mean that’s awesome, but if you knew this guy, he’s a fuckin’ idiot, he’s a nut, man! He’s like, “You need to be saved or you’re going to hell.” I’m sure he thinks that he saved this woman, and I’m sure this woman thinks he saved her! Gave him all her money! That’s fuckin’ nuts, isn’t it? I mean, I’ll admit, I’m kind of jealous a little bit, but you know, the thing to do if he’s such a Christian and everything would be to give it to charities, right? If I see him I’m going to tell him that.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee