By Melissa Fossum
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By Amanda Savage
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Pollen would seem to have it all. Contracted to Wind-Up Records, a highly visible indie label with major label (BMG) distribution, Pollen is poised to tour extensively in support of its latest album Peach Tree this fall. In addition, Wind-Up is committed to financing a video, and several tracks off the album are garnering their share of airplay throughout the country. Sweet!
Yet for everything Pollen has going for its career on a national scale, here in its adopted home state of two years, it's practically invisible. These former Steeltown sons had to start from square one on the Phoenix live circuit. With no large Phoenician following to ensure headliner status, the band must content itself with gigging middle slots on Friday nights.
It's unspeakably humid tonight in the Mesa warehouse practice space where Pollen has just finished running through its set. As we sit huddled around my cheap-ass tape recorder, Bob Hoag, the group's hyperactive drummer and chief songwriter, shouts this declaration of geekdom into the condenser mike.
"We're nerds! (dramatic pause) Thank you."
The other members try distancing themselves from his unpopular assessment, but it's hopeless. Hoag proudly reels off everyone's dork qualifications anyway.
"Chris isn't a nerd," decides Hoag. "He collects lizards and rides mountain bikes. Mike wants to be blue-collar reeeeally bad. But he's too conscious of being blue-collar, and real blue-collar guys aren't even aware of being blue-collar."
Before Hoag can rattle off Kevin's and Dan's social ineptitudes, he switches gears and blurts out that Pollen started seven years ago "because we needed something to do. We went to all-boys boarding schools and no girls liked us."
Singer Dan Hargest smiles somewhat nervously in the background. If Hoag seems ready to fill the role of all three Chipmunks at any given moment, Hargest is Pollen's resident Dave Seville, always trying to steer the conversation back toward business matters and away from Hoag's goofy passions like the Medieval Torture Chamber Blood Death Wax Museum in San Francisco and General Hospital. "I think we're really getting off the subject," Hargest cautions more than once before resigning himself to Hoag's waxing ecstatic about his car, an exact replica of Herbie the Love Bug.
"It's exact to the last millimeter," states Hoag, and he's right. Outside of finding a few of Buddy Hackett's nose hairs on the upholstery or Michele Lee and Dean Jones shagging in the front seat, you couldn't hope for a closer facsimile. It's this same anal attention to details that fuels Hoag's songwriting. Pollen's song titles scan like inventories of ordinary household objects ("Couch," "Paper," "Toaster," "Bicycle"), mundane items from which the group forcibly wrings out every last drop of pathos. Unoccupied chairs in Hoag's apartment remind him of where his departed beloved used to sit, every broken wishbone stinks of a wish someone else got to make. Even trusted brand names like "Crest" and "Butterworth" are cause for his compulsive heartaches.
Judging solely from the recorded evidence, Pollen sounds like a band that has been hurt by girls, make that mangled by girls. While acknowledging the group's stylistic debts to All and the Descendents, reviewers have also drawn parallels to Elvis Costello, the last notable twerp in spectacles to wreak revenge on his world through poison-penned pop ditties. Pollen's lyrical point of departure is that it dispenses with any cunning punning and rhymes to throw down blunt missives like this one from "Freshly Broken": "Why did you have to break me apart to get me to listen? I'm no threat to anyone. I'm hurting now. Is this what you wanted?".
Hoag denies he writes these heart-stomped-on-'til-it's-raspberry-jam songs so that females will sympathize with him.
"At one point early on, that might've been the case," he says. "My songs are my way of not going to a therapist, and it still isn't very healthy. A lot of bands write songs so that other people can identify with them. See, I don't care about that. I write songs as my little outlet. Being an extremely overemotional person, just talking about it doesn't do it. I need a massive swell of guitars behind me to really explain what's going on."
Hoag teamed up with guitarists Kevin Scanlon and Mike Bennett and bassist Chris Serafini seven years ago. He credits Scanlon with turning his ear away from John Williams, Billy Ocean and Whitney Houston and toward the Replacements, the Sex Pistols and even Pink Floyd. Back in those days, Pollen was known as Peach, and Hoag was its lead singer as well as drummer. "Before I regained my sanity," he says with a shrug.
On the days when Bennett actually remembered to attend Indiana University of Pennsylvania (he was asked to leave after one delinquent year), he met Hargest and invited him to audition. Hargest got the gig but was almost booted out shortly after.
"I came from more of a metal sort of thing," Hargest concedes. "Had lots of hair. I had to learn all the songs from a tape with some interim vocalist on it, but I just sucked. It sounded horrible. I started to look for people in the band, and they were also looking for people to replace me. I don't know exactly what changed it, but we rerecorded the demo."