Picture Him Big Time

Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard says he's ready for the radio. But is the radio ready for him?

It's a muggy Friday night outside the Metro in Chicago, a club just down the street from Wrigley Field. As drunk and raucous Cubs fans head into the stadium for that night's game, inside the club, equally drunk and raucous fans wait for an event of a different kind: a Guided by Voices show.

The juxtaposition of GBV and baseball only seems incongruous. After all, before he began penning songs that would earn him indie guru status, GBV's resident genius Robert Pollard was a star pitcher for his high school and college baseball teams in Dayton, Ohio. Then there's beer, which, if absent at either event, would be like watching television without the sound -- you just don't get the same effect. A sober GBV fan is about as common as a three-legged dog at a kennel club competition, and looks just as out of place.

And both baseball and the story of how a fourth-grade teacher from Dayton, Ohio, formed a rock band that's poised to reach a mainstream audience after almost 20 years of slogging away are the stuff of boyhood fantasy. Boy jocks dream of playing in the big leagues; kids whose parents force them to take music lessons want to be rock stars. Pollard was a little bit of both, and when his fire for sports burned out, he picked up a guitar and started to play. The 1,000-plus fans sweating beer inside the Metro are glad he did.

Sheetkickers: Robert Pollard (second from right) with his motley crew.
Sheetkickers: Robert Pollard (second from right) with his motley crew.

When GBV finally takes the stage and launches into the first staccato chords of "Submarine Teams" from Pollard's latest solo album Kid Marine, chants of "GBV" dissolve into ecstatic cheers, as if the cleanup hitter just smacked a homer over the center-field wall.

Back home in Dayton a week and a half later, Pollard, a surprisingly soft-spoken man with an accent that's a cross between a Midwestern drawl and the British affectation he uses to sing, is apologetic. He missed a scheduled interview time, and he's sorry he made a writer in a different time zone get up early for nothing. Pollard can hardly be blamed for his absent-mindedness. After the Metro show, which doubled as the official CD-release party for GBV's latest album, Do the Collapse, Pollard has been squeezing in some time at home with his wife and teenage children before the band jets off to the United Kingdom to play a trio of dates, including the much-heralded Reading Festival.

Pollard says he tries to spend as much time in the town he's lived his whole life as he does on the road, to keep himself focused on things that are really important. "If you get all caught up in it and think about what the possibilities for success are for your band, you just drive yourself crazy, and I don't want to do that," he says. "I don't get involved in these kind of rock-star games and shit. I keep myself grounded by coming home and staying here for a long time."

The release of Do the Collapse may force Pollard to face his fears. It's not only the band's first record on TVT Records, a label that could easily bankroll the band into the mainstream, it's also GBV's first big-studio production, courtesy of former Cars main man, producer Ric Ocasek. After releasing years of muddy-sounding four- and eight-track pop gems on critically acclaimed records like "Bee Thousand" and "Alien Lanes," Pollard says he was ready to make a record that might garner his songs -- which have earned him a fanatical cult following -- the mainstream attention he thinks they deserve. "I think I write fairly accessible songs," he says. "I've always been kind of puzzled by why my songs can't be heard by everyone. [I finally figured out] the only way they can be heard by everyone is to be played on the radio."

But to make the airwaves, you have to do the dance, and let the major labels pick your drummer. Realistically (and no matter how interesting the oft-told story is to journalists), no big-market "alternative" station is going to play some ex-schoolteacher's basement tapes in between tracks by hi-fi noise makers like Limp Bizkit and Smash Mouth, no matter how well-crafted and catchy the songs may be. Pollard knew that to win a wider audience, he'd have to, if not sell his whole soul, at least pawn off a piece on consignment. So a plan was hatched. When Do the Collapse was in its embryonic stage, Pollard sat down with Capitol Records, which at that time said it would distribute the record by working in conjunction with GBV's then-label Matador Records. "I went out to talk to Capitol, and they said, 'We'll put it out through Capitol if you make the record you've always been capable of' -- that was the quote," Pollard recalls.

The first thing he says he needed to do was find a real producer, someone who knew his way around a recording studio and equipment that had more than eight tracks. Pollard had Ocasek in mind to fill those shoes, as much for his production repertoire as his ability as a tunesmith in his own right. "Ric was on top of the list, first of all, because of the admiration I have for him as a songwriter, and also as a producer, some of the early stuff he did, with Bad Brains, and some of the stuff he's done with Jonathan Richman," Pollard says. "And I really like the guitar sound on the Weezer album -- that's really what I was after, that big, crunchy guitar sound on the Weezer record, although I'm not particularly fond of Weezer."

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