Picture Him Big Time

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

Pollard took the latest of GBV's revolving lineups -- guitarist Doug Gilliard (who also played on GBV's last record Mag Earwhig), former Breeders drummer Jim MacPherson and bassist Greg Demos (who's since been replaced by Tim Tobias) -- into the studio with Ocasek and recorded Do the Collapse, assuming Matador would release it through Capitol. By the time GBV had a finished product, Capitol president Gary Gersh, who initiated the Matador deal, had left the company. Executive turnover in the music biz has foiled more than one band's leap to the majors, and it appeared GBV would be no exception. When Gersh departed, the deal to release Do the Collapse on Capitol fizzled, too.

Gersh's exit left GBV in the unlikely position of having to shop for a label. The band packed up and headed to the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, where they joined legions of other unsigned bands looking for a deal -- not the most desirable of positions for a middle-aged songwriter and his motley crew, to be sure. But Pollard had made the hi-fi record he thought his arena-rock songs deserved, and he'd be damned if they were going to remain stuck in indie-rock obscurity.

"We figured we spent this time and money on this record with Ric Ocasek," he says. "We thought we should look for more resources than Matador had to offer." Fortunately, they didn't have to look far. In Austin, GBV (now featuring Nate Farley, formerly of the Amps, on rhythm guitar) played to its largest crowd to that point -- about 10,000 -- at an outdoor show on a Saturday, the biggest night of the festival. Pollard's charismatic stage act -- complete with kick jumps and mike twirling -- and balanced set of classic GBV tunes and new songs proved the group could hold its own with a bigger-than-club-size audience. TVT agreed, and Do the Collapse was released on the label last month.

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

Longtime GBV fans may have a difficult time listening to the new album without visions of dollar signs dancing through their heads. The guitars are bigger, the songs are longer and the instruments ring truer. There are no sudden speaker dropouts or vocals that sound as if they were recorded through a paper-towel roll a football field away from the microphone. There's crisp, live percussion on every song. And these are some of Pollard's favorite things. Do the Collapse is everything every GBV album that's come before it was not, and that's just fine with him.

While some fans may be eager to cast stones at Pollard, he offers no apologies, only reasons, for the calculated departure from the group's well-defined lo-fi aesthetic. "It's been oncoming," he says. "We've been attempting a big record for the last two. Under the Bushes, Under the Stars was kind of a departure from everything; so was Mag Earwhig." GBV's 1996 and 1997 releases, respectively, were albums that also signified major personnel changes for the band. After Under the Bushes . . . , Pollard basically fired his entire band -- including original members Kevin Fennell and Mitch Mitchell, as well as Tobin Sprout, who many GBV watchers view as an irreplaceable presence for the well-crafted songs and Beatlesque harmonies he contributed to several crucial GBV records.

"A lot of people don't really understand," Pollard says when posed with the widespread notion that GBV hasn't been the same without Sprout. "Guided by Voices has been since like '82 or something like that. I've heard a lot of people say I don't even deserve to call it Guided by Voices without Tobin Sprout in the band, but Guided by Voices has been around for like 18 years, and Tobin Sprout was in the band for like three. Whatever the band is with me, that's Guided by Voices."

True to his word, Pollard recruited another Ohio band, Cleveland garage rockers Cobra Verde, to record with him on GBV's next release, Mag Earwhig. During a subsequent tour, the tables were turned on Pollard when that GBV incarnation -- save guitarist Gilliard -- quit after Pollard made some unsavory comments about the group in print.

Though he's since attributed his snipes and their backlash to being drunk during an interview, Pollard says the overhaul after Under the Bushes . . . was not entirely his fault. "I really crave to have one lineup -- I wish it would have been that way the whole time, but for different reasons people have had to go, whether it be for a lack of enthusiasm or for drug reasons or for family reasons," he says, citing reasons Fennell (drugs) and Sprout (family) reportedly left the band. "But people have come and gone, and there's not much I can do about it. And I'm not going to keep a band together if it doesn't feel right. I've made lineup changes to seek the right chemistry for the project -- you just have to have that enthusiasm, and sometimes that dwindles, and I just have to make changes when it does."

Pollard thinks he's nailed that chemistry with his latest lineup -- at least for now. And, with all due respect to former members of GBV, he suggests that previous discontent with bandmates may have had something to do with their musicianship -- or lack thereof. "That lineup -- [with] Toby and Mitch -- I think they did a great job for their ability and my ability, but for the most part, we were kind of overachievers," Pollard says. "Nobody was technically really that good. And I'm including myself as far as with where I wanted the band to go."

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