Picture Him Big Time

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

"I've finally been able to find a lead guitar player that I've never had," he continues. "To me, all great rock bands have a really good lead guitar player. And I never had one. Now I have Doug. So consciously I thought, technically, we're much better now, so I should write technically better rock songs geared toward my band's ability. So I find myself writing songs with breaks in them for lead guitars."

The sentiment certainly comes through on Do the Collapse. Even in some of the record's most delicate moments, the pretty "Things I Will Keep" and "Hold On Hope" -- a power ballad worthy of the arena cigarette lighter treatment -- there are guitar leads. Granted, guitar leads on GBV songs aren't a novel concept, but traditionally they consisted of only a few notes, and they happen only once per song. Nearly every track on Do the Collapse opens with a lead to hang your hat on, and Gilliard positively solos throughout the rest of the album, especially on crunchy, prog-rock screamers like "Zoo Pie" and "Picture Me Big Time."

It's a lot to swallow, especially for fans used to fuzzy guitars and two-minute sing-alongs. But lest they forget, Pollard's songs have always had more in common with The Who than, say, former labelmates and lo-fi exponents Pavement. "When people ask me to do my top-five desert island records, my favorite records are always classic rock bands, like David Bowie and The Who and the Beatles and Big Star and bands like that. That's what I wanted Guided by Voices to aspire to be," says Pollard.

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

And with that aspiration, Pollard evidently realizes there will be snags. Grappling with the price of fame permeates the lyrics of the new album. On a track that's closest to classic GBV, the deftly hooked "Surgical Focus," Pollard seems to sing about what widespread celebrity could mean to his marriage: "And I will keep you and cleanse you/She glared at me and wept/A change is not going to hurt you, not this time/And I've been waiting in line for this."

Similarly, the story told in the record's closing track, the frenetic "An Unmarketed Product," is almost a dead ringer for Pollard's own slow progress as a professional musician: "An unmarketed product is shining clear for many years. . . . And if you have any luck, you'll get ahead before you're dead."

Aside from such lyrical evidence, the man himself admits that, all things being equal, to achieve his goals for GBV, some things will have to be sacrificed. "If I had 100 percent control -- I do have control, but I'm dealing with a label that's invested money in us and I have to consider their wishes, too," Pollard says. "But if I had to do everything completely without any input from anyone else the way I want to do it, I'd still have some crazy experimental shit in there [on GBV records]. It's got to the point where everybody involved in Guided by Voices -- and there's a lot involved, more so than a lot of people think -- were into us this time doing a nice, solid record all the way through. And I was kind of into it, too, just out of curiosity. So I think it's good, and maybe if things go really well they'll let me have an experimental thing on the next record or something."

Perhaps admitting more than he'd like about who's really steering his course, Pollard hastily adds, "But like I said, they would let me anyway, because I have total artistic control. What's good about TVT right now is they're letting me do all of these side projects and stuff."

Pollard is referring to a succession of albums called The Fading Captain Series on Rockathon Records, a label run out of Dayton by GBV manager for life Pete Jamison. So far the run has included the last Pollard solo album, Kid Marine; a collection of GBV outtakes, Nightwalker -- "In Shop We Build Electric Chairs Professional Music From Nightwalker 1984-93"; and Ask Them, another Pollard long-player where he's accompanied by a Dayton group called The Tasties under the name Lexo and the Leapers. All have been released on Rockathon, along with Sprout's latest solo record, Let's Welcome the Circus People.

Pollard says he also has another solo record, which he recorded with Doug Gilliard playing every instrument, in the works. Such products should appease those who pine for Pollard at his lo-fi best. But while GBV may never have deserved the label "indie rock," they got it, and along with that comes a legion of merciless fans who cry foul at the first sign of their heroes breaking out of the club circuit. Despite his honest attempts to remain true to what he does best -- writing fine pop songs -- Pollard, like many talented musicians before him, has been the target of "sellout" accusations.

Those pointing fingers forget the ultimate reality: Being an indie rock hero doesn't pay the bills. For Pollard, who remains what he always was -- a genuinely nice guy with Midwestern values and an incredible knack for songwriting -- it's hard to blame him for wanting to widen his appeal and his wallet at the same time. Especially when he's only doing what he's always done, just louder.

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