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"I kind of put everything in Ric's hands, because I was a little bit intimidated by him. He's not really an intimidating guy; he's a really nice guy, a really laid-back guy. But it was our first time in the studio, and I was just like, 'Do it, Ric. Make a record.' There are a lot of things he did that I love, and there are a few things that I would not do again. Some of the keyboard things. I'm just not a big keyboard person."
Beyond the obtrusive keyboards, the most galling aspect of Collapse was the drum sound. Jim MacPherson's kit -- arguably one of the most powerful weapons in modern rock -- was dulled to the point where it seemed his snare was but a faint rumor.
Still, expectations were high for the band to make the jump to the next level. In March of '99, GBV previewed the new album during its biggest-ever gig, an outdoor set in front of 10,000-plus at Austin's South by Southwest music festival. The release of the record later that summer kicked off a nearly two-year-long stretch of roadwork. Beginning with extended tours of the U.S. and Europe, the group eventually moved into previously uncharted territory, playing and finding unexpected success in Australia, New Zealand and Japan. (During the interim, the band also released the Hold On Hope EP, a full-length disc of Do the Collapse B-sides.)
But the inroads the band made did not come without a price. "We did the most extensive [touring] we've ever done for Do the Collapse. We were gone all the time and it took its toll on everyone, you know, relationshipwise and at home," sighs Pollard.
Among the casualties was drummer MacPherson, who decided to leave the group to spend more time with his young family -- though not before completing work on the new record (his seat has since been filled by the American Flag's Jon McCann). Pollard says he remains close with MacPherson, a stark contrast to his relationship with longtime GBV trapsman (and Pollard's former brother-in-law) Kevin Fennell, who left the band in 1997 amid drug problems. Fennell eventually found sobriety and God, later renouncing Guided By Voices as the "devil's music."
But if the road had taken a minor toll on the band's membership, it took a far greater one on Pollard's 20-year marriage; the singer recently confessed to the imminent breakup with his wife in a New York Post interview, something no doubt brought on by Pollard's unyielding schedule and growing notoriety.
Such issues must've weighed heavily on Pollard's mind when he found himself in the midst of a cross-country drive from San Diego to Athens, Georgia, last summer. As he sped across the desert on a seemingly endless stretch of blacktop, Pollard scribbled line after line of poetry as he drove -- poems, he says, that would become the lyrical basis for Isolation Drills.
"It was intense," he says. "I had time to reflect on the whole year, the whole Do the Collapse thing, and being on the road all the time. I became introspective and really personal with these lyrics; [lyrics] about doing things that separate you from what you're used to all your life, all the people you left behind."
Something had clearly happened to Pollard's muse. No longer were his stories dadaist missives fueled by children's books and fantastic mythology. Instead, they were increasingly inspired by a sense of homefront alienation and informed by the distance and pain of two people growing apart. Bob Pollard, athlete turned teacher turned rock star, might've spent his whole life trying to hold on in a state of suspended adolescence, but the words that poured out on that long drive showed a depth and maturity that age alone could not have bestowed.
If anyone deserves credit for helping to shape Isolation Drills, and rescuing GBV from the monochromatic sound of Do the Collapse, it's Rob Schnapf. Schnapf, along with frequent production partner Tom Rothrock, has been responsible for helming a handful of the last decade's most noteworthy records, from Beck's Odelay to Elliot Smith's X/O.
"Then TVT said, 'Well, you oughta check out all of the different producers that are available.' And so they sent me a list, and there were some old-school producers," notes Pollard, reeling of a string of names that includes Bob Ezrin and Steve Lillywhite. "There were also some newer people I'd never heard of, and Rob was on that list.
"[TVT] sent me a big stack of CDs that he'd produced, and I was amazed at the variety of things that he'd done: the Foo Fighters and Beck and Elliott Smith and Richard Thompson and L7. So, I go, 'Well, I want some diversity on this record, so this guy seems like our man.' Then I met him, we talked, and that kinda sealed it," adds Pollard.
Schnapf, for his part, was already familiar with GBV and jumped at the opportunity to work with the group.