There's a fantasy that probably every rock fan and critic has shared at one point or another. It involves the notion that somewhere, likely in a bedroom or basement in some small town, a group of unknowns is working in the shadows to create music as powerful and important as anything on the popular radar. Music being made completely independent of commercial consideration, or even public acceptance. Yet music so rich with promise and life that even the hand of fate will not let it go undiscovered.
Bob Pollard knows that fantasy well; he's lived it.
Among the most compelling phenomena ever to emerge from the American musical underground, Pollard's Guided By Voices became the darling of indie rock in the mid-'90s after a series of homemade lo-fi masterpieces like Vampire on Titus, Propeller, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes.
Pollard -- a former fourth-grade schoolteacher -- and his revolving band of fellow thirtysomething working stiffs refused to give up the rock 'n' roll fantasies that had colored their youths. They labored quietly in the basements of Dayton, Ohio, for more than a decade before attention and success, quite improbably, came their way.
The group has moved to much bigger trappings with this year's major-label, Ric Ocasek-produced effort Do the Collapse. Regardless of the size of the canvas, Pollard has always had an uncanny knack for merging stadium-size hooks with a complex lyrical style that synthesizes British Invasion songcraft with the artistic impressionism of prog-rock.
Pollard continues to amaze with both the quality and sheer output of his songwriting (he estimates his catalogue of songs to be somewhere in the 5,000-plus range), marking the time between GBV records with a steady stream of solo and side projects. Last month, he released the fourth album in his "Fading Captain Series" -- Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department -- on GBV's Rockathon Records label.
The group has made some significant inroads with Do the Collapse -- the album's first single, "Teenage F.B.I.," received regular airplay and has been included on the soundtrack to the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But more than mere commercial consideration, Pollard craves, as he always has, for Guided By Voices to be a meaningful band -- in the same way that the rock groups of his youth served as avatars for the kind of life and creativity that he's claimed for himself. Judging by the legions of dedicated fans and the near cultlike status that GBV has attained, Pollard's achieved a special kind of success that MTV hits or platinum records could never really equal.
Calling from the home he shares with his high school sweetheart wife and two teenage children the morning after his 42nd birthday, Pollard shared some of his thoughts before launching a national tour that will bring the band to Phoenix for the first time in almost three years. Talking in a rapid Midwestern twang -- a far cry from the pseudo-British accent he affects when singing -- Pollard spoke on a variety of topics: playing with power-pop progenitors Cheap Trick, his love for Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and how he still hopes to save rock 'n' roll.
New Times: There was a quote from you a while back where you said you wanted Guided By Voices albums to sound like Beatles and Who bootlegs.
Pollard: That was pretty much the whole four-track phase. As a record shopper, I used to love to find bootlegs of old '60s bands that were just outtakes and unreleased songs. So I kind of wanted Guided By Voices albums to seem like that, too, like you had found some really rare Who songs or Beatles songs.
NT: With this new record, have you decided to revise that? Is the ambition now to have GBV sound like a "big" rock band?
BP: I've got two sides to me. I've got this really experimental side and this really big, power-anthem pop side to me, too. And that's pretty much what Guided By Voices is now. The experimental side I've saved for my solo records or my pseudonymous projects. Guided By Voices is now a big power rock band. But that's how we've always been live anyway. Now, I think I have the band that's technically good enough to pull it off. So I thought it was a good time to get a good producer and make a big record.
NT: In terms of the material you're writing now, I know you've been influenced by psychedelic/spiritual stuff like The Byrds and The Millennium . . .
BP: Oh yeah, I love that stuff.
NT: There's a couple of things on the new record, say "Hold On Hope," which fit into that. Does writing those songs with big themes come pretty naturally?
BP: To me that's the best kind of music. It's really the only music worth making. Pop songs and good fun songs are fine to make people happy, but to truly stir the emotions and the spirit you need to write anthems. The next album, by the way, is going to be much more anthemic. This album there was some varying styles -- some silly pop, hard rock -- but I'd like Guided By Voices to go in a more anthemic direction.
NT: With Do the Collapse being your first real big major-label effort, do you feel a new kind of pressure in terms of your songwriting?
BP: I never feel pressure about songwriting, man. It just comes naturally to me. It's the one thing out of the maybe three or four things in my life that makes me truly happy. When I write a great song there's a feeling that's indescribable. And I know it's going to come, and I know when I get in the right mood I'm going to be able to write good songs. I never press or stress out about it, and I've got a bunch of songs ready for the next record. Some people say, "Do you think the well will run dry?" or "Do you ever get writer's block?" And I never do. I probably should knock on wood for that.
NT: I heard there was some talk of doing a Guided By Voices "Best Of" -- where you would re-record some of your old songs with bigger studio production or do them with Ric Ocasek producing.
BP: Yeah, that would only happen if this album yielded a hit or two. That would garner the necessity of bringing some of the old songs back. I think some of our old songs are hit-worthy, they would just need to be rerecorded. Things like "Cut-Out Witch," "Tractor Rape Chain" and "Exit Flagger" -- all those kinds of songs. It would be a really good record, and then they could be played on the radio. It's just an idea though, I don't know how realistic it is.
NT: A few years back, you did your top 10 albums of all time for Jane magazine. I imagine, like most people, your top 10 changes fairly often?
BP: It changes, but it's always hard to do a definitive top 10 list. For me it's better to do like a top 100, probably.
NT: You had Cheap Trick's first album on the list. I know you got to play some shows with them earlier this year. What was that experience like?
BP: It was interesting. We had our fans and they had their fans. It was a co-headline status so we got to play for like 75 minutes and some of the Cheap Trick fans didn't understand why these drunken guys got to be up on stage so long (laughs). So some of them were upset about that. But it was fun hanging out with Cheap Trick. They looked like they were having a better time than they've had in a while. So it was a good experience.
NT: Speaking of the drinking onstage, some people have given you a hard time about that over the years. I know you always said it was to soothe stage fright.
BP: I still get nervous before a show, which is why I drink. I've gotten out there before without drinking, and I get really self conscious. I think, "Uh-oh, everybody's looking at me now" (laughs). But if I've had a few beers, it's like backbone juice. You know, you get out there and dance. It makes me feel like I can be silly. Being onstage is a silly thing anyway.
NT: Well, now you can drink onstage here in Arizona.
BP: That's why we weren't going to play there for a while, because we got hassled about it the last time we played (at Gibson's in 1997). Once we heard we could drink out there we were like, "Fuck yeah, let's go."
NT: Speaking of other music and musicians you admire, I've heard that you've recently gotten into Billy Nicholls.
BP: Are you familiar with him?
NT: Only from his stuff on (Pete Townshend's 1972 solo album) Who Came First and what he's done on the Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle solo records.
BP: Yeah, he wrote four of the songs on (Daltrey's) McVicar. He's had some solo stuff of his own, too. The first record he did was like in 1967. It's called Billy Nichols -- Would You Believe? It's been reissued on (British record label) Immediate. Then he did another album after that called Love Songs, which is really, really good. I first heard him from the song he did on Who Came First, which he sings on -- "Forever's No Time at All." I always loved that song, but I was like, "Who is this guy?" Because I'd never heard of anything by him, and then just recently I saw his solo album and I started asking people about him and found out he had done a few records. So I'm big into him right now.
NT: Do you find yourself attracted -- the same way people were attracted to GBV -- to those kinds of guys -- the ones who are relatively unknown or on the commercial fringe?
BP: That's the best stuff, always. Bands that are right there -- The Replacements, Soft Boys, XTC -- but who are not quite there, you know what I mean? I think that's where Guided By Voices is, too. So yeah, that's always the best stuff.
NT: You're also very big into early Genesis. A lot of people thought it was weird that this lo-fi indie guy was into prog-rock. But it was a pretty big influence in developing what you do.
BP: I was in a complete alter-world with Genesis. I loved them. I heard the live album (1973's Genesis Live) first and then I found Selling England by the Pound. Then Lamb Lies Down on Broadway came out, which I really got into. I was completely immersed in this strange world of Peter Gabriel and Genesis. It's probably the most important music to me in my life. I probably liked early Genesis more than even the Beatles or the Who.
NT: It was kind of odd that people were so shocked by that. Because vocally and lyrically your work and Gabriel's from that period are similar in a lot of ways.
BP: I think so. My philosophy, and I'm sure is his too, is melody and lyrics. His lyrics are great, or they were. I'm not into Peter Gabriel too much anymore. He's into the world-music thing, and I don't particularly care for that kind of stuff. But I loved it when he was in his eccentric British phase, all the crazy imagery of early '70s Genesis. You can see some of that influence in my lyrics on the more out-there stuff, especially around the time of (1994's) Bee Thousand.
NT: What about the chances of commercial success. Is it something you want or need at this point?
BP: I just like making music. It really doesn't matter to me whether we make a "big record" or make a record on our own here in Dayton. The point of it is to keep doing things; to keep writing songs and making records. Some people are like, "Are you afraid it might fail?" And I'm not afraid of failure because we were failures from the beginning. Nobody gave a shit about us for 10 years.
Now, I've got a strong enough fan base to where I could continue doing this for a living on my own. But out of curiosity you want to see how your band can do. I see other bands that are commercially successful, and their records are being played on the radio, and I just think, "Well, my band's a lot better than that, and I write better songs than that." That's not to sound egotistical. I just think there's no reason why we can't do it.
Also, right now, I think what's being played on the radio is kind of frustrating because it's so bad. I'm not opposed to having a song that breaks the Top 40, but I don't want to be a part of what's going on in the Top 40 right now. I want to change things a little bit. That's a kind of glamorous, romantic notion that we can do something to change music and the state that it's in right now. I hope we can.
Guided By Voices is scheduled to perform on Monday, November 15, at the Green Room in Tempe, with Those Bastard Souls. Showtime is 9 p.m.
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