Picture Him Big Time
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.
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."
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.
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."
"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.
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.
"I never wanted to get attention anyway -- it was just thrust upon us," Pollard says. "It's best to just do [music] for yourself anyway. To see bands trying to sell themselves really hard, it goes against my philosophy. I always told my band, 'If we're good enough, something will come to us.' And it happened."
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