Pollen would seem to have it all. Contracted to Wind-Up Records, a highly visible indie label with major label (BMG) distribution, Pollen is poised to tour extensively in support of its latest album Peach Tree this fall. In addition, Wind-Up is committed to financing a video, and several tracks off the album are garnering their share of airplay throughout the country. Sweet!
Yet for everything Pollen has going for its career on a national scale, here in its adopted home state of two years, it's practically invisible. These former Steeltown sons had to start from square one on the Phoenix live circuit. With no large Phoenician following to ensure headliner status, the band must content itself with gigging middle slots on Friday nights.
It's unspeakably humid tonight in the Mesa warehouse practice space where Pollen has just finished running through its set. As we sit huddled around my cheap-ass tape recorder, Bob Hoag, the group's hyperactive drummer and chief songwriter, shouts this declaration of geekdom into the condenser mike.
"We're nerds! (dramatic pause) Thank you."
The other members try distancing themselves from his unpopular assessment, but it's hopeless. Hoag proudly reels off everyone's dork qualifications anyway.
"Chris isn't a nerd," decides Hoag. "He collects lizards and rides mountain bikes. Mike wants to be blue-collar reeeeally bad. But he's too conscious of being blue-collar, and real blue-collar guys aren't even aware of being blue-collar."
Before Hoag can rattle off Kevin's and Dan's social ineptitudes, he switches gears and blurts out that Pollen started seven years ago "because we needed something to do. We went to all-boys boarding schools and no girls liked us."
Singer Dan Hargest smiles somewhat nervously in the background. If Hoag seems ready to fill the role of all three Chipmunks at any given moment, Hargest is Pollen's resident Dave Seville, always trying to steer the conversation back toward business matters and away from Hoag's goofy passions like the Medieval Torture Chamber Blood Death Wax Museum in San Francisco and General Hospital. "I think we're really getting off the subject," Hargest cautions more than once before resigning himself to Hoag's waxing ecstatic about his car, an exact replica of Herbie the Love Bug.
"It's exact to the last millimeter," states Hoag, and he's right. Outside of finding a few of Buddy Hackett's nose hairs on the upholstery or Michele Lee and Dean Jones shagging in the front seat, you couldn't hope for a closer facsimile. It's this same anal attention to details that fuels Hoag's songwriting. Pollen's song titles scan like inventories of ordinary household objects ("Couch," "Paper," "Toaster," "Bicycle"), mundane items from which the group forcibly wrings out every last drop of pathos. Unoccupied chairs in Hoag's apartment remind him of where his departed beloved used to sit, every broken wishbone stinks of a wish someone else got to make. Even trusted brand names like "Crest" and "Butterworth" are cause for his compulsive heartaches.
Judging solely from the recorded evidence, Pollen sounds like a band that has been hurt by girls, make that mangled by girls. While acknowledging the group's stylistic debts to All and the Descendents, reviewers have also drawn parallels to Elvis Costello, the last notable twerp in spectacles to wreak revenge on his world through poison-penned pop ditties. Pollen's lyrical point of departure is that it dispenses with any cunning punning and rhymes to throw down blunt missives like this one from "Freshly Broken": "Why did you have to break me apart to get me to listen? I'm no threat to anyone. I'm hurting now. Is this what you wanted?".
Hoag denies he writes these heart-stomped-on-'til-it's-raspberry-jam songs so that females will sympathize with him.
"At one point early on, that might've been the case," he says. "My songs are my way of not going to a therapist, and it still isn't very healthy. A lot of bands write songs so that other people can identify with them. See, I don't care about that. I write songs as my little outlet. Being an extremely overemotional person, just talking about it doesn't do it. I need a massive swell of guitars behind me to really explain what's going on."
Hoag teamed up with guitarists Kevin Scanlon and Mike Bennett and bassist Chris Serafini seven years ago. He credits Scanlon with turning his ear away from John Williams, Billy Ocean and Whitney Houston and toward the Replacements, the Sex Pistols and even Pink Floyd. Back in those days, Pollen was known as Peach, and Hoag was its lead singer as well as drummer. "Before I regained my sanity," he says with a shrug.
On the days when Bennett actually remembered to attend Indiana University of Pennsylvania (he was asked to leave after one delinquent year), he met Hargest and invited him to audition. Hargest got the gig but was almost booted out shortly after.
"I came from more of a metal sort of thing," Hargest concedes. "Had lots of hair. I had to learn all the songs from a tape with some interim vocalist on it, but I just sucked. It sounded horrible. I started to look for people in the band, and they were also looking for people to replace me. I don't know exactly what changed it, but we rerecorded the demo."
Those first eight-track cassette demos caught the attention of a New York-based indie, Grass Records. Incredibly, the master cassette tape which would contain the group's first release Bluette in 1994 was taped over repeatedly as the band used it to audition other vocalists!
While Bluette attracted favorable reviews from underground zines, Hargest still knows where all the imperfections lie. "There are parts where the guitar track was done the same time as the vocals, and sometimes they would punch out too fast and the beginnings of words get cut off," he says. "We're planning to rerecord the entire album using the same machine and rerelease it at some point, since it's out of print."
So is Crescent, the group's superior follow-up. "Actually, our second record never came out," explains Bennett. "There was a computer mishap and it was listed as out of print the day it came out, so no one could order it. It made it to press. About 100 copies shipped." Bennett stares down in disbelief. "No one would check into it! At that point, Grass Records had 44 bands on it, and the label consisted of two people."
Fortunately, Grass Records was bought and sold in 1996, and Pollen was one of the only bands kept on the roster when the label became Wind-Up.
So how did the band wind up in Arizona? "We just had to get out of Pittsburgh really bad," Bennett mutters. "It was strangling us. There was no real music scene at all. There was a pretty big gloom scene, college-rock, cover-band scene and an extremely conservative indie-rock scene. There was also a small but intensely private punk-rock scene, but you had to have at least half of your head shaved to be involved in it. And sport some hair color not natural to man."
"The snow is just stupid in Pittsburgh," adds Serafini. "All of us have to work jobs, so we figured we'd do it where it's warm, and any place would be better than Pittsburgh. We certainly didn't move here because of this music scene. California was a possibility, but we thought we'd get lost in that scene."
"Our first show in Arizona was at a church in Chandler, and it was a disaster," recalls Hargest. "Bands usually start out with a bunch of friends who will go to the show. Even in Pittsburgh we had trouble with that, although, as luck would have it, we started getting popular just before we left. When we moved here, we really didn't know anybody but ourselves for a year. We just couldn't meet people. Nobody came to see our first shows. Even Mike's fiancee didn't come right away."
The only advantage to being out here was the band members' proximity to one another. Once scattered across several eastern states, they were now living in the same apartment complex with nowhere to go on Saturday nights. "The band suddenly became our focus," Hargest says.
During this time, Hoag's focus wavered considerably. He moved out here with his girlfriend and began forsaking the band before breaking up with her seven months ago. "It was pretty brutal," Hoag concedes. "And she still lives here."
Let's qualify that. She still lives in Arizona and still lives with Hoag in the same house they rented together, providing way too much grist for the heartbreak mill. "When she left me--then I didn't care about the band--I just wanted to die, go back to Pittsburgh and work at my grandfather's lumber mill, because if I go play in a band, that will remind me of the time of my life when I was with her. I'm better now!" he shouts.
An additional burden was lifted off the band's collective shoulders a month and a half ago, when Pollen finally got a manager. "We can't believe we went that long without any representation," says Hargest. "Our manager constantly marvels at all the dumb things we've done in our career. He calls us every day and tells us how we got screwed negotiating a record contract without a lawyer."
Things look very positive for Pollen in the coming months. The band begins recording a new album when it returns from touring. Hoag hints that he is also moving away from negative songs about girls. "Last album, we had a song about the Zodiac murders, in my continual attempts to broaden what Dan sings," Hoag cracks.
Maybe he just doesn't want to hear that "misogyny" word again. Someone who logged on to the band's Internet discussion group did just that, asking: "Why do you hate women so much? Were you not able to get a date for the prom? Why don't you lighten up, Bob?"
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"Rest assured, I fired off an incredibly vitriolic response," Hoag counters. "I wanted to write a jokey answer back like 'because they're all mean bitches like you.' That would've been kick-ass. We don't have any antigirls songs. There are anti-specific-chick songs. They're all about one specific mean girl or combinations of multiple mean girls. I know crappy girls and crappy guys. Since I get emotionally involved with girls, I allow girls to sucker me into their crapulence more easily than guys.
"I have a general distaste for the human race. I don't necessarily want to alienate those with breasts. Male or female."
Pollen is scheduled to perform on Friday, September 19, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with the Sport Model, and Alisons Halo. Call 967-9531 for showtime.