Rock 'n' roll has given Bob Pollard a lot -- certainly more than any fourth-grade teacher who decides to become a full-time musician at the age of 37 can expect. As leader of cult combo Guided By Voices, Pollard has earned a modicum of financial security, loads of critical praise and the slavish dedication of an ever-growing legion of fans. But such an unlikely success doesn't come -- as Pollard has found out -- without a price.
He speaks of these things -- both of what he's gained and lost -- with a doleful sincerity. There is an undeniable earnestness in Pollard's rapid-fire Midwestern drawl, a voice growing hoarse at the end of a long day -- a long week, in fact -- of interviews. Phoning from the New York City headquarters of his record label, Pollard is promoting the release of GBV's latest album, Isolation Drills.
If there is one marked contrast between this and previous GBV efforts, it is a palpable shift in the songwriting. For a man who once wrote abstract tales of "robots, elves and lizards," Pollard admits the new record is his most personal endeavor, filled with stories about "grown-ups with grown-up problems." It is -- to use a hoary cliché -- a coming-of-age story, but one with a twist. The one coming of age here happens to be a middle-aged man with a catalogue containing the most compelling pop songs this side of the Beatles.
Guided By Voices
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If it's taken Pollard a longer time than most to reach this point, he can be forgiven, as he's led several distinct lives: a star athlete in high school and college, a schoolteacher for 14 years, a husband and father of two, and, for the last decade or so, the most compelling phenomenon to emerge from the American musical underground.
Over the course of two decades and several dozen lineups -- with Pollard the common thread and creative force -- GBV took refuge in the basements of Dayton, Ohio, writing and recording one lo-fi masterpiece after the other. Combining taut British Invasion blasts with prog-rock experimentalism, the group labored in obscurity for years before the public spotlight finally found it with 1992's Propeller and '94's breakthrough, Bee Thousand -- a success that allowed Pollard to quit his day job.
Those records were meant as exuberant rejoinders to a generation mired in a morass of flanneled, grungy fatalism. The band's efforts kick-started a mini-revolution toward home recording and reignited a D.I.Y., indie spirit that had been flagging ever since the underground rode Nirvana's early '90s coattails into the mainstream.
With the forthcoming Isolation Drills, GBV has finally painted a fully realized portrait of its lo-fi sketches and found its way back after the artistic detour of 1999's Do the Collapse -- a highly professional yet uncharacteristic-sounding affair.
Documenting the most turbulent period in Pollard's personal life, Isolation Drills is marked by moments of painful, almost soul-baring intensity. Yet Pollard's steadfast adherence to "the power of rock" -- something he deems a panacea for an ailing spirit -- comes crashing through with every molten guitar line and heart-wrenching harmony.
Taken as a whole, the album is a deft synthesis, an inspired merger of dark and light; the brooding emotional catharsis of Imperial Bedroom shot through with the hopeful anthemism of Who's Next. The band's single-digit tracking technique -- which was often as frustrating as it was interesting -- has been chucked in favor of a large-scale production ethic that never sours the flavor of Pollard's perfect pop confections.
In all, it is a decisive climax to an intriguing and important career, but one -- notes Pollard, ominously -- that was not arrived at so easily.
It's impossible to get to the heart of Guided By Voices' new album without discussing its last one. For you see, the tone and tenor of Isolation Drills is a direct result of the band's experience recording and touring behind Do the Collapse -- and the fallout from both.
Do the Collapse was to have been GBV's breakthrough, the group's first album bankrolled by a major label, TVT, after a dozen years and as many independently released efforts, and its first recorded entirely in a large studio with a "name" producer.
The name in question was that of former Cars leader Ric Ocasek. Pollard admits he was attracted as much by Ocasek's reputation as a "big rock icon" as his work with acts like Jonathan Richman, Bad Brains and Weezer.
The resulting product -- though critically hailed and the group's best-selling disc to date -- proved something of a disappointment to the band's rabid contingent. For many GBV diehards, their complaint was less about the commercial trappings -- few would begrudge the band success; Pollard's songs literally cry out to be heard in arenas and on the radio -- than the overall sound of the album. Collapse was an overly polished, keyboard-heavy affair that left some feeling the record was more the work of the man responsible for Shake It Up than the one who made Alien Lanes.
Looking back on the experience, Pollard is disarmingly honest. "There were things that were done that I just didn't have the balls to say, 'I don't like this,'" he confesses. "Or I just felt like, 'How can I argue with something that Ric's done?'
"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.
But GBV's collaboration with Schnapf on Isolation Drills almost didn't happen, as the group was originally set to begin work with Lou Giordano (Sugar, Goo Goo Dolls) behind the board.
"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.
"I had their records and I'd been a fan for a long time," he says from Los Angeles, where he's currently working on the new Saves the Day album. "But then I got to see them for the first time on the Alien Lanes tour, and that sort of changed my view of them. I mean, I always liked the records, but when I saw them live it was like, 'Oh man, they're a rock band.' It's not like this indie, lo-fi, shoe-gazing thing. They're a rock band, like old Kinks or old Who. After that, I always thought it would be great to make like a 'loud rock record' with them. That's what I always envisioned and what I was hoping to use as the launching point for the album."
During preproduction, Pollard and Schnapf huddled to discuss the direction the record should take.
"I'd told him what I've been trying to strive for the last few years is to get us to sound on record like we do live," says Pollard, an approach that Schnapf agreed with wholeheartedly.
"I think that's the best of both worlds -- going for a raw, live sound in the studio. It seemed natural," adds Schnapf. "It's weird, for some reason people don't realize how good of a band they are. 'Cause basically what you hear on [Isolation Drills] is them playing live, that is the take. And then we sprinkled a few things here and there and put on vocals. But the core of all those songs is three guitars, bass and drums live." (The looser, more confident playing found on Isolation might've also had something to do with the fact that, unlike Ocasek, Schnapf had no qualms about the band drinking during the sessions.)
More important, both men agreed that the main thrust of the album should be to return the focus back to the songs. To that end, Schnapf insisted that that the album's arrangements be honed as much as possible before recording began. Gone are the odd snippets of noise and weird sonic sketches that frequently popped up on GBV records, and except for the dissonant intro of "The Enemy" -- a brief but obvious nod to the band's experimental side -- the album is filled with nothing but fully formed and fleshed-out pop songs; even the 90-second dirge "Sister I Need Wine" -- an aching, ambient bit of acoustica -- plays like a shorthand classic.
Of the 25 cuts that Pollard had originally penned for the sessions -- the idea of a double album was briefly discussed, then abandoned -- the final number was eventually pared down to a more streamlined 13 (a trio of newer Pollard compositions -- which Schnapf describes as "too good not to include" -- were later added to bring the final track total to 16). And while Isolation Drills is about the same length as the band's past few long players, it feels like the leanest and most judiciously edited GBV album in memory.
An equally crucial element in making the record was reining in the sonic excesses of Do the Collapse. Nowhere was that decision more apparent than in the work of lead guitarist Doug Gillard. Gillard, whose tenure with the band -- since 1997's Mag Earwhig -- is the longest of any current member, took an entirely different approach to his parts than he had on the last album.
"See, the thing that always impressed me about Doug is how tasteful his riffs and leads are," enthuses Pollard. "He never does anything out of place. On Do the Collapse, we kind of let him go a little bit, kind of let him smoke -- and it was great. But for this one we sat down and talked and decided that the things he'd do should be atmospheric. So he laid back a little bit, but he did some really cool stuff; he always does."
A similar ethic guides the buzz-saw attack of Nate Farley's rhythm guitar, the lubricious rumble of Tim Tobias' bass and the feral crash of Jim MacPherson's drums (finally given their justice in Schnapf's mix).
True to Pollard's word, Gillard's nuanced playing -- from the jangly fills of "Fair Touching," the angular lead lines of "Skills Like This" to the meaty power chording of "Pivotal Film" -- is deftly woven into the fabric of the record, providing a texture that owes much to the precise playing of Wire's Bruce Gilbert.
Adding further depth is a holdover element from the Collapse sessions -- the Soldier String Quartet. "I really like the strings on that record. Without overdoing it, I wanted to include more strings on this record, too," says Pollard, who lists the orchestral pop of Scott Walker and Jimmy Webb among his current listening favorites. The work of the classical combo colors a handful of Isolation cuts, including the thunderous, squalling coda of "The Enemy" and the rollicking album closer "Privately."
Other guests include a pair of high-profile collaborators. Former GBV mate Tobin Sprout plays piano on "How's My Drinking" -- a defiant yet weary-sounding rebuttal to critics who've derided Pollard for his onstage imbibing. Elsewhere, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith adds a few gentle touches of organ and piano.
Despite the star cameos, the focus, as always, remains on Pollard's lyrics. And while he hasn't completely abandoned the Mad Hatter wordplay that's marked his best work -- the brusque "Want One" ("A scoffer's clutch karma issue/A nursery whip for men who skip") is an especially surreal cut -- the bulk of the material here is far less cryptic than previous efforts.
"And perhaps, at last, the song you sing will have meaning," announces Pollard to open the album. "I actually wrote that particular line years ago," he says of the verse in "Fair Touching," a song which appeared -- albeit in a drastically different form -- on a GBV side project called Lexo and the Leapers. "It's weird, because it's pretty prophetic in that way," adds Pollard, acknowledging the more literal and decidedly personal tone of the record.
"[This] album -- more so than any record I've ever done before -- is very personal and very relationship-oriented. It's about being gone, being away from what you're used to being around, and it brings on this feeling of separation and isolation."
It's also about leaving those familiar comforts and faces behind to seek out something bigger and, perhaps, better. "On these darker trails, with light revealing holy grails," coos Pollard on "Twilight Campfighter," sounding very much like a man in search of answers at the end of a long road.
The album's emotional centerpiece -- and the one critics will likely point to as the most autobiographical -- is "The Brides Have Hit Glass." Despite its blithe musical approach, it would appear to be the song dealing most directly with the dissolution of Pollard's marriage: "I got a life of my own/You know I hate to be around her/When she's like that . . . One day I will know that it's a waste of time." If Do the Collapse cuts like "Surgical Focus" and "Picture Me Big Time" heralded an oncoming domestic storm in Pollard's life, then "Brides" all but confirms the damage left behind.
That sense of disillusionment is balanced elsewhere by grand sentiments of escape ("Leave your things in the streets and run wild") and rebirth ("Reinvent you nightly/Reinvent you rightly") on "Run Wild" and "Skills Like This."
But even Isolation's most musically rapturous tracks, the transcendent "Chasing Heather Crazy" and the harmony-kissed "Glad Girls" -- not coincidentally, the first two singles -- contain lyrics rampant with an unadorned melancholy. Of the latter, Pollard says the song is about "trying to find some sort of uplifting moments in the down moments." That succinct assessment could describe the overall theme of the album and Bob Pollard's life for the past year.
Whatever personal trials Pollard has faced, it has not slowed his creativity or his almost comically prolific output. His Fading Captain Series -- a line of albums designed to serve as an outlet for his myriad side projects -- continues to pump out new material at a staggering rate. Among the imprint's bigger releases was last fall's Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft, a four-disc, 100-song collection of previously unreleased material covering more than a quarter-century of Pollard's career.
"If all I could do is make one official Guided By Voices album every two years, I would go insane," he says. "So with [the Fading Captain Series], I can be involved in the creative process constantly, year-round. We've been pumping out five records a year. We've got a schedule coming up where there's a single in May, a single in June, my solo album in July, and the album I did with Toby [Sprout, under the moniker Airport 5] in August, and then I'm gonna be working on an album with Mac McCaughan from Superchunk.
"I'm just going to keep cranking that stuff out. And you know, thing is, some of it's sloppy, some of it's experimental, but I like having that side still," continues Pollard. "My next solo record, I did it with [former GBVers] Greg Demos and Jim MacPherson, and we didn't even practice -- and it's really kind of complicated songs. So, it's sloppy: Drums come in late, and there are mistakes all over the place. But I kind of like that. That was, at one time, a trademark of Guided By Voices, that we just leave the mistakes in, you know? It's good to be able to do that, and it's good to be able to move on in a more professional direction with Guided By Voices."
GBV's ultimate direction has, in recent years, been the subject of much speculation. After all -- the pundits wonder -- how long can a man in his mid-40s continue to barnstorm the country, playing three-hour sets, drinking, dancing, singing and performing with all the vitality of a young, mike-twirling Roger Daltrey? These days, Pollard, who has admitted to "thinking about breaking up the band several times" over the last half-decade, says he's more committed than ever.
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"I don't really want to [break up GBV] now. I want to keep going as long as I can, as long as I'm physically able. I don't know how much longer we'll be able to continue to play live, but I still feel good, I'm still healthy and as long as that holds out . . ." he says, trailing off.
If the last couple years have taught Pollard anything, it's that making art is not without its sacrifices. Whatever losses he might have incurred, with GBV's continuing success, Pollard has managed to keep a large part of himself and his life intact; his voice is full of affection and reverie when speaking about his relationship with his bandmates -- a brotherhood and a bond forged by fire.
"We're solid, this is the most solid lineup we've ever had, and also it's the best chemistry we've had. We get along really well . . . we're a family," says Pollard pointedly. "We've all had things happen to our personal lives, so we have to be -- we have to rely on each other."
"I don't want that to end."