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Power-Pop Legends Pollen's Forgotten Second Album Finds New Life on Vinyl

Hailing originally from Pittsburgh, the members of Pollen moved to Arizona in 1995.
Hailing originally from Pittsburgh, the members of Pollen moved to Arizona in 1995. Jim Steinfeldt
They may have only had a handful of albums to their name but Pollen are nothing to sneeze at. Hailing originally from Pittsburgh, the quintet of Dan Hargest (vocals), Kevin Scanlon (guitars), Chris Serafini (bass), Mike Bennett (guitars), and Bob Hoag (drums) moved to Arizona in 1995. From there, they made a lasting impression with their unique blend of aggressive punk guitars, power-pop melodies, and emo lyrical sensibilities. While their third album, 1997’s Peach Tree, is widely regarded by both Pollen and their fans as the group's high-water mark, their long-neglected sophomore album, 1995's Crescent, is worth a closer listen. And now, thanks to a revelatory new vinyl remaster, you can hear it like it’s never been heard before.

Remastered by Hoag and Jason Livermore, the re-release of Crescent is a revelation: An album that once sounded quiet and muffled, as though it were playing through a veil of mud, now has a forceful and dynamic presence. Tracks like “Freshly Broken” and “Relics” sound dissonant and gorgeous, epitomizing Pollen at their best. These songs, once dusty flowers languishing in the dollar bin, are full of vibrant color and life once again. Hampered by issues with their label and by the band’s own ambivalent attitudes to the record (that they’ve often called their “forgotten album,” the “red-headed stepchild” of their short but robust discography), Crescent is primed to finally get its due.

Speaking on the phone with Phoenix New Times, Pollen drummer and primary songwriter Bob Hoag (himself a fixture in the local scene as the maestro behind Flying Blanket Recording) is candid about the band’s fascinating and tumultuous relationship with Arizona, their old record label, and with Crescent itself.

PHOENIX NEW TIMES: I listened to the CD version before listening to the remaster and I was struck by the dramatic difference in quality. Could you tell us about what happened with the original mastering on the album?

BOB HOAG: We recorded it when I was 20. I was very obsessive about how things should sound despite having no real background in engineering or recording at the time. I was obsessed with the record sounding really heavy, so I took our mixes and ran them through some fancy EQ and played it on my home stereo, which has tons of mid-range for all the guitars on the record. My home stereo was not a good barometer for that stuff. I told the manufacturer not to mess with it, to leave it as is because it sounded good on my stereo. But to everyone else's stereos in the world it sounded super muddy, super thin on the low end, and just not very loud.

When I pulled up the original mixes of Crescent, I was stunned at how fantastic it already sounded. It sounded great because Stephen Egerton is a fantastic engineer and producer, and he captured some really cool tones, very much in league with what we were hoping to accomplish. Stephen mixed the record in a marathon — 48 hours straight of mixing — up all day, all night. And then I ruined it.

You’ve mentioned in past interviews that your songwriting at the time was your way of not going to therapy. That emotional, confessional quality to your lyrics — did it make it hard to revisit this material?

Speaking as a guy in his 40s right now, listening to lyrics I wrote when I was 20 … some of them are really cringey to me. But I take some comfort knowing that it’s all incredibly sincere and genuine, and I’d much rather have a record like this where I’m like, “Oh my God, Bob, calm down, we get it, you’re sad and lonely, you don’t think you belong anywhere, I get it, please shut up.” I just kept telling my wife when I was listening to this that my heart is breaking for 19-year-old Bob.

This is definitely the most emotionally needy and bitter of the Pollen albums. I started to write a lot more cryptically after this. It gave me a little pause about reissuing this — how on the nose it is. And I finally said, "Man, this is who you were at the time. You can’t erase that."

What was it like transitioning to a new community and musical scene after the band pulled up roots from Pittsburgh and relocated in Arizona?

I was very disillusioned with Pittsburgh, especially with the weather. We were all born and raised there. And I just had it with the snow. Also, a lot of concert venues there started closing down around that time. When we played our final show, we ended up having to do it at a coffeehouse. We’re playing with Marshall stacks at a coffee shop because there were no real venues left for us to play at. My attitude is if we’re gonna be poor and in a band for the rest of our lives, at least we could live somewhere where it feels like we’re on vacation all the time.

I saw Arizona in a movie and I thought it looked great. The movie was Gas Food Lodging. I didn’t realize until later that it was actually New Mexico in that film, but it looked better than having to deal with icy roads or having to heat up engine oil every day.

We got a pretty icy reception when we started playing shows in Chandler. People thought our equipment was too nice and that we played too good. “These guys are too pro! Who are they trying to impress?” It wasn’t intentional: We had been playing with crappy gear for years and slowly got good stuff. And we had done work with the Descendants, which whipped us into shape musically. No one can record with those guys and not come out of it being a better band. I learned how to play to a click from them. We would rehearse maniacally four days a week. We were just super-focused and driven about music, which made us very tight.

Did that feeling of being kind of outsiders in the local scene persist?

There was always kind of a struggle while we were in Arizona. I feel like we were too aggressive and maybe demanded too much attention from the audience. We always did better at all-ages shows than at bars, where you become this thing in the background for people calmly sipping their drinks. I felt like we were the annoying hyper kid brother who your mom forces you to take with you when you’re hanging with your friends.

We certainly had great shows and there were folks who supported us who ran great venues. But one of the interesting things that came out of doing these reissues is that I found an old sales report from Wind-up Records on Peach Tree where they were trying to figure out the best states for us to tour based on sales. And I remember that of all the states they were considering, we had by far the lowest sales and lowest airplay in Arizona. Phoenix and Tempe were by far our weakest markets.

Around the time Peach Tree came out, Mike Bennett said in an interview that there was some sort of computer error that happened when Crescent was being pressed that made it instantly go out of print. What happened there?

That was around the time Grass Records got purchased by some investors who wanted to turn it into a major label, so it became Wind-up Records. I think what happened is they immediately proclaimed that everything on the old label was out of print, even though Crescent had only been out for a short time. I was told at some point that there was an accident at the warehouse and they put a numerical code on our records that designated them as out of print. But I wonder if they just told us that because they were sunsetting everything else.

A lot of the Grass Records acts had awkward to outright hostile relationships with Wind-up after the transition. Albums went out of print and stayed that way, acts were dropped wholesale. What was Pollen’s relationship with Wind-up like?

Working with Grass was great. [Label founder] Camille Sciara signed us personally. She seemed to only sign stuff she really liked and believed in. When she left and Wind-up took over, it became incredibly difficult to work with them after we put out Peach Tree. They fired their whole marketing team and hired new people. Then they put out that first Creed album and it was a huge hit, so they turned to us and we’re like, “OK, we’re gonna do another Pollen album. You’re gonna be our first rock band after Creed.”

They tried to mold us into something different than what we were. I was very protective of what we were doing artistically. We had an option to do more albums with them, and the contract Wind-up was gonna give us offered enough money that we all could have quit our jobs. That's the dream right there. But they tried to micromanage us constantly.

They would give me a little money to work on demos and I’d send the songs to them and they’d say, “Can you give us like five more songs like this one?” I don’t really write songs to order. Whatever comes outta me is what comes out. At the end of the process we had enough material for at least two more albums. Toward the end, one of their A&R guys called me and gave me tips on what kind of things to write songs about, and I responded extremely poorly, I assure you. He kept saying, “You know, maybe write more songs about relationships,” and I’m like, "Dude, that’s what every record’s about. That’s all my songs."

So what was the breaking point with Wind-up?

It finally came to a head when they called Dan and said, “Hey, we’ve approved everything, everything’s great, we’re ready to cut you a check and you guys can quit your jobs and get in the studio next month. There’s just one last thing we want to ask you guys. You know, Creed didn’t sound like Creed when they started out. We shaped them into being our Pearl Jam. And what we’ve decided is we want you to be our Third Eye Blind.”

They told Dan that our songs are fine, they love the songs, but they just wanted us to slow them down a bit and make them more groove-oriented and basically just change our whole sound. At the time, I was really influenced by Rocket from the Crypt and Boston bands like The Lemonheads and Buffalo Tom. Couldn’t be further away from Third Eye Blind!

So that was it. They said, “If you’re willing to do this, we’ll overnight you the check. If you can’t, I think we’re at the end of the road. Take the weekend to think about it.” Thank God Dan said, “I don’t need the weekend to think about it. Just send me the paperwork to end our contract 'cause Bob will never agree to this in a million years.” And Wind-up tried to talk Dan down but he was adamant.

I’m thankful Dan did that because I think if the question had been posed to me I would have said yes and then completely ignored everything they said. It would’ve been a giant struggle and a nightmare to make the records we really wanted to make. If they forced us to record songs their way I would have spilled soda on the tape afterward. But Dan got us out and pretty quickly after that we signed with Fueled By Ramen.

Looking back after all this time, what’s it like to listen to Pollen’s albums now with where you’re at in life?

My musical tastes have shifted a lot over the years and I don't really listen to or work on music that sounds anything like what Pollen is. Sometimes I get weirded out that we're pushing these 30-year-old albums, and people who know me from my work as a producer, who know my production style or my film score work, would pick up these records and be like, “Oh, THIS is what Bob's band sounds like.” It’s what made going back to this stuff feel so weird because I wouldn’t make a record like this today. I don't know that I would write songs like this today.

When Pollen broke up [in 2001], I really didn’t look back much. I got into chamber pop and power pop and more orchestrated stuff. For a while these records seemed kind of square to me. Any time an offer came up for us to play I’d say, “I’m not interested, that part of my life’s over.” During the pandemic, Chris Serafini, our old bass player, called me and said, “I know you kind of looked down on Pollen, but for better or worse you need to understand that we did some really cool things that nobody else was doing at the time, and the greatest part of your musical legacy is gonna be these albums.”

Thinking about that made me pull up our old tapes, and listening to Pollen again made me realize there is a lot of interesting, good stuff here. Or maybe it’s just that my hatred of '90s alternative music has faded by now. It’s taken me this many years to have enough distance on it to say, “You know what? What we did was pretty cool.”

Pollen’s Crescent is available now via Double Helix Records.
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Ashley Naftule