Cover Story: Last Call

Bob Pollard Winds Down 20 Years of Guided By VoicesWith A Final Album and A Celebratory Farewell Tour

Sean Hughes

The truth can finally be revealed: Bob Pollard is Bob From Dayton. Back in the late '80s, when running a record store was a license to print money, I was one of the counter geeks at the tiny but much-respected Wizard Records (when it was still located in the basement of In Cahoots near UC's campus). One of our frequent customers was a guy who would snatch the coolest records from the racks but rarely had the cash on hand to pay for them, and he'd ask if he could reserve the stack until payday.

In most instances, we tried not to keep stock on hold under the counter. If the holder didn't show or just forgot, there we were with a bag of records that people with real money never got to see because it was "on hold."

But there was something sincere about the guy, so we took a chance on him the first time he asked for a hold. He never disappointed — he always came in with cash within two or three days, always bought everything he had under the counter and always picked the kind of records we'd want for ourselves. When we asked for a name to put on the bag, he simply said, "Just put Bob From Dayton."

And so that's who he became to us. The guy with the big stack of records on hold and exquisite taste.

Bob From Dayton.

Eight years later, I'd moved on to other endeavors, finally utilizing my graphic design degree full time while writing freelance for a fledgling alternative newspaper called CityBeat. After falling away from the concert scene in favor of overtime pay, I decided to check out Lollapalooza in 1995 for a number of reasons — among them Nick Cave, the Beastie Boys and Smashing Pumpkins on the main stage — including a chance to see the much-ballyhooed Verve on one of the side stages.

Also side-staging that year was the mysterious and much-anticipated Guided By Voices. We'd all heard great things about the Dayton Rock collective and had been enthralled by the few pieces we could get our hands on at the record store in the early days. By 1995, they'd become darlings of the underground and we were stoked to have the chance to finally check them out.

As I headed to the side stage just after the appointed time, my old boss John James — now keeper of the news under the "Positively Yeah Yeah Yeah" banner in CityBeat — came racing wild-eyed up the sidewalk as though pursued by hornets. He breathlessly asked if I'd seen Guided By Voices yet, and I told him I was on my way there directly. He grabbed my shoulders and said, "You'll never guess who their frontman is."

And as I wove my way through the side-stage audience, I saw for myself the identity of the guy peeling off two-minute shards of pure Pop bliss. The maker of this enchanted music was none other than our own Bob From Dayton.

'A good one to end it on'
In a lot of ways, this anecdote typifies the close and unbreakable bond between Bob Pollard and the rabidly loyal fans that he and Guided By Voices have cultivated over their 20-year history. If Pollard didn't actually establish a personal link with his fans (and he often did, with post-gig libations and interaction), he exuded the kind of down-to-earth charisma that made everyone who came to see him and GBV feel as though they did indeed have that one-on-one connection.

For a good deal of the world and for the past two decades, Bob Pollard has been Bob From Dayton and, perhaps more importantly, Bob From Dayton has been Bob Pollard.

That personal connection, actual or perceived, is one of the reasons that Pollard's recent announcement of his intent to mothball Guided By Voices at the end of this current tour has hit so many fans like a sucker punch. With the release of the consistently excellent Half Smiles of the Decomposed, GBV's lone original gunman is pulling the plug on his beloved Pop posse after a gloriously prolific and yet, for the most part, commercially obscure two-decade run.

"I've been wanting to stop for a few years," says Pollard from his Dayton home about the end of GBV. "And I was always like, 'This is not the one.' It's something that you intrinsically know. (Half Smiles) just felt like it. I looked at the packaging, the cover and the songs and there was just a bittersweet feeling about the whole thing, and I thought, 'This is a good one to end it on.' "

Although Pollard admits he's entertained the idea of retiring GBV's number for 10 years, he's adamant this is the right moment to try something new. And in classic Pollard fashion, before the shrink-wrap has cooled on Half Smiles, he's already neck deep in a new solo project.

"I recorded a double album and paid for it myself, and hopefully that will be on Matador," Pollard says. "I've done my solo projects (in) The Fading Captain series, and it's good that I have that — it allows me to have a continuous creative output. But the thing is we don't give it a lot of push. It's low profile. My solo records do pretty well, but we don't send them out to a whole lot of magazines for review.

"I did (the double album) with Todd Tobias, just he and I in the studio, and I thought, 'I like this record too much and it needs more push and more attention than a typical Fading Captain release.' So I decided this should be my first post-Guided by Voices solo record."

Pollard notes at least one other personal reason for venturing into a solo realm.

"I wanted to start playing guitar in the studio, too," he says. "I mean, I play but I basically get in there and shove responsibility off to Nate (Farley) and Doug (Gillard). And I wanted to get back to being a little bit more creative and challenge myself in the studio."

In typical Pollard fashion, he'd love to fast-track his solo album into release immediately, but he realizes the corporate mindset against flooding the market with too much GBV-related material. That doesn't stop him from dreaming.

"I'd like to have it out now and I could if it was the Fading Captain Series, but to me this is a legitimate release and it's the next step," Pollard says. "I'm hoping to have it out by May. I'd like to have it out by March, but I'm not sure, especially if I'm still with Matador. I don't know if they'll think it's time, that close on the heels of Half Smiles. I kind of expressed this desire to them that I would like to have an album out every six months.

"When it was Guided By Voices and I would put out Robert Pollard albums on the side and the collaboration projects, there was no problem then. But I'm not sure how to approach it when the actual 'professional' entity is my own name. I don't know if I can do as many side projects. If that's the case, then I want to be able to put more albums out as Robert Pollard."

This phase of Pollard's solo persona had an interesting genesis. His girlfriend recently bought him a CD burner, which inspired him to dig through his voluminous cassette tape archive and record the scraps of songs contained on them onto a more permanent medium. He was also looking for more GBV material to include on a second Suitcase box set, considering the acceptance and success of the first one in 2002.

"When I write songs for a Guided By Voices record, I'll brainstorm and go through a whole cassette tape coming up with ideas," Pollard says. "Then I pick what I want to use, what I think is good, for the record. The thing is, (over time) my idea changes as to what should have been on the record. So I'm finding all these really good songs that I deleted for some reason. There are 26 songs on the new album — two thirds of it is comprised of old songs from, like, the late '70s to the '90s. Now I've already found, like, 30 more songs for the next album, and I've got 19 songs that I'm working on for the one after that. So I'm losing my shit."

Pollard's new solo mindset is slightly disconcerting after two decades of working within particular parameters and being able to compartmentalize his creativity.

"When it was Guided By Voices, I could say, 'These could be Robert Pollard songs, these could be whatever band name I come up with and whatever guys I want to assemble,' and I could section things off and allot them to different projects," he says. "Now I'm not quite sure how to approach it, because to me it's all just Robert Pollard. And the stuff I'm finding is all really good and I want it to get the attention it deserves. Had it been the '60s, I could put out an album out every three months. I guess that's not a bad situation to be in."

Back when he was performing this same ritual for Half Smiles of the Decomposed, Pollard insists there was no premeditation about making it the final GBV album before the sessions began. He's also quick to clarify that the band's demise isn't indicative of any dissatisfaction over their work.

"I didn't go into the project saying, 'This is going to be the last one,' " Pollard says. "After we went through the process of making a record — getting together and rehearsing, doing demos and sending them out to the band — it just was becoming somewhat formulaic and I didn't feel challenged myself. It has nothing to do with the guys. Everybody does their part and does it well. I have too good a time with these guys.

"I'm going to be 47 in October. You can't keep doing things because you're having a good time. Matter of fact, that's why you might want to stop, because you're having too good a time."

Pollard's excessive good time bleeds through every track on Half Smiles, from the Who-drenched opener "Everybody Thinks I'm a Raincloud" to the unvarnished psychedelia of "Girls of Wild Strawberries" to the glorious jangle of "The Closets of Henry" to the Rundgren-esque Power Pop of "Tour Guide at the Winston Churchill Memorial." But, as Pollard observed, there's a slightly wistful quality to the songs that lends itself to the album's status as the swan song for one of the most prolific Rock bands of the modern era.

"I didn't go in saying I was going to take a new direction," Pollard says of Half Smiles' outcome. "I've been through a lot of quick phases here in my life. I was divorced recently, and in the last three years I've moved five times. I've got a new girlfriend, I'm happy, she lives with me and we're getting ready to buy a house. And when I was writing these songs, they were kind of reflective emotionally, and some of them were kind of sad and melancholy, like 'Window of My World' and 'Everybody Thinks I'm a Raincloud,' and to me it felt semi-autobiographical in an emotional way.

"And after listening to it and the cover I put with it, it just looks like a wrap-up. Even the title says it, and I picked the title before I decided it was going to be over. Some people suggested Live Like Kings Forever because I've threatened to call an album that for a long time. Half Smiles of the Decomposed sounds sad, but it's good. Change is good."

'The show's gotten really long'
For Pollard, the end of Guided By Voices is about his desire to reduce his time on the road and to try new recording combinations and concepts without relying on established band patterns. To a lesser extent, it's also about wanting to move out from under the shadow of his own accomplishments.

"I saw this the other day, I think it was in Entertainment Weekly, that 'Guided By Voices is back to form with this record.' And I'm not quite sure what that means," Pollard says. "Are you talking back to Bee Thousand form? Back to Under the Bushes form? To me, it doesn't sound like anything else we've ever done. So I don't know what 'back to form' is."

Considering the body of work Pollard has been responsible for to date, it might be unrealistic to expect that people will be able to separate the Pollard era from the GBV era, and to an extent he understands. But it's a subject that clearly gets under his skin in a heartbeat.

"I really like this (solo) record, and I can't imagine myself going through this process again of trying to compete with Bee Thousand or whatever," says Pollard. "And I'm kinda sick of looking at it. I'm a Rock consumer. I listen, and I've been a fan all my life. I've always felt like after so many years somebody needs to hang it up. And now I feel that way about us. I'm kind of tired of looking at it — the name, the entity, the touring act. The fans are still pretty hardcore and we still pack houses, and it's still good.

"I just want to try something else, and I don't see where it will be drastically different as myself. And some people think that. They're like, 'I'm so sad you guys are breaking up. Thanks for all the great years. I don't know what I'll do now.' And I'm like, 'You'll hear my solo albums. I'll be doing the same fucking thing.' Other than you won't hear Doug and Nate and Chris (Slusarenko) and Kevin (March). They're really good musicians and add a lot to the records, but I write the songs, I sing them, I make the covers. It's not going to be drastically different."

Pollard's new method of digging out old ideas from GBV demos and turning them into new solo songs has had one rather unexpected consequence.

"Each album from this point on will be a mixture of new songs and old songs," Pollard says. "There's more variety now, because songs I wrote in the '80s don't sound anything like what I write now. But it's weird, because I'm directing the songs I'm writing now. I'll find the old songs first and then I'll write new songs, and sometimes it's hard to tell which ones are old and which are new because I'm inspired by the old ones. So it's sort of a new phase."

But before the new phase can be fully integrated, Guided By Voices has to take one last victory lap around the country's nightclubs and say goodbye with a proper balance of reverence and revelry. Pollard is obviously energized by the idea of the band's final tour and has put a great deal of thought and effort into making each of the last 25 GBV shows special for the fans who show up for them.

"They're all big city shows, and I'm sure a lot of people will turn out," he says. "Our last show's gonna be at the Metro in Chicago on New Year's Eve, and it's a really high-priced ticket, and it sold out in, like, 20 minutes. We're trying to do some special things. On some of these shows, some of the former members of Guided By Voices will come out and play with us. We played our last show in Dayton a few months ago, and Greg Demos and Kevin Fennell came up. And I've been going through my records and making a list of old songs that we haven't done or old songs that people used to like that we haven't done for a while and pull some of those back out of the hat and try to make it special."

The mantra at any GBV show has always been "expect the unexpected," and that's never been truer than on their final curtain. Pollard is excited about the Southgate House show, because it's one of a handful featuring former GBV sparkplug Tobin Sprout as opening act and likely band member before evening's end. And, as with most GBV shows in the past, beer is likely to play a significant factor.

"We'll probably play a really long show," Pollard says. "It's gotten long anyway. When we first started playing, I was really nervous and I wouldn't say anything between songs. Now I'm drunk and loose and sometimes I'll rant on for 20 fucking minutes. The show's gotten really long."

A long, fitting end to a long, fitting career. Bob From Dayton, we hardly knew ye. And soon we'll hardly know ye some more.

Hoist a glass and drain the ale, Guided By Voices is dead. Long live Bob Pollard.

GUIDED BY VOICES perform Friday at the Southgate House.