Cover Story: Will Work For Beer

Acclaimed area Pop songwriter Robert Pollard takes his Guided By Voices to the bigger leagues

May 27, 1999 at 2:06 pm

Bob Pollard hasn't taught fourth grade in about six years, and what he really yearns for are his weekends "I miss the fact that when you work five days a week, you get excited about the weekend," he says from his home in Dayton, Ohio. As the leader of Indie Rock underground heroes, Guided By Voices, he was able to quit his day job.

"I don't miss the pressure of the state evaluations and all the things besides the actual teaching itself," he continues. "(But) I get bored sitting around on my ass all day, whereas when I used to have a job, I'd kind of schedule everything — what you do when you get home and on the weekends."

Still, the twin lifestyles of hard-drinking Rock & Roll frontman and getting up before the sun to sculpt the minds of youth came to a head in 1994 when GBV jumped from various tiny independent labels to the well-respected Matador imprint. The band was the toast of critics and did a stint on the Lollapalooza (remember that?) tour, where they beat the Beastie Boys in a backstage basketball game. But even before he left his job, Pollard had been given the ultimate hipster seal of approval — from his students.

"I think the kids thought I was pretty cool because my discipline wasn't very good," Pollard says. "They kind of ran all over me. I used to try to play (GBV) records for them, and I don't think they liked the music, to tell you the truth, but any excuse for a party.

If I want to play my records, that's fine with them — they can jump around and not do their work. I don't blame them (for not liking the music), because in the '80s (GBV) wasn't very good."

Recounting these bits of history, Pollard sounds a bit bored — he's waiting for the band's new record label, TVT, to release Guided By Voices' year-old album, Do The Collapse, and waiting for the band (which currently includes Doug Gillard, Jim MacPherson and Nate Farley) to go on a 10-month tour. Pollard is not a man who likes to wait. As a songwriter, he can sit down with a pot of coffee, a guitar and a tape recorder and peel off 10 songs in a day. Since the band's first release, 1986's Forever Since Breakfast, Pollard has written a few thousand songs, releasing albums, singles and EPs at an alarming rate for seemingly any label that would ask. (Collapse appears to be the group's 21st album.)

"That was a concern (of) Matador — that we were diluting the product, that we had too much out there," he explains. "But there was so much out there, before we were ever signed, it was almost too late to worry about that. We already had this bulk of releases, so you've already got this big huge bin full of stuff. We went through a lull period with Matador because they told us, 'Don't release anything else.' "

To the uninitiated, the back catalog is intimidating. If someone says you should check out a band and you go to the store and there are 15 records on the shelf with non sequitur titles like Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Mag Earwig!, you wouldn't be blamed if you wandered off and bought something else. Pollard has a remarkably pragmatic and unsympathetic attitude about the plethora of records.

"I guess it can be overwhelming for someone who doesn't know who we are, but for our fans and for people that know how prolific we are, they want that," Pollard explains. "A lot of our fans complained to Matador. I've always been more concerned with pleasing the existing fan base that we have now, because I figure if I can do that then I'll have a job the rest of my life. I can understand where someone who was trying to be introduced to Guided By Voices would be confused, but I don't care. I like the confusion."

But soon he admits it's more than just financial: It's part of the way he operates as an artist. Music pours out of him. And just like Prince, er, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, Pollard was at odds with a record company that wanted to work each record to the public, putting a limit on the number of releases per year.

"That's one reason we went with TVT," he admits. "We'd been sitting on this record for like a year and we'd been playing it for a year before that, so I was tired of it and I couldn't really do anything — I had my hands tied. I wanted to do music, and I'd been writing songs, and I couldn't release them. So I had to have this deal with TVT where at any time that I want to release a record as Robert Pollard or under some pseudonym, I'm allowed to do that. As I finish with a record, I release it. People who are really creative and prolific have to have that, at least for their own sanity. I have two records coming out, one by Lexo and the Leapers and another one that is a compilation (Nightwalker) of these psychedelic dirges and jams that we've done in the basement from '84 to '93. I like doing all that stuff. I assured (TVT) that I would save the very best, most commercial stuff for Guided By Voices."

And he wasn't kidding. Do The Collapse is easily the most commercial and glossy GBV record. Produced by Cars' leader Ric Ocasek and recorded at Electric Ladyland, it's the band's most successful foray into a studio sound that matches their classic Rock/Pop goals. In the past the group had recorded at home or home studios, as their tiny budgets allowed, finding themselves lumped into the lo-fi genre (see: Sebadoh, Smog) at the early part of this decade. The songs have always been grandiose, but in the new shiny setting, there is nowhere to hide the timeless melodies. Ocasek's touch is evident right out of the gates: The first track, "Teenage FBI," has the squiggly keyboard sound straight off of a Cars' record. Call 'em sellouts — at least that means they're selling — but Pollard says the band is finally ready and equipped to do things in a big way.

"Even from the beginning, we'd always wanted to make music that sounded good, we just couldn't afford to do it," he acknowledges. "But our goal was always to be able to go into a big studio and make a good-sounding music — big, room-filling power Pop, that was the aim."

That's his job.