An Interview with Robert Pollard

Things not seen:
American Splendor

An Interview with Robert Pollard

Things not seen:
American Splendor

An Interview with Robert Pollard

Matthew Derby
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Robert Pollard has written an estimated ten thousand songs, both on his own and with his band, Guided by Voices. It’s difficult to imagine what ten thousand songs might look like, or how a person could carry all that music around for so long. It would take a person with courage and fortitude, I think, and the ability to kick one’s leg straight up on a downbeat while swinging a microphone cable in Roger Daltrey–sized arcs. It would take a person who has been focused on songcraft for twenty-plus years—a person capable of generating pure, devastating pop music at the rate most American men shed skin cells. Robert Pollard is that person, crammed to the heart with song.

Guided by Voices emerged like a bottled message out of the slick sea of early-nineties post-rock with an intricate and deceptively fragile record called Bee Thousand (Scat Records, 1994), recorded entirely on a four track, which sounded like the brilliant, faded home demos of a forgotten British psychedelic band from 1968. Though it was generally received as a debut, the band had actually been holed up in Dayton, Ohio, since the early eighties, and had already recorded six albums in isolation from the cultural whims of the world. Listening to Bee Thousand, then, was like uncovering an artifact from a remote, hinterland village, a land ruled by superstition and witchcraft—startling and enlightening, and maybe a little terrifying. Most importantly, though, the album managed to rock, effortlessly—despite (or maybe because of) the prohibitively crude nature of the recordings and the endless queue of perfectly executed hooks.

In the years since, Pollard has released well over a dozen more records. He’s been so willfully prolific that, for a while, it seemed as though he would simply go on releasing songs forever, without interruption, maybe into the grave, but this past May he announced that the new Guided by Voices album, Half-Smiles of the Decomposed, would be the band’s last. It is an incredibly diverse and heavily textured swan song—easily the band’s best record since 1996’s Under the Bushes, Under the Stars—in short, a wild, passionate suicide note from one of the all-time greatest rock acts in Western history.

—Matthew Derby


 THE BELIEVER: You live in Dayton, Birthplace of Flight and home of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which raises the question: have you ever seen any experimental aircraft of any sort in the skies over your city?

ROBERT POLLARD: I’ve had friends that have seen things. Sometimes things that have even come really close to them, but I’ve never seen anything like that myself. I’ve seen things zip by really quickly on occasion, but nothing in any detail.

BLVR: I’m asking because this man I know used to live in Virginia, near the Norfolk Naval Base, and he said that whenever he went to the beach he would see these experimental military aircraft over the ocean. One time he saw what he described as a floating cube the size of a compact car—it was just hovering over the ocean.The first line I ever heard you sing was,“Sitting out on your house / watching hardcore UFOs,” so I’ve always assumed that you must have been influenced somehow by mysterious, inexplicable objects hovering in the sky.

RP: The imagery that I’ve injected into the songs is really more about a yearning to see those sorts of things.I wish I could—I mean I’m very envious of my friends that have seen that kind of stuff. I wish I could say that I’ve seen something that’s surprised me like that—I mean, hell, I’ve never even seen a tornado.Actually, there’s this place called Xenia in Ohio, and it’s supposed to have the worst tornado activity in the history of the United States. There’s even literature from the eighteenth century of Native Americans who are said to have called that area the Land of the Devil Wind. People say that it’s cursed. I guess that doesn’t really have anything to do with flight, but my point is that I’ve never really seen anything strange in the sky.

BLVR: Have you seen American Splendor?

RP: Not yet.

BLVR: I just saw that film again the other night, and I noticed all these commonalities between Harvey Pekar’s comics and your songs. Aside from the Ohio connection, you’re also both describing a bleak, postindustrial landscape, populated by a slew of memorable, idiosyncratic characters, for whom you feel, in equal parts, admiration and pity. While I was preparing for this interview I had the pleasure of listening to all my GBV records, end on end, and I realized that your songs are densely populated with oddball characters, some of whom are based on people you know in Dayton and others you’ve made up, who seem to survive on a threadbare hope for the future. And, like Harvey Pekar, you seem to draw energy from these people—you keep them close to you because one day you know they’re going to surprise you with some profound insight.

RP: Early on, I made it my goal that if my music were ever recognized in any way, I would want it to lure people into my world, the way music has affected me in the past, like when I first heard R.E.M., and there was the mystery of the South, with the kudzu growing over everything, and the people—it made me want to go down there and experience it for myself—there was a sort of magic to it.So I wanted to incorporate what it was like to live here in the Midwest, in Dayton, where there’s really nothing to do but drink and watch airplanes. I wanted to convey the mundane nature of the place. It’s restrictive in a way but it’s also what keeps me here. It’s what keeps me coming back here.There’s a comfort in it. I’ve thought about living in New York City or Austin,but I know I could never do it. I’ve got too many people here that provide me with ideas.I mean,I’ve always been more interested in creating alternate worlds rather than literal ones. I feel like there’s a spiritual component to that as well. I write about these alternate worlds that I believe might exist,but I’m also doubtful.I think it’s a good-and-evil thing. I’ve always thought of Guided by Voices on those terms—the devil and the angel sitting on my shoulders, both whispering things in my ear.And I never really know which way to go. And to me, rock and roll has to have that darker side. Positive all the time is boring.

BLVR: I think that’s precisely the quality that differentiates your work from a lot of other pop music—there’s always something malevolent creeping at the periphery of your songs, even the brightest ones.

RP: The emotions have to be mixed on a record. It should be an emotional roller-coaster ride. Music, as your art, should reflect all the different aspects of your character, and, you know, I am a bit of a moody person. I have a temper; I can be mischievous at times.

BLVR: And sometimes you can be really happy to be pissed off.

RP:Yeah, and so any album should reflect the spectrum of emotions that I’ve experienced in the year the album was made.That’s the spiritual aspect of the music. I think that you have to be aware of that and diversify the sound of an album as much as possible in order to reflect that phenomenon.

BLVR:That really comes across on the new album. All of the songs seem set apart from the others, and each seems consciously different from its peers.

RP:I actually put ten seconds between each of the songs, because I wanted each one to stand out on its own. There’s something different going on with each song.


BLVR: So, your decision to pull the plug on Guided by Voices has a personal, emotional core?

RP: Even though I really like the new album,I really like the way it sounds, I feel like Guided by Voices, as a band, as an entity, has maybe gotten a little bit old hat, you know? Like,“Okay, time to make another record.”“How does it compare with the last record?” “How does it compare with Bee Thousand?”And everybody’s a little… I’m not saying my band is complacent—I’m saying that I’ve become a little complacent. I don’t think I’m being innovative enough in the studio, or as experimental, and that’s really why I’ve made the decision—I want to get back to that. It got to the point where I was delegating roles for everyone in the band, asking for them to contribute ideas instead of coming up with ideas myself. Instead of taking an active role in the studio, playing guitar or whatever, I’d say “Okay, Doug, you’re better than I am, so why don’t you play this part?” I wanted to challenge myself, and I realized it was up to me to end the band and see how I might stand on my own as Robert Pollard and not as Guided by Voices.

BLVR: I think that’s a really courageous move, and one that doesn’t really have a model in rock.It seems like most musicians find a way to work that one trick that they’ve mastered and beat it to death, for years on end, touring even though half of the members of the band are dead…

RP:Yeah, that is exactly what I was thinking of—I’m forty-six and I’m going to be forty-seven soon, and how much longer can I do this? To continue being in a band to me just seems sort of silly—almost Rolling-Stones-like. There seems to be more integrity and more maturity involved in carrying on as who I am, Robert Pollard, instead of being the leader of this band.To continue just because we’ve had some success with it and some people seem to be into it—that doesn’t make any sense to me at this point. It’s just really evident that there comes a time to stop, and I’ve actually been trying to stop for many years now—I even tried to kill Guided by Voices after [the sixth Guided by Voices album] Propeller came out, way back before anyone had even heard of us, but then we were signed and there was this new enthusiasm, and all these people who were interested in what we were doing, where before there was no one. So that carried us along for a while. But basically, you know, one day I just decided I was tired of looking at myself, and if I’m tired of looking at myself, then there must be a lot of other people who are just as tired.

BLVR: Tell me more about that time, right after you released Propeller, because, as I understand it, you’d been recording albums for over ten years, without ever really attracting an audience, and it was just by chance that you were discovered at that moment when you were thinking of throwing in the towel.

RP: I remember, around that time, a friend told me that at a Drag City party someone had said,“Have you heard about this band from Dayton called Guided by Voices? They have this album called Propeller and it’s insanely great,” and I felt it in the pit of my stomach that nothing was going to be the same after that—it was no longer going to be this fantasy world where we were making albums for ourselves, doing interviews with ourselves and photo shoots with ourselves. And, to tell you the truth, it was much more fun when it was like that. I was a fourth-grade teacher at the time, surrounded by tenor eleven-year-olds for eight hours a day, and when you spend that much time with kids that age, you start to develop a similar mentality, and it’s an immature mentality, but there’s also a certain wisdom in it.And so I was reading them fairy tales all day, and just doing the general work you have to do with education at that level, and that got me thinking in that childlike mindset. And then I would go home and hang out and drink with my friends and some of them, you know, their maturity level wasn’t much higher than the fourth-graders’.And neither was mine, in truth. I mean, when we got down into the basement, late at night, we’d basically just turn up all the amplifiers and we’d make up things, and we’d get inebriated to the point where we were totally uninhibited, and we were making this music knowing that nobody would ever hear it.Which is maybe the best way to do it.And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to recapture that sense of innocence. Now I know that there’s always someone listening, and it’s very difficult to make that kind of music. Once we started getting into the four-track recordings, the short attention span I’d developed from working with the fourth-graders really came out. We just started cramming all our ideas onto tape, just recording everything—I mean, I would come in with a song— there would be no rehearsal or anything—I would just teach the drummer the changes, and then we’d record the guitar and the drums at the same time, and then add in bass and vocals, and that was it. The whole process would take about twenty minutes, so we could record, like, twenty songs a day that way. I think we had something like a hundred songs written for Bee Thousand. And there was something really pure about that process. The closer you can get a song onto tape from the time you conceive it in your mind, the better.

BLVR: Like translating a dream the moment you wake up, so that you can preserve the detail…

RP:Yeah.And with that, what you get, and what became a sort of Guided by Voices trademark, are mistakes.That’s another thing that I missed when we started going into the studio more and working with producers.We lost the freedom to keep the mistakes that we made when we were recording. I love when I’m listening to a song with friends and I go,“Hey, did you hear that guy just fuck up on drums? That was a fuck-up!” I love that. That adds character to a song.We were getting to the point where we were recording a song and everything had to be perfect—every syllable had to be sung correctly and on pitch, and everything had to be in place, and I think you can really squeeze the life out of a song that way, you know?

BLVR: I’ve always been captivated by those errors. One of my favorites is that moment at the beginning of “The King and Caroline” from Alien Lanes where you start to sing the melody, but the vocal track cuts out right before the end of the phrase—in a way, right when the listener wants it the most.That moment has always been so mysterious and powerful to me—it still surprises me every time I hear it. It seems so bold a move, to just cut out right when things start to unfold.

RP: Accidentals, as I call them—like on “Hardcore UFOs,” when the tape starts screwing up and it starts phasing in and out, and it was just an error in the recording, but because it was called “Hardcore UFOs” people thought we were laying in some sort of sound effect. But eventually, I realized that we were sort of using that as a crutch—you know, people came to expect these fuck-ups—it was like we could do no wrong, because if we messed up, people thought we did it intentionally. I wanted to try to get away from that for a while, so we started taking more time in the studio.


BLVR: I’m interested in the title of the new record— Half-Smiles of the Decomposed—coming from a line in the second song,“Sleep Over Jack.” It’s maybe your best, most complex album title, within a career of amazing album titles, because it describes an emotion that’s perceived in an object that isn’t capable of producing an emotion.We look at the drawn-back flesh of a corpse, and it seems to express an emotion to us, but we know that it’s only the brutality of time.

RP:Well,I inserted that line at the very end,after I wrote the song. I had it lying around for a long time, and I felt that it was the most appropriate title for the last record, being a sort of bittersweet reflection of the band. It’s dead, it’s bloated, it’s had enough, but it’s still kind of smiling. It went out on a good note—it’s kind of sad, but it’s also thinking it did all right for itself in life.

BLVR: I can’t help making this sort of grisly connection to the images from Abu Ghraib, especially those photographs of the corpse wrapped in ice. I’m sure it was unintentional…

RP:Yeah, I saw some of those photos.This album definitely incorporates a lot of stuff that’s been pissing me off lately. Especially the second side—the second side has more of an intense political dimension, I think.

BLVR: Like the song “Sing for Your Meat,” which starts out with the lines “When you write about the boys / Under friendly fire / Dress ’em up in suits / And seek her to kill / Freedom of the will / Ours and yes yours / Yesterday today / Onward marching on.”

RP:That song has to do with what’s going on with our country, and our involvement in Iraq. I mean, my son is twenty-four now, and so obviously I’m concerned about the possibility of him going over there. But it also had a lot to do with the music industry. Originally the song was called “Sing for Your Meat, Leon” because I’d read this article about Kings of Leon, about how they were signed to a big label, and all ready to follow in the footsteps of the Strokes, but they weren’t quite willing to play the dog-and-pony game that goes with being on a major label. I feel sorry for young bands like Kings of Leon who may be too young to be able to fight for themselves—although I’ve read interviews with them where they’ve said that no one tells them what to do, so it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with them—I think they’re a good band. But because I’m a bit jaded at this point, having gone through all of that, I was thinking, hey, you know, if you’re going to go get on a big label, you’ve got to be aware of what you’re in for—you’re going to have to go all the way, you’d better be ready to sing for your meat.

BLVR: What type of meat will you sing for next?

RP: I just finished a double album, my first post-GBV solo album. I was digging around in the boxes of tapes in my basement that go back to the seventies, and I’d found about fifty songs I’d totally overlooked when I wrote them and I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe none of this stuff made it onto an album at any point.” So I had a shitload of songs that were all too personal to do with a band. I don’t feel like there was any way I could lay them on a band and expect them to interpret them the way that I know them. I worked with [Guided by Voices producer] Todd Tobias—it was just the two of us, with no distractions, no partying, no one sitting around waiting to do their part, and it just worked out really well. I’m feeling pretty good about my decision. There are some people who are pretty apprehensive about it, you know, these people who are saying,“Well, what are you going to do now?” As if I can’t continue musically as Robert Pollard. I’ve always considered Guided by Voices to be a collaborative effort, but I’ve sort of been the lone thread throughout the whole history of the band—it’s basically my art, you know, my songs, my covers, my sequencing, and my voice. So my solo stuff isn’t going to be that drastically different than Guided by Voices, other than the fact that there’s going to be a more personal touch.

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