By Mark Guarino
When Robert Pollard decided to end Guided By Voices, the band he fronted for 21 years, he played the last two shows at Metro, Dec. 30 and 31, 2004. Although the final show lasted over four hours and included a balloon toss, an onstage bartender, a rotating assembly of musicians from the band’s past, plus plenty of liquor consumed onstage and off, to Pollard, the set of shows did not particularly strike a nostalgic chord. In fact, he ended the first night by jumping into a cab before the final encore was over.
“I could still hear the band playing when I got in the cab,” he said. “It was nerve wrecking. That was the worst part.”
Pollard, 48, is one of rock’s fiercest individualists. Guided By Voices started as a weekend hobby among his friends in Dayton, Ohio and grew to become a pop music cult. A flood of albums, EPs, solo projects, collaborations, box sets, compilations and soundtracks is the result of Pollard’s wily pursuit of the perfect pop song. Along the way he became identified by his perseverance and obsession, a fine line between both that would only by matched by his committed legion of fans — which, when faced with the next step of his career, developed into both a necessity and a burden.
“The fans are great and everything, but it got to the point where there were comparisons all the time, of lineups — which lineups were better, which album was better, which (lineup) stood up best to these albums, that sort of thing. I just wanted to wrap that all up and tuck it away,” he said.
Anyone keeping score over the years knows that Guided By Voices is essentially Pollard plus whatever collaborators he picked to tour and record with. Then there are his solo albums, released on Fading Captain, his mail order label that have quietly contributed to the canon. So how is “From A Compound Eye,” his recent 26-song album credited to just his name but released on Merge, the Durham N.C. indie that’s home to Superchunk, The Arcade Fire and Spoon, different?
“It’s a lot better,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I felt Guided By Voices had pretty much done all it could do as an entity. When we did (“Half Smiles of the Decomposed,” the band’s 2004 swan song), when I wrote the songs and recorded it and I did the cover art, it just looked and felt like a last record. I had been trying to end Guided By Voices the last two or three records but I didn’t feel any of them at the time was the one. You get to 48 years old and it felt kind of silly being the leader of a band with a name. You know, like, ‘we’re The Bugs’, ‘we’re The Spiders’,” he said.
The trajectory of Guided By Voices — from a lo-fi basement experiment to a polished art rock powerhouse — is one of the more unusual but inspiring stories from the underground rock era. In the 1980s, Pollard was a grade school teacher who lived a mile from where he grew up and liked to drink, play basketball and make music with his friends on the weekends. Soon, Pollard got deeper into recording, enlisting childhood friends to play local bars, record and release cassettes and vinyl versions of his music, idiosyncratic rock, a mixture of British Invasion-style rock and eccentric pop noise. By the time he reached his mid-‘30s, he stood out because he wasn’t the average family man.
“There was not only a lack of support but (family and friends) were going overboard in giving me negative feedback. Like, ‘why do you keep doing that stupid (expletive)?’ My problem was I wasn’t trying to do anything with it. We didn’t try to sell ourselves at all. But I think some friends and some family members thought I was being irresponsible, having a family and being a teacher, by doing that,” he said. “So I was kind of upset by it and sometimes would say, well (expletive) you, I’m a genius.”
“It was good I didn’t listen to it too hard and kept on doing it anyway. Because had I not, nothing would have happened and nobody would have found out about it,” he said.”
Unbeknownst to him, copies of his 1992 album “Propeller” — of which only 500 vinyl copies were printed up, each with a different, hand-painted cover — made it into the hands of some New York tastemakers including Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Word spread and Pollard scored his first record deal with Scat Records and Guided By Voices became the buzz band of the early 1990s, a time when being different was the key to the golden calf.
But unlike most bands of that era, Guided By Voices was truly alternative because there lacked a gimmick: Pollard was 36 when he was “discovered” and he and his cohorts looked like back alley Midwesterners. While he developed a stage personality that capitalized on clownish banter, whipping microphones and serious drinking, the initial appeal was purely the songs — loud, fast and impeccably short pop bursts that hit you over the head with their tunefulness. They fit into a wholly original world aided by his lyrics, a collage of images that bled together bland daily banter with wistful romance. Even when he sang, Pollard seemed to incorporate a different person. Sometimes feigning a faint British accent, sometimes not, his vocals transformed the song from the garage in which they were born to mighty heights.
The range of the songs is wide — perfectly crafted pop to jarring noise to epic jamming — which Pollard attributes to age. “I’ve been through … the early sixties with The Beatles, Monkees and Herman’s Hermits, the psychedelic sixties and then the prog rock early seventies and then the punk rock, post-punk late seventies. I’ve got all the permutations. That’s why the music is all over the place. It’s all in there,” he said. “I call it ‘ragu rock.’”
The new album follows that course and include some of Pollard’s best songs to date, including the rock anthem “I’m a Widow,” the dreamy pop single “Love is Stronger Than Witchcraft” and “I’m a Strong Lion,” a perfectly crafted pop song clocking in at one minute and eight seconds. He said that from this point on, to cut down on studio time, he just plans on working with producer Todd Tobias, who will play all the instruments, so he can just concentrate on the vocals and guitar.
Although last year was calm, this year is the storm. In addition to “Compound Eye,” Pollard will release “Normal Happiness” (Merge), another solo album, in the fall. His Fading Captain series will release three other projects starting in May, one a collaboration with pop auteur Tommy Keene, a member of his current band.
“I always have to sit on my hands. I write a lot and I finish songs and when I finish them, I want to record them. I’m always a step ahead, I’m always an album ahead. Pretty soon, it starts to pile up,” he said. Contrary to his reputation as a hardcore drinker, Pollard says he goes to bed early and is up by 6 or 7 a.m. and works on songs or art collages (he makes all the album art too) until noon every day. “I constantly chisel away at things,” he said.
The productivity and endless output has led many critics to say that it’s tough to mind the gold from so much filler. Pollard insists they miss the point because he considers himself a “collage artist” first and a songwriter second. “I would not put anything out I wouldn’t like myself. I basically make records for myself,” he said. “When we made ‘Bee Thousand’ and ‘Alien Lanes’, they were (considered) more interesting because they (represented) many different aspects of my character. The thing is, now those splinters are in different projects. I have more of a grasp of what Robert Pollard album needs to be and the more experimental aspects I push aside for other projects. So now what I do is splintered into various projects instead of splintered into one record,” he said.
The prodigious output also keeps him in business, feeding his cult of fans more music, all the time. In the course of Guided By Voices, he discovered that if you have small pockets of fans spread all around the globe, you’ve achieved success. He points to one fan who approached him at a show in Sweden and told him he was from the North Pole. Among the few hundred people in his town, the fan told him, there was a Guided By Voices cover band.
“Isn’t that bizarre? There’s a small amount of people everywhere that dig my stuff. So that’s good. It’s enabled me to make a living. Especially with the fact I do a lot of stuff,” he said.