Don't Stop Now

An Interview with Robert Pollard

by John Kenyon

The prolific songwriter puts his Voices behind him but still has plenty to say.

Pages: 1  2

As you read this, Robert Pollard is probably recording a song. How else to explain such prodigious output? He has released more than 1,000 songs over the course of a 22-year career, most with his band, Guided by Voices, some under his own name and still others with a variety of side projects. Then there are the hundreds, if not thousands of unreleased songs sitting on tapes in boxes in his basement.

“I keep myself busy perpetually,” he said recently “It’s a continuous, ongoing thing, and whatever I come up with at a particular time, that’s what’s coming out. Some people say that’s too much and it dilutes what I do and I don’t edit myself very well, but I don’t care, because that’s my creative process and that’s how I do it. People get writer’s block all the time, and I don’t even know what that is. And I think it’s because I don’t stop.”

But Pollard did stop, or at least pause, when he heard the results of a summer 2004 recording session. The 26 songs were slated to be the latest entry in his self-released Fading Captain Series, a 38-pieces-and-counting outlet for the prolific artist to indulge himself beyond the constraints of Guided by Voices. He realized, however, that this session was not a typical indulgence.

“It turned out so well I said, ‘I can’t relegate it to that. I have to do something more with it’,” he said. “That was pretty much my decision to go solo. The only way that I felt the album was going to get the push that it deserved was if I made it my main thing and got a push behind it from a big independent label.”

With that, he made good on a longtime threat to break up Guided by Voices and announced that the forthcoming disc, a double album called From a Compound Eye would be his official post-GBV solo debut.

“I’d been wanting to do a double album for a long time. I was a big fan of the double album from the early ‘70s, like Tommy, Quadrophenia, and Jesus Christ Superstar and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “But I just never felt like I had enough variation in the songs to do a double album. [Guided by Voices’ album] Bee Thousand and some of those songs have variation. But the songs are so short that you’d have to have 60 songs for a double album. You can’t do an album that’s 71 minutes long if things sound similar; it’s just too tedious to listen. So I finally felt I had it.”

From a Compound Eye contains what Pollard calls “the four Ps”: pop, punk, psych, and prog, and that mix results in his strongest album to date, blending the best of his pop sensibilities with the experimental streak that he has relegated to those side projects over the past few years.

“I used to be accused, and probably still am accused, of not using my best stuff on records,” he said. “That’s good, I guess, if you have that much stuff, if people think you aren’t using your best stuff on your major records. It used to be, when we recorded in the early days, like Bee Thousand, everything that I did, there were no side projects. Every different facet of what we did went into one record, so it had all this variation. All those elements are still there, they’re just divided up into different projects. If I wanted to just say I’m going to put out one record a year and not put out these five projects, then everything would go into that one record, and it would probably be Bee Thousand-like, or From A Compound Eye-like.”

He came up with the 26-song tracklist by merging 11 new songs with 15 culled from old tapes he had compiled. His girlfriend bought him a CD burner, and he had been going through his famed box of tapes to gather the best snippets and ideas and turned those into fleshed-out songs.

“Then I went up and recorded it and it was the best recording session I’ve ever had, too, because it was just myself and Todd Tobias, and it just turned out really well,” he said. “I’m really happy with it; I think it has staying power, because I’ve been listening to it for a year and a half and I still can listen to it. I usually put something away after three or four months.”

For a guy who usually releases something shortly after recording it, Pollard was surprisingly patient while waiting more than a year for the release of From a Compound Eye. After failing to reach a deal with Guided by Voices’ label Matador Records, he took the project to Merge Records. That label needed time to set up the project, so release of the album was pushed into 2006.

Even more surprising, he didn’t fiddle with the content, sequence or title of the disc during that time. After quickly ditching the original title, American Superdream Wow after Green Day released the too-similar American Idiot, he said, he pretty well left things alone.

“I’m getting better at getting into the studio and knowing exactly what I want and how it’s going to turn out,” he said. “I used to, I would change things four or five times, and sometimes I would shitcan the entire project. I’m just getting better at knowing what I want and what I’m going to do and which songs are going to be successful before I go into the studio.”

Some of the credit for that quality and consistency goes to Tobias, who produced the last three Guided by Voices discs and has worked with Pollard on his Circus Devils side project for four albums as well. Pollard said he essentially records his guitar and vocals, then turns Tobias loose to create the rest of each song.

“Over the course of the next two weeks he just finishes it and he sends it back to me and it’s always brilliant. You know, he just knows; he has the intuition,” he said. “It’s nice to only have two people in the studio. The less people who are involved, the more you get the personal character of what you do.”

Pollard said that later Guided by Voices discs lacked his personal touch because he was less involved. His desire to fight that complacency was another factor in deciding to go solo.

“Now it’s just Todd and myself. You get his touch and you get mine, it’s just two different people, it’s not spread amongst five different personalities,” he said. “I think sometimes that can dilute music. Unless you’ve got five really weird guys. And not to take anything away from my old band, because they were really talented and offered some good ideas, but you know, every once in a while you’d get the rare occurrence in music, like an early R.E.M. or Wire, where you have four really unique personalities that really blend together, or like the Grifters, that really sounds like all of them. It’s hard to do that.”

The two work so well together that they already have completed the follow-up to From a Compound Eye, tentatively titled Normal Happiness. Pollard describes it as “the poppiest thing I’ve done”, and said he drew the songs from the 47 he recorded in his basement during one month.

He’ll tour behind From a Compound Eye with a band that includes power-pop cult favorite Tommy Keene on guitar and keyboards, and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster. They won’t hit as many places as Guided by Voices in its heyday, but some things about touring will be the same, he said.

“I’m going to still be the same fucking clown I’ve always been,” he said. “I don’t know about these other guys. I don’t even know if they drink or not, which is OK. I don’t care if you drink or not, I’m going to. I know one of them, I don’t know which one because my manager wouldn’t tell me, wanted Diet Coke on the rider. Whoa, wow. I hope that’s to mix with Jack maybe ... Diet Jack.”

Pollard said he contemplated asking some latter-day Guided by Voices members to help him with his solo shows, but realized it would be too much like what he had left behind. There was no shortage of people to choose from who wanted to play with him, he said.

“There were a bunch of people who came up to me once I disbanded Guided by Voices and said, ‘When you get it together and you’re ready to tour, give me a call,’” he said.

One thing he’ll carry over from his Guided by Voices days is his dynamic stage presence, which is one part kickboxer, one part Roger Daltrey. Or so he hopes.

“I don’t know how many moves I’ve got left,” said the 48-year-old Pollard. “The other day I tried to kick, and it wasn’t bad, but I almost pulled a muscle. I gotta start stretching out.”

While he hasn’t been working out, his time off the road since the last Guided by Voices show at the Metro in Chicago on Dec. 31, 2004—documented in the recently released DVD The Electrifying Conclusion—has been busy. He released a 4-CD boxed set, two solo EPs, and a disc with the Moping Swans, and also reissued a side project and Guided by Voices debut EP, Forever Since Breakfast during 2005. For the future, he has a collaboration in the works with Keene, to be called the Keene Brothers, and another with Guided by Voices bassist Chris Slusarenko, called the Takeovers. Both, like previous collaborations with former Guided by Voices guitarist Tobin Sprout (as Airport 5) and Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan (as Go Back Snowball), feature melodies and vocals from Pollard atop backing from the other musician. He also initiated another project with Tobias to be called Psycho and the Birds.

“It’s stuff that I had recorded that I didn’t use for various album projects because I thought either they were too weird or liked the way that they were as they were,” he said. “So it was just me playing acoustic guitar and singing into my boom box. I asked Todd, ‘Can you put music over this shit?’ because he can do anything. And so it came back, and like always it was amazing.”

Pollard said the breadth of his side project work has started to feel “overpressurized”, and he hopes to scale back. Of course, scaling back for him means a solo album or two each year, a Circus Devils disc, a Psycho and the Birds disc and “whatever kind of Suitcase type thing that we put out that already exists.” Suitcase is a project that thus far has involved two four-CD box sets of previously unreleased material.

Pollard would be smart to hold back a couple copies of everything he releases in limited numbers. The latest such release, As Forever by Acid Ranch, sold out 525 copies in 48 hours just through the online merchandising arm of his operation, Rockathon Records. Within two weeks, copies of the double vinyl album, which was sleeved in repainted LP jackets from used record shop staples like Juice Newton and Billy Joel, were selling for more than $150.

“The thing is, we don’t make records to do that. We didn’t make Acid Ranch to do that. Acid Ranch is the bottom of the barrel crap. It’s funny. It’s hilarious, especially the lyrics, because I write every little thing that I say on the lyric sheet,” he said of the album, which contains ancient improvised jams from Pollard, his brother, Jim, and onetime Guided by Voices guitarist Mitch Mitchell. “It’s something we like, to entertain ourselves ... We’re not gouging anybody, because it’s selling for normal price. And another thing is, you’ve gotta be on the ball. Other than that, you’d better get on eBay.”

Those side projects are paying the rent, however. Pollard said that if it wasn’t for those, he wouldn’t be able to make a living. Touring doesn’t earn him much, and once Guided by Voices next-big-thing status waned, record labels weren’t paying him much either, he said.

“[The Fading Captain Series] makes more money than I do with my main project, because I do a lot,” he said. “I make pretty good money because I do so much stuff.”

He has sold some of his own holdings on eBay, most famously by taking in $6,200 for an original pressing of Guided by Voices album Propeller.

“Why should I not make money on that? It’s my art,” he said. “Some people think, ‘Why are you selling this stuff on eBay; are you desperate or trying to gouge the fans?’ No, I’m not, because it’s my art, and artists sell their stuff, don’t they?”

Pollard said he is contemplating selling the collages that grace the covers of some Guided by Voices releases and have been collected in two self-released publications called Eat, but hopes a new project will open the door to a lucrative future that will make that unnecessary.

He recently contributed songs that became the soundtrack to Stephen Soderbergh’s new film Bubble. The film is Soderbergh’s first for Mark Cuban’s 2929 Productions, and it will be released simultaneously in theaters, on high-definition TV and on video. Soderbergh chose six songs from the 47 Pollard used as the source for the forthcoming Normal Happiness album. The director also is talking with Pollard about another project, a musical about Cleopatra that would be written by Jim Greer, a former writer for Spin magazine and one-time Guided by Voices bassist who wrote the recent band biography Hunting Accidents.

“I’m not totally sure that’s going to happen, because directors can change their minds,” he said. “I’m gonna wait to see how that goes because that could be very lucrative.”

Pollard said he has found a kindred spirit in Soderbergh, and in describing the director’s restless nature, he segues into a description of himself.

“As soon as he gets one project done he’s on to the next one,” he said. “And he works with different types of movies; low-budget movies, kind of experimental movies, and then he’s got his big budget things. I kind of do the same thing. I don’t see anything wrong with continuously working.”

Next page: Review of From a Compound Eye.
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