By Tom Semioli
This feature appeared as a cover story in Amplifier Magazine, October 1999.
The defiantly inebriated middle-aged singer stands confidently on stage beneath the glare of a single spotlight in a prestigious venue nestled in a fashionably gentrified derelict quarter of New York City. With his arms outstretched, a frothing Budweiser clutched in one hand, a microphone tightly gripped in the other, and a smoldering cigarette dangling from his chapped lips, “The Captain,” as he is reverently referred to by his devout following, strikes an almost perverse Christ-like figure.
Within the initial thundering guitar riffs of "Submarine Teams," Robert Pollard is transformed into a suburbanized version of Roger Daltrey – clad in baggy jeans complimented by a sweat stained, wrinkled short-sleeved shirt and worn tennis shoes – no socks. Twirling his microphone, drop kicking it in mid-air, tossing his tousle-haired head back, eyes closed, pointing upward towards the heavens with his brew …The Captain forges a shameless emulation of the quintessential classic rock god. It's a gift you're either born with, or need to practice hours on end in front of a wardrobe mirror with the bedroom door locked shut. Pollard’s mighty vehicle is aptly named Guided By Voices (GBV). To their fans - GBV are bigger than the Beatles. To others - they're a bunch of clowns. As a swirl of energy envelops the faithful, one thing is certain: Guided By Voices play songs that make the young girls cry. Who, what, when, where, why, and how did it all begin …and where is it headed?
During the early 1980s as authentic rock 'n' roll was in the process of being mercilessly marginalized by a 24-hour cable-TV music network that favored sizzle over substance, a motley crew of average guys in Dayton, Ohio formed a patchwork ensemble that paid loud, proud, loving homage to classic 1960s rock ‘n’ roll and 1970s punk. Singer/songwriter, fourth grade school teacher Robert Pollard, sand paper factory employee/guitarist Mitch Mitchell, along with blue-collar nine-to-fivers Greg Demos on bass, drummer Kevin Fennell, and guitarist/songwriter Tobin Sprout thought GBV as a casual, yet much needed hobby to escape their demanding wives, kids, and other nagging adult responsibilities.
Occasional evenings after work and assorted weekend afternoons were prodigious opportunities for these jubilant lads to down six-packs aplenty whilst composing and recording absolutely everything that popped into their addled minds on inexpensive four-track decks, battered boom boxes, and cheap cassette players. In the grand tradition of DIY, the members chipped in whatever spare cash was available to fund the release of vanity LPs and cassettes. Pollard convinced the young hipster clerks in the mom-and pop record shops that dotted Ohio college towns to afford their product a scrap of shelf space. Some obliged, some laughed. With families to raise, day jobs, and other, more pressing grown-up obligations, GBV forgot to perform in public for nearly six years – not that they had many offers. Their neglected homemade gems Devil Between My Toes (1987) and Self Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (1989) did little more than collect dust. Then fate intervened.
When Robert Griffin, owner the tiny Scat indie label, accidentally discovered a copy of GBV’s brilliant Propeller (1992) he was immediately smitten – much to everyone’s disbelief. Although Griffin’s company was far from the big leagues, the group signed on the dotted line and Vampire On Titus (1993) was issued by a real, living, breathing record company! In support of their label debut GBV ventured to New York City in a ramshackle station wagon to appear at the trendy New Music Seminar. They killed, and consequently latched onto the infamous Lollapalooza junket as a second stage act. There, they surfaced as a bona-fide hit among those in-the-know. Fate kept intervening…
Beastie Boy Mike D. and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore became early GBV supporters. The following year Scat was taken over by Matador, home of such notable artists including Mogwai, Yo La Tengo, and Liz Phair. The band responded by creating their defining opus, Bee Thousand. Accolades poured in from Rolling Stone among other numerous taste-maker publications. GBV suddenly found itself in a distinguished class of indie luminaries such as Sebadoh, the Grifters, and label-mates Pavement as leaders of a new rock revolution dubbed “lo-fi.”
Lo-fi (aka low-fidelity) was heralded as the last true bastion of rock’s artistic credibility. Major labels scooped up hordes of lo-fi bands and apportioned them the same high budget luxuries as the established stars. Few, if any, of those entities that made the mega-buck leap survived when their highly publicized debuts failed to generate massive sales. The “alternative rock era” was over almost as quickly as it began.
Rather than seize the financially lucrative major label offers that were being thrown their way, GBV remained with Matador. They continued to flourish with the critically acclaimed Alien Lanes (1995) and Under The Bushes Under The Stars (1996) in addition to releasing countless EPs and singles under the GBV banner and from various side projects.
However by the time of Mag Earwhig (1997), Pollard was the only original GBV member left standing - literally. Although others had drifted in and out of the line-up over the years, mainstays Mitchell, Fennell, and Sprout were replaced by fellow Ohio rockers Cobra Verde. Sprout, considered by many to be McCartney to Pollard’s Lennon, continues to release solo albums (Carnival Boy, Moonflower Plastic, Let’s Welcome The Circus People), as does Pollard (Not In My Air Force, Waved Out, Kid Marine). By Pollard’s own estimation, there have been approximately fifty musicians who have passed through the ranks of GBV.
Feeling that the band had gone as far as it could on an independent label, and aspiring financial security for his wife and teenage children, Pollard sought major label distribution and a way to advance their music above the realm of cult status. This year, with The Cars’ Ric Ocasek in the producer’s chair, Pollard enlisted guitarist Doug Gillard (Cobra Verde), bassist Tim Tobias, drummer Jim MacPherson (the Breeders, the Amps) and guitarist Nate Farley to capture a sound on record that would be commercially viable, yet maintain GBV’s idiosyncratic artistry: Do The Collapse.
Upon presenting the tapes of Do The Collapse to Capitol Records, Pollard’s hopes were running high that the imprint which brought America the Fab Four was going to be the organization that would ensure GBV’s brass ring crossover into the mainstream. Not so. Capitol passed due to “company restructure.” TVT, a record company which counts Brian Jonestown Massacre and XTC among their many success stories, came along and offered Pollard substantial marketing support as well as the artistic freedom to do as he damn well pleases.
As we go to press, the debut single from the new disc “Teenage FBI” has topped modern rock radio playlists, proving that Pollard was right all along. In addition to leading GBV, Pollard is currently indulging himself with alter ego bands such as Nightwalker, and Lexo & The Leapers. The Captain’s prolific output shows no signs of subsiding.
What Austin Powers is to James Bond, Bob Pollard is to rock stardom. Seemingly every memorable moment in recorded rock history: the British Invasion, psychedelic and progressive rock, chamber pop, punk, bubble-gum, new wave, the angst filled grunge explosion - is shoveled into Pollard’s maniacal musical blender and ground into joyous anthems that you’d swear you’ve known all your life. His latest incarnation of GBV simultaneously retains and enhances their original character as they strive for the ever-elusive goal of attaining mass appeal. However, if you’re expecting precision – be advised to purchase a ticket one of several Steely Dan reunions.
Kicking off their most ambitious tour yet at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom, GBV effortlessly embraced mayhem, disorder, and confusion. A crumpled shred of paper on the floor beside the center stage monitor served as GBV’s communal set list. Throughout the evening, as in every GBV gig that I’ve attended, the band members and their leader huddled together with brows furrowed and eyes squinting, trying desperately to read the scribble that has launched a timeless canon of three minute rock operas to figure out what to play next. Drummer MacPherson was left to fend for himself. Not that it really mattered since his ability to identify the tune within the first few bars was uncanny - almost. Besides, none of the songs required a drum intro anyway.
Mixing Pollard’s best known solo material (“Get It Under,” “Maggie Turns To Flies,” “Circling Motorhead Mountain”) with assorted GBV chestnuts (“I Am A Tree,” “Bulldog Skin,” “Hot Freaks,” “I Am A Scientist.” “Game of Pricks”), GBV were Ballroom marathoners set on playing “until our mom says it’s time to go home.” Begging tolerance (“bear with us when we do the new stuff”), Pollard led GBV’s latest assault with reckless abandon. The new songs find Pollard’s inimitable genius still intact. Falling over the drum kit, chain-smoking, and sharing a bottle of Jack Daniels with anyone within arms’ reach, Pollard’s practiced faux British accent never faltered on Do The Collapse tunes “Dragons Awake,” “Liquid Indian,” “Zoo Pie,” “Much Better Mr. Buckles,” and “Optical Hopscotch.” Even MacPherson took a stage dive into the carnage, leaping from his drum kit into the waiting arms of GBV fandom.
After two hours of near rock ‘n’ roll suicide, the house lights flickered and GBV were obliged to continue the party at the Ballroom bar until the wee hours wherein Robert Pollard’s cup runneth over for an Amplifier Magazine Q & A. The Captain ruminated over Do The Collapse and other matters of national importance. Herein are a few highlights:
Give us insight into the current version of GBV. They’re awesome, they can play! They are the best musicians around, and real good guys. It’s perfect. I don’t go through an audition process - that would be brutal. I did that a long time ago and it was never a good situation. I just go with who I know. All these players have a tremendous track record. I drink with them, and hang out with them. That’s another thing that you have to be careful of when you select a band, the chemistry has to be right, and you have to be compatible.
Legacy artists such as Sir Elton and Sir Macca have enjoyed decades of heavy rotation air-play, so you can expect an audience which responds to every word. GBV exists on the fringe - yet your concerts erupt into massive sing-alongs. What gives? Thank God, that’s what keeps us going! My guitar player Doug asked me the other day, ‘do you see those kids looking at you and singing every lyric?’ Actually I don’t because it would mess me up, so I just look above everybody’s heads. But Doug has his eyes on the first two rows and he notices stuff like that. It’s one reason why we keep the old songs in the set, so the fans can do that. We have such a hardcore underground following that are comprised, in my opinion, of very smart and diligent music fans that were cool enough to dig Guided By Voices out in the first place.
I recall a few gigs on the NYC leg of the ‘97 tour wherein you tossed your mic into the audience and fans handled the lead vocals – why not this evening? I have to be careful now. Unfortunately I conked one kid on the head pretty good. She was crying and I felt bad. But we did give her a t-shirt. Does GBV garner such a fervent reaction in other markets? It does happen in other cities, but New York seems to be the best. It’s like a second home to us. A couple of other cities have been real hardcore for us too, such as Philadelphia. But New York is real fanatical. San Francisco is good...Chicago is good…LA too…and London. Actually, the bigger the city - the better! Don’t get me wrong…small cities are receptive too. We’ll have a couple of hundred diehard fans. But the larger cities are filled with fans aware of everything we’ve done, even the real early stuff.
Talk about GBV’s low fidelity legacy. We are the lo-fi champs, or the lo-fi pioneers depending on which way you look at it. But that was a matter of timing. To our advantage that tag eventually opened the door for us with everything that was happening on the indie scene. People wanted to see what we were all about.
Several landmark rock albums were primal: The Stooges, MC 5’s Kick Out The Jams, The Beatles’ White Album, REM’s Murmur. Exactly! Those albums have a distinct personality. The thing with us is that there was a bunch of bands doing it at the same time, and essentially it was viewed as a movement. How that happened I don't know. So, in essence, lo-fi became a genre, kind of like the new punk rock. But you’re right; it’s always been there. Heck, Robert Johnson was lo-fi!! My guess is that most folks listen to music on a car deck with traffic blaring in the background or a worn out walkman on a treadmill. Yes! It’s the music and the song that matters, not the fidelity. That’s the way I am.
Discuss GBV’s shift towards technological and commercial acceptability. It’s the radio stations that need hi-fidelity, not necessarily the public. Radio needs to have it sound a certain way and if we don’t do it, we’re not going to get airplay. So that’s why we went in this direction. I want to be heard by more people than those that already know us. So we got a real producer, Ric Ocasek, to make it sound better, and that’s really the angle.
Talk about Ric Ocasek as a producer.The main reason I wanted Ric was because he’s a songwriter. A lot of producers are not writers, and we needed that entity with him. So his role was to help me decide which songs to choose, and work on the arrangements. We went into pre-production, which is very new to me, and I talked with Ric on the phone every day. I sent him songs and we really planned. Again, that’s a hard process for me, because I had to have real patience with each track. This time out we made sure we had the right take, the right performance, the right amplifiers, and even the proper microphones. Ric made up for the technical stuff that I don’t know since I’ve never really worked with that many producers. So to me, he was amazing. I don’t know who to compare him with.
Did Ric request any re-writes? Oh no! Ric would only ask to repeat a verse again, add a chord or two here and there, or suggest an idea for a bridge. For the most part, he did not change the songs. He was an objective set of ears.
Ric assumed a role akin to George Martin; who was one part catalyst two parts editor. Exactly!
Reveal the writing process behind Do The Collapse.I wrote ninety percent of the new album at one time. I went through my notebook and two or three pages of titles, and I went down the list and started making things up - perhaps skeletons of fifty or sixty songs. Then I choose the ones that I thought were the best. So most were written on one shot, then I added six or seven later on. I’m always writing.
Tell me your approach to songwriting in general. Very simple. I write on guitar and go straight into my cheap little tape player. I don’t even have a four-track. Everything is live. What I do is go along until I think it’s falling apart and then I just turn the tape recorder off. What you hear on the earlier records is exactly that.
GBV’s entire catalog is a study in fragmentary composition. Yes - which is why Do The Collapse is so different! Now we’re doing complete songs. Everything is fully realized, although some people will still prefer the fragments.
It all has to do with the context of the record. Right, but I’m happy doing it this way, too.
In retrospect Under the Bushes and Mag Earwhigwere gradual steps towards a refined sound. True. Everything with us has to be a slow process and a slow evolution. You don’t want to burn yourself out. Do The Collapse is a natural progression. The songs are still there, as well as the imagery, which should keep our older fans interested.
This is a complete 360 from the way GBV usually operates. Absolutely! We’ve been doing these songs for a year-and-a-half in concert. This record is a long time in the making. It’s old hat to us, almost. I know the record has just come out, but I’m in the selective process of eliminating songs from the set already! That’s kind of screwed up when you think about it. Since we’ve recorded this disc last September, I’ve already done three or four other ones. Two solo albums, one which is not out yet, then this Lexo & The Leapers thing and a Nightwalker record. That’s what I like about TVT. They don’t care if I do other stuff. I have to be active all the time. I’m always working on something.
Which brings us to your solo career… Which is the ‘Fading Captain’ series I created for myself. The name is kind of a joke, it doesn’t mean I’m going downhill or anything like that. The main reason I did that is because we have this other label called Rockathon Records with friends of ours that consist of four or five bands, and I don’t want to interfere with that schedule of releases. So I created my own label so that I can do what I want at all times and just pump things out.
Bee Thousand gave me the impression of the ultimate low-budget rock opera. Thoughts? Wow. That’s great. See the thing with Guided By Voices is that I always wanted our records to sound like Beatles and Who bootlegs. I love that quality. I still do that, and I’m still doing that on the side. That’s what’s closest to my heart. But Guided By Voices has reached a new professional level. We doing more things and trying to be more visible. We’re working with well respected people in the industry, so it’s a different level. Who among your contemporaries do you most admire? Modem songwriters? That’s a tough one. I’m kind of stuck in the 1960s. Things have been twisted and mutated around where that kind of music is not being made anymore. Although I think there are some good songs out there, there are not that many writers that I focus on. I think my favorite writers are those who write as bands. Like the Grifters and Superchunk. I like Pavement also, especially lyrically. I’m not sure of the name, but there’s a guy (Pat Stolley) in a band called Multiple Cat from Iowa City that writes excellent songs. I like Chan Marshall from Cat Power. I think Lou Barlow of Sebadoh is an excellent songwriter. Sonic Youth write as a band too, which is very good. It shows in their recordings.
The concept of songs as “standards” has all but vanished. Yes it has. See the thing about the 1960s is that you had people that wrote songs all the time, like Jimmy Webb. And back then, everybody covered each other’s songs, which I’d like to see come back.
In the 1960s artists were required to be prolific! I love that! I can crank out four records a year!
The market for recorded pop music continues to expand with no end in sight -hence the need more time and money to move (gasp) “product.” Yeah I hate that. We’re doing a record about every two years, which is pretty good considering how the industry is with having to push records for a long time. But I guess that you have to be compliant with that. If you want to sell records you have to give them time to work it. Again that’s why I have to do side projects.
Elvis, Beatles, Michael Jackson, Nirvana: Will we ever see a pop artist that dominates the public’s collective imagination again? Well initially it’s always good to have something big like that. It’s very exciting. But then you get all these copycat bands. Look at what happened with Nirvana, which resulted in all this post-grunge garbage. Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, and others too numerous to mention. All these bands that try to sound like Nirvana…
Elvis and The Beatles certainly spawned imitators. Yes, the same thing happened with them. You get a lot of copy artists, and that’s a natural thing for people to want to be like that. But I think it’s kind of boring actually. Although, the first bands that start to copy are really good, then it gets progressively diluted. But the initial explosion is always good. Quite frankly, I think it needs to happen. Whether it will is another story. Outlets such MTV, and now the film and the television industry have overexposed rock to the point where it’s no longer vital. Oh, I know, I know. And it makes it harder for people to listen to music.
We have a new generation that views rock music as just another channel on TV. I know, and I don’t like that at all. This era has really hurt music, but there is nothing you can do about it. It’s here now and we have to deal with it. But that’s the reason I have a band. I’ve been listening to music all my life and yeah, I’m somewhat jaded and disappointed about where it’s all gone, so I just make my own music. Can we expect a GBV video for the new record? Having said all that, I think we will. That’s what I like about TVT. They’ll push a song first and if radio picks it up we’ll do a clip. I really prefer that methodology, because in most instances I tend to think music videos are a waste of time.
GBV’s committed legions thrive in cyberspace, not unlike the Deadheads back in the day.That’s really amazing, especially since we have nothing to do with it. It’s all our fans who’ve put that together. I hear we have a very impressive official web site, but I never check it.
Talk about making the jump from school teacher to rock musician – which was quite a risk.The reason I quit being a teacher was to do this for a living. And I have kids to support so if it was something that I couldn’t make a living at, I would never have quit a job with benefits and security. But thanks to our grass roots support, when management and the record label snaps its fingers, I don’t have to jump. I do have that incredibly loyal fan base to fall back on. I can always put out my own records and they’ll buy ‘em. Now I’m not at the point where I want to do that. I want to see what Guided By Voices can do on this label. But it’s always nice to know that if I want to back off from all these obligations I have that option because of this fanatical group of people. It’s a unique position to be in.
Will the rising prices of CDs make it harder for GBV to reach new audiences? I didn’t like compact discs to begin with -especially when you know that discs are very cheap to make and they cost more than vinyl, which really angers me. Now it’s kind of backfired on the music industry, because you have the MP3 where people can download things for free. Actually, I think that’s very funny.
LPs hold a special place for some of us.I miss albums. They’re warmer and the jackets were a work of art. They’re nice to look at and you can de-seed your weed on the gatefold covers. There is something too impersonal about plastic disc covers. Although the digi-pacs are nice since there’s no plastic involved.
Compact discs do have some redeeming qualities... The only thing I like about CDs is that they’re reissuing old obscure stuff - especially the late 1960s psychedelic garage records. And I like the compilations of music that have not been available for many years. I bought all the old Captain Beefheart records that came out on the Buddah label. And the bonus tracks on The Who records are also great. That’s the stuff I really care about.
What of the inevitability of artists going directly to the public via the internet and bypassing the machinations of the music industry? That’s a true fact and that scares the music industry. At this point I do not understand what the implications to the artist would be. I like the thought of getting my music out to more people, though as far as the Internet is concerned - I’m not that knowledgeable with it right now. But you never know. Whatever happens with it, we have yet to understand. But I’m very primitive. I like to keep my life simple, just like my songs.