Robert Pollard: Don’t Stop Now
Interview and introduction by Daniel Coston
Originally published by the Big Takeover Magazine, winter 2010 issue
For over twenty years, Robert Pollard has produced an astonishing amount of good music. Sixteen albums with the heralded Guided by Voices, 15 solo albums, and four albums with Boston Spaceships in the last three years alone, on top of a mind-boggling number of EPs and singles with many other projects. This year alone, Pollard will helm the release of five new albums, and is already working on next year’s releases. Pollard has also become known for his collage artwork, which has graced the covers of many of his albums, as well as in galleries across the United States.
For many fans like myself, our love with all things Pollard began with the 1993 to 1996 era of Guided by Voices, which produced six great albums (including 1994’s Bee Thousand, and 1995’s Alien Lanes), and a large collection of EPs that fans still collect. Hearing those records for the first time was like discovering the Who and the Beatles all at once, hitting you with song after infectious song.
Now, the “classic” lineup of GBV- Pollard, guitarist Tobin Sprout, guitarist Mitch Mitchell, bassist Greg Demos and drummer Kevin Fennell- recently reformed for a series of shows that gave fans such as myself to finally see this legendary band in person. Whether you’re there for the sheer spectacle of a Guided by Voices show, or just to hear a great band, it’s the music of Guided by Voices that first led me to them, and has stayed with me to this day.
I first met Pollard in 1997, first as a huge Guided by Voices fan, and then got to know him better through my photography. (I photographed GbV’s 2002 album Universal Truths And Cycles, and have photos in their best-of.) There’s something about Bob that I’ve always liked, as a person and as a musician. Apart from being really intelligent, Bob has a natural love for whatever he’s into, whether it’s music, record collecting, art or anything else. Pollard still shows me the possibilities of being that prolific in your chosen field of art, and having a huge body of work to call your own when all is said and done.
This interview took place via email, before the GbV reunion shows took place. My thanks to David Newgarden for setting this up, and to my friend and fellow GbV fanatic Donnie Merritt for the additional questions.
BT: How did this GBV reunion tour come about?
Pollard: It started with an invitation to play the Matador 21st Anniversary three-day event in Vegas. I initially declined, but was later persuaded to decide otherwise. They wanted loosely, the Alien Lanes cast at the time, but by the point that I had decided to do it, I thought it might makes sense to re-form the so-called "Classic Lineup," and embark on the dreaded "U.S. Reunion Tour." I don't dread it now, and in fact am looking forward to getting back together with Toby, Greg, Mitch and Kevin, and kicking out those songs from that era, 15 or 16 years ago.
There's a lot of energy in that batch of songs, and we need to get our old asses back into some semblance of decent physical and mental condition.
BT: Have you guys gotten together yet to rehearse, talk, drink?
Pollard: We've talked. I've been drinking once a week with Mitch. I've been drinking with Greg occasionally. Everyone is excited.
BT: Do you guys have any plans beyond this tour? Is a new record in the plans?
Pollard: We may do some more shows. Possibly Europe/England next Spring or Summer. We'll not likely do a new album. Possibly a live album of this tour. I don't know. One can never tell.
BT: Many of the shows have already sold out. How does it feel to know that there is still so much interest in GBV?
Pollard: It's nice to be reminded of that level of admiration. I've been listening to and going over the set that we'll be playing. Songs from "Propeller" to "Under the Bushes." Mostly stuff from "Bee Thousand" and "Alien Lanes". Having distanced myself somewhat from that era, I realize that there was a shitload of really good songs.
BT: Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes are rightfully considered classics. Which of your EPs, or which EP are you proudest of, do you think is the best, or think is a classic?
Pollard: I'm most proud of "Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer." The best is probably "Grand Hour," also the classic, but it could also be "Fast Japanese Spin Cycle," or "Get Outta My Stations."
BT: What songs are you looking forward to performing again?
Pollard: Oh, it's hit after hit. About 40 of them. Just like in the old days. "Shocker [In Gloomtown]", "[I Am A] Scientist", " [Game Of] Pricks", "[Tractor] Rape Chain", "[My Valuable] Hunting Knife"...
BT: Let's talk about your new albums. Describe what's upcoming, and did you plan to put out 5 CDs this year?
Pollard: I've been releasing 5 to 7 albums a year for the last 4 or 5 years. Ever since we started GBV, Inc.. I just released a solo album, "Moses On A Snail." Boston Spaceships has "Our Cubehouse Still Rocks" coming out in September, and Chris [Slusarenko] and John [Moen] are working on our next project, a double album called "Let It Beard," slated for next Spring. I'm doing collaborations with Doug Gillard (Lifeguards) and Gary Waelik of Big Dipper (Mars Classroom), scheduled for early 2011, and I have a new solo album finished, which will be out in January called "Space City Kicks". I never plan, I just do.
BT: I'm happy to see that doing a new album with Doug Gillard. Is this something that you've wanted to do for some time?
Pollard: Well, I did a Lifeguards album with Doug about, I don't know, 6 or 7 years ago and Doug approached me to do a record last year. We were originally going to call the project ESP Ohio, but I thought it might be more interesting to call it Lifeguards again. It's entitled "Waving at the Astronauts". It sounds nothing like the first one. It's on a NYC label called Serious Business.
BT: When you start putting together an album, do you say, "I want it to sound like THIS," or do you write the songs, and put the record together from there?
Pollard: I write songs first, usually. Occasionally, I have a preconceived notion as to what I want it to be. Sometimes I even have the cover before I write the songs. There aren't usually formulas. Lately I'm back to starting with song titles first, the way I worked back around "Alien Lanes".
BT: You seem to have settled into a pretty productive writing and recording schedule. How different is your routine, now that you don't tour on a regular basis?
Pollard: I work every morning on either music or art, and they're pretty much the same thing. I never force it. It's like routine exercise. Lotta coffee.
BT: I have to ask. How often DO you write a song? Do you have a preferred quota?
Pollard: I have no quota. I just write when I feel like it, and I brainstorm as many ideas as I can until the point of overload or exhaustion. Then I pick out what I want to flesh out or in some cases, keep it the same.
BT: What's the advantage of having your own record label?
Pollard: You maintain your schedule of 5 or 6 albums a year. You don't compete with a stable. Your projects are the stable, and you release them anytime you want.
BT: How's your collage art coming along these days? And do you still have that "We're here and we're high" yearbook cover that I gave you a few years ago? [The cover was my wife’s yearbook, from Centerville, Ohio.]
Pollard: I have an art show in NYC at the end of August. It's called "The Public Hi-Fi Balloon," and along with collages, it will feature an imaginary record store called "The Public Hi-Fi Balloon" with fake 45 and LP sleeves, and a rack of fake magazine covers. It's somewhat of a mind fuck. The conception will be that I have too much time on my hands. Man, I'm sorry, I don't remember the yearbook cover. I wish I had it. It sounds very workable.
BT: Are you still collecting records? And if so, what have you been collecting lately?
Pollard: I'll look for a record occasionally if I read about it. Ebay or Half.com. I've been looking for stuff on particular late 70's labels. "Bomp," or "Stiff". I recently found about 50 local and regional vanity gospel albums, at a thrift store. The covers are insane. Almost demented. The fonts are cool. Most of them were pressed in the ‘60s and ‘70s at the same plant that did our 80's vanity albums, like "Forever Since Breakfast," and "Devil Between My Toes". The old paper wrap-around covers.
For me, finding this shit was the last frontier of psychedelia. I mean, also, where did these people get the money to finance these records? I'm sure from the collection plate. We went in debt to finance ours. I remember when we pressed "Forever Since Breakfast". The place was in Cincinnati, and it was called QCA. They thought we were a gospel band. Guided By Voices!
BT: You were a huge REM fan in the early days of GBV. What's your favorite song/album? still a fan? Ever meet them?
Pollard: Fave R.E.M. song, "Laughing." Fave R.E.M. album, "Murmur." I have met them. I've hung out with Peter Buck a few times, and he played on one of my records, and I sang on one of his. He's a really cool guy.
BT: Since my wife is an Ohio native, I've come to understand the state better through recent visits. What kind of influence does Ohio, and the area you now live in still have on your writing?
Pollard: It's inspirational because there's not shit to do. Nowhere to go. Ohio has spawned a plethora of very interesting bands from 60's bubblegum, to 70's scuzz rock, to 90's lo-fi. Also, Ohio bands are very competitive. The cities are fairly competitive amongst one another.
BT: What means more to you? The Rock Hall in Cleveland, or Northridge High School sports Hall Of Fame? [Pollard and his brother Jimmy were inducted into the Northridge Hall Of Fame last year.]
Pollard: Northridge sports, in a very childish, competitive way with my friends from that school. It could be the same sort of haughtiness with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though. That kind of attitude comes from being verbally kicked around. It's silly.
BT: Finish this sentence. Robert Pollard is......
Pollard: ...a juggernaut and a monolith.