Guided by vices

Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard on schizoid writing, pre-show drinking and the search for the perfect pop song.

By Dawn Eden

Published August 3, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I've been waiting for years for Guided By Voices to sell out. Or at least to stop teasing with hissy, half-baked fragments called songs. The Ohio quartet broke five years ago with their seventh album, "Bee Thousand" (Scat/Matador), which was loaded with killer hooks buried beneath lo-fi murk. Critics called them the Beatles, and even though there was a real sense of melody, Robert Pollard's lyrics were inscrutable -- William Burroughs meets Edward Lear -- and the production sounded like they were caking mud on the heads of their four-tracks. The frustrating thing was that subsequent records were somewhat brighter, but there was no real sense that the band could ever be bothered to clean up its act. It's one thing when a talentless artist makes imperfect art, quite another when someone who has a "Guernica" inside him keeps churning out Campbell's Soup cans just to piss people off.

Guided By Voices' latest CD, "Do the Collapse," is the record I've been waiting for all along. With the help of producer Ric Ocasek (the Cars), the band finally kissed off their lo-fi indie-rock past and made a record artistically and sonically worthy of the British invasion bands and '70s prog acts that inspired Pollard. The components of the first single, "Teenage F.B.I.," are indicative of much of the album: untamed guitars, lost lyrics, adolescent alienation, catchy hooks, Hollies-worthy harmonies and great production. I got to ask Pollard about the disk over the phone last month.

You've been quoted as saying that "Do the Collapse" is "pop, but real powerful power pop." You've also said that the tracks are all "fucking hi-fi."

These are all fucking hi-fi, yeah. 'Cause this is the first record that I've done that is entirely, all 100 percent hi-fi. No filler.

Although I can honestly say that this record made me appreciate your older stuff, I'm glad that you resisted your four-track.

No four-track stuff whatsoever. Because I've always had that temptation to go, "Man, I need to fuck this record up slightly. What can I throw in to mess it up?" Just to satisfy my own kind of experimental nature. But not this one. I was totally satisfied with it. We had a lot of songs for it and we were able to narrow them down to 16, so I think it's really solid.

Even 16 is quite a lot for an album on a major independent label.

I know. Originally it was going to be 19. When I talked about it with Ric, he said, "We need to probably shorten this, because that's a lot of songs for the listener to try to swallow." So we got it to 16, and we --

That's the worst excuse I've ever heard.

It's bad, isn't it? It's terrible. I like getting a lot of songs. I've always been a big Wire fan, and they were the first band to turn me on to the idea of having 20 songs on a record. I loved it, because, if you've got 20 songs on a record, six or seven of them can suck, and it can still be a great record

Also, in this day and age, it's not like with turntables, where, if you don't like a song, you have to actually get up and move the needle.

You just push the button, exactly. What I liked about LPs was that, if I didn't think a song was grooving enough for me, I would look at the grooves. You know how you can see a darker shade of color in the groove? I thought, "Well, that might be a cool part there, so I'll check that out." Usually it means there's some kind of experimental thing, so I'm always looking for cool things like that. Now, you're looking for the perfect pop song of all time. I know that.

That's true.

I do too, you know. That's what you live for. If you can find an album that's got one great pop song on it, it's worth it. You listen to it first, and then you take the record off after that, don't ya?

I've been known to do that. From the sound of "Do the Collapse," it seems that Ric Ocasek shared your love of ear candy.

He's written some great songs. I love the Cars' records, especially the first one. To me, that was something really new and really good. The harmonies are amazing and the songs are amazing. And Ric writes similar lyrics to mine, too -- or mine are somewhat like his.

Slightly oblique?

Yeah, definitely. He's one of my influences. If I were to list 20 influences, I know he would be in there.

One subject that often finds its way into articles about Guided By Voices is alcohol. Addicted to Noise ran an article on a GBV concert that said, "Pollard, drunk as usual ..."

That's bullshit. It implies that I'm always drunk. I'm drunk onstage because I'm very shy. When I get onstage, I have to be a little bit inebriated just to be able to handle it. I'm not as bad as I used to be. When we first started playing, I would start drinking really, really early in the day, because I would be petrified. Now I start drinking an hour before the show.

Do you think you're technically as good a singer as when you're not drinking?

I think I am. I once tried to go out without drinking anything, and I wasn't as loose. My attitude was not as good. Maybe it's a crutch for a performance, but, hey, performing's a scary thing, man. You don't understand until you have to do it and you got a thousand people screaming "G-B-V" and everything.

I don't want you to think I'm out of control. I don't drink every day. All I can tell you is that I need to be at this certain level of inebriation to go onstage. I used to not know at what point I would cross over the line, and it would hinder my performance. Now, I've learned how to get to a level where it's perfect. And I apologize if it offends anyone. I don't want to seem like a bad example to youngsters who think we're an alcohol band.

The thing is, I don't know how much longer I'm going to play live anyway. For the last couple of years, I've entertained a notion of saying I'm done. I think maybe a few more years and that's it. Hopefully, that will happen, because I don't want to continue to perform as I get older. And there might be a point where I don't need to drink beer before I go onstage. Maybe I'll get used to performing enough where I don't need it. But the thing is, to me, a rock show's a bit alcohol-fueled, and that's why I don't think I'll continue to perform much longer.

There was reportedly an article in The Onion a long time ago making light of your penchant for firing band members -- something along the lines of "Bob Pollard Fires Himself."

I've talked about that with the band before. Like, I'd fire myself and let them continue without me. That would be funny. You know how you see these bands like the Grass Roots come and play and there's only one guy left, like the drummer?

Can you understand why people might think you're egotistical or on a rock star trip, because you're always firing people?

I've claimed I'm the Ian Anderson [Jethro Tull] of indie rock! They may think that -- I know some people do -- but that's too bad. I actually get along well with most of the people in my bands. In order for us to persevere and continue to have fun and everything, the chemistry has to be right. So, if it's not, I'll make a change.

I really do seek and want and crave a solid lineup that stays with me forever. It's not my intention to go, like, "You guys are going to last one album and then your asses are out the door." My band right now, we get along really well and it's really cool, and I'm hoping that this is it.

You have said that you derive some of your inspiration from psychedelic-era groups such as the Byrds and the Millennium. Those bands were highly spiritual, and they tried to reach listeners on both conscious and unconscious levels. Do you try to do the same?

When I write a really good song, I'm touched and I feel like I've come in contact somehow with some kind of spiritual nature. But I'm kind of schizoid. Sometimes I tap into a darker nature, too. Guided By Voices is the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Sometimes there's a darker nature and a harder-rocking, negative polar side, but, for the most part, the best stuff is the really inspirational, uplifting anthem-type stuff.

See, when I write songs, I don't consciously say, "I'm going to write a pretty song," "I'm going to write an anthem," "I'm going to write a hard rock song," whatever. I just let it flow, like stream-of-consciousness. I get as many ideas as I can, until I burn out. Then I go back and pick my best stuff.

You like to have a lot to choose from.

People say, "I can't believe you write so many songs. I heard you can write 10 songs in a day." Well, I actually write 50 songs and I choose 10 songs. I have a page of titles, and I go, "This song's called --" whatever the title is, and I make it up and go to the next one.

It sounds like the closest thing you have to a drug addiction.

Oh, yeah, it is. It's a total addiction. I tried to kill it -- to cure it a long time ago, around "Propeller" [1992], and I was going to quit. I said, "I'm done, I can't do this anymore. I need to get more responsible and pay more attention to the important things in life." And there was no way I could do it. Every once in a while, this inspiration comes over me to write either poetry or songs, and I love that. That's the fix.

Dawn Eden

Dawn Eden is a New York writer and music critic.


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