Robert Pollard | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Robert Pollard

Nov 01, 2007 Guided By Voices Bookmark and Share

Say what you will about Robert Pollard, but the ex-Guided By Voices frontman is certainly never lacking for ideas. One of the most prolific songwriters ever—by some estimates, he has written over 800 songs—Pollard has only increased his output since leaving the band he fronted since the late ’80s, releasing over 12 collections of material under various names and guises in the past two years alone. His most recent set, the simultaneous release of two thematically different albums, the pop-oriented Coast to Coast Carpet of Love and more rocking Standard Gargoyle Decisions, is another feat in a career filled with them. From his Dayton, Ohio home, the ever-amiable Pollard spoke at great length toUnder the Radar, pulling no punches in a frank discussion of his career, his songwriting, and the joys of being a new grandfather.

Under the Radar: This project [Coast to Coast Carpet of Love and Standard Gargoyle Decisions] is conceptualized as two different sides of Robert Pollard, correct? The pop side and the rock’n’ roll side.

Robert Pollard: Yeah, but that was an afterthought. We didn’t go into the project with that in mind, with that intention. I just had 30-fuckin’-five songs or whatever, so I sent them up to Todd [Tobias] and had him do them and said, “When you’re ready for me to come up and sing, let me know.” And so he spent the entire winter [working on them], and then when I went up and we did it, we intended it to be a double album. We put it together as a double album, and, at first, it was really exciting, because it was just jam packed with ideas and things that Todd had done and all these songs. But then after maybe about three weeks of listening to it, Todd and I both agreed that it’s a little bit too much, a little too tedious for the listener to listen to 33 songs over that amount of time. Because to do a double album and try to hold the attention of the listener, it’s gotta be all over the place, and there’s gotta be long psychedelic songs and acoustic songs. And these were all like 2- to 3-minute pop songs—pop songs and rock songs—so we both decided that it was a bit too much and so why don’t we break it down into two records? And then Todd decides that he thinks the way that will work is that one of them is a pop album and the other one is all the raw, crazy shit. Then we sequenced it, and one of them turned out to be this kind of warm, friendly record, and then this other was kind of this hot, nasty, mean record. So it definitely represented at least I guess my two personalities somehow, but again that wasn’t the intention going in.

UTR: I did wonder which came first: the songs that fell into two stylistic camps or the idea of releasing two albums at once?

Pollard: There was no preconceived notion of what we were going to do. I had written maybe twenty-some new songs and I found nine or ten old songs that I kind of dug up. We’ve got this new thing going on with Todd—and it’s a way for me to be somewhat indolent and concentrate more on the songwriting process—where Todd is involved for the most part in the recording process, because he’s kind of a studio rat anyway, and he’s much more patient than I am, and he takes a lot of time. If you give him a lot of time and his own resources—and he’s kind of a quiet, kind of a loner guy—and if you give him that time and let him be by himself, he comes up with really, really good ideas. So we first kind of experimented with this on an album called Fiction Man, about three or four years ago, and it worked out really well. So even though I like to play in a studio, I like to play guitar, and I like to go in and kind of fuck around, I’m not as patient as he is, and he’s technically a better musician than me, so I just thought it made more sense for [me to say], “Okay Todd, I’m going to send you these. You got three months. You got the whole winter to do it.” In doing so, he was able to take his time and sit back and listen to it and add what needed to be added. And once he was ready, I just came up and did the vocals in one day, like nine hours.

UTR: So the songs were written prior to the winter, then?

Pollard: I probably wrote most of them in the summer and the fall. See, the thing is, when I write, I only write probably two or three times a year, but I write a bunch of stuff and then it’s ready to go. Some people have the misconception that I get up in the morning and I’ve got this regimen where I write like three or four songs a day, but that’s not the truth. I’ll write a big batch of songs, and it might take me—sometimes it’s in a few days, but sometimes it’s over the course of two or three weeks—where I’m like, ‘Okay I’ve got a few songs I’m writing, and any time I feel like writing, any time I feel creative, I’ll go in and then add more songs to the tape until I feel like I’ve got enough where here’s an album.’ So it’s gotten to the point where now, because Todd’s technically in all aspects of music a better musician than I am, he might as well do them. He lives in Akron and I live in Dayton—we’re like three hours apart anyway—so logistically, it’s not that easy to go up and record all the time anyway, so it’s just like I’ll save some time and I’ll just let Todd record the music. And it’s really good, too, because it’s gotten to the point where he has a really good feel for what I want. It’s really interesting because when he sends me the music back, it’s really exciting because it’s almost like hearing your music for the first time. So to me, it’s just a good way to work and it’s a good way to capture the true essence and spirit of the song. Because basically, I record these songs into my boombox and they’re kind of spontaneous, and I just send them up to Todd the way they are. He learns them and plays them and then I go up there and I kind of punch in each line from the reference of the original tape. The stuff really turns out pretty much the way I had it in mind from the beginning, so it’s a good way to work.

UTR: Let me see if I can understand about your songwriting process. You said you write in large batches. I’m counting the number of Pollard-related releases in the last two years, and I’m up to like 12.

Pollard: Yeah, it’s overwhelming.

UTR: And I know that some of that, like the Crickets set, is previously recorded stuff, but how much do you write in a batch? If you only write a few times a year and you’re able to put out so many releases a year, it must be staggering.

Pollard: The thing is, there are a lot of different angles and approaches. For one thing, there’s my stuff, which I call under my own name, my solo thing, and that’s the main project. That’s what I put out with Merge and that’s what used to be called Guided By Voices. So those are the things that I’m going to take maybe a little bit more time on or concentrate a little bit harder on making sure that these are really things that a wider audience will appreciate. So you have that. I’d like to put two albums out a year under my own name, so I probably write 40 or 50 songs like that a year, and it probably comes out in two or three different batches. And then there’s the thing that I do with other artists who send me music and it’s kind of a collaborative thing. And basically what I do with that is they send me music, and I just write lyrics and kind of come up with a melodic idea, and then go into the studio and kind of wing it. And that’s what I do with Todd, too. We have this Circus Devils project that we do. We just released an album called Sgt. Disco on Ipecac. It’s a double album. So that’s the other aspect of what I do. And then there’s this other thing where we just re-release old stuff that we find. Like it’s been mentioned many times before that I’ve got this big huge box of cassettes, so I go through and find stuff occasionally and that’s where we release stuff likeSuitcases and Acid Ranch and Hazzard Hotrods and all this, what most people construe to be trash, but to some people, it’s treasure. So there’s a lot of different avenues, different ways that we do it. And then there’s this other thing: My new thing is that I’m doing collages. I’m going to actually have an exhibition in November in New York with my collages, so the interest in that is starting to pick up, so I’ve been really busy doing that. And there’s actually even going to be a coffee table book released in the spring by Fantagraphics—I don’t know if you’re familiar with that company that puts out really cool coffee table books. They’ve got artists like R. Crumb and Charles Schulz, and people like that. So I’m really interested in that right now. I know it can be overwhelming for the consumer for all these things to come out, but it’s not overwhelming to me because it’s just part of my life. It’s what I do when I get up. I get up and drink coffee or whatever and I do this and I go drinking, and fuckin’ whatever I do, it’s just part of it. It’s become part of the routine for like 16 years now since I’ve been able to do it for a living. I guess to the outside viewer, it would appear that I’m really, really busy and active as a songwriter, but I’m not. I’ve gotten where I can do things really spontaneously and really quick and I kind of know what I like. It just comes up kind of natural.

UTR: Coast to Coast is very much an album of straightforward pop songs. I wonder whether you put off from writing the straightforward pop song after your experience with Do the Collapse?

Pollard: Actually, Do the Collapse is kind of a weird album. It’s just the fact that it’s produced in a big studio by Ric Ocasek, and it appears to be somewhat slick by Guided By Voices standards. But actually, there’s quite a few weird songs: You got “Teenage FBI” and “Hold On Hope,” but then you’ve got “Liquid Indian” and “Optical Hopscotch” and shit. It’s actually kind of a weird record. Those are good titles too, aren’t they: “Liquid Indian” and “Optical Hopscotch”? But I got to the point where I got put off by the very fact of people telling me that I need to write those kinds of songs. As a fan of rock music, I like all kind of music. I like pop. I like bubblegum from the ’60s. And I like Krautrock. And I like ’80s, kind of the heavier shit, like Mudhoney and Phantom Tollbooth. So I like a lot of different types of music. Hopefully that comes out in my songwriting and it’s not just one-dimensional. Because I can write pop songs, that’s the thing that’s easy. I can sit down and write pop songs all day long. And also, in my opinion, it would be boring, although there are a lot of people that would like that. I like when every once and a while you get that, here comes the pop song, so it’s a surprise. Even though Coast to Coast Carpet of Love is a pop album, it’s still kind of all over the place. It’s not just one type of pop song. You’ve got ballads and you’ve got little short songs. You’ve even got weird songs, like “Exactly What Words Mean.”…See, I call those songs set-up songs. You throw it in there and although some people might not understand what it is or what the fuck is this, it makes the next pop song that comes in sound so good. And that’s what you got to have on an album. It’s called an album because it’s a collection of songs. It’s not just, like when we were on some of the big labels, like “You gotta [please] these kids at whatever big record store. These kids at the listening station, they put a CD on and if you don’t have the first song, the first two songs are hits, they’re not going to buy it.” So it’s like a formula. You don’t even really have to have a good album; you just have to have the first two songs good. The rest of the record can be shit. To me, it’s an art.

UTR: I know you’re familiar with the perception many have that perhaps you would have benefited from having more of a self-editing process in your songwriting, and I guess what you’re saying is getting at that.

Pollard: I would have benefited from that commercially, which is not necessarily good. It’s good to have money. But the thing is, some people who have benefited from that kind of approach or that kind of patience—okay, whatever, that’s them. But the thing is, I’ve got a pretty good reputation and a lot of respect from people in music, in movies, in books, writers. And they like what I do, and so that’s what I am. Me pumping out 10 projects a year has become synonymous with my name. That’s what I am, and I’m kind of happy about that, and so it enables me to continue to do that. The type of artists, like you say, maybe somebody like, I don’t know, maybe Flaming Lips, who put like one record out every four years. Okay, that’s their thing. And their patience maybe pays off. And in their minds, I’m sure it pays off artistically. But more so, it probably pays off commercially. I’m sure when all their fans wait, and four years later, here comes a record, and it also generates the interest from a lot of other people, outsiders, that are familiar with their name. But that’s just not the way I work. I’m a fairly prolific songwriter, and I keep it going, and my philosophy’s always been—maybe that’s the reason I don’t get writer’s block, because it’s a continuous process. And someone who puts out an album once every four years, it’s not. I don’t know how you can say, in four years I’ve been able to write 10 songs. I don’t see how you can consider yourself to be enthusiastic about the art, about the discipline of writing songs. And you can say, “Well, I choose to take my time on it and make it better and work on a song.” No, for the most part, that’s not true. That’s not how it works. That means you’ve only written 10 songs in four years. And if you enjoy writing songs, why would you only write 10 songs in four years?

UTR: To that end, I wonder whether you feel that your songwriting talents get overlooked in the perception that you just essentially release everything you demo.

Pollard: They get overlooked because it’s too much. It’s too much to examine. You have to sit back and gaze at it and say, “Jesus Christ, this is ridiculous.” The thing is, they don’t get overlooked. Because without sounding egotistical, I’ve been on several lists, like, considered to be [one of] the greatest songwriters in the last 40 years. The top 100. So obviously, the people who count are looking. And they’re willing to pull out the things that they like and then the rest of it’s whatever, it’s a sea of whatever. And to tell you the truth, I disagree. To me, it’s just madness. But for some reason, I get on the list and I’m compared with songwriters like Ray Davies and people like that. My thing is, it depends. Some songs are good and some aren’t. My modus operandi is that I just keep cranking them out. I don’t put out anything that I don’t like, that doesn’t entertain me. I don’t say, ‘Man I gotta put this out. It’s a piece of shit, but whatever.’ Whatever I put out is a collection of stuff that I like. I could say, ‘Okay I have eight songs and I’m going to work on these. I’m going to make the big record that I’m capable of making. I’m going to work on eight songs for fucking two years.’ What happens after that two years and I decide—because I change my mind constantly—I decide those eight songs aren’t very good? I’ve wasted two fucking years. And I’ve known cases of people doing that. Shitcanning something they’ve been working on for three years. Wow!

UTR: That’s a lot of time wasted.

Pollard: And the thing is, if I put out a record—and I’ve seen this—if I put out a record and people are like, “Well, this is kind of trash, whatever, but don’t worry, he’s got another one coming in a month.” I like that one. “He’s got another one coming in a couple months.” So it’s kind of like I’m off the hook a little bit.

UTR: In that same vein, how do you see your songwriting as an evolving process? I wonder how proactive a role you take. For example, saying, “I want to do a progressive, noisy album” or “I want to explore banjo textures,” or something like that.

Pollard: I won’t do that. I just told somebody, I’m always going to make immature music the rest of my life. I’m going to keep cranking out songs. I don’t care how immature it seems. I’m not going to strive to become a more mature songwriter, because for me, the maturity comes from the maturity, the progression of my brain, my mind, where it’s going as far as my musical tastes are. And I’m not going to try to attempt to turn a corner, or go in another direction. Basically, I’ve learned—because I’m going to be 50 years old next month—that what I do is I’m a songwriter. I’m not that good a singer. I can’t play that well. But I am a songwriter, and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to continue to make records that are compilations of my new songs that I just wrote. And hopefully, my songs get better, and they do to me. To some people, they don’t. My songs are getting quirkier and less disciplined because they’re spontaneous. But to me, it’s more interesting that way. Because if you write pop songs that are verse-chorus, verse-chorus, and then you got a lot of choruses, and you hit people over the head repetitively with the hook. Well, that’s good. People are like, ‘Yeah, that’s great, man. I love this shit.’ And then with my stuff, there are more hooks on the record; it’s just that I only use them once. There’s tons of them. I’m not cramming them down your throat. You gotta kind of study it and find them, but they’re there. Because the people that like the stuff and spend a lot of time with it, they know the hooks. I’ve realized that some people that review records, they’ve got a job to do, and they’ve got 10 or 20 CDs and they gotta do it by the end of the month, and they’re not going to spend time on some crazy fucking record with 35 songs on it. And I understand that. That’s fine. I still get to work though. And it’s kind of good to have a reputation of being kind of a fucking flake, you know? That’s better than being like, I’m on Starbucks Records, whatever, you know?

UTR: I know most people who are familiar with Guided By Voices and yourself know that you were a teacher before you started the band, but I don’t know how many know that you were in the profession for 14 years.

Pollard: Do you think I didn’t confuse some kids?

UTR: How did you make it 14 years?!

Pollard: I almost went out of my mind. Dude, it was unbelievable. I seriously think that my prayers were answered or something. Because at about the fourteenth year, I go like, ‘I gotta get the fuck out of this.’ And it was not only me. I was [teaching with] a 67-year-old lady saying the same goddamn thing. And she still wouldn’t retire. Because just all the pressure, from every angle, from parents, from the state. And mainly the kids. Jesus Christ, they’ll drive you out of your mind. Especially when you’ve got 30 kids in a class. I don’t know if it’s the case anymore, but when I taught, man, there used to be a lot of kids. The class sizes were overloaded. So I was like, “Oh man, I gotta get the fuck out of this shit.” And just strangely, at that point, people started to take interest in my music, and all of a sudden we’re signed to a label and all these major labels are interested, and [that was] right at the point where I go, ‘I’m gonna quit, man.’ They wanted me to go back and get my masters, and I didn’t want to do that. Because, first of all, I had kids. I was coaching. I was playing sports myself. I was trying to be in a band. Just juggling too many things. And I go, something’s gotta give, I got to start cutting some things out of my life, and the first thing I’ve gotta cut out of my life, I’ve gotta get the fuck out of teaching. And Jesus Christ, it was a godsend that I was able to do it, man. And people thought I was insane. People around me, friends and family, shit, were like, “You can’t do that! You have a family and you got benefits and everything. What are you going to do?” And I go, “Well, it looks like a good offer.” And it got to the point where a friend of my dad’s, this 65-year-old guy, he comes up to me and goes, “What are you doing, man? What are you going to be doing?” I go, “Well, you probably heard, man. I’m quitting teaching. I’m going to go into music. A recording artist.” And he goes, ‘It’s impossible! There’s no fucking way. It’s impossible! There are 10 members of my family that are all classically trained musicians and shit and nothing ever happened. It’s impossible! You’re out of your mind!’ And I’m like, “Well, don’t fucking have a shit fit, man. Because it’s happening. It’s going to happen. I’ve got offers.” And then fucking a month later, the papers start showing that I’m signing to Matador and fucking this and that, and the guy’s like, “ Sorry. I apologize for that, man. Damn.” The point is they don’t believe it can happen. They thought I was insane to quit teaching.

UTR: What year was it that you actually did leave for good?

Pollard: I think it was ’93. So I’ve been kicking it out, post-teaching, rock for about 15 years now, almost. So I’ve been rocking almost as long as I taught. Longer. I’ve been rocking longer than I taught.

UTR: Okay, I have another music-related question. Are you disappointed with the degree to which alcohol has played into the mystique of Guided By Voices and Robert Pollard?

Pollard: Yeah. You know what, I don’t care. It’s kinda funny. People think it’s funny. But it’s just overused a little bit. And that was part of the appeal at first. “Yeah, it’s the guy who taught for 14 years and he’s an alcoholic and now he’s rocking and shit.” It’s cute for a while, but after a while it gets kind of old. But the thing is, I don’t care. That’s fine. I’m Dr. Seuss. I’m Uncle Bob. I’m your drunken uncle. That’s fine.

UTR: But it should be neither here nor there.

Pollard: It is neither here nor there. But the thing is, if that’s what people want to identify me with, that’s fine. I don’t care. The thing is I probably don’t drink as much as they do. I drink about five days a week, which is a lot. I’ve got my routine. It’s five o’clock to nine o’clock and I’m drinking Miller Light. Big deal. Not to downplay it, but…and I throw in like two or three shots of tequila in there too.

UTR: But, like, how many other people are doing the exact same thing?

Pollard: Yeah. How many people do that anyway? First of all, when you get older, if you like to drink, because I like to drink and it’s a social thing for me—I don’t drink by myself—but if you like to hang out with people, you’re going to drink, aren’t you? If you’re hanging out with people? So you gotta think, how many people do that? Probably a large percentage of people. It’s funny too how alcohol is glamorized on commercials and shit, but somehow our society frowns upon it, like “Oh, he’s got a problem, he’s an alcoholic.” And then they show you commercials of hot chicks drinking beer. It’s confusing.

UTR: Do you ever think, “man, what do I do next?” Meaning, what do I do for an encore at this point?

Pollard: No, I don’t think that. Because there are things lined up, man. And I’m hoping it’s not the encore. I’m hoping it’s just another phase beginning. It’s this soundtrack and my collage work thing. It’s a new thing that’s getting ready to happen, and I’m hoping that’s not the encore but that’s a new avenue. But my thing, mainly, when I start thinking about what do I do next—my main thing is how do I get my fucking shit together—psychologically, spiritually—somehow. Am I doing the right thing in life? Am I an asshole? Am I treating people all right? That’s the main thing I worry about. As far as careerwise and artwise and all that, that kind of shit just falls into place and takes care of itself. And if it doesn’t, whatever, you do something else. But I’m up to the point where, if this doesn’t get it, I’m retiring. I’ve done enough. But soundtrack things are happening and my big art thing. I’m excited about that. It’s a new beginning for me, so that’s good in that department.

UTR: Are there any other musical projects you’re working on at the moment?

Pollard: I’ve got another solo record getting ready to record. I’ve got another Circus Devils thing we’re doing. This guy, Mark Linkous, from Sparklehorse, just sent me some songs, wants me to sing some songs on his next record. I think he’s doing it with Danger Mouse or somebody and it’s called Dangerhorse. We got us a couple shows coming up in late November. Just keep it going.

UTR: Let me just end on a lighter note. I heard you’re a grandfather. When did you become a grandfather?

Pollard: I guess about nine or ten months ago. And my son—he lives in Portland—just came out and he brought Ian. Ian is my grandson. He brought Ian and Aiden. Aiden is my step-grandson. They came out for about a week, and that was good. I saw him right after he was born, and then I just saw him again. I think they’re planning to move here, so that’ll be good. I’ll get to spend more time with him. He’s cool.

UTR: Are you the doting type?

Pollard: [Long pause] It depends on whether…It’s like my grandfather, if you call this doting. My grandfather used to give my brother and I—when we were real young, he used to give us beer. Is that doting?


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January 10th 2011

Everything and nothing has changed for Robert Pollard since he retired the Guided by Voices name on January 1, 2005. He still makes music that is enjoyed, and inasmuch as the music is a commercial product, consumed by legions of fans. He still makes a living from doing what he loves. But the legions have thinned. Not all GbV fans have wanted to take the leap with Pollard into an unfamiliar musical frontier that offers no guides for listeners. “Rolex Submariner

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