Much has been, and will be, made of the fact that "Fair Touching," the first song on Isolation Drills (the 12th album by Guided by Voices), includes the lyric, "And perhaps at last/The song you sing will have meaning." Meaning: Frontman/heart-and-soul Bob Pollard is singing words you can understand for a change, words that speak from his heart to yours, real words about real things. Real life.
Much has also been, and will be, made of the fact that, finally, on Isolation Drills, Pollard confined many of his clever-just-because, free-association lyrics and bizarre titles ("Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox"--pardon?) and song fragments and unattached choruses to his notepad and the almost-daily tapes he makes at home. Instead of, for once, on his records.
Many will, probably, more than likely, point to these two facts as proof that Pollard, at long last, at 43, has grown up, both as a musician and a man. They will be right, some of them anyway, the ones who understand that the situation is a bit more complicated than that. As it always is. The other ones, well, they will miss the point entirely, won't see that this is a record, the record, that Pollard always wanted to make. And that growing up has nothing to do with it. Any of it. He is grown up, and he's not.
Guided by Voices with Spoon
Gypsy Tea Room
Example: "Last time I came to your town, we went to a party after the show," Pollard says, about 10 seconds into the conversation, referring to Guided by Voices' infamous show at Trees in 1999 and more notorious after-party at a local musician's house. "Some guy was fucking laying--and I don't do cocaine; I mean, every once in a while--and some guy was laying out cocaine with a $100 bill, and it came up missing, and he fucking accused me of taking it." He laughs. "Yeah, that was crazy. I ended up giving the guy, like, $40 out of my pocket--and he took it, too. I go, like, 'Man, nobody took your money, man, but here's some fucking money if you're gonna cry about it.' And he took it."
Or: "Oh, yeah, that was fun. South by Southwest got mad about that because it wasn't a sanctioned show," Pollard says, bringing up yet another infamous show, GbV's drunken and, yes, unsanctioned performance at South by Southwest last year at a party for Revolver magazine. "Fuck South by Southwest. They fucking pocket all the money anyway. They don't pay the bands anything, and they take all the money. Who cares? We don't need them anyway."
That said, and he'll say it again if you ask, no problem, musically, Pollard always wanted his band to sound like it does on Isolation Drills. He always wanted his songs to sound like this. He always wanted to say these things, these words. Maybe not the words on Isolation Drills exactly, but something with meaning, something people understood. It just took him awhile to get around to it, though, sure, other GbV records have bits and pieces strewn about like broken windshields. It took a bad year--maybe his worst year--and a road trip from one coast to another (San Diego to Athens, Georgia) spent thinking about it all, to get it out of him.
"I wrote all of these lyrics [then], because I had time to reflect on the whole year, the whole Do the Collapse thing and being on the road all the time," Pollard says, referring to the time spent on tour, supporting 1999's Do the Collapse, the band's debut for TVT Records. "I became introspective and really personal with these lyrics. When I got back, I put music to them, and that was the record. That was the new record. [Isolation Drills] is about doing things daily that separate you from what you're used to all your life, all the people you left behind."
One of the people Pollard left behind was his wife; they are now separated. Pollard doesn't talk about this much, if only because he doesn't have to. He already has. It's there in songs like "The Brides Have Hit Glass"--it's even there in that song's title--when he sings, "Once again I'll roll the dice/And try to hang onto my shrinking paradise." Or, "It's very odd to find her up again/Staking out expansion/Seeking new exposure." Maybe the song is about what you think it is, maybe it's not, but the idea is definitely there, on the table, ready to be examined.
It's not just on "The Brides Have Hit Glass"; it's everywhere on Isolation Drills. There it is in Pollard's admission that he "won't change" on "How's My Drinking?" There it is again in the somber lyrics--"There will be no graduation/There will be no trumpets blowing"--that sucker-punch you on the undeniably sunny "Glad Girls," a rescued relic from the sessions for 1995's Alien Lanes. Again in the "sinful heroes" of "Pivotal Film" and the "secrets bleeding to untold families" and "lovers in flight over the gravesite" of "The Enemy." Here. There. Everywhere.
And it wouldn't work if the band had brought in former Cars frontman and Big Name Producer Ric Ocasek to record the album, as it did on Do the Collapse. He would have sanded down the rough edges, multitracked them into oblivion. Yes, he would have.
You could say that, given the group's lo-fi origins (best heard on the seven albums GbV released between 1987's Devil Between My Toes and 1994's Bee Thousand), Ocasek was around for shock value. Which he was, sort of: He was the deep end of a pool Pollard and the band had only dipped their toes in before. He was the extreme, the guy with the slick production techniques, the guy with definite ideas about how a band, this band, should sound. Some good, some not so good.
"I would have done things differently," Pollard admits. "I kind of put everything in Ric's hands, because I was a little bit intimidated by him. He's not really an intimidating guy; he's a really nice guy, a really laid-back guy. But it was our first time in the studio, and I was just like, 'Do it, Ric. Make a record.' There are a lot of things he did that I love, and there are a few things that I would not do again. Some of the keyboard things. I'm just not a big keyboard person. There were some things I would do differently, but I think it's a good record, and I don't have any regrets about it. The only regret I have about the record is 'Hold On Hope.' I wish I wouldn't have written that song," he says, laughing, to himself, at himself, for including the somewhat-syrupy ballad on Do the Collapse. "That's the only one. The original version of 'Hold On Hope' was much more kick-ass."
It should be noted that, while "Hold on Hope" prominently featured strings--a Guided by Voices first--that is not the reason Pollard doesn't like the version of the song included on Do the Collapse. If anything, it's just the opposite: "I wouldn't mind doing an album of just me singing, the entire album, over strings," Pollard says.
In fact, the strings that show up on "The Enemy" and "Unspirited" and the disc-closing "Privately" (all courtesy of The Soldier String Quartet) are one of Isolation Drills' strengths, wrapping around the melody, turning each song into thick, unbreakable cables. Pollard doesn't hesitate to agree.
"I'm kind of a prog-rock freak, but I don't like keyboards," he begins. "So there's a problem there, because prog-rock is associated with keyboards. What I'm into doing is stretching the songs out, making suites that have 10 or 15 changes in them. But I don't want keyboards. I want it to be really powerful. Strings complement that type of music. The strings sound great in 'The Enemy.' I want the whole next album to kind of be like 'The Enemy.' But, you know, it won't. I always have some kind of vision for the next record, but it never turns out that way."
Isolation Drills comes as close as possible to matching the songs Pollard heard in his head, as he added music to the lyrics he wrote on that cross-country road trip. Much of, if not most of, the credit is due to the band: guitarist-sounding board Doug Gillard, bassist Tim Tobias, guitarist Nate Farley and drummer Jim MacPherson, since replaced by Jon McCann, ex of Pollard fave American Flag. But part of it, at the very least, is thanks to producer Rob Schnapf, who returned the focus to the songs instead of how they're recorded.
No longer does the group sound like a Beatles-Who-Cheap Trick mix tape forgotten in a shoebox, or a dustbin/cutout bin-bound compilation album of never-were garage-rock heroes. Nor does the band sound like the Cars outtakes Ocasek forced on it. For once, and finally, Guided by Voices sounds like Guided by Voices: guitars up front, Pollard out further, drums changing your pulse rate, beer (Budweiser or Rolling Rock--you make the call) spilling over everything. The answer, Schnapf's answer at least, didn't come from any studio trickery or big ideas. It was simple.
"Yeah, he was going for the rock sound," Pollard says of Schnapf, who's worked with the Foo Fighters and Beck and Elliott Smith. Not that Pollard was aware of Schnapf's résumé. He wanted Schnapf because of his approach. "He was actually interested in doing what we wanted to do. I mean, obviously, he had his own vision for the songs, but it was more important for him that they sounded--you know, I'd told him what I've been trying to strive for the last few years is to get us to sound on record like what we do live. And I think this record does--without sounding too raw--I think it does sound more like we do live."
"I think that's the best of both worlds--going for a raw, live sound in the studio. It seemed natural," adds Schnapf, from Los Angeles, where he's currently working on the new Saves the Day album. "It's weird; for some reason people don't realize how good of a band they are. 'Cause basically what you hear on [Isolation Drills] is them playing live, that is the take. And then we sprinkled a few things here and there and put on vocals. But the core of all those songs is three guitars, bass and drums live."
See? Simple as that: a rock band playing rock songs, doing its job while Schnapf did his. Easy.
The rest of it, though, well, that's complicated, still, always. It's not just Pollard's marital status, or the band's ever-shifting lineup, or being able to play all the songs people want to hear in one night, or finding enough time to fit in all of Pollard's ideas, or trying to accommodate the band's occasionally too-vocal fans and critics. It's all of it, each affecting the other, a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces, half of which aren't even in the right box.
Some of them are good problems, such as the fact that 12 albums in--and that's not counting all the various EPs, singles, compilation tracks, alternate versions that show up on live albums or last year's Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft, a stand-alone, four-CD boxed set that adds another 100 previously unreleased songs to the total--there just isn't enough time in the day or night to play every song fans want to hear.
"It's...." Pollard lets out a long sigh before starting again. "Well, we have to play for, like, two-and-a-half, three hours. We do. And I've got a solo album in the can, and I've got an album that I finished with Toby Sprout in the can, so we're going to be putting a bunch of that in. It's gonna be ridiculous. Eventually, it's going to have to be just An Evening with Guided by Voices, you know; we're not even going to need an opening band. It doesn't make any sense, because we need to play for a long time.
"And there's things, like, you know, where you take songs out of the lineup," he continues, "but now it's gotten to the point where there's nothing we can take out; we really like doing all these songs. So we have to just keep adding on. We probably do about 50 songs when we play."
On the flip side is guitarist Gillard's awkward acceptance by some fans. "Some Guided by Voices fans think that Doug kind of ruined us," Pollard allows. "Which is totally wrong. Doug added a complete new dimension to us that's enabled us to become a much better band. I love it now, because when I write songs--I play acoustic and sing into my boom box--I send them up to Doug and he does all his guitar parts on his four-track and sends it back to me. So I can hear the song in progress. Which, before, we were never able to do that."
Ah, before. That's where most of the other problems, good and bad, come from. Before when guitarist and songwriter Tobin Sprout was still in the band, a time that certain fans long for. A little too tenaciously for Pollard's tastes. The duo's been working together again lately (Sprout added piano to one song on Isolation Drills, "How's My Drinking?"), resulting in a forthcoming album. So shut up, already.
"We call ourselves Airport Five, and since we have a band name, and since it turned out really well, we're gonna start working on something else, probably this summer," Pollard explains. "We'll probably do a couple of albums a year now. And our fans will be all happy with that, because they've been wanting me to get back together with Toby forever." He pauses. "I mean, to the point where you get sick of hearing it," he adds with a laugh.
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Though that will quiet followers and fans, it doesn't come close to satisfying Pollard. He's got ideas, new songs to write and record--which to him is almost one and the same--new bands to form, if only to use a good new name he came up with. (Suitcase features a few dozen of them, in fact.) He's a singing, songwriting version of a Native American tribe; everything is to be used, consumed, put to work. Nothing is trash.
Thanks to his overactive imagination and a creative contract with TVT Records, Pollard is free to explore anything, everything. Every scrap of an idea can be released via his Fading Captain Series project, distributed through longtime friend Pete Jamison's Rockathon Records. As Guided by Voices releases (official ones, at any rate) slow down--Pollard has hinted there may only be time for one more--Fading Captain records multiply exponentially. It is the only way to keep everyone happy. Well, everyone, but mainly Pollard.
"If all I could do is make one official Guided by Voices album every two years, I would go insane," he says. "So with that, I can be involved in the creative process constantly, year-round. The Fading Captain Series, we've been pumping out five records a year on that. We've got a schedule coming up where there's a single in May, a single in June, my solo album in July and the album I did with Toby in August. And then I'm gonna be working on an album with Mac McCaughan from Superchunk. So, like, I'm just going to keep cranking that stuff out.
"And you know, thing is, some of it's sloppy, some of it's experimental, but I like having that side still," he continues. "My next solo record, I did it with [former GbV members] Greg Demos and Jim MacPherson, and we didn't even practice--and it's really kind of complicated songs. So, it's sloppy: Drums come in late, and there are mistakes all over the place. But I kind of like that. That was, at one time, a trademark of Guided by Voices, that we just leave the mistakes in, you know? It's good to be able to do that, and it's good to be able to move on in a more professional direction with Guided by Voices."