Guided by songs

The area in front of the stage at Austin's Waterloo Park is one stray cigarette away from bursting into flames, a loose bed of hay piled on top of the park's green grass like an accident waiting to happen. A few days ago, when it was raining, the hay seemed like a good idea. Now, after two days of baking in the Texas sun, the park might as well be blanketed with lit fuses.

The potential danger of the situation has been duly noted by the thousands of people here for a free concert featuring Spoon, Damnations TX, The Gourds, and the band onstage now, Guided by Voices. Crowded together ankle-deep in the straw, they're either cautiously flicking their coffin nails into empty plastic cups or refraining from smoking altogether. It doesn't seem like the proper environment to be lighting up anyway, not even taking the several acres of fire hazards underfoot into account. There are too many kids around, dozens of them, building forts out of the hay, playfully throwing tiny handfuls of the dead grass at one another, making angels out of it with their flailing arms and legs. From a distance, it's just another rock concert on a Saturday night; up close, it could be an elementary school carnival.

Guided by Voices frontman Robert Pollard would be just as comfortable in either environment. After all, the 41-year-old Pollard spent much of his adult life teaching fourth grade in Dayton, Ohio, answering to "Mr. Rocker" after his students found out what his other job was. And for even more of his adulthood, Pollard has been a member of Guided by Voices, pursuing his rock-and-roll dreams even as his friends and family tried to persuade him to give it up. But he has persevered for almost 20 years, taking out loan after loan so he could continue writing songs that would, hopefully, make the young girls cry. Pollard just didn't have any idea how young those girls really were.

One of them is in the crowd this evening at Waterloo Park, a cute little girl who might be 4 years old, but can't possibly be a minute older. She's too busy with what's happening onstage to be bothered with the games the other children are playing. Pollard and the band barely pause for a swig of Rolling Rock and a breath as they barrel through songs from the forthcoming Do the Collapse (due in stores August 3), as well as two dozen others culled from its previous 10 albums and avalanche of singles. Perched on her father's shoulders, the girl belts out almost every song, her eyes squeezed so tight, they seem to disappear. She mimics Pollard's microphone twirling and leaping karate kicks as best she can from her seat five feet above the ground. Her father keeps trying to calm her, but she isn't having any of it, shaking him off like a pitcher who only wants to throw the fastball.

"Are you kidding me? And she knew the songs? See, I guess that's the appeal, from 2 years old to 80," Pollard says from his home in Dayton, when reminded of the concert more than two months later. "That's bizarre. I've had people tell me that their real young children know the words to some of our songs, some of the sillier ones, like "Pimple Zoo" [from 1995's Alien Lanes]." He laughs. "I guess that's flattering. You gotta make music for kids, but you want it to be mature enough where the parents like it too. I've had people come up, like a guy and his son, and they say, 'Man, your music brought us together. We weren't really close until now.'"

Guided by Voices wasn't just playing to the kids at Waterloo Park that night, and it wasn't trying to heal any differences between estranged family members either. The group was there, like so many other bands that come to the annual South by Southwest Music Festival every March, in search of a record contract. The band had been in a similar position before: In 1993, Guided by Voices performed live for the first time in six years, in New York at the New Music Seminar, a last-ditch effort that netted the band a record deal less than a year later. It worked again this time: TVT Records, home to such bands as XTC and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, offered Pollard and the band the contract they had been hoping for.

For the previous few months, Guided by Voices had been in limbo, told by Capitol Records that the album it had recorded for them with ex-Car Ric Ocasek, Do the Collapse, wasn't good enough, that there weren't any hits on it. As relations between Capitol and Matador Records--the New York-based indie that signed Guided by Voices in 1994 and had a distribution deal with Capitol until recently--became increasingly strained, it was clear that the album, the first GbV disc to appear on a major label, was never going to be released by Capitol. Matador was on the way back to its indie world, but the band wasn't going with it.

"[Capitol] had suggested we get a good producer and make the record that quote-unquote we were always capable of making," says Pollard, who has also just released his own solo album, Kid Marino. "So we did. We decided to do that, and then, you know, the shit kind of hit the fan at Capitol. There was complete overhaul there, with new people and a new president. And the new president said he didn't hear it. He listened to the record that we made, and he said he didn't hear it." He laughs bitterly, and you can almost here him shaking his head over the phone. "So...we were back to the drawing board as to what we should do. We figured we should open the door for some other people, and see what they had to offer."

Since they spent more time and money recording Do the Collapse than ever before, Pollard and the band weren't willing to return to Matador, or any independent label for that matter. Pollard felt that Guided by Voices had gone as far as it could on independent record labels, and as he entered his 40s, he wanted more security for his wife and two teenage children. It was his lone option: Pollard quit his teaching job five years ago because, as he says, he was "about ready to have a nervous breakdown, trying to balance both professions." Making music was his only way to make a living now.

But the move to a major label wasn't just about money. In fact, it was hardly about the cash at all; Pollard and his family have lived modestly in the same house in Dayton for the past 16 years and probably won't ever move, even if the band suddenly became a financial success. The jump to TVT was simply about the music, nothing more. With Ocasek's help, Guided by Voices has finally captured the sound Pollard had nearly given up trying to find inside a studio. Pollard had become so frustrated with recording studios that he had exiled himself on a four-track in his basement, coming out of hiding on occasion to cut tracks with Steve Albini and The Breeders' Kim Deal. He is proud of Do the Collapse and wants people outside of the band's devoted cult following to hear the record. And if some of GbV's fans slip on Ocasek's slick production, well, that's not Pollard's problem.

"I think people who are into our more jagged, experimental, four-track thing are kind of upset with it," Pollard admits. "To me, it's still the same songs, man. It just sounds better. It sounds like big, room-filling, overdriven-guitar, power rock. That's what I've always wanted to do. We've always had difficulty doing that. And now, we've hooked up with people who know how to get that sound, and I'm happy about it, really. That's what we sound like live, you know? Live, we've always been that. That's the point, I think. It doesn't matter whether it's recorded into a boom box or in a 48-track studio. You have to have good songs or it doesn't matter."

Do the Collapse certainly has enough good songs to matter; Pollard's love for The Who, Cheap Trick, and early R.E.M. come through louder and clearer than ever before. Although much has been made of Ocasek's involvement, his influence can be heard in only one song, "Much Better Mr. Buckles," which should carry a Rivers Cuomo co-writing credit. Apart from that, Ocasek is only on board to save Pollard from his other love--static. He does his job well: Despite what Capitol Records believes, almost all of Do the Collapse would sound right at home on the radio, especially the leadoff track, "Teenage FBI," all seesawing synths and overcharged power chords. It's a more accessible version of Pollard's earlier gems, getting friendly with radio without stooping to kiss its ass. The rest of the album follows suit--from the chugging "Zoo Pie" and the kiddie-folk of "Dragons Awake" to the Kinky "Picture Me Big Time" and the Flaming Lips of "Wormhole"--which is the biggest hurdle in the way of Pollard's recent quest for a radio hit. With his typically eccentric lyrics, Do the Collapse is too quirky to be a hit. And it's too catchy not to be.

It's been the same for Guided by Voices since the beginning. The songs have always been there; there just weren't enough people around to hear them, and too few of the people who did hear the songs really got it. They were put off by the lack of production, the songs that consisted of little more than a verse and a chorus before disappearing as quickly as they emerged. The band that performed those songs in one of its rare concerts was one of the best, most fearless rock-and-roll bands this country has produced in two decades. But no one was paying attention.

Becoming lo-fidelity all-stars was never Pollard's intention. The band he formed in the early '80s with bassist Mitch Mitchell and drummer Kevin Fennell was a sloppy outfit drunk on rock and roll and an endless parade of beer. Mitchell had played with Pollard earlier in a band called Anacrusis, as well as Coyote Call, which also featured Fennell. The three would continue to play together off and on until Pollard replaced Mitchell and Fennell before 1997's Mag Earwhig! Others drifted in and out of the lineup over the years, including Pollard's brother Jim and his songwriting partner for more than a decade, Tobin Sprout. According to Pollard's count, around 50 people have, at one time or another, been a member of Guided by Voices.

"I wanted to call everybody and go down to the football field and take a picture," Pollard says, laughing. "I bet we have enough for a football team. When I separate my records into categories in my record collection, there's a Guided by Voices section, and I put everything related in there, and it's just huge. It's insane. The Breeders are in there, Cobra Verde. All the people that have been associated with us have all been in bands, so that record collection is huge."

For much of the band's existence, there wasn't enough of a reason to choose Guided by Voices over real jobs and families. After Guided by Voices released its first EP, Forever Since Breakfast, in 1986 on the tiny I Wanna Records, the group ceased to exist as a live entity, preferring to convene occasionally in Pollard's basement, dubbed "The Snakepit," to play or record. GbV put out its debut album, Devil Between My Toes, the next year, beginning a series of albums the group recorded by itself and released on labels that ranged from small to virtually nonexistent. Sandbox came and went later in 1987, followed by 1989's Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia, 1990's Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, and 1992's Propeller. (Devil Between My Toes, Sandbox, Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia, and Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, along with a rarities disc--King Shit and the Golden Boys--were re-released by Cleveland's Scat Records in 1995 as the simply titled Box.)

It wasn't until Scat Records released GbV's sixth album, 1993's Vampire on Titus--named for the street where Pollard still lives--that the band finally got some attention. The positive reviews the disc received led to the New Music Seminar performance that made all those years of recording albums for only themselves to hear finally worth it. The band wasn't much richer, but that wasn't important. With the arrival of Vampire on Titus and 1994's Bee Thousand--thought by many critics and fans to be the group's masterpiece--people started to care about Guided by Voices, buy their records, come to their shows. That's all that the band ever wanted anyway.

"We did six albums before anybody ever heard of us," Pollard recalls. "Did 'em on our own and kept 'em to ourselves. It was mainly out of a lack of confidence, because of what people told us. It was like, 'Hey, what is this shit?' We got to the point where we kind of believed it. And then some other people who really knew what they were talking about, more influential people, persuaded us otherwise, so we came out of the basement after all those years.

"Some of my friends, some of the people around Dayton, some of my family members, they thought we--and I, in particular--were being a little irresponsible by carrying on, putting money into this thing that was going nowhere," he continues. "Every time we put a record out, it cost us this big bunch of money that we'd take a loan out on. And after that, we'd say, 'Well, we really can't afford to do this. It's kind of silly.' But it was too much fun, so we couldn't stop doing it. There was never any interest from labels at all, even though some of our first records got some pretty good reviews. We just figured, hey, whatever, we'll just do it for ourselves. And then it still happened."

After signing with Matador, Guided by Voices made the most of its new notoriety, trying to make a dent in the backlog of songs Pollard had collected over the years. In five years, the band has released six albums (including 1995's Alien Lanes, 1996's Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, and 1997's Mag Earwhig!) and countless EPs and singles, as well as enough tracks on compilations to fill another couple of full-lengths. And that isn't even including Pollard's trio of solo albums: 1996's Not in My Airforce, last year's Waved Out, and Kid Marine.

Matador was never happy with the wealth of product Guided by Voices turned out each year, urging Pollard to take a vacation and stop writing songs. They felt record buyers would be confused when they looked in the Guided by Voices section of a record bin and saw a dozen titles to choose from. Pollard, however, thought that since there was already so much to choose from, it didn't matter if he wanted to add a few more each year. He couldn't just sit home and not write songs; it had become part of his daily routine since he quit being a teacher. Each morning, he would sit at his dining-room table with a pot of coffee and a notebook, coming up with lists of song titles, sometimes writing several songs' worth of lyrics. "I have to stay busy to stay happy," he says. "There's no sense in writing 15 songs and having them say we can't put them out for a year."

Looking back on his band's lengthy catalog, Pollard hedges a bit when asked to name his favorites. "Each record you put out, you think it's your best one, or you don't want to put it out," he says. But it doesn't take him long to single out a few: Devil Between My Toes ("the most diversified record we did") and Vampire on Titus ("the first one that we got to make after people kind of discovered us").

"And I really like Kid Marine," Pollard adds. "I like the darker, more personal records. Those are my favorite records, those kind of records that a lot of people don't really understand. They're kind of noisy records and, I think, lyrically a lot better. Kid Marine is my favorite, because it has the best lyrics, I think. All 15 songs started out as poems that I wrote. I was thinking about working on a book of poetry, but I decided I didn't want to do that, so I took the best 15 poems and actually sequenced them like a lyric sheet. And then I simply went though and wrote the music to all of them. It was already sequenced before I even put the music to it. It came together really quickly and easy, and to me, it's just a little bit more poetic."

Guided by Voices' contract with TVT Records allows Pollard to indulge in as many side projects as he wants, whether they be solo albums or Guided by Voices albums recorded under pseudonyms, such as the recent releases by the Fading Captain Series. Fading Captain is a project Pollard began earlier this year to release whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Although only in existence for a few months, it has already kicked out three albums: Kid Marine, an EP by GbV alter-ego Lexo & the Leapers, and an album by NightWalker, which Pollard says consists of "psychedelic ramblings I recorded from '84 to '93."

Since almost all of the recordings Pollard appears on involve whatever musicians he happens to be playing with at the time, and since Guided by Voices has essentially become a solo vehicle for him, it doesn't make much sense that he would separate Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices into separate projects. But for Pollard, the arrangement is perfectly logical, a way to play ball with the music industry but never become a slave to it.

"With a Robert Pollard record, there aren't any obligations to do anything, really," he says. "I mean, I can do whatever I want without anybody telling me, 'That's not what we paid for.'" He laughs. "And it's mainly the degree of professionalism, you know? Robert Pollard albums are kind of like what Guided by Voices records used to be like. I can leave mistakes in, and I can do lo-fi--I can do whatever I want. Guided by Voices is kind of like this big professional entity now. Robert Pollard is not. Until someone wants to give me the kind of money Guided by Voices is given. I had entertained a notion of every band, every pseudonym that I come up with, I entertained a notion of getting those bands signed. Get separate advances and everything, keep doing that." He laughs. "I don't think that's allowed, though.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain