By Andrew Pomager
Robert Pollard’s Guided by Voices (GBV) is one of those definitive indie-rock bands. When contemporary indie bands start to find their way from novel to missing-the-point, one play of Alien Lanes is a reminder of what rock should sound like. And unlike so many bands that thrive in that absurdly broad genre today, their focus on music, not image, comes off as authentic. GBV “formed” in the early 80s with Pollard and an ever-rotating bandmate combination. They never had a depressed, emo or gimmicky sound that seems a pre-requisite of music outside the mainstream. Pollard’s seemingly positive and industrious outlook on life translates into an upbeat sound without coming off like recycled pop. He was a full-time fourth-grade school teacher into the early 90s, when GBV began to gain recognition outside Pollard’s hometown of Dayton.
By some extremely scientific counts, he’s written well over a thousand songs, spread across more than a dozen overlapping bands and side projects. It’s hard to find another musician who likes making music quite as much. And if any of the GBV faithful are still mourning the band’s break-up while Bee Thousand plays on loop in the background, a listen to his current band, Boston Spaceships, will take some of the edge off. Boston Spaceships (and much of Pollard’s later work – including GBV’s last album) eschews a lo-fi sound – for GBV, a product of practicality as much as style – but in doing so highlights the front man’s fantastic songwriting. Now with a GBV reunion tour underway, Pollard continues, as always, to produce. He was kind enough to take an email interview with Origivation in which we couldn’t resist the cliché of referencing some of GBV’s shorter tracks.
O: Thanks for doing the interview and, along with some other Matador alumni, weening me off of exclusive classic rock in the mid-90s. Are you looking forward to playing with any of the old Matador lineup at the 21st anniversary show?
RP: Yeah, Matador was a tight stable and I’m pretty sure all the bands that we were friends with are going to be there. Cat Power, Superchunk, Chavez, Spoon, Pavement. It should be great fun and really good to see everyone.
O: So what prompted the reunion tour right now?
RP: The decision to accept the Matador offer. I just figured that it might be a good time to plan the reunion tour that everyone’s been asking about around the Vegas show. The rest of the guys agreed and we set about to start rehearsing. Everyone is very excited.
O: You’ve played with dozens of different bandmate combinations – is there something special about working with the “classic” lineup – Tobin Sprout, Charles Mitchell, Greg Demos, and Kevin Fennel – for the upcoming tour?
RP: Well, there’s a very warm, nostalgic buzz in the air when we meet up for practice. It’s been 16 years since we played and we’re doing all the cool, short songs from that era, songs that have become in some respect lo-fi standards. It’s the Fall, my favorite time of the year and it’s good to be spending it with these guys.
O: I’ve been on a “Non-Absorbing” kick lately and found it interesting to read recently that it was inspired by your experiences as a grade school teacher. What else have you brought over from that part of your life – and any other songs that fall into that bucket?
RP: Yeah, I was still teaching when I wrote a lot of those songs so a lot of them contain imagery from the perspective of a 10 year old child with a 36 year old mind. “Gold Star for Robot Boy”, “My Valuable Hunting Knife”, “Striped White Jets”.
O: The new solo album, “Moses on a Snail”, and the Boston Spaceships album, “Our Cubehouse Still Rocks”, are great – given the fluidity of GBV bandmates anyway, and your seemingly seamless rate of production under any name, what do these these two mediums – solo and Boston Spaceships – offer that’s distinct from GBV, or from each other?
RP: I don’t see them as being distinct other than the fact that I’m working with different musicians and the lyrical content of my songs has taken a slightly different direction. I release 4-6 albums a year with various artists, so it’s become more of a collaborative process. I don’t do a lot of rehearsing these days.
O: I was picking up a solid Classic Rock sound on “Our Cubehouse Rocks”: “Track Star”, “Come on Babby Grace”, and “In The Bathroom (Up 1/2 The Night)” all seemed to fit the bill some. The Who in particular comes to mind. Was this something you were going for – and any other sounds you were specifically working into that album?
RP: I’ve always had The Who influence. From the early days of GBV to now I read reviews that mention The Who, The Beatles, Wire, Big Star. If you’re going to get comparisons, it’s hard to top those. It goes a lot deeper than just those references though. I’ve been listening to and studying a lot of good rock music for a long time now.
O: The moody title track for “Moses on a Snail” is an epic 5 minutes, 20 seconds. Was that the product of a different creative process for you – and have any GBV purists showed up at the studio, torches and pitchforks in hand?
RP: No, I write and record longer, more complex songs occasionally and most of the people I’ve talked to that like my songs dig those kind of songs. I think a “GBV purist” that likes only the short stuff or lo-fi or one type of song is not really a purist at all but a selectivist.
O: Are you more devoted to any particular project right now? Do you see Boston Spaceships having the run GBV did?
RP: No, I just let the projects flow and come as they may and I’ll continue with Boston Spaceships until I feel it’s run its course. We’re working on a double album right now called “Let It Beard”. It features guest spots by Colin Newman, J. Mascis, Steve Wynn and Mitch Mitchell, so Boston Spaceships is doing alright.
O: Your website is accommodating enough to provide the newspaper clipping of your no-hitter for Wright State University. Well done. How’s something like that stand out to you now, personally, given your successes in such a different line of work?
RP: It was an exciting and unforgettable moment in my life. I didn’t even know I had a no-hitter going until the game was over and my teammates came running out of the dug-out at me. It scared me at first.