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Guided by Voices
an interview with Robert Pollard by Allie Roxburgh / pictures by Paul Heartfield
'Such is life that it writes itself / Trying to right itself / But there's nothing wrong with it', Bob Pollard assures us unflinchingly on Christian Animation Torch Carriers, a highlight of his band's latest masterwork; forty-seven minutes of euphoric swirling paranoia that goes by the name 'Universal Truths and Cycles'. It's one of several songs jostling for space inside the record's dense, pounding heart â?? struggling to assert itself in the midst of exultant choruses and sweeping chaotic intensity. On display are the many different faces of Guided by Voices, from the tantalising thirty-five second opener to the stop-start rhythm of Pretty Bombs to the gentler epic Storm Vibrations ('Does it hurt you? / To love I mean?'). Sometimes contradictory and often abstruse, the sentiments expressed are intriguing but seemingly difficult to reconcile to a coherent whole. That is, of course, until kindly explained by Robert Pollard. "All the songs seemed to be, I'd noticed, about daily observations of people, and people just going through their day, and everyone going through the same struggles in their day - and a lot of it has to do with human movement and transportation and chaos... Everybody gets another chance every day to kind of overcome the obstacles to get whatever they're after, whether it's entertainment or enlightenment or whatever. And if you don't get it you're bored. So that's the cycle every day, you get another chance to somehow find whatever you're after. I noticed that the songs had that thread through them, in a weird way. Every day is a rebirth. You die at night and are reborn in the morning. I guess that's the purpose of sleep."
This exemplifies Bob Pollard's lateral view of the world, and Guided by Voices occupy a peculiar niche carved out in the imagination of the listener that has its origins in this particular headspace. "A lot of times I don't see well and I don't hear well, and I hear the wrong way. I hear things... different or other than what has actually been said. I see things and read them the wrong way, and it's usually more interesting that way," he offers. The result is the charged, figurative, surrealistic language with which we have become familiar; he seems to be a proponent of the theory that there is often more truth in subconscious error than in that which can be intentionally constructed. Is Pollard an agent of 'authentic poetic experience' caused by mistake, as described by Walker Percy, a process by which an error made in describing something results in a more accurate depiction of the thing itself? Apparently so, and, although he hardly concerns himself with such matters, the process is organic. "I think the lyrics are really good on this record because most of them started as my favourite poems that I'd written... I start with lyrics. A lot of people think that's difficult but I think it's easier, because the way that you do it is that you just start at the top, and you look at the title, and you look at the first line or whatever, and you try and come up with something you think matches the personality of that, and the rhythm of the way the words are... and I'll work through a song like that. And plus I think it makes the structure interesting, it's not linear, it's all over the place. Sometimes though I can start at the top and it'll go through right first time. Those are usually the pop songs."
The fact that this procedure is such a natural one explains why Bob is in "about seven different bands", in order to encompass his many ideas. So, what distinguishes Guided by Voices from those other bands, and does his method of writing differ in each case? "Maybe 3 or 4 times a year I'll sit down and write songs, and I'll write a lot of songs, and whatever project's next, that's what I'll write them for, so I really don't distinguish between the two â?? although," he concedes, "for a Guided By Voices record I'll take a little more time on songs and make them longer; I'll work out whatever I think needs to be added to the song, whereas stuff that I do for solo records and for collaborations or whatever, it's just like, whatever the ideas, that's pretty much what's going to go on the record. I'll take a little bit more time for a Guided by Voices record." There is not a lot of pre-planning where his other projects are concerned, leaving room for spontaneity. "I've got to kind of map it out â?? I think OK, here's what we've got, here's what's scheduled, and even though we don't have any ideas for what it is, we'll do it, you know â?? it's kind of more fun that way. Kind of like putting pressure on yourself."
Pollard's commitment to myriad side-projects has led to the rather insulting suggestion from certain quarters that Guided by Voices have 'too much product in the product bin'. "Well, I don't say that, but some people do. You know, some people - they say, well, maybe you go to the Guided By Voices section and it's confusing â?? you know, 'What the hell is all this? It's confusing!' There are other band names and solo records and other people... The thing about Guided by Voices is that we have a really strong following, and they're really hard core and they love that stuff, so to me, even though I want everybody to hear our music it's more important that I'm satisfied and that people that are really really true Guided by Voices fans are satisfied, so I don't really listen to anyone else that thinks that we're diluting out art, or whatever, or however they put it. We do have a lot of stuff, though," he admits, "... I'm happy with the fact that I do a lot of stuff and it pleases me. I do a lot of stuff that doesn't see the light of day, either. I've gotten better about editing myself. Have you seen Suitcase? We had another suitcase lined up. We've got all kinds. There's more stuff that's not good than there is good."
Certainly, the new material exudes self-assurance and poise â?? and this autonomy extends to the decision to self-produce once more. It was, however, not a straightforward decision, after working with the likes of Ric Ocasek and Rob Schnapf. "I laboured over the decision of, 'Do we get a producer again?' Because now we've had it. Can we do it ourselves? Can we go into a studio and do it ourselves without making it sound too much like the old Guided by Voices, where it's kind of noisy, and I think we did â?? I think we succeeded. We still had to have the help of one person, who I like to call our in-house producer, Todd Tobias â?? it's Tim, our bass player's brother â?? and he's got a really good ear, and he's a really good engineer... We can produce our own stuff, but I still think we need a really good engineer. And that's important. And that was the thing that I learned from working with Rob and Rick â?? they had good ideas, but they always had a good engineer with them. They had an engineer that they took on every project. That's really the important guy right there â?? the engineer... Actually, production's really easy, because you have an idea of what you want the song to sound like, and you just make decisions as to go about getting it."
Characterized sonically as "'Alien Lanes' meets 'Isolation Drills'" by Bob, 'Universal Truths and Cycles' strives to create for each song a distinctiveness, a uniqueness in character - a quality that he felt was lacking from both 'Do the Collapse' and 'Isolation Drills'. "That's the problem I had with the last two albums. I thought the songs were a little too samey, everything was on the same field, on the same level of sound, you know? And in our early albums we used to, because we recorded them in so many different places â?? so many different people's â?? people's houses basically, it got this kind of roller-coaster effect sound-wise, fidelity wise, where things sound different, and as a listener I like that. I think that keeps your attention. So we decided on this record to do that, so we recorded in two different places. In the first place we recorded... we tried to get different sounds on everything, different vocal effects. And so then we did a bunch of songs in an entirely different studio, and then we mixed them all together and then I think it got kind of the early Guided by Voices feel." On their progression he says, "There was the lo-fi stage and there was the mid-fi period and there was the hi-fi, and now it's just all together, we can do anything we want now... Everything's kind of built up to what we are and I feel now that we finally have an identity."
This sense of attaining a decisive identity, at last, can perhaps be explained by the changes of the past few years. Summing up, Pollard says, "We were trying to see if we could sell more records... we pretty much were selling the same amount of records in the states, every record, and... it was kind of interesting to have labels still interested in that, to think that we had commercial potential. They said, 'well, you could sell more records, you could break through, you guys could even have a radio hit probably, because your we think your songs are good enough,' â?? so we went with a bigger label that had better resources and we went with producers in an attempt to have some songs on the radio... to make it sound a little more commercial, a little bit more accessible. But then, you know, we did it, we tried it twice and it really didn't happen. We sold a little bit more, but it wasn't significant enough to continue to, you know, try. To try to be something that I don't think we really were... I think we found our niche long ago, with Matador, and I think that's where we should have been, but we gave it a shot. I don't regret making the big-sounding records, I just thought, you know, it actually sounds better if we do it. It sounds more like a Guided by Voices record now..."
The demise of UK label Creation in 2000 came as a blow. "I was kind of upset about that because I was proud to be on Creation, I think we were the only American band at the time on Creation, and they were a really good label, they were really good people... I don't know exactly what went on between TVT and Creation but Creation just kind of like, overnight they were gone." He gives a wry smile. "They kind of ran away or something, I don't know what happened to them." There is a pause, before he continues on a more serious note. "[It happened] right in the middle of that album, so that was disappointing. Then there was talk of us maybe being on Poptones, but then TVT - TVT was a really possessive label. They liked us and there was a lot of support but they didn't, they wanted to, you know, as far as even licensing... we were pretty much stuck with just TVT in the States only, because they didn't have any licensing over here." This situation precipitated the band's recent return to Matador, a move that Pollard describes with genuine enthusiasm. "When we talking to labels, my manager said, you know, Matador is interested; I go, 'Yeah? You gotta be kidding me â?? man, that's wild!' And so I had in my mind, yeah, I'd love to go back with Matador, because we're the only band that's done that, I think. Matador band. That didn't actually ask to come back. So I'm kind of proud of that a little bit. I consider Guided by Voices to be the Matador house band," he pronounces. "Even when Gerard [Matador co-president] got married, he asked us to play his wedding, so it's a good relationship. Guided by Voices in the States is kind of the epitome of indie-rock. You know, I mean, just because of the way for ten years we did it on our own and no-one knew about us and we did the whole DIY aesthetic. And then Matador is kind of considered to be the epitome of an indie-rock label."
There is something appropriately symmetrical about all of this; perhaps, as their new album title suggests, they have come full circle to find the truth. "When things first started happening for GBV, I didn't expect it to happen, because I was already 36 and just doing this for fun, and then all of a sudden in the States we were like the buzz - underground buzz â?? and we had a story... [But] there have been some really rough periods - there were two consecutive years in which I had to do a complete overhaul of the band... and at that time I was pretty much going out of my mind, like, you know, I don't know if I can continue to do this because it's too hard... It is good sometimes to start over, but you know, I am secretly envious of bands that have the same line-up forever, like REM, Wire, The Grifters and bands like that." According to Bob, though, Guided by Voices is "unstoppable. I've tried to quit. At a couple of points in Guided by Voices in the last twenty years â?? 2003 will be our 20th anniversary â?? I've tried to stop, I've said, 'Man, I think it's run its course, I think we're done. I don't know if I can keep doing it'. But then for a month I'll just completely be depressed, and so I have to do it. It's something I have to do. The thought of not having Guided by Voices is a terrible thought."
"It's what I truly love to do," he expounds, "and I do it all the time, and I don't try, it comes natural. It comes from being a good listener of music, and from being older â?? being 44 years old, and I was there through the whole â?? from the Beatles on, through every other era and phase. So I have pretty good knowledge of what I like, at least. So it all goes into what I do. It's just second-hand, it's not something that I consciously think, 'I'm going to write a reggae song' - or something - I don't do that kind of shit..." Bob doesn't like to take himself too seriously. "I like happy music these days; I guess that's good. Maybe happy in trying times, I guess... Music is about being happy and about forgetting about stuff, or about being really sad, and forgetting about stuff." He pauses in apparent contemplation before concluding mischievously, "Drinking. Music is about drinking." This equilibrium between gravity and frivolity pervades his music, after all. He leans back; perhaps he is contemplating universal truths, and perhaps not. Cordially, playfully, he lets out a laugh.
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002