No Chicks in the Tree House: A Drinking Interview with Robert Pollard of
Guided By Voices
My smartest move in preparing to interview Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices was to stop by Gristedes Supermarket en route to our meeting and pick up a six pack of Miller Lite. It’s no secret that Pollard likes to drink, and the bargain-priced brew is his current favorite. And, being that I was his final interview of a two-day jag in NYC to promote Guided By Voices’ über-genius new album, Isolation Drills, grabbing the sixer was somewhat of a calculated effort to endear myself to the man who, for all intents and purposes, could call himself the King of Indie Rock. I mean, if there were such a thing.
At the offices of TVT Records in Manhattan, Pollard held court in an intimate conference room, where he greeted me convivially and thanked me for bringing the beer (Yes!). Robert Pollard still resembles the unassuming fourth grade school teacher he was before he did a bunk on his day job to rock out with Guided By Voices full time, but he chain smokes like a rock star and is like a living encyclopedia of rock and roll. While waxing poetic regarding the highly autobiographical Isolation Drills — an album that’s equal parts painfully heart-stopping beauty and ass-kicking rock, Bob also talked about lots of stuff that — trust me –you won’t be reading in other interviews. And (to paraphrase Johnny Cash) Bob and I killed that six pack, just to watch it die.
Shall we roll?
First, I have to thank you for writing the most beautiful song, which is “Things I Will Keep.” It’s my favorite song, and it’s very personal to me.
Thank you. That song is my favorite song on Do The Collapse, and I said, “that’s the direction of the next record.” I wrote a lot of anthems for Isolation Drills because of that song.
The first couple of songs really do remind me of Do The Collapse. This is excellent beer, isn’t it?
Yeah, I love Miller Lite.
I’m a big Beatles fan from way back…
Who could not be?
…and being in the position of getting a lot of records and seeing so much crap that makes its way to CDs, not to mention — but you can see I am about to — everything on the radio that totally lacks melody, good song structure, and no one is encouraged to be excellent at their instrument, it’s really depressing for me, and I guess others like me•
That like to rock…
…Yeah! And the bar, the standard, for what is good rock music, has been lowered to the point where you can walk over it. So, when I get a new Guided By Voices record in the mail, I just have to say “Thank God for Guided By Voices, the Saviours of Rock.”
Someone once asked me, “How did you, overnight, after ten years, get a record contract?” and that kind of thing. And I was like, because music sucks so bad now. It was easy for us to get it. It took a time, a period in rock, a lull where nothing was going on, for something to happen for us. But, now that I look at it, that’s not really true, because, at that time when we broke, actually there were some pretty good things going on, like The Breeders and Nirvana and stuff.
Everybody is going to say that Isolation Drills is the album that will break Guided By Voices into the mainstream, but do you really think that’s going to happen?
I don’t know if it’s possible, really, with everything that’s going on in music right now. On this record, the label thought “Glad Girls” was a single, but they didn’t hear a second single. I was forced to go back and write a second single, which was “Chasing Heather Crazy.” I can write that kind of stuff all the time. That’s easy, pop songs, you know. But, I don’t know what a single is, that’s what I told them. I don’t know exactly what kind of music you’re looking for. I just know what I hear on the radio these days, and I don’t write that kind of music. So, I really don’t know if it’s possible. But maybe. There’s some good bands and rock is coming back a little bit, so maybe it will go the full cycle.
It seems to come back a little at a time. I mean, I don’t have any problem finding things that I can get into, but I don’t listen to the radio.
But if it does come back, all of the indie rock kids who have a problem with what we’re doing now, they’ll say that we were right. “They stuck to their guns and they played rock, so rock’s coming back.” There are some people — the lo-fi type people — who have a problem with what we’re doing right now, just a handful.
That brings me to the whole thing about Do The Collapse. When I first listened to it, I was like, “Why does anybody have a problem with this? It’s a Guided By Voices record. It’s a great record.” But then I went back and listened to Mag Earwhig or Under The Bushes…, and I did realize that it was a lot cleaner sounding. But so what? The songs are just as great, and it sounds better. Did you ever feel like you were maybe selling out, or compromising by going to work with a producer like Ric Ocasek?
We started out as lo-fi as you can get, and each album sounded better, so it’s been a gradual process. It’s not like we just dove in to high fidelity. Mag Earwhig sounded better than Under The Bushes and Under The Bushes sounded better than Alien Lanes. Gradually, the sound fidelity has gotten better. I wanted to do that anyway; I wanted to make a good-sounding record from the beginning. We just never had the resources. Then, once we started working with a four-track, and found out that we could do as many as twenty songs in a day, we kind of got addicted to it. We did three albums like that. Then there were people who said, “Well, we’re tired of this lo-fi shit, when are you going to do something that’s listenable?” Then we did, and the same people go, “Well, I like the lo-fi stuff better.” You can’t please other people, you just have to please yourself. I want to make big rock.
Why did you change the title of the CD from Broadcaster House to Isolation Drills?
Well, Broadcaster House [originated] because it was big, and we’re Guided By Voices, and [it was like] from the House of Guided By Voices comes this… new record. Plus, there was just a little snippet of [makes Devil Horns] “Horns Up” [laughs], so I thought Broadcaster House was a good title. Then, I looked at the dark nature of the record and how it was kind of personal and everything. The last song, that was deleted from the album, was a song called “Isolation Drills,” which will probably end up being a B-side or something. I just thought that was a more befitting title. You probably read the lyrics and can tell a little bit of what they’re about.
Yeah, let•s talk about that. My favorite song on Isolation Drills is “Unspirited,” and I have to ask if there is a good story behind that song.
That song’s kind of about how I felt at the time. Things were going on in my life where I kind of thought I was losing my shit a little bit. I felt like I was unspirited. The way to deal with it was just to become numb and not give a fuck about anything. It was also like a song to my son, too; sometimes I write songs to my son. That was another one of my choices for singles from this record, but my choices never happen.
On “Skills Like This,” the lyric about re-invention of the self or whatever, let•s get into that.
A lot of the songs I write, I’m talking to myself, I’m reinventing myself. [Talking about] redirection, using a stumbling block as a stepping stone, making it something positive. So, that line “I want to reinvent you” is just me [asking] myself, “What do I do now?” [Also], you have to reinvent yourself as a band to continue. We keep going [because] we’re re-inventing a little bit — gradually.
I read this quote about you, where some rock critic said that you are just “leaking music.” I thought that was a nice metaphor.
I’m leaking music, it seeps from my pores. [Thoughtful pause] I guess I do. I write a lot of songs. We have quite a catalog of songs now, quite a body of work we’ve created. So, I like that. I leak it, I guess. I don’t know. I dream it, eat it, sleep it.
It blows my mind that you can write not just so many songs, but so many great songs.
It’s telling of my age, you know. I’m 43, and I grew up, I was a kid, in the ’60s. I listened to the best music then. That’s where I learned to sing with a British accent and where I learned to write. I’ve been through all the different phases, you know, all the good phases, which, in my opinion, ended in 1980. It’s been spotty since then.
It’s disheartening to see how it’s gone downhill, and to see and hear great bands that don’t even break or get heard.
People are more concerned with image and sound, more so than songs. I don’t think people take the craft of songwriting seriously anymore, or not too many people.
The Suitcase box set shrink-wrap has a promo sticker with quotes. The one from your dad reads, “When are ya gonna stop doing this shit?” Is your father not convinced that you’re a working musician?
It’s all about money to him. You know, I never made money doing this, so it was a waste of time. He’s said other things, like, he said one time, trying to dissuade me from playing music, that he wanted me to be an athlete. He says, “Do you realize how many shitty bands are out there?” That’s actually the most profound thing he’s ever said. And I was like, “Yeah, I do, but you don’t understand what I’m trying to do. I do this because I like it… it’s fun.” That was the only reason we did it. Once we got signed to a big label and started making money, he was fine with it. He was scared at first. “When are you going to quit playing this shitty music?” My Mom said one time, I said, “Dad does not like our music,” and she said, “Well, you wouldn’t like it either if it wasn’t worth a shit,” and I was like, “Hey, fuck you, Mom!” [laughs] But it’s cool now, everything’s cool.
How do you decide which material is slated for your solo Fading Captain series and which material is best suited for GBV?
Whatever’s next. Just whatever batch of songs is next goes on the next record. Although, I think, if a song [makes me] go, “Wow, that has commercial potential,” or, “I could work on that and that could be something I think [winks] Mr. Gottlieb [Bob is referring to Steve Gottlieb, owner of TVT Records] would like,” then I hold it back for a Guided By Voices record. But for the most part, if a Guided By Voices record is finished, like it is now, the next batch of songs will go on the next record, whatever it is — whether it’s Robert Pollard or Tobin Sprout with Robert Pollard, Lexo and the Leapers, Polymorph Orchestra… I’m in five bands now!
Are you an official band whore now?
Tobin Sprout makes a guest appearance on Isolation Drills, any chance of him resuming his role as a full time member?
No, he’s decided to make it kind of low profile for him. But I did just finish an album with him. We actually have a band now called Airport Five. We finished a record, which will be out in August. It’s nice; it’s a really nice record. He does everything. He lives in Michigan, about nine hours away from me. He just basically records instrumentals and sends them down to me and I sing my lyrics. It takes no time at all and it sounds really good. That’s kind of the future, I think, maybe. I don’t know how much longer Guided By Voices can exist…
Don’t scare me.
Well, I think it will be forever and ever. But I got this thing going with Toby now that’s nice. We’ll probably do two records a year.
Have you ever bought one of his paintings?
They’re too expensive. I tried to get him to come down. He said he’d cut me a break. He said he’d sell me one for $3,000. I don’t have that kind of money.
Thinking about the movie Almost Famous, at one time GBV had rock critic Jim Greer as a band member. Do you think that helped you garner a “critic’s darling” status?
No, it hurt us. We were critics’ favorites and we kind of had some backlash because of him. Spin quit writing good things about us because he was a senior editor at Spin, so it actually hurt. A lot of other people in bands were like, “Why the fuck is he in your band?” He was in my band because he lived in Dayton, I needed a bass player, he said, “Let me give it a shot.” He came and he knew all the songs, so he was in. It wasn’t because we wanted to get some different acceptance from different people. But Jim’s a good guy, he’s much happier now. He just wrote a book called Exit Flagging which is about his experience with Kim Deal and Guided By Voices. I just read it, it’s pretty cool.
I know you’re a big Who fan, ever thought of doing a Who covers album? You could resurrect gems like “Mary Ann With the Shaky Hands,” and “Glow Girl.”
Well, part of our set’s “Baba O’Reilly.” We’ve kind of gotten rid of all the covers — we were doing quite a few — and the only one left that we continue to do is “Baba O’Reilly.” It’s one of our encore songs. It sounds good, too. I think it sounds better than The Who. [Laughs]
The song “I Am a Tree” [off Mag Earwhig] reminds me most of a Who song.
Oh definitely, that’s Doug [Gillard]’s song. The thing was, it’s an old song from like ’92. Doug and Tim [Tobias] are in a band called Gem, and that song wasn’t good enough for their album for some reason. I go, “man, what the fuck? I’ll take it. I’ll make it a Guided By Voices song.” I love that song, it’s totally The Who.
One time I saw you guys play with Sleater-Kinney in Central Park…
And it was this thing where, you’re waaaay over there, and between me and the stage there’s this football field of freaks, and all I can see is the freaks… so I had no idea what was going on on stage.
Do you remember when I started throwing beers? I got in trouble a little bit for it, too. I’m glad I got away with that one, I could have killed someone. But people were asking for beers, so I’d hand them off. Then there were people farther back, so I started flipping them. Then I’d toss them, and after awhile I was throwing them all the way back, as high as I could, and they were coming down… bottles of beer… I could have killed someone.
That’s so Nikki Sixx.
I thought it was a punk rock thing, but then I realized it was pretty fucking stupid. Someone from my label came out and tried to grab me, to stop me. That was a weird show, because it was really hot, and it was scary actually. There were a lot of people there. We were told by riot grrls in Portland that “Sleater-Kinney is going to burn the stage up on you guys.” Come on!
Ever consider writing a concept album? Like The Makers’ Rock Star God or something? Wasn’t Mag Earwhig meant to be a concept album of sorts?
A bunch of my albums started out as concept albums. Mag Earwhig was going to be a rock opera. I actually had names and shit off to the side of the lyrics — characters. But then I go, “man, I do not feel like going through interviews explaining the spiritual significance of this record,” you know? So, it isn’t a concept album. It doesn’t mean anything [laughs]. I heard that Makers album, I liked it. I wanted to like it better than I did. But I used to love concept albums. Sometimes before I’d play a football game in high school, I’d listen to Quadrophenia all the way through.
Speaking of Mag Earwhig, do you still talk to [Cobra Verde singer/guitarist] John Petkovic?
[Long pause] No, I don’t talk to him anymore. He’s mad at me, so, whatever. [Pause] I thought John Petkovic was the coolest guy in the world for awhile. We were great friends, and then… it’s just like, shit went down. I didn’t feel that he was into it, to tell you the truth. Not just him, but a few other guys in Cobra Verde. I felt like ulterior motives were involved with them being in my band.
I feel weird asking you about this, because John is a friend, and Cobra Verde is one of my favorite bands and so is Guided By Voices…
They’re a good band, they’re fucking great… I would like to be friends with him still.
I think John’s a great guy, but I’m not taking anyone’s side. I can love you both. I can be like that.
I would like to end whatever kind of war it is with him. I’d love to, I don’t hold grudges. It just didn’t work out, the whole Cobra Verde thing didn’t work out for whatever reasons. But he doesn’t even talk to Doug anymore, really, and they were together forever. That’s a good question, actually. No one’s asked me that question. I•ve been waiting for that.
I was feeling fearless.
Well, we all remember when Yes did a reunion tour with all current and former members present…
I saw that!
…and Jethro Tull gathered their entire roster for the occasion of new recordings for a box set. Is it possible to herd all the various GBV alumni to do something ala Paul McCartney’s Rockestra Theme?
You know, we talked about that recently. It’s weird that you would ask that, because we said, on our last tour of the south, we go, “Man, we need to get everybody together and have some kind of a basketball game, where somebody gets tired and raises their hand and somebody else comes in.” We’d get all the members. I’ve also wanted to get all of the people who have been in Guided By Voices and take, like, a football team picture, in the bleachers like, you know? I’d love to do that! I don’t know how many people would be willing to do that. Let’s do it! [Laughs]
In the old days, when you stocked your homemade albums in mom and pop shops in and around Dayton, Ohio, which member of GBV was the salesman who made the deals?
Well, first of all, most record stores wouldn’t have those records. There was even a label guy who put our first record out — his label was called I Wanna Records — Rev Cool, he called himself. When we made our first record, we didn’t even have a label, so we put his label on our record. He got all pissed off about it. Then he did a compilation record of all the bands that were on his label, and he didn’t put us on there. Now he’s kicking himself in the ass, because he’d probably be getting a lot of money from those records.
But anyway, most record stores wouldn’t even put our records in the store. Then a friend of mine, Greg Demos, who was actually playing bass, not only did he take them to record stores but he actually started sending them out for review. We started getting some pretty good reviews on some of those early records. We got a good review in Spin, a “Spin Underground” thing. But I just totally said, “I’m not going to do anything with this stuff… I’m afraid” [laughs]. I was, like [whispers], “we suck.” [Laughs] I thought we did suck. Maybe we did suck. I was really afraid of big cities like New York and Cleveland, because those were the rock and roll towns. I thought if Cleveland and New York heard our stuff, we’d be laughed off the planet. I really did, that’s why I didn’t send anything out. But critics seem to like us. We have a story [laughs].
Why do you think GBV survived the collapse of the alternative rock era?
Because we’re ROCK at heart. I never considered us to be part of the lo-fi, indie rock or the alternative thing. I’ve always been in rock bands. I was in a heavy metal band in the ’70s. We’ve been here forever. You know the cockroach on the disc of Do The Collapse?
It’s funny that you would mention that, because I was looking at that today and thinking of how Tom Semioli wrote this review of Isolation Drills for Amplifier magazine where he said, “When the bomb drops, there will be two survivors: The cockroach and Guided By Voices.”
That’s what that means. That’s what that symbolizes. We’re not going away. We’re hard to kill. Our next album’s going to be called Heavy River. It’s much more prog-rock-like — without the keyboards, of course. I know some people, that idea scares them.
Well, I’m sure you get this all the time, but I hear a lot of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, especially in the older Guided By Voices records.
I love that! [Whispers] I love that. I•m a huge early Genesis fan. That might be my favorite music.
Will there ever be a female member of GBV?
No chicks in the tree house! That’s what I told Kim Deal. We were touring with The Breeders, and Kim asked me, right after Last Splash, “Why don’t you let me play bass?” And I thought for sure she was just fucking with me, so I said no. And I probably would have let her, but then I told her that we have a policy that there are no females allowed in Guided By Voices. It’s like when you’re a kid and you have your tree house and there’s no girls allowed in it. Then she did an interview in some GIRL magazine and she called me over and she goes, “Explain your philosophy to her!” And I said, “No chicks in the fuckin’ tree house, OK?”
I don’t have a problem with that, but what about a duet with a chick singer?
I did one with Kim once. We did “Love Hurts” for a movie called Love and a .45. It was pretty sweet, and it was going to be the main song, but then they didn’t put it in there. I think you can barely hear it in a bar scene or something.
If you could invite any musician from any era or band to be a member of GBV, who would that be?
Well, I used to say, you might not know who this band is, but do you remember UFO?
Yes I do, I love UFO.
Do you remember Pete Way? I want him in my band, because he kicked ass. He wore the tight, striped pants and just kicked ass. I want Pete Way to be in my band. Then Greg Demos started wearing those tight, striped pants so he kind of became that character. Pete Way on bass. Bun E. Carlos on drums. I guess he likes Guided By Voices. We did a short tour with Cheap Trick.
I saw that show, and I thought you were much better than Cheap Trick. Because they’re kind of… over.
Yeah, they’ve been over for a long time. We are totally better. Our music is more serious than Cheap Trick’s ever been. They’re just a straightforward, fun band.
Their first album was kind of heavy.
The first album is unbelievably great. But lyrically, they’ve never said anything, really. [Pause] Have they?
Check this: I saw them play at CBGB’s on the day of the Columbine shooting, and they did “The Ballad of TV Violence.” Is that scary?
Wow. Their first album is phenomenal. Thinking about it, yeah, there’s some good titles and some good lyrics on that record. That tour was weird because they were nice… to a degree. They lectured us a lot about our drinking and about different things. Like, who are you to tell me about that? [Laughs].
How did the famous Pollard drop-kick stage movement start?
Gee, I don’t know where that came from. Before we could even play our instruments, we practiced moves — just with guitars on, jumping around, but I never kicked. The first show that we played — we hadn’t played in about six years — and then we played the [CMJ] New Music Seminar at CBGB. I was really nervous and I started doing kicks for some reason, out of nervousness. So I was doing the cheerleaders’ kicks and the karate kicks and all that, and I decided to keep those in. I did a lot of things because I was inspired by Adam Ant, his moves from the Kings of the Wild Frontier days, you know? Those jumps where you kick the side of your feet? I have lot of stolen moves, but I think “the kick” is mine.
Jimmy Webb, one of your heroes, wrote a book on songwriting. Have you read it?
No, but I saw some excerpts from it in a magazine, and I disagreed with a lot of the things he said. Where you have to have true rhymes? I don•t agree with that. I don’t agree that it even has to rhyme. He’s a great songwriter, though, maybe the best. I know his sons, the Webb brothers, are Guided By Voices fans, and they tried to get me to write songs for them one time and I said no fucking way. No way could I do that. I’m intimidated by people like that. I was intimidated by Ric Ocasek a bit.
I interviewed him once, and he speaks very softly.
That’s how he was as a producer, too. [Whispers] “You can do it again.”
Berkeley School of Music, UCLA, University of Texas, and the University of Miami all offer degrees in Rock Performance and Composition. Being a former teacher, do you think you could return to teaching, perhaps at these institutions, in the autumn of your years, or do you want to just rock out on stage until you die?
I plan to rock the rest of my life. And even if I didn’t, I don’t know if I would go back to teaching. I don’t like to go…
Yeah, I don’t like to do that. I don’t know what I would do. Porn director, maybe? [Laughs]
For a student pursuing a degree in rock music, what albums, musicians, and eras would you emphasize? As a parent, would you pay the tuition for your kids to study this kind of curriculum?
Yeah, I would. I’d pay the tuition. My son’s in college now, and he•s majoring in philosophy and literature and people are asking him, “What are you going to do with that?” But the important thing is to learn and have fun. But I would tell kids to listen to the Golden era of rock, which is, in my opinion, 1967 to 1979. Focus on that classical phase, that’s what I would say. Back in the ’60s, the most popular bands were the best bands, which is not so true anymore.
Also, back then, you had to kind of… be good.
You had to be good, [laughs] you had to be able to sing, harmonize. You had to look good. I remember when, and it was maybe up to about 1980, I could go every week and I would buy four or five great albums that I couldn’t wait to come out, that I’d be excited about. I don’t even go buy records anymore.
If you ever make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (you’ll be eligible in another six years), who would induct GBV?
Who would induct us? [Long pause] Ray Davies? How about Ray Davies, would he be good?
There’s no right answer, and it’s your band. But I think Pete Townshend would be good. Although Ray Davies is a really good answer, too.
Michael Azerrad reviewed Bee Thousand for Rolling Stone, and at the same time, he was getting ready to interview Pete Townshend. He said he was going to turn him on to Bee Thousand, but I don’t know if he ever did.
That’s kind of a thrilling thought, isn’t it?
It’s kind of scary… Pete Townshend listening to our four-track record.
It•s one of those lose your mind things. Anyway, I’ve always wanted to know, what does “Taking sips of Liquid Indian” mean?
Well, you know, I have a lot of Indian blood in me. People always said that Indians can’t handle their alcohol very well, so Liquid Indian means the spiritual value of alcohol, I think. It’s always done wonders for me, I like alcohol. This beer is what we drink all the time. We drink watered down Miller Lite. I have a temper and sometimes alcohol will bring that out in me, but for the most part, it makes me happy. It only makes me angry, and I go off, when someone’s trying to stomp on my buzz. Sometimes people don’t want to see you have a good time, do you know what I’m talking about? Then I’ll fucking lose my shit. But that song is about…. “I am the liquid Indian.” Taking sips of liquid Indian can make you feel fine.