An Interview with Robert Pollard of
Guided By Voices
After 48 songs, two and a half hours, and approximately 10 bottles of beer, I spot Guided By Voices singer Robert Pollard struggling to stand up straight outside the club. A deafening chant of “GBV! GBV!” shakes the windows.
“You going back in there?” I ask him.
“Of course!” he says. With some help, he stumbles back onstage and keeps on playing.
This persistence is what has turned Pollard’s fun hobby band in Ohio into a well-known rock and roll empire with thirteen studio albums and a fiercely loyal fan base. Perhaps they’re best known for their live show. The band starts drinking before the show and just keeps going for the usual two and a half hours they are on stage. Pollard is a bona fide rock star, downing one Michelob Light after another, swinging the microphone and rocking like no other former fourth grade teacher.
Universal Truths and Cycles, the band’s latest album, marks the band’s return to Matador Records after a brief stint at TVT. The album isn’t entirely lo-fi, as some reviews suggest, but the band definitely knows just where to add studio gloss and where to keep things at a garage level. The d.i.y. vibe is nicely balanced by the band’s experience and is far from the days of recording on a four-track.
I talked to Pollard on the phone from his home in Ohio, and it was a definitely a more sober conversation than at the show the other night. I learned that there’s a lot more to Guided By Voices than drunken antics.
How do you like being with Matador Records again? Do you plan to work with them in the future?
For the most part, Matador gives the artists control. I never know what’s going to happen. I’m getting older and I don’t know what the future will hold; I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to play live. Right now, I feel pretty good, though.
I also don’t know how much longer I’ll make records with Guided By Voices. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. The band’s anniversary coincides with bicentennial of Ohio, 20 years of Guided by Voices, 200 years of Ohio! [Laughs] As long as I feel we could use the exposure, we’ll stay with Matador. I’ve got my own label on the side [Fading Captain], and we put out a lot of records with that. We have a fan base for almost ten years. We can sell records to them on their own. Our fans aren’t the mainstream, but the alternative. Two to five thousand people usually buy records on my label. People still seem to be into Guided By Voices.
Did you ever feel any pressure to make a hit song?
A little bit, with TVT. Not pressure, just enthusiasm. You try to write songs people will like. It got to the point where I was writing songs specifically to be played on the radio. I’m not disappointed, though. We had to play these big shows but we’d be the opening act for bands who haven’t even been around. We’d play at 1:00 in the afternoon on the small stage where Tenacious D was headlining. They’re like a joke band, they’re not even real.
Do you ever get tired of people talking about how you guys like to drink?
Yeah! For a while it was, “So you like to drink a lot? How was Ric Ocasek? How was teaching school?” How about drinking in school with Ric Ocasek?
Are you the main songwriter or does the band collaborate?
Yes, I’m the only songwriter. At one point Toby [Tobin Sprout] wrote songs, but even back in the four-track phase I still wrote the most. Guided By Voices is my vehicle for songs, my canvas.
What inspires you most to write music?
Listening to music. I’ve been buying records since the ’60s, and my main inspiration comes from old records. Also, when I was teaching, the things the kids would say would inspire me. Now I’m not around kids anymore, I’m around adults, so a lot of things I see, read or hear in my travels inspire me.
What has changed most in your life since you left teaching for music full-time?
Well, I just got a divorce. I needed to make my life less complicated. So I did, but I didn’t want to do it this way. I was always gone. At one point I was a coach, a teacher, I played sports myself, I was in a band, I was a father and a husband, and now I live in a shitty apartment. I’ve lost everything. Things have changed, but it’s OK. The divorce went through like six months ago, but we’ve been apart for two years before that. We were married for 21 years and went together for 7 years before that, so we were together most of our lives. But I’m starting to get in the groove of my new lifestyle, even though I’m not sure what that is. At least the kids are grown and it’s not as difficult if they were younger.
Would you still be a teacher if you weren’t a musician?
I taught for 14 years, and at the time, I was ready to get out of it.
I heard about your comic book, how did that come about?
I don’t know. Some guy wanted to put us in a comic book.
Hmm, good answer. Any more collaborations with The Strokes, music video or otherwise?
We were going to do some shows with them, but I don’t think that will happen. Some kind of fight with agents and managers. We’re good friends though.
What is your favorite city to play?
Some cities are more enthusiastic than others. Portland is real crazy. Every time we play Orlando it’s insane. You never know where you’re going to have some of the most enthusiastic fans. I didn’t expect that there.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen at a show?
Doug [Gillard, guitar player] went behind the amp and took a piss. We stay on stage for a long time, like two and a half hours sometimes. In the early days I used to fall off the stage all the time. I’d fall off the monitors and land on my head.
If you looked back at Guided By Voices from 50 years in the future, would you say the band was a success?
Way over a success; we started out just as a hobby, just for fun. We never sold ourselves or sent out a bio or anything; it was kind of out of cowardice, actually. We figured that if we want any success people will have to come after us. I don’t have any musical background. I just wanted to be part of playing music somehow; it was a weekend fantasy. We were signed to some really good labels, so we’ve had some exposure. We have a really strong fanbase and that in itself is a success. To keep a band together for ten years, keep putting out records and receive pretty good reviews is a success, I think. I never thought we’d reach that level. It’s a good place to be. In the future, people will say “Hey, they were a really good band.” Our evolution was kind of intentionally slow. We strayed for awhile but now we’re back to doing our own thing.