A Conversation with

Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices

in conjunction with
The Developing Arts And Music Foundation
Minneapolis, MN
February 2002

Exploring the creative process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.

[This is pretty much just the pre-edited, raw interview / conversation.]

Q What can you tell us about the new album coming out in May?

 It changes a lot, but the name we’re goin’ with right now is From A Voice Plantation.

Q Your new drummer [Kevin Martch, who’s played with Those Bastard Souls, Shudder To Think, and The Dambuilders] seems pretty lucky, to have joined GBV without even auditioning!

A I know him – he’s a good guy; I think he’ll work out great!

Q You’ve been pretty prolific as a songwriter; how does that process work, when you’re dealing with solo releases and non-GBV projects?

A I write all the time, when I’m inspired, I’ll sit down and write a huge batch of songs, that happens maybe three times a year, or something. It’s a matter of what project is next – if we just finished a Guided By Voices album, like we have just now, then whatever batch of songs I write next, there’s a cut off line. If I write another batch of songs, then that’s gonna go on the next project. I don’t really save anything, whatever project is next, that’s what the songs go on. The only difference is, we take a little bit more time on a GBV project, whereas if I’ve got a solo record or a side project, I won’t spend a whole lot of time on the arrangement, and so forth.

Q GBV was one of the most accomplished bands in terms of the “low-fi” phenomena; is the 4-track still an impetus for the band’s material?

A I don’t work much with a 4-track any more, I actually go into a studio, but we do things really quickly, and we don’t spend a lot of time on how professional it sounds.

I’ve got a label that I started on the side, it’s called the Fading Captain Series, so whatever I want to do, I can do. I’ve been doing these collaborations recently – I did a couple with Toby Sprout, and I just finished one with Mac McCaughan – where, they send me their music, on an 8-track or whatever, and I just do the vocals in the studio. Basically, mail rock – postal rock

It’s really pretty, I think. The music that he [McCaughan] gave me is really pretty. Some of it sounds like, Portastatic stuff he does, some it sounds kinda [like] Superchunk, and since I did the vocals on it, some of it sounds kinda [like] Guided By Voices, so I think it’s really interesting. It’s gonna be interesting for me, I think, to see what the reaction is, from the kids – mainly like, the college circles, you know.

Toby – – when we did the first Airport 5 record – he really dug it, and it kind of inspired him, and he immediately sent me another shitload of music. So actually, the second Airport 5 record was done before the first one came out. So, we’ve basically just been sitting on it. It’s a little darker than the first one. I personally like it better. I don’t think everybody else will. The first album’s a little more song-oriented. This one’s a little more experimental.

Q Like Nightwalker?

A [laughs] No, not that experimental. It’s still songs, it’s still Toby playing music, and me singing over the top, it just seems like it’s a little darker. I think it’s a little more interesting, but it’s not quite as poppy.

Q Is it true that you write all your songs back at home, as opposed to on the road?

A I write lyrics on the road. It’s very difficult to come up with musical ideas on the road. I was at one point, where I took a little hand-held tape recorder, to record musical ideas – I don’t like that. I work better from that hand-to-eye kind of thing. I work better when I can see my ideas written on paper. Basically, all I can do on the road is keep a notebook, and keep lyrical ideas and things, titles, lyrics, and so forth. Then I compile all these when I come home, I get my guitar out, and turn my tape recorder on, and just start puttin’ music over the top of lyrics, and so forth. Occasionally, I come up with the music first. I prefer the lyrics first, because it’s easier for me to put music to lyrics. Some people think that’s kind of a reverse procedure. Songs usually turn out better – for me – or more personally interesting, if I come up with the lyrics first. If you come up with a melody, it’s kind of difficult to put really interesting lyrics to a melody.

Q Are your lyrics written stream-of-consciousness? They seem fairly literary, quite often.

A I appreciate you saying that. They are stream-of-consciousness. I sometimes don’t know what they mean when I write them. But I can tell they mean something. They’re kind of personal – they’re from things that I’ve observed, and things I’ve heard people say, and they’re kind of line-by-line. But I do string lines together, and they kind of have a flow, so when I write them, I don’t consciously know what they’re about, but then later, I can look at them, and go, okay, I kind of know what that’s about. And they’re kind of open for interpretation for people to read – I get all these different meanings from people that come up to me, like, does this song mean this? And I go, well if it means that to you, I guess it does. A lot of times they’re right on the head, you know?

Q Do you ever check out the Postal-Blowfish online mailing list?

A Sometimes, not a whole lot. [laughing]

Q They like to discuss your lyrics quite a bit.

A Oh I know! I got some shit from Isolation Drills, some people thought I was being a little too personal, you know. And maybe I was, but like, that was what I was going through at the time, so…

This new record that we’ve just finished, I think lyrically is really interesting. It’s hard to tell what stuff’s about, but …

The last 13 songs we recorded for it … I was working on a book of poetry, and I thought, I’m not a poet, I’m not gonna write a book of poetry, so I took the best 13 poems and I put music to ’em, so I think lyrically it’s a pretty interesting record.

They still sound like songs. This record that we’re doing is really pretty, but it’s not as sad sounding, it’s not as personal sounding. It’s more about observations of how frustrating, basically it is, to live here, or live anywhere, you know? Life, period. So, it’s about the frustration of too much traffic, and that kind of thing, you know? [laughing].

Q You seem to function as an ongoing music historian, in your role as a front man in a band.

A Oh, I do. Before I was ever even in a band, or even knew how to play guitar, I used to make album covers and lyrics, and sequence them on a lyric sheet, so it was like, an album without music. I learned how to do that before I learned how to be a musician or be in a band. That to me is the most important thing, the art of making it presentable. Making the packaging, and the lyrics, and the sequencing, and all that kind of thing, you know?

Q In your opinion, what was the most significant factor about The Beatles, in terms of being so influential?

A They kind of forged the path for everyone, artistically. Not only were they the greatest songwriters, and were their songs beautiful and magical, they were a step ahead of everyone else, as far as where rock was going. To me, they invented rock. They invented pop rock, and then they invented psychedelic rock. They were the forerunners, in every step of the way. I heard Gene Simmons say in an interview recently that the thing about The Beatles was that they made you feel glad to be alive at the time. It was like a spiritual thing. They wrote all the timeless songs – especially John Lennon, and Paul McCartney also, they wrote these songs that I don’t think will ever die out. They’re going to be around forever, and people will be singing em forever.

The main thing is, it’s all nice – the art part of it and the cover and everything, but the main thing is, you gotta have some songs. There’s so many good bands, that are really talented, but they can’t write good songs, and so – to me – they’re nowhere.

Q You recently collaborated on a project with Richard Meltzer – that sounds like an interesting pairing . . .

A Yeah, that’s finished too. I met Richard Meltzer, and I’m still nervous around him, because he’s such an awesome guy. He’s one of my heroes, he wrote for Creem – with Lester Bangs, and shit. I read his books – his books are amazing. I met him in Portland, and at the time he was not real familiar with Guided By Voices, so Chris Slusarenko started turning him on to stuff, and now he’s becoming somewhat of a completist – and that’s difficult. But he’s a really good guy, and Chris said we gotta get you and Richard together, because your lyrics are interesting and his stuff is really, really good – his poetry. So I said yeah, that would be really awesome, and I’d be honored, and I think I kind of gloated over that. How many people could you think of that really respect Richard Melzer, like Thurston Moore, and people like that, would really love to do something like that, so I said hell yeah, I’d jump at the opportunity, so… So that’s finished, it’s really interesting, it’s really a fucked up strange record. [laughs] It’s a weird fucking record! His stuff is better than mine, I will say – his poetry. Mine is more musical. His is basically spoken word for the most part. His stuff is hilarious.

Q His contribution to the record is solely as a lyricist, then?

A Oh yeah – he doesn’t sing. I speak some of it, and I sing some of it. He just basically speaks. I did my stuff over at – – we call the Bandhandler, which is basically my brother, Mitch Mitchell, myself, and it’s pretty noisy, but it’s kind of musical. He’s basically just reading his poetry over the top of his band, which is called Smegma, and it’s really kind of jazzy, weird, free-form shit, and he’s just speaking – his lyrics are really hardcore, he obviously has a few statements to make, whereas mine are just kind of goin’ crazy, you know?

Q A bit of the old prog-rock influence?

A Oh yeah! I think so.

There’s some prog-rock moments on our new album, man! Oh yeah!

Q How do you relate that kind of influence, to … say, someone like Peter Gabriel in Genesis?

A People have a big problem with that, a lot of people do – you know, people with the punk rock aesthetic, they just cannot believe that I was into prog rock. But, it’s gotten to not be such a bad thing anymore, a lot of people are kind of digging prog-rock. I was absorbed into the world of early Genesis, with Peter Gabriel – that’s all I listened to. I can get that stuff out now, and it just conjures back this magical time when I used to listen to Genesis, and it was my own band. Cause here in Dayton, no one else knew who in the fuck Genesis was. That stuff is, I think – what some people fail to realize is – it’s prog-rock, and some of it’s too long, and it’s keyboard-oriented, but there were so many brilliant, beautiful musical and lyrical ideas within all that stuff. To me, we’re prog-rock, except instead of making one long suite, I break em up, into songs.

Q Smothered In Hugs – purged nightmare or love song?

A I think it could be either thing, actually. To me, it was kind of a purged nightmare at the time, I guess, I don’t know what was going on with me at the time, but it was kind of a song about frustration at the time, for whatever was happening to me I guess. I’ve had other people come up to me and say it was about Jesus Christ, and other things, and I said well, it could be, you know? Like I said, it’s open to – whatever it means to someone, fine, especially if it means something that kind of helps them out somehow.

Q Now that you’re recording in the studio more, as opposed to the so-called “lo-fi” approach you used to use, how does this affect the way in you approach the music itself?

A As a songwriter, it’s kind of gotten me to work a little bit longer on the arrangements of the songs, and what I want to happen as a songwriter. Not only that, but having a band that technically is really, really good, and is able to pull off any of my ideas, anything I want to do. I think I’ve kind of stretched my songs out, and made them a little bit more complex, because of that. Because of having a technically – really, really – good band, and also having access to producers, and big studios and so forth. It’s caused me to become a little bit more of a serious songwriter.

Q Does that ever trip you up – having the option to go back and redo things?

A I don’t like to do that. Even in a big studio, I’m into, like, hey, let’s spend a half a day on this song, and that’s fuckin’ it, you know? Let’s not redo that – see, the one thing was, whenever we were working with producers, the one that I did not like was having to make sure that every syllable is sung correctly, and in pitch. I think that kind of takes the charm out of a vocal. Now, I’m into like, bustin’ out a vocal, and if it sounds like it has the feeling that’s fine, I don’t care if there are flat notes and things in it, I don’t care. I’m not into pussyfooting and taking too long on a song, because it just gets to where, it gets almost painful, you know?

Q Was it like that working on Do The Collapse?

A Oh yeah, I had to deal with that, and – nothing to take away from Ric Ocasek, or […] because I think they did a tremendous job, and I really like both records, but it’s painful to take that much time on it. I just don’t have a lot of patience. My philosophy is to bang something out and go on to the next thing. To me, if it takes too long to do something, maybe it’s not worth doing. Maybe it’s because the song’s not that good.

Q Isn’t that the same sort of spontaneity that kicked in when you made the decision to leave teaching behind, and pursue a full-time career as a rock star? Making those kinds of decisions isn’t going to be easy for a lot of people.

A Well, yeah – it was terrifying! What happened was, I had been doing this musical side thing which most of the people around here, family and friends and so forth thought was kind of a ridiculous thing for me to be doing at that age. I tried to explain to em, hey I do it because it’s fun! And we just do it on the weekend, and it’s like, it’s a hobby! But then, when it became – all of a sudden people found out about it, and it started circulating, and all of a sudden we became the buzz, it was pretty terrifying. And then suddenly, it became real. Whereas before, we would do photo sessions, and we would do interviews, and everything was fake, it was just like a fantasy, it was just for fun – actually, it was more fun, then. But then all of a sudden it became real and we had the interviews, and the things on MTV, all the label flipping, everything – – oh, this was reality now, it was pretty terrifying at first. And I’ve kind of gotten used to it now, but at first … There was this decision to make, like, can I deal with this, first of all, the pressure, secondly, can I give up a 14-year career with benefits and everything? The decision was made by me – – I just said hey, this is something that would be pretty stupid to pass up, you know, something that you’ve wanted to do all your life. It’s never too late, kind of, you know?

Q Was there ever a moment when you thought, if this doesn’t work … ?

A Well, hell, I thought if it doesn’t work, I fucked up! But then I thought hey, I’ve got a teaching certificate, I could always go back and do it again, if I needed to. And now, goin’ on like, playin’ rock for like nine years now, nine years now, that I’ve been doing it, I have no aspiration whatsoever to go back into teaching. I think because of our fairly hardcore following, I think it’s something I could do at a – maybe not necessarily touring or whatever, but just putting out records, is something I can do, the rest of my life, hopefully.

Q I think a lot of people hope that you do.

A [laughs] Well, that’s good! I appreciate those people!

Q The bootlegs alone should be a testament to your success, don’t you think? Maybe it’s about time for an official double-live GBV album?

A I’ve never been much of a live album guy. I’ve always liked bootlegs better than official live albums. I know it’s just trying to represent the band in a different environment, but to me there’s just very few albums that really capture it. Live At Leeds – that’s fuckin’ awesome! Kiss Alive! and a couple of others, but the rest of em, for the most part, I just don’t see the necessity of doin’ it. It just doesn’t really capture what a band’s like live. I think they should just be reserved for bootlegs – unless you’re fuckin’ huge.

© J.Free / D.A.M.F.; 2002; 2022

Photos of Guided By Voices from First Avenue in Minneapolis, MN © J.Free; 2002; 2022

To read the completed article that appeared in the DAMF Magazine GO HERE