Under 30

I can't complain but sometimes I still do

Sunday, January 29, 2006

An interview with Robert Pollard

One of my favorite bands ever is Guided by Voices, a group few people know about but loved passionately by those that do. (Newbies, please check out the albums "Bee Thousand," "Under the Bushes, Under the Stars" and "Isolation Drills" and be blown away.)

I have had the privilege of interviewing GBV frontman and songwriter Robert Pollard twice, and have met him a few times at concerts. Along with being a genius (if erratic) songwriter, he's also a helluva nice guy. This interview originally ran about two years ago in Ladies and Gentlemen, a Chicago-based mag run by my friend Erik Westra. The story isn't online, so I'm posting it here.

Patti Smith once said she never wanted to talk to Bob Dylan because it would ruin the ongoing conversation she’d been having with her idea of Bob Dylan in her mind. At least I think she said that. I can’t verify that she actually said it. It’s possible that I read that somewhere and “Horses” was playing in the background. Either way, I agree with the alleged statement. I definitely do not want to talk to any of my heroes, especially Bob Dylan, who would probably treat me like a dick.

My hero exception is Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, a man who must be ranked among the best conversationalists in rock ‘n’ roll. We launched right into our interview like we were old friends. Amazingly I found our conversation to be remarkably like the one I’ve had with Bob hundreds of time in my head.

The problem with most musicians is they never ever want to talk about music, especially their music. I guess it’s like you or me talking about our daily 9-to-5 jobs. Whereas if you’re a fan, (their) music is all you want to talk about. It is the only thing you have in common, after all. Suffice it to say that this equation results in a lot of awkward silences between the have and have not. There’s none of that with Bob.

Bob is cool. Bob is as interested in talking about Bob as you are. It’s almost like talking with another GBV fan, probably because it is.

The main topics of our conversation were, unsurprisingly, songwriting and drinking, the two things Bob does more prolifically than anybody in indie rock. Songwriting and drinking are the twin pillars of the Bob legend. Bob, in case you didn’t know, is the guy who writes 29 songs in the morning and drinks 29 Budweisers at that night’s three-hour rock show. There is no bigger proponent of the Bob legend than Bob himself. He didn’t become a full-time musician until he was 35, and you get the sense he kept pretending to be in a real band long after he actually became a part of one. Drinking always has fueled the fantasy. Drinking makes you a rocker, even if you aren’t one. Drinking informs his songwriting, as both subject matter and mood enhancer, but it also is the flipside of his daily routine. A primary reason Bob writes so many songs is it keeps his overactive mind entertained. “It keeps me out of trouble that way,” he says.
I caught him on an early August morning just as he was wrapping up the day’s work on some new GBV songs. The band’s latest album, the pretty darn wonderful “Earthquake Glue”, wasn’t even out yet and here he was already planning ahead. The publicist from Matador had warned that Bob would be screening his calls (word is he has some loony fans) but he picked up on the second ring.

LG: So what are you up to this morning?
BP: I’ve just been hanging out and working on some collages. I’m going to start this quarterly with our merchandising company for my collages and poems and shit. So I’ve been working on that, trying to get that first issue together. And I’m working on songs for the next Guided by Voices record. I’m going to do some demos tomorrow for it.

LG: Do you write songs every day?
BP: I work on them. Every morning I work on stuff. I don’t necessarily come up with new stuff every day but I do work every morning.

LG: I hear you’re an early riser.
BP: Yeah, I get up usually around 6 or something and by 10 I’m finished, I’ve got the rest of the day. People stay in bed all day long, they waste the fucking day. I think that’s the most creative part of the day, the morning. But that’s just me, I don’t know, some people work differently.

LG: Have you been doing collages as long as you’ve been writing songs?
Bp: I used to make all these fake album covers and they were basically collages that I would give band names to. And I’ve been doing that since I was probably in early high school. But I was writing songs before that even. I started writing songs when I was maybe 9 years old or something like that. They were silly, stupid shit. “Planet Mars.” “Eggs Make Me Sick.” “Jagwire.” Not Jaguar, Jagwire.

LG: That sounds like a hit, man.
BP: Yeah, they were hits back then.

LG: The new album is great by the way.
BP: Thank you. I think it’s solid. It kind of rocks.

LG: It’s a good rebound from “Universal Truths and Cycles”, which I thought was a drop-off from “Isolation Drills.”
BP: You’re more into the more solid, more focused shit, aren’t you?

LG: Not necessarily because I love a lot of your solo work. It just seems like “Isolation Drills” was this great, large scale rock album and everything you’ve done since has backed away from that.
BP: That was kind of a catharsis for me, that album. That was just kind of a point in my life where a lot of shit went down and it was just a complete change in my life, with the break-up of my wife of 21 years. I was so lost. I just didn’t know what I was going to do and that record came out of that. And after that everything was a rebuilding process. I’m much more comfortable with what we’re doing now. My ideas come from the way I feel, my emotions. Right now I’m happy. I just got engaged to a girl I met in St. Louis about four or five months ago, so the stuff I’m writing now is more poppy, more up.

LG: Is it hard to listen to “Isolation Drills” now?
BP: It is but I like that. I always wanted to make what I call a blue record, like a “Who’s Next” type of album. I always wanted to do a sad, anthemic record that kind of lifts you up from your depression. That to me was that so hopefully I’ve been able to stay up. I have ups and downs and shit but I’m pretty happy right now. I’m pretty happy with my life and where I live now. I lived in a shitty apartment at that time and that made me depressed and now I live in a nice big loft. And I have a girl. And my band is getting along really well right now. The chemistry is there. So everything is going really well and the songs are positive because of that.

LG: Is that where the title comes from, “Earthquake Glue”? Has all that stuff kept your world from being ripped apart?
BP: To me it’s synonymous with love. Not only me but everyone. More so now than ever we need to figure out how to keep it together. But it didn’t come from that originally. When I write lyrics it’s just kind of spontaneous. I just kind of let it go, space out and write them.
Titles are important to me. Every facet of making a record is important to me as an art. The cover, the title. It’s important that the title isn’t too obvious with what the cover looks like. A lot of times you see records that are just too obvious. One thing I really labor over is the sequence. One of my favorite things to do is to sequence stuff. So like, the thing about “Universal Truths and Cycles“, you say you didn’t like that record as much as this one, that record we were starting to do things ourselves again and we were working with Todd Tobias, a new producer actually. And we were kind of feeling our way around on that one and it’s kind erratic and kind of all over the place. It’s not as focused as “Earthquake Glue.”

LG: The cool thing about you is that you’re kind of like Neil Young in that you make a record every year, and it’s fun to follow you because even your less successful records are interesting in the context of what you do. A record like “Universal Truths and Cycles” would be more disappointing if you only put out one record every five years.
BP: Well that’s the thing I’ve always said, if you don’t like something you can go to the next one quickly. A lot of bands will labor over 12 songs for five years. What happens if you don’t like those songs? You’ve pretty much wasted five years. I think I work out of fear of failure. But it’s also because I love doing it. Everybody has something they love to do and this is what I love to do.

LG: So these songs you’re working on now, you’re intending them for the next Guided by Voices record?
BP: Yeah. I like to stay ahead. Before we put a record out, I kind of have the understanding that we have to get on the road for a long time and it’s going to be pretty difficult to do a whole lot of work. So I like to get my work finished before we get out on tour. I always pretty much have the next record ready to go before the latest album is released. I’ve got 15 songs ready to go. A friend of mine below me in this apartment building has an 8-track set-up and we’re going to do demos tomorrow for the band. I like to keep the band working.

LG: Your songwriting for GBV projects seems really influenced by this current line-up.
BP: I have them in mind now when I write for Guided by Voices. There is kind of a distinction between the types of songs I write now and what projects they go on. I keep a notebook and I keep it organized, where like I’ll say, these songs go to Circus Devils or these songs definitely go to Guided by Voices. Now I think my best songs go to Guided by Voices. It used to be like it didn’t matter. Whatever batch of songs I’m working on, whatever’s next, they will go to that project. But now I’ve slowed myself down and become more patient, working on the arrangements and sending demos to my band so they can give me some input and they send back their parts and ideas they have. It’s gotten to be more of a collaborative thing, more of a band effort now. And whatever else I’ll reserve for whatever solo project I’m working on. I just did this Phantom Tollbooth thing. I just finished another Circus Devils record. I’m getting ready to work with Tommy Keene, do you remember him?

LG: Yeah.
BP: Yeah, we’re going to be called the Keene Brothers. So he sent me some music and I kind of talked about which ones we want to do. It’s probably going to be a slow thing because he’s pretty busy and I’m pretty busy. So we’ll probably start working on that around November and it will come out next year.

LG: You said earlier that if you aren’t writing songs you get depressed. What do you mean by that?
BP: Well, I just sit around not knowing what the fuck to do. I don’t know, I just drive around and fucking drink and shit. (laughs) I drink too early. I like to not start drinking until 5 or 6 or something. If I’m not doing anything I might want to start earlier than that. I don’t want to do that.

LG: Do you think GBV fans would be disappointed if they showed up and you weren’t drinking on stage?
BP: I tried it once and they were. I told (GBV guitarist) Nate Farley first of all, I said I’m not going to drink tonight. And he said I’ll boo you if you don’t drink. And I go, well I’m going to try it anyway and see what it’s like. And I went out there and was completely petrified. And I could tell people were looking at me like what the fuck is wrong with him, he’s not even drinking. And they’re all yelling at me and shit and drinking and I’m not drinking. So immediately I grabbed a bottle of Jack and caught up real quick.

LG: Does it bother you that your audience expects you to get wasted every night?
BP: (pauses) No. (laughs) I agree with them. (laughs). It’s weird, man. I’m shy. Getting on stage is fucking clownish anyway. It’s ridiculous to get on stage in front of someone. So it’s my crutch, I enjoy it, it makes it more enjoyable for me and the crowd. So no, I don’t care. I’m glad.

LG: So you don’t look at it as shtick?
BP: Nah. I look at it as part of rock n roll. I don’t go watch a lot of shows anymore. When you do it it’s not as glamorous. But I don’t like to see bands that don’t drink. I don’t think they’re very exciting. I grew up in the arena rock era. The bands drink and the fucking audience drinks and it was ridiculous and it was a party and everybody acted stupid but it was fun. That’s what rock n roll is about I think.

LG: Do you see yourself touring so much at 50?
BP: No. But it depends on how I feel. If I feel pretty good still I’ll still do it. We may have to adapt a little bit. We might have to change what we do. If it gets to the point where I can’t keep jumping around and slinging beer on people, we might have to rethink whether or not I want to tour at all or take a different direction.

LG: So you don’t want to do the Mick Jagger, rocking into your 60s thing?
BP: I don’t want to keep jumping around like a fool. I find Mick Jagger to be kind of silly and repulsive, actually. Maybe I’ll turn into some kind of a crooner or a singer-songwriter type with a spotlight and a martini.


Anonymous mark said...

read every word. i'll never forget that show, man. thanks for the introduction. great interview. glad you posted it. uncle bob the hero

12:02 AM  
Anonymous again, mark said...

also, i wonder what his remedy for a hang over is? i suppose working on his music. does he even get hangovers?

2:34 PM  

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