As one of rock’s late bloomers forty-three-year-old ex-schoolteacher Robert Pollard — mastermind behind Dayton, Ohio’s Guided By Voices — has long had a knack for writing oddly irresistible hard pop gems. And if the forefather of lo-fi has endured a number of lineup changes during the last ten years en route from Scat Records obscurity to Matador roster indie notoriety and finally to semi-major-label status, he has kept his devotion to leg-kicks and the King of Beers intact.
Inking to TVT three years ago afforded the group a move up from the four-track sessions that built the GBV franchise to the professional recording studio for 1999’s Ric Ocasek-produced Do the Collapse. Even though he album wasn’t exactly a breakout, many of the band’s core fans vocalized their disappointment with the fact that Pollard and his current band mates — lead guitarist Doug Gillard, bassist Nate Farley and drummer Jim MacPherson — now belong to the rock & roll world at large. Pollard cares little, saying that more people getting turned on to his band is “what it’s all about.”
The new album has striking album art. Was it your idea to put those fighter jets on the cover?
Actually, that was Ben in the art department at TVT. I had submitted a cover that was a collage that I was going to have someone paint, but then I saw this and I thought, “That’s fantastic. We’ve gotta go with this for Isolation Drills.” I love the little logo on the side of one of the planes. That’s actually a lift from a Blue Oyster Cult album cover, Secret Treaties.
You’ve always kind of had this thing for aviation.
Yeah. You know Dayton, Ohio is a huge Air Force town, so we’ve gotta play up that airplane thing. We’ve gotta have some kind of identity. We don’t have any matching costumes to wear, so we’ve gotta be these weird Air Force brats [laughs].
How did Elliott Smith wind up on the record?
Elliott is good friend of Rob Schnapf, our producer. Rob has produced nearly all of Elliott’s records. So he was in town and Rob said come on by and do something, so he came in. He’s a shy guy, he didn’t say much, but he came in and did a few things on piano and organ. It’s good to have him on it.
Speaking of that, last time around, when you worked with Ric Ocasek on Do the Collapse, alcohol was prohibited in the studio, right?
Yes, and it’s weird that Ric didn’t let us drink in the studio, because I spoke to a guy in the band Nada Surf — who Ric had also worked with — and he said that they were allowed to drink during recording. And I thought, “Hey, that’s not fair” [laughs]. But I guess maybe Ric had a different approach with them, or maybe our label said, “Don’t let these guys drink. We want to put a serious album out.” But I enjoyed the experience with Ric. He kind of showed us what to do in the studio. On our second studio record with Rob, we were much calmer. Beer always helps.
Now, you’ve got a call for five cases of Budweiser and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on your tour rider?
And a bag of Doritos [laughs]. We usually get more than that. We get to the show and say, “I don’t think that’s gonna be enough beer. Better get seven cases.”
On Isolation Drills, you have a song, “How’s My Drinking.” Is that targeted at anyone?
That was an answer to a really nasty article a guy wrote about me in the Dayton Daily News after one of our shows. Because we played for three hours but for the last half-hour I was kind of stumbling. And he just crucified me in this piece he did. It was like, “A letter to Robert Pollard . . . Do you realize what a fool your making of yourself. You’re going to kill yourself and end up like Mama Cass” [laughs]. Whatever. But this was my song for him: Hey, how’s my drinking? Dial 1-800-EAT-S—.
Were you surprised that Do the Collapse, your first proper studio album, wasn’t more successful?
I was actually because Ric did it, and he said, “You guys are going to be really surprised what happens with this record.” And it didn’t really take off. So that surprised me, but I wasn’t disappointed because we actually sold more records than we ever had, and our shows were getting better and bigger and more people were getting turned on to Guided By Voices . . . Nothing’s happened drastically, it’s been gradual, and I’m happy with where we are. We’re at a good level. We’re at level 6 [laughs]. Level 6 on a scale of 10 is a good level. 7 is too much. That’s when you have a hit [laughs].
Would you like to have a hit?
Sure. I think “Glad Girls” could be a hit. Kids and older people — everyone who hears it — likes it. The one thing about this record was that the label said they didn’t hear another single, so at the last minute I had to write “Chasing Heather Crazy.” But to me the album was full of singles. I think “Pivotal Film” or “Unspirited” or “Run Wild” are singles. What the f— do I know? But I’d say Isolation Drills is our best record since Bee Thousand. It’s just solid.
You’ve said that your material is more serious now than in the past. What’s fueled that change?
My songs are more serious lately because of being gone all the time. We tour all the time. It’s hard on everything. You get this sense that you don’t live anywhere. You’re almost homeless. But you also get this feeling like the world is your home. It’s weird, but kind of cool. We have a group of friends in every town that we go to. It’s fun, but you have this rootlessness. It takes its toll on the relationships in your life.
You’re not one for lengthy tours, does that have something to do with being away from home too long?
We usually go out for about three weeks and then we take a break. You need that when you drink as much as we drink. But we’re touring more than ever. It used to be that we’d go out for three weeks and come home for three weeks. Now we go out for three weeks and go home for like a week. But even that week helps. You can re-group and get it together to get ready for another one. A lot of bands tour for a few years at a time, but they play for an hour and they don’t drink and they don’t jump [laughs]. And they don’t rock like we do.
What do your kids think about your career?
I think my son’s proud, but I don’t think my daughter particularly cares for my kind of music. But she’s cool and my son, he’s twenty years old now, so he’s got friends from college who think it’s cool.
Tell me about the shows you did with Cheap Trick?
We only did like four shows with them. They were having fun, and they were fun to watch. After we’d play, I’d go watch ’em and sing along to all of their songs. But they kind of had this rock star attitude with us, which I didn’t think was warranted, because they’re over the f—ing hill. They’re doing all their old songs and shit, and they were lecturing us about our drinking. I got onstage to sing a song and I got chewed out by one of their managers. After a while I was like, “F— you.” That was a co-headline status, and a lot of their fans were getting mad at us because we were playing too long. But we were allowed to play as long as they were. We sell more records than they do now, so it was our show too.
Have you gotten any offers to appear on television or in the movies?
We just got an offer recently to be on “Friends” and sing the “Bud Light” song. I’m not gonna f—ing sing the “Bud Light Song.” I just don’t want to do stuff like that. We got an offer to be on [The Drew Carey Show] once. It was some kind of band contest where we were gonna be on it, playing against Drew’s band, but we couldn’t be Guided By Voices, and we had to get, like, booed off the stage. We’re like, “What are you trying to do to us?” I also got offered to write the Budweiser song, and I also got offered to write songs for [the movie] That Thing You Do, but it’s really hard to do things like that. My management gets pissed at me for throwing away that stuff because it’s big money. I was supposed to get like $50,000 just to attempt writing the Budweiser song, even if they didn’t use it. I’d like to do it, but I want to make sure they don’t use it. They said, “You don’t even have to use your name or anything.” But our fans will know who it is immediately. That’s one thing I want to do is be sure not to betray them.
Why so many lineup changes?
If something is wrong with my band, I change it. If I feel someone’s not enthusiastic in my band, I change it immediately. If you’re in a band and you love rock, you’ve got to appreciate the opportunity that’s been afforded you to quit your job and be in that band. There have been times where I can tell people in my band are not into it; it’s too hard being on the road. OK, then, go back to working your day job. I know I’ve changed lineups a lot, but the lineup now is really like a family, so I don’t think it’ll change again.