It has been a long time since Robert Pollard taught fourth grade. Since his indie rock band, Guided By Voices, started getting noticed about five years ago, he hasn't had to.
"I miss the fact that when you work five days a week you get excited about the weekend," he says from his home in Dayton, Ohio. "I don't miss the pressure of the state evaluations and all the things besides the actual teaching itself. [But] I get bored sitting around on my ass all day, whereas when I used to have a job, I'd kind of schedule everything, what you do when you get home and on the weekends."
Still, the twin lifestyles of an up-all-night rock and roll front man and an early-rising sculptor of young minds came to a head in 1994, when the band played Lollapalooza. It was time for GBV to jump from tiny independent labels to the well-respected Matador imprint. No more pencils, no more books...
The group's status as a band every critic and slacker could love continued with its 1995 record, Alien Lanes. But even before Pollard left the teaching profession, he had been given the ultimate hipster seal of approval. It came from his students, although in a backhanded way.
"I think the kids thought I was pretty cool because my discipline wasn't very good," he says. "They kind of ran all over me. I used to try to play [GBV] records for them, and I don't think they liked the music, to tell you the truth, but, any excuse for a party. If I want to play my records, that's fine with them. They can jump around and not do their work. I don't blame them [for not liking the music] because in the '80's [GBV] wasn't very good."
Recounting these bits of history, Pollard sounds a bit bored with the past. He wants to talk about the present and the future of the band, which also includes Nate Farley and Doug Gillard (guitars) and Jim MacPhearson (bass). He waited a year for the band's current record label, TVT, to release GBV's latest album, Do the Collapse. And Pollard is not a man who likes to wait. As a songwriter he can sit down with a pot of coffee, a guitar and a tape recorder, and peel off ten songs in a day. He keeps a running notebook of song titles to provide stimulus. Since the band's first release, 1986's Forever Since Breakfast, Pollard has written a few thousand songs, releasing albums, singles and EPs at an alarming rate for seemingly any label that would ask. (Collapse, by most accounts, appears to be the group's 21st album.) Like the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, Pollard wants to release records at his own pace.
"That was a concern [of Matador's], that we were diluting the product, that we had too much out there," he says. "But there was so much out there before we were ever signed, it was almost too late to worry about that. We already had this bulk of releases, so you've already got this big huge bin full of stuff [in record stores]. We went through a lull period with Matador because they told us, 'Don't release anything else.' "
To the uninitiated listener, the back catalog is intimidating. If someone says you should check out a band, and you go to the record store and find 15 records on that band's shelf with non sequitur titles such as Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Mag Earwig!, you won't be at fault if you wander off and buy something else.
Pollard has a remarkably pragmatic and unsympathetic attitude about the plethora of records: "I guess it can be overwhelming for someone who doesn't know who we are, but for our fans and for people that know how prolific we are, they want that," he says. "A lot of our fans complained to Matador. I've always been more concerned with pleasing the existing fanbase that we have now. I figure if I can do that, then I'll have a job the rest of my life. I can understand where someone who was trying to be introduced to Guided By Voices would be confused, but I don't care. I like the confusion."
But soon he admits that it's more than just financial. It's part of the way he operates as an artist. Music pours out of him. So GBV headed to yet another record company, one with less "indie credibility" than Matador but one that allowed Pollard to release all of the music he wanted to, with a few stipulations. Let Pollard explain:
"We'd been sitting on [Do the Collapse] for like a year, and we'd been playing it for a year before that, so I was tired of it," he says. "And I couldn't really do anything. I had my hands tied. I wanted to do music, and I'd been writing songs, and I couldn't release them. So I had to have this deal with TVT where at any time that I want to release a record as Robert Pollard or under some pseudonym, I'm allowed to do that. As I finish with a record I release it. People who are really creative and prolific have to have that, at least for their own sanity. I assured [TVT] that I would save the very best, most commercial stuff for Guided By Voices."
And he wasn't lying. Do the Collapse is easily the most commercial and glossiest of GBV's records. Produced by Cars leader Ric Ocasek and recorded at Electric Ladyland, the album is the band's most successful foray into the studio. In the past the group had recorded at home or in low-rent studios, as its tiny budget allowed, and found itself lumped into the lo-fi genre at the early part of the decade (see: Sebadoh, Smog). The music has always been grandiose, but in the band's new, spiffy setting, the eloquent melodies shine. Ocasek's touch is evident from the start. The first track, "Teenage FBI," has the squiggly keyboard sound the Cars popularized.
Call GBV a sellout, but Pollard says the band is finally ready, finally equipped to do things in a big way.
"Even from the beginning we'd always wanted to make music that sounded good; we just couldn't afford to do it," he says. "But our goal was always to be able to go into a big studio and make a good-sounding music. Big, room-filling power pop, that was the aim."
It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it.
Guided By Voices performs with Those Bastard Souls Friday, November 19, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak, at 8 p.m. For more information, call (713)862-3838.
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