The great thing about Robert Pollard is that while he seems pretty pragmatic and passionate about his songwriting and Guided by Voices legacy, he's also kind of fuck-off about it. He's a 50-year-old grandpa who calls his new band Boston Spaceships...
Oct 1 2008, 12:00am
The great thing about Robert Pollard is that while he seems pretty pragmatic and passionate about his songwriting and Guided by Voices legacy, he’s also kind of fuck-off about it. He’s a 50-year-old grandpa who calls his new band Boston Spaceships, after all. And the name of their record is slightly skeevy—Brown Submarine. And he’s from Dayton, Ohio, but sings in a weird English accent sometimes. He’s Bob Fuckin’ Pollard.
One of my favorite GBV shows was when the band opened for Cheap Trick in 1999 at Roseland Ballroom in New York. Cheap Trick, by that point, of course, was this seasoned, tight, professional rock juggernaut intent on fattening their pension by delivering nostalgia with laser-like precision. In contrast, as a member of the opening act, Pollard drank canned beer from a Coleman cooler and changed his set list on the fly. Eventually, he returned to the stage, mixed drink in hand (completely unnecessary by that point), and joined Cheap Trick for “Surrender.” The band’s discomfort was palpable—but it soon gave way to Pollard’s insane enthusiasm. You could see the crazed 20-year-old in him, paroled from a basement air-jam session and now somehow onstage with the fucking rock stars who wrote his favorite song. It made a couple thousand people very happy.
Now, beyond the Boston Spaceships, Fantagraphics has just released Town of Mirrors, a book of Pollard’s collages. He uses a lot of found printed material, and his artwork often feels like the visual equivalent of his obtuse, sometimes funny lyrics.
Want me to keep rambling? No. You don’t. OK. Here’s what he had to say.
Vice: You turned 50 on Halloween last year. Was that birthday significant to you? Was there a big party?
Robert Pollard: Turning 50 signifies old age, but I don’t feel old. I may look old, but I don’t feel old. I’m still quite immature and still do “stupid shit” as my dad used to call it. My wife threw a big surprise party and invited about 300 people from around the world. I had no idea and was really horrified but it was fun. I was touched.
Did you dress up?
[Bob’s wife later stepped in to clarify via email: I’ve never even seen a picture of him dressed up for Halloween although he tells stories of how, when his kids were young, he and his brother would create elaborate haunted houses in their basement and every kid from the neighborhood would go and Bobby and Jimmy would scare them half to death. I do know that he loves Halloween, as it’s his birthday and all.]
I read that Dayton is shrinking in population. Do you notice this? How has the decline of industry affected people there?
I read where it was chosen by some publication as one of the top ten dying cities in the US. Being 50, and seeing how beautiful various sections were when I was younger and now seeing that a large portion of these sections are dilapidated, is sad because I think overall Dayton is a very beautiful city, geographically. That’s the reason I stay here. And yeah, a lot of people have lost their jobs.
Is it affecting the music scene there?
I couldn’t tell you. I’m out of touch. I’m in bed by 10 PM. There’s one record store and one venue that holds about 200 people. One almost has to retreat to some sort of fantasy in one’s basement or head.
Did it feel like a radically different place when you were a teenager?
I was an idiot when I was a teenager. Maybe I still am. I listened to heavy metal and went to arena shows like in Heavy Metal Parking Lot. But it was a lot of fun getting wasted and dodging cherry bombs.
Is there one city in Ohio that you try to avoid? There are like 45 moderately sized urban areas in your state.
I don’t have a least favorite. I’ve never been to Youngstown. Ohio is interesting because it’s very competitive in a good, creative way. There have been a lot of great bands, and artists come from all over. Weirdo shit, vanity recordings, punk, postpunk, industrial, soul, bubble gum, metal, indie, everything. It’s dense.
What were the 1980s like for Guided by Voices? You didn’t really emerge nationally until 1993 or 1994, and yet the band existed for a whole decade before then.
The 80s were dark and fun. We were trying to develop and establish ourselves. Somehow to become sui generis—unique and different. It didn’t happen, if it did happen at all, until the early 90s. Until then we were embarrassingly exploring already overexposed territories. You know, jangle pop, cow punk, paisley underground, what-the-fuck-ever was hip at the time.
How did you finally hit on the GBV sound?
I realized that it was more satisfying to reexamine my interest in British invasion, postpunk, and experimental music—more so than whatever seemed to be fashionable at the time. Then things began to fall together. 60s bubblegum, Ohio industrial noise, power pop, minimalist, whatever... we threw it all together and after a few albums it came out sounding somewhat unique. It takes a while for that to happen. Once that’s established, then you can do whatever you want and it has the stamp. The trademark.
Was it difficult when things took off for you, to juggle family and a band? You were a schoolteacher and you had two kids.
Yeah, it was extremely difficult, but I was somehow able to do it. Much to the chagrin of some of my relatives, I just couldn’t give up fucking around with music and art ideas. And we didn’t put as much time into it as people thought we did. We would meet on a Saturday or Sunday, get fucked up and record everything we did, and then sit back and laugh at it. And we could barely play. We would make noise, play acoustic guitars, act out skits, experiment with feedback, break things, create radio talk shows, DJ, all sorts of things. And always record it all. Then on Monday I would go back to being a dad, a coach, a teacher, a husband, and an amateur athlete. Too many irons.
Did any former students of yours go on to magnificent heights?
No, but some of the teachers at my school taught Rob Lowe before I arrived.
Where do you get all the materials that go into making your art? Do people and fans send things to you now, knowing they might interest you?
I scavenge around at thrift shops, bookstores, and paper fairs. Every once in a while someone will bring me materials. I wish more people would send me some. It’s hard to find larger images. I’m looking for functional posters, X-rays, medical charts, things like that.
Is the whole you-not-having-a-computer thing bullshit or the truth? If so, what’s the rationale?
My wife has a computer and we use it for shopping on eBay and half.com. It’s useful for that. I’m not into the constant-communication thing. MySpace, blogs, cell phones, text messages, and all that. It’s so bothersome. I made up a band name called Alexander Bell and the Cellphone Hell.
How much of your time is spent dealing with business—managers, interviews, booking agents, royalties statements, and so on? Have you found a way to make your art and have other people take care of that?
Yeah, I have two managers. Three if you count my wife. We have our own label now and they handle it. I have a solo thing and a new band that entails, as a recording entity, the employment of only three individuals. It’s very self-contained but very productive. It’s called the Factory of Raw Essentials. I handle the music, words, and art department. I pump it out.
What’s one thing you said to your son, now that he is a dad?
Don’t live vicariously through your children. Let ’em do whatever they want.
How is it being married again? Are there things you thought you’d never do or feel again that came back to you, or entirely new feelings?
It was just a matter of finding someone compatible with my likes and dislikes. I found someone beautiful, intelligent, and sympathetic. Also poetic. And she wasn’t a fan. Her friends were.