Robert Pollard: Voice of Reason

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 15, 2011

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Robert Pollard

After Robert Pollard retired his legendary indie-rock/power-pop outfit Guided by Voices with a marathon, impressively booze-soaked (even by GBV standards) final concert on Dec. 31, 2004, the now-53-year-old singer wasn’t exactly sitting on his couch watching Seinfeld reruns and trying to figure out how to keep busy. After all, Pollard puts out 17 albums a week (OK, slight exaggeration) between his solo efforts and various other collaborative projects like Boston Spaceships and his Fading Captain series. Plus, there were other obligations, like dropping by Northridge High School in his native Dayton, Ohio, last year to be enshrined in its Hall of Fame for his three-sport athletic prowess back in the day (a star pitcher in high school, Pollard later hurled the first no-hitter in the history of Wright State University).

Dude was busy, but not too busy to accept a plea last spring from Matador Records to re-form GBV’s “classic” mid-’90s lineup—also featuring Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennell and Greg Demos—for what was initially to be a one-off performance in Las Vegas in October as part of the label’s 21st birthday bash. The reunion quickly blossomed into a larger affair with more dates throughout the U.S. (including a tremendous sold-out gig last November at the Troc), during which the quintet blasted through a set list comprised entirely of tunes from 1992’s Propeller, 1994’s Bee Thousand, 1995’s Alien Lanes and 1996’s Under the Bushes Under the Stars.

The GBV reunion keeps on truckin’ into 2011 with a half-dozen more summer dates—Philly’s the lucky beneficiary of one of them, as the band comes to Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing on Friday. In an exclusive interview with PW , Pollard talks about the reunion, his fond Philly memories and the Phillies’ much-celebrated starting rotation.

What’s the best thing that ever happened to you in Philadelphia?

We were embraced. Quite possibly the first of all major cities to embrace us, with the exception maybe of New York. Tom Lax and the Siltbreeze gang. Bob Malloy [of Strapping Fieldhands] and Mac Sutherland invited us to play a Siltbreeze showcase. I met so many good people. We went to a barbecue at noon and came on at midnight. It’s a very good memory.

Of all the shows you’ve played in Philly in all phases of your career, which one stands out for you above all others?

Probably the one I just mentioned. It was at the Khyber. We’ve had some good shows since then, too.

How has it been revisiting this particular era of GBV during this reunion? For many fans, Bee Thousand/Alien Lanes is their favorite era of the band—is it yours?

It was definitely a very fertile period for us. Everything just seemed to flow. We didn’t have to think about it. But it still does flow. I still don’t think about it. I just let it happen. I enjoy what I do.

Do certain older songs of yours reveal themselves to you now in new or different ways—melodically, lyrically, structurally—when you play them live again after not doing so for a while?

Yeah. The early ’90s really clicked for us. We got an opportunity to show what we were made of, and we met that opportunity in grand fashion, I think. Some of our best songs. Better than before, maybe since. “Game of Pricks,” “I Am a Scientist” ... I think those songs came a lot more spontaneously because of the immediacy of the four-track and the way I approached recording at the time.

What’s the nicest thing you’ve seen written about the GBV reunion?

That the energy level is as high as in the day, if not better. I don’t know about that, but it’s nice to hear.

What’s been the most surreal aspect of the reunion thus far?

That it’s actually working. I didn’t expect it to. I vowed that I wouldn’t do it. But thanks to Matador and their 21st anniversary gig, it happened, and that show was surreal in itself. It perpetuated an actual reformation.

Is coming up with a set list each night easy or maddening?

It’s easy. We just play the hits. Mix it up a little every night. Even if the audience is a little slow at first, we eventually win it over. With the hits. We’ve actually never had a hit, but don’t tell them that.

What’s the biggest misconception about you as an artist?

That I don’t edit myself because of the output, the outrageous bulk of material. I’m very good at editing my material and I get better all the time. I now know if a song is good or not at the moment I conceive it. Or at least within the first five or 10 minutes.

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Being Frank With Guided by Voices
By Michael Alan Goldberg

When we heard the news earlier this year that legendary Ohio indie-rock/power-pop band Guided by Voices—led by the prolific Robert Pollard—were reuniting its mid-’90s “classic lineup” and coming to Philadelphia, we knew we’d need to speak to sports journalist Reuben Frank.