Robert Pollard

by Matt Hickey

Bob Pollard has been criticized for releasing seemingly every scrap of the massive amount of non-Guided By Voices material emanating from his hyper-creative being. The guy does crap entire albums after morning coffee, but what sometimes gets lost when slamming Pollard’s prolific urges is that most of the stuff found on his flurry of platters is pretty good—and sometimes great. Motel Of Fools, a mini-LP, is the soundtrack to a nonexistent film; a collection of numbing noise, tape tricks, found sounds, and some trademark pomp-rock, it isn’t always listenable in a traditionally direct way, but it’s never less than interesting. Amidst the clamor are crazy gems like a cappella opener “In The House Of Queen Charles Augustus,” the melodic “Harrison Adams” (which concludes with snippets of drunken party conversation) and “Red Ink Superman,” featuring Pollard repeatedly intoning the now rather ominous line, “We’ll even the score in World War IV.” The latter, which holds its own with most GBV tracks, is the creepiest moment on an effort full of them.

Better in terms of melodic tunes is Mist King Urth, Pollard’s second collaboration (the first under the Lifeguards banner) with GBV guitarist Doug Gillard. More sonically varied, if perhaps not quite as consistently engaging, than 1999’s excellent Speak Kindly Of Your Volunteer Fire Department, Mist King Urth travels an impressive path through classic rock, punk and prog stylings. Pollard most often cedes the spotlight to Gillard, morphing into the Lifeguards’ version of Roger Daltrey to Gillard’s Pete Townshend rather than playing both roles as he would in GBV. Gillard’s rough-edged tunes and guitar lines shine, as he easily ranges from the scorching Buzzcocks thrash of “Shorter Virgins” to the Yes/Emerson Lake And Palmer moves of “First Of An Early Go-Getter.” Typical of Pollard’s largesse is the closing, catchy “Red Whips And Miracles,” which ends with a wordless, roughly six-minute, piano-laden stretch that allows the wizardly Gillard freedom to roam. Mist King Urth is a fine example of just how well these guys know what the other—and the listener—wants to hear.

Rivaling Motel Of Fools on the weirdness scale is Beard Of Lightning, which, technically, is only half of a new record. With the band’s permission, Pollard took Phantom Tollbooth’s 1988 farewell album, Power Toy (you’re not alone if you haven’t heard it), and wrote different lyrics and recorded fresh vocals. The music, definitely of the era but not distractingly so, behind Pollard’s typically wacked-out words is a heavy stew of jazz, metal and prog. While too many of the tracks devolve into boring, aimless noodling, there are definitely cool things going on: the poppy-by-comparison “Mascara Snakes,” the tense “Iceland Continuations,” the mostly acoustic “A Good Looking Death.” Beard Of Lightning, a curiously worthwhile effort, could open up an entire cottage industry for Pollard—just think of how many records would be improved by his presence.

MAGNET talked to Pollard as he was killing time before watching some basketball.

I’ll bet you’re surprised MAGNET would want an interview with you.
Yeah, there’ve been a few, haven’t there? I like MAGNET.

And MAGNET likes you.
They used to like us better. They don’t like us as much as they used to.

Why do you say that?
I don’t know, because they put people like the Flaming Lips in there instead. No, I’m just kidding. But we haven’t made the cover in a while. At one point, I think we made the cover like four times.

Well, maybe when the new GBV record comes out, you’ll be back on there.
They had Tom Petty on the cover of that one issue. That’s kind of point of pride with my mom, that I’ve been on the same cover as Tom Petty.

So she equates you as being as successful as Tom Petty if you were on the same cover?
Oh, no, no. [Laughs] I really don’t think she knows who Tom Petty is.

I read Motel Of Fools described as different from any record you’ve done. Do you agree with that?
It’s different, but I’ve done this kind of thing in the past where I sprinkle in these tapes of phone messages and people at parties when we get together with the Monument Club. So I just wanted to make the record appear to be a soundtrack. We also did movie posters with it, too. There’s a line from (1994’s) Alien Lanes (“Ex-Supermodel”) where I say, “I write music for soundtracks now.” But I never got to do that. I never got to fulfill my ambition of doing that.

There’s still time, right?
Hopefully. [Laughs] But since no one contacts me to do soundtracks, I thought I’d do one on my own. So it’s slightly different in that respect.

Did you have a plot in mind?
Sort of. For one thing, I didn’t have enough songs. [Laughs] So I thought I’d put all this filler on it. That’s why we priced it as a mini-album. It’s 32 minutes long or something like that. Someone told me once that in order for it to be an album, it has to be 30 minutes long. So it’s really an album, but since there are only seven songs on it, I decided to call it a mini-album. It’s an EP, but it’s slightly conceptual. You enter the Motel Of Fools and you see all of these strange characters and fuck-ups.

I wanted to ask you about “Red Ink Superman,” because the lyric “We’ll even the score in World War IV” is kind of eerie.
It’s a scary lyric, isn’t it? When I wrote the song, I had the lyrics and everything and at the end, that line just kind of popped into my head. I thought, “That’s fucking ridiculous,” so I didn’t put it on there. This was way before the war with Iraq and everything; well, there was talk, anyway. But then I thought, “I’ll put it on there, what the fuck.” I decided to sing it in the studio and see how it came out. That’s the best thing we do live, that part, right now. At the end, I sing, “We’ll even the score in World War IV,” and it’s kind of kicking ass and the crowd seems to be getting into it, especially with what’s going on. That lyric definitely implies that we’re going to lose this one.

I bring that lyric up only because you’re not what might be a called a “topical” songwriter. Have you ever been tempted to write songs that deal with some sort of political or social issue?
I’ve been tempted, but I like to steer away from that. I don’t like to be too obvious or too politically minded. But I’ve been tempted. (1999’s solo) Kid Marine was in that direction. [Laughs] No, Kid Marine was actually about one drunken guy I know, the guy on the cover.

So you really know that guy?
Yeah, his name is Jeff Davis. Now we call him Kid Marine, though. We see him and go, “Hey, Kid.”

Does he like that?
I think he likes it a little bit. From that record, people say, “What is that, is that a fucking movie? Where are those pictures from?” The guy let me go through his photo album; actually, his wife did. I was like, “This is fucking nuts.” There are some better pictures than what we used, so I’m thinking about Kid Marine 2 maybe.

What’s he doing these days that you could write about?
He’s divorced, I think. I know he’s separated at least, and he’s all bummed out and shit. He’s worse off than he was, so that’s a good reason for Kid Marine 2, I think.

When you started working with Doug, how long did it take you to realize that he was a guy you wanted to keep around?
I wanted Doug to be a guitarist in my band when I heard Death of Samantha in the early ‘80s, before anyone ever gave a shit about Guided By Voices. I thought Doug was the best guitar player back then. I thought he was the driving force behind Death of Samantha, so I thought one day I’d like to have him in my band. When the opportunity came, I pounced on it.

Once you started playing with him, did it sound exactly like you thought?
Yeah. I started out in a heavy metal band with a guy who could really play guitar, and I thought the only thing missing from Guided By Voices was a lead guitarist. In the early days, I would bring people in just to play leads, like Greg Demos and Steve Wilbur. I would emulate the lead with my mouth. We call it melody smoke. That’s what Greg Demos calls it: “Blow me some melody smoke.” I’ll do it with my mouth, and he’ll emulate it. Once I got Doug in the band, that wasn’t necessary anymore. For a lot of the hardcore four-track GBV fans, people who dig the minimalist thing that we did at the time, kind of just banging out power chords, that was disappointing to some of them but not to me.

Doug really is an amazing player.
He knows every song, man. He knows, like, “Three Blind Mice” and “Happy Birthday.” All of them.

He doesn’t seem to go for the flash like other guitarists, but you know he could if he wanted to.
Yeah, he holds back. But on the Lifeguards record, he lets go a couple of times. I think his music is amazing on it. I like the fact that it’s somewhat proggy. I had these excess lyrics lying around, and I thought this was the perfect vehicle for some of the crazier shit.

One of the songs, “Shorter Virgins,” almost sounds like the Buzzcocks.
I know. That album’s all over the place, and that’s what I like about it. You come out of this big, long, six-minute Rush-sounding song and you go into this Buzzcockian song.

On “Red Whips And Miracles,” there’s that long instrumental coda that you don’t do anything with.
I cut half of that song. It was twice that long. Doug has a tendency to keep going, so I had to cut it down. We were talking about editing out the middle part of the song, but I told Doug it was fine.

I found it interesting because you just let it go and didn’t put any more vocals on top of it.
That’s all I had, man. [Laughs]

On these collaborations where people send you the music, do you suggest what type of tunes they should write, or do they have free reign?
I give them free reign, but they kind of know what I like. They gear the music to the type of lyrics that I write. I worked with Toby Sprout on two (Airport 5) records, and I did the (Go Back Snowball) record with Mac McCaughan. They pretty much know what I like.

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