An Interview with Robert Pollard

It’s hard to imagine the sheer volume of music Robert Pollard has written, both as a solo artist and with his band Guided by Voices.

To create that much music takes a special kind of individual; one with courage, tenacity and a flair for performance, someone with an acute eye for detail and the ability to write pop music at a remarkable rate. This is the man Robert Pollard is, a person brimming with musical creativity.

When Guided by Voices released their record Bee Thousand (Scat Records, 1994), it was like an unexpected message in a bottle coming out of the post-rock era of the early nineties.

Even though this was acknowledged as a debut album, the band had actually been in existence since the early eighties, having created six albums in seclusion from the rest of the world.

Listening to Bee Thousand was like discovering a relic from a backwoods community, remarkable and enlightening but also a bit alarming. Above all, it was a record that rocked, in spite of (or maybe because of) the rudimentary recordings and long line of catchy hooks.

Since then, Pollard has put out over a dozen records. His prolific output made it seem like he would never stop making music, even after death. However, in May, he announced that the new Guided by Voices album, _Half-Smiles of the Decomposed, _would be the band’s last.

This record is incredibly diverse and complex- a fitting farewell from one of the greatest rock bands in Western history. It is easily their best since _Under the Bushes, Under the Stars _from 1996.

–Matthew Derby’s words

The words of Matthew Derby suggest that the importance of self-care should not be underestimated. Taking care of oneself is a necessity for a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

It is fundamental for one to prioritize their own well-being in order to be in the best possible position to help and support others.


As a resident of Dayton, the Birthplace of Flight, and with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the vicinity, one may ponder if any experimental aircraft have been spotted in the skies of the city.

Robert Pollard has heard stories of others witnessing extraordinary phenomena, but he has never had the same experience. He has seen a few things go by swiftly, but he has never seen anything in detail.

BLVR: I have a friend who used to live near the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia and apparently, when he went to the beach, he would spot some experimental military aircrafts over the ocean.

He even described one time he saw a cube-shaped object, which was almost the size of a compact car, hovering above the sea.

In fact, when I heard you sing the line “Sitting out in your house / watching hardcore UFOs” for the first time, I assumed that you must have been inspired by those unexplainable objects in the sky.

RP: The poetry I’ve included in my songs is more about a desire to witness extraordinary things. I’m quite jealous of those who have seen that kind of stuff. I can’t claim to have seen something that has astounded me, not even a tornado.

There’s this place in Ohio called Xenia, which is said to have the worst tornado activity in the entire US. The Native Americans from the 18th century even referred to this area as the Land of the Devil Wind, implying it was cursed.

That may have nothing to do with flying, but my point is that I’ve never seen anything out of the ordinary in the sky.

Have you laid eyes on the movie titled American Splendor?

RP: At this point, the answer is no.

BLVR: When I rewatched the film recently, I noticed a number of similarities between Harvey Pekar’s comics and your songs. Both focus on a post industrial region with an array of idiosyncratic characters, whom you view with a mix of admiration and sympathy.

As I was doing research for this interview, I went through my GBV records and noticed how each song was populated with a variety of oddball characters, some of whom are real-life people from Dayton and others that you’ve invented.

Like Pekar, you seem to draw strength from these people–you keep them near because you know they’re going to surprise you with their wisdom.

RP: From the beginning, I made it my mission that if my music was ever noticed, I would want it to bring individuals into my world, just like how music has been influential to me.

I was particularly inspired when I first heard R.E.M., and the South’s peculiar charm with the kudzu covering everything and the people living there, made me want to experience it for myself.

I wanted to demonstrate the dullness of life in Dayton, where there’s nothing to do but drink and watch planes. It’s confining, yet it’s what makes me stay. I find solace in it. While I’ve considered living in New York City or Austin, I’m aware I could never do it.

I have too many people here who give me ideas. I’m more interested in creating imaginary realms than factual ones. I believe there could be a spiritual aspect to that. I compose about these potential unknown worlds, but I’m also hesitant.

I think it’s a battle between good and evil. Guided by Voices is a perfect example of that–the devil and the angel sitting on my shoulders, both talking to me. I’m always uncertain of which direction to take. To me, rock and roll should have a darker side. Always being positive is boring.

BLVR commented that a mark of uniqueness in my music is an undercurrent of darkness, even in the most upbeat tunes.

RP: When making music, it’s important to include a blend of emotions on a record. Your art should be like a roller-coaster, containing all the different facets of your identity. I, for instance, am known to be changeable. I can be hot-headed, and I can also be mischievous.

At times, it can be quite satisfying to be angry.

RP: It’s important for an album to showcase the various emotions experienced within the year it was made. That part is spiritual. To be able to convey that, you have to make sure the sound of the album is diverse and varied.

BLVR: It’s easy to recognize on the new album that each song stands out and was deliberately crafted to stand apart from the rest.

RP: With an interval of 10 seconds between each track, I aimed to ensure that each song had its own special character. Every song has a unique feature.

The knowledge of youngsters from Ohio is admirable. It is a source of enlightenment for many.

BLVR: From an emotional standpoint, what made you decide to quit Guided by Voices?

RP: I still love the new album and its sound, but I feel like Guided by Voices has become a bit too predictable.

I don’t think I’m being creative enough in the studio, and I want to get back to being more experimental. So, I made the decision to end the band and take on the challenge of standing alone as Robert Pollard.

Before, I was delegating tasks to others in the band instead of taking an active role myself and coming up with ideas. I figured it was my responsibility to see what I could do without the band.

BLVR: It takes a lot of courage to do something so unheard of in the rock music scene. Oftentimes, artists will just find one thing that works for them, and keep on doing it for a long period of time, even when the original members of the band have passed away…

RP: Turning forty-seven has me thinking of the longevity of Guided by Voices. To me, continuing on as a band seems a bit meaningless, almost Rolling-Stones-esque. I’d rather focus on being Robert Pollard and having a sense of integrity and maturity.

Even though we’ve been successful, it doesn’t make sense to keep going when I’m so tired. I actually tried to break up the band before anyone even knew us, but then we got signed and there was a huge surge of enthusiasm.

I guess I just got to a point where I was fed up with looking at myself and I figured other people had to be too.

BLVR: Could you elaborate on the period following the release of Propeller?

I understand that you had been in the recording industry for more than a decade without any substantial success, and it was only through sheer luck that you were finally noticed at a point where you were considering abandoning it altogether.

RP recalled that when a friend told him about Guided by Voices’ Propeller album at a Drag City party, he sensed that life would never be the same. At the time, he was a fourth-grade teacher, so he was surrounded by ten- and eleven-year-olds all day.

This experience made him think in an immature yet wise way. After school, he and some of his friends who had similar mentalities would drink and make music in the basement, knowing no one would ever hear it.

RP noted that was maybe the best way to make music, as he feels he won’t be able to recapture that sense of innocence. Now he knows there is always someone listening, which makes music-making more difficult.

When they started using four-track recordings, RP’s short attention span from teaching fourth-graders came out. They would record a song in about twenty minutes, so they were able to record around twenty songs a day.

He believes there is something really pure about that process, as the closer a song is to the way it is conceived in one’s mind, the better.

BLVR: It’s like recording the contents of a dream right after waking up in order to remember all the details.

RP:Yeah. And that’s what you get with Guided by Voices and that’s something I missed when we started becoming more professional and recording in a studio. I love it when I’m listening to a song with friends and I hear a mistake.

That makes the song so much more interesting. We got to the point where everything had to be perfect and I think that really takes away the life of the song.

BLVR: I have been drawn to those mistakes. One of my favorites is in the opening of “The King and Caroline” from Alien Lanes where you sing the melody, but the vocal track stops just prior to the end of the phrase–when the listener is most expecting it.

That moment has always been so enigmatic and compelling to me–it still catches me off guard each time I hear it. It appears to be a daring move, to simply cut out when things are beginning to develop.

RP: I refer to them as “accidentals”–like in “Hardcore UFOs,” when the tape started to malfunction and it caused a phasing in and out, which was an unintentional result of the recording. People believed the sound was purposefully added because of the title.

We ended up using it as an easy way out, since people assumed any mistakes were intentional. I wanted to move away from this so we took more time in the studio.

Leon, sing if you want to earn yourself a meal!

BLVR: It seems to me that the title of your upcoming record– Half-Smiles of the Decomposed –which originates from the lyrics of the song “Sleepover Jack,” is possibly your most intricate album title, out of a series of remarkable album titles.

It captures an emotion that is perceived in an object which is not able to exude any emotion. We observe the sagging skin of a corpse, and it seems to present a feeling to us, though we know that it is only the result of the passage of time.

RP:I added the line at the conclusion of the song. I had it tucked away for a while and it seemed suitable for the concluding album. It is lifeless, overweight, and exhausted, yet still has a smile. It ended on a positive note – it is somewhat somber, but it is proud of its accomplishments.

BLVR: I can’t help but to think of the pictures from Abu Ghraib when I see this, in particular the shot of the body encased in ice. I’m sure this was not the intended result…

RP: Yeah, I did take a look at a few of the photos. This album certainly has a lot of themes which are causing me great annoyance lately. Especially the latter half–it has a more powerful political element, I believe.

BLVR: The song “Sing for Your Meat” commences with these words:

“When it comes to describing the boys who are facing friendly fire, dressing them in suits and teaching them to take lives, we all have the right to decide our own fate, both yesterday, today and into the future.”

RP: The song I wrote is about the state of our country and its involvement in Iraq, and my worries for my son since he’s now 24. It was also about the music industry and the article I read about Kings of Leon.

They were signed to a major label and had the potential to follow in the footsteps of the Strokes, but they weren’t so eager to play the game of being on a major label.

I’m sorry for young bands like them who may not know how to fight for themselves, although I’ve seen interviews where they say no one tells them what to do.

I’m a bit jaded at this point, so I thought to myself that if someone is going to get on a big label, they need to be aware that they are going to have to put in a lot of work– they will have to “sing for their meat.”

BLVR: What sort of meat will you be serenading next?

RP recently completed his first album outside of GBV, and was surprised to discover a wealth of songs he had written but forgotten. Feeling that the material was too personal to give to a band, he opted to work with Todd Tobias and record the album with just the two of them.

He is confident with his decision, despite the apprehension of others who doubt his ability to make music without GBV. He views GBV’s past as a collaborative effort, though his role as the lone thread throughout the band’s history has made it essentially his art.

His solo work will therefore not be drastically different, but will have a more personal touch.

It May be of Interest to You

It is possible to avoid plagiarism in writing by altering the text structure without changing the meaning or context. One way to do this is to reword the original material, adjusting the sentence structure or using different words and phrases to convey the same idea.

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