Bob Pollard is a rock ‘n’ roll traditionalist. And music fans are better off because of it. Like baseball, rock music is in dire need of a return to its glory days. It needs players who respect and embrace the history of their art. It needs participants who understand the importance of performance, and who realize that fans are as integral a part as the players themselves. Pollard knows these things, but, more importantly, he cares deeply about them. Which is why Pollard looks with more fondness to the past than he does to the future.
“Music today lacks love,” says Pollard. “Music from the ’60s talked about love – not personal love, but this universal sort of love. I really miss that. People are afraid to express themselves and express love. In the ’60s, rock was about people getting together and having fun. That needs to come back. Now it’s all bandwagonesque, it’s all glamour. We need to get back to the heart of it.”
For more than a decade, Pollard has succeeded at getting back to the heart of it. The most prolific songwriter of the rock and roll era, Pollard is responsible for more great tunes than the Beatles, Stones and Who combined. In an age where sound outweighs songs and image is more important than talent, Pollard is the melodic (albeit often drunken) voice of reason, the only rock star in a genre of music that takes pride in its obscurity. Pollard personifies the belief that rock isn’t something you do on weekends or after work – it’s your life and it needs to be treated accordingly. Two years ago, Pollard quit his day job after almost a decade and a half, allowing himself the opportunity to rock and roll all night and, naturally, party every day. And his only regret is that he didn’t do it sooner.
Robert Ellsworth Pollard Jr. was born Oct. 31, 1957, in Dayton, Ohio. Though he was introduced to music at an early age, he spent most of his childhood and adolescence playing sports. Pushed by his father to pursue athletics, Pollard was a three-sport star (baseball, basketball and football) at Northridge High. After high school, Pollard attended Dayton’s Wright State University. It was at college that Pollard was hit with the realization that he lacked the talent and desire to become a professional athlete, so he began singing in rock bands instead. Upon his graduation from Wright State, Pollard became a teacher, primarily because he wanted a job with a lot of vacation time.
Having summers off afforded Pollard the opportunity to devote most of his energy to music. He started playing in local cover outfits and got involved in a songwriters’ guild, but he longed to be the leader of a band. In 1981, he began playing original songs with fellow Northridge High alums Kevin Fennell and Mitch Mitchell. Playing under a variety of names (including Instant Lovelies, Acid Ranch and Coyote Call) for two years, Pollard eventurally dubbed the collaboration Guided By Voices. A band in name only, GBV featured Pollard and a revolving cast of players, most of which he kicked out at one time or another. Between 1986 and 1992, GBV released six self-financed records, and though they only pressed between 300 and 1,000 copies of each, they couldn’t even give them all away. Sick of the debt caused by his go-nowhere hobby and the lack of support from family and friends, Pollard broke up Guided By Voices after releasing Propeller, though he knew it was their best album to date.
But the breakup didn’t last long. At the urging of Scat Records honcho Robert Griffin – who stumbled upon Propeller and was blown away by it – Guided By Voices got back together in 1993. The band’s show at that year’s New Music Seminar in New York City (its first live date in almost six years) started the hype machine in motion. GBV’s next LP, Vampire On Titus, established Pollard as indie-rock’s great white hope and finally afforded the band the chance to gig around the U.S. These tours and the band’s subsequent albums (Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes) and singles earned Pollard and Co. a Grateful Dead-like following among alternative music devotees.
The band’s latest LP, Under The Bushes Under The Stars, is the most important record of GBV’s career – not just because the band seems poised for mainstream success, but because one has to wonder how many more song Pollard has in him. Pollard knew this when they were making Under The Bushes, so he took a lot of chances with the album. He enlisted production help from indie stalwarts like Steve Albini, Kim Deal and Doug Easley, adamant that GBV’s lo-fi records were a thing of the past. For the first time this decade, the band rehearsed the songs before recording them, employed help from other musicians and recorded outside of GBV’s Dayton home base. But when the LP was finished, Pollard was unhappy with the outcome, so the band broke out their trusty four-track recorder to work on more songs. The resulting album was a patchwork of big-studio bombast and basement brusqueness, a moody record that lacked the immediate poppiness of the band’s previous efforts. And though it compared favorably to the entire GBV catalog, Pollard still wasn’t satisfied. So he booked time at Dayton’s Cro-Magnon studio to record some new songs he’d written last winter. Spending less than a week in the studio, Pollard (with help from GBV drummer Fennell and guitarist Tobin Sprout) put almost 20 songs to tape. And, for the first time since he started work on Under The Bushes, Pollard was happy with the results.
Two months after finishing Under The Bushes, Pollard is in New York City on a brief press junket to promote the LP, GBV’s second for Matador Records. Having survived two photo shoots earlier in the day, Pollard is ready for a drink. We head to Phebe’s, a cheesy bar on the Bowery, mostly because of its close proximity to the Matador office. We pass CBGB on the way, and Pollard becomes animated. “That’s where it all started,” he says, proudly referring to GBV’s famed New Music Seminar performance. “We didn’t think that show would make all these things happen for the band. Actually, at the time, we were just happy to play outside of Dayton.”
Pollard’s tremendous capacity for writing songs and drinking beer is well documented, but talking is what he does best. The first time I interviewed Pollard, about a month after Bee Thousand was released in 1994, I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of anecdotes and opinions that came forth from his lips. We talked for almost two hours, though I didn’t even get to more than half my questions because we ran out of time. Pollard’s loquaciousness, pitted with his friendly manner, makes him an impossible guy to dislike, so it’s understandable that he’s usually the most popular guy in the room no matter where he is. People want to hear him talk. And when Bob Pollard talks, people listen. Especially about his songs and his band. And especially after he’s ingested a six-pack or two.
This time I’m ready for Pollard to talk my ear off. Armed with my tape recorder, a fresh pack of blank cassettes and the first of many pitchers of Budweiser (his beer of choice), I sit down with Pollard in hopes of discovering what makes Big Daddy tick.
The songs you recorded this winter were for your solo record. But since Matador only wanted to work one GBV-related album this year, you decided to put them on Under The Bushes. Is the new album a “solo” record or a band record, with all four of you playing on it?
We don’t record like that. Usually, I would show Kevin the guitar part and he comes up with drums, then we record it. Songs should be spontaneous. It took us three or four hours a song. We recorded 18 songs in a week, including mixing and everything else. Sometimes Toby is there, sometimes Mitch, sometimes my brother (Jim). Toby does his own songs, and I do my songs. For the most part, I do the guitar and bass. But Toby’s a really good bass player, so I’ll ask him to add bass to some of the stuff.
Wasn’t Under The Bushes originally supposed to be a concept album?
It was going to be an autobiographical concept album. (Former GBV bassist) Jim (Greer) wrote the story. The whole process of trying to form the album into that concept was way too fucking painstaking. I just decided to shit-can that. Some of the songs that were part of the concept were ones we did with Steve Albini.
You told me before that when you went to Chicago to work with Albini, you recorded your “harder” songs, but were disappointed with the way they turned out.
Albini contacted Matador and said, “What’s up with Guided By Voices – why won’t they contact me?” And I immediately was terrified: “Why would Albini, who makes these big, fucking hard-assed records, want to work with us and our little, squeezed-down four-track songs?” But I talked to him, and he was really nice. So Kim (Deal) and I decided what songs we would record with her and what ones we would do with Steve. And it turns out the ones we did with Steve – the big, punchier songs – were my least favorite ones. It wasn’t that he didn’t do a good job, we just didn’t like the songs. It was my fault, though. I placed all of the responsibility in Steve’s hands. I should’ve got more actively involved in it. I was too awestruck. I wasn’t too happy with the vocal sound, so we sat down with Steve and said, “Would you mind if we put some of these back on the four-track and redo the vocals?” And he looked at us for a long time – he doesn’t like people fucking with his stuff – but then he said, “That’s cool.”
Has he heard the newer versions yet?
I don’t know, I’m afraid to talk to him. I’m afraid he’s going to be mad at me.
When Guided By Voices first started recording, you did it in a studio. Then, with Vampire On Titus, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, you used a four-track. Now, you’re back in a studio. Why?
For a long time we were just trying different studios in Dayton, not knowing what we were doing. Most of the studios in Dayton are used for jingles for commercials and stuff like that. Most of the engineers at the studios are the owners of the studios, and they’re really proud of the sound of their studios. So they would give us their sound, and it would be a constant battle. We could never get the sound that we wanted. So eventually we just started doing things on Toby’s four-track, although I never had it in my mind that you could make a record on a four-track. But we got to a point where the songs sounded better on a four-track than they did in a studio.
Are you done making four-track records?
I think so. When we go into a studio now, we get respect – the people that work there are jumping all over the fucking place for us. The recording part of it has always been secondary. We’re a song band. I think we’ve crossed that threshold to the big studio. I think I can get the songs I want in a big studio. Right now I have no desire to do the four-track stuff. For a long time our recording thing and our live thing have been miles apart. Now it’s coming together. It’s part of the evolution. We’ve successfully crossed over to using a big studio to do songs, now I want to go in there and create stuff like we did in the basement.
Obviously, you’re acknowledged by the band as the leader and you make all the decisions. Does that create tension?
I think the problem with a lot of bands is that there is too much democracy. They have trouble making decisions, and they end up making a compromising record. I think you need somebody to say, “This is how it’s going to be.” They’re cool with that. It’s always been my thing. If someone says Guided By Voices sucks, they say I suck. But then the band knows that when things go well, I’ll get the credit. But when things go bad, it’s my ass. They got to quit their fucking jobs for rock, so they’re happy.
Guided By Voices has never had a set lineup, but now you, Mitch, Toby and Kevin seem pretty permanent.
Yeah, I think we are. Mitch, Kevin and I are the nucleus. We started it – the original lineup was me on guitar, Mitch on bass and Kevin on drums. They’ve been in and out, though. Then Toby came into the picture. Before that, me and Mitch were in Anacrusis, but the other guys kicked us out. Actually, they kicked Mitch out – they thought he was out of control. The guy that led the band – this fat, heavy metal guitar player – called me and said, “We still want you, but we don’t want Mitch.” I said, “Fuck you.”
Did your brother play live with GBV in the early days?
He played one show with us. We were called the Needmores at the time. Between Sandbox and Same Place The Fly Got Smashed we changed our name. I had seen the Del Fuegos, and I dug the shit out of them. They would alternate between covers and originals during the whole show. And I said, “We’ve got to do that.” So we became the Needmores. We had all played sports at Northridge (High) and we all had a varsity jacket that had an “N” on it. So the “N” stood for Needmores. And when we played, you had to wear your jacket, smoke Camel non-filter cigarettes and drink Colt 45 – that was our concept. The Needmores broke up in two months, but we still smoke. If we get lung cancer, it’s because of the Needmores.
Do you think Toby is comfortable as a songwriter being in a band with someone like you, who gets tons of accolades? If you weren’t around, he might have had more success already.
Toby’s great. He’d have been like Tommy Keene or one of the other great pop songwriters. But he doesn’t write like I do. I’ll come into practice and be like, “I have 20 new songs.” And he’ll have two or three new ones. I hope he doesn’t feel pressured. I think he’s cool with it.
But a lot of times you guys don’t even play his songs live.
People ask me, “Why don’t you play Tobin Sprout songs?” But if we do, what am I going to do, stand with my thumb up my ass?
You could always play guitar.
I used to. People always try to get me to do it again. But it would be like asking Iggy Pop to put on a guitar. Or Roger Daltrey.
Vampire On Titus and Bee Thousand got great reviews, but some backlash started with Alien Lanes. Did people feel compelled to knock you because so many others were calling you a genius?
I don’t know. But I’m not a genius – I’ve just written songs since I was a kid and I’ve gotten good at it. There’s no genius involved, just practice and listening.
That was the thing that struck me the first time I heard Guided By Voices. I could tell you had listened to a lot of music and were spitting out the stuff you liked. It wasn’t original, it was unique.
That’s exactly right. To me that’s what the name Guided By Voices has come to mean – all the voices of rock are in my head and they guide me to make music.
Do you listen to GBV records?
Yes. That’s pretty egotistical, I guess, but I do listen to a lot of Guided By Voices. But that’s part of why I make music – to listen to it and enjoy it. I started writing songs mainly because I wanted more of what I liked. And the easiest way for me was to create it. It’s good that other people like it, but I do it for myself.
How does Guided By Voices compare to the bands around now and to the bands from the past?
Our peers are Bob Mould and R.E.M. and Sonic Youth, the people that have been around as long as we have. Those people treat us like veterans, with respect. But we’re also a new band, so it’s a very good, no-compromising situation to be in. I think if we had been around in the ’60s, we would have had a lot of hits. [Laughing] We would have bigger than the Dave Clark Five. We would have toured with Paul Revere And The Raiders. We could have fit in the ’70s, too. We could have fit in anywhere. I think that’s what people like about us.
Last year, I asked you how many songs you’ve written. You said 5,000. Was that an exaggeration?
I probably underestimated it.
That’s amazing. What’s even more amazing is that you also said that 1,000 of the songs were good.
Am I modest or what? I swear, though, I have a whole suitcase full of 90-minute tapes filled with songs I’ve written. There’s probably 300 90-minute tapes in there. And, as you know, my songs aren’t long either. One of these days I want to give that suitcase away in a contest or something. Actually, that wouldn’t be fair because there would be a lot of major label people entering the contest to get the songs. A lot of the stuff on the tapes is probably terrible and embarrassing, but there’s too much stuff there for me to go through.
About a month ago you told me that you thought you finally learned how to write a song. That seems incredible to me. What the hell have you been doing for the last decade?
At times I’ve labored over songs, at times I’ve blurted out a bunch of great songs at once. I was always trying to figure out what the secret is behind writing songs, what the formula is. I think it’s not trying to force it, which I used to sometimes do. Now I wait until I’m inspired, I turn on the tape player and start playing. Then I’ll go back and listen to them and fuck around with the ideas I like and elaborate on them. I don’t try to do a certain type of song anymore. When it happens, it happens. I’m not saying this applies to everyone else. I’m 38 years old and I’ve been writing songs since I was eight, so I think it’s just a natural thing for me.
You don’t live in Dayton. You’re from a town called Northridge.
Yeah. It’s right along the northern border of Dayton, although it’s kind of separate from Dayton. When we first started getting press, my friends from Northridge said, “Why are you telling people you’re from Dayton? You’re from Northridge!” It’s a nice, close-knit, almost inbred community. Most people in Northridge don’t leave, but I don’t know why that is. So a lot of people make it there goal to get out, but I like it. I live right in the center of Northridge. All my friends live there, and you’ve got to have home.
You married your high school sweetheart (Kim Dowler), who’s also from Northridge.
I got married my senior year of college. Kim didn’t go to college. I started going with her when I was 15, and our parents would have to take us out to the movies and stuff. So I went with her for seven years. During my senior year, she started working. I was about to graduate and was looking for a job, so Kim said, “Let’s get married.” So we got married and she supported me for a little while. And then I got a job.
Has touring affected your relationship with your family at all?
My wife cries every time I leave. I tell her, “I’ll be back.” She worries about me. My kids don’t seem to mind, but kids are weird.
With your newfound popularity, obviously your family has had to learn to deal with you being a “celebrity.” Did you talk about this with them, or is it an unspoken thing?
You know that saying, you lead by example? That’s what it been like. I like my life the way it is. Maybe they like it or maybe they don’t. I do tell them that I’ve always done what I wanted – if you play your cards right, you can do what you want. It was laid out for me to be an athlete, and I turned out to be a musician. The thing is, though, I’m not a musician. I’ve had no training, but I enjoy it, so I do it. A lot of parents will force their kid to be a cellist, making them go to school for it. But what are they going to do with it? I think it’s better to let them decide on their own what they want to do.
Your kids now go to the same schools you went to as a kid. What’s that like for them?
I think it makes it easier for them. They don’t get picked on. People are like, “Those are Bob Pollard’s kids. He was a good athlete, he’s doing well for himself with music now.” I think they get treated better. When I was in school, I got a lot of shit. It helped build my character.
And you still get shit at school. I heard that you were kicked out of your 20th high school reunion. Why?
Yeah. I wasn’t planning on going to it because I went to my five-year reunion and hated it. My wife was in my graduating class and all of these pick-up artists were hitting on her. Reunions are for people who can’t get pussy anymore, so they go back to try to rekindle old flames. So the night of my 20th reunion, I was out drinking with a couple guys who had tickets to the reunion. I was really hammered and in a good mood, and they convinced me to go. I went and was really trashed and was having a good time talking to people. Eventually, I kind of passed out, so I was escorted out. I wasn’t being an asshole, I was just totally trashed.
You went to high school with Frank Meyers, who’s a very popular country songwriter. Do the people from Northridge consider him to be more successful than you?
Yeah. To them, he’s the shit. I’m still minor league. He lives in Nashville in a mansion, so people think he’s made it. I tell people, “More people know about me than Frankie Meyers,” but they don’t believe me. What’s ironic is that he was my back-up quarterback in high school. Now most people think he surpassed me with music. But he can’t write songs like I can, so I’m still ahead of him.
When did you realize you might have a shot with music?
I didn’t. It was a hobby. Growing up, I didn’t really have any musical talent. I could always sing, but that’s it. So I started hanging around with all these weirdoes from Northridge who could play guitar. And I would just watch them, ‘Wow, I’ve got to learn how to do that.’ That song ‘Hank’s Little Fingers’ (on Devil Between My Toes) – Hank (Davidson) is the guy that inspired me to play the guitar. He had a deformed hand with these little bitty fingers.
When was this?
Around ’75. I was either a senior in high school or a freshman in college. I had bought an acoustic guitar with my graduation money. And Hank inspired me to play it. I don’t think Hank knows about Guided By Voices – he’s this reclusive guy with long hair and long fingernails. I asked a friend of mine, “Should I tell Hank that he’s responsible for all of our success?” He said, “No.” “Well, should I tell him about the song ‘Hank’s Little Fingers’?” He said, “No, Hank would not be happy with that.” So Hank still doesn’t know.
Why did you start teaching fourth grade?
I did student teaching and different things with older kids. And I liked the high school kids, but junior high is brutal. They’re caught between being adults and children, and they terrorize the teachers. I taught junior high for a year, I taught physical science, and I didn’t like it. So I decided I didn’t want to teach kids that were too young or too old. And fourth grade sounded perfect. So I started teaching fourth grade and liked it.
Now that you’re doing Guided By Voices full time, do you make enough money to maintain the lifestyle you had when you were teaching?
I make a lot more money now. I read that Jon Spencer said, “That Pollard guy is bragging about how much money he made and how big his advance from Matador was.” Fuck that, it’s the truth. I make a lot more money right now. I don’t know how long that’s going to last. I’m trying to be smart about it, you know, investing and stuff. Teachers make 30 grand a year. I can make that by doing one song for a soundtrack.
When you quit teaching you didn’t know how well things would go. Was it difficult giving up a job that provided you insurance and other perks that you don’t get from being in a band?
It was incredibly difficult. For a year I was driving myself crazy, splitting myself between Guided By Voices and teaching. The last year I taught was when Bee Thousand was out, and things were starting to get into full swing for us. We did a couple tours and had to play out on weekends, so I had to take off every Friday for over a month. I figured I might get fired for stuff like that. But the principal I worked with was really cool. And when I finally told her I was quitting, she was so cool about it. She said she knew I was going to quit. [Laughing] I had come into school a couple times when I was drunk because we were out all night recording. But I always got along with everybody.
Did you have a lot in common with the other teachers?
Not really. I never went to the teachers’ lounge. But the teachers liked me. In elementary school, there aren’t a lot of male teachers, so they liked the fact I was around. They’d say, “Why don’t you come down and hang out with us in the teachers’ lounge?” But I would go off and take a nap to try to get rid of my hangover. I had 14 years of that.
What did you like least about teaching?
I enjoyed and loved the kids, but I felt a lot of the stuff I had to teach I didn’t even agree with – teaching kids how to compete so they could fit into society. Fuck that. But I miss the kids. But I have kids of my own, so my house is always full of kids.
If Guided By Voices had really ended after Propeller and you still were a teacher, would you be as happy with your life as you are right now?
No, I don’t think so. I would be happy, though. I was happy back then. It was stressful teaching, but having a job like that makes you do more with your free time. I used to really look forward to the weekends, but now it’s like every day is the weekend. I have more time to be depressed now, but overall I know I’m happier now, doing what I want to be doing.
Will you ever have to get a “real job” again?
If I’m not making any money, I’ll have to do something. I’m not worried about it. First of all, I’m a songwriter, and I know I’ll always be one. Now I have my foot in the door and real management, maybe I could write songs for Silverchair or Bob Mould or something. In that capacity, I’ll have a job forever.
Would you really be happy writing songs for other people?
Fuck yeah. I tell people I don’t know how long we can keep getting up there and playing. You know that line in “Weed King”: “We can’t keep this violent pace”? It rings so true. How long can we keep the violent pace? I don’t know how long people expect us to keep doing this. I don’t know how long we can physically do this. I’m not in shape anymore. I used to run, but I’m really in poor shape now. The only exercise I get is when we play. But I look at Mitch and (occasional GBV bassist) Greg (Demos), and we rock harder than any kids. And it’s our live show that everybody loves so much. We first started being that way live – jumping around, getting really drunk, being assholes – because we were such nervous wrecks. But people liked that. Kids are starved for a good rock show. Making records is a spiritual thing, playing live is about having a great fucking time, it’s physical.
You definitely have a reputation for being a physical performer.
Performance is a total egotistical, silly thing to do. I’m a good performer because I like to get up there and have a party. I think I’m a bold performer. You have to be bold to do leg kicks and shit like that. I’ve subscribed to the school of rock. Rock is a good thing. Most indie-rock bands are anti-rock, but we embrace it. There’s nothing wrong about wearing striped pants or jumping around.
You said you used to drink when you played so you would have the courage to get up in front of people. You don’t seem nervous anymore, but you still drink.
I can play without drinking. [Laughing] But I choose not to. It’s more fun to have a party with everyone drinking. People want us to be drunk. I told Nate (Farley) from the Amps – he was our tech at the time – “I’m not going to get drunk before we play tonight.” He said, “Go ahead. I’ll boo you. I’ll fucking boo you.”
Do you worry that the amount of drinking and smoking you do will eventually ruin your voice?
I don’t know. I can hear the difference in my voice and I’m pretty conscious of it. I didn’t smoke my whole life until Guided By Voices. I don’t smoke unless we’re playing or being interviewed or stuff like that. I’ve learned to sing from my diaphragm and less from my throat. I used to lose my voice after singing one night. When we did some dates in the Midwest earlier this year, by the third night my throat was stripped from smoking. If it starts to affect my singing, I’ll quit smoking.
When you were young, your dad encouraged you to be an athlete. How did you feel about that?
When I was in little league, I was a great baseball player. I would practically throw a no-hitter every game. So because of that my dad said, “Son, you’ve got a golden arm,” and he’d rub my arm down every night. I was also a good basketball player and a good football player, so my dad’s aspirations were for me to be a sports star. He always fought me a little bit about music – he said it distracted me from sports. He would tell my brother Jimmy to stay out of my room because I was playing these weird records. He didn’t want me to ruin his sports career, too. My brother was a high school phenomenon in basketball. He led the team in scoring his senior year and got a scholarship to Arizona State. But he fucked his knee up.
Your high school football coach said you approached music the way you did football: You get knocked on your ass, but you get right back up.
I don’t know what he’s talking about. I never got knocked on my ass. [Laughing] I was fucking tough.
Did you aspire to be a professional athlete?
I wanted to be a professional basketball player. My dad etched that on my brain. But I wasn’t quick enough, which I found out my first year of college. I started developing this really bad attitude about sports. I was sick of people snapping their fingers and expecting me to move. I was like, “Fuck you. I’ve been moving to snapped fingers my whole life.” I wasn’t on scholarship, so I decided not to pursue sports anymore. My dad was really upset. He said, “I told you when you quit sports you have to get a job.” So I had to get a job washing dishes.
Was it easier for your dad to accept your decision to quit sports because your younger brother still had a shot at basketball?
That was a nice outlet for him. My dad thought, “Well it looks like Bob’s not going to do it. But there’s Jim.” And Jimmy was a better basketball player than me. So my dad started kissing his ass for a while.
Your son Bryan is a high school athlete now. Do you put pressure on him?
I’m trying to stop. The sports thing is part of my family. My son likes music, but he’s not really into it like me. He’s really into sports. So I try to help him, but sometimes I go overboard. I’ll be like, “Dammit, Bryan, why did you do that? What are you thinking of out there?” And I always feel bad about it, so I’m constantly apologizing to him and telling him just to have a good time. But then I’ll be watching him play basketball and evaluating what he’s doing, and my brother will be there, too. And Jimmy will be in my ear the whole time: “Bryan’s not doing this, he’s not doing that.” So I tell Bryan, “Get Jimmy out of my ear. Do it right so I don’t have to hear Jimmy bitching.” Sports is a big part of my family.
Is your daughter Erika into sports too?
Not really. She acts and sings, but she’s pretty bashful about everything else. She’s wild, like our song, “Your Name Is Wild.” And Bryan’s cool – “My Son Cool.”
Guided By Voices played basketball against the Beastie Boys on Lollapalooza in ’94. Who won?
We fucking smoked them – it was unfair. We claim we can beat any rock band in basketball, but we have to be able to use my brother. When we played the Beasties, it was make-it-take-it. So I’d dribble down the court, pass to my brother and he’d make it. Then we’d do it again. The Beasties had Billy Corgan on their team, too.
Oh, god. I just lost some respect for the Beasties.
He’s actually not that bad a player. He’s not good, but he’s tall and he can jump. We had been just watching those guys play, and we finally got drunk enough to have the balls to say, “We’ve got next game.” We were hanging around with the Flaming Lips and Kim and Kelley (Deal) – that was our group. And Kim and Kelley were like our cheerleaders, and Steve Drozd was riding his bike around the whole time. We were like a circus. When we first started playing, I had the ball, and Ad-Rock was guarding me. I kind of lost the ball, but I smacked it back to myself. But when I did that, the ball bounced up and hit him in the face. And he was like, “What the fuck, man? This is supposed to be a friendly game.” It started off on the wrong foot, but we ended up being friends with them. They’re good guys.
But are they good players?
Yeah, they’re good. They’re hustlers, but they shoot kind of funky. My brother and I come from the school of form, so we can tell who the real players are. But they know the game.
Do you think you’re a good lyricist?
I think the way I write lyrics is the way you should write lyrics. You shouldn’t write lyrics to have this literal meaning, they should be abstract and open to interpretation. Like Bowie or Blue Oyster Cult or John Lennon. Lennon is my favorite. That’s why there’s no lyric sheet with Under The Bushes Under The Stars. I like when people come up with their own ideas.
Are you a better lyricist than John Lennon?
I’m not nearly as good, I don’t think. He was the best songwriter ever.
He can be very good. Occasionally, we can both having uplifting lyrics. I think he’s better.
I think my lyrics are a lot better than Lou Barlow’s. I think his lyrics are too relationship oriented. That’s boring to me.
How would you rate yourself as a guitarist?
I’m like an idiot savant. I have a full knowledge of how to play chords, but I don’t have the slightest idea what they are. As a songwriter, I think that’s a plus. Any noise you make on a guitar is a chord. Other than that, I’m not a good guitar player.
How would you rate yourself as a songwriter?
I think I’m a good songwriter because I write songs to satisfy my soul. I write songs to get happy. I don’t know how I would compare myself to other people. I don’t know if I’m better than Lou Barlow or whoever else. Because I bring out my inner feelings through song, I think I’m a successful songwriter. It seems when people become stars – like Bowie – they get away from songwriting. I don’t understand how that happens, how people lose the ambition to write good songs. I think people get all caught up in the industry and lose the desire. I think that’s what happened to R.E.M. But that will never happen to me.
—Eric T. Miller