A Conversation With Robert Pollard

To nobody’s surprise, neither age nor the dissolution of Guided By Voices has slowed the prolific output of Ohio’s most famous schoolteacher-turned-songwriter. Robert Pollard has simultaneously issued two new solo albums, Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love and Standard Gargoyle Decisions (both on Merge), with help from producer and collaborator Todd Tobias. He’s also putting the finishing touches on a coffee-table book of lyrics and collage artwork titled Town Of Mirrors: The Reassembled Imagery Of Robert Pollard (due out next year) and recently staged an exhibit of his visual art at Studio Dante, Sopranos star Michael Imperioli’s New York City theater.

I assume that you heard about the explosion outside Studio Dante in September.
Yeah. It was a pipe bomb or something. I heard that it wasn’t targeted for his theater. I emailed Imperioli and said, “I hope everybody’s OK.”

What’d you think of the last episode of The Sopranos?
I was glad no one from the immediate family was killed. I thought Meadow was gonna get it. I liked how it looked like something went wrong with the television at the end, too. I’ve also been watching Big Love, which is fucking awesome. I like On Demand because it allows me to get my drinking in. [Laughs]

Speaking of TV, I hear a Guided By Voices song is going to be in a car commercial.
I’m supposed to sign a contract today; Nissan is picking up “Quality Of Armor” (from 1992’s Propeller) for a commercial in Canada. I’ve always said to my manager, “You need to get some of my songs in commercials, especially car commercials.” You know how it was for fucking Bob Seger; it’s like he never had to do anything else. [Laughs] I’ve got “Motor Away” and “Oh yeah, I’m gonna drive my car” (lyrics from “Quality”) and things like that. At one point, I wrote a jingle for Krispy Kreme.

No way.
Yeah. Just for fun. And it’s good, really catchy, really ’60s-like. It’s kind of like Herman’s Hermits. It’s all sugary like the doughnuts. When my manager finally got serious about it and said, “Yeah, let’s do it,” I got cold feet. I can’t be remembered as the guy who wrote the Krispy Kreme theme.

Did you write it because you like them?
Yeah, I used to. I don’t eat them much anymore. I mean, you can’t eat too many fucking Krispy Kreme. I was just fucking around with my acoustic one morning and must’ve just had some Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and I started writing this little thing: “Start off your day with a Krispy Kreme doughnut/As sweet as life can get.” I once had a chance to write a Budweiser commercial, but I had to sing, “This Bud’s for you,” and just couldn’t hack it. I’ve cost myself a lot of money because of that. I was offered to write the song for (1996 Tom Hanks film) That Thing You Do! at one point.

I remember that.
I just couldn’t do it, man. It’s hard when someone gives you a title or a lyric or a phrase, and you’ve gotta write some sort of viable commercial jingle around it. But I’m supposed to be doing this Cleopatra movie with (director) Steven Soderbergh, which sort falls in the same category. They want to use old songs of mine and just change the lyrics.

Is that definitely supposed to happen?
Nothing’s ever definite with directors and shit; they can change their mind at any time. I heard they were even interested in me singing some of the songs—or at least somebody’s part—and they would dub my voice, which would be funny to watch. This is a big-budget thing with Catherine Zeta-Jones, and it’s a musical, but I really don’t know how actively involved I will be in it.

You have a number of fans, like Soderbergh, Imperioli and (actor) Paddy Considine, who are successful artists in other fields.
It’s good, because there are a lot of people who don’t know who the fuck I am. But the people who do like my stuff seem to be, like you said, artists and directors and other musicians. To me, that means I’m doing something fairly good still. You can make commercial records and you can go for it, and a lot of times when you’re done, you’re gone. I’ve been able to just do what I wanna do for going on 16 years now. I think it’s because I do what I wanna do, I stick to my guns. It’s not ever so drastically different. I tried to do the big-studio thing and it just didn’t work. I think that some of these people we’re talking about, like Steven Soderbergh, Imperioli, they’ve been listening to my stuff for a long time. It’s an honor for other artists to dig what you’re doing. But the main thing is the people who’ve been listening to my stuff for the last 16 years, it’s basically the same people. There was an attempt at one point with TVT, and before that with Matador, for us to try to break through to a larger audience. I think it’s my fault that it didn’t happen, because I just wasn’t willing to do some of the things that they wanted me to do. I didn’t know you had to tour for a whole year, and after you played a show at night, you had to get up and go play at a radio station at eight o’clock in the morning and sing. And if you didn’t do it, you were semi-threatened, like, “Hey we’re gonna pull the plug on you.” Well, my thing was like, “I don’t give a fuck. Pull the plug.” I just wanted to see some success for Guided By Voices, because we were doing the dog-and-pony thing and we were playing all these festivals around the world. We’d play on a third stage at 11 o’clock in the morning, and I’d see Tenacious D second to headline on the main stage and it kinda pissed me off. We were using big producers and going to big studios, so I didn’t think [mainstream success] was beyond the realm of possibility. And so we kind of went for it, and I realized, “Jesus Christ, what have I gotten myself into?”

Now that indie-rock reunions are big business, have people started bugging you about getting Guided By Voices back together?
To me, it’s just cashing in. If you’re gonna get the band back together, it should be to support a new record, not just to play the hits. That’s like doing the county-fair circuit. I don’t see Guided By Voices reforming. For one thing, there were 50 or 60 people in Guided By Voices over time. But I know the name does matter, because I’m not selling as many records as Guided By Voices did. That name’s been around for a while, and it’s kind of in the scene. Guided By Voices, Pavement, Sebadoh—you know, all that kind of shit. And so the name will sell more records, it will also cause more people to come out and see you play.

I doubt Stephen Malkmus sells what Pavement did or Lou Barlow sells what Sebadoh did.
And in essence, it’s the same thing. It’s just a name has changed. Those guys and me, we’re not Pete Townshend, we’re not David Bowie. Sometimes I remove myself and look at my records and say, “Now if this fucking record was done by some huge band’s lead singer who can’t write, like Robin Zander (Cheap Trick) or Roger Daltrey or Mick Jagger, people would think it was amazing.” It’s only natural that they would come to expect more from me. I’ve been around for quite a long time and I do a lot of stuff, and I don’t expect everybody to like my music; it’s understandable that when you first start, it’s fresh and everybody’s hearing it and seeing it for the first time. I’m not saying that those records are or aren’t better than the records I make now, and I’m not comparing them. I know as a listener myself and from buying records and watching shows, that when I see a band for the first two or three or four years, I dig them, and then that starts to wear off. I can’t expect everybody to stick around and, 16 years later, like my music as much as they did when they first heard us. Now, you get the comparison between the different lineups and the different bands and the different styles and approaches that we’ve had to making music. And we’ve been through a few different stages: the lo-fi, four-track thing, and then when we started recording in a studio, and then we got a producer, then we kind of went back to just a middle-of-the-road type approach. And so now, what I’ve settled into is what I am. There’s no attempt to change directions, there’s no “What do I need to do?” I’m fortunate to have someone that can help me pump out records that quickly. I can just send Todd Tobias the music, and I say, “Todd, play the music, and take your time and tell me when you’re done and I’ll come up and sing them.” So I’ve gotten into this nice groove with the assistance of Todd Tobias where I can do whatever I want. It’s kind of nice. I’m really comfortable and happy right now because there are no expectations. It’s nice to still be on Merge, a label that has some visibility, and still be able to whatever I want to do on the side. I do enough to sustain me, to make a living, but it wouldn’t be unless I did a host of other stuff. I gotta work, I gotta stay active. And so the point is, I guess if you don’t have that much going on, if you’re not a maniac like me, then you gotta do things like reunion tours and whatever.

You turn 50 this year. In 1990, you wrote “When She Turns 50,” which is similar in spirit to the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four.” How has your view of 50 changed since you wrote that song?
When we were first signed and exposed, we were relatively old. But now that you look at it, we weren’t old. You know, mid-30s is not old, but we were old by rock standards. Now you got people in rock trying to keep themselves looking young, and they look like fucking ghouls. I dyed my hair for a year when I first started going gray, then I said, “Fuck that.” It was just tempting because you start thinking people aren’t gonna dig your music anymore. Rock music is for kids, so maybe they won’t want an old gray-haired guy looking like Kenny Rogers. Then I realized that nobody gives a shit. If you do give a shit, fuck you.

The fourth installment of your literary magazine/collage book, Eat, recently came out. You’re obviously good at doing them.
I’m getting better, man. I’ve always done collages. I mean, you do collages when you’re in elementary school. Your teacher would make you do all that shit. But I’ve just gotten better at making collages that look almost like a painting or a photograph, where you put different images from different photos together, and it’s hard to tell that it’s not one photo, that it’s not one image. So I guess that has to do with contour of images and spacing and color and everything, and I’m getting better at that. In Guided by Voices, we would have happy accidents and we would have mistakes and we would have noise and we were able to get by with mistakes. We made so many of them that it became part of the personality of the band. Now I’m able to do that with my collages, like say I glue something on, an image that I don’t like, I’ll just tear it off and the tear mark is still on there. It doesn’t matter, it kinda looks cool like that. So it’s good that you kind of become an artist where mistakes are accepted. It makes it easy on you.

You’ve always had a reputation as being sort of a control freak. Do you think with age you’re becoming less concerned?
Yeah. I’m less concerned. I’m lazier. I’m older. And I’ve found that I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with people who really have a good grasp of what I want. I can just say, “Do it, Todd,” and he’ll do it and it’s amazing. There’s only been a couple times where I said, “I don’t know about that.” What Todd sends me back, a lot of times, it just blows my mind away—it’s so much better than I expected. So it’s like Christmas, and I’m afforded the luxury where it’s like listening to my songs almost for the first time. But you’re right in that I’m older, and I’m not so worried about how perfect it is anymore anyway. I kind of like the fact that when it comes back, it’s slightly different than I thought it would be. I like that element. You mentioned that I’m known as a dictator, a tyrant, a control freak, whatever. Which is true, but I’m allowing Todd to come up with ideas. I kind of did that with Guided By Voices. I really said, “OK, here are the songs, let’s practice them, but give me some ideas, do what you wanna do.” And a lot of times people did, a lot of times people stepped up to the plate. Other times, people just came with nothing. People had the opportunity to come up with ideas. I think I was a control freak in the fact that I had to write all the songs. And that’s OK, isn’t it?

It’s your band.
It’s my vehicle. So if you want to write songs, come up with your own band. In the early days, I didn’t do that quite so much. I had some people—I let Toby (Tobin Sprout) have songs. Toby had good songs, and Doug (Gillard) had good songs. But if you notice on some of the earlier stuff, it would say, “R. Pollard, Mitchell, Fennell, Toohey.” But for the most part, I’d be making a song up in the room and Kevin Fennell’s tapping his fingers on my guitar or something and getting credit for it. There were a few people, I won’t mention any names, who came to me and complained like, “Man, we deserve songwriting credit because we came up with the bass and drums or guitar of whatever, and we deserve credit.” So what I did then was I said, “Fuck it, I’m gonna write all the fuckin’ songs.” There’ll be no hassle over who wrote the song anymore. I’m writing them all, there’s no, “I wrote this, he wrote that.” Just get it straight, all songs will be written by me, so that’s what it will say on the record.

Similar with Nirvana. At first Cobain was giving the other two guys credit for everything and then—
He fucked himself.

—when he realized how much money came back to them and said, “This is the way it’s gonna be, take it or leave.”
Exactly, because you know he fucked himself. You want people to get paid and you want to share the wealth, but you don’t want to unnecessarily give up large portions of money to people who don’t deserve it. I could go on and on about that, too, man. Like not mentioning names, but I’ve been roped into shit, especially in the early days.

What else do you have coming up musically beyond the two Merge records?
Well, the Circus Devils’ record (Sgt. Disco) just came out. I heard that it’s getting shitty reviews. That’s funny.

That’s my favorite of the Circus Devils records, though.
Yeah, I think it’s good. Todd was kind of worried, he said, “You know, man, they say the same thing every review. Another bunch of half-baked shit by Robert Pollard.” I said, “Why don’t you get another lead singer, man?” [Laughs] Of all the people I know who’ve had time to spend with this Circus Devils record, Sgt. Disco, they fuckin’ love it, man. I think it was Spin that really ripped it, but this guy might have had 10 CDs that he had to review by the end of the month, and he’s not gonna spend much time on a 32-song Circus Devils CD with noises all over the place and crazy shit going on. After a certain point, you just can’t let it bother you when you put out as much shit as I do. The guy’s right!

Do you think you’ve become more reclusive since GBV ended?
I was kind of reclusive, anyway. Always have been. Even on the road, I’d hide, come out onstage, then party in the dressing room, and that’s it. You know, get the fuck outta there. It’s funny because they had this (show in Dayton) called Heedfest. This one guy told my wife, “I wish you wouldn’t have come here. Because with you around, Bob doesn’t hang out the way he used to.” That’s fuckin’ crazy, man. We just partied before the show, we played the show—which is the party and takes three hours—and after that, I’m fuckin’ spent. I go home. I’ve always done that.

When did you get married?
About four months ago.

What was that like?
We just saw the mayor of Clayton, and she married us. Just a little 15-minute ceremony with no one there. I already did the big wedding thing, and my wife, she knows that. Sometimes I go, “If you really wanna have kids, I’ll get a reverse-vasectomy.” And it’s gonna suck because my vasectomy sucked. When I got a vasectomy, my nuts got swollen up to the size of like a football. Two footballs, two big purple fucking footballs. It put me on the couch for about three months, I had to take a leave of absence as a teacher. The doctor was freaking out because he thought I was gonna sue him, which I was thinking about. They were trying to think of a way to get it out of there, the blood and whatever else was in there. So he would make an incision underneath my right testicle, and then he would get up in the chair and put his knees and all his might into my balls and try to squeeze shit out of them—I was fuckin’ screaming, man. The nurse was looking away and shit. That was the first squeeze, and I had to go back for a second. “Back for a second squeezing” is a lyric in (Pollard song) “Girl Named Captain.” So I had to go back, and he had to do it again. It just wasn’t working, and finally, I thought I’m gonna die. The first night, when they first got all big and shit, I was lying on the couch, and at two o’clock in the morning, I couldn’t sleep. And All In The Family comes on, and fuckin’ Meathead was getting a vasectomy. When I’d go downtown to the doctor, I’d get out of the car, and the only way I could walk was hunched over, duck-walking and holding my nuts. My wife at the time would walk way ahead of me because she was embarrassed. That went on for about three months, and I thought “I’m probably gonna die.” But eventually, the swelling went down, and then the task was to see if I could cum again. And so the only way to do that was the obvious way, and I could and everything was OK.

How old were you when that happened?
It was before anybody knew about Guided by Voices, so I must’ve been in my early 30s.

Did they ever figure out why that happened?
I think the guy hit an artery, man. The doctor said there’s no payment because he’s afraid I was gonna sue him. So once it was all OK and healed and everything, he sent me a big bill. And I said, “Fuck you,” and they never pressed it. I asked him, too, after the vasectomy, “What can I do? What are the precautions?” He said, “You just gotta put a little ice on it and take it easy.” And I said, “Well, what can I do tonight? Can I drink?” And he goes, “Yeah, you can drink. It’s no problem—just don’t run or jump around or anything.” So I go to this guy’s house and we’re watching the football game. I’m drinking a beer, and I’m with (friend) Gibby, who’s taking [Quaaludes], and we’re getting fucked up. We’re sitting there, and all of a sudden, you can see my pants rising, and I’m going, “Aw, fuck, I’m dying.” So we gotta get in the car. Gibby’s driving, and he’s on [Quaaludes] and I’m dying. So Gibby’s driving and I’ve got my left hand on the wheel and he’s got his right hand on the wheel, trying to drive, and a cop pulls up, and I go, “Fuck it, man. If he pulls us over, I’ll just show him my nuts, and he’ll escort us to the hospital.”

Did he pull you over?
No, but I said, “Don’t worry about it Gibby. If he pulls us over, he won’t be checking you for anything because I’m gonna show him my nuts.”

So you went to the hospital?
No man, I went home and just hit the couch, yelling and shit. At first they just started swelling, they weren’t purple or anything. So I was finally able to sleep a little but, but then the next day, I got up, and there it was. Fuckin’ looked like a box turtle.

Is it true the Monument Club (the name Pollard came up for a loose collection of longtime drinking buddies) no longer exists?
All the guys I used to hang out with, that’s over with. There was a falling-out with people vying to get backstage when we opened for Pearl Jam last year. I thought everybody could get backstage, and the people who didn’t got all pissed off. So there are six or seven members of the Monument Club who haven’t spoken to me since. You know who I’m hanging out with now? Guys who went to high school with my son. I’m hanging out with a bunch of people in their mid-20s, but I’m glad they do, because I got somebody to drink with. I just think it’s funny; my wife is 27, and when we started dating (four years ago), there were some problems with the difference between our age, like, “Goddamn, man, you’re robbing the cradle.” I was actually looking for someone my age or at least closer to my age, but 45-year-old women don’t come to my shows.

Congratulations on becoming a grandfather.
Thanks, man. But I’m never gonna make mature music. I’m going to make albums, and it’s gonna sound like it did when I was a fucking teenager. My voice might change a little bit, but not the spirit. Because I really don’t know how to do anything else.

—Eric T. Miller