Are you wondering what's happened
to good old rock 'n' roll? Wondering where the band
is that can still send a chill down your spine,
leave you singing a catchy verse or playing air
guitar—the band that won't sue you for copyright
infringement? Well, worry not. They've quit their
day jobs. And Guided by Voices is coming soon to
a bar near you.
"The band was just totally
for fun," says Robert Pollard, recalling his
unlikely late-life transformation from middle-class
respectability to rock 'n' roll hero. It's early
on a Monday morning and Pollard is in a good mood,
eager to talk about his life and music. "When
we first started making music, my only ambition,
and this is the truth, was for us maybe to appear
20 years later on some kind of compilation. That
would've been it for me. Obviously, we got a little
higher than that."
For 14 years, Robert Pollard's
"real life" job was as an elementary school
teacher in the Dayton, Ohio public school system.
But all along he was writing
and recording songs with his buddies, mostly as
an excuse to drink beer, get loud and have fun.
"The thing is, we never even tried to
make it," Pollard recalls. "We were basically
just a rock band with no money. We never tried to
sell ourselves at all."
And then it happened. After a three-piece
band from Seattle named Nirvana, led by talented
songwriter and tortured front-man Kurt Cobain, tried
not to sell themselves, they instead sold seven
million records and sparked a garage band renaissance,
dubbed the alternative movement, or "Lo-Fi,"
for low fidelity. "Suddenly we kind of had
a category to be placed into," Pollard says
of the early '90s. "That whole Lo-Fi thing
started, and because we had been doing it for longer
than those bands, we were kind of thrust to the
top, as being the pioneers of it." Overnight,
Robert Pollard became, literally, too cool for school.
But after 14 years in the fourth
grade—about 13 years longer than most careers
in rock 'n' roll—and pushing 40, the age when
most rockers enter rehab, go bankrupt, look stupid
in leather pants and ultimately wind up a subject
for VH1's Behind the Music—could
the teacher called "Mr. Rocker," married
and with two children of his own, really just walk
away from the blackboard to pursue a "Lo-Fi"
rock 'n' roll dream? Pollard says the choice was
scary, but not difficult.
"You can talk about that kind
of decision with people, but they don't understand,"
recalls Pollard, of the decision to pursue music
full-time. "When you've been working, teaching
for 14 years, and then you lay on your fellow teachers
and your family, your mom and dad, that I'm going
to quit and go into music—people didn't even
attempt to understand that I would throw away a
14-year teaching career with benefits and everything."
Pollard admits that he never thought
he could make a living as a musician. "I never
really had any true ambition to do it," he
says. "But I always wanted to. Everybody wants
to be a rocker. It's the best job. It's decadent
and fun sums up Guided by Voices perfectly. In stark
contrast to the scripted, click track, lip-synced
arena shows of today, Guided by Voices is a throwback
to the good old days of rock. The band is infamous
for its blistering, raucous and alcohol-fueled stage
shows. It's all part of the quintessential rock
'n' roll experience that legions of loyal Guided
by Voices fans have come to expect from the band.
Pollard plays the part of rock 'n' roll god with
relish, constantly chugging beer, smoking, singing
in a Brit-pop accent and pulling off classic leg
kicks like an NFL punter. He spews humorous observations
and rock clichés effortlessly between songs,
while the band huddles to light cigarettes or swig
from a whiskey bottle. And the band almost always
plays until they are no longer physically able to
continue, either from exhaustion or intoxication.
Six or seven encores are almost automatic. If you
do the rock calculus on style points alone, Guided
by Voices just might be the greatest American rock
"When we first broke out and
we had to start playing shows where people were
showing up chanting G-B-V, G-B-V...
I was petrified," says Pollard, explaining
the origin of his onstage drinking. "It
definitely takes the edge off to have a few beers."
Pollard says he tries not to cross the line to where
the shows get sloppy. But that's just a flat-out
lie. The man likes to drink beer and play rock 'n'
roll. If the band's having a good time, everyone
has a good time. And Pollard knows it.
"Bob's little trick is that
he says when it looks like he's chugging beer onstage
that most of it's spilling out of his mouth,"
says Jim Greer, who played bass for Guided by Voices
from 1994 to '96. "But having said that, he
stills goes through quite a bit of beer. There are
five cases of beer on the rider and one bottle of
Jack Daniels. And it's gone by the end. It didn't
drink itself, I know that much."
More famous for his role as a music
journalist with SPIN magazine in the
'90s, where he penned the memorable A Year in
the Life of Rock and Roll series, Greer
now works in Los Angeles as a screenwriter but remains
close to Pollard. "It was fun, always fun,"
he recalls of his days touring with Pollard and
Guided by Voices. "Most of the time when we
were touring, everyone's getting drunk, and we're
just having a really good time, and that's the whole
point of it," he says.
Of course, that's most of the time.
There's also the time Pollard was tossed from an
Austin, Texas punk rock club for heckling an opening
band. And there's that night in Toronto, when the
band was opening for Chicago's Urge Overkill. Opening
is something the band never likes to do and rarely
does. Prohibited from performing encores by the
Urge Overkill crew, tensions were already running
high that night. But when Pollard returned to the
stage after a typically hot set to acknowledge the
crowd's ritual chants of "G-B-V, G-B-V,"
the Urge Overkill crew apparently took exception.
There was some pushing and shoving. "You just
don't push Bob," says Greer. "You just
don't. It's just not a good idea." It took
about five members of security to subdue Pollard,
and the band left the tour a few a shows later.
Urge Overkill broke up shortly thereafter.
"I don't think I drink on
tour as much as I used to," says Pollard in
his defense. "I used to start drinking sometimes
at noon, and by the time we played, I'd be completely
trashed. Now, I start drinking a couple of beers
a few hours before the show. Except for some of
these hometown shows."
Oh yes, the hometown shows. They
say the hometown shows are always the toughest.
And as a former teacher and pillar of the Dayton
community, they can be particularly tough for Pollard.
"When I play a hometown show, if I'm a little
too drunk, they'll really assassinate me in the
paper," Pollard says, pointing to the band's
latest hometown gig, a benefit performance. After
partying with friends for three hours and then playing
for another three, Pollard says he was stumbling
drunk and exhausted. "A couple of times I fell
into the drums," he recalls. A few days later,
the local music columnist tore him apart.
"He was comparing me to like
Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, saying this was a
tragedy in the making. My parents, and other people,
like the older ladies I used to teach with, they
got all concerned—is Bobby OK? Is that
really happening to him? I mean, it'd
be different if I came out in the first half-hour
and I was like that. But this was after six hours
of drinking and playing. I would think that would
be heroic to someone who's into rock 'n' roll."
Despite Pollard's local critics,
to those who are into rock 'n' roll, make no mistake,
Robert Pollard is a rock hero. And he intends to
stick around for a while. "At first, people
would say this may not last very long. This may
last a year and you're done. Well, it's still going
pretty strong," he says.
Pollard's maturity at the time of his success has
served him well. At a point when many young bands
get sucked into the rock 'n' roll machine, becoming
beholden to large record companies, bargaining away
their artistic freedom and touring with large, cash-draining
entourages, Pollard chose a simpler, if less glamorous
route, signing first with Matador, the renowned
independent label, over music giant Warner Brothers.
"That was a conscious decision on my part,"
says Pollard. "It was Warner Brothers and Matador
for like eight months. It took me eight months to
make a decision because Warner Brothers was being
really, really nice to us. But I also kind of saw
through it. I didn't know if I was ready to go from
complete obscurity right to the major labels. I
thought we might get lost in the shuffle."
It's a timeless rock 'n' roll tale,
says Greer. On one side of the table sit the greedy
record companies and on the other side the starving
artists. But artists, he notes, ultimately make
"You can't put all the blame
on record companies," says Greer. "There's
enough history there to know what's going to happen
if you sign to a major label, and there are ways
to do it without being destroyed. If you're not
intending to make a record that is going to sell
well, you're going to get dropped. And if you take
all this money as an advance, you're gonna have
to pay it back. Bob was smart enough not to do that."
By forsaking the quick strike,
Pollard has survived a '90s alternative gold rush
that saw a number of promising bands destroyed.
And by remaining true to their rock roots, the band
has developed a large, loyal fan following. They've
also been able to make music at an astonishing rate.
Pollard is probably the most prolific songwriter
in modern rock, with his combined solo/Guided by
Voices catalog numbering more than 600 tracks.
In October, Pollard headed back
into the studio to record the follow-up to Guided
by Voices' first major label release, 1999's Do
the Collapse. Produced by the Cars' Ric
Ocasek, Do the Collapse was the band's
slickest, cleanest-sounding record to date and helped
showcase Pollard's powerful pop vocals and signature
hooks. The singles from the record, "Teenage
FBI," "Hold on Hope" and
"Surgical Focus," earned considerable
airplay on the radio. And the band even played on
network TV on the Conan O'Brien Show,
prompting the music media to suggest the band was
ready to break into the mainstream. Pollard isn't
"We're trying to shed that
indie rock tag," he says. "But I guess
it's a good tag to have, with what mainstream music
is like. Our thing is just to do what we do—play
rock in a purist sense. Hopefully, something will
happen where rock kind of comes back again."
It's logical to assume that after
recording their second major label release, Guided
by Voices will pile into their limo and catch their
private jet for a whirlwind tour of America's greatest
arenas to follow it up. "Yeah, right,"
says Pollard. "What, no private rock jet?"
I ask. "No jet," he says. "We're
not as big as Ween yet."