Listening to the radio these days is like dining on candy-coated dirt after a weeklong fast. You’re left sick — and even more empty than before. It’s a sad thing when all you want to do is kick out the jams and get a little surly — and yet, station after station, you’re disappointed. You want big guitar and beastly rhythms, that one golden Sabbath or Who tune you just know is lurking at some radio-wave crossroads — but all you get is weak hip-hop, another godforsaken song by Ricky “The Hack” Martin and the unbelievably wack sounds of rap-metal.
A bitter, bloody shame indeed — which leaves me to wonder what a fellow has to do to get some substance around here. Well, Bob Pollard — lead singer, songwriter and front man of Guided By Voices — answers this plea with a stage kick and a toast to the soul of rock ‘n’ roll. At the stern age of 43 (and after 14 years of teaching fourth graders), Pollard has left his day job to create a legacy.
“I was actually looking for a way out of teaching, and rock ‘n’ roll was like the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said in our recent interview.
He’s manned the wheel of GBV for 16 years — and with a catalog of more than 600 songs under his belt, you better believe this guy means business. In fact, in the wake of the indie/lo-fi rock dissolution, it appears that Pollard and his gang may very well be the last band standing. Many groups of this genre — The Grifters, Pavement, Sebadoh, et al. — have long since fallen silent, having benignly resigned or just flat-out exhausted their formulas.
“We were actually here before them, and [we’re] still here after them. The symbolic cockroach on the cover of our last record is like us. It’s just difficult to kill us off,” says Pollard with a laugh. “We’re kinda swimming in a sea of our own.”
Mounting exposure and a zealous fan base have thrusted Guided By Voices to a bit of a lone height, given the odds. Asked for his thoughts about the lack of straightforward rock ‘n’ roll among current Billboard trends, Pollard remarks: “There have been cycles in music where Big Rock comes back around. Last time it happened was in ’93, so maybe it will go full cycle. By that time, we’ll be too f••kin’ old anyway.”
The band’s new record, Isolation Drills (TVT Records), set for release on April 3, is a deft reminder of why the electric guitar was born. Crafty production and classic songwriting leave one with a sharp taste of rock history.
“From the time the Beatles came over, I was there. I’ve been through all the phases of rock,” insists Pollard. “I’m inspired by all the good parts. ’67-80 has got to be the golden age of rock, and I was there to experience it.”
Oh, it shows. The album’s format — somewhat reminiscent of a Zepplin record — varies widely in temperament. Tracks like “Sister I Need Wine” ebb bittersweetly into voracious romps like “Want One.” The songs move sincerely through the album like episodes in an epic poem; moody acoustic trials give way to an onslaught of wide-open rock. But don’t assume his latest toil is overbudgeted and studio-slick. The record was executed with finesse and fervor, a heavy nod toward the high-caliber recording production of rock ‘n’ roll past. “Some people accused us on the last couple of records of selling out, but I hardly think so at all. I’ve always tried to make a rock record that’s grand, [with a] big guitar sound, but never had the money or resources. So we’re finally here to do that,” he points out.
Rest assured, with Isolation Drills, Pollard and the Guided By posse have nothing to defend but a well of good ideas and an enviable level of artistic success.
“Whenever I have a creative urge, I do as much as I can, to the point of exhaustion,” he says.
Eminem or Britney Spears? Bob Pollard is neither and not! The duke of a dying breed of real musicians? Perhaps. Prolific songwriter? You can bank on it — that is, if you can stand to see a rock band hold its own.
At 43, Pollard is just getting warmed up. He has a wife, two children and a roaring rock career. “I make the whole world sing … or at least a small portion of it,” he says with a contented chuckle.