The Oracle of Dayton
Somewhere, a cloistered fringe group is offering devotions to Guided by Voices and its leader Robert Pollard, elevating the band to the status of prophet. These cultists--and they must be out there--believe that future generations will be able to predict weather changes, natural disasters, and the rise and fall of the antichrist by deciphering the collected releases of this prolific indie outfit. How else to explain the aphasic logic of a lyric like "Coded Ancient/Oh brightness we shall see/Loaded up and at night/We shall flee," one of Pollard's typical pronouncements (from the track "Things I Will Keep" on 1999's release Do the Collapse)? What could this be, if not a cryptic reference to a not-so-distant Armageddon?
"Actually, there are no secret messages in my songs," confesses Pollard over the phone from his home in Dayton, Ohio, when confronted with his hypothetical status as a soothsayer. "If anything, these are my versions of Dr. Seuss stories. I thought about writing children's books for a long time, because I taught English for 14 years, but I guess I'm making children's albums instead. I've been told that two-year-olds like to sing my songs because of the lyrics.
"I mostly like the color of words, and how they sound, and how they sound against each other," he elaborates. "I find that when I write songs that are sort of straightforward, instead of just far out, I have a harder time remembering them."
Up until 1994, Pollard was juggling his musical career with teaching fourth grade and supporting a family in the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio. Together with shop teacher and "manager for life" Pete Jamison, Pollard took out a loan from the Dayton public school system's credit union to finance the recording of their first albums, including 1987's Devil Between My Toes and Sandbox, and 1989's Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia. These albums all carried what was soon to be known as the Guided by Voices sound: defiantly lo-fi Britpop with catchy melodies and incredibly memorable hooks, all crammed into songs that rarely exceeded two minutes in length. And, of course, there were the cryptic/prophetic lyrics, warning the world of such lurking threats as "the popular mechanics are at it again/A tenement filled with sideshow freaks" ("A Big Fan of the Pigpen," from Bee Thousand) and of other horrors and wonders of science; mutants; and love. Scat Records in Cleveland got hold of a copy of 1992's Propeller and signed the band, rereleasing all of its previous home-recorded albums in a massive, 72-track box set, aptly titled Box.
Back home Pollard earned the nickname "Mr. Rocker" from his students--a nickname that stuck until he finally retired from teaching. Liberated from the responsibilities of a day job, Pollard and Guided by Voices have spent long stretches on the road, touring almost nonstop since the release of the 1999 LP Do the Collapse (TVT Records). Their coming show at Minneapolis's 400 Bar this weekend will feature sets drawn from the band's 12th LP, due out later this year, titled Isolation Drills. (A finished live album, For All Good Kids, is also slated for release.)
Isolation Drills, like Do the Collapse, is cleaner-sounding than the static-charged, lo-fi productions that were the band's trademark on early records. Such "professionalism" suggests Guided by Voices may be growing up--which may or may not be a good thing. Fortunately, even if you don't like what the band is doing today, there's a good chance you'll love what they're doing tomorrow. Guided by Voices changes members about as often as a professional football team (today the band features Doug Gillard and Nate Farley on guitars, Tim Tobias on bass, and Canadian John McCann on drums), and the extremely prolific Pollard has been storied to toss off as many as 40 songs in an afternoon.
"When I'm on the road, I keep a bunch of notebooks and write in them while we're driving or in between shows, " says Pollard, as if trying to downplay his hyperproductivity. "I just fill the pages with poems, and lines, and stuff that sometimes ends up in songs and sometimes doesn't. I don't press myself to create at all. When I feel like writing, I just do it. I just start writing and don't stop until I stop feeling inspired, and then I'm done.
"Ric Ocasek [who produced Do the Collapse] actually had a copy of Jewel's first poetry book, and told me I should put some of my writing together like that," he adds, laughing. "I've thought about doing a book of poetry like that. But whenever I write poems that I think are really good, I want to put music to them."
Which is good news to any Pollard cultists lingering in bunkers, eating leftover millennial rations. Pollard, it can safely be said, won't run out of liturgical inspiration before the batteries give way.
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