Since the mid-90s, when his band Guided By Voices crept into the greater worldwide rock consciousness, Dayton, Ohio’s Robert Pollard has been widely recognized as one of the foremost figures in the modern lo-fi, alternative, and underground rock scenes. While GBV never reached the levels of commercial success that some predicted for the band, Pollard’s music has become the subject of an extremely devoted and loyal fanbase. Since disbanding GBV in 2004, the ever-prolific Pollard has steadily released a staggering number of records, primarily as a solo artist, but also with his band, Boston Spaceships, with longterm side project Circus Devils and under a handful of other monikers.
The latest of these records, and Pollard’s 12th album to be released over the past two years, is Moses on a Snail, which is set for release in June. Composed mostly during a single, day-long songwriting binge, Moses is a focused and mature album that stands alongside Pollard’s best work. This comes hot on the trails of solo album We All Got Out of the Army (released in February) and the Circus Devils’ Mother Skinny (released last month), a rollicking and dynamic LP that finds Pollard and collaborators Todd and Tim Tobias in fine form.
I recently checked in with Pollard to get his thoughts on his career and craft.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen one, so do you have an up-to-date estimate of how many songs you’ve written or have you finally lost track?
Robert Pollard: I don’t count ’em, I just crank ’em out and other people count ’em. They actually do. They make lists. Last year, a few people actually listened to every song I had ever released, over 1,000, in chronological order over the course of a month.
I’ve read that the bulk of the songs from your upcoming Moses on a Snail album came from a single songwriting session and that a handful of your albums over the years have come together this way. When this happens, is it something where you intend to write 20 songs in one sitting, or is it just something that happens naturally?
RP: I hadn’t done it in a while, not since Earthquake Glue, but I’ll write down a bunch of titles—50 in the case of Moses On a Snail—and proceed to attempt a song for every title. I got to 22 songs for Moses before burnout. Out of those 22, I selected 10. I had already written two songs about two weeks before that. So I put all 12 on a cd for the final selection and took it from there. It worked out very nicely in the case of Moses on a Snail and the songs have a very cohesive feel, almost conceptual.
In general, how has your songwriting process developed over the past 10 or so years?
RP: I don’t know, the process has become much more spontaneous. I brainstorm ideas and store them on CD compilations, and then I go through an amalgamation process, where I take my favorite parts, sections, snippets, whatever and look at different combinations for completed songs using a CD player and a CD burner. It’s then pretty much up to Todd Tobias or Chris Slusarenko to figure them out or learn them. Sometimes I’ll give it a shot. It takes patience because they’re jagged and cut-up. It’s primitive on my part, but it’s spontaneous, easy and fun—for me, maybe not them.
There seems to be a general trend in your songwriting from the weird, fantasy or childlike imagery of your early- to mid-90s GBV songs toward a more personal, mature lyrical approach. In particular, almost every one of your recent albums has at least one devastatingly killer softer melancholy track like “The Weekly Crow” from Moses on a Snail and Circus Devils’ “Ships from Prison to Prison.” Would you agree with this trend, and is it something you’ve actively worked toward?
RP: I agree, and no, it’s not necessarily conscious or mapped out. A lot of my songs start from titles and they’re just not as whimsical and down right goofy as they used to be when we (Guided By Voices) were first being noticed. People thought the imagery was cute, and I allowed myself to really go overboard with it. “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” “Blimps Go 90,” “Cuddling Bozo’s Octopus,” “Cinnamon Flavored Skulls”—it couldn’t be absurd enough. I must have been stoned. Strangers would call me in the middle of the night and ask, “What are you saying to me?”
What effect, if any, has your decision to stop touring had on your songwriting and recording work?
RP: None, with the exception of the fact that I was able to come up with more titles and lyrics than when I was traveling in the van or car on tour. There isn’t much else to do other than read or listen to music.
Do you still devote a lot of time to your visual artwork? Does your visual art have any relationship to what you’re doing musically at any given time?
RP: I do devote a lot of time to my visual art work. It’s a good way to kill time during the day and it’s very exciting. It also gives me a reason to get out of the house and look for source material in thrift stores, antique malls, etc. The only relationship that my visual art has to my music is that sometimes one might inspire the other, or after I come up with an album, I might comb my catalogue of collages, montages and piles of found images for a possible jacket cover.
Judging from your recent track record, you’re pretty comfortable with your working relationship with Todd Tobias. Do you guys have the record-producing process down to a science now or do you still tinker with it here and there? If so, how?
RP: We’ve got down a basic framework of how we like to work, but it’s not stringent and we like to take different approaches. One example is where I create basic guitar or bass tracks and vocals to build on—more of a spontaneous approach.
Do you ever consider working with another big name label or producer?
RP: Not any more. I did that and I think it was slightly unnecessary and out of character with the way I like to work. Working with Ric Ocasek and Rob Schnapf was very enjoyable and I think valuable experiences, but a little beyond the boundaries of my attention span and patience. My hat is still off to them for theirs.
You’re kind of looked at as a sort of godfather of lo-fi rock, especially in Ohio. Do you keep up with a lot of the younger bands in Ohio who are (to varying degrees) following in your footsteps? Do you have any particular favorites?
RP: I’ve heard some stuff coming out of Columbus that I like and I’d like to hear more. I like Times New Viking and Psychedelic Horseshit.
What other music have you been listening to recently?
RP: John Petkovic, of Cobra Verde, played me some of his new projects, a couple with J. Mascis and I really like those. Slusarenko sent me a burned CD of six songs by the new incarnation of the Grifters called the New Mary Jane, and I was pretty much blown away by that. The High Strung’s new album, Dragon Dicks, is really good. There’s a band on Matador called Lavender Diamond that I thought was really interesting, with some really beautiful songs.
How is being a Dayton musician in 2010 different from being a Dayton musician in 1990 or 2000?
RP: I don’t know, I’m slightly out of touch. I don’t get out to see many bands play because they come on too late and I’m in bed by 11:00—that’s usually when a band comes on. Also the cops are thick and not very tolerant, and it’s hard to find a designated driver or cab.
If you were a teenager now, do you think you would still be a songwriter and musician?
RP: No, I’d be a monk or a sorcerer’s apprentice. Might write a couple hundred songs here and there.
It was just recently reported that you’re contributing a song for Glen Campbell’s new album. How did you get hooked up with him? Is this a collaboration or is he recording a song you previously wrote?
RP: He’s recording a song I previously wrote. I think it’s “Hold On Hope.” I had heard originally that it was going to be “Window of My World.” They’re being a bit secretive about it and won’t let me hear it, but I hear that it’s happening and is coming out later this year. I think it’s his Johnny Cash sort of thing, where he’s recording and working with younger alternative rock musicians and songwriters.
Do you have a few favorite records that you’ve done over the years?
RP: I really like my new solo album, Moses on a Snail. Zero to 99 and Brown Submarine are personal favorites, although I think all four Boston Spaceships albums, including the new one coming out in August, are really good. Working backwards, I love Off to Business, Coast to Coast Carpet of Love and From a Compound Eye. From GBV: Universal Truths and Cycles and Bee Thousand. I also like Kid Marine a lot.
Are you officially retired from touring or is there still a chance of one-off gigs in places like Chicago or Newport, Kentucky?
RP: I’m not ruling out anything as far as playing live is concerned. It depends on the level of interest. Right now, I don’t feel like jumping on stage—too fucking old. But sometimes I get what is commonly known as “a wild hair up one’s ass.”
If you were to play a show in the near future, who would you recruit for your dream back-up band?
RP: I’ve kind of got that band right now.
One basketball question: If LeBron James asked you if he should stay in Cleveland, what would you say?
RP: I would say, “LeBron, do whatever you want because you’re the man.”