Robert Pollard :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

2023 was a fantastic year for Guided by Voices. The trio of records that came out – La La Land, Welshpool Frillies, and the late-year Nowhere to Go But Up – are some of the best the band has put out in the seven years its most recent incarnation has been together. Founding member Robert Pollard seems just as chaotically creative as ever, whether it’s the pure volume of songs or the developing shape they take. Over the holiday break, Pollard caught up with Aquarium Drunkard via email about the latest trio of albums, how the writing process works for the band 7 years and 16 albums in, the challenge of writing lyrics for music that already exists, and the transformative power of a Glen Campbell cover of your own work. | j neas

Aquarium Drunkard: You’re 7 years and roughly 16 albums in to this version of Guided by Voices – with Bobby Bare Jr., Doug Gillard, Kevin March, Mark Shue and yourself. How has this combination of players evolved over these albums in terms of what the recording process is like? What kind of roles do they play in shaping the finished albums?

Robert Pollard: The chemistry involved in the process has become increasingly more effective. Everyone pretty much knows what we are collectively looking for as far as structure, sound and dynamics. I give them general guidelines as to what I think each song could benefit from and they sort of take it from there on their own.  When I’m happy with the way it sounds I throw my vocals on top.

AD: With Doug Gillard having been a part of Guided by Voices from ’97 to ’04, did his working relationship with you change between then and this version of GBV?

Robert Pollard: Not much, except for the fact that we used to record together, in the same room, a lot and now it’s done separately, remotely. Doug comes up with his own parts. But as far as the chords, riffs and occasional leads that I play on the demos, Doug now has a pretty good instinctual knowledge of what I play around with on the fret board. I think Bobby’s got a pretty good grasp now too. 

AD: Putting out three albums in a year is not a new thing for you, but I wonder how that process of putting songs together for an album goes. Were a lot of these songs (specifically for La La Land, Welshpool Frillies, and Nowhere to Go But Up) written largely ahead of time and put together in a way that you felt made for a cohesive set of songs, or were these written between the releases? If you selected from a larger group of songs for each one, what draws you toward pairing songs together? Do you approach sequencing in a particular way?

Robert Pollard: Lately, I’ve been going with just about every song I write for an album. There aren’t many outtakes if any. I write a batch of songs for any  given album, send them off and then whenever I get the urge, I come up with another batch for the next record. Each album is initiated or inspired by one really good song idea and then I have to bang the rest of the album out. Maybe within a week or two.

AD: The Guided by Voices albums of the past couple of years seem to have been stretching out more in terms of individual song length. Songs are getting a bit more complex in ways that they hadn’t before. What’s been behind altering the more traditional shorter bursts of songs?

Robert Pollard: I put songs together in kind of a collage like fashion. I record a lot of ideas and when I’m finished, I move sections around to form entire songs. It’s kind of naturally made the songs longer because of repetition of sections and considering aspects like bridges, double bridges, intros, codas and other things I may find interesting.

AD: What does your songwriting process look like typically? Do you start with an instrument, with lyrics? Do you have a writing routine?

Robert Pollard: I keep notebooks of ideas. Mostly song titles and lyrics. Also conceptual ideas like art and layout.  But as far as the music or songwriting is concerned, I work from a lot of different angles. For the most part it’s very primitive. Just a cassette boombox and an acoustic guitar. I may begin with a lyric or I may start with a melodic idea, chord progression or riff.

AD: With as much as you write, do songs sit around for a long time being refined, or do they tend to be recorded relatively close to when they’re written? Do you remember/know the longest amount of time you’ve intentionally taken between writing a song and eventually releasing it and how did that process go for that song?

Robert Pollard: When I come up with something I put it to tape immediately. I may add or delete sections later or even decide that i don’t like it at all. I have song ideas that I’ve deleted immediately because they’re absolutely ridiculous. Some people actually like that kind of shit so occasionally I’ll give it to them. Like “Razor Bug”.

AD: Do you consider your lyrics to be more direct, or more impressionistic? I’ve always found your lyrical writing to feel like they rely more on the feel of words more so than their meaning – so that you get the broad impression of an idea or a tone rather than an explicitly told point.

Robert Pollard: They’re really more about color or interesting imagery. Also for phrasing. It needs to sound good coming off the tongue. Unforced. The meaning overall is not so important. Each line or stanza can have its own meaning. I’m not even sure what a stanza is.

AD: One of my favorite side-projects of yours was Go Back Snowball with Mac McCaughan. From what I’ve read – and you can correct this if it’s wrong, obviously – Mac put together all of the music for this album and you recorded your vocals once he had finished it, not really being involved on the instrumentation end. Did that challenge you in a way as a lyrical writer? Did it feel alien to not have a hand in shaping the music as much, and how did you feel about the outcome? Would you do something like that again with someone else?

Robert Pollard: I’ve done that with a lot of people. Doug, Toby, Todd Tobias, Tommy Keene, Gary Waleik, Richard Davies. It’s not an easy thing to do and I’m really not doing it anymore. There is a lot of pressure on me to bring the instrumentals to life and if I don’t succeed I’m the one who gets the criticism. The hardest thing I did was to re-imagine the lyrics and melodies to a late 80s album by Phantom Tollbooth called Power Toy. It’s a great album and it took a lot of audacity for me to do what I did but I wanted the challenge. We called the finished product ‘Beard of Lightning’ and those guys were very gracious to allow me to do it. I asked Gerard Cosloy if it was ok to do it and he said, “I guess, but I don’t understand why you would want to.” He put out Power Toy on Homestead. I think what I did came out alright, not as good as the original maybe. But my point is that it’s very difficult. I don’t know of any one else who’s ever done these types of collaborations. The one with Phantom Tollbooth about killed me. I couldn’t come up with anything but then one day I got really stoned and nailed it. It’s complex amazing rock music.

AD: A big surprise for me was listening to Glen Campbell’s 2011 album Ghost on the Canvas and hearing a cover of “Hold on Hope.” Were you contacted ahead of time about Glen Campbell covering the song? How did it feel having him cover a song of yours?

Robert Pollard: I think I was contacted. I don’t know. I’ve never been more flattered in my life, other than maybe critics universally calling Bee Thousand a masterpiece. Glen Campbell’s renderings of the Jimmy Webb songs are the best and I’m very honored that he covered one of my songs. Especially one that I was not particularly fond of.  But his covering it on his final album changed my sentiment toward it.

AD: You’ve talked about how much your years as a teacher affected you in the past. Do you still find yourself pulling on those experiences for any part of either your songwriting or creation process? What things do you miss about your time in education?

Robert Pollard: I don’t draw a whole lot of inspiration from my teaching days because it was so long ago. I still think fondly about how that experience inspired me to write from a child-like perspective. I miss being around the very open minded creativity of a room full of ten year olds.

AD: You’ve lived most of your life in Dayton, Ohio where you were born. What drew you to stay there? How do you think the experience of living mostly in one place has shaped your growth as an artist, especially as someone who also was exposed to the rest of the world widely through touring and other work?

Robert Pollard: I don’t know, I guess it’s like if it’s not broken don’t try to fix it. The creative flow has always been here. It’s perpetual and I don’t need a different geography for creative inspiration. I can use my imagination pretty well and it takes me to a lot of different places. I guess I’m afraid of physical change when it comes to that creative process. Give me a table, a boombox and an acoustic guitar and let my wife drive me to a few bars in Dayton, Ohio. That seems to do the trick.

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