When singer Robert Pollard brought Guided by Voices to an end after a run of about 20 years, he left behind a legacy that included a recorded output of well over 300 songs. And that's not to mention the countless cases of beer he and his rotating cast of cohorts chugged down before each and every show. The band's final tour in 2004, which included a sold-out stop at the Beachland Ballroom, culminated in a blowout four-hour New Year's Eve show at the Metro in Chicago. In fact, tickets to that concert were so scarce, scalpers were selling them for way more than their face value. Does Pollard, who's just started up a new act called Boston Spaceships, think he prematurely dismissed his GBV bandmates?
"I think I pulled the plug too late," he says via phone from his Dayton home, as he tries to keep his two cats from leaving his backyard. "I like the records we did, but it got to be kind of stale. The whole process got to
be kind of formulaic. It was like, 'Here's the song, let's do the record and the three-week tour.' It was about time to wrap it up. At the time, I was saying I was too old to be the leader of a gang. I kind of want to revert to a juvenile state of mind. The Spaceship songs are silly and filled with sexual innuendos and things a 50-year-old man shouldn't be doing. I guess it's a middle-age crisis."
When Pollard and GBV emerged out of Dayton in 1983, it seemed unlikely the small city could produce anything along the lines of a rock star. And yet Pollard and sisters Kim and Kelley Deal (who started the Breeders) became successful despite the odds. And that's not to mention other indie acts, such as Brainiac, which got record deals and embarked on national tours. Thinking back, Pollard thinks the lack of a thriving music scene actually worked favorably for him.
"There's a lot of creative people from here," he says. "It might have to do with the fact that there's nothing to do here. You have to create it for yourself. Dayton pretends there's a lot to do and [the people] think they're culturally hip. It's a cool city and I like it here. It's geographically beautiful, and I know every hill and crevice. But I've never been able to find anything cultural to do here. That's why we drink beer all the time. We have one little club to play here that holds 200 people. There's one record store. There's not much to bounce off of. For some reason, it's been my muse. It's kept me creatively active, and that might be because there isn't anything to do."
For GBV, the biggest shot at fame came when it inked a deal with TVT Records. The label issued 1999's Do the Collapse and 2001's Isolation Drills and spent extravagantly on the recording budgets. While Drills' "Skills Like This" should have been a hit, it didn't catapult the band into the mainstream like the label thought it would.
"If you listen to the stuff we did, it was well-recorded," Pollard says of those two discs. "They told me they wanted songs about summer and cars and girls and shit. I said, 'I can do that.' So you have songs like 'Chasing Heather Crazy' and 'Glad Girls' recorded by guys like Ric Ocasek and Rob Schnapf. I just got to the realization, 'We're too old.' We were too old out of the gate. Even though the kids like that stuff, they're looking at 40-year-old men singing about cars and girls. We tried and gave it hell. Bee Thousand sold 50,000 copies and Do the Collapse sold 60,000. So what's the point of putting all that money and time and promotion into it to sell 10,000 more records? Labels do this to all bands. They take a band for what they are and know why they became successful, and they're going to change them. They want to make you sound like everybody else. I said, 'Fuck it, we'll go back to the way we were doing things and keep it in house.'"
After leaving TVT, GBV returned to indie imprint Matador and issued a couple more albums before calling it quits. Pollard then pursued a solo career. He says he originally thought of Spaceships as a side project of sorts, before realizing it could be something more. The band's new album, Brown Submarine, features a good number of British Invasion-inspired songs that will remind you of GBV. It commences with the stop-and-go of "Winston's Atomic Bird" and then veers into the usual assortment of oddly titled and strangely moody ballads ("Brown Submarine") and giddy rave-ups ("You Satisfy Me").
"I wanted to make it a real band," Pollard says of Spaceships. "I like to play live, and I like the show itself. I don't like what goes on between: the travel and the hurry up and wait. But I want to see what the reaction is to that fact that I do have a band. I've been living under the shadow of GBV. It's strange. What I've been doing as a solo artist, I don't see as drastically removed from Guided by Voices. With this new band, it's like starting over and we're playing smaller clubs. The way things are in the industry, we might have to do that anyway. I want to get back to our roots and play the bars we used to play and the places we might not have ever played before."
Pollard hopes the new band members can live up to GBV's party-animal rep. "Some of the guys I've had in the past four or five years do [party] and some don't," he says. "The environment in the dressing room is that we stuck together and get drunk together so we have the same demeanor when we walked onstage. I don't say you gotta be here an hour before. With GBV, we would party and for the most part, the guys will do that. It's not demanded of them. It's nice to do that so we have the same level of buzz. That will be the similarity between Boston Spaceships and GBV. But technically, not to take anything away from Guided by Voices, this might be one of the most talented groups I've assembled."
In addition, Pollard's artwork has found acceptance, and he just completed a show at the New York studio run by Sopranos star Michael Imperioli. He also published a book of his collages titled Town of Mirrors: The Reassembled Imagery of Robert Pollard.
"I've been doing [collages] forever," he explains. "People are like, 'Wait a second, you do collages? Like you cut up some pictures and glue it back together?' Basically, yes. It's more involved than that. I have to have an eye for imagery. It's easy to do but nice to be accepted. It's considered to be contemporary art. Collages are more interesting than paintings or photographs because you combine the two."
Pollard says that Boston Spaceships has finished recording a new album, which he hopes will be released shortly.
"I'm more involved than ever," he says. "When I broke up GBV, people are like, 'What are you going to do now?' I'm going to do what I've always done. In fact, I'm doing more than I've ever done."