Ship of Fools

Robert Pollard does what he can to keep Guided by Voices afloat.

Guided by Voices, with American Flag. Agora Ballroom, 5000 Euclid Avenue, 9 p.m., Friday, December 3, $12, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555/330-945-9400.
GBV: Their thing is beer.
GBV: Their thing is beer.
It's the day after the Cleveland Browns' first victory, and even Robert Pollard, who says he generally roots for the Bengals, is excited about the win.

"Did you watch that game yesterday?" the raspy-voiced singer asks via phone from his home in Dayton. "There's all these Browns fanatics around here. I was laughing at them when that guy kicked a field goal, and I thought they couldn't win. But when they threw that last pass, I had to cheer for them. That was awesome. That's what you do. You just throw it up and hope it bounces off somebody's head or something."

The same philosophy (i.e., "throw it up and hope it bounces off somebody's head") could be applied to Pollard's scattershot musical career. As the leader of the notoriously volatile Guided by Voices, Pollard has written hundreds of songs and released them under a variety of monikers, which -- in addition to GBV -- include Fading Captain, Nightwalker, and Lexo & the Leapers. Formed some 15 years ago as a diversion for the British Invasion-obsessed Pollard, then an elementary school teacher, GBV has grown into an indie rock farm team of sorts, but never quite made it to the major leagues. The band's initial lineup included guitarist Tobin Sprout, drummer Kevin Fennell, and bassist Dan Toohey, but members have checked in and out of GBV with regularity ever since. In 1997, Pollard even enlisted Cleveland's Cobra Verde to play as his backing band on Mag Earwhig and to support him on the subsequent tour. ("That was too much Cleveland for me," Pollard says of the experience. "Too much rock and roll knowledge.")

Pollard estimates that some 50 different musicians have played with him at some time or another (the current lineup includes guitarist Doug Gillard, bassist Tim Tobias, drummer Jim MacPherson, and guitarist Nate Farley -- both Gillard and Tobias are from Cleveland). One former bandmate even compared GBV to a harem and said that Pollard has so many "wives," it doesn't faze him when one strays from the brothel. Pollard doesn't deny the validity of the analogy.

"Well, it's not that easy to keep track of everyone, I'll be honest with you," he says. "The GBV family tree is insane. I'm just trying to keep the band alive and preserve it. Some people have left on their own accord. They say they can't take it anymore or have a family or something. Other people I've had to dismiss because of drug problems. Other people have had to go because of a general lack of enthusiasm, which is something I simply can't have. When you're out on the road with a band, you can sense when someone is not happy. Some people don't come around anymore, and I'm frankly happy they're not here anymore. I had to make the necessary changes to keep the band going, and I've always done that. I've had to step on people's feelings to keep the band the way I want it. The important thing is that the good ship Guided by Voices keeps sailing on."

And sail on it has. Since signing with Matador Records in 1994, at which point the band's Bee Thousand was being hailed as a lo-fi masterpiece, the group has churned through consistently rocky waters. Pollard has pursued a solo career (he released three albums under his own name this year) and, after some negotiation, split with Matador for GBV's latest release, Do the Collapse. Produced by Ric Ocasek (formerly of the Cars), Do the Collapse is GBV's best-produced album to date, and Pollard thinks it represents a legitimate chance for the band to have a hit on mainstream alternative rock radio. The inclusion of the album's first single, "Teenage FBI," on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack is perhaps the first sign of taking such strides. Still, it won't be easy for a band famous for recording (literally) in the basement to discard the lo-fi tag that has always hung around its neck.

"The whole lo-fi thing has also been an albatross, because the people that like us because of that want us to stay that way," Pollard explains. "They don't like change. Some people don't want to hear our music sound good. Because we were considered the pioneers of lo-fi, I'm constantly getting tapes from bands, and a lot of them are really bad. When Nirvana spearheaded the whole grunge thing, it opened the door for a lot of really bad grunge bands. So did lo-fi.

"But everyone has left it behind," he continues, mentioning the names of groups like the Grifters, Sebadoh, and Pavement, each of which, in its own way, has opted for better production values and polished up its songwriting. "It's important to do that, because you just can't stay in the same place forever. We've done several albums on a four-track. With the last one, people were saying they were sick of it, and I was sick of it also. I said, "What's next?' myself. Now that we've crossed over into the studio, the next album will sound better, because we know the ropes."

GBV might be more comfortable in the studio, but the fortysomething Pollard still gets loaded (on alcohol) before he steps onto the stage, making the band's live performances erratic at best. Pollard insists he's toned things down to the point where his antics are manageable. (In the past, he has passed out in the middle of shows and had to be ushered off the stage when he refused to bring his set to an end.) The legacy he's left behind is considered legendary among some fans, but others, including some former bandmates, found his unsteady performances reproachable. And when you consider that Do the Collapse boasts some quiet, beautiful songs like "Things I Will Keep," the fairy-tale-like "Dragons Awake," and the piano ballad "Hold on Hope" (the next single), it's a shame that Pollard can't seem to rise to the occasion and play them with any sort of poignancy in a live setting. In fact, Pollard seems to lack the kind of self-consciousness that would make him change his drunken ways.

"I have a bad temper at times, but it takes a lot to piss me off," he admits. "You could ask people in my band if I'm difficult to get along with, and they wouldn't say yes. The demands to be in GBV are not that great. We never practice. We tour for three weeks and then come home. I just expect that, when you are playing, to give your all and have fun. That's the main thing is to have fun, because the people that come to see us have fun. It's like a beer blast. It's like the Grateful Dead with acid, except our thing is beer."

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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