Since the forming of Guided By Voices, Robert Pollard hasn’t stopped working. Even for a short period of time. Despite his natural habit of songwriting, extra-productive Pollard always followed the same constants he describes as “Four P’s” – pop, psychedelic, prog and punk. The newly released Earth Man Blues is a different case.
Expanding the stylistic palette, Pollard, as always remains true to himself, incorporating some new and interesting combinations of elements that became the foundation for Earth Man Blues.
For Louder Than War, Robert Pollard speaks about creative chemistry in Guided By Voices and writing Earth Man Blues, about the process of songwriting and lyrics, about lo-fi and vibes.
LTW: Since Guided By Voices reformed in 2010, you’ve been working extra-productively releasing two/three records each year. It didn’t change when the band got the new lineup. What allowed you to keep on working with such tempo having a completely new lineup?
RP: “With the new line-up we became even more productive, especially with the addition of Travis Harrison as in-house producer. Everyone is just incredibly enthusiastic about making records and then testing them out live on audiences. The creative input from each member of the band is very important and appreciated. It’s called chemistry. We’re always a record or two ahead in the process.”
LTW: Propeller was the first groundbreaking record for Guided By Voices. At the same time, prior to this, around the end of 80’s, you recorded 4 full-length albums – a certain foreplay to your well-known records of the 90’s. How can you describe your creative attitude over the very first years of your creativity, prior to Propeller ?
RP: “We put one album out per year and we had to pay for them ourselves. We took out a running loan, and by the time of Propeller it had gotten to the point where we couldn’t afford to do it anymore. That’s why we did the covers by hand, on plain white stock jackets. It was somewhat of a loose conglomeration, as far as band members were concerned.
A few guys I grew up with and a few guys I met later through playing around locally. It kind of revolved, but when I had enough songs for an album, I’d call a few people and we’d rehearse 2 or 3 times and then go into a studio to record. Mostly in a guy named Steve Wilbur’s garage. He had an 8-track reel-to-reel machine and we would bang it out in one or two days, then mix in another day. We were always very excited about the final result even though, for the most part, it didn’t really sound very good. It was just the thrill of creating an album.”
LTW: If back in the days, you had a very limited budget, today everything is possible, literally. But this lo-fi element never left your creativity for too long. What makes you get back to those things?
RP: “They used to call being overly meticulous “pussy footing” and I was never into working like that. As a matter of fact, I like a certain degree of roughness in the sound and also occasional mistakes or glitches. It adds a human element. I also like it to sound really good too. “Big” in other words. I just think it’s interesting to have a nice balance of the two. I accept mistakes as part of the process, and I like the element of noise and other not so musical aspects, like field recordings and snippets of people interacting. Lo-fi samples. Drop outs. Amp drops. Experimental things.”
LTW: And when songwriting, actually became a habit for you? As far as I know, every day you’re working on something.
RP: “I don’t write songs every day. As a matter of fact, I only sit down to work on a batch of songs for an album about 2 or 3 times a year. I do keep a notebook of lyrical ideas and concepts that I pretty much look at and add to every day. I also work on the visual aspect 4 or 5 times a week. Collages. Album cover ideas.”
LTW: Working on the collages you usually follow a Dadaistic approach. Is it the same with writing songs?
RP: “Making collages and working on songs is the same process. I stockpile ideas and then move them around until I like what I’m hearing or looking at. Assembling and re-assembling until I become excited. Sometimes it takes more time than others. Sometimes it’s spontaneous.”
LTW: Earth Man Blues sounds like a continuation of Cub Scout Bowling Pins. It’s not the first time when esthetically, two releases of yours seem to be tied together. Is it your desire you expand the borders of musical format?
RP: “The two are completely unrelated. Also two completely different processes. With Cub Scout Bowling Pins, I sent acapella recordings to the band and they created the music. With Earth Man Blues, it was business as usual with me writing everything. But actually this time it wasn’t a brand new batch of songs. I found them all on old cassettes. They were all rejects from other projects. Almost like The Who’s Odds And Sods. I was somewhat astonished by a few of those finds. Like “Why did I not think this song was good enough?” A good example is Trust Them Now.”
LTW: Since you left Matador Records in the early 2000s, you’ve been releasing your material by yourself. How does it feel?
RP: “To be prolific and on a big label with a lot of other artists and releases can be stifling. One album a year at most. Having your own label alleviates that problem. There is no competition of other artist releases and we can put out as many records as we want.”
LTW: There are some records of yours that sound like soundtracks to me. You said that since no one asked you to write a soundtrack for a movie, you decided to write a soundtrack for a non-existing movie. But when you started writing real soundtracks, what it was like having this initial concept? With Bubble, for instance.
I was given free rein on Bubble. Steven Soderbergh just asked me to send him some new music I had been working on, so I sent a CD of about 15-20 songs and he chose what he wanted to use for the film. So yeah, it was pretty much his vision.
LTW: There was the moment with Blazing Gentlemen when your writing methods changed significantly and you became less focused on one thing, choosing the method of collaging instead. What provided these changes and do you still follow this formula?
RP: “With Blazing Gentlemen I wrote lyrics and sang them acapella into my boombox, and then I came up with the chords and structure afterward. It was a completely inside-out approach. I thought it was fairly successful but I haven’t used that approach since, with the exception of Cub Scout Bowling Pins. I do continue to use the collage method though, unless of course the original working of the song doesn’t need help or adjustments.”
LTW: Writing lyrics, you’re keen not only to speak about some concrete things but also, about abstract and surrealistic sides. What drives you to put these words and phrases together?
RP: “Those types of songs usually start as poetry, and a lot of times the important thing to me is the color and strangeness of the words and lines. They can be pretty abstract. Other times, I think the lyrics are too straightforward or cliched and so I’ll do something to make them, in my opinion, more interesting or less decipherable.”
LTW: It’s surprising to me that having so many unreleased songs, or sketches on songs on tapes, you do release EP’s. What forms your picture of what the upcoming release would be like?
RP: “It’s whatever batch of songs is next, and which of those fit the overall vibe and which do not.”
LTW: Songs from Earth Man Blues like Trust Them Now are the perfect example of this conflict, the presence of this darker side in your lyrics. Is it usually your desire to counter dark and light?
RP: “I like an album to be diverse both in the types of songs and the emotional impact. You’ve probably heard me say this before but an album should contain the 4 P’s: pop, psychedelic, prog and punk. I’ve actually amended that recently to the 6 P’s: power pop, psychedelic, prog and post-punk. Within that framework, you have dark or light, fast or slow. Intense or not so intense.”
LTW: When I was asking you this question, I actually was thinking about your work as a school teacher, because usually children are keen to divide everything into “black” and “white” – that’s what we learn from folk-tales, cartoons, superheroes. How much that kind of mentality is reflected in your work
RP: “Nothing is ever so clear-cut to me as black or white. Everything can be taken a lot of different ways or self-interpreted by the listener, and that includes me at different times. A song or lyric can take on a different meaning over time. Sometimes people will bring their interpretation to my attention and more often than not I’ll agree. The song people want to most frequently analyze is “Tractor Rape Chain” and there is commonly a consensus that it has something to do with ecological or agricultural abuse.”
LTW: There are two songs on Earth Man Blues where you cover the topics of school life – Dirty Kid School and Margaret Middle School. Is it a reflection of your past?
RP: “Yeah, Earth Man Blues is somewhat autobiographical. It covers an entire life cycle and hints at reincarnation. John H. Morrison was the name of the elementary school I attended.”
LTW: And when you’re writing, do you think about your lyrical characters? Like right now, it’s not you, but the other guy whose thoughts and feelings you’re expressing.
RP: “Yeah, a lot of times it’s second or third person, and sometimes the lyrics shift back and forth from me to someone else. Or even an entire cast of characters as is the case a lot of times on Earth Man Blues.”
Earth Man Blues is out now on Rockathon Records.
Photo credits: Tony Nelson
Interview by Daan Volohov. Find his author’s archive here.