Robert Pollard writes all of his songs on guitar, but he hasn’t played one onstage in years. “I just want the freedom of getting onstage and dancing around, not having to worry about coordination and too many things at one time, like guitars and pedals and such.” Photo by David Newgarden.
What do you strive for in your guitar tone, and how do you achieve it?
It depends on the type of song, but for a rock song or anthem-type song, I’m particular to a more sustained, brighter sound that I get with an SG through a Fender—in my case usually a [Fender-like] Music Man—as opposed to a heavier Les Paul through a Marshall. I will, however, occasionally use the latter to emphasize a point.
I understand that in late 2012 or early 2013, you altered your approach to songwriting. Please explain that—and how I Sell the Circus represents an evolutionary step.
Well, it started with 2013’s Blazing Gentlemen. I decided that the perfect hook was the combination of an interesting lyric with a great melody and chord progression, so I created a formula where I could almost ensure—for myself anyway—that each line in a song was a hook. It started with keeping a notebook of titles, lines, and word imagery, and when it was filled or nearly filled, I’d write lyrics by stringing those lines together with added phrases for cohesion. From there I went on to melody, singing each line of the song a cappella until it was complete. The last step was adding guitar chord progressions. I think it worked, and I still employ a modified version of that method, although nothing is ever locked in.
How did you and Nick Mitchell divide up the guitar parts on I Sell the Circus?
We both learned the songs together, but Nick added the more complicated parts. He’s a really good player. He’s like [former Guided By Voices and current Nada Surf guitarist] Doug Gillard. He can play almost any song.
Are you ever tempted to take up guitar onstage again?
You know, I think about it all the time, to the point that after we finished the second Ricked Wicky album, I decided I would. But when I get pretty inebriated I always decide not to. I just want the freedom of getting onstage and dancing around, not having to worry about coordination and too many things at one time, like guitars and pedals and such. Nick really wants me to, but I don’t think so. It’s hard enough just trying to remember the words.
What’s your songwriting regimen?
I write when I feel inspired. I do just about all of my work, musical and visual, in the morning at my dining room table with a notebook, acoustic guitar, magazines, scissors, paint, and a beaten-up old boom box. I know it’s primitive, but it’s worked pretty well for me.
Given how prolific you are, how do you know whether a song is worth completing or should be abandoned?
Immediately. Simultaneously with conception. That’s an exaggeration, but it mostly holds true. I brainstorm and record everything and then listen back. I take the workable stuff, which might be 80 percent, and elaborate. It’s very difficult not to repeat some aspect of something you’ve written before, but if it’s too blatant I abandon or abort.
There were a couple for I Sell the Circus that I thought were too obviously generic or poppy, but sometimes you have to record them anyway to find out. I often find that I should’ve trusted my original instinct—that after I hear the recorded version, my original instinct was correct. Other times, a song that I’m doubting might turn out surprisingly interesting and definitely keepable.
Do you consciously work to keep your writing eclectic?
Well, I start with a notebook of lyrics, so I go for variety when I choose the ones I want to work with. Some are more straightforward, some are more poetic, and some are just insane. I’m going for different emotions to fit different styles. I want to create diversity because that carries the listener’s attention throughout the album. Occasionally I’ll even throw in a “novelty”-type song.
How arranged are your songs when you convene to record?
I give everyone a set of boom-box demos haphazardly slopped together. I give everyone time to come up with parts, and then we convene and bang them out—sometimes as a full band, sometimes with just drummer Kevin March and me, with Nick and bassist Todd Tobias overdubbing their parts. We have a pretty good idea of what we’re going to do ahead of time, but nothing is overworked once we start recording.
What’s your philosophy for recording guitars?
Get it down quickly. Don’t be overly concerned about perfection except for obvious, blatant rhythm mistakes. I like fuck-ups that don’t interfere with the essence of the song. They become part of the character and composition.
Proving he’s a man of his word, Pollard uses a boom box and an acoustic guitar to record a rough demo of “Girls of Wild Strawberries” from Guided By Voices’ 2004 album Half Smiles of the Decomposed. Note the frequent use of downstrokes to define the tune. At the end Pollard calls the song “Keith Richards-y,” but his hero, Pete Townshend, is in there too.
How does your approach differ on acoustic?
I like to create different atmospheres and dynamics on an album, and a lot of times the easiest way is to vary tempos or occasionally incorporate an acoustic song. The effect is to slow things down or mellow it out, creating a stark contrast to the faster or heavier stuff.
You’re a classic pop diehard, and sequencing was key to the great classic pop and rock albums. How important is sequencing to you today, given our MP3-driven culture? And how do you envision the arc of a well-sequenced album of your songs?
I think sequencing is a very important aspect of making a record. It’s the same as telling a story or making a film. You want to start strong and end strong with no filler, and if you do have filler, it should at least be an interesting “set up” song—something that makes the next song sound really good when it comes in. It’s a little like making out a baseball lineup: The leadoff hitter gets a hit. The second one moves it to first and third, and the third or fourth one brings ’em all in. At the end you bring in your closer.
The first Guided by Voices record was released in 1987. What did you need to learn to maintain that kind of longevity?
Only to improve as a songwriter. To find my own voice, to a degree. I obviously show my influences, but there are so many that I think my songs can be somewhat identifiable as my own. I love rock ’n’ roll and I love making albums. I think that’s obvious.