There's something about Robert Pollard's voice that conveys sincerity: Maybe it's the jumbled rush of blunt words that come in steady waves; maybe it's the Midwestern accent, sort of flat on the vowels and long on the laughter; maybe it's the way he punctuates every other sentence with a gruff little chuckle, as if he knows you're in on the joke. Whatever it is that adds that heavy undercurrent of credibility to his words, you have to believe him when he says, "They wanna tone down rock these days."
It's a given that, as vocalist and primary songwriter for Guided by Voices, Pollard knows a thing or two about rock. He's personally responsible for a heaping double handful of brilliantly shiny rock songs, and GbV has released a dozen or so albums on labels minor and major and minor again and toured the world's bars and nightclubs on the working-band circuit. Pollard and GbV are now preparing to go out on the road for a brief fling with Cheap Trick. These are credentials that brook no argument or quarrel: When it comes to rock, Pollard knows whereof he speaks. The question is, who are the "they" he's warning us about? The major labels? Those interchangeable teeny tarts? The image-makers? Saddam Hussein? (President Rumsfeld told us he was evil, but this is too much).
Actually, over the course of a 30-minute conversation with Pollard, it becomes clear that "they" are everyone not Guided by Voices. Maybe that's an oversimplification, but anyone who is attempting to control Pollard, anyone who tries to reign in his boundless creative drive or work-related social drinking, is guilty of wanting to "tone down rock." Radical, yes, but he's not proposing a decapitation strike on any foreign countries, so hear him out.
First up is Cheap Trick. "We did a tour with them once before," Pollard remembers. "It was a lot of fun. We're a little closer to their age than most indie rock bands, or I am, anyway. They still kinda treated us like, I don't know, nephews or kids or something. They kinda lectured us occasionally on our overindulgence of alcohol. They thought we did it up a little too hard. But I think they thought it was cute, also. They just saw us as havin' a good time. That's what rock & roll is supposed to be about, and maybe that got lost somewhere along the way."
Not that he's blaming Cheap Trick for softening rock's edges; nor is he claiming assiduous partying makes the band better, despite his history of two-fisting drinks while GbV burns behind him. In fact, Pollard is quick to note that his inebriation isn't deliberate: "I try not to, I don't intend to get that drunk. I've got to the point where I try to gauge my drinking and not get too clumsy onstage. When we first started, it was out of stage fright, mainly. But I used to fall a lot, fall right off the stage. But I'm getting' too old -- it's painful. When it hurts when you're drunk, it's really gonna hurt the next day."
Pollard is talking about rock's inherent freedom, the idea that if you want to drink and pound a guitar and invite strangers to watch you fall down doing it, that's OK. In fact, it's better than OK; in Pollard's cosmology, drunken rock & roll is a form of love. Love should be selfless and priceless and deeply personal, and although it can be faked or artificially reproduced by trained professionals for the express purpose of making money, it's better when it means something and costs nothing. When the topic of professional/mercenary Top 40 songwriters is broached, Pollard delves deep into the heart: "I don't know what happened to the good end, like the pop-song structure seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle ... I've seen [professional songwriters],' cause we recorded in New York. They rent out time in the studio themselves, and they sit in the back with all their technology all around them and make these songs on the computer. There's no love in that, I don't think. It's image -- it's not who cares about songs."
And that, too, is something Pollard knows about; the Robert Pollard songbook seems too large to be the work of one man, and yet there is no sacrifice of quality for quantity. Take a song such as "Acorns and Orioles" from 1996's Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. Against a shimmering curtain of guitar harmonics, a single acoustic guitar and heavily reverbed drums make a lonely hollow for Pollard's more-resigned-than-bitter chorus: "I can't tell you anything/You don't already know." Ineffable sadness made audible, "Acorns and Orioles" conveys the hidden language of loss in the briefest of spaces, the minimum of words and sounds. It's a simple, effective pop song, the sort of pop that comes from a love of bands such as the Ohio Express and the Monkees as well as the Who, not from a team of Swedish computer massagers or vinyl beat-shufflers. "Sometimes sad songs make you happy," Pollard explains. "They can kinda lift you up above all the bullshit that's going on around you, everything that's going on in the world. That's the power of a song."
Pollard harnesses the power of song more effectively and more often than any other songwriter, and yet he's remarkably casual about the art of writing. "I only do it when I feel like it," he says, dismissing any questions about maintaining a disciplined writing schedule. "Every once in a while something'll come over me and I'll be, like, 'Ah, I feel like writin' some songs today!' But yeah, some people think I sit down and write every day because I write a lot of songs. A lot of times, when I do get the notion, I'll write a lot of songs, a lot of song ideas and then I'll work on 'em later, just hash things out. Just depends on what kind of mood I'm in, what's next."
Pollard's prolific nature, as both a writer and a drinker, has everything to do with his belief that rock & roll is by definition unfettered. Every song is another blow against those who want to commodify music; every drink is a belt against those who want to sanitize fun. Robert Pollard, just like his beloved rock & roll, can't be learned and can't be tamed.
"Just let it come naturally, as life does. When you feel like it, do it," he advises. "I never press; I've never concerned myself with the possibility of writer's block, and I haven't gotten it luckily, so far. I don't think I can. I've been into music all my life, I've been into rock all my life, and it's kinda become a part of me. It's all I really know how to do anymore."