Photo by Emily Wilson
The "Solo" Years, Part 2
by Dan Coffey
"And now the fun begins…" – Robert Pollard, "#2 in the Model Home Series"
In the previous installment of this study of the mountain of music produced by the record collector's nightmare/wet dream, Robert Pollard, we focused on the solo material that he's released since the demise of his band, Guided by Voices. In the concluding section, we will look at the releases that, while solo efforts in spirit to varying degrees, have the outward characteristic, so crucial in the rock world, of a band effort rather than a solo effort. Pollard was kind enough to send me his thoughts on some of these real and imagined configurations, and also some thoughts on his current lyrical concerns.
There were a few Pollard "bands" that existed during GbV's lifetime – mainly around the turn of the century, such as Airport 5, The Soft Rock Renegades, The Howling Wolf Orchestra, Hazzard Hotrods and Acid Ranch. And then there are the Circus Devils, who, along with Acid Ranch, has the distinction of being the only Pollard-related outfit to continue on past the end of Guided by Voices and existed alongside Pollard's solo career. The Circus Devils also have the greatest longevity of all of Pollard's non-GbV collaborations.
Consisting of Pollard, ex-GbV bassist Tim Tobias and his brother Todd, who has been at the production helm of almost all of Pollard's post-GbV solo albums, they are a power trio of sorts, but the power on which they draw is that of nightmares and alternate universes. Pollard explains the nature of the Circus Devils this way:Todd and Tim's dark and humorous side allows me to explore mine. It's a good mix. It's American gothic and more specifically Ohio gothic. Todd's the guy with the pitchfork stirring up the shit. We, all three of us, already had a grasp of one another's musical sensibilities from working together in Guided by Voices. You know we're all kind of superficially into occult and mystical philosophy. We want to scare you a little but in an ‘it's only a movie' kind of way. We're just playing with sound and word imagery.Within the context of this fun/frightening framework, the Circus Devils have still managed to cover many stylistic bases: there is the almost Zorn-esque compact brutality of the songs on the first album, Ringworm Interiors; the darkly ethereal Five; the more rock-oriented elliptical quasi-opera The Harold Pig Memorial; the strangely softer, Morricone-flavored, Gringo, which boasts one of the most upbeat pop songs ever committed to record, "Every Moment Flame On," as well as one of the most subtly hair-raising ones ("Arizona Blacktop Company"). It's testament to the Devils' penchant for lighthearted perversion that they'd put their spookiest song on their otherwise most accessible album. Unlike most other Pollard side-projects, the Circus Devils show no signs of slowing down, having recently released an album titled Mother Skinny.
Psycho and the Birds
The Psycho and the Birds output is similar to that of the Circus Devils, but less over-the-top, with plenty of "lo-fi" experimentation. The band name is certainly one of the cleverest that Pollard has come up with in his legion of real and imagined monikers, spread across his own records as well as the fictitious line-ups on the Guided by Voices "Suitcase" box sets. Think Hitchcock. I asked Pollard about his fascination with band names in the context of Psycho and the Birds:Band names are important and yet they aren't (necessarily). For instance, The Beatles is one of the worst names ever. But once it becomes associated with the greatness of the actual band, it, in itself becomes great. Isn't that great? But a good band name never hurts. Something to identify the personality of the band. Wire, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy (Is Spreading), Toad the Wet Sprocket, Psycho and the Birds. Psycho and the Birds was an experiment. All of the songs were created spontaneously. Vocals and guitar into the boom box to capture the original spirit of the song exactly the way it came out of my mouth and head. Then I sent the songs to Todd [Tobias] to add instrumental layerings. If you'll notice the vocals are somewhat buried because of the process. Todd didn't have much control over that aspect but that's the way I wanted it. We did 2 1/2 albums. It's finished. We've moved.
In June of 2009, Pollard released an album that he recorded with Richard Davies, a fellow indie rock songwriter known for his involvement in The Moles and Cardinal. In a process similar to Pollard's collaborations with Tobin Sprout, as Airport 5, the album, Jar of Jam Ton of Bricks, is one of the strangest recordings Pollard's been involved in. Albums recorded by the Circus Devils and Acid Ranch are ones where "weird" is the norm, but the Cosmos album seems to have been constructed very calmly and deliberately as a straight-ahead passel of songs – and they still end up sounding atmospheric and otherworldly.
The Keene Brothers album, Blues and Boogie Shoes, is another one-off collaboration: Pollard and power-pop legend Tommy Keene. Not one of Pollard's more memorable collaborative experiments, it nevertheless has a few gems among the tracks, namely, "Death of the Party" and "Island of Lost Lucys." Perhaps most importantly, this collaboration coincided with Keene's joining Pollard's touring band following the release of From a Compound Eye, and led to his touring with the Boston Spaceships on their one and only tour to date.
The Moping Swans' Lightninghead to Coffee Pot (2005) and Carbon Whales' South (2008) are two EP's that Pollard released, with various backing musicians. In the former case, the band consisted of ex-GbVers Greg Demos and Jim MacPherson, and guitarist Tony Conley, who worked with Pollard in a band called Anacrusis in the apocryphal pre-GbV days. The latter EP is still shrouded in mystery. Obviously a Pollard project, the scant liner notes present a Pollard alternate-universe band joke taken to an extreme: "This is a Bob SPONSORED release. The Carbon Whales are an obscure band from the late '70's that actor Paddy Considine turned Bob on to. The 4 songs on this EP are apparently the only things they ever recorded. It was never released. Bob really loved it, "so we tracked the band down and asked if we could release it" (from www.gbvdb.com).
Pollard had this to say about the two projects:For Carbon Whales, it was the same process as Takeovers or Circus Devils. The only difference is that we consciously took a more post-punk approach going in. I approached Moping Swans the same way as I did with Guided by Voices. I gave the band members demos, then we rehearsed and recorded with me playing along on guitar.He expounded further on his current band, Boston Spaceships, with Slusarenko and the Decemberists' John Moen:I wanted a new vehicle for my songs. I missed having a real band but I didn't want to perform as Guided by Voices. I write the songs for Boston Spaceships. It's a vehicle for my music, words and pictures. Chris and John see that the music part is executed and captured and they do it very fucking well.While checking out the Boston Spaceships' already formidable catalog (three full-length albums, an EP, an "official bootleg" double CD and an album on the way, all since 2008), one might be interested in the Takeovers, a kind of pre-Spaceships band that was slightly more experimental and rougher around the edges. Pollard claims the Boston Spaceships are the direct outcome of the Takeovers.
The Glue that Holds It All Together
Whether it's the out-and-out solo albums being discussed, the collaborative works, the "solo" records, or the full-on band albums, the songs therein are Pollard's. To an extent, the music that Bob writes might be "lovingly fucked with," to quote a liner note crediting the engineer of several mid '90's GbV records, but the words remain his own. I asked Pollard about the increasing directness of a desire for some kind of spiritual connection, if not purification, in his post-GbV songwriting (something that was already present to a certain extent in the GbV lyrical oeuvre). His response is as simultaneously direct, serious, self-effacing, and humorous as you might expect from an artist who puts so much of himself into his art, willfully and playfully obscuring that presence at the same time:I read a lot of spiritual and mystical literature. Occult, magic, theosophy, religion, what have you. I don't practice anything. I wish I could. I'm too lazy, or pre-occupied with less important matters. I just try to gather as much information as I can and try to assimilate some sort of semblance of truth. Real, universal, human, whatever you want to call it. Sometimes I express my feelings of desire, hopelessness, happiness, and other emotional responses to what I see, read, feel and hear into songs. But most of the time it's like my Dad used to call it: stupid shit.
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