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Striking a Chord--With Critics, Anyway

Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices Wouldn't Mind a Little More Public Acceptance

July 03, 1999|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The "This Ain't No Picnic" underground-rockers' festival Sunday is a day for musicians who are hitless wonders and proud of it.

But at least one of them, Guided by Voices' auteur Robert Pollard, wonders what it would be like to have a hit and sincerely hopes to find out soon.

What the Dayton, Ohio-based rocker has lacked to date in mass-market appeal (GBV's last album, "Mag Earwhig!," sold 30,000 copies, according to SoundScan) he has made up in critical acclaim.

GBV's press kit excerpts a review by Jon Pareles in the New York Times likening Pollard's musical fecundity to that of Paul McCartney, Prince and (gasp) Mozart.

Which is downright circumspect compared to V. Marc Fort's gush in the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman that "Pollard is this millennium's William Shakespeare: just as prolific, poetic and powerful"--the writer evidently having neglected to reread any random page of "Hamlet," "King Lear" or "The Tempest," and having grown so addled with admiration for GBV that he forgot we're still in Shakespeare's millennium.

Radiohead's singer, Thom Yorke, gave "Mag Earwhig!" a simpler, humbler, more believable endorsement: "My favorite album of 1997."

With the release of the next Guided by Voices album, "Do the Collapse," on Aug. 3, Pollard hopes the public will get an earful of what's made the underground buzz. He has built his reputation mainly on rough-sounding, low-budget, so-called lo-fi albums with oblique lyrics and truncated song structures.

But "Do the Collapse" is Pollard's big-rock move, with a shining sound and GBV's customary melodic richness arrayed in traditional verse-chorus forms, with plenty of repetition to let the pop hooks sink in.

Recording for a large independent label, TVT Records (best known for launching Nine Inch Nails), Pollard worked with a famous producer, former Cars leader Ric Ocasek, in a famous recording studio, New York City's Electric Ladyland, and spent $90,000. That's cheap by major-label standards but hefty for an independent release, and a lotto jackpot compared to what Pollard used to get by on.

He says GBV's 1994 album, "Alien Lanes," its first for a nationally recognized indie label (Matador), was recorded direct to cassette tape for a total cost of $10.

If Sugar Ray, Fastball and the Goo Goo Dolls can make it with traditional pop-rock in today's market, there's no reason, other than the fact he's 41 and ageism is rampant in the entertainment world, to think that Pollard, their creative superior in every way, cannot.

"It's nice and always romantic and appealing to be the beautiful loser," Pollard said from his home in Dayton. "But you think, 'Why doesn't our music catch on? We're writing good songs and playing well technically.' You start asking yourself what makes this music being played on big radio stations and MTV more appealing to people than yours.

"I've always been into being a beautiful loser and all this underground thing, but I've always liked to listen to radio, and I'm not hearing good rock music . . . [on] the radio.

"You're always curious to see how far you can go and how many walls we can break down for other bands," he added.

But Pollard sees this shot at the mainstream as a considered bid, not a foolish gamble.

"My main [objective] is trying to keep my fan base happy. I know some people are disappointed we don't do that [lo-fi] thing anymore, but it would just be redundant to keep going down the basement and hacking away. I like good-sounding music, anyway. We never had the resources before. We do now, and it's good to sound good.

"I've asked friends of mine, 'Do you think this record is a sellout?' Most people say, 'No, you gotta pay the bills.' The feedback I'm getting is that our fans like it."

*

If Guided by Voices sinks in the pop mainstream sink, Pollard says he won't be distraught. Besides his releases as GBV, using a shifting crew of backing players, he has put out solo releases and side projects. The returns suggest, he said, that he has 6,000 or 7,000 loyal fans who will snap up anything he does.

"A lot of major-label bands get dropped in a year and they're done," he said. "I know I can do it myself and keep on going."

Indie rock has given him a decent income.

"I fixed my house up, paid my house off, paid my cars off, put a fence around my house," said Pollard, who--Guided by Voices' official bio takes pains to note--was "the first man in the history of Wright State University to throw a no-hitter."

Pollard has reared two kids: one, a son who is entering college, and a daughter starting high school.

"Before, I had to struggle. Now I always have money in my pocket. I can buy beer any time I want."

By "before," Pollard means the years before 1993, when he became a full-time musician after 14 years teaching fourth grade in the Dayton public schools.

"It's kind of a sad statement, but I'm much better off as an indie-rocker than I was as a teacher. I don't know what that says about society."

* Guided by Voices plays at 3:15 p.m. at the This Ain't No Picnic festival, Sunday at Oak Canyon Ranch, 5305 Santiago Canyon Road, Santiago Canyon. Also performing are Sonic Youth, Sunny Day Real Estate, Sleater-Kinney, Superchunk and others. 11:30 a.m. $25. (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster) or http://www.goldenvoice.com.

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