Basement Tapes

When Robert Pollard was 21, halfway between Dayton high school basketball stardom and a fourth-grade teaching gig and a few years before starting his lo-fidelity beer-drinking rock band, Guided by Voices, he, his brother Jimmy, and some friends would get together. They'd descend their basement steps and spend hours banging out noisy, messy music. Miami's Frank "Rat Bastard" Falestra would probably call it squelching."Oh, Pollard loves noise. He's into noise bands too," claims Falestra, draining a beer back at the end of the bar at Churchill's Hideaway in Little Haiti. Once a week, Falestra and an assortment of whoever's handy will take the stage for a quick squelch -- an informal, improvisational noise jam that can include up to twelve guitarists constructing a cacophonous squall-wall of sound. Tonight it's just Rat and a six-string-torturing buddy, with Rat plugging an old boombox into a distortion pedal and spinning through the dial until the whole thing sounds as evil as a shortwave tumbling in a cement mixer. Back at the bar after his performance, Rat cackles, "The radio is the greatest instrument ever invented!" His trademark knit cap and spectacles make him South Florida's most recognizable musical fixture, and it's well-known the Bastard has a weakness for the slow, sad, soft songs of the Red House Painters as well as spine-snapping terrorists like Merzbow -- but he is particularly fanatical about GBV's phone-book-thick catalog of rock songs. In fact he's hauled his ass across the globe so he can pop in on Pollard and even take the stage (albeit briefly) before Guided by Voices shows.

Falestra? "I don't know who you're talking about," Pollard insists from his home in Dayton. You mean you've never met him? "I only know Rat Bastard. I had no idea his name was Frank. Yeah, I know him! I've seen him all over the fuckin' world! I saw him in Japan when we played there! He follows us around. [As a Delta Airlines employee, Falestra is able to fly for free.] I think he likes Guided by Voices a little bit," Pollard snickers. "It's hard to place the connection, because we're a little bit more melodic than I'd think his tastes are. He likes my solo stuff better, I believe."

Actually Rat likes it all. To a guy who once released a Laundry Room Squelchers disc packed with 36 hours of MP3 recordings, Pollard's prolificacy is further proof of the man's greatness.

"Robert Pollard is hands down the greatest songwriter in rock history by about 700 songs," Falestra says. "He has about 80 songs that are absolutely amazing, up there with anything anyone's done anywhere. How many other songwriters can say that?"

"Someone printed out a list of all of the songs I've recorded," Pollard reports, "and it's like 785 or something like that. My goal when we first started was to have as many songs on record as the Beatles have, which is around 100. So I've surpassed that seven times over!"

Since 1986, Guided by Voices -- with an ever-fluctuating lineup, Pollard always its singing/songwriting core -- has issued album after album after album crammed with short, bristling college rockers that resemble stadium anthems shrunk down to AM radio size. Though he's thoroughly saturated his own market, in all this time, Pollard hasn't made anything approaching a bad record.

Rat owns every Pollardian release, from GBV's newest, Universal Truths & Cycles, to a recently minted collection of those early basement recordings, issued under the name Acid Ranch.

Trying to stump the author by naming a random song and having him place the album it appears on is futile. The guy knows his own back catalog, that's for sure. "You write a song, and it's kind of like your baby," Pollard explains. "I wrote songs when I was very young and recorded them, but I threw everything away. At one point I threw everything I'd done away. Around '92, '93, I was like, 'I think we're on the brink of discovery, so I better get rid of all the dirty laundry.' I was afraid people would discover some pretty embarrassing things. Now I'm kickin' myself in the ass because the really hard-core fans are looking for the worst stuff. That's why I put out the Acid Ranch, stuff we did in the early Eighties. We would make up songs, just kind of jam out, and I would read my lyrics over the top. We started going down in the basement and experimenting with sounds and amps, and I'm sure that's Rat Bastard's favorite stuff."

Universal Truths & Cycles is a return to that basement aesthetic and brevity (a few tunes require only a minute or less to say their piece), minus the studio sleight-of-hand that characterized the two prior releases, Do the Collapse (1999, produced by Ric Ocasek) and Isolation Drills (2000, produced by Rob Schnapf), both issued via TVT. The self-produced Universal Truths also heralds a return to Matador, the label that released the bulk of the band's mid-Nineties breakthrough material. Although Ocasek (and to a lesser degree Schnapf) helped the band tighten its focus and honed its inherent catchiness into something monolithic and steamrolling, Pollard can't look back on the experience with much comfort.

"Ric told us we couldn't drink," he grouses. "I thought, 'That must be his policy, because he wants to get a better performance.' But the thing is, we give better performances if we have beer. It's more laid-back, we're more comfortable, it sounds more like us. Why would you want Guided by Voices to make a record that doesn't sound like Guided by Voices? That's what threw me about being on a bigger label: You knew what we were, you know who we are -- why would you want to change us completely and make us sound not like Guided by Voices? When I worked with Ric and Rob or any producer, they geared the songs toward radio. So they have this tendency to say, 'You need to do the verse three times instead of twice, and do the chorus an extra time,' and I don't like that. I like when things are to the point and get in and get out real quick."

Worse, Pollard reports, he battled Ocasek and TVT over a preciously creamy left-field ballad about which he instantly had doubts, since it sounded too pretty for GBV. "I thought 'Hold on Hope' [included on Do the Collapse] was out of bounds from the way I typically write songs. The chord progressions, in my opinion, were a little too predictable." But Ocasek loved it, and TVT insisted on sapping it up with synthetic strings until it "sounded like a skate-rink song. I get to the point where I don't like people telling me what to do," Pollard says sharply. "I told them, 'I cannot let you release that.' So we fought. I thought it was career-destroying. I developed a bad taste in my mouth about that song, and I don't ever want to hear 'Hold on Hope' again."

In fact, though it was released as a single, Pollard will not allow Matador to include "Hold on Hope" on an upcoming box set consisting of a 30-song, career-spanning greatest-hits album; a live disc; a DVD of the band's videos; plus platters of rare and unreleased tunes, including the long-out-of-print debut EP, Forever Since Breakfast.

Prolific even as he reaches 45 years old this Halloween, Pollard not only releases a Guided by Voices album approximately every year but through his Fading Captain series, he builds upon a stunning, ever-growing outcropping of solo and collaborative works as well. The latest installments include a variety of limited-edition seven-inch singles and a pair of stellar albums produced with ex-GBV veteran Tobin Sprout, under the heading Airport Five.

"It kills me when people say, 'You're putting your solo career in front of Guided by Voices,'" Pollard gripes. "It's all Guided by Voices! My solo career is Guided by Voices. If it's my name, it's my baby." Pollard's songwriting compulsion -- he feels rotten if a day goes by and he hasn't knocked out a few tunes -- may well continue for the rest of his life and into the next. "I hope that after I die," he says, "I can continue to write songs there too."

Even an open-minded label like Matador needs to meddle to a degree (it overruled him on Universal Truths' first single, putting forth the zippy "Everywhere With Helicopter" instead of the galloping "Back to the Lake" or the keening, catchier-than-Velcro "Cheyenne"). "They think they know what constitutes a single in this day and age, and they probably do," Pollard sighs. "I'm kinda stuck in the Sixties and Seventies." But he'll end up following their suggestions. "You make concessions," he says, "because they believe in you."

Possibly Matador believes the band will finally have the hit fans and friends know is overdue. But Guided by Voices has tried before: with the punchy, Cars-esque "Teenage FBI" that leads off Do the Collapse, it had its best shot, but it tanked commercially. Pollard knows not to expect anything but another outpouring of material from his busy pen.

"Even with the resurgence of rock -- the Vines and the Hives and the Strokes and the White Stripes and all that -- we don't even fit in. Although those bands kind of like us, we just swim out there on our own."