He's ready to silence Voices
On last tour, band leader looks back, and ahead
What becomes a legend most? In the indie-rock world, it's the indefatigable visionary. A schoolteacher who composes brilliant lo-fi pop nuggets during recess. A bandleader who continues to record on cheap four-track tape decks even after landing a deal with a label and even though he eliminates approximately 98 percent of his potential audience. A quirky pop mastermind who calls it quits because his group has made an album so melancholy, so bittersweet, it simply screams swan song.
"I always said that when I make a record that I'm totally satisfied with, as befitting a final record, then that will be it," says Robert Pollard, the frontman, songwriter, and lone constant member of Guided by Voices, which plays its last Boston show -- part of the Electrifying Conclusion tour -- tomorrow night at the Paradise (it is sold out). "I'm going to be 47. My hair is gray. I'm Robert Pollard. I'm not leader of the gang anymore. This is the perfect time."
"Half Smiles of the Decomposed," GBV's 15th full-length disc, is indeed a fitting finale. With 14 songs clocking in at a total of 42 minutes, the album is a typically fleeting cornucopia of the group's beguiling and often bewildering delights, careering blissfully between inscrutable basement mixes and polished prog-rock, freakish poetry and careful craft, classic pop melodies and crumpling arrangements. It hardly sounds like a recipe for creative inertia. But after nearly 20 years of peddling sharp, arty anthems, even eccentricity can become predictable.
"The longer you're around the more you're pigeonholed," says Pollard from his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. "People have expectations. Albums are compared, and you shouldn't compare your children. I've gotten complacent with Guided by Voices, and I want to challenge myself."
That said, Pollard agrees that his solo work isn't likely to veer wildly from the fractured pop he's cultivated since 1983, when he formed Guided by Voices while working as an elementary school teacher in Dayton. It would be 11 years and six albums before Ohio's underground curios became successful enough for Pollard to quit his day job, dabble unhappily in hi-fi studio production with A-list producers such as Ric Ocasek and Rob Schnapf, and amass a body of work so vast that Pollard could simultaneously court the MTV crowd with 1999's radio-friendly "Do the Collapse" and sate old-school fans with "Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft," a four-disc set of a hundred unreleased tracks.
GBV's influence has been equally broad, ranging from Jimmy Eat World's Jim Adkins -- who honed his skills in a Guided by Voices tribute band -- to Albert Hammond Jr. of the Strokes, who discovered GBV as a teenager.
"It was almost like hearing music for the first time," Hammond says. "It was that same cool feeling I had when I first heard the Beatles."
Pollard has been nurturing a solo career for the better part of a decade, running side projects and collaborations as something of a benevolent dictator, and releasing albums under various guises including the Circus Devils, the Fading Captain Series, and the Soft Rock Renegades. In fact, with a lineup that's been in nearly constant flux through the years, Guided by Voices can almost be thought of as another one of Pollard's projects. Still, the other members were surprised and saddened, Pollard says, when he broke the news to them in April. And the fans are, to put it mildly, distressed. E-mails are running the gamut from heartbroken to furious. About the only other person who thinks this is a good idea is Gerard Cosloy, president of Matador Records, the band's label.
"It's a smart move, going out on top," says Cosloy. "My own guess is that GBV will be regarded as one of the greatest bands of their era, but there's also a good chance that the band will eventually be known as just the first half of Pollard's artistic journey."
Pollard has recently finished recording a double solo album, "America Super Dream Wow," which features dozens of songs from the late '70s described by the composer as "overlooked," and he's already chosen songs for the album after that. There are also several other projects in varying states of conception and completion, including a collaboration with his brother called Frozen Sissy. Pollard's become a better songwriter, a more complex songwriter, he says, and over time has learned the elusive skill of self-editing. And while he concedes that growing older in rock music isn't pretty -- after a brief, desperate fling with narcissism he's stopped dying his hair -- it would appear that age hasn't ebbed the flow, or more accurately the gush, of words and music that has earned Pollard a reputation as a preternaturally prolific songwriter.
"Now it's ridiculous. Now it's overwhelming," Pollard says. "The process of writing and making music is like breathing. It's an everyday thing."
Pollard, clearly, isn't going anywhere, but the obituaries for his beloved indie band, which officially comes to a close after a New Year's Eve concert in Chicago, are pouring in. Pollard is happy to compose his own.
"We had a vision and it was our own and we did it because we loved it," he says. "I wrote these complicated songs that we could barely play. We had drive and we forged on and things started slowly snowballing and people became obsessed. We thought something was wrong with them. But we continued and we became a technically good band and started working with big producers and I became a little jealous when we were on at noon and Tenacious D, a joke band, was headlining. I felt slighted. I got over it. We worked hard and we got to a level that I always aspired to, where people thought we were an important band."
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.