It's easy to take Robert Pollard, the greatest rock songwriter of the last thirty years, for granted when he's releasing multiple records a year with various projects, as he has pretty steadily since disbanding Guided By Voices the first time in 2004. So it really meant something that Space Gun was the only GBV release of 2018, and boy was it a great one—another sign that the current lineup, along with producer Travis Harrison, might be the strongest iteration of the band Pollard has ever played with.
But after the relative quiet of 2018, the band is in for a huge 2019: they have three full-length releases ready to go, starting off with the 32-song double album Zeppelin Over China, which comes out this Friday—but you can listen to an exclusive early stream of it below now.
It is truly an ambitious and ridiculously catchy album that seamlessly incorporates the four Ps (pop, punk, psych, and prog) while also retaining a cohesiveness that is almost unheard of from most double records. The overall sound of the album is a combination of the sprawling adventurousness of Boston Spaceships' Let It Beard with the muscular melodicism of mid-period GBV (like Universal Truths and Cycles or Isolation Drills) and the tour-seasoned chemistry of the current band, which in addition to Pollard includes guitarists Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr, bassist Mark Shue, and drummer Kevin March.
The anthemic "The Rally Boys" sounds like it was taken directly off side one of Alien Lanes, while the heavy verses of "Charmless Peters" give way to an unforgettable choral chant, "SMOKE THEM! IF YOU! HAVE THEM!" There are creamy would-be singles ("Einstein's Angel," "Your Lights Are Out"), gorgeous acoustic guitar + synth songs ("Bellicose Starling," "No Point"), and some of the heaviest GBV songs ever ("Holy Rhythm," "Lurk Of The Worm"). There's post-punk fun ("Where Have You Been All My Life"), Who-esque rockers ("Wrong Turn On"), fist pounding grooves ("Jam Warsong") and a perfect drum-less nugget in "Everything's Thrilling." My personal favorites include the haunting "The Hearing Department," the cowbell-infused '70s rock of "Carapace," the instant classic "My Future In Barcelona," and the pop-prog first single "You Own The Night," which was released last July.
"It's still very Bob Pollard, full of surreal word play and poetic games, stuff that he's really known for," Harrison said. "I feel like this album has the potential to just get into your life a little more. The songs are emotionally resonant. There's a certain sense of grandeur and maybe almost like a cinematic quality. That's kind of reflected in some of the ways that the band chose to perform. Doug did some beautiful string arrangements." He added, "also it totally rocks. Fuck yeah."
Pollard first sent the demos for the album to the band in 2017, with a few notes and all the sections/structures laid out. "A lot of it is very terse," Harrison said of the notes. "It's like, 'This part should seriously kick ass!' There's a lot of different variations of 'kick ass'—or on 'Think. Be A Man,' it was, 'pound ass.'" As with the previous three GBV albums dating back to August By Cake, much of the music was recorded in different permutations by the group at Harrison's Serious Business recording studio in DUMBO last winter (Pollard recorded his vocals with Harrison at the end of the sessions in his hometown of Dayton, OH).
"We've settled into a nice comfort zone while playing together live and recording together," guitarist Doug Gillard said. "The band is in a really great place right now, and there is something special about the album. I think the tracks seem a little warmer, a little more serious lyrically and musically."
There is a mysterious quality to Pollard's songwriting that is hard to articulate to people who have not fallen under its spell yet. You might listen through once to a GBV album and think, "oh, this is good, but I'm not sure..." But something compels you to listen again, and all of a sudden the hooks start sinking in, and you realize every single song has gotten lodged in your brain.
"There are so many songs that you hear where it's like, 'I've heard songs like this before,'" Harrison said, discussing the predictability of so many rock and pop songs. "There's something about the way that Bob puts music together that compounds that—you don't really understand except that things are happening when you don't expect them to happen, and he's taking you to places emotionally that you wouldn't normally expect. So that sets you up for the little hook. Yeah, there's the melodies, but there's all these other little elements that create that feeling of, 'Whoa! That's an awesome song!' He's got tricks up his sleeve with that stuff."
Harrison added that he's hopeful people won't take Pollard and GBV's output for granted forever: "In a decade or so, after some of this stuff has some room to breathe, maybe people can appreciate what's going on," he said. "It's just so fast and furious, just what's happening this year alone! Like Zeppelin Over China is a pretty big album, there's a lot of info in there to absorb. And then in about two months, the next one comes out," he said while laughing. "There's definitely more shit coming. Sometimes fans might feel like we're blown over with riches. We've got three albums coming this year, and Jesus Christ! Haha. We're all united in the mission to support Bob."
The band will only play a select few shows this year (including May 17th at the Paradise in Boston and May 18th at White Eagle Hall in NJ). While you listen to the album, you can check out our interview with Pollard below. He talks about his favorite moments on the record, his creative process, and what else is coming from GBV in 2019, including new LPs titled Warp & Woof and Sweating The Plague.
This is the first new GBV album in about a year—for most bands, that would be a quick turnaround, but for you that is actually a lot of breathing room between releases. What was the reason behind the pause, and how did it affect the band's output for 2019? Not that I think what we released in 2017 or what we've got coming up isn't strong, but Space Gun in 2018, in my opinion, deserved special attention so we decided to let it sit by itself with no distractions. I don't know, it's just something I wanted to do that we haven't done in a while. See how it did like the days when we were on fairly big labels. With hindsight I don't think it matters. People who like Guided By Voices like the heavy output and will buy everything. But, yeah, there is a back log of material as a result. We've got three albums coming out in 2019 and one of them is a double album.
I'm endlessly curious about your writing process. Is there a certain atmosphere you like to set to get in the right frame of mind? Did this batch of songs (ZOC) come all at once, did you immediately feel it was a double album? Do you tend to write a lot in quick spurts, or is it spread out like a marathon? No, sometimes I just get in the right mood. I don't really create it. It just comes and I feel somewhat inspired. Sometimes it can be triggered by an album cover or title or something. The Zeppelin Over China songs aren't all from the same session. As a matter of fact several of them were written for Space Gun, but I didn't feel they fit in so well with the rest of the album. They sit nicely with the material on Zeppelin, probably because it's so expansive and there's more room. Most of it was written in a couple of sessions and that's how I usually write. In spurts, brain storming, and then mixing and matching various ideas and sections.
Why did you choose Zeppelin Over China for the title? I know it was a lyric from an old Circus Devils song ("Theolonius Has Eaten All The Paper")… I've always liked the title and yeah, it's popped up in the past a few times. It was originally the title for a song that I wrote back in the late 70's called "Zeppelin Over China (And Everybody Thinks It's A Raincloud)." It was for a local New Wave/Punk/Garage band I was in with some high school friends called Dash Rip Rock and The Hairspray Boys. Then we were Dash Rip Rock and The Atomic Boys (later shortened to just 'The Atomic Boys') and then lastly Rex Rock and The Clocks before we gave it up without ever playing live or cutting a record. All we did was a photo shoot and an album cover I made. No one's allowed to see it. Well, maybe the front cover only.
Was there any larger concept in mind for the album? How do you feel about "concept" albums in general? And generally speaking, when you sit down to write, do you have a concrete idea what you want a song to be about, or do you prefer to draw from the unconscious, figure it out later? It's not a concept album. And to tell you the truth I've never really written one. I just like to try to tie everything together sometimes to make it feel or appear to be conceptual. The title, the cover and the song titles. Maybe a recurring chord progression or riff or two. Let listeners play with the notion that maybe something's going on. A story or something. But I make it very abstract. I use a lot of made up names in titles, you may have noticed. That furthers the illusion/confusion.
"Good Morning Sir" reminds me of a grand late-'60s psych intro song, kinda like "SF Sorrow Is Born." When you are writing a song like that, are you thinking, "this album needs an intro song" or is it not as linear a process as that? In a similar sense, how is the tracklisting decided with such a long, complex album? "Good Morning Sir" just seemed like a nice way to kick off an epic double album. Yeah, like S.F. Sorrow or Tommy or something. I do like to take a little time with the thought process in sequencing, and a double album is more difficult. I went through a few different sequences. I'll do that sometimes. On some albums I even change the title four or five times. A few albums I've completely aborted.
Can you talk a little about some of the ideas and inspirations behind individual songs on the record? I always love when you play with language and pull out these wonderfully esoteric words (like "Aspersion"), and "Carapace" seems like it's in this lineage. I just thought "Carapace" is a funny word and everything kind of hides inside some sort of packaging or exterior. Even people. "Holy Rhythm," I think, has to do with the spookiness or spiritual ghostliness behind a lot of religious institutions in general. And maybe the morbidity surrounding churches, cemeteries and funerals. "You Own The Night" is about bats representing people as basically nocturnal creatures. "Rally Boys" is a fight song. A pep rally for anyone's club or group of people. Hokey rah rah. "Questions Of The Test" has to do with unbearable tension I felt sometimes, and I'm sure a lot of other people feel during college test taking situations. You know, "Put...your pencils...down!".
I noticed there were some really notable self-reflective moments on the album, including the "Motor Away" reference on "Cobbler Ditches"—do you feel nostalgic about your extensive back catalogue (and do you enjoy dipping back in and listening to old albums)? Is nostalgia something that interests you in art in general? (I also bring this up because ZOC's sound and sprawling-but-focused nature instantly reminded me of a mix of Let It Beard and Universal Truths and Cycles/mid-period GBV from the early 00s, and I wondered there is something there you hear as well.) I'm into nostalgia. I'm a very nostalgic person. Most of my record collection is pre-2000 and most of that is pre-1980. I enjoy referencing titles and lines from my old songs. I think it keeps it all related and GBV fans love to play along. Let It Beard and Truths And Cycles are very much like Zeppelin, I agree. They're all very sprawling records. Lots of different ideas and imagery. Truths And Cycles was originally a double album. As a matter of fact, all of the nine songs from The Pipe Dreams of Instant Prince Whippet were recorded for UTAC.
Do you have any particular favorites from the album at this point? My favorite songs on the album are "You Own The Night" (#1), "My Future In Barcelona," "Rally Boys," "Charmless Peters," "Holy Rhythm" and "Cold Cold Hands." I just think they're great songs and have tremendous staying power.
Did you actually see the movie Suicide Squad (if so...what did you think of it?) or was that just a phrase that got filtered into your notebook of ideas? I did not see the movie. Just the trailer and it looks entertaining. The title is another one from the Dash Rip Rock and The Hairspray Boys sessions, so now it's interesting to me that I used two titles from that and I didn't realize it before. The original song featured the lines, "Oh what a lovely day on the ferris wheel/ I found a spider in my soup today..." real goofy and kind of doo-wop.
How has the new GBV lineup, and producer extraordinaire Travis Harrison, changed, challenged or expanded your songwriting palette? How much do you instruct the band on the feel of the songs vs letting them do what they want in the studio? Travis has completely changed the picture and method of making an album. He makes it easier for me, as do the rest of the guys, and allows me to focus on pumping out songs. They use phrases like "Keep 'em coming" and "Throw 'em in my face." They're all very energetic and enthusiastic. It's just the best it's ever been and I don't mean that as a derogatory remark about anyone else that I've worked with in the past. Everyone has made his own unique contribution and I'll cherish all of them forever. It's just that there's a new fervor. A new spirit or energy with these guys, and I need that. I'm 61 years old. Travis is the sixth member of Guided By Voices. He's our George Martin. Our live shows sound like the records now because he's our sound man and he produced the records. Every member of the band can play every conventional rock instrument, sing and write. Kevin and Mark are even good dancers.
GBV on tour (Bobby Bare Jr.'s Instagram)
The new lineup has also been touring like crazy over the last year or two—I've seen a few of my favorite GBV shows during this period. How has all that touring affected the group dynamic and sound? Do you still love touring, or is it a necessary evil in the life of a working band? I love playing shows with these guys. We sound great. I've cut down on extensive touring because of my age and my appreciation for a comfortable life at home with my wife and cats. Playing with these guys live now for three years or so has definitely sharpened up the group dynamic. We're pretty damn tight for hardly ever practicing. I rely on everyone doing his homework. I don't like practicing. I like playing before an audience.
Can you talk a little about the confluence of poetry/sound/collage in your work— how do you see your collage work, in particular, reflected in your songcraft? It's all part of the same process. It's all related. Some is sound. Some is word and some is picture imagery—visual. Each are inter-related, come from the same inspiration and play off the same emotions. It comes from my years, 50+, of understanding the very important connection for rock groups of their album cover packaging and for the information contained within. It's all very important to me, and I like scrambling all the bits of imagery. Moving them around until I form something that I find interesting. When I hit upon something I think is really cool, it's very gratifying. Someone else might think it's silly but that doesn't matter. It's what I think and I've come to trust what I think because I've been around for a while.
Can you give a preview of the other GBV albums coming in 2019, Warp & Woof and Rise of The Ants/Street Party? How do they sound compared to ZOC? Do you have any interest in any more side projects, or is most of your focus on the mothership now?Warp & Woof is a legitimate album release comprised of four EP precursors [The first two, Wine Cork Stonehenge & 100 Dougs, were released in December; the next two, 1901 Acid Rock & Umlaut Over The Özone are coming out in March]. It's 24 short, one and a half minute songs. It's more whimsical. Kind of reminiscent of Alien Lanes or something.
Rise of the Ants/Street Party is now called Sweating the Plague. We recorded 15 songs for it, but only used 12 to make it more solid and cohesive. The songs are longer and I don't want to say 'prog' but have more directional changes. I'm pretty much satisfying the crave as Guided By Voices, but anything can exist under the flagship and I don't like to set parameters or create limitations.
And finally, if you could recommend any two albums to a music lover, what would they be and why? Queen's Sheer Heart Attack and Wire's 154 (I'd also like to add Abbey Road), because they're absolutely perfect and brilliant. And timeless. One should never grow tired of listening to those albums. Ever. One should find another planet before that happens.
You can catch Guided By Voices on tour at: The Paradise in Boston on May 17th; White Eagle Hall in Jersey City on May 18th; Woodward Theatre in Cincinnati on June 28th; Lee’s Palace in Toronto on July 13th