A Lonely Road Trip Inspires GBV's Isolation Drills

Guided by Voices still offering rocking pop songs, including the bold 'Glad Girls.'

With 16 years and several dozen recordings under his belt, it's a little late to say that 43-year-old singer Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices has matured. But "better late than never" is still a perfect way to describe GBV's Isolation Drills, released Tuesday (April 3).

Written while Pollard drove cross-country after the end of last year's Do the Collapse tour, Isolation Drills was inspired by the loneliness of that solo road trip and the dissolution of his home life.

A heavier touring and promotion schedule in recent years drove a wedge through the singer's family, forcing him and his wife to separate after two decades of marriage and a pair of kids. Songs such as "Fine to See You" and "The Brides Have Hit Glass" touch on this sensitive subject as obscurely as can be expected from anyone familiar with such trademark GBV song titles as "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory" and "Game of Pricks."

"I wrote a lot of poems at the end of our tour for Do the Collapse, because a lot of things were going down in my life," Pollard said. "I was kind of introspective and feeling kind of weird. ... Going through the desert in Texas and Arizona, I was inspired to write. I was actually writing lyrics [while] driving like 90 m.p.h. in the desert ... you know, looking for armadillos."

That's not to say the follow-up to 1999's Do the Collapse is without the rocking pop songs that have made Guided By Voices' sweet sonic nuggets arguably the next best thing to Cheap Trick's eponymous 1977 debut.

Isolation Drills flaunts two singles out of the box, which Pollard said are "better pop songs than anything I wrote on the last record." They are the bold "Glad Girls," for commercial radio, and the multi-hook-laden "Chasing Heather Crazy," for the hipper, more discriminating college airwaves. An animated video for "Glad Girls," the chorus of which was originally recorded during 1995's Alien Lanes sessions, is in production, according to the band's publicist.

Though those two tunes may be the best in Pollard's opinion, they're not his favorites. That honor goes to the heartrending "Twilight Campfighter" and the monogamy-questioning "Fair Touching" — a sure sign that his thematic tastes have developed, even if his onstage antics — which most always involve high kicks, mic swings, and a cooler of Bud — still rival even the most rambunctious punk.

Besides Pollard's home address, other changes have swept through the GBV camp.

Though he pounded away in the studio, drummer Jim MacPherson has opted to remain at home with the family, rather than hit the road with Pollard, bassist Tim Tobias and guitarists Doug Gillard and Nate Farley. Jon McCann of Canada's the American Flag replaces him behind the kit. But lineup changes are usually temporary in GBV, as evidenced by former guitarist Tobin Sprout's guest stint on piano on Isolation Drills' "Fine to See You."

Another change sees Rob Schnapf (Foo Fighters, Beck) behind the studio boards where former-Cars-frontman-turned-producer Ric Ocasek sat for the recording of Do the Collapse.Schnapf was easier to work with in the studio than Ocasek was, Pollard said.

"I was impressed with all the things [Schnapf] had done," Pollard said. "There was a lot of diversity there. I want diversity, so let's get this guy. And then I met him, and he's a really cool, laid-back guy. ... Flannel-shirt-wearin' type guy. ... Beer drinker, that was important."

Pollard's ability to relate to Schrapf translated to better studio communication. "Ric was a little bit intimidating, just his presence. He's a totally good guy, but he's Ric Ocasek. There wasn't much discussion — if he said something, [I was like], 'Yeah, of course, you're Ric.'

"With Rob, I felt less intimidated because he's more like me," Pollard continued. "He drank beer with us, and we discussed things, and if I didn't like something, I said [so]. Whereas with Ric, I just didn't know how to tell him I didn't like something. He's had so many hits, how dare I tell him I didn't like something? And that's totally my fault, though. I just think [this time] it was more laid-back, and the performance was more comfortable."

While Guided By Voices is Pollard's main vehicle for his prolific songwriting, it's far from his only mode of transport. Side-projects and solo albums abound, and his Fading Captain series plans to issue approximately one release per month for the rest of 2001. A vinyl version of last year's Hold on Hope EP, re-titled Daredevil Stamp Collector, is its most recent offering, featuring the original demo version of "Hold on Hope." Two singles and an LP from Robert Pollard & His Soft Rock Renegades (Pollard, MacPherson and former bassist Greg Demos) are also expected by mid-summer, as is a single and album from the Airport Five (Pollard and Sprout).

Pollard, his brother Jim (also a former GBVer) and Farley make up the experimental Howling Wolf Orchestra, who hope to release their second album later this year. Finally, a collaboration seemingly created in the fantasies of every self-respecting indie-rocker, between Pollard and Superchunk's Mac McCaughan, is also in the works.

As if that's not enough, Pollard's already visualizing his next official Guided By Voices album, a self-described "prog rock" effort. But GBV playing alongside other prog outfits, such as Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, might still be a ways away.

"It's only prog in the sense that the songs are going to be long," Pollard said. "They're going to be like suites, with a lot of changes. It's gonna be good; there'll be no keyboards or anything like that.

"I'm into making longer songs now," he continued. "Fewer songs, longer songs. We started off putting 28 songs on a record — songs that were a minute long — and so we should end up with a short amount of songs that are very long. Then we've covered the whole spectrum."

Guided By Voices on tour, according to their publicist:

  • 4/2 - San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore

  • 4/4 -Santa Cruz, CA @ Catalyst

  • 4/6 - Los Angeles, CA @ House of Blues

  • 4/7 - San Diego, CA @ Brick by Brick

  • 4/8 - Tempe, AZ @ Nita's Outdoors

  • 4/10 - Albuquerque, NM @ Launchpad

  • 4/13 - Dallas, TX @ Trees

  • 4/14 - Austin, TX @ Stubb's BBQ

  • 4/25 - Toronto, ON @ Opera House

  • 4/27 - Syracuse, NY @ Armory High

  • 4/28 - Albany, NY @ Valentine's

  • 4/30 - Winooski, VT @ Higher Ground

  • 5/1 - Boston, MA @ Paradise

  • 5/3 - New York, NY @ Irving Plaza

  • 5/4 - New York, NY @ Irving Plaza

  • 5/5 - Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club

  • 5/7 - Pittsburgh, PA @ The Beehive

  • 5/8 - Columbus, OH @ Little Brothers

  • 5/9 - Indianapolis, IN @ Birdy's

  • 5/11 - Detroit, MI @ Majestic Theatre

  • 5/12 - Chicago, IL @ Vic Theatre

  • 5/15 - Memphis, TN @ Last Place on Earth

  • 5/16 - Atlanta, GA @ Variety Playhouse

  • 5/18 - Carrboro, NC @ Cat's Cradle

  • 5/19 - Baltimore, MD @ Fletchers