By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
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 basements 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 12 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 (Drunker Than Pollard) packed with more than 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 including GBV's newest, Universal Truths and 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 what 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 '80s. 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 and 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 Truthsalso heralds a return to Matador, the label that released the bulk of the band's mid-'90s 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.