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November 5th, 2010

Being Frank With Guided By Voices

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When we heard the news earlier this year that legendary Ohio indie-rock/power-pop band Guided by Voices—led by the prolific Robert Pollard (pictured above)—were reuniting its mid-’90s “classic lineup” and coming to Philadelphia for a sold-out show at the Troc tomorrow night, we knew we’d need to speak to Reuben Frank. You probably know Roob as one of Philly’s pre-eminent sports journalists, a longtime WIP host, and a columnist/TV personality for Comcast SportsNet. But he’s also a Guided by Voices superfan who’s seen about a million GBV/Pollard-related shows, owns hundreds of live GBV bootlegs (and regularly listens to them), and just might know more about GBV’s sprawling songbook than ol’ Pollard himself. We caught up with Roob to get the diehard fan’s perspective of GBV then and now.

How did you first discover Guided by Voices?
[Philly sports writer] Phil Sheridan and I worked together at the Bucks County Courier Times in the late ’80s and into the ’90s and we’d always turn each other onto bands. One time I was in his car and he put on [1993’s] Vampire on Titus. It didn’t catch right away, but gradually I was like, “This is what I’ve been looking for from pop music all my life.”

What was it that drew you to their music?
Just a total absence of musical or lyrical clichés. Really inventive and subversive, very adventurous chord changes within really catchy pop songs. I mean, I grew up listening to Yes, ELP and Genesis, so it kinda gave me everything I’d been looking for from a pop standpoint but it still had the musicianship.

A lot of people say that it’s hard to get into GBV because they’ve put out so much music and you really have to work to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Yeah, it’s overwhelming. Somebody at CSN asked me to make them a GBV sampler and it ended up being 10 CDs and 250 tracks [laughs]. Every record’s so different. I dunno, I don’t try to convince anybody that they’re better than the Beatles anymore. Nobody believes it until you spend a couple years getting into their catalog, and then you realize they actually have more great songs than the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. It’s almost like you’re unraveling a mystery, and you have to have the time and willingness to put into it, and most people don’t want to do that.

What was it like the first time you saw them live?
I was totally blown away because I’d heard, you know, the critics love to call their live show “shambolic,” but they were a great band—the musicianship was amazing. As much as Pollard drinks onstage and jokes about that, live they were as good as any band I’ve ever seen.

Any shows particularly stand out for you over the years?
I saw them at a place called Conduit in Trenton. I think it was in the spring of ’04 and it was the night I found out they were breaking up. Maybe 12 songs in, somebody had slipped Pollard a drink and it must have had some drug in it because he basically collapsed into the drum set. He sang “Cut-Out Witch” from his back, half-conscious, and it was amazing. And then the show ended. It was one of the best shows because they were living on the edge that night. Until Pollard crashed into the drum set and got dragged off the stage. One night in New York he was onstage ripping Bright Eyes, just killing ’em. He was going, “Ask the person next to you if they own a Bright Eyes album, and if they say yes, punch them in the face.” And it turned out Conor Oberst was standing about 10 feet behind me.

Did Pollard know he was there?
I was told he didn’t. And apparently Conor Oberst left. I’m sure he walked out in very dramatic fashion. It was pretty hilarious. I’ve been to some really bad Pollard shows, too. World Café, when there was like 75 people downstairs there on a weeknight and his wife was crying backstage. It was the low point.

Wow, when was this?
It was after [2006’s] Normal Happiness came out. A lot of the hardcore GBV fans had fallen off because the solo stuff was kinda different. He went into this really long, depressed tirade about how irrelevant he had become and how the glory days were over, and he went on and on and we could see his wife crying backstage. He actually canceled the tour after that.

Did you think they would ever reunite?
I did. I really did.

You went to one of the reunion shows in D.C. recently, how was it?
They sounded great and they played all the hits from that era. It was a little too much like a nostalgia show, though. As much as I love those songs from Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand , they’re 15 years old and there wasn’t a single new song. I just found it a little sad that a guy who’s written so much great music since then would have to limit himself because everyone wants to hear “I Am a Scientist.” To me the great thing about Pollard’s music is that it continues to evolve and grow. But I think everyone there loved it and I enjoyed it. I don’t wanna sound like I didn’t dig it, because I really did. But it felt like it was going backward instead of forward.

OK, obligatory sports-related question: If you had to compare Robert Pollard’s career to any professional athlete’s, who would it be?
Wow, that’s a tough question. It would have to be somebody who had a ton of talent but who wasn’t appreciated. You could go with Donovan [McNabb], but nah, I don’t wanna go there [laughs]. Maybe Satchel Paige. Yeah. Robert Pollard toiled in the Negro leagues of rock ’n’ roll for all those years—he was as good as anybody in the bigs but nobody knew about him. And he kept doing it well into his 50s.

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