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A real cut-up

An interview with Robert Pollard on the occasion of the landing of Boston Spaceships
By MIKE MILIARD  |  September 23, 2008

VIDEO: Boston Spaceships, "Winston's Atomic Bird"

Robert Pollard is a Renaissance man. He’s a head-spinningly prolific songwriter, with more than a thousand songs registered in BMI’s database — the most recent of which appear on Brown Submarine, the debut album from his new band, Boston Spaceships, just out on his own Guided by Voices, Inc. label. He’s an artist, having just published a collection of his collages, Town of Mirrors: The Reassembled Imagery of Robert Pollard (Fantagraphics Books). He’s a witty raconteur, as anyone who’s heard his all-stage-banter album, Relaxation of the Asshole, can attest. He’s a three-sport athlete who dominated in football and basketball in high school and in 1978 threw the first no-hitter in Wright State University history. He’s a noted connoisseur of fine lagers and spirits (Miller Lite, José Cuervo).

DOWNLOAD: Boston Spaceships, "Winston's Atomic Bird" [mp3]

This Tuesday, Pollard’s Boston Spaceships will be touching down at the Paradise, where they’ll share a bill with the recently reunited Big Dipper. “I take it that we’ll be welcomed with open arms,” he says with a nicotine laugh when I reach him at his home in Dayton. “It’s gonna be great. Two Boston bands.”

As I suspected, the Spaceships — who feature drummer John Moen (Jicks, Decemberists) and long-time Pollard collaborator Chris Slusarenko (Guided by Voices, Takeovers) — are named in honor of the album-cover imagery preferred by Tom Scholz’s beloved old band (be it on their homonymous debut, Don’t Look Back, or Third Stage or even Corporate America). “All their covers have spaceships on them,” Pollard marvels.

There aren’t — at least so far as I can remember — flying saucers on any album covers from Pollard’s vast discography. But there are some satellite dishes and a boy looking skyward on GbV’s Earthquake Glue cover, so, uh, close enough. That collage, created by Pollard, is among the 138 works collected in Town of Mirrors, a fine showcase of his surreal, retro-feeling, sometimes disconcerting compositions.

“Before I was in a band, before I could play music, I made collages,” he explains. Indeed, in those pre-1994 days, before Guided by Voices became indie-rock godheads, when Pollard was still a fourth-grade schoolteacher, he would sometimes assign his classes to do collages. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid who doesn’t like to do collages. Because it’s easy.”

Pollard’s technique is unabashedly simplistic. “I just start moving things around, moving them into sections and piles until they sort of almost leap together. I don’t have very good powers of concentration. I’m kinda scatterbrained. And so it’s much easier for me to have a bunch of imagery to work with, and say, ‘I’ve got this title here, or a few things to work with, and I’m gonna make it happen.’ ”

Title bout: Test your Pollard chops
“It’s the same process, basically,” says Robert Pollard about how he creates his songs, his collages, and their ineffably evocative titles. “A lot of times, I don’t actually think of them. I capture them. I write down or store a lot of ideas or images, and I keep them in piles and notebooks and folders. And when I feel like working, I get ’em out.”

The following Pollard bons mots are the names of an album (A), a side-project band (B), a collage (C), or a song (S). Can you determine which is which? Answers below.

1 | Go Back Snowball
2 | Kicker of Elves
3 | So Green She Had To Be White
4 | I Invented the Moonwalk (And the Pencil Sharpener)
5 | Acid Ranch
6 | Same Place the Fly Got Smashed
7 | Tropical Robots
8 | Indians and Naked Babies
9 | In Shop We Build Electric Chairs
10 | Legalize Excellence Evolution

1: B | 2: S | 3: C | 4: S | 5: B | 6: A | 7: S | 8. C | 9: A | 10: C

Pollard keeps folders full of raw material: he combs garage sales for old magazines from the ’50s and 60s (he likes the Technicolor layouts, the blinding white smiles, the Brylcreemed hair) and gathers together “old album covers, educational posters, x-rays, whatever I can find . . . anything that’s paper.”

That, he adds, is “basically the way I’ve written songs for a long time too. I’ve got these notebooks full of titles and lyrics or whatever, and when I feel creative, I just start throwing ’em together. It’s all scattershot. But I’ve gotten better at homing in or pinpointing what I want. It used to be, ‘Let’s see how the cards fall.’ ”

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Related: Review: Robert Pollard | Elephant Jokes, Guided by Voices return with self-inflicted nostalgia, Guided by beers, More more >
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