Much like the music of Dayton, Ohio, indie rock outfit Guided By Voices, Matthew Cutter’s biography of bandleader Robert Pollard is instantly engaging and unquestioningly human, with plenty of drinking implied.
“In my opinion, (Guided By Voices) is the greatest active rock band in the world, legends of indie rock,“ Cutter enthusiastically proclaims during a recent phone call. Prolific, too: the band’s notorious creative output is one of its most distinctive calling cards. With help from at least fifty band members since his flagship project was founded in 1983, Pollard’s been at the helm for over a hundred albums, nearly 3,000 tunes, and shows no signs of slowing down – in 2018 alone he released a double-LP, a single LP, reissued an older release, put out three 7” singles, and added two EPs to the scoreboard, all on his own Rockathon Records. That ain’t all: his band also hit the road for nearly 50 gigs.
Cult-status band aside, “Closer You Are” is Cutter’s biography of the 60-something former 4th-grade school teacher, more celebrated in his own hometown for high school and collegiate athletic prowess than his international fame in the rock community. “I pitched (Pollard) the idea of making the book about his life, rather than it being the story of Guided By Voices,” Cutter relates, noting that he and Bob were already acquaintances. “I didn’t have a plan – it was an off-the-cuff suggestion in the midst of an afternoon drinking together. Bob thought it over and decided to give me a shot. My goal was to do right by Bob, to write a book that I’d like to read myself, and one that other fans would like to read, as well. I didn’t have a lot of mainstream writing behind me, so he took a risk.”
The freelance writer’s resume, however, does include work for Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s role playing game Deadlands, as well as over a decade at a magazine for the American Speach-Language-Hearing Association in Rockville, MD. What can he say about time spent with the prestigious latter organization? “It went on for nearly fourteen years,” he says, dryly.
Closer You Are details Pollard’s birth on Halloween in 1957 into proudly blue-collar Northridge – a suburb of Dayton – where smoking pot, scoring cheap beer and zoning out on classic rock is de rigueur. After the aforementioned remarkably successful athletics stint growing up, Pollard became a school teacher for fourteen years, cranking out lo-fi home recordings by night with his drinking buddies. Eventually the world beyond Dayton came calling, and Guided By Voices quickly found themselves one of the most influential indie rock bands of the 1990s; its work continues to this day.
In getting to the heart of what makes Pollard uniquely himself, Cutter collected insight from nearly every collaborator who’s come and gone, or been picked up along the way; they’d chat by phone or, perhaps more apropos, over beer in dimly lit watering holes.
“One person I regret not being able to get in touch with was Mitch (Mitchell, previous guitarist). He’s a sweet guy and I would’ve liked to talk to him,” regrets the author. But, others were eager to recall details, sometimes going back four or five decades, as best they could. “Everybody was so incredibly generous with their time,” he says. Previous members would chat with him for hours on the phone, and one-time guitarist Nate Farley met him out for drinks in Columbus. “Bob’s brother Jimmy came to hang out with us in Dayton, and my interview with the two (brothers) was really great,” Cutter beams. “It contributed to a lot of the early material in the book. They’d recall songs (written by Bob during) their childhood. The two of them would just launch into a song like ‘Jagwire’ and they’d remember all the harmonies and words from when they were seven years old.”
This isn’t the world’s first GBV-related book; former member (and one-time Spin magazine editor) Jim Greer penned one documenting the band back in 2005. “The most interesting thing, for me, about (Greer’s book) Hunting Accidents is that he wasn’t asked to write it until October of 2004, and (the publisher) wanted it ready at the very end of the band’s final (not so final, it would turn out) Electrifying Conclusion tour, to be published in January or February of 2005. Two-and-a-half months to conduct interviews, transcribe them… given that deadline, it becomes even more amazing to consider that Herculean task, and he knocked it out of the park. I love his book and, in my mind, (his and mine) are companions. But,” Cutter illustrates, “mine is more narrative chronology, how one thing led to another, while his was like an oral history of the band.”
As for Closer You Are, the author’s first book, critics have been kind; NPR even did a piece, calling the work “a fascinating, even-handed picture of the unlikely indie star.” The so-called “Big Three” in publishing – Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal and Publishers Weekly – all weighed in with early, positive reviews.
“One criticism I’ve seen of the book is that there’s not enough, that it ends in 2004.” He reflects for a brief moment and clarifies, “I wanted to publish a 1,200-page book that covered every aspect of Bob’s life, every aspect of the band, all the technical aspects of recording all of the albus, all of the reviews and critical response, and a series of twenty-three appendices at the end that would cover all of Bob’s side projects since 2004,” he chuckles. “But, from a narrative standpoint, using the Pinocchio metaphor and allusions that run throughout the book, 2004 was where Bob achieved what he always wanted – the ability to make music on his own terms, and to make enough money at it that he could continue doing what he loved to do. That’s the point where he created songs, happily ever after. And to me, there are few stories that go beyond happily ever after.”
Cutter details the task of whittling down an artist’s life story to under 400 pages quite matter-of-factly. “The original specs were for something like 90,000 to 110,000 words, and I think my first draft was 130,000 words. A lot of stories and anecdotes had to be cut, a lot of stories that were truly interesting and funny, like the time Bob overdubbed lyrics onto another band’s album (Phantom Tollbooth, Beard of Lightning). A story like that’s funny and entertaining, but is it crucial to understanding Bob’s life and personality? I thought, probably not.”
Still, with Pollard and the band he leads continuing to release new material – and selling out rooms around the country to promote it – one can’t wonder about future endeavors to track the history that’s presently being made. “I’d love to do a revised or expanded version of the book in the future,” Cutter admits, “but right now I’m just enjoying the music Bob continues to put out, and eagerly awaiting what’s next. He’s unstoppable.”
Order the book by Matthew Cutter here.
Words by Bill Furbee