I’ve got so many Robert Pollard records in my collection, I could tile my entire house with them. Still, when Circus Devils debut Ringworm Interiors arrived in the fall of 2001, I wrote it off as an over-noisy detour into weirdness—and proceeded to miss out on the next few installments. Big mistake.
Years later, when 2007’s Sgt. Disco and 2008’s Ataxia showed up in my office mail, I realized the Devils, while out there, have maintained some of the twisted pop-rock sensibilities of Pollard’s Guided By Voices and solo work. Just don’t come looking for a consistent sonic approach; every Circus Devils release puts an entirely new spin on the project. The latest example: This month’s Mother Skinny, tough and gritty on the heels of Gringo, an all-acoustic affair from 2009. I tracked down Todd Tobias, the group’s producer and one of its three members, to find out more.
“My brother Tim and I come up with the music first ... and when we get enough instrumental pieces together, I send them to Bob, who does all the lyrics and vocal melodies,” says Tobias, who produced the final three GBV albums and continues to engineer Pollard’s solo releases six years after that iconic indie band called it quits. “Bob brings it to life, gives it a character, a face. He’s got an intuitive sense about music that’s beyond explanation.”
Pollard, who’s still based in Dayton, Ohio, travels to Tobias’ home studio near Cleveland to record his vocals; there, Tobias experiences the finished product in real time. “That’s the fun of it,” Tobias says. “He still records on a cassette boom box ... and he’ll bring that to the studio and use it as a reference. Other times, he has the lyrics written out, and he’ll just wing a song off the top of his head.”
Along with his solo discs, Pollard has released piles of records under a variety of other recording umbrellas—Airport 5, Psycho and the Birds, The Takeovers, to name a few—yet the Circus Devils’ eight-album output stands unequalled. Why? “It’s an experiment, and it’s as much fun for him as it is for us, I think,” Tobias says. “It’s not a money-making venture. We don’t have much of an audience, really. But we have a core group that really anticipates every release.”
Where to start? Tobias recommends Sgt. Disco or 2002’s The Harold Pig Memorial; I’m partial to Ataxia myself. Or you can try a little of each, with A Riot of Gold Teeth, a 33-track sampler available for $9.50 at tobias-music.com/id15.html. But if you like what you hear, don’t start scanning the concert listings for Circus Devils gigs. The “band” has yet to play a live show, though Tobias says he’d like to. “We’ve talked about it,” he says. “Bob’s really not in a performing mode right now, even with his own stuff. But we’ve talked about maybe doing a one-time thing in New York or Chicago, because it would be a shame if we never played.”
You don’t need ovaries to enjoy this one, but you will need a turntable. My Estrogeneration, a 2009 compilation from LA’s Not Not Fun Records (notnotfun.com/music.html), is not available on CD or MP3. If you wanna hear these psychedelic sounds from girl-centric acts like Inca Ore, Topaz Rags, Tickley Feather and U.S. Girls—trippy textures ideal for scaring your loved ones into staging some sort of intervention—vinyl is your only choice, though the LP’s colorful jacket alone is worth the $12 price tag. (More from the excellently odd Not Not Fun stable in the weeks to come.)