Words by David C. Obenour
For all of his releases with Guided by Voices, Robert Pollard has an even more staggering back catalogue of collaborations, side projects and other bands. Not to be merely filed under “Pollard” or “Guided by Voices”, these albums each contain their own variety of creativity – hinting at other back catalogues that could have been or maybe that do exist in other realities.
One such rich back catalogue that does exist in our here and now comes from the longest lasting and perhaps most polarizing of these bands, Circus Devils. Formed at the dawn of the century, Circus Devils featured brothers Tim and Todd Tobias writing and recording music to give to Pollard to add his vocals too. The traditional structures of melody and chorus gave way to mood and setting and for sixteen years and almost as many albums (14), the trio invited us to explore the darkened corners of song and soundscape.
See You Inside is Todd Tobias’s autobiography of the band, shining a light on oddities for those already initiated and providing a beacon for those who are curious.
Off Shelf: I have to imagine there are a number of unused songs from all of the recording sessions – do you plan to revisit these ever? Either as a solo album or maybe as a Circus Devils outtakes release?
Todd Tobias: Yes, there were plenty of unused pieces of music that failed the Circus Devils auditions. These were pieces Bob chose not to sing on. There were hundreds of them and I’d say about half were junk. Over the years some of the better stuff has been re-worked for my solo albums or collaborations with other vocalists in Brother Earth, Moonchy & Tobias and The World of Dust. Only one finished song of ours containing Bob’s vocals was left off an album. That was from the Pinball Mars session – a song called “FireKing Says No Cheating.”
OS: You talk a fair amount at the beginning of the book about your disinterest in indie rock music. Have you ever talked with Bob about this?
TT: No. I didn’t really talk with Bob about other people’s music, only the stuff we worked on. I’m sure lots of the records I made with Bob are considered to be indie rock records. To me Bob is a unique talent who doesn’t fit comfortably on any one shelf. I probably should not have disparaged an entire genre of music like that. I just bristle at lots of the dull music and whiney singers that populate the indie rock world.
OS: It does seem like the reception that Circus Devils received mattered to you. Most people dream of the accolades of playing music in terms of live performances to large and adoring crowds, what would those accolades have looked like to you?
TT: I woke up to the idea that we might have fans when Ipecac signed us and released Sgt. Disco. That’s also when I started making the videos. At that time I began to imagine us having a big cult following – it’s just the natural sort of fantasy that comes along with what we assumed would be increased exposure with a somewhat well known record label.
Then as soon as that promise appeared, it evaporated. I’m grateful to the guys at Ipecac for giving us that chance, but there was no interest from the music buying public – not even from Ipecac’s followers. Even with Bob on our side, getting dropped by Ipecac felt like being the skinny new kid on the playground who gets left behind after the teams are picked.
After that experience I went back to having fun making Circus Devils music and did my best to put aside thoughts of success at any level. If we had been a touring band, the name Circus Devils might have had a different sort of life out in the world. Maybe performing live would have helped to generate some excitement among the kids. Who knows?
OS: You mention reviews a few times throughout the book. Artists seem divided over whether they do or don’t read them. What makes you want to engage with them?
TT: When writing the book I wanted to try and build a bridge with readers who might be on the fence about the band – those who are skeptical but mildly intrigued. What came to mind were the sort of objections I saw from album reviewers in all the bad reviews we received over the years. So I used those objections as a starting point to build the bridge with reluctant listeners – sort of putting myself in the shoes of people who would be naturally skittish about diving into the worlds of Circus Devils. That was the purpose behind making mention of the reviews.
Speaking of reviews, I remember the first album getting a lot more reviews than the 13 albums that came later. And lots of those reviews, for Ringworm Interiors, were positive. This confused me later on, because as the records started getting richer and more interesting and just better all around, there were less and less reviews appearing, and the writers who still bothered wrote mostly negative pieces.
OS: One of the list of critiques addressed is that Circus Devils songs “are not proper songs” and have “potential… for something special” if more time and consideration had been spent on them. That’s a complaint that critics use with Guided by Voices too. For Circus Devils, you mentioned it being a scene in a movie and to judge it alone is not the intent, but I wonder if there might be more to it.
TT: My aim with the music was to establish a setting and to set up the action so Bob could introduce his characters and narrations. Sometimes it was more of a cinematic exercise. I wasn’t too concerned with repeating choruses for example, or doing instrumental jams that would have extended the length of songs. Jams were out of the question – including psychedelic instrumental odysseys, which you will not find in our songs. It was never about self-expression, either musical or lyrical. For me a “song” is nothing I aspire to.
But at the same time I’m aware that people want songs, and not just musical moments. I’m trying to create moods and atmospheres. In Bob’s work, he ranges between “proper” songs and musical moments. Circus Devils recorded some proper songs, but mostly what we recorded were musical moments. Apart from my own musical instincts, I think Bob’s musical imagination made it a natural, liberating and fun thing for him to jump into the sonic spaces Tim and I presented with no thought given to making “proper” songs. I think it was a perfect fit in terms of our respective approaches to music. In other words, no one but Bob could have been the singer/lyricist in Circus Devils.
OS: Can you talk about your discovery of Devo? What kept you interested despite first rejecting it?
TT: Tim [Tobias, band mate and Todd’s brother] brought home Devo’s first album in 1978 or ’79, so I was 11 or 12 at the time. That was a good age for being thrown into strange new musical territory. For me that meant venturing beyond the world of stoner rock, Jethro Tull and all the other high-carbohydrate English bands. Tim, who was probably 15 then, insisted on putting that first Devo record, Q: Are We Not Men on the turntable, so it gradually crept into my brain and did its work while I wasn’t paying attention. Once I was infected I stopped fighting it. Devo didn’t replace the music I was listening to then. I mean, I never stopped liking the English bands from the 70’s. I just think Devo helped to liberate my musical imagination by offering a fat-free, minimal approach to rock and roll. Devo called it “reductive synthesis.” For me it was the perfect music for expressing the id of a 12 year-old boy like me, who was half nerd and half troglodyte.
OS: You talk about how people are up for a challenging movie and visual art, and I even think people are up for challenging tastes, but what is it about challenging music that you think turns people away?
TT: I think most people seek what they think they need and want in music. But if the unconscious mind is allowed to choose, those wants can change. Consciously I did not know that I liked Devo, until their songs seeped in and did their work. I think the same thing can happen with Circus Devils. The conscious mind doesn’t want adventure music. The trick is getting people to spend time with the songs following their first bad reaction. It may be an insurmountable obstacle, especially in this day and age.
OS: I’ve interviewed Bob before and sequencing is something he seemed keenly interested in, even joking that he would hire himself out to bands for it, but many Circus Devils albums were sequenced by you. How was that decided on? Did you ever talk about that or was he at all involved?
TT: Bob trusted me with the sequencing unless he had a definite idea about it. The Harold Pig Memorial, Pinball Mars and Stomping Grounds were three albums that Bob sequenced. I did all the others. Bob sometimes made clear which song should be the opener or the closer, and I always had the same idea, so there was never any disagreement. It was always that way in Circus Devils – no disagreements.
OS: At various points in the book you talk about the harms that modern civilization have done to us and that by playing with it we can help to undo that. I wondered if you could try and distill that here as I thought it was a really interesting point.
TT: I believe the way we live and the way we experience reality today is nothing like the way we experienced the world for 99% of our existence as a species. There are fundamental human energies down deep inside us that stay dormant or struggle to find the surface because they are no longer in use, or no longer called forth into expression. For example, the act of exploring unfamiliar terrain and the heightened sense of danger and adventure that comes with being astonished, surprised or freaked out by the confrontation with new and surprising things. Without that experience, something stagnates in our spirit. For me, doing Circus Devils helped to activate my cave man soul. It was therapeutic to delve into those strange places musically. It was probably the same for Bob, entering strange and dark spaces in his lyrics, but done in a playful spirit – like “Hey, let’s look between what’s going on.” From the song of the same name.
OS: You talk about how Circus Devil’s fourth album, Five had the original name of Bird Maggot – but when it wasn’t released under that name it became the “lost” fourth album. Are there any other Circus Devil inside jokes you can share?
TT: I think that’s the only one. Almost all of our albums took shape in the crucible as a fully formed creature with no discussion among the three of us about what we intended to create. Harold Pig’ and Five were exceptions because Bob announced his intentions beforehand about the sort of album he wanted to make. With Five it was no more than just the mention of Bob’s original title Bird Maggot. The unspoken message in that title was that we would make an especially freaky record. I did my best not to pay attention to that, and just delve into my natural process without the burden of ideas. After those two albums, we stopped discussing what we were doing for the most part. I mean, there were no pre-production meetings. Had we made a habit of talking things over, I’m sure we would have generated a Circus Devils culture full of inside jokes. I’m glad that never happened because the band would have degenerated into something self-conscious and un-mysterious.
OS: In talking about Five you mention how “Dolphins of Color” is your favorite Circus Devils song, mentioning specifically Bob’s vocal melody. Can you go on a little more about it?
TT: As with all of our songs, the first time I heard Bob sing that song was in the studio. I remember being pulled in right away by the trance-like quality of his voice, and letting the words wash over me. It was kind of a magical moment. Bob allowed himself to be swept along to a strange place by that music, probably in a way that he doesn’t fully understand himself. It’s no different than our other songs in that respect – it’s just that the result on ‘Dolphins Of Color’ was especially mysterious and melodically rich.
OS: You talk about the spell of ego when artists aim for the edge or break new ground with music. Do you think there’s any self-defense mechanism with that? If you might not be praised by critics you can at least be praised by yourself. What kept you away from it?
TT: Maybe there is something about our natures as individuals that allows for this kind of unself-conscious play, where the reward is in the playing itself. Think of Bob making his collages. Our personalities are nothing alike, but maybe each of us shares an ability to exercise the unconscious in our work, the way kids do when they play. In the book I describe what we did in Circus Devils as children’s play, where we participate for the enjoyment of the activity itself and not in anything that might result from it, such as self-expression or likes from an audience. In this kind of game ego is not invited.
OS: You describe a lot of Circus Devils music in terms of hallucinogenics, if you feel comfortable sharing do you use any hallucinogenics?
TT: Well, I have not yet tried psychedelic drugs apart from marijuana, but I hope to begin one day. I look forward to trying things like magic mushrooms and ayahuasca for the first time. When I do, it will be about receiving and observing whatever material presents itself, and not about enhancing creativity or making music. However, I think it’s clear that pot smoking will make any Circus Devils listening experience more interesting. But pot did not play a role in the music-making process, at least not for me. If I were to smoke a joint in preparation for making music, the result would probably sound like indie rock.
OS: With the end of Circus Devils, how are you still tapping into that creative spirit? In terms of music, video or other endeavors.
TT: My wife and I are raising two daughters and I’m putting more energy into doing my part to provide for the family. That means less time for my music hobby. Fiction writing is something I do for a couple of hours each morning before the family wakes up and sometimes late at night. With writing, I can jump in and out of it quickly, unlike music-making, which requires days at a time for me to get into it properly. Writing is also good therapy. When I do have time for music these days I’m mostly working through older, unused ideas and applying them to a couple of current collaborations, like Moonchy & Tobias and The World Of Dust.
OS: The book ends with a lyric from “Asteroid,” the last song on Circus Devils last album, “This is not the end.” I know you were tying together the story of the asteroid burning on through it’s trajectory, but is there any double-meaning to that and the hope of more Circus Devils music to come?
TT: I guess writing the book gave me the chance to be big-headed about our little band. I was struggling to be poetic with the image of the drifting asteroid – suggesting that Circus Devils is part of an ever more elusive and invisible vein of imaginary play in our world – the sort of expression that has no place in modern society because it’s not part of the program. I think if we had been a band in the 1960’s, we might have made a splash. The asteroid drifting in space, out of sight and out of reach – it’s a metaphor for Circus Devils – a rock and roll band that might have made an impact in some other world, in some other time, but not in ours. But the asteroid is still out there, drifting along. Fans of a band like ours are like astronomers watching something other people don’t see or can’t see. I have a hope that one day in some unknown future society, Circus Devils will find its world and make the splash.