The Birth of Lit. Rock
Phil Pollard and the Band of Humans bring weirdness and erudition to local stages
by Mike Gibson
A waiter at the Uncorked wine bar on Market Square brings Band of Humans leader Phil Pollard an unexpected delicacy as he sits on a cushy lounge chair along the glass partition that separates the bar from adjacent Oodles Restaurant. The treat is a chocolate-covered red-skinned potato, which is ostentatiously presented in the center of a dinner plate. Gamely, Pollard eyes the spud and takes a bite—chewing, considering, then tossing the remainder in a nearby trash can. “The chocolate was good, but I wish he’d just bring my drink,” Pollard says of the waiter, a personal friend who seems preoccupied with potato pranks moreso than attending the busy bar.
The incident is a true Phil Pollard moment, though, in that it reinforces what people who’ve watched a few Band of Humans performances already know: This is a man who will try anything .
Anything. Such as, for instance, playing an entire show with a bloody frisbee lodged in his abdomen (not real, of course, but rather a costume devised from clever homemade prosthetics), or, at a Bob Dylan tribute, reading the liner notes to Highway 61 through a bullhorn over top of his band’s rendition of “Rainy Day Women.”
“That was the only time I was really nervous on stage,” Pollard admits. “The one time it hit me that, ‘People might not like this.’”
The Band of Humans coalesced, more-or-less accidentally, about two years ago, when Pollard pulled together a couple of friends, Matt Morelock and Geol Greenlee, to serve as a fill-in musical act at the city’s annual Dogwood Arts Festival. On a lark, they reproduced the experiment at the Pilot Light in the Old City, and then the Preservation Pub on Market Square. “Scott (West, Pres. Pub owner) asked if I knew anyone who played ‘weird, jazzy music,’ and I said, ‘Uh, yeah, I do,’” Pollard says. “So I started playing every Sunday, with Geol and Jon Whitlock. Scott said he wanted ‘less quirky, more jazzy,’ so I said, ‘Sure, we can do that.’ Maybe I lied.”
Since then, the Humans have gone through a host of players, and a veritable smorgasbord of musical instruments; they’re really a collective, moreso than a traditional band. As near as anyone can tell, the current lineup includes timpanist/ukelelist Morelock, Greenlee on piano, Rachel Parton on flute, Chris Zuhr on guitar, Dave Nichols on trombone, Kyle Campbell on baritone and trumpet, and Robert Richards on bass. The one constant is Pollard, who sings and plays vibes.
“Pretty much nobody in the group plays their main gigging instrument, which makes us a little more experimental,” Pollard says. “I’m usually a drummer; Robert is usually a guitarist; Dave is a bass player. It gives everyone a breath of fresh air.”
It’s a breath of fresh air for the audience, too. The Humans like to keep people guessing, and one way they do that is by wearing different theme-based outfits at every show. For one gig, every member dressed as the victim of a traumatic injury—thus the aforementioned costume, Pollard impaled by a frisbee.
“That was one of my most technologically advanced costumes,” Pollard remembers. “I used a bungee cord, a ripped T-shirt, half a frisbee and some fake blood. Dave played trombone with his arm in a sling. And Jon Whitlock was supposed to be a bear attack victim, and he ended up actually cutting himself when he was trying to slice ‘claw marks’ out of his jeans. You would have thought that, step one, you take off the jeans first. But no. He played the whole show covered in real blood.”
But more outlandish still—if that’s possible—is the Humans’ musical approach, which has been likened to everything from Zappa to Captain Beefheart to “a bunch of musicians playing their instruments.” Most of the songs are Pollard originals, classy, outre jazz vamps over which the singer/vibist perpetrates all manner of strangeness, much of it of the spoken word variety. Literary references are an especial favorite of Pollard, a part-time English teacher at Roane State and a former Great Books scholar at St. John’s. His musical recitations include excerpts from Tennyson, Sylvia Plath, Confucius, and even the Gettysburg Address.
“I like experimental bands—like ours—but ‘experimental’ often goes real quick to ‘unlistenable,’” Pollard admits. “So we try to rein it in some. For all of the fooling around, I think most people are surprised how good the music is.”
So good, in fact, that local promoter A.C. Entertainment tapped the band to play at the prestigious Bonnaroo festival, upcoming in Manchester, Tenn. “That one really took us by surprise,” Pollard says of their inclusion on the bill. “We don’t even have a promotional package to send out.”
Pollard finishes his belatedly-delivered drink and gets ready to set up a drum kit for his impending gig—he plays sideman in a handful of other local outfits in addition to the Band of Humans, including Sara Schwabe and her Yankee Jass Band, which performs Saturday nights at Uncorked. Before he leaves, someone asks him about his goals for Band of Humans. It’s a rote, reporter’s sort of question, the kind of thing every journalist has asked every performing artist that has granted an interview since the dawn of man. And Pollard starts to give what sounds like a stock answer….
“This might sound cheesy,” he says, as if prefacing yet one more aspiring musician’s diatribe about Just Playing Music. “But I’d really like to play the Acropolis. I’d like to play Stonehenge. I’d like to be the band where people say, ‘We need a band to play Stonehenge; they’d be perfect.’”
Stock answers, it seems, just don’t figure into the Phil Pollard equation. After all, this is a man who will try anything.
Who: Phil Pollard and his Band of Humans