It’s with watering eyes we’ve received word this afternoon of the imminent passing of musician Phil Pollard, a titan of a man in terms of stature, musical talent and warmth of heart.
His heart, apparently, couldn’t handle the load of such a spirit. Yesterday was his birthday; amid the flood of well-wishes on Facebook, friends were notified that Phil had suffered a “cardiac event.” This was soon posted: “Today, Second Grade teacher Phil Pollard suffered a Serious Medical Event. He was transported to MCV. He went into cardiac arrest. Medical personnel were able to revive him. However, he’s been placed in a medically induced coma. This coma will last for 24 hours. As we receive details we will inform the community as a whole.”
Roughly an hour ago, his sister posted the following: “We are preparing to say goodbye. He has suffered several strokes and will not recover. He is surrounded by his family and many dear friends. He is comfortable and not in any pain. Please pray for peace for Phillip Andrew Pollard.”
It’s funny, being out here in the Blount County “hinterlands,” a good distance removed from the people I write about. I think I only met Phil face-to-face a time or two, but we talked occasionally by phone, and I was well aware of his enormous influence on the East Tennessee music scene. Whether fronting his own bands or filling in on drums with a group like The Drunk Uncles, Phil Pollard was a machine. He overflowed with jovial mischievousness, an adventurous spirit, a keen intellect and a love of good music, good fun and good people.
Hearts are hurting in the local scene, and mine goes out to those who knew and loved him so well and so long. There won’t be another like him around here, and that’s the damnable thing, because it is unique personalities, colorful characters and talented musicians like Phil who make this scene such a beautiful, beautiful place to chronicle.
Rest in peace, Phil. I went back and dug up this old conversation we had for a story several years ago. I reprint it in your honor …
LIT-ROCK QUIRKINESS: Phil Pollard wants to be your musical RIF day
Daily Times, The (Maryville, TN) – Thursday, February 1, 2007
Author: Steve Wildsmith ; of The Daily Times Staff
Most musicians would be pleased if a fan left their show, went out and bought a Bob Dylan album or a Bruce Springsteen record or an old Pavement CD.
Local Band of Humans front man Phil Pollard would be just as happy if they went out and bought a book.
For Pollard, music and literature are intertwined – quite literally. A Band of Humans show is often billed as a performance of “lit-rock,” given Pollard’s proclivity for reading poetry, excerpts from classic novels and even famous prose like the Gettysburg Address over the group’s music.
The band’s unique style developed out of Pollard’s background with percussion, which came about as a lad growing up in Baltimore. In the fourth grade, he and his classmates were encouraged to pick out an instrument to play, Pollard told The Daily Times this week. Always one for the offbeat and the unusual, he chose the viola.
“Everybody else was picking the violin or whatever, so I came home and told my parents I wanted to play the viola,” Pollard said. “My older brother was a drummer, and my dad said, ‘Your brother picked a drum. We bought a drum. You’re going to be a drummer.’”
The parental decision to change Pollard’s instrument of choice didn’t have negative long-lasting effects, however. By the time he was 14, Pollard had joined the marching band for the NFL franchise the Baltimore Colts.
“That’s where I really became a drummer, playing with those guys,” Pollard said. “I actually did that until we moved here, and I was with the Ravens band at that point. Of course, I took lessons and studied this and that in school, and that’s sort of where the music came from.”
(As a sidenote, don’t get him started about the Colts. He has fond memories of playing with the team’s band in Baltimore, but when they picked up in “the middle of the night,” as Pollard puts it, and skipped town, it left a bad taste in his mouth. And even though the Colts are in Sunday’s Super Bowl and Pollard enjoys watching football, he prefers it when both teams come out as equal – meaning he wouldn’t mind a bit if the score ended in a tie.)
After college, Pollard taught chemistry and physics at an all-girls Catholic high school, as well as teaching philosophy classes on the weekend at a local community college. Eventually, he and his wife moved to Knoxville to be closer to her family, and Pollard slowly worked his way into the local music scene.
“Honestly, I still was in the marching band, and I helped out with school musicals, but I certainly was no professional musician,” he said. “But down here, job after job was falling through, and I started teaching and playing, and the next thing I know, being a musician was sort of the thing to fall back on. It’s the steadiest thing I’ve done work-wise since I’ve been here.”
These days, Pollard teaches literature part-time at Roane State Community College, but he’s best known as an all-around percussion utility player who performs for area stage productions as well as with four different outfits – The LoneTones, Sara Schwabe and Her Yankee Jass Band, The Bearded and his own Band of Humans, which performs Thursday at Preservation Pub in downtown Knoxville.
“I actually started this on a fluke,” he said. “I was working in kind of a music school with a recording studio, and they said if I wanted to make a song, to go ahead. I went in and played all of the parts on a song – the bass, the drums, the guitar, some mallet stuff – and it had this really cool groove to it. Every time I listened to it, I kept thinking of the Gettysburg Address being read over it.”
Not long after, Pollard was sitting in traffic and wrote the song “Even Though” – known to fans as “the flexitone song” (it’s on the group’s Myspace site) – in his head. He turned his car around, drove back to the school and recorded it in one take.
Such is the nature of Pollard’s muse. It’s quirky and unpredictable, but the end results are always entertaining. Such mischievous inspiration led to the formation of Band of Humans, which originally debuted as a trio for the Dogwood Arts Festival.
“I got (local musicians) Matt Morelock and Geol Greenlee together, and we went out and performed and did readings and poetry over groove music,” Pollard said. “About that time, Scott West (former owner of Preservation Pub) was doing this jazz night on Sundays, and he asked if I had something groovy to bring to it. I was already playing there with Sara Schwabe, but he wanted something different, so I made it up on the spot and said, ‘Yeah, I have this band – it’s called Band of Humans.’”
Billed as Phil Pollard and His Band of Humans, the three original members called in other local musicians to fill out the sound. They were a hit that Sunday, and over time, the group’s show evolved to include theatrics and costumes as well as music. It’s all part of Pollard’s grand musical plan to integrate literature, music and drama, it seems.
“I like watching people play, to a certain point, but then at a certain point, it feel like it’s sort of awkward,” he said. “There’s only so much interest you can have in that. When we decided to start dressing up, it was sort of a way to give everybody something to look at and think about.”
The idea was to have a theme to the group’s costumes. For instance, during one holiday show, the band wanted to make a statement about how Christmas has grown so large and commercial that it threatens to absorb and supersede all other holidays – so the members dressed up as various holidays. At a Mother’s Day show, they wore nightgowns and hair curlers; at a recent wedding held at the zoo, they all dressed as animals.
It doesn’t always go smoothly. But when it doesn’t, that somehow adds to the overall quirkiness of the performance.
“Every time, there will be one or two people that have a great costume – not me; I’m usually in the middle – and then there’s one guy who forgot,” said Pollard, who frequently likes to dress as Abraham Lincoln, one of his heroes, when nothing else work. “For instance, when we played at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Jon (Whitlock) was actually an art gallery. He had picture frames all over him, and they all had a title and a price on them.
“People just interpret it in their own ways, which is what we want. I think for this next one, the band voted that we’re going to dress up as wrestlers. I’d like to get to where, eventually, we can post it on our Web site or something, and the audience dresses up as well. Just think – how cool would it be to come in, unknowingly, and see everybody, from the band to the people there listening, dressed up as professional wrestlers?
“The idea is just to give people something to look at and evaluate,” he added.
When it comes to the spoken-word part of the band’s performance, Pollard draws on a variety of his favorite works. His all-time favorite poem, he said, is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lotus Eaters,” which he set to music.
“I remember being blown away bit it in school, and I sat down with a guitar and started wondering what I could do with it all,” Pollard said. “I started strumming this real languid, out-of-time chord progression, and it struck me – this is what it means.”
Over the history of Band of Humans, he’s read everything from an excerpt from Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” to a short paragraph describing water by Leonardo Da Vinci (sometimes at the same time). His original songs are literature-oriented, as well – he’s written songs about Sylvia Plath and others.
“I really try to point out the dreams of the good side of humanity in what we do,” he said. “I don’t make humans look superhuman or anything. I just try to point things out, like doing something with one of Lincoln’s letters – this is war, this is a woman who lost five sons and here’s what the president said to her. I’m not making a political statement.
“And really, we just want to make music that people like to dance to. We try to get everybody dancing with what we do, and hopefully at the end of the night, somebody will go home and pick out a book and read it.”