On the walls of Jay Carney’s office: a photo of the Berlin Wall being dismantled. Snaps of his kids. His employer, President Obama, gracing the cover of his former employer, Time magazine. A tier of clocks labeled London, Baghdad, Beijing.
And below that, a framed copy of “Bee Thousand,” Carney’s favorite album by his favorite band, Guided by Voices. Those black scribbles? Lead singer Robert Pollard’s autograph.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Carney says, sounding half-proud, half-exhausted.
It’s Wednesday afternoon in the West Wing and the White House press secretary has been trundling through some of the most punishing days of his career. Benghazi and the IRS have kept Carney scrambling, and he hasn’t had much time to listen to “English Little League,” the latest album from the Ohio indie-rock band he has affectionately name-dropped in more than one news briefing.
The first time was a flub, with Carney invoking Guided by Voices guitarist Mitch Mitchell when he meant to name Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Happens all the time.
The second time was a shout out, with Carney describing Dayton, Ohio, as “the home of the Wright brothers, the Dayton Peace Accords and Guided by Voices, the greatest rock-and-roll band in the modern era.”
No one in the press corps challenged him on the last part — “It’s not a particularly music-oriented crowd out there,” Carney says — and the high praise quickly made its way back to the band.
“Obviously the word ‘wow’ came to mind,” Pollard writes in an e-mail. “Of course, anyone who likes my music means a lot to me but it’s even a little more special when it’s coming from a very seriously high echelon of thinkers like those cats in the White House.”
These days, Pollard dodges the media in ways that Carney probably wishes he could. The 55-year-old frontman hasn’t given an interview since 2011, but evidence of his beer-soaked brilliance springs eternal.
Formed in 1983, Guided by Voices would become one of the most prolific and beloved lo-fi indie acts of the ’90s — a cult band whose cult includes Eddie Vedder, Steven Soderbergh, Chloe Sevigny, the Strokes and the White House press secretary. “English Little League” is the group’s 20th studio album, and Pollard is scheduled to release his 19th solo album, “Honey Locust Honky Tonk,” in July. Although the band doesn’t have any Washington tour dates on the calendar, should Pollard ever be invited to a beer summit in the Rose Garden, he promises to drink twice as much as the president and Carney.
Carney, who has fronted “terrible, terrible” garage bands since his adolescence, says he always has been drawn to the idea of regular dudes making extraordinary rock-and-roll. But above all, Guided by Voices songs simply make him happy.
“I just think Pollard is brilliant and funny and has a level of creativity in abundance that is just astonishing. It’s all essential listening if you can keep up with his production,” he says. “I used to until I had this job.”
Carney, 48, fell for Guided by Voices in 1995, two years after returning to Washington from Moscow, where he was reporting for Time. He was hosting a party with journalist John Heilemann when a pack of pals rolled in from the Black Cat. Carney remembers them saying, “ ‘We have just seen the greatest show ever in the history of rock-and-roll!’ ”
The next summer, Carney caught Guided by Voices on a parking lot side stage at the annual HFStival outside RFK Stadium. “Far from their best,” Carney says of the performance, but it didn’t stop him and his friends from trekking to see the band at New York’s Irving Plaza and a shabby Philadelphia club that Carney remembers as “a hallway at the end of which bands played.”
Over the years, some of Carney’s superfan travel buddies have doubled as his bandmates. They gather once every year or two under names such as the Shirlington Temples and Cash Bar Wedding to record songs that Carney promises nobody will ever hear. The lineup includes Eli Attie, a television writer and former special assistant to Bill Clinton; David Segal, a New York Times reporter and former Washington Post pop music critic; Post contributor Dave McKenna; and deputy national security adviser Antony Blinken, who helped Carney land a spot in then-Sen. Joseph Biden’s media office in 2008.
So if you look at Carney’s career path in a “Lost” sort of way, he may never have been hired as the president’s mouthpiece in 2011 had Guided by Voices not thrown down so hard at the Black Cat in 1995.
White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri taps on the door of Carney’s office and glides in wearing a smile. “Is this, like, the greatest thing ever for you?” she asks.
“This interview is going until midnight,” Carney says — but of course it won’t because the spokesman for the most powerful man on the planet has another meeting in 10 minutes. But he promises to download “English Little League” and e-mail his thoughts in the morning.
And he does: “Every GBV album contains at least a few songs I know will stay on my playlist for years. ‘Flunky Minnows’ is one of those. Kind of like ‘Unsinkable Fats Domino.’ Just another pop-rock gem. I hope they keep at it. For sheer creative abundance, Bob is in a class of his own.”