The Clevo-spawned guitarist and songwriter has helped power Death Of Samantha, Cobra Verde, My Dad Is Dead, Guided By Voices and Nada Surf, additionally fronting Gem and releasing a string of solo albums—among them, the staggeringly fine new Parade On.
BY MIKE SHANLEY
Doug Gillard could be considered the consummate sideman. He’s provided the ideal support for vocalists who, if they don’t chew up the scenery, take a good bite out of it. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, Gillard played in Cleveland’s great Death of Samantha (who reunited and recently released If Memory Serves Us Well, a rehearsal session of older songs) with John Petkovic, with whom he later formed Cobra Verde. He’s also been a member of Nada Surf for the last three years. Members of that band also play in Bambi Kino, a group devoted to the Hamburg-era period of the Beatles. Then of course, Gillard’s name and power chords really came into prominence as a member of Guided by Voices, during the lineup which lasted from 1997 until their break-up in 2005.
What might be overlooked in all of this is Gillard’s consistent output as a solo artist. In Cleveland, he fronted Gem during the ‘90s, which took crunchy power chords and merged them with a no-excess indie rock delivery. That band recorded the original version of “I Am a Tree,” which Robert Pollard later appropriated for GbV’s Mag Earwig album. Two solo Gillard albums appeared after the Pollard unit broke up. Now Parade On (Nine Mile) finds him turning down the distortion, in some cases, but still building up a set that blends hooks with layers of guitars. While Gillard’s heart remains devoted to steady, riff-based rock, the album is his most varied example of how it can be played.
To Gillard, who has lived in New York for seven years, the shift away from distorted guitars hasn’t been a conscious decision. “I still like to make wild distorted rock,” he says with a slight laugh. “But I like variety. And I don’t feel like I need to keep up an allegiance to the rock genre necessarily. I’ve always liked all sorts of things.
“I like pop music that’s complex – to a degree, not complex for complexity’s sake. If something is too clever, it’s a little cloying. I like interesting chord progressions and weird chords, different instrumentation.”
John Petkovic recalls the openness Gillard had from the earliest days of Death of Samantha (band pictured above). “Some people attribute being open and adventurous with age, youth. But that’s not really true. You can tell who comes at music and art through imagination and who comes at it because they are attracted to some particular style,” he says, via email. “If you’re going into it for the latter, you’ll end up chasing something and never catching it. If you explore your imagination, you’ll never get ‘old.’ In that regard, little has changed with Doug when it comes to music — he just approaches it in the same way, attracted to sounds and parts. As a result, he’s able to synthesize disparate pieces that other people wouldn’t imagine fitting together until they saw the completed puzzle.”
While Parade On still contains a substantial number of fast, punk-inspired riffs, the songs with cleaner attack get a boost from layers of guitars. Different rhythm parts subtly complement each other, without getting in each other’s way or making it obvious that several guitars are going at once.
“Ready for Death” features cameos by a 12-string guitar and several acoustics. The end result gives the song a somewhat Beatle-esque feel, or the Pernice Brothers for a more recent reference. Gillard’s upper register vocals offset the mood with somewhat bleak lyrics, which came to him at a time when he wasn’t feeling well physically. “In general, it ended up being more about a creeping sense of atheism, morphing out of an agnosticism I seem to have had,” he explains. “So rather than ‘My Sweet Lord,’ it reads more as ‘My Sweet Lord, Do You Really Exist?’”
The intent was not meant to sound morbid in any way. “It’s almost tongue-in-cheek, or self-mocking in its exaggeration; the conceit of throwing up one’s hands and declaring you’re ready for the dirt nap just ’cause you’re a little achy and foggy, and the supplement hasn’t kicked in yet,” he explains. “So while ‘Man, I’m about ready for death’ was an actual thought at the start of writing it, in the long run I realize I’m really mocking my own whininess.”
In addition to the layers of different guitars, he mentions a faint production nuance he added at the end of the song: six vocals tracks harmonizing closely, inspired by 10CC’s classic “I’m Not in Love.” “That sound is the soul ascending to…somewhere. The sky? Heaven? That confuses things, if I assume there’s a heaven,” he says in an email following our full conversation. “So it contradicts what I sang earlier! Just shows what a nebulous and unsure place that theme comes from.”
“Overseas” goes far, largely with one chord chugging along. It recalls Wire and keeps the energy going for over four minutes, throwing in a quick change during the song and longer ones towards the climax. Simple as it might sound, it has the spark like a band hitting upon a riff for the first time, excited at the possibilities it can create.
“Come Out and Show Me” also charges along at a clipped pace, but three minutes in, the tempo cuts to an anthemic slow pace. The romantic tension gets more twisted since the lyrics come from a series of cut-up couplets. “Also, I guess portions make a reference to the Steve Reich tape piece ‘Come Out,’” he says. “I recall first hearing that when I was 18 on the Oberlin College station and it was one of the most compelling things I’d ever heard.”
Gillard is careful not to get carried away when adding extra guitars to a song. “I try not to have more than one rhythm guitar, maybe two at the most,” he says. “Anything else is just too mushy. I’ve been involved in albums where the producer has said, ‘Put another one [guitar track] down, put another one down,’ so there’s a bed of six rhythm guitars. There’s no directness anymore and the attack on the strings really goes away.”
But, he says in a self-deprecating manner, “I guess guitar’s my main voice because — I’m not that great at playing anything else. If there are lines that I hear, I know how to execute them on the guitar, use different kinds of guitars to achieve certain tones.” (Below: a very young Gillard, wielding an axe.)
Four years ago, Gillard helped assemble Bambi Kino to mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first trip to Hamburg, Germany. The group, named after the squalid movie theater where the Beatles lived in those early Hamburg days, specializes in the early rock and roll that the Liverpudlians played in those early days, along with a few early Beatle originals. Guitarist Mark Rozzo (Maplewood), bassist Erik Paparazzi (Cat Power) and drummer Ira Elliot (Nada Surf) complete the lineup.
They debuted at Hamburg’s Indra Club, where it all started half a century ago, meeting the bouncer who first turned John Lennon on to the speed that got them through six to eight hours of music. The band has continued, even playing a Beatles convention with the band’s biographer Mark Lewisohn — decked out in a fake toilet seat a la John Lennon — joining them for a shambolic run through “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” which can be found on YouTube.
Like everything in which Gillard in involved, the members of Bambi Kino ensure that they’re not merely donning Beatle boots and playing three chords all night. “We [looked] at records of their set lists. Even if they never recorded [a song], it was game for us to do,” he says. “We also read a lot of things about them and listened to the BBC sessions. They really got good in those years, 1960-1962, and ’63. They were playing constantly, all the time, live. In reading about them back in those days, John and Paul sought out ways to be different in their songwriting. And that’s inspiring to read.”
The reunion of Death of Samantha, whose albums on Homestead blended Petkovic’s literate wit and wide-ranging music, came about naturally. There had been numerous requests, but it only happened when everyone was in the same place at the right time. At a rehearsal for their first show, they recorded If Memory Serves Us Well, 18 of the alleged greatest hits from their early days. Time apparently had little effect on the band. “Dave James [bassist] says he’s the only one in the band that’s changed — i.e., matured,” Petkovic says. “Most people who get together at a very early age formed new lives and take new paths. Less so with Death of Samantha, I guess.”
At the moment, Gillard is keeping busy with numerous projects. Sandwiched between recent studio time with Nada Surf, his own quartet has played shows at South by Southwest [including a riotously received appearance March 13 at BLURT’s annual SXSW day party at the Ginger Man Pub] followed by more recent shows opening for his former band Guided by Voices.
When asked if Gillard gets enough recognition for his solo work, Petkovic offers this perspective. “From the bottom to the top,” he says, “People tend to look at brands and things they know. Doug deserves more attention, no doubt.
“But it’s a larger thing — people are able to evaluate the name on the painting more than the painting. Doug has always been pretty dedicated to the painting, and that’s a good thing.”
Promotional photos by Ana Luisa Morales. Additional pics courtesy Doug Gillard.