Doug Gillard is the long-time guitarist of indie rock institution Guided By Voices. Hailing from Sandusky, Ohio, Gillard rose to prominence through the eclectic Cleveland underground scene, playing in the bands Death of Samantha, Gem and Cobra Verde, among many others. It was while playing with Cobra Verde in 1996 that Gillard and the rest of his Verde bandmates got invited to back Pollard on his next GBV album, as he had just folded the early nineties “classic” line-up. The resulting album, Mag Earwhig, proved to be a more raucous affair than previous efforts and it was also notable for the inclusion of one of Gillard’s Gem-era tracks “I am a Tree”…a live staple to this day. Gillard remained as the GBV guitarist until their initial retirement in 2004, a period that included six records, two of which were notably released on the pseudo-indie label TVT. After Guided By Voices dispersed, Gillard spent time playing with Nada Surf, Neko Case and Richard Buckner amongst many others…his considerable guitar chops always in high demand.

chorusVERSEchorus caught up with Gillard back in late March while he was stuck at home in Queens, NY during the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown. We spoke at length about his early days in the Cleveland indie rock scene; his long and fruitful partnership with Bob Pollard; and even a recollection of headlining a 1989 gig over some little band named Nirvana.

chorusVERSEchorus: First of all Doug: how are you holding up through all this insanity?

Doug Gillard: Things are okay. I’m in Queens in my apartment and just trying to safe. I guess it’s the same everywhere.

cVc: Has all this downtime allowed you to write some music? Are you sharing stuff with the guys?

DG:Certainly. We will be tracking some stuff shortly, but obviously this time it will be done remotely.

cVc: Does GBV ever collaborate in an online, file-sharing way? GBV seems like such an organic enterprise of the boys getting together to bash it out in a basement somewhere.

DG:We actually do it all the time. Each record is different, but it’s usually a mix of songs that has all the band playing in one room and songs that have been pieced together because of the distance between where the band members live.

cVc: What is the typical songwriting process for GBV? Is it a matter of Bob (Robert Pollard, GBV founder and singer/songwriter) bringing a bunch of ideas for the band to work out or is it more a case of four guys figuring things out together.

DG: Well, Bob writes the songs! He will give us a batch of demos with his rhythm guitar and vocals and then we each come up with our own parts for that song. I do multiple parts; guitars, keyboards and strings, depending on what the song calls for…sometimes Bob will have production notes. Kevin invents his drum parts, which are great and Mark gets creative with his bass parts, which are very melodic. Also, Travis, our producer, has sonic ideas as well, so it really all comes together in a great way.

cVc: You’ve obviously played with Kevin in the band before but what, if any, is your history with Bobby and Mark? Have you played with those guys before?

DG: I hadn’t crossed paths with Bobby until he came to see a show I played in Nashville with Richard Buckner because he was friends with Richard. Bobby was a fan of Guided By Voices though and had come to see us years earlier without us knowing it at the time. Mark Shue was my bass player in my solo combo before he joined Guided By Voices.

cVc: Let’s go back to the beginning of your time in GBV. You had already been in many bands and had been a songwriter yourself, but were you at all hesitant to join someone else’s very particular artistic vision? Did you worry about creative freedom?

DG: No, not at all! When I joined back in 1996, I was still a member of Cobra Verde and we were going to act as Bob’s backing band on the next Guided By Voices record because he had folded the original lineup. So it was just a fun adventure that I was going on with my three friends…I guess Bob didn’t know what he was going to do at first though.

cVc: Did you feel a vote of confidence that Bob wanted to cover “I am a Tree” (a Gillard written tune) on that first record together?

DG: Oh yeah, for sure! I had a band called Gem, and at different times both Gem and Cobra Verde would open shows for Guided By Voices when they first started playing shows outside of Dayton and would come up to Cleveland…and as it turns out, Bob was a fan of Death of Samantha, the band I was in with John Petkovic (also of Cobra Verde) in the 80s. Since he was a fan, I gave him a cassette tape of some stuff I was working on and I never ended up putting “I am a Tree” on the Gem record…a few years went by and Bob suggested we do it for Mag Earwig; I said, ‘great, you’d be much better at singing it then I am.” After Mag Earwig was released, Robert Griffin from Scat Records released the Gem version as a 12”, so people could hear the original.

cVc: Were you ever on Scat Records yourself?

DG: I contributed a few songs to a compilation they put out called Hotel Cleveland 3.The funny thing is that while we were packaging the CDs of that compilation Robert put on a record and I had said, ‘Wow, this is pretty good: who is this?’. He said it was ‘this band from Dayton called Guided By Voices; I think I’m gonna sign them.’ This was probably 1992.

cVc: Prior to joining the band were you a fan or was it more of a rivalry?

DG: Oh we were fans for sure. We were all good friends. I mean, we didn’t see them much between ’94-’96 because they were touring so much, but definitely friends.

cVc: Are there any particular differences in Bob’s writing or recording from when you started in the band to now?

DG: I don’t think there’s that much difference in the writing. I do know one things that true, and that’s he feels free to write more complex, prog rock style songs with that Mag Earwig lineup or this lineup compared to the original lineup. As far as batches of songs, I think Bob’s writing is much the same as it was back to Mag Earwig. I look back and wish I had played a little less or maybe played just played better, or maybe more melodically, but I think I eventually got there.

cVc: What are your thoughts on the band’s extremely prolific output? Do you think it’s ever too much or does it feel right?

DG: I comfortable with it and it keeps us busy. It keeps us looking forward and always thinking about music and what approach can we bring to the next album.

cVc: You obviously have incredible guitar chops, but how did you get there? Who influenced your playing and style through the years?

DG: So many! I always say that James Honeyman-Scott is my favourite rock guitar player because he’s so melodic…I really liked what he did. I grew up with the usual Chuck Berry, Keith Richards and whatever The Beatles did…tried playing along to Peter Frampton and stuff. I was really heavily influenced by New Wave and Post Punk things, I would say. I started listening to a lot of college radio and I eventually worked at one too and these were all influences on me. David Gregory from XTC, Vini Reilly, Mick Ronson, Phil Manzanera, and John McGeoch from Magazine and Siouxsie and the Banshees was a big influence as well.

cVc: Since we’re talking guitars, I don’t think I can remember a time when I haven’t seen you playing that black Les Paul…you must have some stories surrounding that axe!

DG: I got it in 1985 when I was 19 and I got it for $500. In reality, the only thing I do to it is change the strings: it’s a warhorse! It’s a 1976 and it’s always had the same pickup in the bridge position (DiMazio Super 2) and it’s what gives it it’s unique sound…they only had them in their guitars in the late 70s. I don’t keep it as maintained as I should.

cVc: How did you come to play with artists like Nada Surf and Neko Case?

DG: As far as Nada Surf goes, those guys have always been fans of Guided by Voices, so when I had a solo residency in New York 2009, Matthew Caws came and introduced himself and we kept in-touch over the years. Some time later they asked me to play on some covers in the studio and that led to an invitation to fill out the live sound with them on tour. With Neko, we knew each other because our paths had crossed on tour. When she was doing her last record she thought I could add something, so I came down to Tuscon and had a great time with that whole experience.

cVc: I always have to ask musicians that are of a certain vintage: did you ever cross paths with Nirvana…or do you have a Nirvana story to tell?

DG: We (Death of Samantha) were on a bill with them in Jamaica Plain, which is a suburb of Boston, back in ’89…they played second and we headlined, which is kind of crazy! They talked to us a little bit; I think they knew our band. Bleach was just out, I think.

cVc: And how do you look upon Nirvana? Are you a fan?

DG: I like most of their songs. I really like their sense of melodicism, which for the time was really quite different. I’m glad he brought melody to the more screamo type stuff. There was a band called Love Battery, who were also on Sub Pop, that was doing great melodic songs at that time too.

cVc: I’m talking to you from Toronto and I’m wondering if you have any stories related to the city’s bands or venues?

DG: Well, I’ve played the Opera House and The Horseshoe a number of times. Early on, maybe 1989 or so, Death of Samantha played a couple of shows with 13 Engines at The Horseshoe and they came down to Cleveland and we played with them there…we had a nice friendship going with them for a few years. In 1990 I played with another Cleveland band called My Dad is Dead and Black Francis asked us to open some shows for Pixies, so we played Toronto as part of that…can’t remember what venue though.

cVc: I’m a massive Pixies fan, Doug, so if it was 1990 I’m going to say that show most likely went down at The Concert Hall! That venue has an incredible history attached to it: Led Zeppelin played there for God’s sake!

Finally Doug, what’s next up for you and for Guided By Voices in the next little while?

DG: Well, Guided by Voices have a new album entitled Mirrored Aztec coming out on Aug 21! We’re in talks right now to see what we can do to make the most of this time…maybe stream something or have sort of merchandise sale…we’re talking with the band’s management to see what we can do. The internet tore this industry apart, but now it’s the only saving grace.

-Johnny Hooper