"I could only grab a beer in between songs," the guitarist says. "I was always starting and stopping all the songs. I had a lot of work to do."
But playing a recent gig at the South by Southwest music conference, one of a handful of solo shows he's done since GBV ended its 21-year run on New Year's Eve, Gillard tugs on a Budweiser, and it slowly begins tugging back.
At first, Gillard seems a little stiff, as if he's trying to rock out with limbs made of cordwood. He diligently leads his band into a set of spit-shined pop culled mostly from his full-length solo debut, Salamander, released last fall. By the third tune he's bending his knees a little, his weight shifted to the back of his right foot, as if he's getting ready to shoot some free throws. He sucks in his cheeks and puffs out his chest. A few songs later he puts his back into it, rolling his shoulders and nodding to the crowd.
The place is packed elbow to elbow with hard-drinking, whiskey-ripened dudes in their 30s and 40s, for whom Gillard's tunes are a reminder of the halcyon days of AM radio. They hoist beers next to younger-looking guys in sports jerseys and backwards ball caps, who pump their fists just inches from Gillard's face. The bar is so full that some fans watch from the street outside, pressing their faces against the club's windows, fogging up the glass as they sing along.
It's a reassuring reception for Gillard. After seven years in Guided by Voices, when he could finally quit his day job of taping depositions at a court-reporting service, Gillard is back on his own. One of Cleveland's more celebrated musicians, he's spent time in such noted acts as Death of Samantha, My Dad Is Dead, Starvation Army, and Cobra Verde. Now 39, he can look back on a national rep that's long-established.
"He's a virtuoso guitarist for one, and a world-class songwriter in his own regard," says Gerald Cosloy, head of Matador Records, whose catalog includes such indie luminaries as Pavement, Liz Phair, and GBV.
"Doug is simply the best guitarist and probably best overall musician I've ever known -- he can play anything," says Scott Bennett, an engineer at Kent's Waterloo Studios, where Guided by Voices and Gem have recorded, and where Gillard laid down Salamander.
But it was Guided by Voices that really put Gillard on the map, and as he tries to put that band behind him, GBV's notoriously zealous fan base is reluctant to let go. This isn't necessarily a bad thing for Gillard: Thanks to GBV, he has a built-in audience big enough to land him a gig just about anywhere there's electricity. Being the rabid record collectors they are, the GBV faithful also helped Gillard quickly sell out the first pressing of Salamander.
Yet, as he tries to establish his identity as a solo artist, his past threatens to overshadow his future.
Midway through his set at Friends, the crowd begins hollering for "I Am a Tree," a tune Gillard originally wrote and recorded with his band Gem, but which Guided by Voices covered and made into a fan favorite.
"C'mon, Dougie, it's your song, please!" a guy bellows breathlessly.
Gillard seems unmoved at first. Like a curvy blonde at Mardi Gras, he's used to the catcalls. But eventually he gives in.
"We're gonna do a song I wasn't going to play," Gillard says before launching into "Tree."
"Thanks for giving me the best job of my life, Bob," he adds a little wistfully, addressing GBV frontman Bob Pollard, who was at the show earlier, but left after downing one too many shots. "I'll never have another vocation like that again."
Doug Gillard's fingers betray his emotions, his face much less so. His guitar playing is wildly expressive, an amalgam of classic rock riffage and pretty pop hooks that stick with you like a steak dinner. But Sanskrit is easier to decipher than this man's countenance. His face is thin, with prominent cheekbones and a taut smile that lend a chiseled handsomeness to his understated persona. He speaks in a low voice and can seem stoic, as if his features were frozen in time on a particularly uneventful day.
"I actually feel like I'm making expressions and smiling, but my face is such that the way it's shaped, it kind of forms a frown, but I'm not frowning," Gillard attempts to explain. "I'm happier than people think I am. 'Have a good time and be happy up there.' Well, wait, I am. What are you talking about?"
For this reason, Gillard can be a hard guy to read -- especially when it comes to GBV. He speaks fondly of his time with the band. "It only helped me," he says. "I think my playing got a little better, my name got a little more known. It was the first time I really made money full-time with music. I'd always been used to making 100 bucks or 120 bucks -- that was like a really great night in Cleveland."
For seven years, Gillard toured the world, playing places as far-flung as New Zealand and Japan, appearing on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and rubbing elbows with the various celebrities -- as disparate as Drew Barrymore and Mike Judge -- who crowded backstage at GBV's New York and L.A. gigs. He never made a lot of money, and GBV never sold much more than 50,000 copies of a given record, but they were a strong touring draw, and Gillard was able to quit his day job.
Just being in Guided by Voices was its own reward in many ways. The band had a rich backstory that was near-mythic in indie-rock circles: GBV was fronted by Bob Pollard, a former fourth-grade schoolteacher who began recording songs with his drinking buddies in the garage of his Dayton home. The band would help catalyze the lo-fi movement in the early '90s with its ragged, homespun pop songs, prodigious output, and Pollard's literary, surrealistic lyrics. Sometimes it seemed as if the über-prolific frontman penned a new tune for every beer belch.
But live, Guided by Voices was the opposite of the twee indie-rock band whose fans wore backpacks and sat cross-legged on the floor at their gigs. GBV played loud, wore striped pants, and did lots of leg kicks, with Pollard swinging his mic like Roger Daltry with a better vocabulary. They were an arena-rock band, sans the arena and the $6 beers. When Gillard was brought on as a full-time member in '97, he instantly became indie-rock royalty.
If joining Guided by Voices was a boon to Doug Gillard's career, it was less beneficial to his liver and loved ones. Being in GBV took its toll on the wiry guitarist. The band would sometimes play upwards of 200 shows a year, constantly touring, always in a van, with no guitar techs to help Gillard hump his gear each night. He was on the road when his mother died; he couldn't be with her at the end. "Goddamn this/I can't be there/Your last days I can't share," he sings on "Momma," a wrenching ballad on Salamander.
And then there was the boozing. During his tenure in the band, Gillard drank enough beer to make him an honorary McKenzie brother. A large part of GBV's appeal was how drunken and debauched their shows were. At gigs in Orlando, for instance, so much beer would be sprayed at them that the band eventually took to wearing raincoats onstage.
"You'd go to shows, and these college kids would just fuckin' lose their minds, just pumping their fists, doing the devil signs, throwing beer everywhere," says John Wenzel, the Denver-based head of Sponic Zine, who has covered GBV for over a decade and used to hang with Pollard at his house in Dayton. "It was kind of like every college kid's dream."
But it got to the point where the bandmembers would sometimes feel that they were letting their fans down if they weren't shitfaced.
"Sometimes there'd be reports of 'Oh, they were pretty good, but it didn't look like they were drinking enough,'" Gillard says of GBV's gigs, which sometimes descended into drunken melees where half the bandmates could barely play their instruments. "Sometimes you couldn't win. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't with these people."
GBV prided itself on being approachable -- it was easy to meet up with them and have a beer after a gig -- but for Gillard, it sometimes got to be a bit much.
"I always resented the notion that we were sort of the people's band and it's easy to hang out with us; 'Yeah, just go back and talk to Bob and the boys, they don't care,'" Gillard says. "Well, we kind of did care -- we just didn't want to seem like dicks, you know. We kind of did want to be left alone and have our own space and have Bob make up the set list in peace, without having people come back and grab our free beers all the time. You know what? They're not free beers, they're on our rider; if we go over a certain amount, we have to pay for them -- and we did pay for them sometimes."
Even though it took Gillard by surprise when Pollard announced in December 2003 that he was ending GBV to focus on his solo career, once the band finished touring behind the just-finished Half Smiles of the Decomposed, Gillard had already been thinking about departing.
"Sometimes I was looking for a good time to get out," he says. "But we had to overlap it so much that the tour for the last record would end and I'd already have the demo tapes for the next record, so I'd start getting excited about those songs. Maybe sometimes it was one or two songs that would keep me hanging on. Plus, I didn't want to let the organization down, throw a wrench in things. And I didn't have any plans in place either."
A year and a half later, he's still working on those plans.
Doug Gillard flicks on the turn signal and hangs a left into his past. "Whatever happened to Warsaw's?" he asks a little incredulously, blinking in the afternoon sunlight as if to give his eyes a second chance to correct their obvious misperception. He's just driven past Murphy's Law, the garish Irish pub on Memphis Avenue; it used to be Warsaw's, the Old Brooklyn watering hole that Drew Carey made famous on his TV show. Gillard hasn't been by these parts in years, and he seems a bit taken aback at how old haunts have become new businesses. He turns down the red brick Wichita Street and points out a green two-story with a wooden porch.
"There's an attic up there, that's where I had a four-track. I recorded two records up there," he says, speaking of his 1999 debut solo EP, Malamute Jute, and his acclaimed collaboration with Bob Pollard, Speak Kindly of Your Local Volunteer Fire Department.
He drives down West 25th Street, pointing out one rock-and-roll landmark after another: the ratty storefront that used to house the Old Brooklyn Tavern, where Sonic Youth played its first Cleveland gig in '86, with Death of Samantha opening; the squat brick building where the club Babylon A Go-Go used to be; now it's the urbane café Talkies. He drives through Tremont, gesturing toward a boxy green brick house next to Sokolowski's eatery, where his band Gem held its first practices. He revisits the small, two-room efficiency on Auburn Street where he lived for six years in the late '80s and early '90s, paying $125 a month in rent.
Eventually, Gillard heads downtown, stopping at Mitzi's, a small, old-world bar on Superior with an ornate wooden ceiling and a fat, feisty, cocktail wiener of a dog named Rosco, who sits in the front window. The staff is on a first-name basis with Gillard; Rosco nips at his hands playfully. Revisiting his old stamping grounds for much of the afternoon gets Gillard talking, over a series of Straubs, about his past.
He was born in Colorado in 1965, the youngest of four children. His mother was a teacher's aide; his father helped construct missile silos. His family moved to rural Hudson, Ohio, when he was a kid, where he grew up on a farm. He was writing songs before kindergarten. His older sister lived in Germany, and the family used to send her recordings they made on a reel-to-reel tape machine. Gillard used the reel-to-reel to begin laying down his own tunes at age five. He still has many of the songs preserved on disc -- loud, rancorous little blues numbers with titles like "Chinese Dog," "I Like Being a Crocodile," and "We Love Our Mommies."
"I would just go hiking in the fields, and as I was walking along, whatever was in my head, I'd come home and work it out on guitar," Gillard recalls. "In a way, I was more imaginative in those days. You just write about animals."
Beginning in high school, Gillard started making the rounds in such notable punk- and new-wave-influenced outfits as Suspect Device, Children's Crusade, and Starvation Army. He first ran into Death of Samantha frontman John Petkovic at Cedar Point one day, when he noticed that he and Petkovic were wearing the same T-shirt from a U2 concert the night before at the Music Hall. He struck up a conversation and ultimately joined Petkovic's modernist pop troupe; later, he played with Petkovic in the first incarnation of Cobra Verde.
Along the way, Gillard also collaborated with renowned Cleveland avant-rockers My Dad Is Dead, joining the band on tour with the Pixies in 1990. Gillard began building a reputation for the breadth of influences his playing encompassed; it spanned everyone from country icon Chet Atkins to David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson.
"If there was a rock-and-roll Jeopardy, he should go on it," says My Dad Is Dead leader Mark Edwards. "He's got an encyclopedia of knowledge about bands and rock music in his head, and he could just as easily amaze you by playing, note-for-note, some Aerosmith song and then turn around and play some weird time signature, Sonny Sharrock kind of thing."
Gillard also launched his own band, the velveteen rock combo Gem, in the early '90s, with future GBV bassist Tim Tobias. They scored a deal with Restless Records that led to the 1994 release of the overlooked LP Hexed -- a whir of enveloping guitars and sweet-tooth harmonies.
"I still think Gem's 'Suburban Girl' is one of the greatest things in the history of Cleveland rock," says Jason Pettigrew, editor in chief of Cleveland's Alternative Press magazine, who put out a pair of Gem singles on his Car Crashh label in the mid-'90s. "There was a great pop sensibility, along with great musicianship. Part of the reason why Doug is such a great player is that he's a great listener."
In 1996, Bob Pollard asked Cobra Verde to be his backing band for Guided by Voices' Mag Earwhig! LP, which introduced blazing leads to the GBV repertoire for the first time. Pollard was a fan of Gillard's since his Death of Samantha days.
"I thought his riffs and leads were really tasteful," Pollard says. "Doug became one of my favorite guitar players -- not just in indie rock, but in the world. He and J. Mascis were probably my two favorite guitar players. For Doug to become an official member of Guided by Voices, I was just completely proud."
But after touring behind Earwhig, Pollard dismissed the rest of Cobra Verde and asked Gillard to stay. It was an ugly split, with Petkovic first finding out about Pollard's intentions to ditch Cobra Verde from some comments he made to a reporter, which were then posted on the internet. When Gillard decided to carry on with GBV, it strained his friendship with his former bandmates.
"At the time, Cobra Verde was a recording project to me, and it wasn't really my heart, so I stayed with Bob," Gillard says. "John told me, 'I understand your decision, but I don't respect it.' John and I, we talk, and we're cordial and everything. We get along. I respect him a whole lot. But it was a weird time."
Gillard's impact on GBV's papier-mâché pop was immediate: By adding fiery leads and beefed-up guitar, GBV sounded as if it spent the interim between records gobbling creatine and doing squat thrusts.
"His presence turned the band from scrappy basement rock writ large to a serious and powerful rock-and-roll machine," says Adam Shore, a former A&R rep for TVT records, who signed GBV to the label in 1999 and who is now the general manager of Vice Records. "He is the glue, and Bob would tell me over and over that he's the best guitar player in the world."
Through it all, Gillard steadily wrote tunes for himself. He shelved Gem in 2004, saving his songs for an eventual solo album, which would slowly turn into Salamander over the course of several years. Released last October, Salamander has received strong reviews in Magnet, Billboard, and on Amazon.com, where it was named among the top 10 alternative-rock CDs of 2004. And deservedly so. With Gillard's bipolar guitar blowing kisses one minute, shooting sparks the next, the album bear-hugs the Beatles, swinging from spectral pop to baroque rock. Gillard plays virtually all the instruments on the record and sings in a plaintive, humble voice that could double as a muscle relaxant. It's a pretty, meditative record that feels like a warm bath.
"I give him a lot of credit for being a real person, and he was able to really convey that in his record more than just some sidebar, 'guitar-guy-does-solo-record' thing some might have expected," says Jack Rabid, head of the long-running New York City-based rock mag The Big Takeover, who released Salamander on his new Pink Frost label. "We're a small label and could only spend about $7,000 to $8,000 promoting his record right out of our own pockets. If he was 22 and recording for Sub Pop, he'd be selling 100,000 copies of this record."
But he's not, and Gillard knows that his solo recordings most likely won't be enough to support him.
"It hasn't become a career for me yet," Gillard says. "I almost want to fall back into just having a day job, and when I get a chance to record a record, I'll do it. I don't want to come off as all altruistic, 'I'm just doing it for the purity of the music, I don't want to make money.' I do, but you always want to make money doing what is right, what you love. I don't even know when I'm going to make another record, because I spent all my money on this record. And now I have no income. I should have a job, actually."
Doug Gillard's been laying down the same darkly chiming guitar line for close to two hours now. In the studio, he can be exacting, wielding his guitar like a scalpel to carefully dissect every note of a tune. Today, it's a soundtrack, not a song, that Gillard works to get just right. He's perched on a wooden stool in the home studio of Tommy Wiggins, an animated rock lifer with long, silver-streaked hair poking out from under a backwards-turned black ball cap. Wiggins runs the Recording Arts and Technology (RAT) program at Tri-C and has a full-fledged recording facility in the basement of his house in Moreland Hills.
Together, Wiggins and Gillard are scoring Donnybrook, a film that's being produced by Tri-C. A large computer monitor plays footage of the movie, an edgy coming-of-age story that follows a burgeoning rocker in Cleveland. The two are working on the music for a two-minute passage in the film, during which the protagonist is humiliated in front of his classmates. They've played the clip some two dozen times now, take after take, in what begins to feel like a rock-and-roll parody of Groundhog Day.
"There's too much bass," Gillard says of their most recent version of the score.
"Ya think?" asks Wiggins. "It has to be a little mysterious."
They keep at it. Gillard plucks at his sunburst Gibson intently, surrounded by half a dozen vintage keyboards, a wall-mounted Elvis cutout, and every manner of instrument from tambourines to ukulele. Wiggins leans into the synth before him, swaying back and forth to the music like a kite caught in a stiff breeze. They finally get the piece to flow just the way they like it. Then Gillard insists that they record it one more time.
"I had one note that was a little off," he explains.
And so it goes. They've been working on the soundtrack for two months now and are mostly done. Donnybrook's director, Jon Sajetowski, is a native Clevelander who enlisted Gillard for the film. He's done some scoring in the past, penning the music to a short film that played on HBO as well as handling the music for a couple of other projects.
"One of the things that's most appealing about Doug is that he's a chameleon. If all of a sudden we need a Spanish guitar, he puts that in; if we need something that's some kind of disco, industrial music, he puts that in," says New York City filmmaker Michael Nigro, a native of Cleveland who has employed Gillard on a variety of projects. "Doug understands the marriage between the scene and the music. He understands that it's not about him, it's about making the project the best it can be. It's not about ego with him."
Ideally, Gillard would like to make a living doing film and television work. "I'm totally in awe of people who can record for a living with jingles, stuff like that," Gillard says. "I love that, making a living being a musician, but being behind the scenes. I've always liked that concept."
Gillard's home betrays his growing fascination with film work. A recently purchased copy of the Carrie soundtrack sits among several movie scores in his kitchen alongside Cheap Trick and Neu! discs. Gillard lives at the end of a winding asphalt path in a small wooded area of Euclid. Lake Erie is his backyard. He makes his home in a comfy mauve house with hardwood floors and high ceilings, its walls decorated with a pick guard autographed by Les Paul and a fly swatter shaped like a guitar.
Standing in his kitchen on a recent Thursday night, he knocks back one Pabst after another, pondering whether he'll ever be in a band again. It's an avenue for him to make money, though he's not too keen on it.
"I don't know about being a member of a band with someone else's music," he says. "I could do it on a per-record basis, maybe. I could definitely do it in the studio. I don't know about going on the road, though --unless it's like a proven, really good-paying job. If David Bowie gives me a call, I'd probably put things aside to do that."
In the meantime, Gillard is tentatively planning to tour this summer, though he knows it won't pay the bills. He's more focused on just breaking even.
"I'm not that good a singer live, I know that," he says. "I've got kind of a vulnerable voice. I wish it was really strong. I can't project like Pollard and a lot of people. As I get older, my voice gets even worse. But I'll tour on the record to promote it and stuff, and see some fans maybe -- if there are any."
He knows there are more than a few. At a Beachland gig in early March, fans drove from as far away as Chicago and Pittsburgh to catch Gillard's 45-minute set, opening for Alex Chilton.
But making a living isn't Gillard's only concern. He's engaged to a banking-industry executive he met in L.A. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Gillard is contemplating a move to be with her, though he has his eyes on more of a media center like New York.
"We want to make it work, but I don't want her to take a step down and become a waitress in Cleveland," he says. "I'd love it if we could live here, but I just don't know."
Gillard's at a point in his life where uncertainty factors into a lot of his decisions. He's at a crossroads, having gotten a taste of being a full-time musician and having his dreams fulfilled. Now he has to deal with living outside the spotlight and reestablishing his own identity.
"I would resent the notion that I would have remained obscure except for Guided by Voices," he says. "I would protest if someone thought that. I probably would have moved, or I would have had my own thing going a lot stronger, or I would be playing with another band on the same level or bigger. I always had the drive to do something like that. It just happened to be Guided by Voices."
As he speaks, Gillard plays some of his favorite works from his back catalog, a little Death of Samantha, some of the Fire Department album. He's not showing off -- he's all but incapable of bravado when not gripping a guitar -- but revisiting his past seems to reinvigorate him. He bobs his head to the tunes; his thin smile widens a bit, chipping any rust off his grin. He's facing the music -- his music -- and liking the beat.
"I always imagined something more," he says of his days as a struggling musician. "But I didn't know that it would really happen -- and thanks to Guided by Voices, I was able to make that my job for about seven years."
Gillard grabs another beer from the fridge and pops the top, then adds: "And so now, it's back to reality."
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