From The Desk Of Doug Gillard: I Was A Tree

Doug Gillard is known (rightly so) for his guitar wizardry in bands such as Guided By Voices, Cobra Verde, Death Of Samantha and, for the last few years, Nada Surf, but that notoriety sometimes overshadows the fact that he’s an accomplished solo singer/songwriter. With his third LP, Parade On (Nine Mile), Gillard continues to show off his virtuosity—solos like the one on “On Target” are just ridiculous—as well as his knack for catchy, folk-inflected power pop. Gillard will be guest editing all week. Read our brand new Q&A with him.


Gillard: Death Of Samantha disbanded and tried to reunite a few times around 1991 and 1992.  We even recorded a whole album in 1990 with producer Sean Bevan that ended up getting shelved. John Petkovic, Dave Swanson and I regrouped to start something else. We rehearsed in a friend’s basement, writing a slew of material. This became the band Cobra Verde.

Concurrently, I was writing a mess of poppier songs for myself, and had a show booked to celebrate a Cleveland compilation release I had two songs on. This was the beginning of Gem.

For most of the ’90s, Gem and Cobra Verde co-existed and I would stay busy with both, and also hold a steady job. The late ’90s brought a new challenge- an invitation to join a band I had both opened for and been a fan of.

In ’92 a group of friends got together to back me on a solo set that I was booked to play at Cleveland’s Euclid Tavern. It worked so well that we decided it should be a band. I had released a couple solo songs on compilations and played solo acoustic shows before then, but this was my first time being frontman for a band.

This band, which we called Gem, had an interesting ride, and lasted from about 1992-2003 or so.

We recorded a song for a compilation at Beat Farm studio, where Death Of Samantha and everyone else in Cleveland had recorded. Proprietor Chris Burgess was the first bassist in Gem as well. He and drummer Scott Pickering hailed from the band Prisonshake, continuing their rocking ways into this band Gem. Tim Tobias played guitar as well, and wrote some of Gem’s material.

We had a close call almost being signed to an independent label out of Burbank after driving to Cincinnati in a snowstorm to play for the lady who owned the label. Poor Scott, who never messed up, caught his kick beater in his pantleg for a split second and quickly recovered. We barely noticed, but label lady did. She called us on it and was disappointed, but later sent us a contract anyway. A thick contract that would saddle us for a seven-album deal with no way out. That, and such a puny budget for a first album that we could have recorded maybe five songs with it. So, after some consideration and hearing other horror stories from established bands that were on the label, we said no, thanks.

In 1993, Cobra Verde went in to 609 Recording to get our new songs down on tape. I played bass on some of the tracks, but 609 proprietor Don Depew took a shine to the material and played bass on some as well. He was now in the band, and we played some local shows. I’m quite proud of the CV output I played on and helped write a bit of.

Our first LP Viva Le Muerte is a stripped-down affair with some amazing songs. There were some singles and EPs after that, and Cobra Verde left me in 1998 after the whole band became part of Guided by Voices for the Mag Earwhig! LP and tour.

Cobra Verde remains an excellent band, with John Petkovic now splitting his time between that, the band Sweet Apple and the occasional Death Of Samantha event.

 Gem recorded an LP called Hexed, which came out on Restless Records. When it came time to master the record, Tim and I flew out to L.A. to stay with label owner Joe. 
Joe had a great little house in Burbank, one he claimed he was able to buy with money he made selling a screenplay he wrote about the death of Bobby Fuller. The house belonged at one time to Eddie Fisher and supposedly the servant’s house was where Carrie Fisher was conceived.

One morning I peruse Joe’s expansive record collection as he makes some food. I come across the Golden Palominos section, who were our Restless labelmates.
 I put on one of my faves by them from an early LP, a song called “Clean Plate.”

Label owner Joe says “Oh, who’s this?”

I say “They’re on your label!”


To be fair, this first GP album was on the Celluloid label, and no doubt he probably wouldn’t have had a lot of time to hear it.

The whole band came out to L.A. later in ’95, and played a show. I remember Liz Garo (then with Restless) taking us around one night to the Viper Room, where we caught a pre-Calexico Joey and John playing in Friends Of Dean Martin, then on to the Dresden Room for a requested stop to see Marty and Elaine. We sit near a white-suited Nic Cage, who was at a table with his manager and some young actress. Marty and Elaine don’t disappoint, and we finish the night somewhere or other.

In 1991 I had written a song while borrowing a drum machine from my pal Marky Ray. I was playing around with a capo on the seventh fret, and I think, trying to play “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac. The capo stays on, and I arrive at some riff and a chord progression. The song wrote itself fairly quickly. I was also borrowing Mark Edwards’ four-track cassette machine, so I put the song down, playing a bass line with my Les Paul at some point. This was one of the songs I brought to what was to become Gem at that first rehearsal. It was “I Am A Tree,” and it was in our live set for good, pretty much. When we recorded Hexed, I think I somehow acquired a stigma about the nonsensical lyrics and didn’t put it on the album. When Cobra Verde opened for Guided by Voices in ’94, that song was on the Gem sampler cassette I gave to Bob Pollard. Technically, it was released before the Mag Earwhig! LP on a Cle Magazine compilation in ’95. Since we didn’t put it on Hexed, Pollard asked if we could redo it for the GBV album. I said, “Well, of course!” With Bob singing it, it could only be better.  Gem’s version saw a proper release on a dedicated I Am A Tree EP, which came out on Scat in 1997.

 Fast forward a few years and Gem had some lineup changes, got dropped by the label after we recorded the second album, and continued to play shows in Cleveland.

George Collins drummed for a bit, and then Eric Vogt stayed for the long haul. Jeff Curtis played bass for a couple years, then Tim’s brother Todd came in to play bass and also helped during recording. We finally released that second record in 2001, but the tragic events that September quashed a CMJ appearance. I had joined Guided by Voices in ’96, Tim joining in ’99, so we were a bit occupied with that band! Sunglare Serenades is the last Gem release, and came out on the excellent Pitch-A-Tent label.

Gem played its last show in 2003 at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom.