Doug Gillard talks songwriting, collaborations in wake of work with Indianapolis’ Easthills

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Doug Gillard, soon to be touring nationally again with Nada Surf

Songwriters write.

It sounds simple, but that’s the name of the game, and unless they’re lying to you, most songwriters working on an indie level would love to have the opportunity to work with the writers who influenced their initial musical explorations. Most won’t get that opportunity, and some don’t wind up having the experience they’d hoped for, introductions at times serve to dash the image built up over years. But when a collaboration clicks, the result can be golden.

In the case of the Easthills, working with legendary guitarist Doug Gillard proved to be the perfect example, as I profiled this week in NUVO Newsweekly in advance of the Indianapolis band’s sold-out album release party this Saturday night at White Rabbit Cabaret. A chance encounter on social media introduced songwriter Hank Campbell to his longtime musical hero, and the resulting six-song collaboration looks to bolster the band’s continued sonic expansions.

But what about the idol? What is it like to work with songwriters who have respected you for years, built you up so high you aren’t sure you can live up to their imaginations of what you are? I had the opportunity to talk back and forth with Gillard on that very subject, but was only able to use a small portion of it in print. And while I certainly look forward to speaking with him in the future regarding his work with Guided By Voices, Nada Surf and myriad other projects, I really think his thoughts on this particular subject were noteworthy.

– – – – –

Hank told me he reached out to you via social media, that you were a friend of a friend and everything just fell into place. But I’d love to get the story from your perspective. Does that happen often, with people reaching out hoping to work with you? What was it about the Easthills’ music that made you want to collaborate in such a big way?

It doesn’t happen much at all in that medium. Hank was very gracious, and approached as someone intimately familiar with my work and particular style. He sent two or three initial tracks, with lots of room in each to do things and add textures. I listened and got some ideas immediately. I loved the Easthills’ playing and they have a knack for melody, which is pretty key in my digging something to work on.

They were generous in a carte blanche way as to how much i could add, so I went for it; they[‘d] purposely left abundant space in the songs they sent me so I’d have room. I did most of the parts at home, and later they flew me out to add some finishing touches and be in the room with them for feedback, both figuratively and literally. The songs were very fun to work on, which is also a key factor — I enjoy playing parts that enhance a song’s ability to build.

I’m always interested in the process behind songwriting, something which often gets ignored. When you collaborate on songs in this way, do you vary your writing process? Is it easier in situations where you can work with the artist in person to flesh out a song, or do you prefer hearing their take on a song and adding your work to it? How did this work when you were recording with the Easthills on their latest project?

I enjoy both processes. Obviously it’s very helpful to have the immediate in-person feedback, but in this case, I would send Hank the tracks and they seemed to like what I added right away, so we were lucky in that respect. Bear in mind I didn’t write any of these songs structurally, only my parts within the songs, so it’s different than a songwriting collaboration per se. I love adding structural parts such as bridges where needed or asked for, but they already had them in place. Its always fun to just play on top of existing progressions, so they were generous in allowing me to do that.

When I made up my parts for GbV albums, I would work up a 4-track demo utilizing Bob’s own demos in that mix, and he miraculously almost always approved of things I came up with! By that same token, I love the in-person collaborating process as well.  In Nada Surf, I’ll try some ideas with the advantage of immediate feedback, so I have the opportunity to contour parts to fit just right.

As far as personal songwriting processes, I’ve seen firsthand that no one has a consistent formula. Sometimes you’ll wake up with a fully formed chorus — chords, lyrics and all. Sometimes the music is first, then melody and lyrics follow. Some people have a set of lyrics first, then write music around them to fit.  Sometimes the same person with that approach will have other songs wherein the former formula applies. In my own writing, music is first. I’ve had the wake-up thing a few times, but that’s rare, and an incredible gift when it does happen.

I’ve talked to several songwriters who had the opportunity to work with someone they respected as a musician, an idol so to speak … and everyone has different takes on the experience. But I’ve never gotten to ask what it’s like from the other side. As a writer and performer, what has your experience been interacting with long-time fans who are also musicians? Is it rewarding to be able to work with the next generation of songwriters in a collaborative fashion? Do their expectations of what it’s like to work with you get in the way of actually working with you?

I find it rewarding to work with any skilled writers/players, though I have to like the music first to be able to get into contributing. I mean, I don’t have that much experience working with folks who are longtime “fans” of mine, but if they’ve been slogging it out trying to put their material out there for some years, I consider we’re all on equal footing here.

What, in your experience, makes for a perfect song? Is that even something that’s possible … perfection in songwriting?

That’s a heady question! I do think there are perfect songs, and I realize this is subjective, but I tend to gravitate towards what would be “perfect pop songs”. I just noticed this within the last couple years, but to me a song like “Tears Of A Clown” is a perfect pop song. It’s catchy, there are changes, and it has a horn and woodwind arrangement. It boils down to whatever it is that’s created that grabs someone.

I’ve maintained that songs should go somewhere and have changes and bridges and whatnot, but I grew up on post-punk as well and love some repetitious trance-like music and noise things too, so I guess I can’t really say. As a writer, you think you have certain criteria, but when you consider all you love, it’s so varied in approach that it’s impossible to have a box-tick system. Sometimes things just emerge and when the piece is all said and done, maybe it’s one or two chords and you love it, so there goes your multi-part theory, you know?

Is there anything you wish someone would ask you but they never do?

In general I guess it would be questions aimed at the songwriting process as opposed to guitar solos or guitar playing. I’m really into chord progressions and chord voicings, bringing subtle things into songs, tunings etc. Hey, we all want people to ask about the minutia but they never do! Like every songwriter, I just want people to enjoy whatever results.

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