Gil de Ray: “It´s important to keep the ego in check”
Gil de Ray has been working as a musician for a long time. He started out playing drums as an 11-year-old in his older brother’s band but got kicked out quickly as the band could not get gigs in bars because of his age. So, he sold them his drum kit, bought a drum machine, a tascam 4-track, a guitar and a space echo box and started making music on his own. Since then, he has played in countless bands (Pet Weapons, Little Barrie, the Gil De Ray band, Blak Magic Society, Glasgow Gangster Funk, Vagrant Lovers), released House records, signed to Parlophone, worked for Rough Trade and has just released his 9th studio album “Yellow Eyes”.
I met Gil a couple of years ago and my first impression was that he is a “natural born” musician. Some people have that aura – it cannot be faked, bought or taught, you either have it or you don´t. And Gil certainly does. As most musicians of this caliber, he has a very distinct style which can be felt in everything he does; and Gil is multi-talented: He produces videos, draws and illustrates booklets and zines when he takes a break from producing his music or paints. Not that he speaks much about what he does. The flow of his creativity is consistent, but it happens quietly. No loud advertisement or hype accompanies these releases. They seem reluctantly public. I have always appreciated this kind of artist that does not have the urge to relentlessly tell people what they are doing, despite being professional musicians. Their work feels like an intimate, personal experience and isn´t that what art is all about?
Born in Scotland Gil moved to London in 1993. His music has a warm psychedelic touch but is mixed with drum samples and synthesizer sounds that give it an unusual twist. It’s feels like listening to a 70ies music production that climbed into a time machine and flew into the future to use production methods that were developed only much later. Gil is an introverted extrovert, and he comes up with unexpected, intelligent, even hilarious comments every time we chat.
I am very happy to speak to him today about his latest creation and life in general.
Danielle de Picciotto: You have just released your 9th album “Yellow Eyes”. In comparison to the one before “VOODOOTRON; REVENGE OF THE PSYCHEDELICS” which was very rhythmic, this new release has more of what I consider your signature sound: a dreamy psychedelic, wah-wah guitar and keyboard influenced style reminiscent of the 70ies and yet very contemporary. Are you nostalgic for the past or is this you interpretation of the present?
Gil de Ray: For me the period of the late 60’s and early 70’s was the peak of musical achievement. It’s staggering how many amazing pieces of music were made in that period. From The Velvet Underground to Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic to Sun Ra, Can to Suicide, the depth and breadth and sheer innovation was just phenomenal. There’s never been a period like it. I don’t see it as being nostalgic, there is always great music being made but when i compare the music of the 80’s or 90’s or any time since with the late 60’s and 70’s it always feels inferior, both sonically and in terms of song writing.
Thats just my personal taste i suppose but the production and aesthetic just feels better to me. I have an eclectic taste in music. Because I’m an enthusiast I go through phases where I become obsessed with certain sounds and can’t listen to anything else. I immerse myself in a certain vibe and feeling. For example the “Voodootron” album was initially going to be a separate project and I recorded that with Benjamin Goursot about four years ago. It sounded different to what I had been doing with the band and anything I had done before – but in the end I realized that its all a reflection of my changing moods. At the time I was going through an incredible upheaval personally and there was a lot of anger in my life which is reflected in that album. Life changes and you have to move with it. You can only make the music and the art that your experiences guide you to make.
“Yellow Eyes” on the other hand was written after my brother died in 2019 and naturally I was devastated and went through a very painful process of reviewing my life and thinking about death. So the songs reflect that and it’s a more tender record as a result. For me making music and writing is about honestly trying to interpret what is going on in your world at that moment and documenting it.
I was very lucky, I was 13 when The Jesus and Mary Chain released their first single “Upside Down”. That was a neutron bomb in my life. Living in Glasgow then was very exciting musically. There was a real explosion of bands and a lot of sharing of music. It was a great musical apprenticeship. A lot of Scottish bands were being signed up, mainly by Creation but later by major labels too and it was inspiring to see that it was possible to be successful despite being from a small country.
I moved to London in the early 90’s and Acid House and the Rave scene had transformed British Culture. I was into the whole thing, the drugs and the music. It changed everything for me. I had been making music on my own since i was 13 so using drum machines and samplers and keyboards was something I felt comfortable with. It felt like a revolution was going on and I was really in to exploring every aspect of it.
Your lyrics are very poetic; do you write them for the music, or do you write poems that then find a song to merge into?
Do you have a general “theme” or does the content vary with your mood?
I write to the music always. I can’t do it any other way. And its always reflective of my particular mood. I get set on a sound and that always dictates what i write. Every time. I have written poetry too but that to me is a different thing altogether. A different way of thinking is required and that’s an interesting challenge but i don’t think that’s my strength.
I work alone writing, making demos. Its instinctive and I work fast. When I know I’ve got a group of songs that hang together I start to think about what they need individually. Thats when I approach friends and other musicians who I think can add something to it. I love working that way. I love hearing how other people interpret the basic theme of the song. Its beautiful to hear and see a new angle emerge. I get a real thrill from that. When you meet musicians you know you can trust and work with it becomes something else. Writing together is very different and I’m not sure if that suits me as much. Its such an intimate experience. It can ruin a good idea or take it in a totally different direction but for me i feel more comfortable writing on my own.
A lot of your music is accompanied by your visuals, be it in form of videos, catalogues or drawings. Is art as important to you as music ?
Definitely. We see these things as separate entities but I believe that soon they will become much more integrated. By that I mean, the frequencies that we hear sound also correlate to color. I believe in the future we will be able to hear colours and see sound. Until then we have videos and visuals. From my experience of getting into music, I loved buying records and listening to them and staring at the sleeves for days on end. The two experiences were so closely linked to pleasure that it’s difficult to separate them. Ten years ago I started making videos as it was too expensive to get someone else to do it so like music, I taught myself how to edit and use the software. Then I started making videos for other people and went on tour doing visuals for Little Barrie. I always visualise how the songs should look before I even start to make a video and then try to recreate that vision.
What inspires you most? Music, art or literature?
Thats a hard question to answer as I need them all, like choosing between food or drink. Music though is the thing that motivates me most. I love art and watching movies and i read voraciously so its not easy to choose.
How has life during the pandemic influenced your music/sound?
I had a great time during the first shutdown. It was beautiful. There were no cars and no people on the street. All the bars and restaurants were closed. Nature was wandering back into the city and i felt very calm and safe. Luckily I live with my girlfriend, Kirsty Allison and she is a writer mainly so we both just got on with our own thing with no distractions. I made music every day, read a tonne of books, went to bed late and got up in the afternoon. It was great to be able to switch off and disconnect from society and culture. I know a lot of people struggled with loneliness and isolation but I loved those aspects. I made my first ambient album during that time too and that felt really rewarding. I guess the lack of intrusion into my personal bubble allowed me to explore ideas and sounds that i wouldn’t normally when writing songs. I learned a lot from that and now it has shaped the sound i want to carry into the next album I’m working on.
You have synths and drum machines in your music, do you work electronically or is everything recorded live?
I work electronically in terms of I’m using a computer and software to record but I record the guitars and bass and synths live from start to finish of the song. I don’t loop parts. I don’t quantize. And I don’t worry overly about mistakes either. You can hear plenty of mistakes on “Yellow Eyes”, wonky synth parts and off key chords but if the vibe is right i leave them. I think perhaps it comes from having no formal training so I don’t have that perfection psychosis that a lot of musicians suffer from.
Who is your all-time favorite painter? Film maker? Musician?
Yikes, that’s so hard to pick a favourite.
My first instinct was to say Hundertwasser who I have loved since i first saw his work back in the mid 80’s and he definitely set me on a path that I have never tired of but currently I’m obsessed with the artist Joe Roberts and his psychedelic inspired paintings. He has an amazingly beautiful book of his work called “WEATETHEACID” which I’ve bought multiple copies of to gift to friends.
For film maker I’m going to pick Panos Cosmatos, he’s only made two films: “Beyond The Black Rainbow” and “Mandy” – but they again encapsulate everything I love visually and sonically. Gaspar Noe does that too but I cannot wait for the next Panos film, he is an absolute genius.
For Musician I have to say Lou Reed. The first 3 Velvet Underground albums are just beyond compare. He changed everything for me. I listen to those records frequently still and they never fail to amaze me. Musically so advanced, and lyrically as good as it gets. He will forever be my ultimate guide.
What is it that keeps you moving forwards? Life as a freelance musician in London cannot be easy, do you have a philosophy that helps you stay on your feet?
Life as a freelance musician anywhere is nigh on impossible, if you want to make a living from it. I try not to think about the money aspect of it. All I know is that if I didn’t or for whatever reason couldn’t make music i would probably kill myself. So I am keenly aware of the therapeutic nature of creating. I recently had this realisation and I think its good advice for anyone making any form of art, that your audience may not yet be born. And that is the beauty of it, your art will outlive you.
Beyond the philosophy I think it is absolutely essential to have some form of support, be it from a friend or a collaborator. Luckily i have a number of incredibly talented people around me who encourage me and keep me sane.
At the centre of that I live with and make music with Kirsty Allison as Vagrant Lovers and that is a lot of fun. That allows me to concentrate on the music as she is a Poet and she has an amazingly anarchic approach to it which pushes me out of my safe zone. We live together and we push each other and encourage each other to go further. We are not afraid to criticise each other’s work and that makes for a very inspiring way to live your life. Its important to keep the ego in check so we are constantly calibrating our moods to counter any unwanted meltdowns or freak outs.
The thing about it is you make your own rules, so you have to do what works for you.