In May, I had the amazing opportunity to see Todd Rundgren’s Utopia at the Taft Theater in Cincinnati. I was thrilled to know that the band included original members Kasim Sulton and Willie Wilcox. When Utopia keyboardist Ralph Shuckett had to bow out due to health issues, the band set out to find a replacement relatively quickly. Out of countless audition tapes and possible options, Gil Assayas was selected to play keyboards and provide vocals on this tour. As I stated in my show review, Gil was one of the standouts of the show, handling the keyboard parts with style and flair, and contributing solid backup vocals throughout the night. It was clear that they had selected a star.
Apart from his keyboard wizardry with Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Gil has worked with many other musicans on stages all across the world. He also has a solo project called GLASYS, which recently released an EP. I caught up with Gil to talk about his musical history, his idols, working with Todd Rundgren’s Utopia on their latest tour, and what’s in store for Gil Assayas.
First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself. Tell us where you’re from, and what got you into music.
I was born and raised in Israel, grew up in Jerusalem. Both my parents are classical musicians and I started playing classical violin and piano at a young age. When I was 14 I discovered Jazz music and completely fell in love with it. Throughout high school I played mostly Jazz, but I eventually got bored with that too and realized that I needed something else. That’s when I discovered the world of synthesizers and sound design, and I’ve been happily exploring that world ever since (while combining all my past influences).
Who were some of the musicians and artists that most inspired you growing up?
The great classical composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin were my first big influences. Even though I eventually gravitated towards other genres, I always adored classical music (especially from the romantic era) and still love to play some of those pieces from time to time.
When I got into Jazz, I was listening mostly to Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell and the other Bepop legends and transcribing their solos like crazy.
Later on, I got into alternative rock bands such as Radiohead and Muse who had a HUGE influence on me, and are probably the main reason I got into synths. To this day, Radiohead is my favorite band.
I was super impressed by your performance with Utopia. Were you familiar with their catalogue before? How did the rehearsal process go?
Thanks! No, unfortunately I had never heard of Utopia when I was offered the gig. The only Todd song I was familiar with was “Hello It’s Me”. Thankfully, I instantly loved Utopia’s music and had a great time learning the material. I only had 10 days to learn the entire 25 song setlist and program all the sounds, but the music is so amazing that I enjoyed the exausting process. The band’s style(s) are right up my alley, I love the proggy elements and interesting chord progressions but most importantly, the songwriting is simply fantastic. Rehearsals were pretty relaxed, I already knew all the instrumental parts and we had 2 extra weeks to work out the vocal parts.
What were some of your favorite Utopia songs to play, and why?
I always loved playing Communion With The Sun, it’s an extremely well crafted song with incredible harmonies. I also enjoyed a lot of the poppier stuff in the second set such as “Love in Action” and “Hammer in your Heart” because the audience would really get into it, the energy was much higher and we could rock out. Another highlight is “I Will Wait” – a beautifully written ballad with breathtaking vocals from Kasim Sulton.
You’ve spoken a lot about the “business” side of music. What is some advice that you can give to new musicians who are trying to make a name for themselves in 2018?
Keep creating, all the time. Practice, practice, practice – strive to do better every time you make something. Be active on all the social media platforms and release stuff consistently. Making an album nowadays is not as important as releasing content on a regular basis, be it songs, videos, or anything else.
Tell us about your solo project, Glasys.
I played my first solo GLASYS show 2 years ago when I had just moved to the US. I had some songs written and had planned to do the solo thing for a long time, but the timing was never right.
The reason I went solo is because I had all these influences from different genres and I never felt like I could fully express myself in a band situation.
As GLASYS, I can combine all my influences (from classical music to jazz to electronic) and have complete creative freedom. I can create whatever I want, whenever I want. It’s liberating.
Video by John Thompson- features Gil’s decapitated head!
You have a unique gear setup. As a drummer, I’m fascinated by your use of live electronic percussion that you play along with your keyboards. How did that idea develop?
Thank you! The finger drumming thing originally started a few years ago, when I wrote a song that incorporated drum pads that I played with my left hand while playing synth bass simultaneously (using my my left hand thumb on a keyboard rotated 90 degrees). I remember it being sooo difficult to play well that I abandoned the idea for years after that.
That was until last year, when I found a newer Akai keyboard that had built in pads right above the keys, and I decided to give the idea another go. Instead of writing a full song, I wrote 10 short musical ideas that I called “Finger Twisters” and made a video. The video went viral on Facebook and people really seemed to love the idea, which motivated me to further explore the technique. I’ve released many more videos since then and have slowly been improving at the technique, and earlier this year I had a custom instrument built for me by the talented musician/controllerist/engineer Matt Moldover.
You’ve worked with some incredible musicians and artists as well. A recent video of yours even got a shout out from T-Pain. What would be some of your dream collaborations?
I got to spend 2 days in the studio with T-Pain, that was lots of fun for sure and he might eventually release something we made together. My dream collaboration would be with Thom Yorke or Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead, I would also love to create something with Louis Cole or Jacob Collier (who I opened for in Portland last year). Of course I would also love to play more with Todd, Kasim and Willie and maybe even write new music together if they wanted to!
You released an EP, The Pressure, in 2016. (Click here for link to EP) What is on your artistic horizon?
I’m currently working on my first full length album which I hope to release early next year. I also gig as a sideman with a number of acts, most notably the amazing Mexican Mariachi/Pop singer Edna Vazquez.
What invention do you feel like you really need, but hasn’t been developed yet?
A real guitar or bass guitar that I can play with a keyboard. A robot roadie who will carry all my gear for me. 🙂