If you’ve ever been to a BIGBANG concert, you know what it means to be entertained. That’s thanks not just to BIGBANG, but also to the musicians on stage behind them. At the helm of the BIGBANG band you’ll find Gil Smith II. As the Music Director for YG Entertainment, Gil is in charge of every remix, arrangement, and set list you hear when you attend a BIGBANG or 2NE1 concert. Having worked with the world’s biggest superstars in the West (think Lil Wayne, Drake, Lady Gaga, and more), Gil Smith II has established himself as one of the most sought-after live music directors and producers in the industry.
Now, he’s made his way east to make sure that anyone who attends a YG artist’s concert, walks away with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Gil took the time to chat with moonROK Editor-in-Chief Hannah Waitt about what it’s like to work and tour with Kpop’s biggest artists, adapting to cultural differences, Kpop’s global appeal, and new acts that he has his eye on.
Did you know anything about Kpop before you started working with YG Entertainment?
Absolutely nothing! Once I found out about YG, I started doing my research. But it wasn’t until we actually arrived in Korea when we knew how huge Kpop really was. The whole thing was surreal.
How did you come to work as the Music Director for YG Entertainment?
A good friend who’s an icon in the music industry referred me. So glad I got the call!
You have worked with the world’s biggest performers — Lady Gaga, Lil Wayne, Britney Spears, Drake, Chris Brown, etc. — what is it that initially attracted you to Kpop?
What attracted me on a genuine level was the amount of hard work and dedication that goes into every performance, every interview, every photo shoot, every song from the creation to the live performance. It’s embedded into the culture, and there is no doubt that each star is much deserving of their success.
As a follow up, what is it about Kpop that keeps you coming back?
Oh, I’m a fan now…haha. I’ll always be involved in Kpop in some way, shape or form. With that said, I feel extremely blessed to work with YG Entertainment and be a part of their concerts team. Since 2012 we’ve worked with BIGBANG, 2NE1, iKON, WINNER, Epik High, Lee Hi, Akdong Musician as well as solo projects with Psy and GD & Taeyang. Working with these amazing artists is what keeps me coming back!
Korean culture can often be difficult for foreigners to adapt to — did you find that there were any cultural hurdles you had to overcome working with a Korean record label or their artists?
Our experience is that it has been very welcoming! As soon as we met the YG team and BIGBANG at our first rehearsal we immediately connected by working together to accomplish one common goal – at that time it was the vision for the “ALIVE” tour. Since then, they have embraced us as part of the family and make it a point for us to all do something together in each city, like dinners or going out after the show.
What are the biggest differences between working with Western artists and working with Kpop artists?
Kpop artists’ tour schedules almost never end! Most American artists have a touring season and then they go back in the studio to record sometimes for 6 months or more. With Kpop artists, it’s almost as if they have it down to a science, where they’re able to create new music without ever skipping a beat in terms of live performances. I love that model!
You recently directed BIGBANG’s 10-year anniversary concert, “0 to 10.” With such a huge catalog of hits spanning 10 years, how do you decide which songs to perform at the show? How do you balance the old hits with the new material?
What makes touring with BIGBANG so fun, is that each tour is different. The method of how songs are chosen and performed can change depending on the type of tour. For example, for the Japan Dome ‘X’ Tour, the boys wanted to take familiar songs like “Love Song” and “How Gee” and have fun with them, so as the music director, my job is to take that idea and create new arrangements of many of their songs. For the 10th anniversary concert that was a very personal show – a ‘thank you’ to the fans for rocking with them all of these years, from “0 to 10”. I think they did an amazing job of balancing old with new records…and it’s a tough job when you have a catalogue spanning ten years!
Each of the members of BIGBANG have had very successful solo careers both at home in Korea and abroad in Japan. How do you balance group performances with solo ones?
Well there’s always a way to make it happen. Sometimes we’ll be in rehearsal for one tour, and have to find an hour or two to rehearse or record something for one of the member’s solo shows. You have to get it in where you can!
When planning concert there is so much to take into account in addition to the music — lighting and pyro effects, stage design, outfit changes, choreography — where do you start? Do your decisions affect the stage design team, or is it the other way around?
This is the fun stuff! I could go on for days about this, but I’ll give you the short version: It starts with the creative concept from the artists and artist management. Then we create the music and that is what we call “the show”. Video, lights, dancers, pyro, all create their parts to the concept and the music. Through the rehearsal process we all work together to make any changes as we go to make sure we are putting on the best show possible!
You’ve traveled the world with the BIGBANG members — do you find that certain songs are more popular in certain countries than others? Why do think that is?
Yes, definitely. Some songs, fans are universally crazy about, like “Fantastic Baby” and “Haru Haru”. I can assume that we’ll perform those two songs no matter what. When we go to other countries they have their own favorites – like “Gara Gara Go” and “Koe Wo Kikasete” that are recorded exclusively for Japan.
What are your favorite songs by BIGBANG and 2NE1 to perform live and why?
Wow….with BIGBANG, because I’ve been with them for almost 5 years, there are a few! “Haru Haru” for sure. “Love Song”, “Loser”, and “Doom Dada” are also some of my favs. For 2NE1 – “Come Back Home”, hands down. Takes me back to my Caribbean roots!
How involved were the BIGBANG members themselves in the production processes for their concerts?
They’re extremely involved, and it’s great because it’s like having 5 music geniuses helping to create the best two and a half hours possible. Anyone who comes to the show will see and hear such a variety that they’ll always be entertained, and they’ll walk away with a look inside each member’s mind.
Many of the members of BIGBANG — most notably G-Dragon — are very involved with the production and composition of their music. Did you ever find it hard to balance the artist’s opinion with your own when it came to putting the concert together?
Not at all. At the end of the day, it’s not my show. As their music director I’m here to help their visions come to life. We have other clients who leave the entire tour to our creative discretion, and that’s fun in its own way. However, there’s nothing like having the artists’ input and involvement in their show, as much as possible. It makes for the best production possible at the end of the day.
The members of BIGBANG are notorious pranksters — any funny stories about the members from the tour that you can share with us?
Haha…I’m laughing just thinking of some stories now. But, I won’t be the one to tell!
You’ve directed concerts for both BIGBANG and 2NE1 — what were some of the differences you had to take into consideration between the two groups?
Both groups are amazing performers and professionals in their craft, so they know the level of show experience they want to create for their fans. It really just comes down to every individual artist’s creative process. When conceptualizing a show they have different artistic visions, goals, and ideas on how to bring their music to life on stage – and that is where we come in, to make sure that happens!
You also helmed G-Dragon’s “One of a Kind” tour — what were some of the major differences between directing a show for a solo artist and one for a group?
It wasn’t too different putting together G-Dragon’s “One of a Kind” tour. It was a really amazing experience for me, because I got to bond with GD, and understand his artistry a lot more. We also found a way to showcase his versatility as a producer and artist on stage which is something really unique in touring.
If you had the opportunity to work with any other Kpop group, who would you pick? YG Entertainment has a number of newly debuted artists (BLACKPINK, iKON, WINNER) that already have a large following. Having worked with the biggest acts in Kpop, if you could give these younger artists one piece of career advice, what would it be?
I’d absolutely love to work with iKON and WINNER again. Love those guys. Also, I will be one of the first to say it – BLACKPINK is the real deal! Love their singles and love what they’re doing. I haven’t met them yet, but I would really love to work with them in the near future! If I could give younger artists one piece of career advice, it would have to revolve around a mixture of hard work, persistence and faith. Once you realize you have talent, work those three things as if your life depended on it…LITERALLY.
What is the ultimate goal when directing concerts of such a huge scale? Is there a specific emotion or experience that you want the audience to take away from the show?
Absolutely. Ultimately I want the audience to walk away being able to have multiple favorite parts of the show. I want them to be taken on a musical and emotional journey…a memorable sonic experience that they can hold on to forever.
Having worked in the live concert industry for so long, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the Kpop industry?
It’s amazing to be a part of different movements and watch them grow. A few years ago when I came on board as the music director for Lil’ Wayne, I was fortunate enough to be involved in and see first hand his rise as one of Hip Hop’s greatest, and also help him take new artists like Nicki Minaj and Drake and turn them into superstars. I never expected to experience anything like that again in my career. However, I’m watching the Hallyu movement and the rise of Kpop into the western world and the world in general, and it’s truly amazing. To see artists like Jill Scott tweet our band’s Twitter account about coming to a BIGBANG show, or talking to Drake’s manager and he knows who G-Dragon is, those things are truly amazing. Kpop is taking the world by storm. It’s something that I’m able to again witness first hand, and it’s like watching a movie!
Do you have any exciting projects coming up (Kpop or otherwise) that you can tell us about?
Yes! We’re prepping for BIGBANG’s upcoming Japan Dome Tour. Japan is an amazing place, so we’re excited to spend some time there and put on a great show. Also, I just signed a new Pop/Urban band to my company SAGA Entertainment that I’m currently developing, and I’m really excited about them. We are in the recording process now and will be releasing music early 2017, so stay tuned!