BIBI McGILL-Beyonce's Musical Director
BIBI McGILL-Beyonce's Guitarist/Musical Director
by Greg Phillips (pic by Ros O'Gorman)
Amid a storm of spotlights, smoke and confetti, there she stood ... the unmistakable silhouette of Beyonce Knowles. Less than 48 hours earlier she had graced the screens of almost every news bulletin in the world rescuing Taylor Swift's dignity from the villainous Kanye West at the MTV Video awards in New York. Tonight kicking off with the familiar funky grooves of 'Crazy in Love', the Australian leg of Beyonce's 'I Am ...' tour had begun in style.
The A list tour is one of the world's highest grossing, and the Rod Laver Arena crowd even featured an A list celebrity to match. Hollywood's Katie Holmes was seen with daughter Suri in the mixing desk enclosure watching in awe as the massive production unfolded featuring ten piece band, Imax-like screen and several highly athletic dancers.
At approximately the same time Beyonce was consoling Swift (and also winning the MTV award for Video of the Year), her all-female band was already in Melbourne preparing for the Australian tour. Calling the shots as musical director is Portland based guitarist Bibi McGill. Bibi came to the Beyonce band with a reputation built on successful tours with Pink, the 'Mexican Madonna' Paulina Rubio, and Chilean superstars La Ley. On stage Bibi is a ball of energy, laying down some very slick licks while keeping one eye out for any unexpected mishaps (such as Beyonce's well publicised wardrobe malfunction which required the band to play an inordinate amount of time on the same four bars while the star sorted her clothing problem). Australian Musician's Greg Phillips sat down with Bibi to chat about her career and discuss her role in Beyonce show.
You picked up the guitar at age twelve I believe ?
I would hear music and just pick up a broomstick or whatever and play it like a guitar. I didn't think anyone was noticing, but my dad asked me if I wanted to play guitar. I thought, yeah! So they put me into guitar lessons and that's how it happened.
Were your mum and dad musical ?
No, but my mum's dad was very musical. He played everything. But back in the south in those days, it wasn't realistic for them to pursue a career in music because you had to make a living for the family. My older brother and sister both play classical piano.
Anything in the record collection in the early days that stands out to you ?
I remember my parents took us all to the store to buy an album and the first one I bought was The Eagles Greatest Hits.
As you got into your teens and were getting better on the guitar, who were your influences ?
Early seventies music, because my brother and sister were listening to that. As far as finding my own thing, definitely Heart, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple more hard rock really and it got heavier and heavier.
Have you got to meet Nancy Wilson from Heart ?
I haven't. From what I know she doesn't live too far away. She's in Seattle and I'm in Portland, so hopefully one day. That would be like, wow! She is a really huge influence on me.
And Randy Rhodes was another influence. Why Randy ?
Having lessons while I was quite young, I was trained, but also liked rock music. It's kind of a contradiction because a lot of rock players weren't trained. It's like 4 chords and some blues riffs. So when I discovered Randy Rhodes and learned about his classical background and how he was able to read music and teach. That fit in what i was doing. I was going to college and studying scoring and arranging. I was drawn to his technical side as opposed to Yngwie Malmsteen who is way too technical for me or Jimi Hendrix who at the time I thought was sloppy! I don't think that anymore. I'm trying to be sloppy like that.
How important was your formal training to what you do now ?
I'm sure it helped in some way. I spent four and a half years there, learned a lot. But then when I left, I kind of did my own thing. I'm sure it has come into play here and there. It helped train my ear. If I wanted to write out music for different instruments whether it be strings or horns, I can do that. So it was helpful, but not in a very significant way because what I do mostly, is play by ear.
Then you shifted to LA and played the Sunset Strip clubs. Difficult days ?
Really hard times but I was following a dream, but difficult times. It's funny. I started out in a Christian heavy metal band when I first moved there. Then I was trying to find my own direction. It's so hard to be in your own band, start from the ground up, pound the pavement, play the clubs, get rejected by the record companies, you know, all that stuff. You stop and you think, maybe I should be a songwriter. Maybe I should be a hired gun. So I started playing with any group that would pay me. Forty dollars sometimes and have to drive an hour to get there, but that's what you have to do. It all developed from there.
Then in 2001 you got the Pink gig.
It was my first big gig and it just happened like that (snapping fingers), completely unexpected.
What did you learn from the experience ?
That it's a lot of hard work, but that was an extremely exciting gig. I mean, Pink ... her personality, she's young and a lot of fun. I learn different things from different groups. But it's a lot of hard work. You have to stay focussed and take care of yourself.
Between Pink and Beyonce, who have you played with ?
After Pink I somehow got into the Latin music. All of the big Latin bands. Paulina Rubio was looking for a female guitarist. I toured with her for a year and a half. She's like the Mexican Madonna. So I did all the same things with her as I did with Pink ... the Jay Lenos, Saturday Night Live ... so everyone saw me and I got all of these calls from Latin bands. I got a call from a group of guys from Chile called La Ley, who are modern rock, a bit like the U2 of latin music. I was the only girl, only American so I got to see all of Latin America which is a completely different thing.
How did the Beyonce gig come about ?
After three years with La Ley I was kind of burnt on touring. I took a year off and taught yoga, and wasn't going to go back on he road again. Then I got a phone call saying Beyonce is looking for an all female band, you should go. I was like, 'no way, I'm teaching yoga. Don't you understand? Click!' The same day I kept getting emails and phone calls. I was going argh ... stop calling me. Then late at night my dad called me, a little old guy from Denver Colorado, a barber. He said somebody called for you from New York, Beyonce or someone. He didn't even know who that was. So I thought, OK I'll go to the audition, for my dad. When I did go, I was really excited. When I got there I there was this line of people at eight in the morning waiting for this audition and I knew it was the right thing.
You're the musical director and a guitarist. That role traditionally goes to a keyboard player...
Yes typically it is a keyboard player that can play all the parts, all the vocals, all the horns. I can't necessarily do all that. I was told by the creative director that I was chosen for my experience. I was the only one who had done an A list tour. They thought I was mature and peaceful and would be able to carry out what was wanted for a pop artist gig. I mean I am, but it is not what I signed up for. I just wanted to play guitar, not be the one to tell everyone what time they have to be there, being responsible to give the cue for the stage to rise, being responsible if Beyonce wants to change something in the middle of the show, figuring it out and talking in my mic to everyone who has in-ears and making it look seamless. That's what I have to do.
The reason I mention that it is odd that the guitarist is the musical director is because there isn't a lot of guitar in her music.
Totally! Her new album has more guitar on it but the previous album, that we did for the Experience tour, the B'Day album .. there is no guitar on that album. It's all key-guitar, which was really cool for me because I got to come into the situation, write my own guitar parts and do what I wanted to do. She has never said she didn't like it, so that was really cool.
And because you are the only guitarist, you get to play lead, and rhythm and acoustic ...
Yeah, I got to learn to play acoustic guitar because I never really did much of that in the past. I am an electric player. It's a different instrument.
Did you have a hand in hiring band members once you were given the MD job ?
When I auditioned, all the other parts, the players were picked at the same time. So Beyonce, with the help of the Creative Director Kim Burse picked the band.
So once the band was picked and the tour scheduled, what was the rehearsal regime from there ?
During the rehearsals with Kim and Beyonce, they kind of knew what they wanted. A lot of stuff we did was done on previous Destiny's Child tours but as a band, we also given creative input to come up with transitions and ideas. After the rehearsals it was my responsibility to take all that out on the road and make sure it was carried out. You know, the drummers aren't playing too may noes and everyone is playing what they are supposed to play.
With a show like this there has to be an element of sequencing, where is that being triggered from ?
We have a programmer backstage who triggers whatever needs to be triggered. On her albums as you know, it's a massive production, so there 4,5, 6 keyboard parts, tons of vocals. So we play live with that and there is a great deal played live because it's a ten piece band. But in order for it to sound full, we need to trigger the things that ten people can't play.
With so much going on around you, apart from musical cues, what else to you have to be aware of ?
Watching her. Like the wardrobe malfunction for instance, where I had to tell everybody to keep playing. Keep playing, just vamp on these four bars. Meanwhile I am looking and thinking, what's going on. You know, if the video doesn't come up, or whatever can possibly go wrong I have to keep an eye open for it... everywhere, as well as worry about my own playing.
And who are you in touch with on stage during the show ?
I can speak to every single musician on stage as well as our programmer, the people who look after the in-ears, and most of the production people. There are at least five or six key people I have to be able to communicate with.
[/b]What's the worst thing that has happened on the tour ?[/b]
You know it has been pretty good so far. The scariest thing was the wardrobe malfunction and she wasn't able to come to the stage. So the time she was supposed to be there singing, we didn't hear her. So we didn't know what the hell was going on. So there was a bit of panic, but we just played it off and it was fine.
What does she ask of you as a band ?
To play things like the record. It's a pop show and for most people that's what they want to hear, what they hear on the record. Of course, add a little of our own feeling and vibe but just have fun. She wants us to enjoy the show.
Playing in a show where you have to concentrate on so many things other than playing ... after the show do you feel like just going out to a club and shredding ?
Yes ... well no. No. Usually I just want to go back to my hotel room and rest and chill. A lot of the girls in the band like to get out and jam. One time I thought OK, I'll go with them. So I went and jammed and I was like, oh my god I am playing. I'm really playing and I am vibing. That doesn't happen so much when you are on a stage that is this big and it's like 'hey over there'. It's cool but it is different to being right next to your amp and the bass drum is just there. It's a different vibe. Even my own band members were going, wow we didn't know you could play like that. So now I'm like I gotta jam more.
What guitars are you using in this show ?
For this tour I am using a Gibson Dive Bomber but it's got a custom sparkle gold finish and it's got a Floyd Rose on it and a locking nut. It's kinda old school, you don't see a lot of Floyd Roses. When I started playing guitar Floyd Rose and Kahler were really big. So it took me back to when I really enjoy doing those old school things I used to. I'm also using a Flying V. The action is fairly low but I'm up to elevens (string gauge) now because I can't get the punch and the attack from anything else. Gibson have been a strong supporter of Bibi McGill since 2001.
What amps are you using ?
I use Line 6. When I started playing with Pink, I used Vox and Marshall. When I started with Beyonce because we don't use speakers or amps on stage. I have a great guitar tech Sean O'Brien. I don't have to do anything. I just tell him what I need. He researches it and so I am using a Line 6 which is a mod type deal. It allows me to control all of my guitars whether it's acoustic electric or the pedals.
With Pink I had an endorsement with Ovation. Then with Paulina I had an endorsement with Taylor, which I still have. This last year though, because I need to switch from acoustic to electric, and I can't have my guitar tech on stage. Not with this show, so I need to switch quickly. I can play an electric, 6 string or 12 string guitar all on the Vari axe Line 6 guitar just by switching the pedal and it sounds very real.
Are you big on effects ?
I wasn't before, but you kind of have to be when you are playing with A list artists. I used to plug in and play and maybe have a distortion and wah pedal but now you gotta layer. It's been fun but again playing with the effects is like learning a new instrument.
What do you enjoy apart from music ?
I'm doing yoga every day. Yoga is the only thing that keeps me from going crazy or killing people or quitting. If I am not playing with Beyonce I am chilling in my garden or hiking and I don't want to worry about calling people up, and trying to get a deal. I'm really into gardening. I wanted a yard and a garden, that's all I wanted. I've got corn to tomatoes to eggplant, watermelon and a 25 pound squash.