Girl Talk

Girl Talk
Breaking through with his third album, 2006’s Night Ripper, Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis) reinvigorated dying interest in mash-ups by going the extra mile and mixing 20 or more different tracks to painstakingly construct his own party starters. The energy of his music is unrivalled; it works as both a rundown of today’s hottest hip-hop and top 40 hits, a history lesson on the golden oldies, and one tireless shot of adrenaline. His new album, Feed the Animals, arguably perfects the practice, testing the limits even further, almost doubling the amount of unauthorized samples.

Gillis took time out of his schedule to chat with Exclaim! about his mixing skills, his raucous live shows and why every kind of music fan, including his parents, are succumbing to his across-the-board approach to making music.

How easy is it to mix and edit your music?
It’s completely trial and error for me, I’m not intuitive about it, though I wish I was. I also wish I was more prolific with making the music, but it’s a slow process for me. There’s just an endless supply of pop music that I’m interested in, so I take a look at a song and see if there’s an instrumental segment or an a cappella break I can use. Last night, I was just messing around preparing stuff for the tour, I put on the Kingsmen’s "Louie Louie” and I just edit it, quantize it, find the instrumental parts, figure out what I like, and from there I just catalogue it and basically forget about it. And I do that for a bunch of songs…

How do you go about finding the songs you sample? Do you keep a list or go through your collection to find stuff?
I’ve been writing it down a lot. I don’t collect digital music, but I do collect physical music, so it’s very hard for me to look at a CD or a piece of vinyl and say, ‘Well what do I want to sample?’ So, I’m always text-messaging myself if I’m in the supermarket, or if I’m in the car I have a pen and pad to write it down, and I have a list of songs on my desktop that I mean to get to.

Do you ever ask people for suggestions?
Yeah, I do, especially from my friends. I like that, because I can use all the help I can get. I don’t think it’s difficult to identify a cool part in a song. And that’s basically all it takes for something to sample. A lot of people on MySpace hit me up, and those suggestions are all over the board, reflections of what those people are listening to.

The music you sample is very commercial. Do you find that music lends itself best to what you create?
I’m open to sampling anything, but in general I like to keep it within the top 40 spectrum, I like to play with familiar ideas, take songs people recognize and make something new out of them.

I’ve noticed at your shows that your audience is very broad – you seem to appeal to any kind of music fan. Why do you think that is?
People have different angles of liking it, which I’ve noticed. My parents are into it and they don’t necessarily follow what’s current in hip-hop, but they are fans of all things pop, so they’re interested in that level. And there are more underground music-minded people who don’t listen to the mainstream as much, they really like to hear it manipulated. I can relate to that because that’s basically how I got into this. I liked hearing more underground artists like Negativland manipulate pop. And then there are people who just really like dancing and mainstream music, top 40 and hip-hop, and I can relate to that as well.

What made you decide to release the album online so far in advance of the CD?
This is my first album where I had a fan base waiting for it, anticipation, I’ve never had that. So I finished it and put it online the week that it was done. Just the morning I uploaded it and had people get back to me, passing it around and there being a million blog reactions, that was cool, like the last day of school or Christmas morning. It was on that level.

I have to admit, I'm amazed that you haven't run into problems with Girl Talk's music. If this was ten or even 20 years ago, I don't think it would be the same, judging by artists like the KLF who had their music censored. Do you think citing fair use and running with it is just a sign of the times we're in right now? What do you think the turning point was?
Just based on the history of it, with the KLF, John Oswald, Danger Mouse, there’s just such a history of people making a small dent in the underground with sample-based music and then having issues with copyright. I believe in all of those artists and I don’t think the internet has changed my perspective that I think you can make transformative music out of samples and I think you can release it without giving $10 million to every one you sample. But I think the internet and the idea of becoming interactive with media and sharing ideas has really helped make the viewpoint of the public swing. I just think everyone has become so used to remixes existing, a cappellas, y’know, Radiohead and Kanye West release the stems from their tracks, every song gets remixed and put up on YouTube, it’s become so commonplace that people are used to this idea of having things remixed, not being a problem financially but more or less being viral marketing that helps on their end. It’s a definite sign of the times that an album like mine can be reviewed in Rolling Stone and then we don’t hear a cease and desist.

What would you do if you weren’t able to do Girl Talk anymore?
If we were sued, we’d actually take it to court and fight it, and if we won I’d definitely keep on making music… but even if we lost, I don’t think it’d stop making music. I don’t know where I stand on how I’d release it to the public or gung ho I’d be about putting it on the internet or a CD, but in the early days I was making this music for the fun of it. Then I stumbled upon a label that was into it and able to release it, so I think in the worst case scenario, if I was in a prison cell and they were not allowing this music to be heard by anyone, I would still make the music and I would still try to put it out. I can’t ever see myself stop making the music. It’s not really a business but a passion for me. I think everyone sees the value in this and that it’s not actually trying to create any sort of competition for the source material.

You're adamant that people come and join you up on stage and surround you. I saw Dan Deacon open for you in Toronto where he played in the crowd and there was a moment where the crowd interfered. Isn't inviting people to party around you just asking for some kind of mishap?
I like giving that power to the people, I like it being on the verge of being shut down. I don’t like it when my power cord gets unplugged, but if it does it feels live and for me it feels like a house party. I like the people to be a visual part of the show. I party every night and it’s a lot more fun if I have someone to dance with.

How often would you say laptops and tables get broken?
I broke three laptops last year, and I’d have to say I average breaking 15 to 20 tables each year. I’ve never had a table snap while I stood on top of it, but a lot of times the legs give out when people lean on them. I’ve had a few amazing shows where a couple tough, hardcore fans in the front row have held the table for the duration.