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Features

TALKIN’ SHOP

A Conversation with GREGG GILLIS a.k.a. GIRL TALK

By Tyler Malone

June 2011

A Girl Talk show is the ultimate party. Hands down. Ask anyone who has been to one. There are few events that are more fun, and few occasions where you’ll feel more uninhibited. Even if you don’t like dancing, I guarantee you’ll be shaking your hips, or at the very least tapping your feet. And if you aren’t smiling at a Girl Talk show, you’re a stone. If you haven’t seen him, and can somehow find a way to get tickets, I recommend you check out the Governor’s Ball Music Festival this Saturday, June 18th, at Governor’s Island in NYC (where he is headlining).

The first time I saw him perform was at Coachella years ago. I think it was 2007, not long after his album Night Ripper came out and he exploded onto the music scene. I remember listening to Notorious B.I.G. rapping over some Elton John piano and seeing Paris Hilton dancing on stage and having balloons bobbing over the crowd and feeling as though I had stumbled into the coolest and most exclusive party of the year. Everyone was smiling, everyone was dancing, everyone was sweaty. Coachella is hot enough without being a sardine in a metaphorical tin can (aka festival tent), but it wasn’t a problem. Perspiration was par for the course. No one was worried about the heat or the sweat or anything, everyone was just glad they had a ticket to the hottest party of the year. That same feeling returned when I saw him a couple years later at the Bowery Ballroom.

Even the most jaded hipster can’t help but tap his feet to Girl Talk tunes, and generally said hipster’ll be tapping his foot to beats he’d otherwise look down upon (or perhaps only like ironically). Girl Talk takes pop music–the good, the bad and the ugly–and puts it in a blender, and it comes out the other side as the greatest mega-mashup milkshake ever. Of course, that is simplifying his process. He isn’t just a DJ who throws some songs together and hopes for the best; he crafts unique and original songs out of the pieces of other songs. He doesn’t just play other people’s songs, he creates his own. There are lots of mashup artists, but there is only one Girl Talk. Before the Governor’s Ball show, I decided to sit down and talk shop with Girl Talk himself: Gregg Gillis.

Tyler Malone: How’s your tour going so far?

Gregg Gillis: Good. I mean, I tour most of the year so it’s kind of like an ongoing four year tour. I’m home for about twelve days right now, just got done with about two weeks, so yeah, it’s all good. Last week kicked off festival season and that was fun.

TM: So when you’re making your next album are you doing that all while you’re on tour or is there ever a time when you have a break to just focus on that?

GG: Yeah, a little bit. I’ve been averaging putting out a record about once every two years so typically when I’m on the road I’m always working on new material, but it’s more focused on being for the live show. So even this week now at home, I’ll work on music today, and I wont really be considering the next album so much. It’ll be more in terms of preparing new stuff for next week’s show, and then when I get a little down time I’ll be thinking about the following week’s show. That is kind of the cycle I’ve been on, where I’m always preparing new material for the live show, and eventually I’ll hit a point where I have enough new material in front of me, and I think it’s heading in a new direction specific enough to make a whole new record with that particular sound. So right now I’m nowhere near actually considering working on the next record. I might hit that point in a year or maybe more. It’s hard to say.

TM: So are the live shows a test for you? A place for you to try out these new ideas and new material and see what works?

GG: Yeah, it’s a test…and also, I have a number of fans who will travel to shows and I feel like the fans want to hear new stuff. When the new song comes out with the crazy Busta Rhymes verse on the Chris Brown track, I feel like a lot of Girl Talk fans want to hear what I am gonna do with that. Or when a new Katy Perry song comes out they want to see what I’ll do with that.

TM: Right. You’re constantly incorporating new stuff and evolving it.

GG: So it’s definitely a test. But it is also just what people expect out of me. That being said, it’s not always about new material. A lot of times I’ll be fiddling around with something old, and just playing around with something off a record from six years ago, and maybe kind of doing a reinterpretation of that. Sometimes I find something I really like that’s based on older material that will never be on another record because I’ve already sampled that particular song. But a live show is a good chance to both test out new material and to reinterpret old material. It’s kind of this constant give-and-take. It’s definitely, like you say though, about trying out new things. Sometimes I’ll play something one show and that might be it. I might not like the way it came across. Maybe the response wasn’t the best. A lot of times I’ll play something and it really gives me a gauge of: “Oh I need to change that in some way.” I’ll need to change where it falls in the set or change the production on it or try something different with it.

TM: So would you never use the same song over again that you’ve already used on a record?

GG: As far as on future records?

TM: Yeah…

GG: Yeah, that’s a general rule for me. I mean, I have done it, and I will do it, but only when I use it in really distinctly different ways. There’s been things where I use an acapella source from one song, just the vocals, and maybe on a future record I’ll use part of the instrumental. Things that are completely removed. Maybe there’s been a couple songs that I’ve sampled and just used in different ways, but in general that is a rule I put down that I am not gonna reuse that idea again. At least not in the same way. Sometimes I’ll have sampled a melody from a record, and then I use a really great drumfill from it that’ll work as a two second transition that will sound nothing like the melody and I’ll feel like it’s okay to use that drumfill as a transition if it is, again, concretely different.

TM: Besides that rule you impose on yourself, are there any other guidelines you use as to what songs you can or can’t use? Do you have specific songs you would NEVER use?

GG: Yeah, I like to work within the Top 40 spectrum. I get outside of that occasionally. I’ll sample outside of the Top 40 only with songs that I think are really well-known and famous on a different level. Things like Fugazi’s “Waiting Room” was never in the Top 40, but I feel like that is a really important song culturally, and people know it. Or Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” and things like that.

TM: Yeah, that’s a great song. And great music video too.

GG: Yeah, but in general I listen to a lot of different music, from pop music to more underground stuff, but the Girl Talk project has always been about embracing pop music and sampling things that are familiar. It’s not even about sampling music that everyone loves, but sampling music that everyone has heard.

TM: Right. Let’s take that point and run with it. I’m not sure how I want to word this, but I guess what I’d say is there are certain songs that you’ve sampled in Girl Talk records, or when I’ve seen you live, that in their own right I might not be the biggest fan of, but after you’ve reconstituted them and placed them in a completely different context, I’m often able to find something I like about them. Is that a reaction you like? And do you love all the songs you sample yourself? Or do they just work for that song or that moment in a song?

GG: I do love all the music I sample. Naturally, there is a varying scale though. I love certain songs more than others. But there’s so much pop music out there that I don’t feel like I have to spend the time sampling something I don’t like. There are times though when I might not think there’s anything that interesting to sample in a specific song at length, but there is a great snare sound or something. So maybe in that instance I just sample that snare sound. The stuff I’m using vocal lines of and melodies of, I am a fan of, but I don’t expect everyone to be a fan of. To me it is always the greatest of compliments to hear from people who may hate a lot of the source material, and maybe don’t even like pop music, but they like what I’m doing.

TM: Right.

GG: The goal is to make something new, make something transformative. I don’t want to just be playing any of these songs, I want to be more or less using them as source material to make something else, something new. But yes, I am an active pop fan, and in general I am pretty open-minded about music. I don’t think there are too many things I heavily dislike, especially in the pop scale. I think for me, you know, I try to respect each artist’s intentions. I think you have to evaluate Kelly Clarkson on a slightly different level than Sonic Youth because they have different intentions behind what they’re going for. But in general, yes, I love all the music I sample.

TM: I think that is something interesting about your music though, something I love about it. You brought up Kelly Clarkson and Sonic Youth, and though I agree with you that they are doing different things and have different intentions, from another perspective, you know, music is music, and it is all kind of doing a similar thing. I love how your records come off. They act as a bridge of sorts, where you can see that all music is, in some way, the same thing.

GG: Right, yeah. I think the walls in between music are created by critics and skeptics and people who are insecure with themselves who have to label this as great and this as horrible. For me, all this music does exist on the same level. I think there’s just many different ways to go about music. With any art project you do, you choose how you want to be interpreted. You may want to come off as very smart/serious/artistic, or you may want to come off as a very fun party person, or you may want to come off as this or that. Just because you want to come off as smart though doesn’t necessarily make your music smart. Just because you want to make simple music or party music or whatever, doesn’t mean your music is shallow. There are very smart ways to do party music–very progressive and interesting ways to do everything.

TM: What do you think of yourself as? How do you want to be interpreted? As a serious artist making art or as a party person making fun music or somewhere in between? Do you see your music as art or entertainment or both?

GG: You know, a little bit of everything. I think if I said just art, that’d make me sound a little too pretentious. I am definitely trying to make fun music absolutely, but that is one interesting thing about this project: it can be interpreted on many levels. That’s the kind of music I like too. I like music that be interpreted on many levels, where it can be something that can be very surface level and you don’t have to think about it and it is just accessible and enjoyable and fun. At the same time, if you want to look on the conceptual side of it, and cut it apart, it is very involved. To me that’s the Beatles, that’s Dr. Dre, that’s everything. And that’s my goal as well. I want people to be able to party to it, but if people want to break it down, I do think there is a very conceptual edge to it. I do want compositionally for it to be different than other things. I think that is why people caught on to what I was doing. Obviously this didn’t come out of thin air, there are influences for it and it relates to many other things that came before it. But when Night Ripper came out in 2006, I was trying to make a record that didn’t really sound like anything else–

TM: And it didn’t.

GG: And I think that’s why people were drawn to it. And hopefully I am still doing that. Each record I keep wanting to make something that relates to the last record but is also continually moving forward.

TM: Something new and unlike anything else–original–but constructed from other sources.

GG: And I like playing with that idea of originality, where people can debate all day that this is the “end of music,” the “worst thing that ever happened to music,” and other people think it’s the “future of music.” To me that is really exciting. Lines can be drawn. People can love this. People can hate this. It is definitely the kind of music where you can really intellectualize it if you want to, you can dissect it, and I’ve seen it done, but at the same time you can go to a show and see a bunch of young people getting wasted and going crazy to it. And to me that is exactly where I want it to be.

TM: In the New York Times article about you recently, they mentioned Andy Warhol in relation to you. Obviously, both of you are from Pittsburgh, PA, but it seems like a lot of what you are saying you are doing in music is similar to what he was doing in visual art. On the one hand, his art can be appreciated at the surface level, and on the other, it can be deeply intellectualized. I do see that connection between you two. Do you see that connection? And what are your thoughts on what people have made of it?

GG: Yeah. It’s funny because my earliest records were very experimental. The emphasis back then was definitely on the conceptual side. The earliest bands I was in, even prior to doing Girl Talk, were noise bands. They were experimental bands where the whole point was challenging the whole essence of music–pushing buttons and challenging people to think in different ways. That is what I grew up on. I didn’t grow up playing Rolling Stones covers in a garage on a guitar. You know, I always came from a conceptual side, challenging what music could be. So I definitely see the parallels there. As I’ve grown I’ve become more comfortable with making something more accessible, but the earliest records definitely weren’t like that, so I think back then it was more apparent that there was that conceptual side of this. I do think a lot of people who look at the project now maybe miss a little bit of where it came from, which is fine by me. I don’t expect everyone to know the history of it, but I think when you look back, those connections or similarities to other artists who are focused on a more conceptional side, and trying to challenge what could be considered art or music, I think that is a bit more apparent in the early days.

TM: Do you see Girl Talk lasting a long time or do you think you’ll go off and do different projects in the near future?

GG: Yeah, I see this lasting a long time, but I’d like it to take on different shapes and forms.

TM: Still under the Girl Talk moniker?

GG: Well, right now, I’ve been on a cycle of touring and putting out records and pretty active with that. I think when I get to the point where that gets too exhausting or I’m tired of it or wanna move on, I would like to keep the name Girl Talk and keep working on sample-based music, but maybe in a different way. I especially feel comfortable with that based on where this came from to where it is now. For six years, this project was so much of a different world than what it is now. So if it gets back to me making slightly more obscure records or less successful stuff or touring less, and maybe only a certain chunk of the fanbase will be into it, I’ll be fine with that. It would still be me, and this has been my title for sample-based music. I feel like there’s a whole world to explore. At this point, I love what I’m doing and I’m really interested in the music I’m making, but at the same time there’s a lot of stuff I would love to be toying with that I feel I don’t have time for. I think this project can take on many shapes and forms. I want to continue the evolution. I don’t want it to just be the “Girl Talk Party-To-Go Series” where I just put a record out every two years and tour on it and that’s that. I want the project to keep moving forward and I never want it to get stale.

TM: About samples, do you ever fear getting sued? I know you don’t clear your samples, right?

GG: It’s definitely a concern. I believe in what I am doing, and I believe it should qualify under “fair use” in United States copyright law. I don’t know if “fear” is the best word. I don’t want to go to court because I don’t want my time sucked up. I would rather concentrate on the music. So I don’t want it to happen. But if it were to happen, I would have to step up. This is what I’ve been doing for years now–releasing music the way I do and doing the music I do. Naturally, regardless of what you say in public, you’re implying a certain ideal about copyright law and I feel I’d have to stand up for that.

TM: That makes sense.

GG: You know, it’s something where when I was getting started I listened to a lot of other records that were sampling music without permission, and all that stuff was kind of floating around on the underground. So when I put out my first couple records I really never expected anyone other than a few hundred people to hear it. It was such a small subculture of people doing this. So when it finally did blow up, and I started to make it into national magazines and I started playing bigger shows, it definitely was an active concern then. I was like: “Okay, everything’s changed now, it’s on a larger scale, am I going to have a problem?” And when that happened, around 2006, just about every media source I talked to and every review from Rolling Stone to the blogs, they were all like: “He’s potentially going to be sued by thousands of people.” That was the story back then. But nothing happened. I kept touring, and things kept growing larger. I put out another record. And now it’s five years later, and it’s still growing, and I’ve had no problems. So I do have to say that at this point I feel better about it. So many people have said “lawsuit waiting to happen” or this or that, and nothing has happened. I believe in what I’m doing, and I don’t believe it is negatively impacting anyone. I do think my work is transformative. I don’t think I’m creating competition for anyone. At this point I feel better about it, better than I did in 2006. I’ve interacted with so many different people at major labels and managers for people and now a lot of these people are trying to collaborate more or less. There are people trying to get me to remix their back-catalogue or sending me acapellas and instrumentals of their new artists and things like that. That’s always a good sign too, it seems people don’t really see an issue with what I’m doing and are now trying to more or less work with me.

TM: Yeah, that seems like it’s moving in a positive direction. I have one last question and then I’ll let you go. Would you humor me in giving me your top five favorite artists? Or, it doesn’t have to be five, but who are some of your favorite favorites?

GG: All time favorite bands: Nirvana, Dr. Dre, John Oswald, Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, The Boredoms…ummm, Soulja Boy…heh, I’ll cut it off there.

TM: Hah. Well, thank you very much.

GG: Cool. Have a good one, man.

Gregg Gillis is a musician who creates intricate sample-based music under the moniker Girl Talk.

LINKS:

Girl Talk on Illegal Art

Girl Talk on Myspace Music

Girl Talk on Facebook

Girl Talk on Twitter

Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk interviewed by Tyler Malone

Written by Tyler Malone

Photography by Andrew Strasser, Christos of Detroit Artist, Dove Shore, Douglas Stewart, Emily Stewart, J. Caldwell, Jesse DeFlorio, Paul Sobota / All Photographs Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk

Girl Talk Illustrated Logo by Shawndra Lovechi / Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk

Design by Marie Havens

Captions:

Cover/Page 1:

Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk, “GT Buried”, Photography by Paul Sobota / Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk

Page 2:

Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk, Photography by Christos of Detroit Artist / Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk

Page 3:

Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk, “GT Buried”, Photography by Paul Sobota / Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk

Page 4:

Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk, “Grunge Basement”, Photography by Andrew Strasser / Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk

Page 5:

Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk, “GT Buried”, Photography by Paul Sobota / Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk

Page 6:

Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk, “GT Live”, Photography by Dove Shore / Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk

Page 7:

Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk, Photography by Emily Stewart / Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk

Page 8:

Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk, Photography by Douglas Stewart / Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk

Page 9:

Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk, “GT Live”, Photography by Dove Shore / Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk

Page 10:

Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk, Photography by J. Caldwell / Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk

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Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk, Photography by Emily Stewart / Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk

Page 12:

(L) Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk & (R) Girl Talk Illustrated Logo by Shawndra Lovechi, Photography by Jesse DeFlorio / Courtesy of Gregg Gillis / Girl Talk


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