Gregg Gillis may not be a household name, but many of us have heard of his alter ego Girl Talk. Drawing attention from record labels, distributors, and the Senate, Gillis has raised eyebrows for a number of reasons. One of those reasons was apparent last Saturday at the Metro.
Hosting two shows in one night, Gillis had the crowd convulsing on and off stage the entire night. Combining samples from his album Night Ripper with more recent ones, he set the scene for an electrifying and admittedly sweaty night of dancing.
I had the opportunity to speak with him a few days before the show about his music and the production process:
Yusuf Siddiquee: Did you decide one day to do this thing called “mash-up,” or did you just experiment a lot?
Gregg Gillis: I started doing it before it was called “mash-up.” There’s a guy, John Oswald, who was around in the ’60s or ’70s, and when I was 16 or 17 I was in this experimental band. We physically cut up tape and I was really into it it until I turned 18 and got my computer in 2000. I started the moment I got it and wanted to focus on sound collage. Right now I’m using a Panasonic Toughbook that I cover with Saran wrap about 30 minutes before the show.
YS: Why sample-based music?
GG: I always thought it was interesting to be able to manipulate work by untouchable people (pop stars, etc…). It seems untouchable in a lot of ways. I like breaking down and destroying classics; it was more destructive in the beginning, but I just like messing with people.
YS: You quit your day job recently. Did your co-workers ever find out who you were on the weekends? What do you do now?
GG: I quit in June and now I just travel the world, get drunk, and play with my computer. I never told my co-workers because in the beginning it wasn’t a big deal and I never intended to quit my job. So when I quit I just told them I was traveling the world. So far I’ve been everywhere in the U.S., Australia, Europe, Brazil, and Mexico. It’s a little bit different there since the music is U.S.–based and a lot of the hip-hop doesn’t make it over there as quickly.
YS: So, Stereogum.com listed that you had an album coming out on Jan. 8….?
GG: Yeah I don’t know what that was about. I started working on it 2 days ago.
YS: Are your legal troubles over?
GG: There were none, really. There has been some fear with iTunes…. It was more a problem with distribution; companies were afraid of getting in trouble. It’s kind of gray area. There’s a provision [in the Constitution] for Fair Use which allows you to sample under subjective conditions. [My music] is potentially completely illegal but am I gonna make a CD and take it to court?
YS: You got some attention on the Senate floor, I hear.
GG: Yes, Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania is a complete supporter. Y’know, the Beatles took Chuck Berry riffs. Lots of music today is just physical manipulation.
YS: What do you listen to most, or now?
GG: Most CDs I buy are a lotta new hip-hop. I hunt for older pop, like top 40s stuff from the ’60s or ’70s. My favorite era is the ’90s, probably because I grew up in it. Yeah, alternative indie rock in the ’90s.
YS: Yeah, I feel like a lot of fans of new rap these days have a serious lack of respect of knowledge of the roots of hip-hop.
GG: Change is made by ignorance. Outsider music leads you to have new perspectives. Looking into the past, I think it’s interesting to know nothing. I was reading up and I learned that Soulja Boy only owns one CD—50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Trying.” And he was saying he just made his music for fun. The fact that you can do that, to put out a record just for fun…that’s amazing! He only has one CD!
YS: What are your thoughts on digital distribution? Radiohead, etc…
GG: I loved it. It’s a time of change. I don’t know if CDs are gonna be obsolete. Radiohead knew it wouldn’t hurt them. Digital distribution is very important but right now, CDs are required to be taken seriously. I wouldn’t have released my music on a CD if I didn’t have to. File-sharing should be legal; but it’s not my point to push political boundaries. I don’t make much money from CDs. It’s interesting to read that the music industry is dying, but it’s just the major labels that are dying. So many weird bands get popular now and it’s easier than ever for a new band to get popular.
YS: How did you originally release Night Ripper?
GG: You could buy it directly from the website. I put it on SoulSeek myself and I burnt 200 CD-Rs and gave it to people. I think all pop music is just other ideas recycled. Rolling Stones to Muddy Waters, or Nirvana to the Pixies. When you’re making music you’re not inventing a progression. [My] kinda stuff is relatively new and 50 years from now music like mine might be on the radio.
YS: What does Girl Talk mean?
GG: It’s not really referring to a lot of things. It’s kind of a joke. You know you usually have some guy up there stroking his chin and nodding his head so I thought I’d be the opposite.
YS: How do you choose your samples? It seems like you speed them up sometimes.
GG: There are little bits of original instrumentation in my songs, but [in] other work I just beef up the hooks. I don’t really add much, but I’ll EQ the hell out of it. Everything you hear is stretched without changing the pitch. Live I have the samples lined up and I mix & mash live. I make a slightly new template for each show. I have tons of templates from 2002 so it’s nice to look at that piece by piece and watch my self. Every show usually consists of 95% of the last show, but narrowing down material for a 40 minute album over the last four years is crazy.
YS: Do you ever feel that you represent more than just yourself, or are you just some guy doing what you like to do?
GG: I’m just some guy doing what I like. I feel like there are some bigger things at hand, like the style of the music. I never really expected it to get to this level. Now people are considering copyright laws and I’m happy with the political side but I’m not pushing it. Maybe it will all be illegal.
YS: Do you feel limited by your laptop on-stage?
GG: I could use a MIDI controller, I guess. But no, I don’t really feel limited since it’s gotten so chaotic [at the shows]. I tried to have a drummer…I do the best version I can live. I never had any guest musicians though we used to have synchronized dancers and pyrotechnics, but now it’s broken down to just partying.
YS: Have you ever had any issues with a venue?
GG: In San Francisco we got shut down after 10 minutes. I try to explain to them that it’s gonna be a little intense…at another show a guy got tasered.