Girl Talk

Get Ur Freak On:
Girl Talk Parlays the Mash-Up Into an Extended Hiatus From the Cubicle

I was expecting Gregg Gillis to be a bit of a dick. It seemed almost inevitable – after all, ever since Girl Talk’s Night Ripper blew up in 2006 the Pittsburgh native has essentially been throwing a non-stop party, a progression of photos revealing his cubicle-ready tech nerd look gradually giving way to that of a walking glowstick. But looks can be deceiving – Gillis remains a thoughtful, level-headed music obsessive, the kind of guy who sweats the small stuff.

Case in point: Gillis had all the apparatus in place for a surprise drop of his latest album, All Day, on a Friday in mid November – no advance press copies, no promotional build-up (“I think any musician would like to do it that way, getting the music directly to the fans and letting them form their own opinions”). But Gillis called a last-minute timeout on Thursday. “I’d been listening to the record non-stop for about a week and there was this one part that kept bugging me,” Gillis reports by phone from his home in Pittsburgh, where he had just christened a new amphitheater with a sold-out two-night stand. “It’s the section with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Supergrass. My friend Frank Musarra came over that weekend and we finally got it right. We didn’t change the samples, just the way the vocals fit, made it sound cleaner.” With that last detail resolved, All Day debuted the following Monday morning to a crush of attention. “Going into the first day we prepared enough server power for two to three times what we had for Feed the Animals,” Girl Talk’s prior release. It clearly wasn’t enough – Gillis doesn’t know how many downloads they served up (and I sense he wouldn’t be keen to share the info if he did), but mirror sites quickly sprouted to feed the mp3 animals, and the latest phenomenon was born.

For those unfamiliar with Girl Talk’s game, Gillis’ project has set the gold standard for what’s commonly known as the mash-up, except in flash-cut fashion; All Day cycles through 371 samples over 71 minutes, often layering three or four at a time. Perhaps his best known clip, from Night Ripper, juxtaposes Notorious B.I.G.’s “It Was All a Dream” with Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” Gillis wastes no time going for gold on All Day, opening by mixing Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” with Ludacris’ “Move Bitch.”

That both of those examples pair a hip-hop vocal with a weather-worn ’70s rock classic is no accident; the combination is a recurring Girl Talk theme. I asked Gillis which of those axes reflect the personal taste of his formative years, and the answer was surprising. “When I was in high school I was really into noise and completely abrasive stuff,” he reports. “Simultaneously I was a fan of hip-hop and pop and stuff like that but as far as going to shows and dedicating myself, it was really kind of fringe music.” Gillis namechecks old-school pioneers like John Oswald and Merzbow, “but I was also into Jay-Z, obviously, and the Spice Girls, even – I love the extremes.” By age 15 he was running a cassette label and playing in bands, “going the confrontational route, playing 10 CDs at once while smashing TVs on stage.” Gillis’ band experience ended with his high school years. He headed to Cleveland for college at Case Western, and began applying the Girl Talk moniker to his looping/sampling experiments.

Another Girl Talk forefather can be found in Negativland’s 1980s adventures in “culture-jamming,” that Bay Area band’s use of samples to highlight the absurdity in everyday life. “From Day One the idea behind Girl Talk was to put a pop influence spin on experimental music,” Gillis professes, “And you can hear it on the first record – it’s all noisy and abrasive but I’m sampling pop music. That was literally ten years ago, but slowly things evolved and got more accessible, with more coherent loops and samples, and grew into something you could actually dance to.”

As for the quest for that jaw-dropping sample, Gillis counters, “I’ve never been much of a crate digger. I’ll go to Best Buy and pick up all the new releases, then go to the indie store and hit up the things that are fascinating to me. I love DJ Shadow, but Endtroducing had been done. I wanted something that referenced that but was my own thing. Blatantly not being crate-digger-ish was calculated. I wanted to challenge that cool, the obscure sample thing, and embrace the pop music on the radio that I do think is interesting, to present it so that people can enjoy it and get upset about it – especially coming out of the underground music world where people don’t necessarily like that stuff.”

Negativland’s use of samples led to a healthy dose of legal troubles (including a dust-up with U2 that the group parlayed into a book), but despite an abundance of noise Girl Talk has been fortunate in that regard. Gillis is well schooled in the Fair Use doctrine, which he believes covers his use of samples. “I do believe this should be legal, so it’s not like I’m surprised we’ve gotten away with it or anything,” he states matter-of-factly. “But at the same time, I was maybe expecting to hear a few more threats because it is a grey area – especially five years ago, when it was more radical of a concept. Now I actually see artists like, ‘Hooray, we’re on the Girl Talk record,'” he chuckles. Following the “pay any price” online distribution model for Feed the Animals Gillis made All Day a fully free download, further undermining any arguments of unfair profiteering. Still, releasing one’s work on a label named Illegal Art qualifies as some sort of nose-thumbing.

“I don’t believe we’re creating any competition for these artists,” Gillis emphasizes, stating what seems obvious. “I can’t imagine anyone downloading my album instead of buying someone else’s – it just seems impossible. A lot of these 18-year-old kids who come out to the shows are pumped on General Public or Fugazi (two of All Day‘s notable samples) that maybe they didn’t listen to prior to hearing this record.” Gillis also takes pains to disclose his source material. “It’s important to me to make sure these artists get credit. Obviously we’re sampling and I don’t try to hide that.” On that front, check out for a fan-generated site that streams the album alongside a running narrative of its source material. “It’s awesome to me to see people geek out on it because I definitely geek out on that level.”

Speaking of fanaticism, it’s refreshing to see a DJ inspire as much fervor as a vocalist or guitar hero. I know of an Atlanta club kid (since decamped for NYC) who’s the proud owner of three Girl Talk t-shirts. When I first heard this tale I thought, big deal; so he hit the merch table with some extra cash. But no – this guy has three of the shirts Gillis peeled off his sweaty body and flung into the crowd on various nights.

For a man who literally travels with a laptop and a couple of spare hard drives as his only essential gear, Gillis takes it as a personal challenge to continuously up the ante on his live show, to keep things interesting for repeat revelers as well as for himself as he graduates to ever larger venues. “I want to keep the energy similar to a small club, to get people on stage, but I’m trying to ramp up the production every step of the way.  People have come out for so many shows that every time we try to come with a little more. What I do on stage has gotten more involved – on purpose – so I hire some friends to be fun ambassadors, to engage with the audience in ways I wish I could. This is the first time I’m rolling with legitimate production – a lighting guy, etc.” He’ll be hard-pressed, however, to top the apex of his 2009 New Year’s Eve House Party in Chicago (memorialized on video), which featured a functioning house constructed on stage.

Gillis dismisses the notion that he simply launches a program and then dances like a maniac for two hours. “I trigger everything by hand,” he explains. “Over the course of the show I may trigger 300 samples. It is technically a rehearsed set – I practice them constantly, and memorize them. But within that structure there is improvisation. If you went from night to night and heard me even try to play the same source material, you’d hear differences.” He’s also sensitive to the balance between the casual fan’s demand for “the hits” and an artist’s desire to push forward. “At this point I have three albums I feel the general fan is familiar with. So I like to do combinations – there’s stuff from Night Ripper that works with aspects of Feed the Animals, or a beat from the new one. And the hardcore fans can really get into that. I also throw in bits and pieces that are crowd pleasers but I don’t think really work on a record. They might not hold up over time but in a live setting it works. There’s also other new stuff that didn’t make it onto All Day not because it wasn’t as good, but because it didn’t fit the flow.”

Gillis keeps himself engaged by changing up the way he works with samples, even if the subtle differences aren’t instantly apparent to the casual observer. “I’m getting more interested in a musical progression, in samples with evolving parts. Night Ripper was all short loops, there was no template at the time. But with Black Sabbath you’ve got the Ozzy vocals, then there are eight different guitar breakdowns in the song you can sample from.” A similar example comes when he injects Joey Ramone’s “Blitzkrieg Bop” vocals with a newfound doom atop the Doors’ “Waiting for the Sun,” then a few seconds later uses Johnny’s guitars to turbocharge Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On.” “The rate of change is similar, even if I’m holding onto source material longer. But it’s always been pop, primarily radio music.”

So what comes next? Gillis sounds the familiar alarm of someone who’s yet to have the latest brainstorm. “I’ve felt this way after every record but I can’t imagine making another record like that. I can honestly say I feel that way stronger now than ever,” he claims. “There will always be future Girl Talk music in some form and I already have new material for the road, but as far as Night Ripper, All Day, Feed the Animals, I don’t want to make another one unless I feel like it can be a little different and a little better, and after every one I feel like I’ve maxed it out.”

Here’s where Gillis’ pragmatism comes into play. He held a straight job for three years after graduating from Case Western, and part of Girl Talk’s initial narrative was that of the anonymous biology major ripping off his lab coat, hopping a plane on Friday night and donning his party-starting persona by midnight. “In all honesty, when I quit the goal was to make it a year,” he reports with a continuing sense of amazement. “I knew I could make it that long off the music and my savings. You see so many bands that make their splash for a year and then it’s over with. There was never any goal to make this project a lifetime career. Now that it’s sustained three years and feels bigger than ever, it’s a complete surprise.”

“Things really hit in the summer of 2006, and I held the job another year after that. But I had used up my ten vacation days by February of ’07 and already had plans to go to Australia for a festival, so it just got to be too much…” Three years later, Gillis is thinking about the inevitable wind-down, and has no intentions of elongating the trail just to cash a check. “If it means I go back to the cubicle or the lab, that’s not the end of the world – that was kind of my original lifelong plan. There are other musical options, like production. But I’ve actively wondered about what it would be like to go back and take that interview, with a three-year gap on the resume I’d have to explain. I’ve been completely isolated from doing any biomedical engineering for three years.”

On the other hand, he can cite plenty of field work in recombining musical DNA.

Photo by Paul Sobota.