Girl Talk: Reveling in the Party

By: Chris Clark

Girl Talk by Christos Schizas
Gregg Gillis is a music-making machine. Better known throughout the world as Girl Talk, the one-man mixing master has risen to international acclaim after the critically heralded release of 2006’s Night Ripper. Everyone from Rolling Stone and Pitchfork to Beck and Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips had it on their Best Albums of the Year list, turning heads from all angles and opening the world’s ears to Pittsburgh’s finest spinner. Two years later, Gillis has quit his day job, brought his artistic spectacle all around the globe and spliced and sampled his way from underground artist to international sensation.

Through an ever increasing mass of sweaty dancers, over-the-top live shows and eccentric eclecticism, Gillis has returned with his fourth studio release, Feed The Animals (released by Illegal Art Records on June 19), another explosion of several hundred samples compiled into a concise collection sure to keep the party going. His most sonically pleasing studio effort to date, Feed The Animals offers eager listeners an artistic barrage of sampled sound that thrives by deconstructing the old and making it shiny and new.

JamBase had the opportunity to pick the brain of the 26-year-old Gillis while he was home in Pittsburgh on the heels of a three-night run in Europe. We spoke about the new album, America’s Fair Use law, his increasing celebrity status and when to know how many samples is enough.

The Day Job Era

JamBase: Since you released the super-glitchy Secret Diary, back in 2002, it seems a lot has changed in your production. How has your style and sound evolved since then?

Gregg Gillis: In the early days I was definitely into procreating pop music and experimental and avant-garde styles. I was interested in juxtaposing sounds together. Then, it was more glitch. Over the last couple years I’ve been pushing the fun, party vibe more at shows. It’s now faded into a more accessible music filled with more pop music.

JamBase: That sounds about right. With the tremendous success of 2006’s Night Ripper, how did not just your music but your life change?

Girl Talk
Gregg Gillis: I used to have a day job that I got to quit. So, this is the first time in my life that I’ve been doing music full time. It’s great. Outside of that, music has become all of my free time. I get to wake up at 2 o’clock everyday [laughs]. I never planned on it becoming something I could live off of. It flipped my world upside down.

Last year, as you say, you quit your day job. Now most people reading this article probably had no inclination that you were at the time a biomedical engineer by day and a musician nights and weekends. Talk a little bit about that transition from the working world to becoming a full-time artist.

There are two different eras of the job – the era before Night Ripper and the era after. Prior to it coming out, music was something I could do only when I had time, usually driving to Cincinnati or Detroit or wherever to play shows on the weekends. Then, Night Ripper came out and I had a steady year of going to the 9-to-5 then every Friday running to the airport and flying to play a couple shows and flying back on Sunday. It was cool for a little bit but it started to catch up [to me]. I was trying to hold down the job for as long as possible. It became very difficult with the day job. Now, I just work on music during the week and mostly still play shows on the weekends. It’s very refreshing. It’s tough to have a time constraint on making music or creating something.

I’m Not A DJ. I’m A Producer

On a couple occasions I’ve seen you wearing a “I’m not a DJ” t-shirt onstage. So, if not a DJ, then what are you?

Girl Talk
I’ve always just considered myself a producer. The people who got me into this all worked with preexisting sounds not manipulating. I never played with DJs. I always played with bands. When I play live it’s all live sample triggering as opposed to DJing. I’ve never played and altered songs. It’s not my thing.

Five years ago not too many DJs or producers would show up to a club show solely with a laptop in hand. Now, there’s a plethora. Do you take any recognition for this or is it simply a natural progression of music as a whole?

There’s definitely a component to people that saw me being successful with it and it adding to the legitimacy. There’s also a lot of traditional software that can be easily integrated into DJ sets and that’s helped it become much more popular as a whole. In the late ’90s there were a lot of people playing just laptops at art galleries, show spaces and underground spots with 30 or 40 people, and then I think the dance music community caught up with it and it exploded.

It sure has. Laptop shows aren’t always the most thrilling sets, but I guess you’re changing the way a lot of people perceive it as an instrument.

Well thanks.

Let’s talk a little bit about the live Girl Talk experience. When did the whole crowd mobbing the stage thing start happening? Is this the kind of shit you thrive on?

Girl Talk
I think it’s naturally evolved. In the early days I would play with any bands I could get a show with. Back then I always had the handicap of always playing a computer, so I always tried to get the audience as involved as possible. I decided to integrate people into the music – the natural way to break down the barriers of the show and make it more of a house party. I wanted to continue those house party rules when I started playing bigger clubs. I like hanging out with everyone. Two years ago, people heard through word of mouth and it’s slowly transformed into the etiquette of the show.

How big is your record collection right now? I guess a better question would be how many hard drives do you have filled with music?

I don’t collect digital music at all. I have an iPod that I never use. On my computer I only have 100 or 200 MP3s. Everything I have is clips; I’ll still pay for downloads but I usually don’t keep them. I just moved into a new house so everything is a wreck right now. I have no idea how much music I have. I don’t think it’s obsessive. I definitely know a lot of people who have way more music.

Your tracks are filled with so much color and character. How do you decide when enough is enough sample-wise? It seems to me that you could keep going forever and you have to tell yourself sometimes to draw the line.

I think it comes in part from the live show. Depending on the live show, I figure out if it needs more samples, percussion, loops. Slowly, I work with them and work it out. By the time I sit down to make it all into an album, I have it in my head how I want to present it. It’s not like I go into it blank. It would be impossible for me to get to the 300 samples on a blank slate.

Continue reading for more on Girl Talk…

I’m very happy with everything that’s happened. I’m living a dream life right now. I have no idea where this is going. I’m just continually trying to make interesting music, and I’ll do that until the day that I die. I feel that I’ve accomplished almost every musical goal I’ve had at this point.

Gregg Gillis aka Girl Talk

Photo of Girl Talk by Nilina Mason-Campbell

In Pittsburgh We Feed The Animals

In listening to the new album, to me it feels like your most charismatic and concise body of studio work yet. How does Feed The Animals seem to capture that live Girl Talk sound and make it unique to the studio experience?

It’s tough. The album and the live show are two independent entities at this point. With the live show, I can be loose with it and have people be able to dance. With the album, I want it to be very detailed and have it be able to be listened to over and over and have it not get stale. I try to capture some of the energy of the live show on the record but they are definitely different.

On it, there’s something like 300-plus samples in 50 minutes: How do you achieve that?

It’s just trying out tons of different combinations of material, just lots of working on all the small little bits. It’s a matter of coming up with transitions. A lot of trial and error and sampling, sampling, sampling; most of them do not work out but the lucky few do.

Have you been using the material from the new album in your recent live shows? How does that process go? Do you typically create the mixes in the live setting and then when you have them down bring it into the studio or vice versa?

It’s always going on. I’m always trying to work new material into the live shows. It’s interesting to me to have people notice the material live. I love to do reinterpretations of the album live. The album can go a variety of ways and I like to capture that with the show. I like to do remixes of everything.

Hollywood Bound Or Just A Day In The Life?

Lately, you’ve become a celebrity in your own right. Where do you take Girl Talk from here? Ever plan on going back to the 9-5 world?

I’m almost banking on it. I’m very happy with everything that’s happened. I’m living a dream life right now. I have no idea where this is going. I’m just continually trying to make interesting music, and I’ll do that until the day that I die. I feel that I’ve accomplished almost every musical goal I’ve had at this point.

Recently I caught your show at the Fox in Boulder and it was pure pandemonium. You had a fairly virgin security team running around frantic while a mob of teenagers and 20-somethings rushed the stage. I can’t remember the last time the Fox was so rowdy. Do crowds the world over hype into that kind of frenzy every night?

It depends. I think people in the U.S., at least for the most part; they’re on the same wavelength. I’ve played close to every major city in the U.S., enough where people know the deal. In Europe people aren’t as sure about it. I like it to be free form and some of the Europe shows it takes the audience a while to warm up. It’s hard to predict. Europe now is like playing in the U.S. two years ago.

Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips gave your music a huge nod recently, nominating Girl Talk for the Shortlist Music Prize. How did that feel?

Girl Talk
That blew my mind. I’ve been listening to them since I was in middle school. It’s amazing to me. I ran into him this summer at Summer Camp and he was a completely nice guy.

Undoubtedly one of your most well known mixes is Biggie’s “Juicy” together with Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” Does this kind of thing happen by a chance occurrence of trial and error or is it more preemptively contrived?

That’s a rare one. Most of the mixes are not intuitive. Most are trial and error. That was back in 2005 and I just threw those two together and it actually worked out. That’s a rare case. It sounded so official that I was unsure that I wanted to use it. I like the aesthetic that people know that I am manipulating pop songs and redoing them in my own way. I’m happy the way it turned out. I guess that’s my hit single.

Just Try And Sue Me

Lastly, discuss briefly the legality of what you do. How does the Fair Use law play into it and how many times have you been approached by pissed off agents and publicists angry that you sampled their clients shit?

We haven’t had any problems thus far. The Fair Use law basically states that you can sample without permission as long as it doesn’t mess with the artist’s sales. All of the a capellas and instrumentals are commercially released by the major record labels. They release them for reinterpretations (soundtracks, commercials, etc.) and I think the labels understand that. People communicate now with the actual music that they purchase. I’ve talked to a lot of major labels that have been very supportive of what I’m doing.

Feed The Animals, is out now! You can download the digital version (320 Kpbs) for whatever price you want at: If you pay over $5, you get an added bonus of one big mp3 file with all of the tracks connected.

Girl Talk tour dates available here.

Girl Talk @ Bonnaroo 2007

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