Girl Talk: On the record
illness serif;”>Having been hit with a serious case of over-excited music nerd fandom Aonghus McGarry and Simon Mulcahy had the chats with mash-up mastermind Gregg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk.
Context is everything with Girl Talk. If one was to take his albums at face value, they’d find a mish-mash of seemingly impossibly fitting samples, the filthiest rap you wouldn’t want your mother hearing, over melodies of dusty Americana and b-sides to semi-successful 60’s soul groups so obscure, even those absolutely confident in their musical knowledge finish their listening experience scratching their heads, and trawling through Wikipedia. If this is all you can hear, you’re doing it wrong. Girl Talk is everything about forcing the listener to take another look at what they think they know about say, rap music and hear things that surprise, amaze and really shouldn’t, in theory, have critics salivating. In many ways, listening to Girl Talk is an exercise in multi-faceted musical discovery, and while the listener gets the benefits of as many as 400 different samples of almost entirely brilliant music on a single record, one gets the impression that this is a two way street. This is a showcase of the music Gregg Gillis loves, and it comes across as not just a man clicking cut and paste on disparate musical acts, but as a conductor keeping everyone on the same page in a symphony that’s getting created right in front of you. It’s hard not to appreciate that. Now, in possibly the smallest way possible, this interview is also a collaborative effort; my good buddy Simon talked, I (Aonghus) did the typing; and so, if I’ve misinterpreted anything he may have said on tape…you’ll never be able to tell (unless you’re the editor of The College Tribune).
“I never really had any career aspirations in doing this project, back then a lot of my contemporaries, a lot of the people I looked up to, weren’t necessarily making a living off it.” Gillis began, on the phone from Pittsburgh P.A. “Back then, around the year 2000 it was really through the internet, talking to people doing similar things that I got started, it was all about doing things over a Summer tour and sending out demos to record labels, the traditional way”.
Gillis, a trained biomedical engineer, is keen to emphasise the relationship of a scientific background and making unconventional music “I was learning how to be an engineer at the same time I started doing Girl Talk, I feel the nature of the work is very similar, both are very meticulous, very exact. Changing even the smallest detail of both will completely change the bigger picture. I’m not musically trained, I can’t read music; but this is still a trial and error process. I’m pretty far off from the stereotype of the musician going into the woods to write a song, this is a day-in, day-out job”. Girl Talk certainly has no problem holding a conversation, his thoughts on a topic aren’t point blank, they are complex, enthusiastic. He’s a very easy guy to interview.
It would be an easy mistake to make to confuse the man with a conventional DJ. While both live electronic acts and DJ’s do play other people’s music, Gregg takes an average of 15 seconds of each track he plays during the live show, in stark contrast to the typical DJ who’s frequently there to press play then spend the rest of the time looking busy. Gillis doesn’t get offended by being called a DJ; “for years I just came out of this scene of live electronic music but played with a lot of hip-hop groups, there was a real difference between a live show and a DJ night – it never fit into the DJ world, cutting up samples, the idea of the albums too was for it to be something new and transformative. I hung onto the idea that a live electronic show could be as exciting and innovative as any band”. “That was the world I came out of, but now most DJ’s have very spectacular live shows, the definitions have become less important now than ever before.”
Girl Talk made his name on the college circuit. Watch any American college movie and you’ll have the stereotypical raucous party scene, the worst thing about it is they’re a pretty accurate representation of university life stateside, and any of the shaky footage of Girl Talk’s incredible shows just reinforces these stereotypes further. With Gillis moving to bigger venues, how does he keep things fresh? “There are two components, music and visuals. People know material from the albums and so I try balance it out and have references to the different albums but putting together a live show I like to remix, the remix so to speak. I like to take 3 different elements from different albums and make something new. When I go back to a city 2, 3 years later, I want to constantly reinvent as opposed to playing the same set over and over”. On visuals “I really liked the idea of a spectacular arena show, starting out it was very tongue in cheek; we’d go to this underground show and we’d have 10 synchronised dancers and indoor pyrotechnics – and we’d be playing for nobody. I’ve always stuck to something that’s fun to watch for a laptop show. A bigger budget definitely helps, now that we can bring in bigger crews, but that’s been a big creative challenge. We have constant brainstorming on how to take the show to next level but I still take pride in it being so raw, just jumping on stage on making some chaos, but of course it’s going to be more chaotic playing for a club with 50 people instead of an arena show. We just need to cater visuals to suit a larger scale.”
Girl Talk is fundamentally party music, and it’s a curiosity as to whether the songs are written to play live or if it’s a case of if something works live, it should go on record. “Albums definitely give me a chance to be more detailed, with the live show you want people to be reacting and dancing, I don’t have that with the album. I’m not trying to capture an accurate portrayal of the live show, they’re two separate entities. Particularly with the last album I really wanted to create a collage that was interesting to listen to.”
Having such heavily (uncleared) sampled music leaves Gillis in a unique position in the industry, is there a position he can take against increasingly pirated music and leaks that doesn’t seem hypocritical? Or does he sympathise with artists losing royalties from file-sharing? This is the only question Gregg seems hesitant on, and it’s easy to understand why, he’s a lover of music, but is arguably the poster boy of everything that is right with the sharing and reimagination of music. One gets the impression it’s a hard position to balance; “It depends on who you’re talking to on whether it’s a problem or not, we embraced the leak 3 albums ago and held back on putting things up on the internet but now we do it in either a pay your own price way or just give it away 24 hours after finishing it. I’m kind of disconnected from the industry, I have different goals. I make a living off the live show and so I really don’t need to make a living off the music, giving the albums away for free we can grow the show. But of course for other artists there’s a label to satisfy. We have the right way of operating for what we do, I think. I buy records though, I just enjoy physical product. At this point there are more people on the internet that want the music than those that want to prevent a leak, the bigger group is always going to win out. People are just trying to live with it now. I’m excited that change motivates new perspectives and it’s very healthy for people to have a new idea of what it means to be in a band”.
New perspectives are an interesting topic to discuss with Gregg. For a man so invested in his live show, there is going to be different ideas of what he should be producing and playing in different settings, in different cities. Indeed, at this point, there are a lot of people that have invested themselves in the music of Girl Talk; “A lot of times it’s partially a reflection of the culture of that city”, he says. “But it’s also how I build a fan base in cities, something I really notice in cities in the U.S. If we play a city more times it becomes a word of mouth thing and people are sharing the music with their friends, we don’t need to spend money on promotion, we just come to play a good show then next time we come and play a bigger show. Electronic music in the U.S has just taken off to this other level, people wouldn’t have thought of going to a live show more than 3 years ago whereas in Europe it has always been something that people have had an interest in, there can be stiff crowds that are receptive and rowdy crowds that just aren’t paying attention to anything.”
One thing crowds have in common though, is a fanatical attachment to the music of Girl Talk, it’s progression, and whether new material is on its way. Gillis gives little away; “When an album comes out I immediately start working on new material, I haven’t started editing though. I’m constantly working on material for the live show but I’m also doing this side thing, different source material, a different approach, possibly a collaborative effort, that’s something I’m really excited about”.
That’s where we wrap things up. Gregg comes across as an incredibly personable guy, and the enthusiasm he speaks with comes out very well in his music, whether that be for headphone listening or in a club flailing your arms around as 3 people shoot rolls of toilet paper at you. He’s been the man behind some of the most exciting and innovative dance albums of the last decade, and for someone so admired by critics and all those people who just want to have something to dance to, he hasn’t the faintest hint if an ego. This interview could have been typed for another thousand words, but I’m supposed to stop it here. Do yourself a favour and get these albums right now, then dance round your kitchen while everyone’s out. Toilet paper shooters are optional.