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If there's a future for popular music, that future belongs to Gregg Gillis, AKA Girl Talk. Think about it. First off, he's a stand-alone. The proverbial man (or woman) against the world. A lone wolf with a laptop, braying mightily against the dying of our collective inner light.
And as such, he easily sums up this disembodied Internet age of ours. Yes, the web has made us more connected than ever, just as it has left us at an utter disconnect. Girl Talk breaches that very chasm.
Second, his palette is nothing less than the whole of pop music itself, cut up and re-pasted to suit his own purposes. He mines the hooks that have been lodged in our minds, and the beats that drove those hooks home to our hearts in the first place. In any given song, Girl Talk triggers the gamut of emotions, and does so via the language of collage and reinvention.
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Simply put, he perfectly captures the way we hear and listen — in snippets and blips, of varying degrees of recollection. And since the sounds he employs spring from the whole of our collective past, the songs he creates are poised to perfectly define our future.
Girl Talk makes his home in Pittsburgh, but he seems to live most of his life on the road. And it's on the road where he and his frenzied experimentations get to explode with the folks they've been designed to floor. Call the compositions mashups if you must, but Girl Talk's patented clash is no mere mashing of two or three or even ten songs. Rather, they're veritable collisions of everything under the sun.
A quick listen to just a few minutes reveals the breadth of Girl Talk's beat-crazed snippets: Chicago ("Saturday in the Park"), the Beach Boys ("God Only Knows"), ? & the Mysterians ("96 Tears"), Rick Springfield ("Jessie's Girl"), Elton John ("Tiny Dancer"), Elvis Costello ("Pump It Up"), Sinéad O'Connor ("Nothing Compares 2 U"), Van Halen ("Jump"), Quad City DJs ("C'mon 'n Ride It"), and Kelly Clarkson ("Since You've Been Gone"). And that's just the backbeat!
On the front end, Gillis seems keen on letting some of hip-hop's mightiest MCs do much of the heavy lifting, be it Ludacris, Too Short, Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, or Lil Wayne, all of whom have been given the Girl Talk seal of approval.
In the end, though, what's concocted is patently Girl Talk. Feed the Animals, Girl Talk's fourth LP for the aptly named Illegal Art label, made top-ten lists everywhere from Blender to Time. It also unleashed another in his series of seemingly endless road campaigns, this Sunday hitting the Culture Room, which stepped in to grab Gillis after Langerado's unceremonious cancellation. New Times had the pleasure of reaching the mild-mannered madman on one of his few days off. Here's what he had to say.
New Times: I was surprised to see you use a PC. I think you're the only music-maker I know who doesn't use a Mac.
Girl Talk: I kind of got into doing computer music when I got my first computer, and it happened to be a PC. And the first software I got into at the time was PC-only. AudioMulch is what I've been using over the years, and it's still PC-only. I've kind of gotten used to it and played hundreds of shows with it, so at this point, I wouldn't even feel comfortable trying on anything else.
I know everybody else calls what you do "mashup," but do you call it that too?
Yeah, I mean there's definitely a heavy mashup element. It's not like I'm offended by the term or anything like that. I feel like there are a lot of other influences [too]. I like a lot of other sample-based music and a lot of the music that I got into to fuel this project, a lot of the influences, was stuff that I guess predated the phrase "mashup."
Stuff that's related, like this artist Kid606 and [composer] John Oswald and [experimental band] Negativland — those were all the guys really kind of inspiring what I do. I still use the same tools as when I started, and I feel like I got into this style of music from a slightly different angle, but simultaneously there's a heavy mashup element to it. I think it's kind of a mutant form of mashup.
I'm guessing a lot of people that come to my shows probably haven't heard of Negativland, unfortunately. That's not like a big prop for me; it's just a funny thing. It's a younger generation. But I do associate myself with the more dance/remix music we're used to hearing on the Internet now, and we don't necessarily associate it with the more old-school experimental stuff.
Where do you get your ideas anyway? Is there some kind of master plan, a blueprint, or is it in the moment?
I think they just kind of slowly evolve. I work on music every day. This initial goal, I think, was to make something similar to like Kid606 or one of those artists. I had this software that I could mess music up with. I thought it'd be interesting to start a project entirely dedicated to basically manipulating pop music and that would be the whole thing. From there it just sort of slowly evolved.
I think it became a bit more accessible over the years. The more time I spent on it, the better I got at it, but also it grew out of the idea of making experimental music out of pop — I wanted to make pop out of pop. So where it's at now is I experiment with new stuff every day — sample new music and try different combinations and just kind of see what fits. And it goes on to become part of my shows.
Is there one particular era or genre you like to mine most?
Um, it's tough. I'm 27, so I grew up listening mainly to '90s music. So I think that's a huge influence, from all different sorts of genres: a lot of '90s hip-hop to a lot of '90s alternative or indie — even more '90s techno-pop and dance music. But I'm open to anything.
I feel like as this project goes on, I just continue to explore pop more and more and kind of dive into the radio depot and buy a lot more albums. These days, as this goes on, I'm digging even more into the past. But I think the absolute goldmine for me is more '90s-based stuff, on a personal nostalgic tip.
Who has sued you for copyright infringement?
Are you in favor of some kind of royalty sharing with the acts you sample?
Yeah, I believe in the idea of fair use, which is what I could claim if there was an issue. It basically states that you can use songs without permission if your work is transformative and if it's not impacting the potential sales of the artist. I do believe in that, so it's not like I feel like I'm getting away with anything here.
But I also wouldn't be opposed to a system for sample-based music where there's some kind of roof or ceiling as far as the overall amount that was paid out, so it wouldn't be a rich man's game. When you're dealing with hundreds and hundreds of samples, it makes it impossible to even consider going that route.
So I definitely believe in fair use, but I also think there could be a more organized system of pay that would make it easier for people. It's something that would benefit the artist being sampled as well as the person making the music. To me, it would seem to be a plus to be sampled, bringing attention to songs that might not otherwise receive it.
Did you really pose for Playgirl?
No, I posed. I wasn't nude, though. I was excited when they called; I thought it was pretty ridiculous. And I told my parents about it and they were just like, Don't get naked for that magazine. I really didn't want to disappoint my parents!
That's funny. Did you think it was a joke when they called you?
Yeah, I totally thought it was a joke. At first they said they were just covering music, so that kind of made sense; then they started pushing a little bit. They said they wanted to do a photo shoot, and I said, "Yeah, no problem." Then they said they wanted to do a sexy photo shoot, and I was like, "What's that mean?" [They were] kind of pushing it a little further to get a naked shot without actually saying it.
Even when I showed up for the shoot, the photographer was like, "Yeah, I know you don't want to get naked, but if you want to, we're all comfortable here, blah, blah, blah." They kept pushing and pushing. I almost felt kind of lazy for not getting naked for them.
What can we expect from you at the Culture Room this Sunday?
I don't know; every time I come to Florida, it's relatively insane, so I kind of want to bring it there again. It's become a thing now. I usually come through a city once a year, and it feels like the fans raise the bar for me. The intensity of the shows and the size of the shows have picked up, and the fans are such an integral part of what I do. I try to get them involved to the point that they are the band even more so than I am.