Filed under: Features, Interviews, Juice Jam Preview | Tags: dj, Features, Girl Talk, Gregg Gillis, interview, mash-up, pop, Pop Culture
You’ve seen the sweaty neon pictures. You’ve heard the hyperactive pop culture collages that some naively call songs. But chances are you’ve never sat down with Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, to talk pop music, first iPods and the craziest sets in DJ history after one of his infamous party shows.
20 Watts’ Allison Polster caught up with Girl Talk after his show at the University of Rochester last year.
20 Watts: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?
Girl Talk: On a surface level, I usually tell parents and old people that I make new music out of old pop music. I’d say simply, I kind of just collage. It’s an audio collage. I collage together a bunch of sources, layer it, chop it up and just take a bunch of familiar songs and try to create new songs out of those.
20W: Is there a certain criteria you use for songs that you put in? Do you only use songs that you actually like or just songs that fit in best? How do you decide which songs to use?
GT: Everything I use I like. I try not to use anything ironically. I’m pretty sincere about all that. I try to keep it diverse. These days I mainly listen to pop music, but going back to high school and those days, I do listen to a lot more obscure music as well. And I specifically don’t include samples from that as much just cause I like the idea of taking a very familiar thing and then manipulating and kind of playing with people’s connection to that song.
So yeah, it’s not really criteria; it’s that if I think the bulk of people will recognize it and they’ll like it. And then just as far as putting together a set or an album, I try to keep it diverse. I try not to make any segment too heavy in anything alternative or ‘80s rap or anything like that. From everything I listen to, I try to keep running and bouncing back and forth from all he different genres and styles.
20W: You use a lot of older music and then a lot of brand new music. Is there a certain amount of older music you try to put in or is it more random?
GT: Yeah. In my mind, there is no perfect formula. I don’t really listen to too much music before the ‘60s. So from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, I try to keep equal sources. A lot of the vocal sources are relatively new. I like to keep current with vocal sources. And it makes it easy. In 2008, almost every song that comes out on the radio has an acapella form or an instrumental. So that makes it a lot easier to work with that material as well. I try to keep, at least the live sets, heavy on newer songs that come out. I just keep on making references to things that have existed in the public spotlight over the past year.
20W: When you’re creating a new song, what is the process you go through? Do you start with one song and work from that or do you follow a different method?
GT: For the album I’m working on now and the album before that, Night Ripper, both I have worked on as albums. So I don’t put together individual songs. And for both of those albums, most of the material is compiled from live shows. So it is very difficult for me to sit down and say, “okay, I want to make a new two-minute part of the album out of brand new things and picking songs.”
The way I always work is that when I perform live, I choose every sample by hand and kind of manipulate them on the fly. So each week that I play, I will usually introduce a couple of new idea. So I’m always sampling music and cataloging it, and then I sit down and just experiment. I just guess and check between trying out different combinations of things. And if something sounds interesting to me, I may incorporate that into the set the next week and take something out.
So it’s like every weekend I do shows, it changes just a little bit throughout the course of the year. All of these bigger ideas emerge. So certain things stay in the set and other things don’t and the things that stay in the set are the things I like and that I think are getting a good response from the crowd. So when I sit down to do an album, I look back at the past year or two’s live shows and say, “okay, what was the best stuff I came up with?”
It’s kind of like doing all the live shows for a year or two is like finding all of the puzzle pieces. And then when I sit down to make the album, it’s like setting the puzzle up. I’ve got to put it together in a cool way.
20W: How and when did you start doing this? How did you figure out that this was what you wanted to do?
GT: It kind of goes back to my high school band. When I was like 15 or 16 I started a kind of experimental band. Experimental, meaning just very abstract and not really pop song writing. It was very far-out stuff. And we got into using other people’s music and using the radio during live shows, working with skipping CDs – kind of just physical ways of cutting up other people’s music.
Once I was 18, I got a laptop, my first computer. I had been influenced; I had heard other people cutting up songs on the computer and doing stuff like that. So I found the software that works for me and basically just started pairing up pop songs using the computer. And it just kind of took off from there. It slowly evolved over the years.
20W: Your concert was like nothing I’d ever been to. How did you decide the format of your concert? That people could come on stage and that it was just kind of free and open? Did you ever have any problems with that?
GT: That kind of evolved as well. I feel really lucky in certain ways that my music, popularity wise, took seven years to get to. I think if this just all the sudden started the first year, I would have no sense of reality. So I mean, it has only been the past year or two that it’s really taken off.
It’s weird because the world I come from is very specific. I started playing with other people doing live electronic music on laptops. So the format was always playing with bands where you just have a 30 to 45 minute set, you get up there and you entertain the crowd. As opposed to a DJ sort of thing where you may play a dance club or something like that. So for 5 years I basically toured around playing to very small crowds, 50 or less people, all the time. And it was not actually a party. It was, “here, I paid 5 dollars, I want to see this guy entertain me.”
So yeah, I always tried to interact with the crowd to some degree. And bringing people on stage is never really a big thing because for most of those years people weren’t actually that excited to do it. But I mean I would always be in the crowd and a big part of the show was to just interact and have fun with people. So one thing to take off of it, the crowd coming on stage, just took on a life of its own. I started doing it and people were excited about it. And then, I don’t know, it became a sort of viral idea where people saw it on Youtube and people read about it and it just became the standard for the show.
The shows right now are really interesting. They just work as a unique thought. For people, I think it falls somewhere in between going to a concert where they are going to see a guy perform music (that’s basically what it has always been to me) and a party. It has a weird energy right now where it has concert energy where people know they are only going to have an hour to have fun and they are coming out to see this band. And so it’s like a concert but at the same time has the elements of going to a party or going to a dance club where you’re going to get drunk and go crazy.
20W: Do you have any funny stories or crazy things that have happened with the audience at your concerts?
GT: Lots of crazy things have happened. When it first started to erupt and a lot of people were getting on stage, I played a festival in San Francisco. I warned them that the crowd might come on stage. At that point I was unsure if it would happen at every show. Everyone jumped on stage, and they shut me off after like eight minutes and wouldn’t allow me to play because it got so insane.
A lot of people crowdsurf on the stage which I’ve never seen in another show. In Philadelphia, a couple had sex on stage which is relatively insane. It wasn’t for show; they were just doing it. It was so busy and so crazy that no one was paying mind. They were just fucking on stage. People don’t normally get to get on stage, so it’s like exploring this whole new world.
20W: Do you have any specific places that are your favorite to play?
GT: I really like playing stuff close to home. I’m from Pittsburgh. I’m doing a show in Morgantown, West Virginia at a bar called 123 Pleasant Street which is the same bar I’ve played at for four or five years. So I’m looking forward to that; its just really fun. I play at Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Morgantown – all those places are just places I’ve played many times over the years. It’s interesting because when I go somewhere else, west coast, it’s fun but it’s like a lot of people don’t have a point of reference of seeing these shows before they have gotten to their size. So whenever I play close to home, a lot of old faces come out.
20W: Who are your biggest influences?
GT: It’s tough because everyone on the album I’m influenced by because I’m a music lover. I’ve always said that if you’re in a band, you’re influenced by certain music, and then you kind of appropriate their sound and put your own twist on it. That is exactly what I’m doing. So these hundreds of artists are huge influences – influences enough that I’m actually going to appropriate their actual music into it.
As far as doing collage-based stuff, I first probably heard it in Public Enemy and the production of the Bomb Squad. They were a big inspiration when I was really young. There’s a guy named Kid 606 out of Oakland who does crazy remixes on the computer and that completely changed my perspective. And a guy named John Oswald from Canada kind of pioneered this whole thing. Once I heard his stuff it definitely blew my mind.
20W: What do you generally listen to for fun? What is on your iPod?
GT: Actually, my parents gave me an iPod for my birthday this year and my dad just put all of his music on it for starters. And I don’t listen to the iPod that much. I actually haven’t uploaded any new music on it. So when I listen to my iPod, it’s all of my dad’s stuff.
But I just got Sirius radio, so I’m a big radio fan. I love checking out the radio. I listen to a lot of new hip-hop radio and a lot of older stuff. I was just checking out some older, more experimental stuff from high school recently. It depends what the mood is. Usually in the car, which is where I listen to my music, I listen to the ‘60s, ‘70s, or new rap.
20W: What is your favorite part about what you do?
GT: The shows are just insane. Putting together albums for me is just very stressful. It’s fun, but it’s complicated and takes me such a long time. And it’s kind of a grueling process. Putting together the music is interesting, but it’s like I sit there for hours and hours and hours. So playing the shows is where I get a chance to just hang out with people and sweat all over everyone. So it’s definitely therapeutic relief – seeing people get down and get nuts. Without the shows, I probably wouldn’t be making music at the rate I’m making it right now.
— Allison Polster
A shortened version of this story originally ran in the May 2008 issue of 20 Watts.