With a seamless flow that transcends the simple two-track mash-up, Girl Talk (aka Greg Gillis) weaves instrument or vocal tracks from several sources at once, but never stays on one idea long enough to get used to- or tired of- it. He mixes Jay-Z with Radiohead, Busta Rhymes with the Police, Outkast and The Jackson 5, Mary J. Blige with The Guess Who. And that covers about a minute and a half of one song.
What Gillis does isn’t much different from what most hip-hop artists are making nauseating amounts of money doing today. Rappers are known for sampling their backing beats from old rock and pop songs. But rather than focus on the rapper and the rhyme, Gillis treats the vocals as an equal piece of the sonic puzzle, simply another commodity in the music itself, reducing ego and message to the purest, catchiest elements and applying that to the tone of what he’s creating.
While his melodic sample pool has a high hip-hop concentration, Gillis’ sample selection is unique and varied enough to bring together the unlikeliest of music lovers. His instrumental tracks seem to be the spoonful of accessibility sugar for the largely aggressive rap melodies to go down. Public Enemy, meet Journey. Cube, Prince. And so on. It’s not like you’ll be able to play this at family gatherings, but it’s a joy ride that transcends the nostalgic, pledges no allegiance and follows no linear format.
While professional sample mashers still have a long way to go to be the household names that more traditional musicians are, Girl Talk is riding the crest of the rising wave of popularity this relatively young genre is thriving on. And rightfully so; his songs are mile-a-minute dance tracks that don’t allow for casual listening. I’m serious- put Feed The Animals on at a party and see if there’s one ass not shaking in the room within thirty seconds. You can’t not dance to this.
Speaking of dancing, Girl Talk shows aren’t your standard audience-stands-here, performer-stands-here arrangement. Gillis wants the party around him – half the audience usually ends up onstage with him once the party kicks into gear. It’s a sweaty, pulsing dancefest that translates well outside the realm of glowsticks and vapo-rub facemasks. Girl Talk’s now-legendary set at this summer’s Lollapalooza ended with Gillis riding a raft through the 60,000-strong crowd, a fitting end to a wildly received show.
Given that the majority if the Girl Talk fanbase is likely an internet-savvy group, the traditional marketing and release route never quite seemed appropriate for his albums. His fourth and latest album Feed The Animals, was released on June 19 the In Rainbows way, with a rushed digital release where the customer had the option of paying what he or she wanted. We caught up with Gillis to find out more about his mechanics, how he picks his samples and why vinyl, impractical as it is, will never die.
Antiquiet: I’ve always thought that it must be a maddening experience to do what you do… just in the sense that wherever you are or whatever you’re doing, source material can show itself. You’ve got to be in a constant state of cultivation.
Girl Talk: Yeah, I mean it’s a funny thing at this point, because I sample music just about every single day. i’ve been doing it for about 8 years now. It seems like it would be difficult after 8 years to come up with a song that I really want to use and haven’t thought of already. But the river of pop music never stops flowing. In the car, in the grocery store, wherever. It’s always there, it’s never ending. I try not to stress out or get crazy about it- just kinda do what I can do, sample a few songs every day and work towards a full live set or an album.
I can dip in and out of work mode pretty well. Sometimes I can be like okay, I don’t have so much going on today, I really need to sample some more 70s soft rock. If there’s something I like that I don’t have enough of or haven’t worked with enough, I’ll hunt for it. I’ll go through the stations, look through my stuff, do whatever. But other days I can shut it off and say ‘I don’t care what comes on right now, I’m not gonna sample it.’
Antiquiet: How big is your record collection?
Girl Talk: I’m kind of curious to find that out myself. I just moved into a new place, and I haven’t catalogued my stuff in a long time. And actually all of my CDs and vinyl are sitting in my living room in a giant pile, so I kinda need to get on that.
Antiquiet: How much of the source music did you actually buy?
That’s hard to say. It’s funny though, because a lot of the stuff I do own, but can’t actually find anymore. It’s just lost in the mix. So I’ll wind up downloading an MP3 instead. A lot of it, too, could even be samples from my Dad’s collection or whatever. Stuff I don’t even own. It’s impossible for me to even guess at this point.
Antiquiet: I read an interview with you where you addressed the weird perception that if you play traditional band instruments, guitar, bass, drums and so on, you’re creating completely original music, when the styles and note systems and chord progressions are all pieces of their influence. It’s all derivative. How do you relate to that viewpoint coming from a style where, because you sample, you’re accused of being unoriginal?
Girl Talk: I’ve always felt what I’m doing is a physical outlet for using my influences. So just like a guitarist would hear a Kurt Cobain lick, change it up a bit, reconceptualize it, put a new sound on it, and if he does a good enough job of it, people will call it original.
Antiquiet: You just described the relationship between blues and rock n’ roll.
Girl Talk: Yeah, exactly. I try to make it so people can recognize what’s in my work, but I’m always hoping that it’ll grow legs of its own and become its own entity. I think you can do what with traditional instruments as well as actual physical recordings.
Antiquiet: Speaking of physical recordings, how does the evolution of the medium affect you directly?
Girl Talk: Going to record stores is still very fun for me. I’m really looking forward to seeing any change in the music industry. I mean, I’ll buy CDs until they stop making them, but I’m also very excited about the physical media dying at some point. We’ve reached a whole new creative outlook now- people approach being in bands in a whole different way. But for what it is now, it’s kind of sad to go to a record store that you love and see that times are tough, business has been slowing down, and it’s only a matter of time before those stores just start dropping.
Antiquiet: They already have! Look at Tower Records, or all these little indie record shops that are disappearing left and right.
Girl Talk: Yeah, you’re right. I’ve read some things where people are saying that the CD will fade out, and that vinyl could even have a certain resurgence. It’s got extra big artwork, a very different sound delivery than a CD or MP3, and it could be enough of a difference that people will kind of turn back to it in a stronger force.
Antiquiet: I agree, to a point. With the advent of all this evolving technology and the industry being tipped on its side because it’s refusing to keep an evolutionary pace, it brings a new appreciation to different variances of the art form. The technological climate now is amazing, because it allows someone like you to do what you do, and it also lets somebody like Trent Reznor take the next step in the process with this huge viral promotional scheme with these viral campaigns, creating a multi-layered interactive experience. I think a lot of kids are let down with cassette or CD sleeves, and to be able to go back to a place where the presentation has aesthetic value again wold interest a lot of people. That’s part of what made vinyl so special- the print on the actual vinyl, the big layout inside and so on. It could be made into a work of art beyond the music.
Girl Talk: I think that actually going out a buying physical products right now requires you to go out of your way, and as much as people want convenience, if there’s an artistic measure to what they’re buying, they might just put in the extra effort. I’ve bought a lot more CDs than vinyl in my life, out of sheer convenience, but I can see how the aesthetic of vinyl can be so popular.
Antiquiet: I can see a resurgence, but I don’t think vinyl’s ever going to regain a dominance.
Girl Talk: Yeah I don’t think it’ll be a dominant form, but maybe like ten years down the road it’ll be popular for more than the music nerds.
Antiquiet: If it’s good enough for the Library of Congress, it’s good enough for me.
Girl Talk: Exactly.
Antiquiet: How does your live show play out versus the albums?
Girl Talk: It’s all live sample triggerings, all loop based. So every kick drum rhythm and hi-hat rhythm and vocal sample and melody is all isolated, so I’m just constantly triggering samples. The template of the live show is something that’s stayed the same over the past five or six years. It’s just me introducing new parts and getting rid of old parts. If I get tired with a certain section or finds something that livens the piece up even more, I’ll go with that. So it’s just this constantly changing body of music. For me, it’s like doing a jam version of what’s on the record. As far as the actual combination of material, I want it all to be thought out beforehand. I’m very meticulous about the process. It’s not intuitive, it’s not like you could throw four songs at me and I could just make something out of it. That’s not really how it works for me. So with the live show I play with themes and ideas from records, and I try to do interpretations of my own in terms of that. If you’re really paying attention, even in playing, like, the Notorious B.I.G. with Elton John’s part from Night Ripper, you hear when the drums come in, or where the vocals drop or whatever, it’s always slightly different live. I want it to be transformative. I never want to just play a song. I’ve never cued up Tiny Dancer and played it. Never in 8 years. It’s just very loose compared to what’s on the albums, I don’t think that necessarily takes away from how reconceptualized the source material can get.
Antiquiet: Your Lollapalooza performance really put you on the map for a lot of people.
Girl Talk: That was great. I’d never ridden an inflatable raft through the crowd before, much less to a Journey song (laughs). That was about as insane as an outdoor festival performance could’ve gotten. It’s just a great opportunity for people who have never seen you to get exposed. It’s just an overly insane environment, because any place where that many people are gathered, there’s going to be a generally heightened reaction to things.
Antiquiet: Where’s your mindset onstage? You’ve got to keep your shit together to get the music out there, but you’re rockin’ out just as hard as everyone else at the show.
Girl Talk: The templates that I see have been the same for so long, and typically each week I’ll introduce two new minutes into the set. And the first time I play those two minutes, I’ll almost always screw them up. I’ll get lost within them. They’re boxes with text labels, and I can’t sit there and read them. I have to just run with it. Cause a lot of the set I have memorized. There’s cues in my mind that I’m anticipating, but I also really like interacting with the audience and all the chaos going on around me. So when I get in front of the computer, I want to execute, not analyze.
Antiquiet: Seeing the evolution up to Night Ripper, where things seemed to hit a slipstream of accessability, all the way through Feed The Animals, has been exciting. Do you have any goals or directions for future work?
Girl Talk: I’m in a unique position now where I feel like I’ve gone beyond anything that I originally set out to do. Doing laptop collages as a solo performer is kind of a lonely experience. There’s no Led Zeppelin of laptop collages, you know? There’s nobody to really look up to in the medium. But I’ve been really fortunate, and I’m really happy with how the past couple years have been. I kind of have no goals from here. But that’s not to say I’ve got a lack of motivation. I’m working on new material every day, and I’m excited to branch out a little bit more every day. Maybe even get back to my roots a little bit and get into some more experimental stuff, see how that translates when I work it into my live set.
Antiquiet: A good majority of the vocals on your albums have been rap and hip-hop. Is that due more to personal taste, or convenience within the bars?
Girl Talk: A little bit of both, actually. I always felt early on that what I was doing was being a pretend producer, building tracks that way. And I started out doing that with hip-hop, ’cause first and foremost I’ve always been into it. But it just seemed like a much more accessible genre, something I could break down and rebuild more easily.
Antiquiet: How do psychedelics factor into the live experience for you? It’s the perfect music for the raver crowd.
Girl Talk: When I perform, I usually try to be as sober as possible, just cause it is such a nerdy experience for me. I mean, I’ll usually have a few beers before the show, but if I get drunk, it just becomes way more sloppy than I want it to be. But other people in the crowd are on just about anything you could go with. I get in the mode of working at my pace and for myself, and hopefully people come with me. I never wanted to be a DJ. I never wanted to try to cater to a crowd. I’ve always just wanted to stick to my guns, playing my style of music, and if people aren’t into it then they’re not into it.
Antiquiet: What’s the rest of the year have in store for you?
Girl Talk: I’ll be doing a handful of club shows, enjoying some downtime that I haven’t had in couple months, working on some new ideas, and getting ready for a full us tour in the fall. I’ve never gone all out and had a tour vehicle with a driver and tour manager, and all that jazz, so I’m looking forward to the upgrade in professionalism. It’s a new mental space for me, since I still don’t even have a manager. I have a publicist who keeps my life together, essentially. In my mind, why would i ever need a tour manager? I’ve done it all myself in so many different ways, but there’s a month and a half of straight shows, coming up. I’m really looking forward to this tour, ’cause of everyone involved and so on, but it’s also a lot of pressure and work on top of bands and artists.
Antiquiet: Have you picked your openers?
Girl Talk: Yes, and they’re handpicked. On one leg I’ve got Grand Buffet, a rap group from Pittsburgh that I can’t get enough of, and Hearts Of Darknesses, another act I’ve played with. The second leg is Kidtronic and a punk rock party band called The Death Set. I’m really excited to be playing with all these guys.
Antiquiet: What would you say to a kid who’s in love with what you do, has a computer with GarageBand or Pro Tools, and is trying to piece something together on his own?
Girl Talk: I get a handful of emails everyday asking about programs things like that, and I’m happy to share, but I always stress that it’s perfectly fine to be influenced, but you can come up with any crazy raw idea with what you want to do and manipulate it on the computer. When I started, I took some elements and did whatever I wanted. It’s important to do what you want to do, and as long as you like it, even if people aren’t into it, you should run with it. Even if everybody hates it, stick with it. Develop style. The computer is a cool outlet for that- you don’t need formalized training. There are just so many different ways you can go about it. It’s cool to be influenced, but it’s nice to do something completely off the charts.