Real Talk With Girl Talk

girl talk

Sunday's Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion features a pioneering band from the '80s (Public Enemy) and will be headlined by a pair of '90s alt-rock radio staples (Blink-182 and Weezer). But is it possible that the act most representative of the '00s is lurking somewhere on the bill? (Hint: It ain't Jet.)

That may be overstating the significance of Girl Talk just a bit, but it's hard to argue that any other artist so neatly captures some of the decade's most defining musical features -- the dissolution of genre segmentation and the rise of the computer as the main gateway to music. Pittsburgh native Gregg Gillis, 27, once a former biomedical research engineer with a cool hobby, has gone from underground sensation to festival favorite in a couple of short years. And he hasn't to sing a single lyrics or pluck a single note on the guitar to get to that point.

He has plucked samples from hundreds -- thousands -- of songs spanning all genres. His wide scope and proud propensity for filling his sets with pop hits, guilty pleasures and anything that will elicit a reaction have made his shows truly exuberant affairs, which often end with many audience members on stage, everyone drenched in sweat and Gillis nearly naked. ("I think it's on the level of Flea without a shirt, or (Henry) Rollins without a shirt," he offers. "You just do it a couple times and you get comfortable in that mode and that is what it is.")

Talking to Gillis isn't at all like experiencing one of his sets. Instead of the head rush and gasping for breath that comes with his constant triggering of samples, Gillis gladly dwells on topics and spends plenty of time making his point. He repeatedly refers to Girl Talk as a "project," which could be considered the opposite of a party. He's also extremely secure in what he does, has limited nostalgia and isn't all that interested in changing the way Girl Talk operates. And it's hard to blame him. With just his laptop and some widely available computer programs he's become a cult favorite gone big. Check the blogs and Twitter on Sunday and Monday and it's almost guaranteed that Girl Talk will be getting the most raves. I talked with him Wednesday afternoon before he departed for a pair of weekend of festival gigs on opposite sides of the country.

Right now everyone's in reflection mode, looking at the decade in music, making lots of lists -- you have a pretty unique viewpoint of what's happened, both in terms of listening and consumption of music. Any overall thoughts? Trends that will stick?
There have been so many changes. One change that I've really experienced first hand, within the scope of the Girl Talk project even, is the way that the general music public understands mainstream versus underground has been completely twisted over the past 10 years in a really fun sort of way. When I started doing Girl Talk at the beginning of the decade, a lot of times when I'd show up at a more underground sort of club and be remixing pop music it would be offensive to people. Or was just out of place.

A big characteristic of the '90s, growing up in a kind of underground music scene -- there was a specific divide between the underground and the mainstream. And if you liked indie music or underground music you weren't supposed to like the mainstream. It was evil, a corporate machine. I think with the Internet, when everyone has access to everything, and no longer does radio or MTV control what you have to listen to, and everyone can listen to what they want to listen to via the Internet, then that gives people this whole other perspective.

And no longer is pop music or major label music considered evil to so many people. That's just been a really big fundamental change. A lot of mainstream rap, or pop, or Justin Timberlake, or Britney Spears -- a lot of that stuff is more critically well-respected because it seems less evil to the public now.

And there's more obscure, weird music -- like an Animal Collective being on "Letterman" -- becoming more mainstream. So I think that divide between the mainstream and the underground has been one of the major changes, along with the dawning of this Internet age.

It's hard to pinpoint any specific trends lasting. With the Internet, things come and go so quickly. It's just been wild. If you think back to a lot of buzz bands from three years ago, a lot of those bands you never hear of anymore. Certain things just come and go so quickly. It's a little intense. But I think that's just the way it is. One unfortunate thing about the Internet is, along with people on this constant quest to find the great, new thing people are also on a constant quest to diss the old, previous thing. And, you know, that's not something that I'm not necessarily into, but that's just the way it is. I'm not going to necessarily hate on that. I respect people for however they consume music but that's not my thing. So it's just a new age.

This Internet age is such a fundamental change, it goes beyond being a trend in music. The switch of formats out of physical media and getting into everything on the computer is bigger than a lot of things that have come before it. So I feel like that is the definition of this decade, as opposed to, say, grunge being the definition of the '90s or gangsta rap being the definition of the '90s or synth-pop being the definition of the '80s. I feel like there's no genre definition right now. It's more of a swing era. We're in an era of transition.

(Much more after the jump.)

girl talk

Does having everything available makes it a less personal experience and just commodify music to a certain degree? Or is that simply an old way of thinking?
Things change. What has come before us will always seem great. And as you fade away from it, it's always easy to look back in a nostalgic manner on the way things used to be.

There are some things that aren't as cool as they were in the past. That whole aspect of going to the record store and saving up money to hear a whole album and it being a really important experience doesn't really exist anymore and that's unfortunate. But the thing is, as you move into this new age there are so many other benefits that outweigh that. And I think it's impossible to compare anything to what has come before it. You lose certain things but you gain a whole wealth of other things. The intensity of certain musical listening experiences or musical consuming experiences may have been lessened in the past few years.

But the counterargument to that would be all of these kids who can just hear anything at the drop of a hat. Again, it's a lot of weird and more underground music becoming more popular. Stuff that major labels would have never guessed would have been acceptable on the radio or TV is now acceptable based on people saying it's acceptable. You have a lot of very progressive and interesting bands being more successful than they ever would have been in the past. So things change. And things suck for certain reasons, but things are great for other reasons.

If things had stayed the same and it was still the '90s right now that would just get really boring. There's no point on dwelling what's come before us or how great it was because we already lived through that and there's no point in going through that again. And if things didn't change they wouldn't seem that great. So, thankfully, we existed through that era and now that we're onto this Internet age we can look back and understand how interesting and lucky we were to have that era.

What about the way of defining exactly who is a "musician"? Have we reached the point where you don't necessarily have to be playing a guitar or a traditional instrument to be a musician?
To a degree. I think certain people are still hanging onto that. I don't think people care about what's classified as a real musician anymore. But I don't think it's reached a point where playing a computer or a turntable or any non-traditional instrument is considered to be a "true musician." But on the flip side, the era of playing a guitar being more valuable than playing a computer has kind of faded out. In a lot of ways. You see a lot of rock bands with computers. You see a lot of rock bands with turntables. You go to music festivals and you see huge draws for people playing synthesizers and with electronic elements, more so than a lot of traditional-based bands.

I'm excited to see five, ten years down the road because it is still relatively new and it still has been the past five or ten years where it has been truly acceptable. So the kids now that are 12 years old that are going out to Lollapalooza and seeing Daft Punk being the greatest show of the weekend, that's a really important thing.

I see less and less people questioning what I'm doing. Before it used to be a thing of defining exactly what I'm doing up there with the computer, really spelling it out for people. It still definitely comes up but I think now people just accept it for what it is and they understand that it's something that exists.

OK, but there's bound to be some kid who is there just see Blink-182 and he'll see and hear your set and be like, What's that dude doing up there?
It's funny that people are so suspect. Because it's like, even if you're watching Blink-182, unless you're in one of those front few seats it's probably pretty tough to see what foot pedals he's stepping on and what notes he's playing. And it's pretty hard to even see him playing the guitar. You just have that trust in that instrument based on the history of it.

Not to mention bands that used pumped in backing tracks.
I've seen that and I'm fine with additional production in a set. It weirds me out a little when it's hidden. I wish they would just celebrate it, have it be a featured element if someone's playing a computer and dropping samples or doing whatever.

But to a lot of people what I'm doing up there is pretty reasonable to process in your mind -- that it's all dropping samples in real time. It's a big collage. I'm triggering different loops and samples and cutting them up. That kid who wants to see Blink-182 might have a friend who owns Ableton Live, or one who uses Fruity Loops or might even use Paint Shop or whatever.

The level of interaction people have with their computers now, it just seems people are a lot more comfortable with the scope of what can be done. So the idea that I'm up there performing collage music in real time, I don't think is necessarily that radical to a young generation. It's not weird to them. Some people might prefer that over watching a rock band. Some people might think it's boring compared to watching a rock band. But either way, I think especially the younger generation kind of has a grasp on what's going on even if they don't know how the software works or how the work process works or the amount of time I put into it. It doesn't really matter. I feel like it's like that watching any band. You don't really understand all of the details of how it's composed. You just have this general idea about it. And that's what you're watching.

girl talk

Your shows are known for being almost out-of-control parties. But your label is called Illegal Art and it doesn't seem like the word "Art" was used by accident.
There are definitely two different components to the project. The albums and the live shows exist on two different planes -- definitely related, definitely very similar style of music. I definitely reference many things on the album and also in the live set.

But I feel like the live show is a little bit more functional. Everyone's live show is functional. When you go to see a concert, part of that is a social experience. Whether people want to admit that to themselves or not, part of paying to go see a show is to check out the band, but also to hang out at this party. Regardless of whether it's Bob Dylan or Jay-Z, it's a party. There are people there, it's a social event. Whether you talk to anyone or not, it's still a social experience. People are communicating certain things through music to a large room with other people and everyone's processing different thoughts about it, maybe talking about it, maybe not.

On the album I'm more focused on creating an album that's interesting. When I sit down to do an album I'm not necessarily concerned with making a party mix. I'm not necessarily concerned about making a dance album. And I'm definitely not concerned about making an album that you can just throw on in a dance club and people will respond to it. I feel like the music's a little bit too detailed or it changes a bit too much for it to be successful in that more traditional dance environment.

So when I sit down to do an album I want it to be fun and entertaining and accessible, but simultaneously I want it to be very interesting compositionally. And I spend a lot of time putting it together and I want it to be a very specific, detailed process. I pay a lot of attention to the flow of it, how things work in and out. The goal with the album is a little bit different from the show.

With the show I don't want people sitting there scratching their chins trying to write a book about the show while it's happening. I'd rather people be celebrating and having a good time. Because of that I feel like the show, the way I perform, is a little more free form. I incorporate a little bit more repetition. I'm a little bit more blatant about the way I use samples. So the fact that it's an out of control party is definitely a compliment to me. Obviously. And I also think there's an art form to that. I'm trying to master the art of that.

It's interesting to me, still, that people are really able to dance and go crazy at the shows. I want them to but it's not a traditional sort of music to dance to. Electronic music, or all dance music, is very repetitious. Slow builds. Even in the hip-hop world there's a lot of repetition and a lot of call and response. Within my set it's pretty linear. It's jumping all around and changing up tempos a bunch. Samples are coming in and out from all over the place. So that fact that people can actually party and celebrate to it is a big compliment to me because I feel like it's an experimental set for that sort of activity.

You've been doing this for a while now. Do you ever wonder what the next step is in the evolution of Girl Talk?
A little bit. Simultaneously, if evolved means incorporating other equipment or musicians or anything like that -- it's all potentially fascinating to me, but I still love it being on the level it is. I still love it just being me with a computer and it continually becoming more widespread.

You know, like at this festival, Virgin Festival this year versus two years ago, the spot on the bill, the amount of people who are interested in coming out. I've been playing a lot of festivals this summer -- college shows and arenas and stuff like that. Four or five thousand person shows and it's still based around the guy playing the computer. That's very fascinating to me as a fan of electronic music, as someone who grew up really into Aphex Twin, Kraftwerk, Squarepusher.

I'm interested in seeing how far electronic music can go. I've seen some clips of Kraftwerk playing live back in the day and it looking like a straight up pop concert -- people losing their minds up front, a religious experience while these stiff men are standing on stage behind computers. And that's very cool and crazy to me. I'm interested in people pushing that envelope, as far as what is considered a live show and how big it can get. All of that stuff. So I'm excited to keep pushing it for where it's at.

At a musical level I'm always trying to keep it evolving. I feel like all of my albums and each of the shows, they take a step further. The moment I feel like I'm really recycling a lot of ideas or it's not moving forward, I don't really want to keep playing or keep putting out albums at that point. I want to keep pushing forward. I do still feel like I'm getting better at what I do every day.

I don't know what the next step forward is going to be. I would like it to be something not as blatant as adding a drummer or something like that. That could be cool, adding whatever, even other people triggering samples on stage. Any of that could be cool. It's just that Girl Talk has really been me with a laptop for about 10 years now, so I would like to keep it rolling like that if possible.

By David Malitz |  August 28, 2009; 8:35 AM ET Interviews , Virgin Festival
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Girl Talk's tracks stick with you like Big League Chew. Thanks for profiling.

Oh yeah, Did you ask him how he ended up in a Malkmus video?

Posted by: elcarg | August 28, 2009 11:48 AM

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