Thursday, October 6, 2011

Rock Candy Interview: Girl Talk

Girl Talk (real name: Gregg Gillis). Photo by Paul Sobota.
A few years ago, Gregg Gillis was an engineer working an office job.

On the side, he was making music with his laptop by cutting apart popular songs and making new songs out of their pieces.

Now, you'd know him a lot better by the moniker Girl Talk. He's a mashup artist, taking loops and samples from different songs and smashing them together to make one big, amazing track.

At his shows - including the one tonight at Stir Concert Cove - Gillis does this live from a pair of laptops. (Listen to "Triple Double" by Girl Talk.)

Last week, I called Gillis to talk about Girl Talk. We got through a lot of tidbits including how many samples he actually uses, the rise and rise of electronic music and what the first Girl Talk show was like.

Kevin Coffey: This is your third trip to the Omaha area in three years and yours shows have gotten bigger and bigger in size. What do you attribute that to?

Gregg Gillis: I feel like kind of the cycle to hit up most major cities about once a year. It's the only true indication of how the project is doing or how many people it's reaching. I don't have a song on the radio or record sales or anything like that. The only actual numbers in my life is attendance.

Pretty much every city, it's been growing. Along with that, we've been pushing for the show to grow. I've been paying more attention to what we're doing on stage because that's kind of become a major part of doing this now.

KC: With how big the show is now, it makes me wonder what the first Girl Talk show was like.

GG: The general idea and attitude was very similar, but it was very small scale. I was very serious about the project musically and conceptually. I was playing with other electronic artists. It would be a DIY show space with a bunch of other people.

Back then, to a certain degree, I wanted it to be a production and reference big stadium shows. But back then, I was trying to entertain people and have a fun show, but poking fun at myself to a certain degree. This grand laptop spectacle show, you know?

The attitude and a mentality was always there. I was just operating at a very small level and with a much smaller crowd. It was also more of a raw thing early on. I was interacting with the crowd and jumping on top of them physically - anything to have a real human element to the electonric music.

The show is really now a blown up version of that.

KC: It seems that electronic music is growing and growing. I saw you at this tiny rock club a couple years ago and then at Lollapalooza in the Perry's tent, which has also blown up in size. Why do you think that is?

GG: It's really exciting. Going back to what I was saying with the early days, I always liked that idea and people had definitely done it back in the day, all the way to Kraftwerk. Around 2000, there was a negative stigma attached to live electronic music that it would be boring or not entertaining.

I wanted to have a show that's entertaining and push electronic music. An entertaining show and not just something that's a dance party. A multi-level show. That's always been a big goal of mine.

At a lot of the venues I was playing at, it was primarily rock bands and hip hop groups. Touring at this level with various shows, it still is relatively new enough ranging to deadmau5 to what I'm doing.

I feel like it is an open book. Wide open for people dong whatever they want to do. It's hard to come up with solutions to make their shows visually entertaining, but a lot of these electronic musicians are drawing as much as large rock bands.

It's definitely happened over the years. Before this generation, there was the Chemical Brothers or Prodigy doing it. There's been different waves of it but it's hitting harder now than ever. The creative energy behind the shows is amazing, too.

All styles of music are competitive. You know, 'Do it bigger than the other person.' I love checking out these other artists to see what they're doing. Definitely excited to see where they've gone.

KC: Do you get to see a lot of shows, rock or electronic or otherwise?

GG: Not so much shows but festivals definitely. A lot of times at festivals, I get to see all kinds of stuff.

I feel like a lot of the electronic artists that I know, I'll catch on YouTube. I've seen a lot of stuff through video. When I'm home, I see local bands in Pittsburgh and friends' bands. Going to a festival, I can see all kinds of stuff.

KC: What do you listen to when you're not searching for a sample?

GG: Stuff that I listen to but I won't sample. (Pauses) When I'm looking for a sample, I like it to fit within top 40 or familiar songs. Do something with them because that's what people will recognize.

The mixtape scene out of hip-hop is really big with me. The mixtape world, there's so much content and it's exciting for me and raw. Rappers will put out one mixtape per month. There's this constant stream of songs. A lot of that stuff is far from what I would sample, but I really like keeping up with that.

Otherwise, it's random stuff. Yuck, their CD. I've been listening to a lot of soul and Motown recently. Yo La Tengo, too. I plow through a bunch of CDs.

KC: Is it hard for you to not be looking for a sample? Can you turn it off?

GG: Definitely. I feel like I can kind of get in and out of it. When I put on the new Wocka Flocka Flame tape, I'm interested in it, but knowing it's outside the world of things I'm going to sample. So yeah, usually I can turn it off a little bit.

I'm in my set currently and I really wish I had more early 80s synth pop. When I'm hunting for a sample, I'll turn on the radio or something. That's just a different style of listening. It's not really listening, but hunting. I enjoy that process. Different sort of experience than listening to me.

Even when I am just listening to the radio, it doesn't ruin that experience. Things pop out of every song. It's not something that takes away from it, though.

KC: I think a lot of people don't realize it, but you use a ton of samples, not just one music track and one vocal track. How many do you typically use in a set?

GG: Typically - this is an estimation - maybe in an hour of playing it's maybe 400 or 500 loops. You might recognize the main pieces, but not everything. I like the shows to be as isolated as possible. It sounds like two or three things playing at once, but in reality it might be 12.

The more I do, the more I've gotten interested in making it more complex. It's very thick and layered. There will be little vocal samples and tiny pieces of one song.

I am super impressed that there are people who recognized that Silverchair snare drum. That's kind of part of it.

KC: One reader wanted to know how many laptops you had gone through?

GG: I've been good in the last couple years because I've been using these Panasonic Toughbooks. Prior to that, in between 2003 to 2008 it was probably two a year. The shows were raw and I didn't have the money to blow back then on nice laptops.

As the show's gotten bigger and more orchestrated, it's a little better. But it used to be a total free for all and night-to-night people were spilling beer or falling on them.

KC: From your tweets, it seems like you go out a lot after shows. Does that happen a lot? Plan on doing it in Omaha?

GG: It depends on the night. I love doing weekend show schedule where I'm doing a Friday-Saturday show. If I'm not on tour, I'm at my house every day keeping it low key. But I tour with a lot of my close friends and people who live in different states from me.

If I'm not feeling completely ready to throw up after a show, which does happen, I love checking out a city. It's my night to have fun. When the show ends it's a good time to catch up with people.

I'm trying to think of what we did in Omaha. What was that club? Slowhand?

KC: Slowdown.

GG: Yeah, Slowdown. We just chilled there at the end of the night. Nothing really stands out.

KC: Are people from your hometown or your old job ever surprised at your success?

GG: Less weird about the coworkers because I was only at that job for 2 or 3 years. People from college and people from high school, it's definitely weird.

In the music scene though, there was always people in bands or trying to get in bands and trying to break it big, trying to fuck shit up.

Back then, my project was all about 'fuck the world' sort of mentality. 'I'm here to wreck shit and get out.'

They would all be like this is very weird about what's happened to him.

All of the music back then and even the first six years of being Girl Talk, there was never any career ambition whatsoever. A lot of my friends were doing electronic stuff, too. We weren't living off it. It was such a subculture. It was so small at the time.

Honestly, this is very surreal that this is gong on and I'm able to sell out those venues.

KC: Is it strange to be doing this professionally?

GG: The opportunity was given to me then, and I pushed it as much as I could. Where it is at now is definitely insane. I've been doing it professionally for four years.

When this project started, I was so far removed from making a living off of it.

If you're in a band, you might just be doing it for fun but you know in the back of your head that you want to make it big. In my world there was truly no precedent for this level of success as far as the people I was looking up to.

So, I didn't think it would actually happen to any degree.

KC: I notice that you always refer to it as "the project." Why is that? Do you envision yourself doing something else?

GG: (Laughs) It's just weird for me to call it 'me.' Girl Talk represents a specific side of me, plus there's so many other people involved.

If you're Lady Gaga or something, I think that's not you. It just represents a part of you.

So, I have a hard time referring it to Girl Talk as myself. It's more of an 'it' than a 'me.'

Of course, I'm the main person behind it, but a lot of other minds are involved in it.

It feels like a project. I think though if this wouldn't have become something of a career then I would still be doing it, but probably at a different level.

But there's no doubt in my mind: Girl Talk would still exist.

Girl Talk, "Triple Double"

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