In the broader sense, Girl Talk is much more of a cultural concept than it is a physical entity. Sure, 27 year-old Pittsburgh native Gregg Gillis might be the unassuming face and fingers behind the heavily hyped and critically beloved mash-ups of some of the music industry’s most famous previously recorded material, but when GT’s sound is let loose across the Internet and the dance floor, wide reverberations are felt in two very distinct ways.
In the online world, Girl Talk’s music is released for free consumption via a primary hub or two (GT’s home label currently houses all of it at IllegalArt.net, including 2008’s Feed the Animals), and then dispersed thousands of times over through torrents and file-sharing software. This sparks a number of curious questions about the basis of the project: Is what Girl Talk is doing legal? Should what Gillis is doing with already recorded songs be free from the persecution of the music’s current copyright holders? Is it okay to profit off of mashed-up material? Is Girl Talk’s pro-downloading policy encouraging piracy or good for the industry? Can this music created by some laptops be called “music” in the first place?
By contrast, the live Girl Talk experience demands much more physical exertion than mental. His show essentially consists of one uninterrupted song that keeps pulling samples from various places and changing in size, tone, and rhythm. Audiences fill the venues (and their stages) in a giant frenzied dance party complete with streamers and toilet paper raining from above. This is the music that’s moving the youth, and the architect of this insanity can’t even take all of the credit for it.
Gillis is more than willing to speak about his career and music in detail. His openness definitely serves to dissuade a bit of the mystery around Girl Talk, but the project still carries a fog of unpredictability about it. After all, who can guess what will come next from the man who found common ground between LL Cool J, Yo La Tengo, Metallica, Eve, Diana Ross, and Rick Astley in a single song?
Give me a bit of an update as to what’s new with Girl Talk. How are you allotting the touring and the recording portions of your time?
I tour all year around. Even in the seasons when it’s not too busy, I do a lot of weekend shows, lots of Friday, Saturday one-off things. I’m always working on music. It’s kind of an ongoing process. I don’t sit down and think, “I’m going to make the album today.” When I work on music, it always goes toward impacting the live shows, and I’m trying to work on things to play next weekend at shows, and that goes on to influence the album.
Jumping back to the beginning of this project, do you remember what your first “mash-up” was and what or who was part of it? Was it under the Girl Talk moniker?
I started Girl Talk in 2000, and back then it was always based around samples. It wasn’t necessarily referred to as “mash-ups,” even though mash-ups existed at that time. I was doing music with collaging, but it was a bit removed from the idea of putting an a capella over an instrumental. It was more or less considered sound collage. I got started in that prior to Girl Talk in the band I had in high school called The Joysticks. Back then I didn’t have a computer, and we cut up tapes. The first thing I can actually remember cutting up is the Jurassic Park soundtrack. We had a field day massacring that and putting it back together.
That’s awesome. The primary Jurassic Park theme is such an unappreciated piece of work.
[It’s] absolutely wonderful.
On that note, have you ever considered moving into mashing up videos or film?
I don’t know. I would be interested in dabbling in video editing equipment. On my last tour, the guy who does merch goes by the name of JP Coakley, and he does the video editing and on the tour he was documenting it, sitting down and editing little pieces of it. I didn’t get my hands dirty with that, but I watched it and I’d be interested in it because the general idea is the same — cutting up bits of media and recollaging it together. Doing sound collage alone, there’s so much to explore. It’s relatively untapped compared to a lot of forms of music, so I could see sticking to the sound thing, but moving in a way different direction.
What about your job in the bioengineering field? Are you still doing that, too?
I quit about a year and a half ago. In college, I studied [bioengineering] and did music on the side because I never intended music to be a career. Then, I got a job doing that and when the music took off, I maintained both for a good bit, but it just got to the point where the show demand was so insane I just couldn’t keep up. I think in 2008 I played close to 150 shows. It was pretty impossible to hold down a day job with something like that.
Do you ever think that there will be a time when you’re going to be able to create your music without any threat of prosecution?
It’s so hard to predict with technology changing. I can’t imagine where we will stand in 20 years even in terms of how we accept copyright. I put out an album in 2006 called Night Ripper and when that came out, that was the first of my albums to generate a lot of press. Everyone was talking about the copyright thing, and everyone was saying [I] was going to be sued by a thousand people, referring to it as outlaw music almost. On the new one, nothing really happened legally. It’s still a topic of interest based on the style of music, but I think it’s not there as much. In the past five years, with the Internet age becoming the norm, people are used to remixing pop songs, taking videos, collaging them together, putting them on YouTube. This is the first time period in history where it’s commonplace to take pre-existing media and manipulate it and then put it back out there to the public. It’s become something that’s part of our culture. I don’t know where we’ll go on the law side of things, but it’s something almost beyond that. It’s become such a huge part of what’s going on right now. People are going to have to wake up and realize that this is a valid way to make new things, to take something that’s previously existed and manipulate it.
When you talk about how the remixing of content has become so important to the culture, I think about what happened with Suzanne Vega’s 1987 song, “Tom’s Diner.” Once a group remixed the song a few years after the original’s release, Vega and her management liked the new version and decided to buy it and release it officially. The remix ended up charting higher than the original.
That’s kind of what exists now. You can tell when a song’s really doing well when there’s a lot of remixes out there, especially the stuff when it’s transformed the music. It doesn’t create competition, it just kind of introduces it to a new audience. That’s what they call viral marketing. When a new hip-hop song has a thousand remixes out there on YouTube — some of those might get played even more often than the original in the club — but it all goes back to informing the public about the general idea about this original artist and the source material.
Do you know if there is a group of musicians that actively oppose what you are doing with music?
That demographic of people is definitely out there. I don’t know how much control they have or if they see what’s going on. To me, it’s a lot bigger than music. It’s everywhere. It’s in medicine, it’s in art, it’s in everything. I can kind of relate to someone who has spent his whole life playing a guitar and just believes in the act of playing a guitar and performing music. I don’t believe in that, but I can imagine them viewing it that way. A lot of those artists might want to take a step back and realize that they’re playing a part in so many popular scenes. Their instruments are playing instruments that have come before them, and they model their playing based on someone else. They didn’t invent the chord progressions they’re playing or the rhythms or the patterns. It’s all based on something that previously existed. This younger generation is just going to have a good attitude towards it based on what’s available technologically.
What artists do you have in mind for implementing into your next batch of songs?
It’s kind of non-stop. I was just cutting up some Van Halen before I got on the phone with you. I was listening to some new Gorillaz… Missy Elliot… INXS. Every day of my life, I sample music, and a lot of it never sees the light of day. It’s a big trial and error process. The more time I put into trying out, the more potential outcomes there will be.
Where do you see the Girl Talk project going? Do you have any end for it in mind?
I don’t know. I’ve been doing this for eight years as Girl Talk, and even prior to that, my band in high school was related to what I am doing, so I feel like sampling is my instrument of choice. There’s a lot of different avenues you can go with it. I don’t know if in ten years I’ll be doing party music and doing shows where I’m jumping into the audience and sweating it up and getting crazy with people, but I could see going a different direction. My earlier work was a lot more experimental — a whole different vibe — so I can see it going in some direction like that. There’s so much you can do with this form of music, and even when I sit down to do it, I never really think about it in terms of a career or anything. It’s so interesting to chop things up and manipulate it and see what comes out of it. Ten years from now, I can definitely see me still doing Girl Talk, just in very different terms.
See Girl Talk’s U.S. and European tour dates in February and March on www.myspace.com/girltalk