Gregg Gillis, best known to the music world under his stage name, Girl Talk may not be the first thing you think of when you hear punk mentioned, but the Pittsburgh DJ sensation recently made a trip to Harvest of Hope to play cuts from his latest album Feed the Animals. Our own Shenelle Copplin caught up with him to talk.
Iâll admit it, Iâm not a big hip hop fan. My boyfriend burnt a copy of Feed The Animals and I must of listened to that record non stop for weeks. I havenât had the chance to see you live, but from some of the live videos Iâve seen, I have to ask, how does one become a rockstar with just a laptop?
Greg: When I got going with this style of music, I defiantly looked up some other laptop artists. There was an underground scene in that sort of thing. I think it was even bigger in the late â90s and early 2000s than it is now. A lot of musicians were making electronic music based around song samples. The music was a bit more experimental when I started going into this thing; the sort of stuff that would never be played at a dance club or as a DJ, you wouldnât be offered shows or anything like that. So when I started playing underground shows it was always with bands or with a live act or a rap group. So me being up there with a laptop, it was always presented as a live performance. I made the decision from the get go that I wanted to make a show out of it. Music is supposed to be something entertaining and fun. I didnât want to sit up there and look like I was checking my email. From the start I always tried to make the point to get in with the audience and make the people revved up. I feel like I have this freedom with the laptop. The live show is all live sample triggering but at the same time there is a song player. So if I choose to, I can leave the computer and the same thing will continuously play. So I can get in to the ground, get people on the stage, and get involved, I try to take advantage of that and really interact with people. You mentioned the rock start thing - I feel like in the early shows I was always very serious about the music. I was serious about the show but the presentation of the show was always borderline tongue and cheek. As if I was almost making a joke about being a rockstar with a laptop. Especially when Iâm playing a show in a basement in front of 15 people. It was always a funny thing to get up there and to act like a rockstar to pop music. Iâve always stuck by that and that pseudo dream became a reality.
You said you started opened up for other rock bands and DJs. How does it feel to have them opening up for you now?
Itâs cool. Iâm a fan of a lot of Pittsburg acts. Now when I go on the road, I often just tour with friends who support the show and just have a good time. Itâs obviously a cool thing. I donât feel like I am one-upping them or anything. Itâs more or less just like a friendship where you just help out your friendsâ bands.
You started off playing in a noise rock band, correct?
Yeah. In high school I was in a pretty straight up noise, experimental band.
So where did the idea for Girl Talk come about?
I feel like the seed was sort of planted with that band. The band was called The Joysticks. With that band, there was something very straight up, experimental. We were influenced by a lot of Japanese noise bands. We would just make a mess of sounds and destroy stuff. That was a show for us. With that band, during our junior and senior years of high school, we got in to sampling a lot of pop music based around being influenced by guys like John Oswald and Kid 606. They were also using a lot of pop music, culture, and media. So with our band, we would do performances where we would have a bunch of skipping CDs or weâd actually cut up physical tape and put it back together. Weâd just make a mess and destroy a lot of pop music. Once that band finished up and moved on to Girl Talk, there early stuff for Girl Talk was a lot more far out and similar to that band. I feel like itâs all a big transitional step. I just started off trying to make experimental music out of pop and it grew into something where I felt more comfortable making acceptable music and making music where people could actually dance and party.
Where did the name Girl Talk come from?
It comes from a band in Seattle called Tad and from one of their earlier 7" inches they have a track called "Girl Talk."
One of my favorite mash ups from the Feed The Animals is during the song "Play Your Part." The mash up is between Temple of the Dog and Birdman. What is the process of a song ? How do you decide what works together, is it a lot of trial and error?
Itâs a huge trial and error process for me. The last two albums took proximally two years each to fully assemble. For me, the process starts in preparing for live shows. In the case of the song that you mentioned, it might be something where I go through pop music that I like, that has isolated segments to sample. For example, with Temple Of The Dogâs "Hunger Strike", Iâm a big fan of that song. I took the intro guitar part and the guitar break down in it. Both of them donât have any vocals over them so I can sample them and use them with something else. The sound editor isolates them and quantizes them, which is a process of making sure each of the drum hits falls in to the time signature. So when you layer anything on top of it, it will also fit. Then with the samples, I can chop them up in to a lot of variations and save that. So when I sampled from Temple Of The Dog, I had no idea what was actually going to be combined with it. Then Iâll start to mess around with it, trying out different beats with it, changing the speed, trying different vocals that Iâve never had at certain tempos before. Iâll just add a whole bunch of different things. When I find something that I think fits, Iâll try that out for a live show. Depending on the response there, Iâll build it up. Temple Of The Dog was not initially played with Birdman at the shows. I canât even remember what I played it with then. I just try different things until something clicks at a show and then Iâll think," Whoa. That sounded really good. Iâm going to try and repeat that again". So thatâs kind of the process of working through a live show. Once I find something that works, Iâll sit down to do an album and itâs almost like doing a retrospective of my favorite material from the last two years of live shows.
So you focus on the live show first before you make an album.
Basically. I work on small little elements that I can introduce into the live show.
You draw your samples from a wide range of music, do you get a kick out of seeing the "hipsters" bob their heads to Britney?
When I was first doing this it was more of electronic music and that was the scene I was associated with. Since then, I feel as the project has gotten more press and more hype, itâs snowballed in to being exposed to a much wider audience. I feel like the people who come out to my show are very diverse group. There might be some indie music types, but there also might be some straight up sorority girl types, as well as your hip hop fan and rock band fan. I feel like itâs 2009 and itâs a lot different than 1999, where there was a huge divide between the underground and the mainstream. Now it seems like itâs kind of blurred. There are underground indie acts that kind of mirror pop music. You look at M.I.A, Animal Collector, and those are sort of pop bands. They may not sound like Coldplay but they are still indie pop. Peoples exposure to music through the internet make it seem less embarrassing about listening to anything.
Iâm assuming since you are in Montana to play a show on a Thursday, itâs safe to say you donât have a day job as an engineer anymore?
Yeah. I quit in June of 2007.
I read in some past interviews that your co-workers were unaware of Girl Talk, but obviously they know now. Were they shocked when you told them?
I did not tell them. The thing was, I put in two to three years there. It was my first job out of college, with some great engineering experience and I didnât want to weird them out. I didnât tell them initially because it was sort of a hard thing to explain. Not to mention, it was still on a very small scale when I started working there. Iâd only play a show once a month, so there wasnât any need to tell them. Once it got a little bigger, it was kind of impossible to explain at that point, that I was selling out shows, just playing on my laptop and jumping in to the crowds. So when I quit, I also didnât want to jus be like, "By the way, Iâve been not telling you about this huge part of my life and youâre going to think Iâm a weirdo." So I told them I just wanted to quit so I could explore my youth, travel the world, and enjoy myself. They werenât happy about it but they werenât questioning it. It seemed like a valid reason to believe. So back then, none of them knew. But since then, one of my co-workers found me on Facebook and on my Facebook profile there are thousands of photos from my shows, that Iâm tagged in. He didnât even ask me what I was doing. I do know a whole crew of them came out to one of my shows, so they do know now.
It boggles me that none of them found out about you before you had quit. Youâve been mentioned in national newspapers and even by your local state representative, Mike Doyle.
I felt like they may have known but didnât feel the need to call me out. Iâm from Pittsburgh and a lot of local press was generated. I grew up in Pittsburg and had always been involved in the music scene there, so I knew a lot of the music writers. I asked all of them just not to use my real name but to refer to me as Girl Talk. They did that and then there was also one promo shot of me wearing a scarf and glasses. You really canât tell who I am. I remember in the end of 2006, they ran a feature on me but they didnât tell me they were going to put it on the front page of the entertainment and arts section. That stuff is mailed to everyoneâs houses. So they used that picture with the glasses and the scarf, but it was mailed to all my co-workers. So at their house, on that weekend, they probably all had pictures of me staring back at them from the coffee table.
Why were you so concerned about them finding out?
I feel like this project is hard to explain. When I started working there, I was maybe like 22 or 23 and I would sit next to this guy who was around 35. Not that that was a big issue but I just worked with an older and kind of conservative crew. Doing Girl Talk, was something I was always very passionate about. Back then, I only had a couple of albums out and nobody really knew me. I was only playing one show every month, in front of 20 people at most. Then Iâd only play my out of town shows on the weekends. It was just a lot easier not to mention it. After I started getting really big, I was going on three years of the job, I just couldnât be like," Oh by the way guys, you thought you knew me, but I actually have this alter ego called Girl Talk and I fly all over the world to do shows on my computer."
Iâd imagine that you must have a pretty good record collection. Whatâs your preferred way to listen to music?
I like buying CDs. Iâm not in to collecting MP3âs yet. I just download a few. I usually have like 50 on my computer and Iâll delete them once Iâm done listening to them. I do buy records as well - I like listened to vinyl. I grew up heavily buying CDs and itâs still my preferred format. I jam to CDs in my car, I jam to CDs in the shower, I jam to CDs while answering emails and I am going to continue buying CDs until they stop making them.
How long do you think till they will stop making CDs?
Iâd be surprised if in 20 years they were still making CDs. But at least Iâll have my nice little collection.
Do you have an iPod?
Really? You are probably the first person Iâve met in the last year who doesnât have one.
Well, my parents got me one for Christmas but Iâve actually never used it. I donât have iTunes or anything.
What prompted you to allow your fans to choose a price for Feed The Animals?
The label that releases my music threw that idea out to me. I knew if we would of gone about it in a more traditional right, released a CD or let people buy MP3s for a dollar each, the first person who got their hands on it was going to upload it on to a filesharing network, put it on the blog. Anyone who is attached to the internet, which I guess is most of my fan base, can get it for free. Why would I ignore that? I donât have a problem with people downloading music for free. Iâd rather they would buy it to support the label and the artist. I understand why people download music for free. Its one of the reasons why this project has such a large audience. So I thought it would be cool to be upfront with the fans and be like, "Look, you know me. We can get this out for free or if you want to give it some money, that would be cool".
The New York Times said you were a lawsuit waiting to happen, how have you been able to avoid any sort of legal action against you?
There is a doctrine in the United States copyright law called Fair Use, which allows you to sample pre-existing works without asking for permission. If you look it up, there is certain criteria specified. When the New York Times said that, it more or less is just them trying to write a good story. Iâve heard a lot of it, where people try to be like," Girl Talk is a music outlaw" and etc. That sort of stuff gets attention in a story. The fact of the matter is that this is something completely legal. When Knight Riper came out in 2006, it was the first time I had gotten national press and the main focus from everyone was about the potential lawsuit and how illegal this was. So when I put out a new album, I feel like the subject is just beating a dead horse. I felt like people didnât know what to say anymore because that wasnât an issue. Itâs just unfortunate for how people frame the situation and itâs funny how many people reference that quote from The New York Times.
Have any of the artists you have sampled tried to contact you in anger or to even say that they enjoyed what you did to their songs?
Yeah, Iâve had no negative issues. Sophie B. Hawkins' manager has e-mailed me and a songwriter from Donnie Iris reached out to me. Big Boi from Outkast came out to a show of mine and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth and he was kind of okay, theoretically, with me sampling his music. I think the idea of people remixing media is so commonplace. Every time you release a song it ends up on Youtube or thereâs some picture that ends up on CNN. Everyone rein erupts it and makes new art out of it. When most of these artists hear about the record, it just doesnât seem that crazy anymore. Itâs just another way for people to express themselves.
I missed seeing you in my city of Milwaukee on election night. Did playing on the night of the election have any special meaning to you?
It was a little bizarre. People were really excited at the show and there was defiantly a magical moment, a buzz in the air. Simultaneously, it almost seemed very arbitrary to be playing a show at that time. There was clearly something much larger in the end. But it was a really great night. They had a giant screen in the back of the venue, that was facing me and the announcement of Obama winning went down about 15 minutes in to our set. Someone near me on stage told me about it and I announced it to the crowd. Regardless of how you feel about the election results, it was one of those things, where a lot of people in that room, this was their first time being excited and interested in the election. I feel like I shared a very historical moment with a lot of people. It could have been one of those things where kids tell their grandkids where they were at during this historical moment. We all had a very connected moment when Obama won that election; we were all at that show.
You are playing the Harvest of Hope festival on March 6th, how did you get involved with this charity?
I donât remember how it went down. I get a lot of show offers and I try to juggle the best with my booking agent. It seemed like a cool thing. A lot of festivals are based around generating money for individual people, but it was cool they doing this for a cause, with awesome lineup of bands. Itâs defiantly something I would of wanted to be involved with.
Thereâs a pretty extensive lineup, you got any bands you are excited to check out?
For this tour and the show, I will be with Grand Buffett and Hollywood Holt. Iâm very excited about it and interested in checking in out other bands that I donât really know. I know there is a lot of Florida based punk that I havenât heard. So Iâm really pumped about that. I was excited about how many bands I didnât know on the list, actually. Read me off some of the other bands.
There is Whiskey & Co, Lucero, Against me!, The National, Kool Keithâ¦
Iâm a big Kool Keith fan. Also, Against me!, I know the name and Iâve read about them but they are a band that I havenât heard much of.
There is also Less Then Jake, Bad Brainsâ¦
Bad Brains are amazing. I caught them last summer.
So whatâs your current fav pop song?
Iâd have to say "Diva" by Beyonce. Itâs phenomenal!