A Conversation with Gregg Gillis (Girl Talk)

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A taste of a Greg Gillis (Girl Talk) performance

Last week, we interviewed Girl Talk and talked about touring, layering samples, and the infamous live shows…

Where did the name Girl Talk come from? It’s the inevitable question, but…

When I first started out, this project was a lot more experimental, more harsh and avant-garde. It came out of a scene of that style of music, and at the time, I was performing and meeting a lot of musicians like that. I liked it, but I wanted to be in opposition of it at the same time; I wanted to do it but also react to. I wanted to be that guy who the bands would be embarrassed about being on the same flyer or bill with, a name that sounded the opposite of a guy playing a laptop.

At what point in your life did you decide that you would focus on music, and how did your family feel about that decision?

I never planned for any of this to happen as a career. I was in a few bands in high school, but those broke up because everyone was going to different colleges, so I started doing the solo thing. I went to Case Western, studied engineering and started the Girl Talk project right at the beginning of college as a hobby. Even from the beginning, I knew that a lot of the bands and musicians I looked up to then were all not making a living off of this. They all had jobs, and had many of went to college. So I figured I would study engineering and get a job after college. During college, I put out 2 albums and toured when I had breaks, during summer and winter. I did engineering for two or three years, and things started picking up. It was building slowly, but it got to a point where I couldn’t do both. I was flying in and out of the city every weekend to do shows- I had to pick one or the other, and I picked music.

Let’s talk about your newest album, All Day. As with your previous albums, it’s an eclectic blend of hip-hop, trip-hop, punk, electronic…how do you decide to order and layer the samples? Do you have a set plan from the beginning, does it just develop, or what?

For the new album, I wrote out a loose text outline of the whole thing. I wanted to jump around as much as possible, be as diverse as possible with a seemingly random structure. I have about 50-75% of it mapped out in my head and will typically will assemble it in chronological order. During the live show, I trigger all the samples by hand but if I have something new, I try to figure out where it fits and improvise as the show goes on. Sometimes I’ll play something once and never play it again, other times I’ll play it, the crowd reacted well to it, and it’ll just become a staple in the set. Based on that whole live performance experience, I’ll carve out the album.

How much time do you spend listening to music?

Listening to music and making music are two entirely different processes. I probably spend more time making music than I do listening to music, which is slightly unfortunate. Most days when I’m home though, I’ll sit and cut up music for hours and hours. There’s where I really try to organize and get things structured. I have a running list of things I want to sample, and that list never really dies down, more songs are added to it than I can ever get to. Now I’ve been doing this for about 10 years, and there’s so much still from 2002 and, say, 2006 that are still on my mind. Even now, over the years, there are things I sample that never see the light of day. It’s not because they’re bad, but because they didn’t find their place or there wasn’t a culmination for it.

How do you feel about the crazy cult following you’ve developed?

The shows have become a completely different beast, even more so than the project itself, which is great. Performing live is a huge component of this. I always wanted to do an exciting show and be in people’s faces, and I wanted it to be a spectacle. Over the years, I built it up, and it’s been a really fun project adapting to the shows getting bigger. For years, the shows were known to be total chaos: people jumping onstage, a complete free for all. And I love that, because I love shows that are raw. You know, cords would get unplugged, a computer would get knocked over, a show would have to end early. That’s crazy and that’s what it was. And the shows got a good reputation for having that vibe, a cross between a house party with no rules, and a concert at the same time. It’s been a word of mouth thing that’s gained a reputation, and it’s been fun to see that grow. It’s been really cool, as the heart and soul of this project has been performing live.

I heard that during your show at the 9:30 Club on February 2nd, you threw a backpack into the crowd and it contained a lobster. Is that true?

(laughs) That is true. I don’t want to ruin the surprise for people, but there are some shows like that. We actually concentrate a lot of effort into things like that, on brainstorming different ideas to make it a unique experience for people. On this particular tour, we were able to get a bunch of free backpacks at some point, and we decided that on certain nights we wanted to put things in there and throw them into the crowd. And every time it’s different- sometimes, the crew will serve cookies to the front row, etc. There are so many different ways to experience a show, and it’s an individual thing that will stay with people forever. There’s no reason to not play with that. It’s the small things that make memorable experiences and engage people. To me it just seems almost lazy to not try and blow people’s minds every night.

What do you think the future of mashup music is? Do you think it’s going to grow?

The line between mashup and other music is becoming harder to tell anymore- everyone is using samples, more and more recently, it seems. The increase of remixes has been astounding- even bands without laptops do remixes. Everyone knows how to use a laptop- it could just be a drum loop, but people have begun using the studio as an instrument now. It goes from Daft Punk to Animal Collective to Jay-Z- they all use samples but very differently.

What’s next for Girl Talk?

I can’t say where I’ll be exactly, but I’ll be at a number of festivals this year. As far as future albums go- I don’t know. I don’t really start thinking about the next album right after I release one, I start thinking of music for the live show. I don’t ever want to make any album that’s like the last one. You know, I don’t want it to be like the Girl Talk Party-to-go series. I will only put out an album if it’s distinctly different than the last one, and if it can grow in some way.

– Paula Mejia


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