Interview with Sound Artist Girl Talk
Music website Last.fm describes Gregg Gillis, who makes music under the pseudonym Girl Talk, as “arguably the nation’s hottest mash-up DJ.” A compliment, maybe, except that Gillis describes his music as “sound collage,” a genre “even more vague” than the practice of combining two often unrelated songs to create a unique product. And, as the t-shirts for sale on his website (www.girl-talk.net) assert, he’s not a DJ. Gillis experiments with electronic music, creating a sound that includes elements from such varied genres as noise, IDM, and glitch.
His latest effort, Night Ripper, was an immediate success, receiving favorable coverage and attention from independent music web-giant Pitchfork Media , which describes the album as “massively recommended.” Night Ripper has since been reviewed favorably in such publications as Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Spin, and CMJ New Music Monthly. Anonymous fans on Wikipedia.com have gone so far as to sequentially catalog each of the several hundred samples that are used in the album.
Gillis is known for his high energy live performances that often disintegrate into laptop fueled dance parties. “Taking the stage in full Risky Business regalia (big suit, skinny tie, vintage wayfarers),” said one Pitchfork reviewer of the last Girl Talk show in Chicago, “Gillis spent more than an hour almost literally [sic] reducing the venerable Chicago venue to dust and ash.” Gillis recently revisited the Empty Bottle on New Year’s Eve.
I first met Gillis while we were students at the same university in Cleveland; he was studying biomedical engineering, which is his current day job. Given his recent success, I had a few questions for him regarding his music production.
F Newsmagazine: You’ve really managed to incorporate these sort of throwback, early nineties samples in your music. Are these the songs you were listening to in high school?
Girl Talk: I was definitely jamming most of the early ’90s material that I use in my music back when it came out. I was obsessed with Nirvana and Dr. Dre. By the time high school rolled around, I found out about weird experimental music and indie music, so I started to get into that sort of thing. I’m influenced by every artist that I sample. I think the main connection between what I listened to growing up and the style of music I make now is Bel Biv Devoe, who were my first favorite group…Bel Biv Devoe had some cuts that were sample-based and changed styles mid-song pretty abruptly. I love the intensity of that music.
F: So when did you start making music?
GT: I started making music when I was 15 years old. I heard Merzbow on the radio and decided I wanted to do something like that. Throughout high school, I accumulated a bunch of electronic music equipment and made avant-garde music with my friends. I started doing Girl Talk in the year 2000 after I graduated high school. I thought it’d be great to have a project entirely dedicated to sampling pop music. Over the years, I’ve gotten into making more accessible tunes, but the general idea of re-contextualizing familiar elements into new forms has stayed the same.
F: In layman’s terms, how do you make your music?
GT: I sample bits and pieces from songs everyday and then catalog them. When preparing for live shows, I go through the sample catalog and mess around to see what can fit together. This process continues overtime, and eventually, I have a bunch of material that I think sounds good.
F: Are there any genres you would say it fits into?
GT: I’ve always just considered my music to be sound collage, which is an even more vague term than mash-up. I think my music, if forced to describe it, is a plunderphonics-influenced approach to mash up and sample-based production. Plunderphonics is a genre created by John Oswald, who is basically my biggest influence outside of the pop music world.
F: Did you originally intend for your music to be heard, or was it more for yourself?
GT: It was mostly for me, but I also liked to show it off to my friends to see if they enjoyed it. I think my main enjoyment in making music is still showing it to my friends.
F: So, how much of a role do you think your social circle played in the direction you went with your music?
GT: I think my friends have always had a direct influence on my music. A lot of the time when I’m working on tunes, I’m really considering how well it’d go over to a party consisting of just my friends. Also, I think my time in Cleveland was spent around a really creative and supportive group of people. This helped me develop a better live show and sense of what exactly I wanted to become of the whole Girl Talk thing.
F: What do you think was distinctive about Night Ripper that made it popular in the way that it was with such a wide audience?
GT: My first album was rooted in experimental electronics, and the second one was based more-or-less around an IDM-influence. The whole style of the new album is much more accessible. Even though I’ve used just as many sampled artists on previous albums, this is the first one that constantly features recognizable samples. Most people have some relationship to a bulk of the material on this album, so when I manipulate the samples and put them in contexts, I’m also manipulating people’s previous relationships and emotional connections to the source material. Since there’s such a wide range of artists sampled and because it’s based around Top 40 music, I think most people will have some sort of connection with it.
F: Do people at your day job know about Girl Talk?
GT: When I started working here, about two years ago, I was still spending most of my free time on music, but I would only go out of town to play shows about once or twice a month. So, I didn’t tell anyone at work because it’s hard to explain, and it didn’t really matter at the time. So now, two years later, the music thing has really taken off, and I’m jumping on planes every weekend to do shows. I haven’t told them yet because if I tried to explain it now, it would be weird; they would know I’ve been lying to them for the past few years. I’d have to explain that last weekend, I wasn’t at the movies with my friends, I was actually playing a sold out show in New York on Friday and a festival in San Francisco on Saturday.
F: You’ve become known for the outrageousness of your live shows. Do you have any wild stories?
GT: At my last show, I jumped off of the table that was holding my laptop and landed at the very edge of the stage. My right leg slid down the front of the stage, and I sort of landed on this girl by accident. She reached down and had blood on her hand, which she thought was from her leg, so she licked it off. But, it turned out that she was fine, and the blood was actually coming from and covering my leg. So, she accidentally drank my blood. I gave her a free CD.
F: What do you have coming up in the near future?
GT: I’m working on a remix for the band Grizzly Bear right now. I’ve been getting a bunch of remix offers lately, so that’s been keeping me busy. I recently finished up mixes for Beck, Bonde Do Role, Teddybears, Peter Bjorn & John, and a handful of others. I’m also working with new material for live shows, trying to keep it fresh. My albums are typically based on my live material, so I’m currently caught up in that process at the moment.
F: Do you have any words that might inspire people to check out your music?
GT: Celebrate good times, come on.