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Girl Talk mashes his -- yes, his -- way to musical euphoria
Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, went to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland to study biomedical engineering.
But his mastery is in music — and specifically in mash-ups.
Since about 2001, the 29-year-old Pittsburgh native has approached his particular kind of musical synthesis as both a DJ and a musician, taking existing songs and weaving them together in a quick-cutting fashion of intricate sonic tapestry that become, in effect, an entirely new creation. For example his fifth and latest album, “All Day,” which came out in November, employs samples from 373 tracks, including songs by Detroiters Eminem and Dennis Coffey.
Gillis certainly isn’t music’s only mash-up artist, but he’s one of the first and one of the best — especially when his frenetic live performances, filled with on-stage “helpers” and toilet paper firing into the audience, are taken into account. It’s an unusual and specialized thing he does, and Gillis remains the best man to really explain his approach ...
He figured it out in college: “Girl Talk, for me, really got going when I was 18. I went off to Case Western, and when I started I didn’t know what I was doing with it. Gradually it found it’s place. I started to have more of a clear vision what I wanted to do musically and performance-wise (by) playing a lot of college parties, seeing how it would go over with a crowd. I feel like a lot of the heart of the whole Girl Talk act kind of went down at college.”
It’s all trial and error: “The way I work is every day I cut up music and put different things together to see how they sound. I try not to be too concerned with what will be on an album and just keep constantly working on material. I try to come up with small ideas I introduce into the (live) set and then eventually get to the point where I say, ‘OK, here’s this slightly new sound’ and I feel like there’s some evolution. But that’s never pre-planned; I’m just trying to come up with something new and change-up formats.”
He likes a bit of juxtaposition: “A lot of moments on an album there might be some very explicit rap lyrics next to very sincere, heartfelt ’70s rock ballads, or an aggressive guitar riff next to soft singing ... I think it’s transformative to take elements from different worlds and combine them together to make something new.”
It’s not easy: “When I’m sitting down to edit an album, one minute will take me hours to edit together. You want something people can celebrate to and party to, but you also want it to be something where they can sit down and take it all in and it’s a really great (listening) experience.”
He doesn’t worry about what’s hip to sample: “Everything I try to sample is primarily in the Top 40 spectrum, major label music, all mass entertainment. Some is viewed as important, some as trash. To me, all those songs are important to different people. Everything is important to somebody. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.”
The artists he samples don’t seem to mind: “I’ve never really gotten any sort of flack from anyone for sampling. It’s never been a major issue of people having problems with it; I think if they did it would probably lead to bigger problems like a lawsuit or something. But thus far, there’s been no issues. The handful of people who have reached out to me at all have been really cool.”
His music has something to say: “I definitely think there is a level of commentary in the music. That’s something I don’t want to push on people; first and foremost, I like to make the music interesting. But I’m definitely presenting my general philosophy on music and art and life in general. The commentary in all of that is that all music has value. Sonic Youth is no more artistically relevant than Paul McCartney, who’s no more artistically relevant than anybody else. It all is pop music and they all are songs. That’s the level of commentary in the music, to open up your ears and not get caught in that mob mentality and not like what everyone is telling you to like. It’s OK to like all these forms of music. Everything is valid.”
He keeps the live shows loose and improvised: “The (concerts) are all live. During the course of an hour-long performance or whatever I do, I might go through three or four hundred (samples). So for every live performance, I have some arrangements throughout in my head, like ‘Now song A will go well with song B and song C,’ but then it’s all improvised how I go in and out of things. I usually prepare more material to play than I want to play, so often I’ll skip over certain things and try out other things.”
Getting something wrong can be the beginning of something right: “When you’re triggering a new loop every five or 10 seconds, you’re bound to hit something at the wrong time, so every set ends up different because I drop things at different times. It’s a lot of experimentation, and if I find something I like, if this beat drops in a different moments or these vocals sound good coming in at a different time, that develops into another formula that then goes on to maybe influence what will be on an album.”
He likes checking out other bands: “It’s not just on a musical level; I love checking out their interaction with the audience, how they go over. It’s always influential; I can’t watch someone else without taking away something from it ... even if it’s an opposite style of performing from what I do. I feel like that with any band I see.”
All the world’s his stage: “The majority of my income is from touring right now,” says Gillis, who made “All Day” available for free download and allowed fans to pay whatever they wished for his previous album, 2008’s “Feed the Animals.” “It’s a new era. I feel bad for artists who don’t tour as much or don’t want to tour as much and want to make money from records. We’re used to the way things were 10 or 30 years ago, that’s the ‘correct’ way, but that’s not really the way I think, and it’s not really the way things are anymore. That’s just the old way, and now we’re going to something new.”
He doesn’t work to a particular timetable: “Not at all. I’m interested in putting out music, and it’s always nice to give people music. But I love the idea of working on one album for five years or something like that. It usually doesn’t take that long, but I want it to be the best thing I can do.”
Girl Talk performs Thursday, March 3, at Compuware Arena, 14900 N. Beck Road, Plymouth. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $24 in advance, $30 day of show; tickets purchased for the Royal Oak Music Theatre before the concert was moved will be honored. Call 248-858-9333 or visit www.thecrofoot.com. Girl Talk will also perform with LMFAO and G-Eazy on April 14 at the Meadow Brook Music Festival on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester Hills. Tickets are $30 pavilion, $15 lawn. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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