An interview with Girl Talk

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In a mainstream musical landscape often dominated by those who talk the loudest, the phenomenon of Girl Talk is not lost on Greg Gillis. The soft spoken, self-aware mash-up DJ unceremoniously released his fifth full-length, All Day, without a pre-announced release date and no press lead up, and 'Girl Talk' quickly became the number one searched term that November 15. Without any planned leaks, Twitter beefs, outrageous outfits or fights with Taylor Swift, Girl Talk dominated the musical… wait, no, the entire internet for a day.

Despite what you may think of his music, this reaction speaks to the heart of the consummate musician. Gillis has spent years garnering a huge fanbase through his sweaty live shows, and even longer honing his craft. He is respected among mainstream artists as well as the indie elite, and even the start of his most recent tour last week pushed his Girl Talk moniker back into the top 20 searched topics on the internet. Proving that sometimes it's not the squeakiest wheel that gets the grease.

I gave Greg a call over the holiday break to have another discussion about his role in music, the legal challenges he faces, the Plunderphonic scene, Wiz Khalifa, Wikileaks, and the first two songs he ever put together. Don't worry, I gave him some grief for that whole server issue thing.

I wanted to take it back to the origins and talk a little bit about the plunderphonic scene. I know Illegal Art was one of the definitive labels, but there really wasn't a backlash until your third album. I'm just curious if you were taken back by the reaction to Night Ripper, and later Feed the Animals.

The general popularity after Night Ripper in 2006 was definitely a surprise. Kind of going into that, I came out of that world and being heavily influenced by Negativeland and John Oswald, and the early Illegal Art releases Deconstructing Beck and all of that, that was the world I knew and at that time, and even the early records I was making, it was kind of like, best case scenario I could travel around the country and play to 50 people in each city and that would be the dream life, ya know?

Going into Night Ripper it went way beyond what I expected. It kind of started with blog reviews, then it went into the Pitchfork review, and when they give you a glowing review it turns into Rolling Stone and Spin and all of that. So all of a sudden after doing this for six years, overnight the shows start selling out. Now all of a sudden colleges want to book me, now all of a sudden people were actively talking about the copyright concerns, and Rolling Stone was saying I would be sued by over 200 artists. And there was really no precedent for it. There were other people doing related things, but as far as exactly as I was doing, cutting up music in that style and performing it live, there was no one doing it. So when it went down, it was kind of like 'What the hell is happening right now?'

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Photo by Christos of Detroit Artist

When Feed the Animals came out, that's all everyone was talking about, still. Now on All Day, you have a ridiculous number of samples, but the talk has kind of dissipated.

I think to a certain degree people got tired of concentrating on it. When it first came out, the New York Times said it was a lawsuit waiting to happen. Now it's going into my fifth album, the third one recognized nationally, and I don't think they can keep saying the same thing anymore. It's like four or five years later, they can't be like, 'Oh, he's going to be sued by 300 artists this time.' No, it just hasn't happened yet.

So I think I've sort of stuck it out long enough where that conversation has had to die down, and I also think that happened simultaneous to the world in general being more exposed to a lot of media that is based on pre-existing things. A lot of Youtube videos, a lot of remixes, a lot of responses, a lot of auto-tuned news, or Yogi Bear alternative parody endings, all of that. I don't think it's as much a radical idea it was maybe 20 years ago when sampled music started to become popular.

On that topic, not to make it political, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the whole Wikileaks situation. Conceptually, there are some similarities to what you're doing with re-appropriation of information and ideas.

It's definitely related to a certain degree. It's a new wave to what you can gain access to and what you can interact with and what people can present to you and how they can present it. And I definitely think people need to become acclimated to that. It's still kinda fresh for people – growing used to that level of interaction with the media, how they're getting their news, or information, or art. It is a related field, a little different, I mean the main difference is that I've tried to focus on creating something… I don't want to speak on behalf of anyone. But yeah, I definitely think it's related, it's this new school now, and people digest information differently.

Do you have any concerns about the effects Wikileaks might have on internet constrictions?

I don't keep up well enough to know how that's going to play out. I still feel like we're at the stage where people are the voice of the internet. If people think they want free music out there, it will happen. No matter who's trying to clamp down on them, the general minds of the people will break out of that and will overcome whatever they want. So I still think we're still in that era, and I don't know how that will play out as far as government control.

It definitely could change the landscape for music. At this point I have a general positive outlook on the musical front just based on the trends I've seen, the level of interaction I've had with artists and labels that I've sampled, and their general thoughts on it. Of course, some people are going to have issues, but more often than not, the experience I've had is people trying to collaborate with me, and a lot of the bands are excited now about being on a Girl Talk record and are going to promote themselves and Twitter about it, things like that. Not too hung up on 'how are we going to get every cent from an mp3' anymore, or worrying 'why is this guy doing a dubstup remix?' How is this going to help us out, not how can we stop this.

So last Wikileaks thing. He has a lot of backup servers, how did you not think to have backup servers on the day All Day came out?

I don't know how that stuff works [laughs] but what I was told was we prepared enough basic power to handle two to three times the amount of activity as the last album. So going into this release there was no lead in publicity, we didn't talk about it, no one really knew about it, a few interviews here and there, but no one knew it was going down on that day. I knew things weren't dying off for me, the shows have continually grown and the fanbase was there, but at the same time I didn't know where the public stood for general excitement level for a new Girl Talk album. We thought there's no way that this will have more than three times the activity that the last album had in its first couple days.

And then it clearly went way beyond that. That was a surprise. I was interested in the stats and things like that. You can go into the Google search indexes and check the history, and I was looking at that a couple days afterwards and the peak of activity with the phrase Girl Talk, you see it peak in 2006 when Night Ripper came out, and then you see another peak that was maybe double that in 2008 with Feed the Animals, the peak for this is clearly like five times the size of the last one.

There's certain people that just aren't that active about keeping up with music, and that's all good, but they read your name a bunch of times over the course of four years, and all of a sudden it's like, oh maybe I should check this out, it's been like five years I've been hearing about this guy. So there's a lot of people I've heard within the past month where it's like, 'Aw man, just heard your stuff for the first time and I'm really into it.'

Which is great, it's just surprising to me, because it's not like we broke through on the radio, or we broke through on any new media level, this is strictly the same way it's always been getting out there: word of mouth. And uh, [laugh] and we paid for it on that site. But we did the best we could.

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Photo by Dove Shore

Did you know you were the number one trending topic on Google at one point? That you were the most searched phrase on the internet.

People love to move on to the next thing. From the moment I released Night Ripper, people were like, 'Oh, we're not going to hear about this guy in six months.' I'm really bent on sticking around and proving to people this is not a novelty, this is the music I make. There's always going to be haters and critics, so kinda going into this new one, the thing I'm sort of thinking was 'I'm really proud of this record, I think it's really interesting and I think the fans will be into it, but the general people who have hated on it are probably going to be tired of this, or maybe the media will be tired of it since it's not the new band anymore.' But yeah, it really wasn't like that, which honestly came as a surprise.

I'd like to talk a bit about selling out as a concept. You come framed in the DIY ethos, while at the same time your music is extremely accessible. The conversation has popped back up with brands and corporations turning into labels. With you being on a label that has always been on the periphery of the legal battles, I was curious what your take is.

I think as we move further into this digital age, people have become more reasonable about their opinions, because there's easier access to information. So I feel like, in the 90s there was such a disconnect between the mainstream and the underground, and if you were in the underground, a lot of times you were expected to hate the mainstream because they were the people trying to brainwash you with MTV and the radio; there was such a divide between the two.

Now, things are insanely popular just based on the internet with no major media backing, so I feel that a lot of underground music fans have become open minded to the idea of selling out.

You know, it's not such an evil thing to be Of Montreal and throw your song in an Outback Steakhouse commercial and make money that's going to fund an amazing tour for your fans. I don't see anything wrong with it. Especially if you're endorsing something that you have no issues with it. I think it's different if you have certain political hangups about an automobile company, or the way any company runs their organization, I think people should be in tune with what they're supporting. But in a lot of cases, taking the money of a big business and really giving it back to your fans, or making your record sound better, or being able tour more successfully, or paying a lighting guy to come on your next tour, ultimately I think it's a very positive thing. And I think for a lot of these bands, it's just your song in a commercial for a few seconds, and a lot of time it helps out your fan base.

A lot of people blow up with their songs in TV shows and commercials and all of that. And I think it's great that in general it's not such a negative thing anymore. It's not like the 90s where if Pavement had their song in a McDonald's commercial people would've lost their minds about it. We're in an era where it's not that crazy and it's become kinda popular.

And you have that Mountain Dew label, and because it's new it definitely seems funny to me. I mean, I drink Mountain Dew; I think it's just hilarious to buy a Mountain Dew record… but ultimately it's just because it's new, I think it's going to become more common place.

I think for a lot of these bands you have to think about whether you want to take it to the next level, and a lot of times taking it to the next level turns into giving a lot of people jobs. That's the bottom line a lot of people don't think about. That when you get to a certain level, all of a sudden you start paying people, you have tour managers… and a lot of them are your friends, but now you're paying their salary to do your album artwork and do things like that, and it's cool to be able to give back. If corporate money is involved, I have no problem with it. I'm really happy the world has gotten to the point where the world doesn't think it's such an evil thing. But I do think if you have certain political convictions, you should consider those when choosing what to do and what not to do, and I feel that's the general case. When you hear about all of these bands doing these ads, usually they've turned down a bunch of them and this is just the one they thought was cool to do.

But you wouldn't be able to do that anyway, would you?

No, I did an ad for Microsoft, but it wasn't my music, it was just me as a figure. And in all honesty, I didn't get paid that much, it was just a small thing. I wanted to do it, because this whole thing has gotten so crazy to me, that it was like another story for the grandkids. And it gets my parents pumped and things like that, 'Oh, watch the Daily Show, there's going to be this commercial where my face will be on it for two seconds,' and there's going to be this billboard out in San Francisco that my friends will see. Ultimately I really did it because it was funny to be honest, and I did get paid, so obviously money doesn't hurt. But it wasn't even an exposure thing, it was just like this is just insane that they want to do it and I do use Microsoft products and I am a PC user, it's what I use to perform live, so I did feel it was fitting, so I was definitely down to do that, but outside of that, yeah, it's easy for me to have opinions on this because no one would be able to license a Girl Track song for commercials.

But I have gotten a lot of offers, like, 'There's this new movie coming out and we really want you to do a mashup for the ad with this and that and this.' That comes up a bunch, that's come up at least a half dozen times in the past year, of people wanting to commission me to do a remix for a commercial or even in some major films, like 'We will license these songs and you'll do this.' I'm not opposed to that, but I'm just so caught up in my own world of music that that's not a priority. I wish I had the time to do it, but it's like me spending the time doing this thing that I'm not passionate about musically, is going to take away from one or two weeks of coming up with new tunes for the next live show that kids are paying to see.

Is there anyone you would absolutely not sample?

No, absolutely not, that I would not not sample [laughs]. I'm definitely open to sampling anyone. It's the sort of thing where I believe that you can take anything, whether you love it, hate it, whether you believe in it, don't believe it in it, and make something new out of it. That's the ultimate goal, so in theory, even something I'm totally opposed to on any level, I'd be down to do it just to try and make it my own.

This leads to my next question, are you only interested in audio, or have you give thought to video and movie manipulation?

I would be curious to do that, because basically what I do is editing, that's what it is, just chopping things up, so I do check out a lot of video edits. And fans have made video edits of my songs with video material, like the actual song videos for the songs I sample, and those have been done really well and kind of watching that got me interested in maybe doing that. Right now, like I mentioned before, I'm so caught up with trying to keep up with things the way they are, I don't even have enough time to do as much Girl Talk music as I want to. But yeah, I would definitely be open to that at some point and maybe fool around with something… I always feel there's going to be a next step, Girl Talk is never officially going to break up, it's going to go on for my life, so maybe it will move into movie manipulations when I'm in my 40s, who knows?

The last time I spoke to you, you were at the Jelly Pool Parties and you brought Wiz Khalifa with you. Did you bring him because he was Pittsburgh? And what should we be looking for from Pittsburgh?

Yeah, I've been following his stuff for a while, and it's definitely an exciting time period for him. I'm a fan of his stuff. I first heard him in maybe 2005, and I started to go to shows in Pittsburgh when he was playing these small nightclub things where he would just step on stage for like two songs or something. He was young, he was 18 around the time. So I've been a fan, he has a very young fanbase and it meshes well with my fans and a lot of the people who keep up with my stuff are hip to Wiz Khalifa mixtapes and things like that, so yeah, I though it was great to bring him on and we had played a show in Pittsburgh about a month prior to that, so it worked out well. He's definitely going huge now; cover of the Source this month with Rick Ross, he's on Diddy's new record, I just saw him in Pittsburgh last weekend, I went to his show, and it's like the dude has arrived, rap superstar sort of thing. So yeah, that's really exciting, I think he's a nice kid and he makes some great music.

But there's a little scene based around him and his friends that's going off right now. It's of varying quality, and some of it I'm into more than others, he has his boy, this white kid named Mac Miller that's kind of getting huge now on the internet, that's like one of the dudes he tours with a lot. But yeah, they're a crew, they're called the Taylor Gang, it's him and his buddies and I think there'll be a lot of talent coming out of there. As far as other hip-hop stuff from Pittsburgh, I played a show locally and I had this guy support named Boaz, and I think his stuff is great. It's a more lyrical, serious tip. Not serious, I wouldn't consider it like gangsta rap, but it's more wordy than like Soulja Boy or something. It's some heavy stuff.

There's always a bunch of like really cool rock bands in Pittsburgh. There's one now called Expensive Shit, that's like a drum and electronic duo who I saw play recently, and they're just really crazy, hypnotic, noisy, kinda jams.

Do you remember your first mashup, or the first two songs you placed together?

You know, when I first started, it was pre-Girl Talk, it was in my high school band, that was called Joysticks Battle the Scan Feed Relays to Your Skull, I know it's a really long name, we used to call it The Joysticks, but then it was less of a mashup and more of just playing a lot of shit at the same time, but one of the first things we really messed with was the Jurassic Park theme music, and we would play that and kind of play noise over it, but I do remember combining that with elements of the Forrest Gump soundtrack that was on a skipping CD that we would play over top of it, so it was like a skipping Forrest Gump CD over top of the Jurassic Park theme music.