Photo by Bridget Maniaci

Gregg Gillis Discusses the Finer Points of Girl Talk

Other than at the Grammys, it might be hard to imagine Busta Rhymes and Sting in the same room, let alone collaborating with one another. However, in the capable hands of Gregg Gillis, the two might as well be Simon and Garfunkel.

Much like a circus clown twisting hotdog-shaped balloons into safari animals, Gillis pieces together bits of pop music into his own compositions under the guise Girl Talk. He started “the project,” as he calls it, in 2000; but it wasn’t until his 2006 release, Night Ripper, that Girl Talk caught fire outside Gillis’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Penn.

Night Ripper‘s success allowed Gillis to quit his day job as a biomedical engineer to dedicate all his time solely to his music. He says that the extra free time was invaluable when creating his most recent album, Feed the Animals, which was released on Illegal Art in June 2008.

“When I quit the job, [my music] became more of a day-to-day process, which was good, because the whole thing for me is trial and error,” Gillis explains. “Most of the time is preparing the tools, isolating loops, making beats and things like that, and when I make all these things, I don’t know that they’re going to work out. The more tools I prepare, the more potential material I have. I feel like that all went into Feed the Animals, and that’s all because I had the free time to work on things.”

Feed the Animals was released on a pay-what-you-want basis, much like Radiohead’s In Rainbows. Gillis and Illegal Art’s decision to do so was based on their understanding of Girl Talk’s fan base.

“It just seems logical,” Gillis says. “I’m fully aware that most people are able to download music for free. Especially the fan base that listens to my music—they’re most likely connected to the Internet.”

And he was pleased with the results. The album did well enough financially that Gillis says Illegal Art wants to release all its future albums in the same manner (as well as its back catalog), but more so than money, Gillis was happy with the speed with which the pay-what-you-want model got his music to his fans.

“The ultimate goal for me was to get the music out there as soon as possible,” Gillis says. “We just uploaded it on some random day last summer and within a week, reviews were coming out; within a month, it showed up in Rolling Stone, and at the next week’s show, people knew all the words to the songs and were requesting songs.”

Gillis reports that he’s been spending the summer playing weekend shows at festivals. One such event is the Wanderlust Festival, a three-day event in Lake Tahoe that combines live music and yoga.

The first time I saw you do your thing was a show in Las Vegas. You were opening up for Kanye West.
Oh yeah [laughs]. That was super weird.

That Kanye West show was Valentine’s Day 2007, so that was just a few months after things really jumped off for me. My history was that I’d play any show—whether it was five people, 100 people, 1,000 people, whatever. I was happy to bring this show to whichever audience—if they loved it, hated it, whatever; I thought it was all valuable. Around that era was when I was first getting going into larger shows, so I was down to do whatever. Not that I wouldn’t do that show now, I just kind of knew the potential for awkwardness or weirdness with that show, considering that I was going on right when doors opened and no one knew who I was. Around that time, I was getting a lot of funny offers and it was all so surreal to me, and I just wanted as many of those as possible, so around that era, I had a handful of shows that were beautiful disasters.

When you’re creating beats and isolating loops, is there something you’re looking for specifically? Is there something that captures your ear?
Not necessarily. Any isolated part has the potential to work”¦ Certain things jump out more than others. Certain things are very rhythmical and you can tell it’s going to form into a very functional loop, but other times it’s really hard to tell. Sometimes I’ll isolate a loop, and I’ll love it and think it will work out very well, but then I can’t find anything that it will work with. There are some things that will sound OK, but I’m really particular about it. Sometimes, even with the material on the last album, I sampled some of that material five or six years ago, and I just never found its place until I started fooling around. So I kind of have a hunch when I hear an instrumental or an a Capella, that sort of thing, but I don’t know for sure. A lot of the stuff I mess around with goes nowhere.

Even growing up, maybe when you were just a fan, did you always listen to music in this way?

I don’t know, maybe to a degree. I feel like anyone trying to think back to earliest memories of getting into records, there are just segments that you really like. I don’t know whether I was looking for an isolated part, but I’ve always taken to music where there might be a five second part within a whole pop song that really catches you, that’s really a cool part”¦ Some of the rap music that I listened to growing up, a lot of it was collage-based. You know, like the NWA and Public Enemy records—even a Kris Kross record—they have a lot of samples that are coming and going. There are a lot of transitions. And sometimes those transitions might be your favorite part. I think the idea of isolating little pieces, or having something small being a very important and functional part of the song, was something I was aware of.

I’d read an interview where you said that Feed the Animals was more of a pop record than your previous albums. Is pop music something you’ve been really getting into more and more?
It was always based around pop, but the goals were a lot different. I was trying to make more experimental music, but over the years, I became more comfortable with making more accessible music, and I also developed skills with the software, and I was able to make more accessible material because of that. As the process has gone on, I don’t actively pursue source material too often, but I listen to pop music all the time. I feel like just naturally, because of what I do, I’ve gotten more deeply into the history of pop. These days, I buy more older records than new records. That’s just something that naturally came about. I sampled a little ’80s, a little ’70s, a little ’60s. You’re familiar with a lot of those songs without actually remembering them”¦ I’ve sampled some obscure things and some really obvious things, but I feel that diversity on the album
is important. It’s all Top 40, but I feel there are different levels of familiarity within that spectrum.

Do you think that’s part of the fun for your listeners, picking out where the different samples have come from?
Definitely. I think there are certain songs in there that people may have heard a couple times in their lives if they don’t actively listen to the radio—or something they may have heard in a commercial or at a wedding. That’s something I take very seriously. That’s like what I was talking about earlier—having a lot more source material around me. It would be easy to make an album with every popular dance song. There’d be Earth, Wind and Fire, and “The Humpty Dance,” The Jackson Five. That’s cool, but that’s not the goal for the record. I don’t want to make it the MTV Best of Party to Go mix. A lot of those kinds of songs will come and go in the set, and I’ll pair those next to a Chicago song. I feel like that’s part of the fun—the coming and going. I don’t want it to be all recognizable things all the time. I like to play with slightly more obscure things. Sometimes those things are rewarding, like a song that you haven’t heard in a really long time or you barely know, and now it’s put in a whole new context.

You’ll be performing at the Wanderlust Festival up in Tahoe. The festival’s a bit different because it combines live music and yoga. Do you practice yoga yourself?
I don’t. My tour manager David, who since last fall has been my right hand man, he practices yoga. He’s very excited about this. I don’t have a problem with the practice of yoga; I just haven’t gotten into it. You never know, maybe at the festival, I can get into it.

Do you think performing at a yoga festival is going to affect your show at all?
Sure. I think every show is different to some degree. It’s all about the context and what’s going on in the audience. There are a lot of variables. I try to bring the same amount of energy to every show and try to push a similar vibe—this chaotic kind of party. Sometimes it goes off, and sometimes it goes off less. I’m not really opposed to anything, and I don’t have a standard in my mind of how I want this to be. I don’t want to stereotype people who do yoga as more chill than anyone else, or less fun concertgoers. I’m expecting the normal show. If it doesn’t go down, and it’s not that crazy, I love to push the crowd and get them to warm up.

Girl Talk Interview, Gregg Gillis Interview