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Girl Talk

greg Gillis has gone from the world of experimental noise cult fame to internet—and real world—fame in only a few short months, based on the strength of his pop/hip-hop mash-up compositions that make up the frenetic Night Ripper. Stylus contributor Sam Ubl caught up to the DJ/producer last weekend at the Virgin Festival in Baltimore and talked to Gillis backstage.

It says on your website you recently quit your day job.

Two months ago. It's been cool. I thought I'd have a big summer filled with, like, swimming and hanging out but I've actually been working so much just on music. So I tour the same touring schedule for the whole year where I just play weekends and work on music during the week. I actually keep super busy. My work station is literally ten feet from my bed, so at any moment if I can't sleep or if there's a commercial break I just go and make a beat. So I'm just constantly doing it. It's hard not to be obsessive about it, because every little bit helps me a little bit. I'm just doing shit constantly. It's cool, but it's been... I feel like I'm still working forty hours a week, just at stuff I actually enjoy doing.

It's like the writing is your day job now, and the performing is your weekend activity.

Absolutely, and it's cool, I mean, at a lot of these show, I wanna have new material ready. And even this, I only have a forty-minute set when I usually play for an hour. But that takes a day to organize: What am I going to do for forty minutes? During the week it's all pretty much prep for the weekend.

Did you have to come clean at the end, to your coworkers, about what you were doing on the weekends?

I actually never told them, and I still think that someone probably knew but just didn't call me out on it. I just told them I wanted to quit because I just wanted to travel the world, and that if I stayed there any longer I'd get sucked into having kids and not being able to do the things I want to do. Which is technically kind of the truth.

It's funny because I haven't heard from them at all until two days ago, on Thursday, I woke up at 2:00 or something and I had a voice mail from my boss. He left it at like 8:30, he had an engineering question and had my cell phone number and wanted to get some input. So that was, like, a blast from the past. I don't even think about it.

So were you already DJ'ing by the time you started the biomedical engineering thing? Which came first?

It's been a weird road. I've never really considered it DJ'ing. The earlier stuff is more experimental, all sound collaging, and people never really put it terms of DJ'ing but instead like, "There's a guy doing sound collage." It's just how you wouldn't really label Negativland a DJ. So, in terms of that, I've probably worked with audio and sound collage for maybe ten years I'd say. I started Girl Talk pretty much the same day I started studying engineering. When I went to college my high school band broke up, I got a laptop and I said I'm gonna start doing this thing. So I did Girl Talk throughout college, while I was studying engineering and everything. Pretty much 2000 is when I started studying biomedical engineering.

Did you DJ a lot of parties in college?

Yeah, but it's never been the DJ route, it's always been a band route, where it's like, "Here, you're playing at a gig, 45 minutes, open up for this band." And especially with the experimental days it was like, "Here, you're in an art gallery, we're gonna have this guy make noise on a guitar, then you're up next." I did a lot of shows and toured and things like that, but wasn't ever like DJ'ing a dance club. And then only maybe 2003 or 2004 it started to get a bit more rhythmic and danceable, and then I started playing a lot of college parties.

When you were younger, or even now—you have such a great ear for sequencing, did you make a lot of mixtapes?

Totally. I fell off a bit. I used to make them not even for other people but for myself all the time. In high school I was kinda like a loner, so I'd always just hang out and play music and listen to music. I'd always just make—and I had a KIA with a cassette deck in it—so I'd always make mixtapes and even, like, hide them. And so I'd stumble upon them like six months later and listen to them. So yeah, all the time.

And just recently I started getting into burning CDs. I'd never really gotten into the mix CD culture. I stopped making cassettes in like 2002 or something, and just recently I've gotten really into burning CDs for myself and hiding them and trying to find them later.

So you can't sell Night Ripper on iTunes at this point, but you have the support of at least one Congressman.

It's a weird thing because iTunes initially put it up. And it was only until—I don't want to cite any specific instances, but it was definitely a major publication mentioning the album, saying things such as, like, "Gillis could be sued by thousands of people," and stuff like that. Once the press broke out they [iTunes] took notice of it. Now, it's like, so many of the major labels have even been supportive and are trying to collaborate, and the Congressman [Rep. Mike Doyle, D, Pittsburgh] who's behind me actually brought it up in Congress. I don't know.

There's a lot of people who see what I do and think I'm an idiot trying to mess with people, but there really is a whole movement, a whole intellectual movement based on free exchange of culture. And there are a lot of guys, like Lawrence Lessig and these kind of big time lawyers and businesspeople who really believe in new forms of copyright and a more open exchange of things rather than these very strict boundaries as far as who can borrow.

To my knowledge—and I could be totally wrong here—no rap producers in a legal dispute over sampling have ever really enjoyed, like, a lot of popular support, certainly not from Congress. How is your situation different?

I mean, people have won cases. 2 Live Crew sampled Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" pretty much straight up, and that went to court and 2 Live Crew won. It's very, like, it's a peculiar thing in my case. There's a thing called Fair Use that says you can sample without asking for permission if [your work] falls under certain criteria. It's subjective, but the main thing is whether the work is transformative or not. So, in my case, that's one of the main goals for me, to make transformative music so it's not like, "Oh, this is a mix of that and that," but like, "This is a Girl Talk song." That's something I want to achieve.

I think I work with a lot more samples than some people. I don't want to say it's a fact, because people like Public Enemy were very sound collage-y, used a lot of sources, but once you start borrowing from a lot of things and base [your work] not as much on single ideas, it's easier to say it's transformative, where it's a hundred things together making one new whole. A lot of hip-hop, if you take a step back it's completely transformative. The way Kanye West will sample Chaka Khan: none of those kids would be listening to Chaka Khan normally and he makes everyone dance and get crazy to Chaka Khan. He makes his own thing out of this preexisting form, which is exactly what I'm trying to do.

Sorta like you're a liaison to people who wouldn't necessarily get amped about this or that thing?

Right. And there's so much pop music based on preexisting ideas. On the new Bone Thugs 'n' Harmony album they sampled Fleetwood Mac, and that's not a weird thing, it's been happening forever. And Bone Thugs fans might not normally get done with Fleetwood Mac but they might like it in this new context.

Well, you've suggested in previous interviews that you started Girl Talk almost as a response to jaded scene kids.

More jaded, like, electronic nerd dudes. I come from a different world. I do come from like the electronic avant-garde world, which I still really like. I really like experimental noise music and that whole culture, which Baltimore is very rich in right now. But yeah, it was kind of like I was just trying to make fun music but the performance and the edge and the band name, it was kind of like, I don't wanna have a made up band name, some made up word with symbols and numbers in it, you know what I mean. There's was [already] this very pseudo-intellectual avant-garde experimental scene; I was like, "I want to do fun experimental music."

Fair enough. Do you think people are being dishonest with themselves if they say, like, "I don't listen to any mainstream pop music, I don't like Top 40, there's no room in my life for that stuff?"

That may be true for some people, I guess. For me, I have a hard time saying I don't like anything whole-heartedly, you know? I feel like I can get down with anything. I mean, there are some people who probably truly dislike Top 40 music. I've never really met anyone like that, not once. But they're probably out there, and especially in the noise world there's like people who hate music and that's why they're into the noise.

Well, noise music is deliberately a challenging culture. I know Night Ripper was heavily steeped in Top 40 stuff, a lot of great rap and great pop music, have you ever thought about bringing noise music back into Girl Talk, delivering those sounds?

Yeah. I always like when people push boundaries. And especially growing up, being into Nirvana, like the best thing I've ever seen ever was Nirvana at these festivals doing a noise jam, or stuff where Kurt Cobain seemed so out of his mind he couldn't play a song. That stuff was always like the greatest thing ever to me. Even in my high school bands it was always like, Let's throw fireworks at the crowd, let's do something to generate a response. So right now, I'm so into pop music in general, and I've faded out interest-wise in noise, but I still like a lot of those bands and the culture's really interesting.

But I'm so, like, almost wanting to put out a noise record. I am in this very unique situation where I am playing with Incubus [on stage during our talk], you know? And it's funny, and I really like it, and it's a cool world to be a part of, but it's hilarious. Like, no one's gonna get up here and do a noise set, no one would even think about that. But I could do that if I really wanted to. So hopefully I can free up and not worry so much about what people think of me. I feel bad—it's a give and take—because I feel bad about anyone paying money to come see me, and me doing something they didn't like. At the same time you can do something truly, like, awesome.

You've built up such an audience from Night Ripper that you're almost in a position of instructing people with the next record. You can bring all your esoteric favorites to the table.

Exactly. The point of Girl Talk has always just been doing fun things and to celebrate pop music. So I'd like to stick to that but at the same time it's like you said I can really do anything, I have a whole bunch of young kids listening to it. I know a lot of people into doing weird music and experimental things, just from being around for a few years. So at a lot of shows I get my friends from old bands to open up, and there's like fifteen year olds coming out. It's awesome thing to see how they react to it. I mean, that's the world I come from and whether you like music or not it can push you to expand your mind a little. It's cool to see these kids straight up into dancing and getting drunk, to subject them to 45 minutes of super experimental stuff.

Has your philosophy changed as you've built up an audience that doesn't necessarily need pop music changed or mediated for them, that just loves that stuff on its own?

Yeah, that's cool, I know people come out to my shows who just like pop music, and there's people who hate pop music but they like the way it's transformed. So it's like, I'm not trying to change it so they would like it, I'm just making music I like. And when I make music I'm kinda thinking about my friends, people who pay attention to underground music but for the most part just listen to the radio. Pop music radio. So, I'm not trying to—I'm happy if people dislike pop music and they get into it because of what I'm doing, but that's not my goal at all. My goal is to make cool music out of pop music, and personally I like all of it. If you're going to be on the exact same plane as me it's because you like the pop music and you like how it's—

You like somebody fucking with pop music.

You like it and you like hearing how it's fucked with as well.

One thing that frustrates me is when people who are sorta dilettantes when it comes to rap music, or like all the different subcultures of rap music, complain that a beat isn't melodic enough, because a lot of times that's just, like, asking the music to be something it isn't. So, you obviously love rap and care about rap. Do you ever worry that you perpetuate any misunderstanding when you melodicize a crunk chant like "Knuck If You Buck?"

No one's actually ever asked that. I don't think I'm really watering it down necessarily. I guess, hip-hop in general it's like, I'm not doing [anything that] hasn't been done. Maybe it's a different aesthetic choice for some of these [artists Gregg uses], especially now that it seems like rap music is less based on sampling and more based on original synthesizers these days, and hyperminimal production, which I love. So I think it's just a different aesthetic choice, and not a fundamental difference. Even with "Knuck If You Buck" there's still—I mean, the melodic aspect is different but there's still appropriation. Like an 808: the drum machine's a very specific reference.

So yeah, I never really thought about that, because in my mind, you know, I'm just making pop music. I'm not necessarily making hip-hop, even though it's very hip-hop based. I think everything I'm doing basically blows the history of rap music. It's paying homage to the history of sampling, is what it is.

It seems like you prefer layering rapping over pop instrumentals to layering pop vocals over beats.

To a degree. I just like a lot of rap music. To me it's kind of like, it's just me producing that person. At the same time it's also [convenience]. It's a lot easier to get a cappellas from rap songs than it is from pop songs. Which absolutely has shifted [things]. Like, I wish I could have some more rock stuff. And rapping a lot of the time, just the way it flows—it's a lot of the time difficult to find things that are in key when someone's singing a lot of notes, versus rapping which is in one key the whole song.

I guess if there were more rock a cappellas I could get into it a bit more, but what I'm doing is very hip-hop based. It's the art of sampling, which has always been a hip-hop thing. I think I'm following a template that I've seen. Like, Bone Thugs: I love on the new album when they sample Fleetwood Mac. That type of thing. It's like, you hear a band that you like and are influenced by and you start a band or do something.

It's funny cause a lot of Southern rap is, like, incredibly hard and intimidating and it sounds very austere and cold. And then you have stuff like, you know, like Bone Thugs and the UGK album, the new one, that samples a lot of insanely melodic, soulful stuff. It's a weird juxtaposition.

I like the flow and delivery of a lot of different rappers. I love that UGK stuff. I love samples, and rap music. And it sounds like such a generalized statement but it's really not, in this day and age. So much hip-hop isn't doing that. I also like the original synthesizer production in its own world but it's also, like, so much of the music is so flexible and you can do so many things to it. You can hear it a thousand different ways.

Would you ever consider doing beats from scratch?

It's so confusing what "from scratch" is. I've done some beats in the past. I did a beat on this album by a Pittsburgh rap group, and I sampled from a 'N Sync song, and I've never told anyone. No one's ever known that. Everyone perceives it as this original production, and it technically is. What's the difference between taking a keyboard sound and editing it a certain way, and taking notes from a song and editing them a certain way? Especially with drum machine sounds, it's like: Alright, I can sample Lil' Jon using an 808, and reconfigure it, or I can use the 808 myself. What's original and what's not?

By: Sam Ubl
Published on: 2007-08-13
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