Unconventional musician Girl Talk uses beats, drum fills, keyboard solos, vocals and other pieces of mainstream music to create completely new and different tracks. Girl Talk, whose real name is Gregg Gillis, has played on stages and floors all over the world, and his next stop is St. Lawrence University.
Formerly a biomedical engineer, Gillis now devotes all of his time to sampling, mixing and performing his creations live. His April 11th show, which will bring together people from all of the local colleges and communities, promises to be the biggest party that the North Country has seen in a very long time.
SLU's Association for Campus Entertainment booked Girl Talk after negotiations with Slightly Stoopid for the spring event fell through. "[We] had been receiving a lot of requests for Girl Talk," said SLU Association for Campus Entertainment Concert Chair Sam Tyler. "When it turned out he was [available], we did a bunch of sample polling throughout campus and got such a positive response that we decided we just had to go for it." Listening to the student body and conducting polls provided the right amount of support from the local community. "We've had a ton of interest in the concert, both from students on our own campus and kids from the surrounding schools and communities," said Casey O'Brien, another ACE concert chair.
There has been a similarly enthusiastic response from students here on campus. Tyler Fox, freshman history major, said, "having the chance to see Girl Talk is just mind blowing, especially here in the North Country." He listens to Girl Talk because Gillis "take[s] such popular and loved songs and mold[s] them into his own style." Freshman psychology major Ariel Einbinder expressed a similar sentiment about the show and elaborated, "I think it shows that our music scene up north is slowly growing, which I know makes me, and many others, happy because there are a lot of people up here that have a real appreciation for great music." Even some alumni are planning to attend the concert. Mike Belhumeur, a recent graduate, plans to make the trip from Albany. "I'm driving back to come see Gregg (Girl Talk), see my friends, steal some time on 90.3…and see some of my professors. I'm carpooling with three other friends. Saves on gas," stated Belhumeur, an avid Girl Talk fan. The capacity for the show is 2,000 persons. O'Brien expects that if ticket sales continue at the same rate, the show will be sold out by Saturday.
The Girl Talk show at SLU will be far from an ordinary pop/rock concert. Gillis, with his laptop and other equipment, will be positioned on a stage in the middle of the room. Standard etiquette at Girl Talk shows is that members of the audience always climb up on stage to dance. "It's a nice visual element for the crowd," said Gillis, who loves performing but realistically has to be clicking the mouse to keep the show going. The SLU show will be no exception. "We'll be herding everyone up onto the stage from one end and off of the other every twenty minutes or so," said O'Brien. "We're really excited to have been able to set this up as an interactive show with the crowd constantly cycling."
"Girl Talk's musical content taps right into the heart of the current generation at SLU," explained Tyler. "His mash-ups bring many of us back to specific memories of our 'younger years'," asserted Tyler. The musical content he referred to is a jumble of everything from hip-hop to top 40 hits. In one track off his 2008 release, Feed the Animals, Gillis bounces through samples by Beyoncé, DJ Funk, Queen, Beastie Boys, Phil Collins, Busta Rhymes, The Police and The Cure in under a minute. The result is just short of chaotic and actually surprisingly comprehensive. Just when one riff settles in, another takes its place. There's always a solid beat in the background and an ever-changing flow of vocals, backups, synthesizers and other instruments floating through the fore- and mid-ground. "The aesthetic of the music of things moving quickly is my influence from electronic music. I really like quickly edited electronic music…things that are always moving forward," said music-manipulator Gillis in an interview. He elaborated, "I like [finding out] how chopped up and chaotic it can be while still being cohesive." "It all goes back to the hip-hop production," emphasized Gillis, citing Public Enemy, De La Soul and Paul's Boutique (Beastie Boys) as examples. The Pittsburgh native grew up on pop, hip-hop and rock music, especially Nirvana, because they seemed like normal guys.
In the live environment, the music will be just as chaotic as the uninhibited dancing. Gillis uses his live show as a chance to try out new material. "Most of the stuff I play live is just temporary. It will just be in there for a little bit, it'll be a new thing, and most people will never hear it again," said Gillis about the unpredictable nature of his performances. Because of the ephemeral nature of his live music, he needs to gauge what works and what doesn't on the spot. He revealed that the dancers are his feedback. If they are really enjoying something, he will let it play out longer; he'll cut something that isn't going over well. Each show is a process, and what is heard at one live show may never be heard again. Gillis also admitted that he takes things down a notch in a live show (with samples, that is): "I don't want to rush through the material. I feel like if I was able to play at the speed and density of the records with new material, then I feel like it might be too much for people to really be able to enjoy upon a first listen."
Tickets will still be available for Girl Talk until the time of the show unless it sells out before then. The event will take place at St. Lawrence University's Leithead. Doors are at 9 p.m. and the show will start at 10 p.m. Tickets are $5 for SLU students and $15 for the public and can be purchased at the SLU Bookstore or online at http://prettypolly.tickets.musictoday.com.
Kim Harrison: So, you're comin' to upstate New York. Have you ever been this far north before?
Gregg Gillis/Girl Talk: Uh, yeah, I've been to Canada, all parts of Canada, dark parts of Canada. I've been to Maine. What other states are above you? New England? I've been to upstate New York a few times: Poughkeepsie, yeah, I can't remember, but I've been in the area a few times.
KH: I was wondering, because your music you put out is so hook-oriented-you get to the point real fast with everything you use-were you into hook-oriented music when you were younger? What were you listening to that drew you into music at a young age?
GG: You know, I feel like with a lot of people, what you get into is a response to what you were into prior to that. So I was into pop, hiphop, rock music when I was young. The first music I can remember enjoying when I was in Kindergarten was kind of like hair metal with Def Leppard and Poison and things like that. The first music I started getting into like "buying" music was like hiphop, stuff under more pop-like, …and Kris Kros also, some more hardcore stuff like Public Enemy and NWA. After that, I also got into Nirvana and lots of alternative music. I feel like a lot of this project is a response to a lot of far out, experimental, noise stuff-a lot of stuff without hooks. But I mean, I always followed pop and hiphop throughout those times. Kind of the aesthetic of the music of things moving quickly is almost my influence from electronic music. I really like quickly edited electronic music, not necessarily hook-filled, but things that are always moving forward, and you know how chopped up and chaotic it can be while still being cohesive. I think that's something I strive to achieve with the Girl Talk stuff.
KH: Did you come up with mixing popular and rock and all of the great things you put together, did you do that on your own or was it that electronic music that influenced you to take it to that level?
GG: Yeah, I mean I definitely heard things, and you know it all goes back to the hip hop production, you know, when you listen to a Public Enemy record, you know, the bomb squad production is lots of samples. When you hear Paul's Boutique, there's tons of samples. When you hear De La Soul, lots of samples. But a lot of that stuff, when I was getting into it, I wasn't really breaking the music up in my head. I wasn't trying to think about how they made it or why they made it or what instruments were involved. It was just music to me. But I think a lot of people my age grew up listening to sampling as an instrument. The actual influence of me starting to do that style of music, I think, came from more or less my experimental days, where I heard guys like Kid666, John Oswald, Negativland, Evolution Control Committee; all of these people making very crazy, experimental electronic music out of samples, and I thought it was very exciting. I thought it was cool to, you know, make music that was progressive and challenging but was still appealing to people who didn't necessarily follow the scene, based on kind of pop references. So that was just the music I was really into in high school, and that kind of led me down the path to starting Girl Talk.
KH: That's great! So, as a musician myself, I am really curious about the process you go through when you are putting together these-I mean, your CDs are almost one continuous piece of music-do you dissect songs in your head and know how you are going to put them together ahead of time? Do you alter things on a computer and do it that way? What's your approach?
GG: It's very slow and drawn out. I think, you know, when you hear an album, it's basically after two years of a huge trial and error process. So, I mean, every day I sit down and I'll have, you know, a bunch of CDs sitting by the computer, a bunch of MP3s on the computer, things I think could be interesting to sample. That all starts with just isolated parts, you know, just a drum fill or a vocal breakdown or you know, an interesting keyboard solo or whatever. And I sample those parts and I do many variations of it. I chop them up, cut it in half, speed 'em up, slow 'em down, do different things to them. And then I try to start figuring out if any of that works with other material. When I get a drumbeat, you know, I'll figure out the tempo of it, figure out whether I like it sped up or slowed down. What does it really flow with rhythmically? What melodies does it match up with? And then same thing with the vocals, I mean, just try out different combinations and try and get these layers of material that work together. And usually, when it works it's a very small idea. I'll have a thirty second or a minute-long part that I enjoy, and then if I want to try playing that out live, in the live set, it's all kind of live sample trigger. And if I'm queuing up different loops and hooks and samples in real time, if I want to play one of these new parts live, I figure out where it fits in the set, you know, what does it come well after? What does it go good into? You know, I kind of have to figure out those transitions. And then I build from there. Maybe I really like the vocals but the melody's not working, and I've got a new melody at a similar tempo or similar key. So I'll put that in there instead. You know, most of the stuff I play live is just temporary. It will just be in there for a little bit, it'll be a new thing, and most people will never hear it again. And certain things sticks, and I keep playing it over and over and keep developing it. So, by the time I sit down to do an album, it will be about two years into that process, and I'll have a really good idea of where this begins and ends, and you know, what flows together and what goes into and out of everything else. So, it's like most of the album is all just, like, written in my head when I sit down to do it. I have a pretty good idea. I do build it as one composition; I build it as one track and that's the intention it is to me: the albums are basically one song. Feed the Animals is one piece of music and I separate the tracks just to make it easier to navigate.
KH: Did you ever study music traditionally? Did you play any instruments or anything?
GG: No. I mean, I played saxophone when I was very young, but not long enough to really consider myself to be actually trained in it.
KH: So you consider what you're doing to be a result of everything you've listened to and you processing it the way that you like it?
GG: Yeah, I mean, for me, I was obsessed with music when I was young. I don't really know why I didn't get a guitar. Maybe they were too expensive; I don't know what the reason was. I just never got an instrument. I was in bands in high school without having an instrument. To me, it was like, well, you just pick up a toy keyboard and you can play in a band or you can scream or you can do whatever. When I was young, maybe 12 or 13 I was starting lots of bands that never actually practiced. You just come up with a name and you figure out who's in it and it kind of goes nowhere. But that was just the nature of it and from there I kind of kept exploring more and more forms of underground music. I was interested in how little training you would need to have to be able to perform. To me, Nirvana was so exciting because they just seemed like normal guys. Even though they were very well trained in their instruments and they write pop music, as a young kid seeing that, it didn't really come across as necessarily professional. I think that's what I kind of liked about it. It just seemed like regular guys in ripped jeans and you know, just didn't seem to care that much. So that kind of led me down a path to just find more and more out about music. And when I was maybe 14 or 15 I really discovered experimental electronic music and I saw people using foot pedals and children's toys and all these crazy things as different instruments, and I started going to shows and buying records by people who had no formal training in music and that was just very exciting and raw to me. So, that's when I officially started up, I mean I started my first real band around 15 and it was all electronics and completely experimental and just unhinged weirdness, basically.
KH: I've read in interviews that you've said that your instrument is basically your laptop and that you can just pick it up and go wherever. I was wondering, what's your setup? What software do you use? Does what you do when you're recording and you're on your own differ from what you do during your live set?
GG: I use two primary pieces of software. One is Adobe Audition, which is just a sound editor. So that's where I cut up all the samples and I try to make beats and I sample songs. And then to perform live I use a piece of software called Audiomulch. And, like I was saying before, that is where I flesh out all of the ideas. So, when I perform live, I really feel like it's a bit more loose and freeform than the actual albums. One reason being that I just couldn't really click the mouse and edit as specifically as the album-it would just be impossible-and also because I like it to be a bit more loose. I don't want to rush through the material. I feel like, you know, if I was able to play at the speed and the density of the records with new material then I feel like it might be too much for people to really be able to enjoy upon a first listen. So, I think with the live show, it's like when I do an album, I kind of record myself performing live many different times and then I edit those down. So, it'll be like, for a section that lasts one minute long, I can perform that live, in the live setting, but then actually sitting down and editing it-get the transitions right, kind of piecing it together-it might take me eight hours to do that one one-minute segment. It's just a very fine-tuned, detail-oriented version of editing down the live shows.
KH: As your music has evolved, as you said from the more experimental to more pop and hip hop samples and everything, it's obvious your live show has evolved a lot too, just by seeing pictures through the years. When all of those people are up on the stage dancing, how does it affect your live performance? Is it distracting to you? Is it invigorating?
GG: You know, it's mostly exciting. I feel like that whole aspect of the performance kind of evolved to a point where I was no longer in the decision making process. It was definitely a component of the early days, when I started, always kinda gettin' in the crowd, getting a few people on stage. But it wasn't really a fundamental aspect that people would be on stage. So that kind of just took off in the past two years or so. Since then, it has slowly developed into the standard etiquette. You know, when people come out to shows, they know that's what they want to do. People in the front row are ready to get on stage. And that's cool, you know, I kind of let that happen. And at this point, it's just a matter of controlling it to a level where it isn't completely distracting. I've kind of done this on my own for many years and I officially got my first tour manager starting in November, and now he's the guy who kind of camps out on stage and helps brief the security and them ready just so the shows don't completely collapse. For a minute there, I was really interested in pushing the envelope in terms of chaos. I like the shows to kind of fall in and implode on themselves without anyone actually being hurt or problems like that. I just like the nature of just insanity and whether people could keep up with it or whether I could keep up with it or not. But it kind of reached a point where the shows got big enough and the crowds got tight enough that I just couldn't do it. It actually was reaching a point where most shows were ending prematurely. It was just too much. So we kind of fine-tuned it for a little bit there, and with people on stage now, you know, I like it. For me, it's a nice visual element for the crowd. I like to perform and get out there in the audience and stand and scream and do things like that, but technically I have to be clicking the mouse every few seconds to keep the show going. So, it's a nice visual for people who don't necessarily want to be up there, for people who just want to watch the show. On top of that, it's a lot more exciting for me to be able to dance and party with people. They are my response. How they are going helps govern the show. If they're excited about something or quiet about something it definitely impacts me in the moment. You kind of just have to reach somewhere in between where it can be completely insane and crazy and people are just jumping up there, but to some degree you have to control it or else everything will fall apart, I won't be able to move or things like that. I've played in some pretty intense situations at this point, you know, right in the middle of crowds or on the floor at larger venues and things like that. I feel well-schooled in being able to keep it together myself and I feel like I like to give the audience some degree of…I give them room to…the audience can completely destroy the show if they want to. Anyone can just smash my computer, unplug it, or fall into me or push me over. So I like to give them that freedom. I feel like it's a level of responsibility. A lot of times people are drunk and wasted and just trying to have a good time but oftentimes it's almost like we have to work together to make sure the show doesn't fall apart and I do like that kind of community feel to it.
KH: Have you ever been stuck at a venue where they were unhappy about letting people on stage? Have you ever had to fight for that?
GG: Yeah, that was another thing too with the learning curve of this. There was a period of about a few months whenever the popularity of this project started taking off a bit where not every show people got on stage. There was a big period where I'd show up at a venue and say you know, "people may get on stage, they've been doing it before, it's not every show, I really don't know." And then slowly it got to the point where it was like "oh wow, well, the past ten shows have all had people on stage," so it got to the point where I had to start telling them and informing them. I feel like we've just gotten better about that. Before, I never even used to talk to security and again I never had a tour manager or anything like that, but now it's something we try to advance. But there was a brief period where I didn't really tell them. I just wasn't sure what it was going to be like. I've had shows ended early, people freaking out, some university shows, a university stopping a show because they think it's out of control or forcing everyone offstage, or things like that. I've experienced all of that, you know, stages almost collapsing, things like that. But now I feel like it's at point where we've made a science out of making it happen. We control it to the point where it's not going to completely fall apart.
KH: You've proven through all of the festivals you've played and other shows that you've been on that you can fit in with a diverse bill of pretty much any kind of music. Is there any act that you'd love to share a stage with?
GG: I'm very excited, in the near future at a show at James Madison University I'm playing with Three Six Mafia, who are some people I've always listened to and some musical heroes of mine, so I'm really looking forward to that. Outside of that, you know, I'm down with whoever, I mean, at this point, including the festivals and stuff, I've had a chance to play Neil Young and The Police and Bone Thugs and Harmony and Wu Tang Clan. Yeah, it's really been an honor to do all of that, and at this point, you know, I really couldn't isolate anyone that I'd love to play with. I'd love to be on the same stage as Justin Timberlake some day.
KH: Are there any new acts that you'd really like to see succeed?
GG: Out of Pittsburgh, there are people I tour with, these are personal friends of mine, people really into their music: Grand Buffet is a hip-hop group from Pittsburgh I tour around with a lot, band called Hearts of Darknesses who I've toured with a lot over the years has a new record coming out, CX Kidtronik, I just had a tour with recently, I'd like to see take off, The Death Set, these are all kind of people I've shared stages with recently. Trying to think about any other bands I've seen recently, you know, those four kind of stand out in my mind, as just people I've had a chance to tour with I think they're very down to earth and know what's going on and have a pretty excellent musical project going on right now.
KH: Nice! You've been traveling around a ton. Is there any place you haven't been that you'd like to get to?
GG: I haven't really done Eastern Europe much, which would be exciting. The thing is, I went to Japan about four years ago before I really had a following, and I was playing more do it yourself style shows, very small shows. So I'd like to get back over there and I haven't done that in a long time. I basically haven't done that since Night Ripper came out. I'd be interested to go to Asia in general, it's a place I haven't really been over to too much, so I'm trying to make that happen for late summer this year.
KH: So, no day jobs since your engineering days?
GG: No, I quit about a year and a half ago. I tried to hold onto it as long as possible but these days I seem to be traveling like 150-200 days a year so it's hard to hold on to any job.
KH: If you have an iPod, how much music is on it? Otherwise your music collection, how much volume are we talking?
GG: I do have an iPod but I don't use it. My parents would be bummed out to hear that because they got it for me for Christmas a few years ago. But I don't really actively use an iPod. I also don't collect digital music really. I have lots of loops. I have thousands of loops and samples and things like that on my computer. But actual MP3s, I maybe have like 50 on there right now. I primarily buy CDs, what I've been buying since fifth grade. I don't have a number. I moved into a new place in Pittsburgh a few months ago and they're all still sitting in one room in a giant towel and I've been meaning to alphabetize them any time I get some time off but I never do it. But I am an active CD buyer. I'd have to say I probably bought more CDs this year than I have in my entire life. I like to buy full albums, I like to check out the artwork and do it the old-fashioned way. I'm excited about that and I hope to continue collecting CDs until I die. I have no idea how many I have. I wish I had a complete collection because half of them are like missing cases or just beat up or I can't find the CDs and things like that. But yeah, I actively buy compact discs and have been doing so for a long time.
KH: Speaking of CDs, are there any plans in the works for a new album or live album or anything like that?
GG: I don't know, you know. Right now I average about doing one album every two years. So that would mean this would be an off year for me since I put one out in 2008. I'm not sure, you know. I'm constantly working on music. I kind of am interested in the idea of potentially doing maybe a live release or giving away a live album because I know certain people bootleg sets and people get into them. I know certain bootlegs of mine people will enjoy more than the albums and with the live shows I like to do reinterpretations of album material so it's things that would never see the light of day unless it was released in a live form. So that's something I've been considering. Yeah, I don't know, I'm kind of constantly working and I have no real plans. I mean I usually decide on making something kind of spur of the moment-just do it.
KH: I think that what you're doing would really benefit from that live CD/DVD package that so many groups have been putting out.
GG: I love buying music DVDs, I just can't tell when people do that if consumers think, "oh they're just trying to bank in on this," or it's almost like buying time so they don't have to make a CD. I don't want it to come across like that at all. I do think it's cool, I think the live show's become it's own beast. I've toured so much and it's become such a staple project it's almost like a whole other world apart from the album. So yeah, I'm definitely kind of considering it.
KH: That sounds great. Well, we're all looking forward to seeing you in April.
GG: Cool, cool.
KH: Thank you so much for talking to me today.
GG: Cool, have a good one.