A Girl Talk show is a unique and unforgettable experience. It’s a chaotic dance party where the DJ is mobbed by fans desperate to dance on stage. All of this is welcomed by Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk), who has become one of the most discussed artists in music over the past several years.
Gillis crafts songs that are compiled with samples of (often) recognizable songs, maybe a vocal hook here or a bassline there or a drum fill from somewhere else. Somehow it sounds chaotic and random but also flows together cohesively. His most recent album, Feed the Animals found itself on a lot of critics’ top ten lists last year (including placing fifteenth overall in the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop poll). It was offered online for fans to download in June of 2008 for whatever price they wanted to pay, followed by a subsequent CD release in November.
Girl Talk has two upcoming Seattle shows, the first is on Friday, September 18 at the Showbox Sodo and sold out quickly and a second show was added on Monday, September 21 at the Showbox at the Market. In advance of those shows, I spoke with Gregg Gillis by phone about how he finds inspiration for sampling, his chaotic live shows and what he’s working on next.
When in the process of crafting songs do you realize that it will work to go from Quad City DJs to Kelly Clarkson, via Nine Inch Nails?
I don’t think I figure that out until later in the process. I might be listening to music and hear Quad City DJs and say that’s a classic song and I love that verse or you hear Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish” and realize that guitar riff is perfect and it’s isolated with no vocals over it and it’s very distinct. I can fill that in. When I listen to music, certain things come out. I can go home and sample and isolate those elements. I sample a lot more material than you actually hear at a show or on an album. I sample maybe ten songs for every one song I actually use. Maybe for a day, or a week, or a month, a very long period of time, I work on isolating pieces of songs and quantizing them and cutting them up.
Once I have a lot of them organized, I sit down, and using the software I use live, where I trigger samples and load in loops and change tempos and change different things; some things work together and better than others. From there, I work that into the show. I have new ideas where a new song came out of a new song. Maybe I don’t have too much nineties alternative music in the set so I use Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish” and it goes pretty well with Kelly Clarkson. Every weekend, I try to just integrate new parts into the set, small things each week – maybe a minute or thirty seconds, or whatever. Sometimes it works well and sometimes it doesn’t, but you learn from that at each show. I try to work on everything, the transitions – how one thing flows into another, the peaks and valleys of the set – and slowly, over time, that evolves and takes shape. When I sit down to make an album I realize that this part goes really well with this part and things that became staples in sets become very normal to me because they work well. Other things I may play once and never play them again. I think by the time I actually do the album, it’s almost a juxtaposition of what I thought was the best material I thought from the performances.
When you play your live shows, do you start with a blank slate and fill in the samples from there?
It’s actually the opposite of a blank slate. I never wanted this to be something that was anywhere near complete improvisation or anything like a magic trick. If I feel like playing Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” right now and I’ll figure out something to throw on top of it on the fly. I trigger everything by hand and have samples queued up live and have hundreds and hundreds of loops. Because of that, the arrangements and organization kind of have to be set beforehand. I think of it more in terms of like a jam band where you have a set idea but there are places where you have to improvise. The idea that song A will layer on top of song B will layer on top of song C well, that is set and that’s in front of me. When I drop that or bring in the drums or how I transition in and out of there, how I cut it up on the fly, all of that stuff is improvised to a certain degree. I have elements in front of me and I can jump to this or jump to that, but there is a general organization to the arrangements before the show and it’s something that I rehearse and practice. For me, it’s always been about composition and the precision of the sets. I think a lot of times if you hear a set it sounds like a random group of samples but it’s a very calculated randomness. I wanted it to come across as eclectic and unpredictable. That’s also how I want the album to sound.
How do you listen to music to get ideas for what to sample? Do you flip through the radio dial and go from station to station?
I get in and out of different modes. At any given time I have a list in front of me of songs I want to get into my set and it never seems to dry up. If I’m looking for samples, I can go to that list. I’m always writing things down in my car or texting myself and keeping a text document going on the desktop of my computer. Outside of that, though, when I’m listening to music, I do just listen to Top 40 radio or check out a hip hop station or check out an oldies station. Sometimes, I’m also buying a lot of CDs. Sometimes I’ll be in a mood where I am not hunting for samples and sometimes I am really trying to change the setup at some point in my life. I still go out and buy a lot of CDs and when I pop in a CD into the car or at home and I’m listening to a full album, that’s less of a hunt for samples and more zoning out and listening to music. There are other times where I have a show coming up in Seattle, and I played there a little over a year ago and want to look into what I probably played at that show and how to change it up and may be hunting for specific samples for that. In that regard, I might get in the car and flip around and think maybe I need some new hip hop content and focus the radio there or maybe I need some sort of eighties content and focus it there. I definitely use the radio as a tool but, as I said before, there is such a never-ending list that it never gets to the point where I ask “what song am I going to sample next?” I have no idea and it just doesn’t end with the world of pop and Top 40.
When someone listens to your music, it’s often like hearing a history of pop music or pop culture over the past twenty or twenty five years, or so. You’ll find a song that is on the radio right this moment and sample it and maybe use a bassline that might be forty years old.
Absolutely. I basically sample from whatever I’m into. I don’t make a conscious effort to represent anything I’m not into. I’m not sampling anything for history’s sake or anything like that. I do like a lot of pop music, dating back to the fifties or sixties. Doing the shows and the albums, I like it to be as “all over the place” as possible; I love to have elements from the sixties mixed with elements from the nineties to now. In the world of pop music, you’re never going to fully represent everything. When people come out to the shows, the audience might not listen to the radio or listen to oldies as much as I do but that doesn’t necessarily matter. These are songs people maybe have heard a couple of times in the dentist’s office or in a TV commercial or whatever. I remember listening to a lot of hip hop as a kid and hearing James Brown samples and maybe hadn’t heard the actual song but you could tell where it was coming from or you can get a sense that it was a previously existing recording manipulated; I really liked that idea.
I do think a lot of your audience does recognize where the samples came from, even if they won’t admit to it immediately.
Yeah, I think it’s the sort of thing where I think the reaction is interesting to engage. With the show, it is such a chaotic environment where fans are drinking and talking and screaming and because of that, I feel like I’m a bit more aggressive or blatant. There might not be as many subtle elements as there are on an album. On an album, I can work in things that I think sound really great but wouldn’t have the same impact live without people knowing it. Certain things I put on an album, I know that people are going to hear that over and over again and become familiar with it. A lot of the more subtle elements are slightly more obscure and nothing is obscure in the world of pop or Top 40 but maybe a crowd I’m playing to likes slightly more obscure stuff. I love putting that on an album and that becomes a familiar thing even if it is an obscure song from 1978 and then I can drop that live and get a reaction. I don’t want a show to be where I am hitting them over the head with one extreme thing that they know after another.
Where did it start with people running on stage to dance behind and next to you?
It was a sort of thing that back in day, when I was getting started I’d play venues where there wasn’t a stage. Back then, it was very common to play on the floor and setup your stuff in the middle of people and I always really liked that. When I was starting to get some momentum with Girl Talk, which I think was around 2004, I started to play a lot more house parties and I wasn’t necessarily playing them as a traditional DJ-style of sitting in a corner cutting up tracks; it became an integral part [of the show]. It would be kind of weird as a performance that I would be set up in the middle playing and people would be around me during the show, playing fifteen or twenty minute sets. I was playing a lot of house parties but I was also playing a lot of clubs, opening up for hip hop groups or a rock band or whatever. It always made sense to me that “why couldn’t we have this energy or closeness” and I was bringing a couple of people on stage. For a brief period of time, I had people synchronized dancers on stage with me, but all of that was to break the ice. By the time I started to exist on a more national level, when Night Ripper came out, I already had the idea of pulling people up on stage already from those early shows, but that was the time when I was actually selling out venues that it just took off. Slowly it just evolved where people were jumping up without being asked and it grew to where it was happening at every show and now everyone wants to get up on stage now. That was never a decision of mine; it just naturally grew into that – and I liked it. I always liked the idea of that because it helps break the barrier between everyone. I like and appreciate that it grew almost [completely] by the fans’ decision. It’s almost like a mosh pit at a punk rock show where there’s a pre-determined etiquette and it evolved into that over the years.
I love the energy of those shows but I was always curious if it was hard to concentrate on the music and mixing your set while people are bumping into you.
Yeah, a little bit. When we were first starting out, it started to evolve where everyone was jumping up there and it was a different vibe then. There were just a few people up there and they were letting me do my thing but it became big enough where it was a little bit of a battle. When that started happening, there would be a lot of shows where a cord would be unplugged or someone would bump into me and mess me up or whatever, but that came with the turf. It wasn’t something I would want to happen at any show, but simultaneously, it was the sort of thing I welcome and I like the human element to it. It is the show and if someone screws me up, someone screws me up and I deal with it. It brings me back to that house party-sort of feel where someone knocks over the stereo and everyone boos but then when you get it back in line, everyone goes nuts.
I think over the past year or so we’ve fine tuned the operation to control the chaos. I actually have a tour manager for the first time and he helps out. I’m cool with people bumping into me but there was definitely a time when the shit could hit the fan and shows could be stopped prematurely, or lots of issues like that, but in the past year, that hasn’t been the case. People definitely mess me up to a certain degree, but I feel like it all adds to the character of the show.
I remember the last show I saw of yours was at the Capitol Hill Block Party last year and security controlled how many people were let on stage.
That was obvious a festival and for years I played shows and there was never a barricade in front of the stage and we always requested that there would be no barricade if the venue was small enough but it became unreasonable to have every single person come on stage. We kind of learned that the hard way but we try our hardest to make that possible, but there are just so many shows that got completely out of control or we had to just stop it. But for a festival like that, we’ll open the gate for a minute and people up front can run up and be a part of a show. But for something like that, with a crowd of that size, you can’t just let it become a free for all. It would just become too much.
I know I’m almost out of time, but I wanted to ask what are you working on now? A similar album to your last two, Night Ripper and Feed the Animals, or something completely different?
I don’t really know. At every stage, I’m always working on the live show and that goes to influence what goes on the albums. Right now I have a lot of new material for the live show that I’m pumped about but I haven’t even thought about sitting down to make an album yet. I want to make sure things are evolving into a certain direction and moving forward. I definitely think that there was a clear transition between Feed the Animals and Night Ripper and I thought that was a step forward, production-wise. I’m not necessarily concerned with the next album yet, but I am sitting on a lot of new material and that will probably go on to become something. Right now I’m just thinking about the shows next weekend. I also do remixes with a friend named Frank (Mussara) and we have a project called Trey Told ‘Em and that’s been a little more active recently, doing remixes. We just finished up a remix for Kings of Leon and we’re working on a few other things. That’s more of a traditional, solicited remix; that’s something I’d definitely like to develop more. Girl Talk is definitely at the forefront, but this is something I’ve had some time to toy with over the past few months.