The Complete Interview with Girl Talk’s Greg Gillis
This week’s Data Breaker feature is on Girl Talk (Greg Gillis), who plays Chop Suey Sat. Jan. 27 with Velella Velella and Library Science. Unfortunately, I could only fit a small fraction of the Girl Talk interview in the column, but in the interest of providing hardcore GT fans added value, I present the complete Q&A.
Did you have any inkling at all when you were playing tiny shows and house parties in Cleveland that you'd blow up to this magnitude?
Girl Talk: I knew that my latest album was more accessible than my previous efforts, but I had no idea it was going to get to this level. I was set in an underdog mentality for a while because of the little attention given to my last few releases and tours. So, it definitely blew my mind when the new album snowballed to the point where it’s at now. It’s funny because I used to always have amazing support from my friends in Cleveland, and those shows would get completely out of control. It was like a pretend world because I knew everyone, but now, every show is like that.
Do you enjoy the relatively lofty degree of fame that you hold now, or is it becoming a hassle?
I do have less free time than I would like, but I really have no room to complain. I’ve been playing sold-out shows, signing autographs, and occasionally being recognized in the airport. It’s been great.
Some people think that Night Ripper is the epitome of the ADD sampladelic album. Have you started working on the follow-up to it? If so, do you plan to go in a new direction or will you try surpass what you did on Night Ripper?
Since the day that Night Ripper was released, I have been working on new material for live shows. It seems to be a process that never stops for me, just sampling new material, cutting up beats, trying to work it into my live sets. I have no direct plans for the next release, though. I don’t know if it’ll be more frantic or chilled out. It was kind of like that with Night Ripper, as well, where I was working on live material for more than a year with no concrete idea of what the next album was going to sound like and then finally realized that I was sitting on 40 minutes’ worth of material that could be an album.
What can people expect with your live show these days? You have a rep for wild antics compared to most laptop performers. Videos I’ve seen of recent shows indicate that there’ll be lots of dancers mobbing the stage.
think my performances used to be more theatrical back when people were less inclined to be excited about seeing me. I used to feel more a need to perform. But lately, it seems that everyone has been coming out to the shows, ready to let loose, so it’s typically a mess of insanity. I still love interacting with and sweating all over the audience as much as possible. I like the shows to be a combination of a rock show, where you can sit back and watch someone perform live music, and a house party, where you can go jump on the guy playing music.
Will you play album tracks as a jumping-off point for improvising or will the tracks adhere closely to their recorded versions? Something else entirely?
I use bits and pieces from the album and mix it up with a bunch of new material. Before every show, I set up a template of samples and loops that I need to practice in order to get the proper combinations and transitions down to a science. So this is like my songwriting and rehearsing process. I play all of this material on the fly in the live setting, but the order and style I’ll go through is set in my mind, like a song. I try to change it up as much as possible to keep it interesting for me, but I also like to blast Night Ripper favorites.
What's the craziest live situation you've experienced?
I played a show in my hometown of Pittsburgh over Thanksgiving weekend. My parents and sister were at the show. My sister came from her 10-year high-school reunion with an amazingly dressed crew. The crowd rushed the stage, and it was going great for a while. All control was eventually lost, people and speakers were being knocked over and cords were being kicked out. I launched myself into the crowd. I accidentally went right over my dad’s head and landed face-first into my sister’s best friend. I got up, and my front left tooth was cracked into pieces. That was the end of the show. I have a new tooth now.
In order to create an album like Night Ripper it seems like you have to be in almost constant hyper-analytical mode. It strikes me as ironic that one of this decade's ultimate party records resulted from a kind of obsessive nerdishness that one expects from social outcasts.
Yeah, well, I am an engineer by day so I think that says a little bit about my work style. I’ve always wanted to make fun, party music, but when putting together Night Ripper, I never intended it to be some sort of ultimate party record. To me, an ultimate party record would be a much more traditional DJ mix. I was trying to walk the line between making something interesting as a composition, something you can listen to by yourself, and something that would be enjoyable to get drunk to with you friends. To me, it’s kind of experimental dance music. Traditional dance music is much more repetitive, and that is a successful formula, which has been proven time and time again at every club in the world. I’m absolutely juiced that people want to party and dance to this record, though. It’s just not the exact response I expected.
Do you actually like every song you sample or do you view some of them as simply useful to your overall project, mere cogs in your Rube Goldberg machine?
I like every song I sample. I’m a pop-music enthusiast. I have an easy time getting into almost any song on some level, whether it is a specific instrument part or the concept. Sometimes, there’s just amazing, tiny chunks buried within a whole song that may not be my favorite.
With regard to the last question, what are your main criteria for choosing samples? Does sheer absurdity play a role in the selection process? Is there any genre you won’t sample and, if so, why?
I pretty much sample anything I listen to. I like to focus on Top-40 songs because I think recontextualization of familiar elements is an amazing process. In pairing two or more things up, disparate material usually makes for interesting combinations. I am open to sampling any genre, but older recordings make it more difficult because the songs are oftentimes put together more loosely, not edited as tightly in time.
Have you been courted by other record labels in the wake of Night Ripper's success? Are you contemplating leaving Illegal Art for a bigger company?
I’ve been in contact with a number of major labels, with people wanting me to do remixes for individual bands and possibly entire catalogs of music. But most of those connections seem fickle. I’ve been dealing with Illegal Art for five years, and the main guy, Philo, has supported all of the music I’ve put together. It has changed quite a bit, and he’s stuck by every project. I really like him and trust the label, so I plan to continue working with them in the future.
What years did you live in Cleveland? Were you going to college there? Did you grow up around that city?
I grew up in Pittsburgh, then I went to school in Cleveland at Case Western Reserve University from 2000 to 2004. I started doing solo music as Girl Talk in 2000, so my Cleveland years and friends were heavily influential to what I am currently doing, musically and performance-wise. I moved back to Pittsburgh after school.
For whom have you been doing remixes?
I just finished up a remix for the band Grizzly Bear. That one uses samples so it may be an internet-only release, unless Illegal Art wants to mess with it. I’ve also recently finished up work for Beck, Peter, Bjorn & John, Bonde Do Role, and Good Charlotte.
Will you close out the Seattle show with a cover of Nirvana’s "Scentless Apprentice"?
I’ve been doing that cover for a good while now. I’ve tried fading it out recently, but I can’t resist doing it when shows need that extra push. This is actually my first time to Seattle, so it may have to go down. I plan on visiting the muddy banks of the Wishkah.