I interviewed Girl Talk (Pennsylvania mashup specialist Gregg Gillis) for a feature in advance of his Capitol Hill Block Party appearance Friday July 26 on the Main Stage (he goes on at 10:45 pm; see our CHBP guide here). Not everything we discussed made it into the print version, so I’m running the outtakes here. When we spoke last week, Gillis had recently been working on his next album in Philadelphia with studio accomplice Frank Musarra (Hearts of Darknesses).
The Stranger: The last time we spoke was 2007. I imagine a lot has changed for you since then.
Girl Talk: 2007 was probably when I was quitting my job. There’s not been a dramatic change in my personal life or anything; it’s just been a lot more time dedicated to this project. It’s been gradual. There have been a lot of steps in bringing new people on, the shows increasing in size, and learning how to deal with each step and trying to keep it interesting and making it applicable to the bigger venues.
What new people are involved in Girl Talk?
With the show, we’ve added a lighting guy. In 2007, I was probably touring alone. I did that for as long as possible. Then I brought on a tour manager and a lighting guy. The shows hit a point where I couldn’t interact with the crowd in the way I liked to, so I brought some friends to handle physical props—confetti and blowing toilet paper into the crowd and getting in the crowd in the way I wish I could, but the music production got involved enough where I can’t really do that as much. Bringing on a lighting guy and custom video and all those things, it’s been growing but not always bigger. The show’s always changing. We have an arsenal of things we can’t do and depending on where and when it is, where it is, all those things will impact what I would do at the show.
Who’s your visuals person?
For a while it was Andrew Strasser, a guy who went to Cleveland Institute of Art. You might have seen his work at Speak in Tongues [a defunct Cleveland DIY/all-ages venue where I used to see loads of great shows when I lived there from 1994 to 2002]. He’s done all of my artwork. For a while he did all of the visuals and then recently we transferred over to a collaborative thing with a woman from Australia named Rachel Johnson. There are a lot of tech-oriented people working with effects and those sorts of things.
Is it part of your strategy to create unlikely match-ups and juxtapositions?
Yeah. The goal’s always to create something that will stand on its own and become something new. When you’re combining two hardcore rap songs together, it’s hard to do something where it really becomes something of its own. Picking things from seemingly different worlds allows you to manipulate both where it can seem like its own entity. Finding those connections between things that seem like they’re very far away, stylistically or music-era-wise or mood. For me the stuff that always works in terms of this is becoming transformative, when you’re really finding connections between the different worlds.
[The way Girl Talk blends Sly & the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music" and Edgar Winter Group's "Free Ride" near the end is genius.]
A common tactic you use is to pitch up male singers’ voices so they sound like women. What is the rationale behind that? Is it because you’re pitching up EVERYTHING to give the track more oomph, so the vocals naturally go up, too?
That is part of it. I perform on a program called Audiomulch. When you’re putting loops in there it pitches it depending on the tempo. When putting together the music, I do like some level of dissonance to it, where it doesn’t sound exactly like it could be on the radio. I mean, there’s so much pitch-shifting on the radio, but I like the quirkiness of that, both with vocals dropped down and screwed and chopped as well as things that are pitched up. Even on my earlier records, oftentimes I was going after a more technical sound influenced by what was going on in IDM. The pitched-up vocals and increasing the tempo allowed it to sound more technical and increase the precision and cutting up the beats and all that. Just changing the cadence and pitch a little bit allows me to put my own stamp on it and take it a little further away from the original context.
Who are some of your favorite female musicians, both from a sampling standpoint and just for pure listening?
I’ve always loved Stereolab and Juliana Hatfield. And so many female rappers. Diamond stands out. In the past few years, I’ve been a fan of Nicki Minaj. Going back to when I was young, I was really into Queen Latifah.
Does your fan base contains a higher percentage of women than men? Any theories why?
It’s difficult to say the girl fan base because the people who come out to the shows don’t necessarily represent who’s listening to the music. But at shows I would say it’s 50/50, which is a higher ratio than most music shows I’m used to going to see. I would say that’s a solid number and it could even favor toward women at times. It’s tough without having an overreaching stereotypes to summarize that, but I sample so much different pop music, for people who are willing to drop their guard a bit and be open to all these different things, some listeners have a hard time being into certain levels of pop. They’re not comfortable with that for whatever reason. Certain male listeners might feel comfortable openly admitting being into Britney Spears or something like that. Whereas I feel a lot of female listeners are more open-minded to all those different things, whether it’s hardcore rap or death metal or stuff that’s on the radio. Again, I’m not trying to over-summarize, but it comes down to, I have a big male fan base, as well, obviously, but women draw the line through music differently. They’re less concerned about masculinity or this being obscure enough for them to seem cool.
Can you discuss what your next album will sound like? Using any new methods of creation? New direction? Will you be throwing in any genres you’ve not deployed before?
I have two different kinds of batches of material I’m working on right now. One is stuff related to the last few records. It’s building on that similar idea. That stuff I’ve not been thinking of releasing it so much in terms of having new material for the live show and doing different stuff for these summer shows. That material I’m really excited about. I think there’s a lot of growth from the last material.
My production ability’s changed. There’s a lot more integration of subtle synth stuff, different kind of production techniques on that. The other stuff I’ve been working on is a bit of a departure from what I’ve been doing. I think that will most likely be my next release. I can’t go into detail about what it will sound like, because I don’t really know yet. But I do have three hours of source material, finished stuff I like. I just need to find the specific vision within that of where it’s going to go. But with that material I’m dabbling with working with some samples I really love and have been thinking about using for years but didn’t fit into the context of the last few albums or the live material.
Some of the stuff’s a little more obscure. Some of it’s very famous source material, but it’s cut up to the point where you can’t notice it as much. It’s working with samples in a slightly different way. It’s almost like my earliest material was focused on stuff like that. It was less straight-up mashups and more taking a pre-existing song and making your own melody out of individual notes, manipulating to the point where you can’t tell what it is or where it comes from. I don’t think I’m going back to stuff that sounds like my initial records, but some of the techniques I’m using now are related. That material I’ve been really excited about. It’s been liberating and fun. It’s a lot of ideas I’ve been sitting on for years, but I just haven’t had a chance to do it. that’s what I’m working on with Frank [Musarra] in Philadelphia. There are a couple of other people I’m collaborating with, throwing off ideas. I think that will be my next release. Hopefully that will be out within the year.
Are you still with Illegal Art?
Yeah, but recently they have gone on hiatus. They’ve been doing it for 15 years and they’re not trying to release music as much anymore. My last record was internet only. With this new record I do want to talk to them and see what level they would like to be involved. They’ve put out all of my records. They’ve been great partners. They’ve supported me with everything I’ve done. We’ve experienced a lot of new things at the same time. If they want to be involved, I would love that. But I think they’re trying to cut it down a bit.
Are any other labels interested?
It’s funny because over the years I’ve heard from music-business people ranging from managers—to this day I don’t have a manager; I still manage myself—and labels have not show interest in me based on sample issues. In 2006 and 07 I heard from some label people, but recently not at all. And I haven’t pitched in front of anyone. I feel like if Illegal Art doesn’t want to be involved then I’m happy doing it myself and taking it to the internet.
Have you been free of legal problems? Has anybody come at you with cease-and-desist orders?
Everything’s good. No real issues. With the last record, a couple of conversations came up, but nothing close to a cease and desist. A couple people have reached out over the years, just curious about what it was. Depending on who the person is, you might have to explain the whole idea behind fair use or even the Illegal Art catalog and what I’ve been doing all of these years. All of those conversations have been civil and people have been cool.
I’ve had major-label people pitching me songs or a cappellas or instrumentals. A lot of label people are excited if one of their songs gets included in the live set or on a record.
What do you have planned for the Block Party show?
Production-wise, I don’t know exactly what we can do yet. It depends on when we can load in and all of that. musically, I’m excited that I’ll be playing a lot of stuff for the first time. I’ve been taking this year pretty lightly on the road. Starting in 2006, I’ve been doing like 100-200 shows a year. This year I’ve just had a handful so far. So I’ve had a lot of time to work on new material and I haven’t had a chance to play a lot of it out. That’s always the most exciting thing for me—to have stuff I think is good and people have a chance to hear it for the first time and gauge those reactions. Out of the two batches of material I mentioned, the one that’s the departure, I don’t think I’ll be playing any of that yet. I am working on the set over the next few days and if something happens to pop and I love it then maybe. But there will still be a lot of new material, even if potentially it won’t be anything that appears on my next release.
I’m an obsessive worker with whatever I do. It becomes overwhelming. I just wanna do it all the time. I have a hard time pacing myself sometimes. I try to make decisions with Girl Talk not based on what’s going to sustain it as a career. That’s not why I started doing it and that should never be the focus. In a year or five years or whenever, if it slows down or people start hating what I’m doing, that’s cool. If I have to go back to the engineering job, I’m very comfortable with that.
It seems like nobody’s really doing what you’re doing anymore. Do you see any competition?
No. I’ve actively tried to have my own lane, dating from 10 years ago. Obviously I’m influenced by a lot of things and have borrowed ideas and styles from things ranging from the Beastie Boys to Public Enemy to Kid606 and lots of other things. But I’ve always worked to have my own lane, especially in 2013 where there’s a new, hyped sound every month and then everyone’s on it and then sick of it a month later. In the electronic-music world, you see a lot of people jumping from ship to ship to ship to shop. It’s cool to take in what’s going on and be influenced by that, but I think the best way to go about it is to try to have your own spin on it. That’s what I’ve tried to do, even back in the Speak in Tongues days [defunct Cleveland experimental-music venue that flourished in the ’90s]. I liked a lot of that scene and music, but I felt like I never totally fit in like on a show opening for Hrvatski or something. I feel like I’ve never really fit in anywhere exactly. It’s not a problem. I’m excited about that. with the project that I mentioned was a departure, that music is related to other things that exist, but I’m hoping that it’s its own thing. It’s a healthy place to be. When you’re there you find people who are into that. The worst thing you can have is that fickle crowd that jumps from thing to thing. That’s a tough crowd to cater to. I’ve always tried to cultivate my own little vision and the people who are along for the ride can be down.