Chit Chat with Girl Talk
It seems to happen every summer. A band or performer will pop up at Langerado and SXSW and by the time Camp Bisco and moe.down roll around, they already feel like an old friend. While any number of musicians have made a name for themselves during the festival circuits ever expanding calendar season, few have both amazed and puzzled concertgoers as much as Gregg Gillis a.k.a. Girl Talk. Known for both his unique samples and crazy onstage theatrics, which range from dancers to nudity, Girl Talk has quickly became a festival favorite, appearing at Langerado, Bonnaroo, Coachella, Pitchfork and many other summer gatherings. Next week, the non-DJ will mix with a number of other electronic performances at the 2007 edition of Camp Bisco, which takes place in Mariaville, NY. Below, Gillis discusses his unique performance approach, introduction to the jam-scene and how a recent Boston performance almost turned into widespread panic.
*MG- This summer youve played both electronic and rock music events. Do you consider yourself a DJ? *
GT- I never actually really considered myself a DJ. I have been creating sample oriented music my whole life and I started Girl Talk about seven years ago. At first I was making very experimental music and these sound collages, using skipping CDs and things like that. So, my first album [2002s Secret Diary was definitely a bit more experimental than my second album [2004s Unstoppable, which was more beat-driven and dance-friendly, though people never really used the term DJ to describe my music. There is definitely a fine line between whether someone is DJing music or making richer music out of samples. It wasnt until after my last release [2006s Night Ripper, which was a continuous mix of samples, that people started to describe me as a DJ. *MG- Do you view your live show is a reflection of your studio work or a chance to create something entirely new and original? *
GT- Every album tends to be a reflection of what I have been doing for the past two years live, so my last album has been a reflection of what I have been doing for the last two years and Ive decided to stick with that material since the album came out. At certain shows people want to hear material off Night Ripper, so I throw pieces of that in. But, in general, I have been playing in a similar style to Night Ripper, but with all new material. On CD I can edit everything really, really tightly by hand and spend hours and hours and hours making thirty second samples. Live my sound it is a bit looser and easier to dance to since I cant edit as quickly as when I am sitting down. *MG- After many years, this summer you left your job in the medical world to focus on Girl Talk fulltime. What has that transition been like? *
GT- Its been about two months now and its been pretty crazy. It definitely doesnt feel like it has been a job-free summer [laughs]. Its just funny because I was cramming in a lot of different projects together when I had a day job and now I can sleep a little later and really focus on my music. But its still crazy that my work station is like five feet from where I sleep, so at any moment when I cant sleep or during a commercial break from a TV show Im watching, I can be working. So, it can become a bit of an obsessive thing. *MG- Next weekend you are playing Camp Bisco. Earlier this summer you also played Bonnaroo, Coachella, Pitchfork and Langerado. What was the process of adapting your show to a festival stage like? *
GT- I come from a background very not in the DJ world, so Ive never really played clubs. I usually only play dirty bars, basements and art spaces. A big part of my show has always been about breaking it all down and making things as approachable as possible. I was actually pretty worried about playing these bigger festivals because of the separation between the crowd and the audience, but what I realized, especially at Bonnaroo, was that while you lose a bit of that intimacy, you gain all this energy which doesnt exist at a club show. If you get a few thousand people in one area, the energy is just insane. I just space it out more musically. My show can either be more punk-rock and in your face or more of a dance party and I find my show is usually more of a dance party at festivals. *MG- How would you compare the various festivals youve played this summer? *
GT- This is the first year I had been part of any major festivals. Prior to this summer I had done some smaller scale festivals, but this summer has been great. I mean, every festival is so different in terms of the scene they are trying to push. Every festival, from Bonnaroo to Pitchfork, has a diverse lineup, but they are still so different in terms of the style and how reflective the city is on the festivals feel. Especially with Coachella which has such an LA vibe versus Bonnaroo which has that country, peaceful feel to it. But Im a huge music junky in general and also like to party a lot, so all summer long its been great. Festivals give me a chance to chill out, hang with other bands and see new people. It is just a blast getting so many people in the same area. *MG- Obviously you have pretty eclectic taste in music. What is the first genre that inspired you to start creating your own music? *
GT- The first music I grew up listening to was the genre of New Jack Swing. It was a very pop, approachable form of hip-hop and I still stand by a lot of that music. I think it is the underdog of 1990s music because of its sampling. If you listen to that style it is almost what I am going for. It is all these individual drum tracks, loops and they might go through 30 samples in a track, but the way they present it sounds like a cohesive track which isnt jumbled at all. From there I got really into rap music, Public Enemy and NWA. Just hearing NWA as a pre-teen kid was pretty mind blowing. It felt very raw, but of course when Nirvana burst on the scene that changed my world. So, I am definitely a 1990s kid in terms of what influenced me musically. It was just as cool and exciting to listen to NWA as it was Nirvana. People were doing very weird things in your face and not caring what the masses were doing. *MG- Its interesting you mention that. I think Nirvana exposed a lot of people to more experimental forms of music. *
GT- I saw Nirvana wearing Sonic Youth t-shirts and from there found out about noise and experimental music. When I discovered college radio in Pittsburgh and found out that you could make noise without having any traditional talent, I really flipped my lid. It was an extension of that Nirvana energy. They got together these great pop songs and as a kid that sounded great, but then I discovered the noise beneath. Thats when I started putting together my own little bands and projects. *MG- Do you feel your music, which samples such a wide range of styles, has inspired kids to dig deeper into your influences? *
GT- I do definitely a sense of that, especially through MySpace. A hip-hop kid will ask me about a sample or some indie-rock kid will e-mail me about Public Enemy. If you wear your influences as blatantly on your sleeve as I do, it exposes people to all these new styles and sounds. *MG- 2007 is really the first year you started playing jamband events with regularity. How familiar were you with the scene before Langerado? *
GT- I had heard of the Disco Biscuits before they asked me to play Camp Bisco and have since investigated them a little bit more. I try to pay attention to as many different types of music as possible, but was surprised how much I have been embraced by the jam-community, particularly at festivals like Langerado and Bonnaroo. Not that those are necessarily just jam-festivals, but at the same time I met a lot of jamband people there who came out and saw my show for the first time. They really broke it down for me in terms of the different bands and scene. I know of the Disco Biscuits and I have heard them and I am excited to check out Slick Rick at Camp Bisco.
One of my best friends is a total jam-dude and, at this point, everyone knows someone who is really into Phish or the Grateful Dead. So, of course, Ive heard the music, but it wasnt until Langerado that I experienced it first hand. Bonnaroo really drove it home for me in terms of how open the community was. Without necessarily understanding the scene, I always thought what I do live is really a jam. I have a setlist that I stick to, but. if I wanted to, I could stick to the same loop for the entire show. How I get through the setlist each night is very different and it is definitely a jam. *MG- Its become the norm for you to invite your audience onstage during your performances. How long has that element been part of your show? *
GT- In the past year or so that has really developed. Before then my music was less accessible and danceable and there were also less people there [laughs]. A band can kill it but if they dont have any fans then its not going to be as cool an experience [laughs]. My early shows were much more performance-oriented, usually with me opening for a hip-hop or rock band. People would sit down with their arms crossed and it was up to me to interact with the audience. So, Id always jump in the audience and draw people onstage when I could. But, as my fanbase started to build up, it just happened one night, very naturally and people came onstage. When I play I actually have to click every 10-15 seconds to create my music. So, while I try to perform, I technically have to be playing the computer, so it added a very specific visual component to the show and it was entertaining to watch people dancing. And if they wanted to party with the guy making the music you could do that too. It was a YouTube phenomena. People saw it and now it has became the edict at my shows, like getting in a mosh pit at a Dead Kennedys show. *MG- Recently you got into some trouble at a Widespread Panic show because of the way some fans behaved. Can you talk about what exactly happened? *
GT- There werent any problems with the band and it actually wasnt much of a problem at all. At that show I knew I had to play very early and a few people had e-mailed me about the show. They didnt want to pay for tickets because it was a little more than they were usually used to paying for a normal Girl Talk show and I was playing an abbreviated set.
So, I had about 5 or 6 friends in the Boston area who were going to come out and jam with me onstage. A few people e-mailed me last minute and I had some room on my guest list, so I asked them if they wanted to dance with me onstage. But two of the girls got completely wasted, which is fine with me if they are able to hold their own, but they were too wasted. Security wouldnt let them onstage which is a problem we face a lot, so they kind of were hanging out and jamming in the area between the stage and the barricade. But this one girl got so drunk she passed out and pissed her pants. Security obviously had to kick her out and then they went a little far by kicking all my friends out, even though some of them hadnt been drinking. But I can see why they did it.
It was just a funny situation. I was supposed to play both before Widespread and between their sets, but they cancelled the second set after the incident. I completely understand [laughs]. The situation looks sloppy and they were almost doing me a favor by paying me to do these short sets. It was just unfortunate because the first set was such a joke and there were 30 people in this giant, empty amphitheater. I stuck around to see Widespread Panic and I think it would have been interesting to see how my set would have worked with more people in the room. So, it wasnt really an issue of my music clashing with anyone or me clashing with the band, it was just a drunk girl pissing herself and ruining the fun for a lot of people. I got bitched out, but at the same time, I have to give her respect for going that far at 7:30 PM [laughs].
_Girl Talk will perform at Camp Bisco in Mariaville, NY next weekend. Senior Editor Mike Greenhaus stores his typos at www.greenhauseffect.com