Sunday, March 16, 2008

Girl Talk

girl talk
Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk from Wikipedia

Girl Talk is the stage name of music producer and mashup performer - don't call him a DJ - Gregg Gillis. We're not certain how the moniker Girl Talk came to be; take your pick:

He told one magazine that it alluded to a Jim Morrison poem and another that it came from an early Merzbow side project. Of course, as he's a sample artist, it's only fair to note that "Girl Talk" was originally a short lived synth-pop sister act from England in the 1980s. Whatever the reason, Girl Talk it is.

Gillis, 26, has released three CDs on his Illegal Art label and some vinyl tracks on 333 and 12 Apostles. He's putting the finishing touches on a new CD with the working titles of "Death Sucks" or "Feed the Animals" (FTA was released in 2008). Gillis likes to work at his own pace, putting out an album every two years or so.

Until last summer, he earned his daily bread as a biomed tech. Gillis never told his cubicle mates about his act. He was afraid they'd be too weirded out, and even turned down a local newspaper interview to keep his moonlighting gig under wraps.

“I worked as an engineer, which is a conservative crowd, so there was no real reason to tell them about it,” Gillis told Pitchfork Magazine. “It would be very difficult for them to understand, ‘Well I play a laptop and sometimes I take my shirt off, and I drive to Cincinnati.’"

It's not that he left on bad terms. “The reason I quit was not to sustain this as a career, I just couldn’t keep up with both worlds. I’d be happy to go back to the day job in a year if it didn’t work out,” he explained.

Until he made his art a full time vocation, he had been working five days a week before playing shows on the weekend. Once he flew to London to open for Beck on Saturday before coming back to go to work on Monday. Now Gillis is bring home enough bacon through his touring to avoid the hassle.

He told Heavy in the Streets magazine "I’ve had a pretty smart schedule. I had a day job for a long time, so I was only performing on weekends. I quit my job and kept the same touring schedule. I’m in Pittsburgh Monday through Thursday and then usually I just have shows on Friday and Saturday." He tours nationally, and has even performed in Australia.

Gillis likes living in the 'Burgh (he's a Chartiers Valley HS grad) and being the big fish in a small pond. "It's cool. There are a lot of interesting bands but I don't know where I fit in here. I have my small little cult following. I play random shows from house parties to opening up for rock bands. There aren't people doing similar things to me and I'm not looking up to anyone and nobody's biting me."

In fact, even today Gillis has a low profile. Until he gets on stage, his fans rarely recognize him, allowing him to mingle with his base and get their true take on his work.

Pitchfork asked if he was ready to tackle the Big Apple, and he said "I think if I lived in New York I would be really stressed out going out to a club and seeing a good DJ who's doing something on a similar level. It would stress me out to feel like I needed to be one upping someone. In Pittsburgh, I'm in my own world-- I know I'm the guy doing this here."

In high school, Gillis was a sort of self-defined performance artist with a thing for avant-garde noise. But as he got older, the idea of adding a beat to his "noise" took hold.

He began Girl Talk in 2000 while a student at Case Western Reserve University. Gillis specializes in sample driven remixes, in which he splices at least a dozen riffs from different songs to create a new song. When he performs, his only instrument is his laptop computer.

At his early shows, Gillis became notorious for his exhibitionist antics on stage, often spinning his songs in his boxer shorts to an equally stripped down dance crowd. Even now, he has crowd members come up on stage and boogie to his beat. Gillis covers his instrument, a laptop, in Glad plastic wrap and Scotch tape to protect it from the beer, sweat and whatever else oozing off the fans onstage with him.

He released two mash-up albums before his breakthrough CD, Night Ripper. Gillis combs through a virtual library of songs ranging from classic rock (he's into Nirvana) to rap (he's a fan of Public Enemy), cobbling together samples into a whole in a process that he refers to as “retexturizing.”

He takes them from popular sources, too. He's a self confessed radio junkie, and there aren't very many obscure acts getting sampled in his tracks. Who else would put Biggie's "Juicy" over Elton John's "Tiny Dancer"? Most of his samples are so well known that sometimes his gigs break out into sing-alongs.

Everything on his CD is taken from someone else. He told MSNBC “This remix culture where everything is recycled is a sign of the times. Every kid uses Photoshop and every kid downloads images to manipulate them. Pretty soon audio mixing programs are going to become a lot more user friendly and with every song that comes out there’s going to be fifth graders remixing it for fun. And that’s cool.”

"I think you can play a sample just like someone can play a guitar, and it can be just as original. It’s clearly taking pre-existing ideas, putting your own twist on it, and making something new."

But his work is a lawsuit waiting to happen since he pays no royalties for the songs he samples. Gillis estimates that with over 300 samples on Night Ripper, the album would have to be sold for hundreds of dollars just to cover the copyright fees. But because of the "fair use" doctrine, he feels safe about his work.

Gillis told Pitchfork that if he got a cease and desist from someone in the industry "I don't know if Illegal Art would want to fight it or not. I would just start giving away the samples and I'm sure the publicity from that would probably spread the music to a few more people."

"At this point I would love for Illegal Art to break even, which I think will be the case. I would give this music away as downloads for free straight up, if I could still be considered a legitimate musician releasing stuff for free."

He has his defenders in the copyright brouhaha. His congressman, Mike Doyle, backed him in Washington hearings held on the subject. And while the threat of a suit is in the back of his mind, he says he's gotten nothing but love from the artists and labels so far. Free publicity trumps legal fees.

Paris Hilton danced onstage with him at Coachella. He's appeared in 2006’s Playgirl Man of the Year issue. Girl Talk was featured in Good Copy Bad Copy, a documentary film about remix culture.

"Feed the Animals," his 2008 album, was number four on Time's Top 10 Albums of 2008. Rolling Stone gave the album four stars and ranked the album #24 on their Top 50 albums of 2008; Blender magazine rated it the second-best recording/album of 2008 and NPR listeners rated it the 16th best album of the year.

In November, 2010, Gillis released the fifth Girl Talk album, “All Day” with its 373 samples as a free download on his Illegal Art site. Traffic was so heavy that MTV News ran the headline “Girl Talk Apologizes for Breaking the Internet.” And it was true, kind of. "All Day” was downloaded so often that the IA servers crashed.

He's toured the world around and then some, and opened Stage AE on the North Shore in early December of 2010, selling out two nights. Hey, Pittsburgh City Council even declared December 7th, 2010, “Gregg Gillis Day.”

Gregg Gillis and Girl Talk are local proof that you don't need to be a guitar hero to live out your rock and roll fantasy.

(You can keep up with Gregg Gillis at Girl Talk My Space. Much of this post was lifted from Pitchfork's excellent interview of Gillis.)

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