A LITTLE GIRL TALKGregg Gillis is used to being the epicentre of sweaty, writhing masses. For the last 10 years, the 29-year-old former engineer has been performing as Girl Talk, the hype-worthy mad maestro who has elevated mash-ups and digital sampling to an almost scientific art — hearing, segmenting and remastering pieces of other peoples’ songs into something new. Hence, he’s also no stranger to copyright controversy: Gillis has released five albums — all for free — featuring thousands of samples from mostly mainstream pop, rock and Top 40 songs. Even though Gillis’ music has come under scrutiny, he’s built an untouchable reputation as the number one party-starter, playing everything from small club gigs to massive festivals. He’s won over legions of fans thanks to his all-consuming performances wherein he crafts entire hour-long shows on his laptop, live, often using as many as 400 samples. Gillis spoke with WE in preparation for his slot at the Live at Squamish music festival, bringing his trademark dance party up the mountain.
I think of your work as a little like Dr. Frankenstein, piecing together disparate bits to craft a new whole. How do you view what you do?
Greg Gillis: I can see it as that, but it’s sort of rooted in many things, so I’ve never thought of it in terms of that because I grew up listening to hip hop and like, Public Enemy records which were a big collage of sound. Then, moving on to stuff like Negative Land. The reference points for me were that music and very precise electronica, where precision is an important part of it being cut up, so I like that collage of pop music. I try to reach all around and part of the fun is having source material that seems all over the place. Perhaps Frankenstein-like is more interesting than if it was just all rock songs or all pop songs. I try to sample from as wide a variety of pop music as I listen to.
Do you remember when you first started experimenting with that dismantling and rebuilding process?
I was kind of doing it a little bit prior to even the start of calling it Girl Talk. I started doing Girl Talk in 2000 and I was in a band prior to that in high school. It was a more avant-garde noise band and it was just me and my friends, a bratty take on noise music. Very invasive and no real traditional song structure, but we used to sample music in a real bratty way — like show up at a show and turn on the pop radio station and then make noise over top of it, or do a show where it’s just 20 skipping CDs playing at once while we’re smashing televisions. All of that definitely laid the groundwork and I love that dichotomy between pop and noise... I think the whole Girl Talk thing is just a more refined version of stuff I was doing with my band in high school.
You typically use songs that fall in the pop or rock genres. Are there other genres you want to incorporate?
It’s more like, not necessarily genres, but it is exciting to maybe sample more obscure things, like that music would maybe have different intentions. Right now, I’ve been kind of on a cycle of every few years I put out another album and when I finish, I start working on new music immediately because I want to do stuff for the shows that relates to that album. When I make music on a daily basis, I’m always thinking about the next weekend, and the next weekend might be a festival where I’m going to be in front of 10,000 people. Or, it might be a club where 500 people paid to see the show. So, in those cases I want to make something that I enjoy and a progression of the evolution of what I’ve done beforehand. But definitely something that relates to that music. I’m in it all the time and I play so many shows, it’s hard to find time to branch out outside of that. But occasionally I’ll sit around and sample something more obscure, or a hip hop beat, just for my own enjoyment. At some point I’m definitely looking forward to the shows slowing down, just because I haven’t really stopped touring in four or five years now. At some point I would expect that I’ll make the decision to stop or there will be a year where I’ll only do 20 shows, that would really impact my life. If I had a month in front of me where I wasn’t expected to make an album or didn’t have to prepare for a show, I’d be really excited to just sample other stuff in music or even sample pop music but maybe do it differently. There’s just so many ways you can work a sample, whether you play the melody straight up or chop it up to a point where it’s unrecognizable — there’s many places to go.
Tons of people sample other peoples’ work, but it’s fallen to you a lot to talk about copyright.
Fair use allows you to use samples without asking for permission, if it falls under certain criteria. That, in itself, is a really positive thing. But the details surrounding it are a little ambiguous and what qualifies under it may be a little strict. I’m not anti-copyright. I don’t believe you should be able to buy a CD and burn it 10 times and go on the street and sell it, I don’t believe in that. I believe in copyright and it stands for a reason, I don’t believe in anarchy in that system, but I do believe that you can take something previously existing and make something new out of it in such a way that it’s not negatively impacting the source material or hurting the sales or debasing the artist. If it’s not a competition, I think you should be able to present that as a new work and sell it. When you’re in my position and you make music and you want to put it out, you put it out there and it just falls into that grey area. You don’t truly know whether a judge thinks it would fall under fair use or not. I think the general perspective of the world is shifting a bit, just in the general sense of intellectual property and ownership of ideas. And being attached to the internet has really changed everything. It’s like, I’ve been doing this for 10 years now and people have been sampling forever, but I do think at the beginning of this project, that doing an unsolicited pop remix was fairly unusual. It happened, but it wasn’t that common. Now, the same day every new Lady Gaga song comes out, immediately hundreds of remixes and fan-made videos come out. Everyone is constantly interacting with the media that they consume. I think artists and fans and everyone understands that and a lot of it is not necessarily hurting those sales, it’s just widening the audience. With my particular case, it seemed like the discussion five or 10 years ago was, ‘When am I going to have a problem?’ But now I hear from so many A&R people and labels and I get so many promos, I think people are seeing eye-to-eye on it. It’s not an issue. People really see that if I was to sample one of their artists, it’s not going to negatively impact them. It could potentially lead to a few new people hearing about it.
You’re putting everything together live when you DJ.
That’s why I’ve never even considered it DJ-ing. I’ve always thought of it more as live electronica music. It’s not a slight against DJs or anything, but that’s something where it’s all loop-based samples and in the 10 years of doing this, I’ve never played someone’s track unaltered, which to me is sort of the definition of a DJ, you’re playing other peoples’ music... I always played as a live electronica musician, it was always framed in that way from the get-go. The kind of technology I started using in the early days is still what I use now. It’s a program where there’s a bunch of loops and everything is very isolated and through the course of an hour-long show, I may go through 400 samples or something like that and I trigger everything by hand. It’s definitely the sort of thing where the sets are practiced beforehand and rehearsed. I have an idea how to play it, but everything is live. If I want to skip over something or I feel like changing something up or repeating something twice, I can do that. A lot of times I’m figuring stuff out on the fly, or I might make a small mistake and have to figure out how to transition in or out of that or what the sound system and audience are like will really determine certain details.
The mash-up has become a vital component of mainstream pop culture. Glee has really taken that over. How do you feel about that?
It’s fun. To me the word mash-up describes a tiny piece of sample-based electronic music, but the idea has existed for many years prior. It’s been fun to watch that word exist and grow. It’s thrown around everywhere and I think the idea’s been around for a while. It goes back to like, Stars on 45 and medleys from the ’60s and ’70s and going back to classical music and sharing motifs. Seeing it have that mainstream exposure just highlights how it’s a fundamental part of the creative process. It’s always a little weird to me when people draw those clear-cut lines between sample-based music and playing in bands, because to me there are so many parallels. You can hear any band and really piece apart their influences and you can tell where it’s coming from. What I’m doing is a more physical version of that. Like I said before, the general world perspective on intellectual property is changing and people are seeing all these examples of taking something and very blatantly putting a new spin on it. Things like Glee are very healthy, just so people can understand that you can take something that previously exists and make it new by putting it in a new context. That idea’s been around since the dawn of time and it’s just becoming more apparent. Like, it’s something you don’t even have to explain to a 10-year-old kid anymore, they’re so surrounded by remix culture. I think that’s a positive thing. Songwriting is all about self-expression. That just gets so icky and narcissistic. If it is about self-expression, then you’ve got to have a lot of craft and a lot of skill to pull it off so it doesn’t just turn into a navel-gazing thing, you know? Someone who really has true discipline, who has worked on their skill and has a way around a back beat.
Live At Squamish runs Aug. 20-21 in Squamish at the Logger Sports Grounds. Girl Talk plays Saturday on the main stage at 9:40pm. $90-$149 from LiveAtSquamish.com.