Getting down with Girl Talk

Imagine a stage crowded with sweaty dancing bodies, all moving to a pulsing beat interspersed with snippets of various top-40 hip-hop songs. In the middle of it stands a shortish, brown-haired man sporting oversized sunglasses (over a pair of regular, more utilitarian glasses) — and not much else. He’s rolling around, screaming into a mic, his voice incomprehensibly altered by heavy digital effects.

His exact words might be lost in the jumble, but the under-riding emotion of the message is not. It’s time to dance — with your host, Girl Talk.

Girl Talk (aka 26-year-old Pittsburgh resident Gregg Gillis) has been performing his mash-up freak-outs for the last seven years, and has taken his act as far as Australia and Japan. He has also released three albums on Illegal Art records, the latest of which is 2006’s Night Ripper. Now he’s coming to Asheville for the first time in four years, and was gracious enough to answer some questions with Xpress via e-mail.

Mountain Xpress: How would you describe Girl Talk to, say, a gas station employee in rural Iowa?

Gregg Gillis: I’m a guy who cuts up Top 40 music on a laptop, and I rearrange it and collage it together to make new pop music.

Xpress: How would you describe it to a club DJ?

Gillis: I’m a guy who cuts up Top-40 music on a laptop, and I rearrange it and collage it together to make new pop music.

Mountain Xpress: How did you get into mash-ups? Who were the first mash up artists that you heard?

Gillis: I listened to sample-based music before I ever heard the phrase “mash-up.” I jammed Public Enemy in grade school and then guys like John Oswald, Negativland and Kid606 when I was in high school. I guess, technically, the first mash-up person I ever heard was Evolution Control Committee. My high school noise band played with him a few times, and I bought the Gunderphonic tape.

Mountain Xpress: Do you know that Mark Hosler from Negativland lives in Asheville?

Gillis: I didn’t know that.

Mountain Xpress: And speaking of Negativland, how does your music fit into the legal system as far as copyright laws?

Gillis: I sample music to make new music. Under Fair Use, doing some forms of this is legal depending on the nature of the work.

Mountain Xpress: Are there things you do live that you couldn’t put out on records?

Gillis: No.

Mountain Xpress: Do you think of your music as subversive in the way a Negativland album is, or are you just in it for the party?

Gillis: Negativland are a huge influence [on my music], but I don’t want my work to be subversive. I like it to be a sincere homage to pop music and the history of sample-based works.

Mountain Xpress: You are one of the most notable artist on the Illegal Art label. What kind of other stuff does Illegal Art put out?

Gillis: It’s all appropriation-based works, but most of their other releases are bit more on the avant-garde side of electronic music.

Mountain Xpress: What are your opinions on copyright laws and the record industry’s stance on things like sampling and file sharing?

Gillis: I think copyright serves a purpose, but times are changing right now. The concept of originality is being pushed in many different directions.  How do you pay royalties on an album that samples 300 artists and is considered by many people a new, original work? I think file sharing is great of the spread of ideas and therefore, a very positive thing.

Mountain Xpress: What kind of stuff do you sample? Do you ever ruin songs for yourself by putting them into your act?

Gillis: I sample anything that I listen to. Sometimes I hear songs so much during my sets that I’ll be less likely to jam them when I hear it on the radio.

Mountain Xpress: What equipment do you use to make music? Is it solely laptop/vocals? Turntables? What program(s) do you use?

Gillis: I only use laptops live. I perform live on Audiomulch.

Mountain Xpress: What is the most exciting thing to you, putting out albums? Live shows?

Gillis: Putting together albums for me is an amazing process, but it’s very stressful. At shows, I just party, so those are a bit more exciting.

Mountain Xpress: When people come to a Girl Talk show, do you think they know what they’re walking into?

Gillis: Not really. There’s a huge history of people performing live with laptops, but I think most of the people who attend my shows have never seen this sort of thing before. Every show is very different, depending on the audience reaction, so I really don’t know what I’m walking into most of the time either. We learn together.

Mountain Xpress: How do you turn “dude with a laptop” into a performance/party?

Gillis: On the technical end of things, I mix every sample together by hand. So, I’m actually performing this form of music live. As far as making it a party, I’ve been to some of the best parties in my life where there’s just a CD playing prerecorded music.

Mountain Xpress: Have you been to the club you’re playing at here, the Orange Peel? It’s got a pretty high stage, I’m wondering if that messes up the total freak-out party vibe of one of your performances. Do you ever set up on the floor, or have people come up on the stage?

Gillis: I don’t think I’ve ever been there. I played Asheville once in about 2003, but I can’t remember where. I’m open to any environment. I usually play on the stage. It’s up to people whether they want to join me or not. Occasionally, I’ll get on the floor if I feel like it.

Mountain Xpress: You’re touring with Dan Deacon, right? What are his shows like?

Gillis: He plays on the floor every night. He plays a bunch of electronics and sings live. He has an amazing sense of controlling crowds. He makes pop music that you can bounce to.

Mountain Xpress: Does it get hard having to put as much energy into a performance as you do when you’re touring? What if your turtle dies or something and you just aren’t feeling it that night?

Gillis: That’s a good question. Up until this tour, I had only been playing weekend shows for the past year. It’s been every weekend, but I never really had more than 3 shows in a row. So, I’m used to putting everything into the shows and typically partying afterwards. I’ll see if I can maintain that style in a more extended format.

Mountain Xpress: What do your parents think about all this?

Gillis: They like my last album more than my other ones.

Girl Talk performs with Dan Deacon and White Williams at the Orange Peel on Friday, Sept. 21, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $14.

— Ethan Clark is a freelance writer, cartoonist and DJ. His punk-lifestyle memoir
Leaning With Intent to Fall, is set to be published in November by Garrett County Press.

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