Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, is unapologetic about his art. The former biomedical engineer spends hours, days, months listening, capturing, and cataloging the work of other musicians—storing up thousands of samples that he then repurposes into new genius like some mad scientist digital composer. As Girl Talk, he puts on aerobically charged, frenetic, live laptop performances full of props and fist pumps, and his sample-obsessed recordings are offered through his own tongue-in-cheek label Illegal Art.
C-VILLE spoke to Gillis by phone about listening through to the end, the cool kids, and fair use. Girl Talk performs at the nTelos Wireless Pavilion on Wednesday.
CVILLE Weekly: You have your own day in Pittsburgh, Gregg Gillis Day on December 7. How do you celebrate it?
Gregg Gillis: “When it was announced, I celebrated by sleeping all day on the couch. I did eat at Primanti’s, which is the iconic sandwich shop in Pittsburgh, so if I had to give a suggestion to people, it would be to drink an I.C. Light beer and eat a Primanti’s sandwich. And if you want to do it up big time, wear a Steelers shirt that day.”
Talk a little about your creative process. Has it changed as you’ve grown in popularity?
“The techniques are actually pretty similar. I more or less cut up samples in Adobe Audition, that’s where I’m isolating things and chopping things up, then AudioMulch is what I perform live on, where I am able to arrange all the samples and trigger loops, where I come up with the arrangement.”
“I am spending a lot of time preparing the tools to use. When I start an album, it may be after two years of working out ideas in the show, so I have an idea of 75 percent of the material—‘it’s gonna start here, it’s gonna go here’—and then there’s little holes or gaps, but I try to flush out all ideas rather than to make it up on the spot.”
There appears to be real purpose when it comes together as a record.
“There is definitely a timing—it’s a ride. I think I have a journey that’s important, and definitely for the albums I want it to be a whole experience, you know, listening to the whole thing in one setting if possible and have that be enjoyable.”
Do you listen to albums in their entirety?
(Laughs) “I do a little bit. I still listen to music the way I always have, even out on tour, just popping in a CD and listening to the end. This is still my favorite way to do it as opposed to downloading a bunch of songs and checking them out individually.”
What is the last album you listened to?
“We listened to Chicago 6 and Big K.R.I.T.’s Live from the Underground.”
You’ve become an icon among the cool kids after eschewing them for years. Is there personal satisfaction in that?
“I would say there is a sense of pride for me or satisfaction sometimes when I’m invited to play some of the festivals and I’m the guy up there playing Kelly Clarkson samples. When I get lumped in with that crowd that is critically well-received, and I’ve kind of openly embraced many things that they have made a living shitting on, there is some weird, ironic perverted pleasure in that.”
Some industry legals would love to defend you in a fair use case because they believe it would be high-profile and clear-cut. Do you have any desire to put the issue to rest?
“You know, I believe in what I’m doing. I don’t want to go to court, but I definitely believe in it and I would be curious to say the least. You know, just to see how it would be received by a judge, or by the public or how it would then be portrayed in the mainstream media.”
“It seems like in the music underground a lot of people have been supportive, so the project has been put in a pretty positive light. Maybe if it broke through that mainstream level, maybe the media would depict me as some sort of renegade criminal trying to rip people off.”
“People who study the music industry are really interested in, and get, the perspective that I’m pushing. You know that it’s not causing any harm. That it is transformative.”
Has there been a reversal where artists approach you to be included in your work?
“Yeah, people have definitely been. More on the underground level, people are always pushing stuff and I love checking out new music. Over the years, I have gotten to know a number of A&R people at major labels or managers who are directly connected to people I’ve sampled, saying ‘check out this a cappella song or instrumental or here’s the new single.’ That’s pretty frequent. I wouldn’t want to name names because I don’t know whose boss’ boss knows this is happening.”
Do you have memories from previous Charlottesville shows?
“I remember my first Charlottesville show pretty well. I was on tour with Dan Deacon and we were having a crazy run. Dan got really sick and had to cancel [his part of] that show, and I remember thinking it was a great idea—not because the [Satellite Ballroom] show wasn’t cool, but because it ended up one of the rowdier shows—really chaotic and really hot and walking that line of almost falling apart. You know, like something’s going to come unplugged, damaged, but nothing happened and it was all good. That one sticks out from that tour actually.”
Girl Talk/September 19 at 7pm/nTelos Wireless Pavilion