“Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the streets.”
If Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, had his way, that sing-song statement by Marvin Gaye would be so. But for now, dancing to the artist’s legendary musical collages will take place within the confines of this summer’s festivals, including the Monolith Festival (September 12, 13) and an upcoming FREE concert in Southern Cal sponsored by Squirt (July 24).
The word “sold out show” has followed Girl Talk everywhere he’s played after the release of Night Ripper in 2006. Needless to say, the goal of wanting to translate the over-the-top party feel of the Girl Talk live show into album form for 2008’s Feed the Animals (Illegal Art) has been met, and then some.
Girl Talk’s modus operandi pieces together bits from 20 to 40 different songs to create a single track, so it may be hard to identify every drum part, bass line or vocal melody. In the way he pulled apart sounds to create another, music videos for these tracks present the visual counterpart to each song. So on “What’s it All About” for example, we see Busta Rhymes is spliced in rhythm to The Police’s “Everything Little Thing She Does is Magic,” then Wilson Picket takes over the mic…and a bit later in the track, little Michael Jackson and his brothers performing “ABC” with the undertones of Vanilla Ice and the swirling of “Umbrella” by Rihanna.
It’s that adventurous nature of an executive chef that enables Girl Talk to expose single-genre music fans to a variety of styles in the matter of a few seconds, getting die-hard rockers headbanging to Mary J. Blige, b-boyz poppin’ to Tears for Fears, and electro junkies tripping to Tom Petty.
The result has made for a full dance card for this Pittsburgh playa.
Girl Talk: I have the weekend off, which never really happens. So I’m looking forward to that.
Kaffeine Buzz: I can image you’ve been booked pretty solid this summer.
GT: Yeah. Honestly it’s been a three-year run of continual shows. Nothing too intense; a Friday and a Saturday show and then come home for the week. It’s easy to get work done that way and stay refreshed enough to put a lot of energy into the performances. But during the spring I did a steady college tour with shows every day of the month, but mainly it’s just been festivals this summer. It’s been fun but weird to show up and play exclusively large outdoor shows throughout the summer.
KB: I wondered about that. Prior to 2006 you seemed to play in art galleries, smaller clubs, house parties where the crowds were on the intimate side and then boom, you were transitioned right into festivals. Where you overwhelmed?
GT: A little bit. I think back to the years from 2000 to 2006. I always held the mentality that I could do a show with just me and a laptop and that could translate and be as entertaining as any rock band, ideally. Even when I was playing the smaller shows I would play back-to-back with a hip-hop group or a rock band or whatever. It was always my point to interact with the audience in a way the other bands didn’t; to really make a show out of it.
I think when the shows started to get bigger it was definitely something that was weird and something I wasn’t used to. But simultaneously, having that six years of entertaining and playing a huge variety of shows with audiences that hate you to audiences that know you, I had enough confidence to know that I could make the show translate. Luckily in 2006 it kind of hit late summer, so I really didn’t do any festivals that summer. I had a year of doing clubs that were selling out, which was something that was new to me. By the time the next summer rolled around I had the confidence that I could play a [large] show, whether it was outdoors or indoors.
Over the past three years the scope of the show has grown, having a hand with people giving visuals on stage and I just want to make it a more extreme event. Having people on stage, having my own visuals, balloons…makes the show seem more appropriate on a larger scale. I’m pumped on the people I’m working with, very excited about all the collaborators with the live shows. The shows this summer are better than the shows last summer. They just keep getting bigger and better.
KB: I think that you’ve hit on something. I started going to live shows from a young age and was used to seeing a band perform, and then years later, starting to go underground parties and raves seeing where people are all packed in dancing. As DJs moved out of the warehouses and into the larger clubs, I would see a lot of people standing on the dancefloor watching said DJ spin. I never understood the fascination with watching some guy or girl with their head down spinning records, as opposed to watching a band perform with instruments and a singer. There was this disconnect where the DJ was at times, 10 feet above the crowd, but people are still straining to see her or him.
When I first saw the videos of your shows where you’ve got people on stage and they’re part of the show, it hit me that this is what’s been missing in the dance clubs. You’ve bridged that gap.
GT: In the earlier days for me, it wasn’t even a decision process. It wasn’t like I had an idea to do this rather than that. The earlier stuff I did was a bit more experimental…I think back in the day, if there was an audience for that style of music and a DJ booth, I may have done that. I really don’t know. But back then, the way it was presented it was always done as a live act.
I grew up never really playing in a dance club or at a rave or anything like that. It was always performance-based shows. So that was always just a fundamental aspect of the show of how I’m going to play this music live, I’m going to create these collages through this sample-based thing, do these remixes live – but how do I make it a show?
In the early days with a lot of smaller shows many of the venues didn’t have a stage, so you were automatically on the level of the people. Then I played house parties where that was always the case.
But I wanted to keep that vibe going as the shows got bigger, stepping it up from an art gallery to an actual club that fit 200 people. I always thought, “Why can’t this feel like those house parties?” So that’s why I started dragging people on stage. Back then I never envisioned a future where it would happen at a festival. But I feel like it’s translated well.
For the style of music I’m doing, it’s a very specific style of visuals. I would rather have people on stage entertaining the crowd rather than having a crazy light display. The human effect is something that’s invaluable; you just can’t pay for that. It does bridge that gap to get in the crowd as much as possible. The people on stage have a very unique concert experience. A lot of them have never been on the stage in front of a festival crowd before where they can see what’s going on and interact with me. They’re entertaining the crowd in a very specific way.
When you’re at a festival and seeing bands all day long at these outdoor venues, it’s just a change of pace. It’s a whole different mood when something like that happens.
KB: It’s very celebratory, which I think festivals should be anyway.
GT: Absolutely. And at festivals there’s a larger disconnect between the band and the audience than at a smaller, normal show. Ideally, at a festival show I would like people to forget that they’re at a festival. At the best shows I forget that I drove to a concert, I forget that I paid money to get in, I forget where my car’s parked. I’m just thinking about the show, really enjoying the music, having a live experience and being a part of the show. Having the people on stage is a direct step to achieving that goal.
KB: So how did you get involved in this Squirt promotion and concert series? They can get in for free…but proceeds go toward Habitat for Humanity. So how does that work?
GT: To me it was cool. They reached out to us to do a couple shows outside of L.A. in Anaheim, which I’ve never been to before. They said people would donate cans [of Squirt] and then money would be donated to charity, and I’m not specifically sure how that works out. The last show was 36 cans, which was pretty specific. But I think the next show is just one can per person.
Of course I love playing as many shows as possible, but when you can play a show for free for the audience and money goes to charity, it’s a great thing. It was very appealing to me.
KB: There seems to be a lot more of a focus on social consciousness in pretty much everything we do now, so it makes sense for something like this to be tied to an organization like Habitat.
I hate to sound like a morning news show when I say this, but I’ve only got five minutes left and I want to squeeze in a question I received from a post I put on Facebook and Twitter asking the audience for questions. I want to use one from Heather Powell Brown, who wants to know “How do you hear the world? Are you constantly hearing, even during the course of the day, overlays of sound and disparate pieces and creating them into new things?”
GT: Yeah. I’m constantly working on material. I can’t think of a point in the last few years where I haven’t actively sat down at the computer at least every other day and cut a song up. Typically everyday I work for hours.
I can enjoy music on the same level as everyone else. I don’t play any traditional instruments, but I would guess that if you played guitar or bass or you play drums, you could still enjoy music on a basic level, but simultaneously you might be listening to the drum line or the bass line and trying to figure out what notes [the musician] is playing. I think that’s the way it is with what I’m doing as well. I’ll be listening to a song on the radio or at the grocery store or at a jukebox in a bar and isolated things jump out—drum parts, instrumental segments, vocal breakdowns—parts I like.
Most combinations I create don’t make the light of day. It’s very much a trial and error process for me. So it’s not when I hear something I like, that’s going to show up on the album. The more things I sample, the more things I prepare, the more potential tools I have to make something work.
So yeah, every day I have a notepad in my car and a text document on my computer writing a list of things I’ve heard and things I want to piece together or apart. If you’re doing sample-based music and are surrounded by music it’s kind of impossible to turn off. And you can really cut up anything, so it’s impossible to not hear potential source material.
KB: Lastly, with everything you’re doing and everything you have done, I can’t see it coming to an end anytime soon. I also couldn’t help but see something in your bio that said you will at some point, return to a “normal” job?
GT: (laughs) Yeah, I think that bio was written a few years ago.
KB: Yeah, it made me laugh too. I got to see the “RIP: A Remix Manifesto” documentary and really appreciate what the director had done and the part you played in the discussion about the outdated copyright laws and how ridiculous some of these laws are if one is to follow them to the letter.
But you were also still working as a biomedical engineer, and it seemed to make sense, having you use your left brain to dissect music and engineer new music from that in a creative way with your right brain.
GT: I definitely think it goes hand in hand, especially when I started this project. Like I mentioned before, I don’t have any traditional training in music. I was in bands in high school where I was constantly fiddling around with electronics. I knew with the Girl Talk project I wanted to make something slightly more accessible than what I was doing prior to that, so I think going into this it was like coming up with a solution on how to make music. I had to figure it out. I didn’t know how to make beats or what I was going to make. So the whole process of cutting up samples, learning to make beats, fiddling around on the computer, working for hours to make something that will only be a few seconds long definitely all relates to that engineering background or even that mindset of approaching problems. Even day to day sitting on the computer working on music, it’s not that far off from sitting at the cubicle and working on an engineering program.
I really can’t say what is going to happen in the future. When I quit the job two years ago I was going to try to live off music for a year. That was the goal. Now it’s been another year and has been continually growing and has not slowed down. I never wanted it to be a career. And to this day when I make music I try not to think about it in terms of a career or in terms of what’s going to create the most financially successful future.
I’d like it to be just about the art and making the most interesting music possible.
I still stand by that, and if I have to go back to the job it’s definitely not a problem. I’ll be making music my entire life, whether I’m actually touring or whether people are interested or not—that’s basically out of my hands.
So for those of you that are, ahem, interested, Girl Talk’s free show as part of the Squirt Boom Burst event series takes place on Friday, July 24 the Fox Theatre in southern California (301 S Garey Avenue, Pomona, CA 91766).
Girl Talk returns to Denver to play the Monolith Festival on Saturday, September 12 at Red Rocks.