Gregg Gillis of Girl Talk on how his sets have become more complicated over the years
Girl Talk (due this Saturday, June 23, on the Westword Music Showcase main stage) started when Gregg Gillis was earning his degree in biomedical engineering. Eventually, Girl Talk took up enough of Gillis's time to become a full-time endeavor. Although influenced in part by early mash-ups, Gillis was more inspired by the concepts of appropriating art as done by the group Negativland and almost a reaction against some of the more pretentious side of the noise scene he embraced as a rebellious teenager.
By taking popular music of all stripes and weaving it together in unexpected but curiously logical ways, Gillis has mastered the art of a kind of composition in which existing, familiar fragments of song are recontextualized to make a new song. In effect, it brings together ideas of Brion Gysin's cut-up technique with the remix and collage. We spoke with Gillis about his early days with noise, the eras of Girl Talk and his craft.
Westword: There was an interview you did with Pitchfork a while back in which you mentioned being into noise. Other than Merzbow, who really caught your attention back then?
Gregg Gillis: Back then, the Internet was going on, but it was not the way it is now. So it was just the things I stumbled upon. TV Pal from Chicago, Christian Marclay. I liked a lot of stuff that was a little bit attached to noise but had a little bit more structure to it. I liked Lesser, who was attached to Kid606 -- I really liked those records. Even more accessible stuff like Kid606 and Matmos.
I even liked people who were performance-oriented, too. So Cock ESP was a group who I had heard of. And again, because the Internet wasn't what it is today, and I know what it kind of was, the group I was in was really into smashing televisions and stuff and being confrontational with the audience -- which was the Cock ESP way. But I didn't realize that until years later that they were the masters of that world.
Oh, yeah, Cock ESP played Denver Noise Fest this year and have played at DIY venues like Monkey Mania and Rhinoceropolis over the years.
I know they're Midwestern. Are they from Milwaukee or something? Minneapolis.
In the years of doing Girl Talk, have you solidified a method for pulling the samples together?
I kind of have a bit of a routine. It's really trial and error. The majority of things I cut up don't really see the light of day. The majority of things I try out I don't like and don't think work. Any isolated part of a song that catches my ear, whether it's a drumbeat or a melody, I kind of have a running list of songs that could work, that I could cut up.
So I'll spend days at a time just cutting up these songs, isolating different loops and trying out different combinations of splicing them up -- that sort of thing. And also quantizing them takes up so much time -- actually making sure that if I take an old sample and put a steady drum machine, it will match up rhythmically and stuff like that.
So really, a lot of my time is spent isolating those loops and trying out combinations of them together. A little bit further down the line, when I find something I think really clicks, I really like trying it out at a show and trying to get a rough demo of how I think it could work and trying it out. It doesn't necessarily make or break what's going to happen, but it definitely influences it. Sometimes I try things out at a show, and it goes over poorly.
Other times things really click. Sometimes things I love musically don't translate to the show. I get maybe the samples a little bit more obscure, maybe the structure of it isn't that danceable. That doesn't mean it's bad or it's not going to make it onto a record. But often when things that do click with a show and people kind of react to them, I get excited about it and from there I build it up a little bit. Oftentimes, I'll spend more time on that. Things that make their way into the show and stay in the show are oftentimes things that will eventually wind up on an album.
That's kind of been the process for the last five years. You know, really put out an album and then immediately start cutting up samples and trying out new things for the show. Really, touring and putting together material for shows is kind of the heart of the project and what I spend most of the time on. That's the most direct influence on what will impact an album.
Do you then feel that the feedback from the audience informs what you're going for when you put an album out?
Definitely. I feel the goals are a little different but connected. When I'm doing the show I'm definitely thinking about the physical reactions of the crowd and people dancing and moving and reacting. The album? That's kind of secondary. With the album I'm just thinking about what's musically most interesting. What's the most transformative way to use the sample?
So, like I was saying, often times I'll play something live, and it will kind of fall flat. But I'll sit around and listen to it and play it for my friends, and everyone's really into it. Just because it didn't hit in the live context and didn't dance or recognize the sample, doesn't mean it's not interesting, musically.
I think what happens at the shows gets in my head in a good way. And I think for people who have followed what I've done over the years will come out to a handful of shows and see different sets, and for them, I think part of the process is that they'll hear something unreleased ,and then might hear it at multiple shows, and those people will know that that's going on an album, or they'll tell me they hope it makes the cut for the album. There is a kind of a little community who have been bootlegging the shows, and there are some more well-known bootlegs out there.
Often people will hit me up and be like, "Oh, when's that version coming out? Or that remix? Or that and that?" I hate to use the word "demo," but there's so many variations and so many possible combinations and so many things, and I think the fans keep up with that, and the way they respond helps shape what I think will work. Naturally it comes down to me making the final decision on what I think is best. But, you know, if people are losing their minds and cheering to a particular example, then it definitely gets in my head and makes me like that material more.
You used to use a wave editor to put everything together. What do you use these days?
I still stick by what I've always used. I've added to it. But I still like to use the wave editor to cut up samples. I feel very comfortable with it. I use a program called AudioMulch that might cost seventy-something dollars or something. It's a very small program, and it's geared more for experimental music, and I got into it in the early days for more experimental purposes.
I think it's based more around being able to process instruments whether it's a software synthesizer or an acoustic guitar. Being able to put it through there and doing live processing of instruments. I think that's what fascinated me by it initially. Then I kind of learned how to use a certain device within it, like these loop players that organize my material, and that's how I perform live. So I still use that same software. I haven't really heard about too many other people using it, especially for the sort of thing I do. The other people I've heard that dabble in it are doing stuff that's a bit more left field.
I've continued to explore that software, so it's kind of that "if it's not broken don't fix it" mentality. But on top of that, I've started to work in Ableton Live, which everyone uses, but I still don't perform live with it. That's a constant rumor that that's what I use to play live because that's what most people use to play live doing the sort of thing I'm doing. But I still use AudioMulch.
For me, performing live is a lot of memorization and a lot of muscle memory. To me it is playing an instrument and I've learned to play AudioMulch well. I know it. I'm very comfortable with it. If a mistake happens or something weird happens I feel like I know how to...Even if it's a digital program, it is somewhat organic to me, how you can approach it. I feel extremely awkward and weird trying to switch over and playing live on Ableton or anything else at this point. Just because I think it would be like going from playing guitar to playing bass or something like that. In that way, I've really stuck by the same software I've always used. Basically it gets done what I need to be done.
Your live shows are very dynamic and entertaining. How do you stay focused in triggering those loops because there's some pretty precise timing there? How has your ability to do that evolved over the years?
Yeah, I think one thing is too that the sets have actually gotten more and more complicated. I used to go out there and wing it a little more. I'd have a loose idea of what I would go through. But I think if you heard a recording or saw a video of my show from 2006, you'd hear a lot of a cappella just starting or more abrupt cuts and things like that. With the show growing, I've added on a lot more people in terms of just production and lighting guys and people helping with props and cues. It's become a lot more orchestrated. Because of that, I kind of need to play the set more precisely now.
There's still freedom within there to experiment at certain points. But ultimately, there are some cues and more precise timing. I even feel like with all electronic music, the bar is constantly being raised with what people expect. So I feel like I have a higher standard for what the show should sound like now verses three or four years ago. With the show, I kind of lose myself up there. When I rehearse at my house, I play the sets often times worse than I do live. When I'm sitting there just completely still -- headphones on, thinking about everything, thinking about different mistakes, thinking too many things through -- I can miss it or get off.
Whereas I think in the show it's just one hundred percent the entire time. If I know I have thirty seconds to not click a loop, then I'm going to use that thirty seconds to engage the crowd behind me. I noticed recently when I'm not clicking on a mouse or have a few seconds, I'm just moving the mouse up and down. I just need constant movement so when I'm hitting those loops, they will hit at the correct time. Now I feel like my mind is occupied to the max during the show enough, so that it kind of helps out the show and I'm thinking less about mistakes and not thinking, "Should I click right now or right then?" It's less like that and more just a fluid motion. I think the chaos and the nature of the show helps out a bit.
Simultaneously, I try out a lot of new things live. When I play things for the first few times, I'm definitely more prone to making mistakes, because I'm not comfortable with it. So I find myself rehearsing a lot more now. Just constantly going through material. Before the show going through the set a few times the night before. A few years ago I didn't really do that. I would rarely rehearse the show the day of the show. Now I feel the need to do that almost every performance because they're getting more involved and I want it to be of the highest caliber that I can do it.
When you make mistakes, how do you handle it?
A lot of the mistakes people wouldn't notice. A lot of them are subtle. I make a ton that are subtle. There are some bigger ones, and it can get in my head, and I try to shake it. Every show, I'm aiming for that perfect show. When something does go wrong, it can definitely get in my head sometimes and then it can be like, "Oh, it might lead to more mistakes" -- because I'm thinking about it a bit too much. But for me there's no time for me to get frustrated. It's like, "I have to save this."
Sometimes the mistakes work, and I like it to be organic. If the mistake comes outside of me, I'm very open to it. It doesn't happen so much anymore, but it happens from time to time, and definitely a few years ago, more often where someone might pick a cord unplugged on stage. Or someone might jump on my table and knock a cord out or this or that might happen. When that goes down, I think it's a very fun, organic part of the show. If the music happens to stop, people might boo for a second. Then when you get it going; it takes the show to a new level that it wouldn't have been capable of reaching without that mistake happening.
Stuff like that happens and at a show sometimes when a mistake happens, it's organic, or sometimes a mistake happens and I like it and I'll go, "Oh! Whoa, we should just do that every show. I want to recreate that." That's pretty common. Just small things, "I was to start the hi-hat at this measure but started it eight bars too late but I thought it sounded cool." A delayed response or whatever. I think a lot of stuff on the album is as a result of making these mistakes live. I get used to hearing them a certain way and that went wrong and I tried to replicate it and that's the way I play it now and that's the way it's going to be on the album.
You touched on this earlier, but why don't you just sequence out the music and focus on other performance aspects of the show when you play live?
Like I was saying before with the software, I get in the mode of working in a certain way. I think there is a certain level of respect for the live performance. And definitely in the early days, there was a certain thing where I'd play these shows that were so small or I'd be playing to twenty people on the floor and stand behind me and watch me click the mouse and play live. It's always this thing where I want it to be live.
I never really wanted to play in the setting of playing in the DJ booth. I always had a goal of having a live show on the stage. Because of that, I always want the performance to be as live as possible and as organic as possible. Because of that, there have been many limitations. Sometimes I'll see other live electronic performers, and you can tell the visuals are a hundred percent synched with the music. There 's different ways of going about doing that and I'm not saying anyone's cheating or anything like that. But there are different approaches.
With the way I'm doing it, we have people doing live visuals. We have a way to synch it up the best way we can. But there are limitations based on the software I use or based on how kind of hands on it is, or how each sample is triggered as opposed to like...it's never like I start a track and then it just plays out for a minute and a half and then things change. I need to trigger every single little piece.
Having someone else doing the visuals trying to match up with that, I feel like we have it down but there's definitely a lot of room for error. You know, like I said, I just never really second guess it. It's just the way it started ten or twelve years when I was performing playing with AudioMulch and I've stuck by that software. It's gotten more complicated and it's grown and our cast has grown and everything. But basically I've stuck by the same ideals the entire time and that's been the easiest way to go about it and kind of the only way I know how to approach it.
Your music is often associated with the term mash-up, but you've resisted that label because it's not really very accurate. It seems as though you use the raw material of pre-recorded music to create something new. What got you interested in recontextualizing songs, especially pop songs?
I think I always liked it growing up with hip-hop. I listened to a lot of rap music growing up and just being able to recognize a sample here and there was fascinating. More when I started thinking through how I like making music, I was really influenced by Negativland. When I heard "John Oswald" and things like that, it was fascinating to me.
Like I mentioned before, it was really Kid606 who did a remix of "Straight Outta Compton," I guess in '98 or '99 or something like that. It was really him massacring it on a computer. It's digitized and glitchy and everything. I'd say a few years later there were a million things that sounded like that but that was the first one I heard like that. When I heard that I just thought it was so cool. It was kind of like, "This is his voice. This is his song. This is Kid606's song, but he's using this track everyone knows."
It had a certain attitude about it in taking this familiar song, and it wasn't in any way disrespecting song. If anything, it was paying homage in a weird way. But taking it somewhere new and even being a little bratty about it. It had attitude to it -- electronic music with a certain kind of rap attitude. I just loved that. That was one of my favorite songs I heard in high school. Like I said, back then, those weren't so common.
Shortly after that is when I started dabbling in that. I would say that in the early 2000s when I heard a lot of music that was fascinating from the first mash-ups I heard like the Freelance Hellraisers that I thought was interesting. On the more experimental side, like the Kid606, there was also V/Vm Records that did a lot of stuff that was just really noisy takes on songs, slowing things down. I really got into screwed and chopped hip-hop from the south, just taking songs and slowing them down and cutting them up -- all of those, a variety of songs from Kid606 to Jay-Z's "A Hard Knock Life" sampling. I always felt that was a fun, powerful tool.
I liked the fact that Negativland had started something that was based entirely around appropriation. When I started doing Girl Talk it was kind of like, "I would like to do that but just do it with pop music." Kind of do what Kid606 is doing but have it be an entire project as opposed to just a side little track that I did. That was really kind of the foundation for starting everything.
Obviously your shows are too big to invite people on to the stage like you used to. What do you miss about that and what initially prompted that aspect of your older shows?
It kind of happened somewhat organically. I do have to say the initial shows, especially coming out of that more experimental scene, seeing a lot of laptop shows that I kind of liked but also thought were kind of boring, I really wanted to have a pop approach to the show. So I'd say the initial idea, like the first shows I did as Girl Talk circa 2000, I would have alpha changes or little pyrotechnic displays or skits in the show. You know, like a ten person dance squad and there's like eight people watching the show, stuff like that. Those initial ideas of having a big, produced show for laptop-based remix music is basically what we're doing now, fully realized. I think with the production and everything we're doing is just that kind of blown up.
That middle era when it was a bit more of a free for all was something that wasn't part of the initial idea. But during that era, especially during the first few years, I started playing a few more house parties where I would just play on the floor and people would be all around me. I just thought there was a certain energy to that that I really liked. So when I started playing more traditional venues, I was like, "Why can't I just grab a few people and bring them up here and kind of make it like that house party."
So that's where it started and I think it was something that coincided with time when the shows started getting a little bigger. I think people started to see some photographs or video of it and before I knew it, it just became the established etiquette. That everyone knew that at the Girl Talk show you just jump up there and that's what it is. I think that definitely was something that wasn't calculated from my perspective but just happened. When it started happening, I liked it. It had a raw energy to it. Before, I always wanted the show to be that rock experience and less the stiff, electronic, cold experience.
The fact that it could have this very human element -- that things could be unplugged or people jumping on top of each other -- I thought it was great. I definitely embraced it and kind of rode it out. It was definitely insane for a few years. There are some shows that stand out in my mind that were some of the craziest things I've ever done. You know, these shows where people, maybe even the venue, didn't know what was going to go down or I was opening for someone or playing a festival and all hell would break loose. That was definitely a great era.
The shows started getting a little bigger. All of a sudden the fanbase started getting a little bit wider variety--all things which I embraced and liked. But at the same time I think when you're allowing people to get up there on a smaller level, those people kind of understand that you're allowing this so the fans should be cool and keep the show going.
I think it just grew so big it became a war to get on stage and all of a sudden every show was ending prematurely and people were being legitimately hurt and people weren't enjoying it at all. It kind of reached that point where for a while I had a rule I'd tell these venues in advance, "No barricade. If you have to have a barricade, then I just don't want to play your venue. I want to have no barricade. I want it to be a free for all. That was just on the rider on the contract for a few years.
I think when we were playing a thousand capacity venues it was, "Alright, this is getting a little crazy, and you're playing these rooms and eight hundred people want to get on a stage that can fit thirty." So yeah, it definitely hit that point where we had to change. I had to suck it up and go, "Okay, I guess we'll do the barricade, but what can we do to have the show grow?"
That ushered in, basically, the latest era of what the show has been which is a lot bigger production, inviting more people along, having it be more orchestrated. So yeah, that era was crazy and I definitely wouldn't even want to go back to it because I was being hurt on a regular basis, things were being broken every night. It was just crazy. It was chaos.
Looking back on it, I'm proud of it and happy that the show has been able to have different eras and have this growth and have something that can keep going. Where the show's at now is definitely what I'm most proud of and where I feel most connected to those initial ideas, as I was saying. That more chaotic era, I'm happy it happened and those shows are definitely special to me.
A few years ago you did an interview with a website called Evolving Music, where -- it must presumed you were joking a bit -- but why did you think yourself of ten years before then, would want to kill your then self?
I think maybe me of fifteen years ago. Not kill, but I'd say when I was getting into noise, I was this disgruntled, angry-at-the-world sort of person. And noise was exciting to me because it was just the rejection of everything. That was anti-music. When I was in high school or middle school, I was down with Blink-182 or something like that but that was punk. That wasn't scary. I was looking for something that was truly rebellious and that was noise.
In that era, I definitely enjoyed pop music and I liked the dichotomy and going to a noise show and the next day going to see the Spice Girls in '98 or something. So I've always been open to the idea of pop, but I think maybe at fifteen or fourteen or listened to Nirvana very young, I don't think I would have been able to wrap my head around such an open embrace of pop. Because I think when I was very young it was a different sort of mentality, it was more a rejection of that world. When I started to understand music a little bit more, I've been open to things.
Do you consider All Day to be the most fully-realized album to date or maybe why did you feel that way about that album then, if indeed you did.
I think so. But again, different eras have different goals. I think All Day and Secret Diary had very different goals, so I think I achieved what I wanted with Secret Diary so that was definitely the fully-realized version of Girl Talk in 2002. But in the past few years, I'm most proud of that album. I think I put a lot of thought into it. The flow of it and just piecing it together.
Something like Night Ripper, in retrospect, it still stands out to a lot of fans that come out to shows, I think it was put together somewhat quickly even though that was a slow detailed process. For the last album, I just really labored over it trying to make it as detailed as possible, as complicated as possible without wearing that on the sleeve of the record. I wanted it to be dense and involved but ideally the goal was to have it be very smooth and continuously flowing. And that's what it was.
I think with the last few records it's always been the goal to have a very complicated pop collage. With any record I could throw in two thousand samples in fifteen minutes or something like that. It's not difficult to do that if you want to do that so yeah, I think with the last record, it represented a variety of ideas rather than just one. I think it's the most diverse. I think there are moments on the record that are as detailed as anything I've ever done. Little fifteen second segments that will have thirty samples in it. But there's also some of the most chilled out material possible.
I think with Night Ripper, it was really about finding one connection between two songs. Like this loop goes really well with these vocals. I think on All Day it was more like finding a song that could grow and evolve with another song. I think the beginning of the record is a good example with the Black Sabbath sample where it's like there's an Ozzy vocal sample intermixed with a Ludacris vocal sample and then it's a separate Black Sabbath guitar line with another Ludacris vocal sample and then a second guitar line.
There's just multiple parts of the sample song that match up to different parts of the Ludacris song. In that way, even though it seems like a more potentially relaxed version of it, to me it's more involved and kind of more complicated while being more accessible. Which I think has been loosely the goal: make something that's accessible but at the same time somewhat challenging.
I think that record is definitely my favorite of the last three, which share some similar traits. It's hard to really say that it's the most fully-realized version because I think that at every stage and every year I'm doing it, there's kind of a slightly different goal. In 2006 for what Night Ripper was, that was fully-realized. I don't have any issues with it and I wouldn't change it at all for what was going on right then or what I wanted to do. That was it. The newer one is the most labored over, the most detailed, the most thought out and I think it's the most listenable so I think I'm most proud of that one.
Presumably you haven't yet had to deal much with legal issues related to your albums?
Yeah, it's been good so far. It's something that never fully goes away and it definitely still stays within a grey area. Thus far I haven't had issues and I would say as the years have gone on, I've definitely had a lot of interaction with people who work at major labels -- you know, A&R guys or managers for artists -- basically everyone I've interacted with has been very positive.
Even on the last record, I don't think I'm officially allowed to say which pieces, but there were definitely chunks on that album that were given to me specifically by people at major labels being like, "Check this out" or "Do you want to use this or that? Here's an a cappella. Here's an instrumental." I think people have been more interested in being involved in it as opposed to trying to fight it.
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