By Matt Crowley/The AS Review
Gregg Gillis is not a DJ. He even makes shirts that say so. The man behind Girl Talk has done his best to separate himself from the turntable and mixer crowd since his first album, “Secret Diary,” was released in 2002. Eight years, three releases and hundreds of dance parties later, Gillis has made it clear that he is making music rather than spinning it, turning myriad samples and loops into sonic medleys so it’s hard to tell where one song begins and another ends. At 8 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27, Gillis and his bag of tricks (a.k.a. his laptop) will invade the Viking Union MPR. The AS Review talked with Gillis about his take on the recording process, fair use and his next album.
The AS Review: How did you first get into music production?
Gregg Gillis: I just started going to shows and going out and seeing bands and checking out local acts and things like that when I was in middle school and early high school and just started diving deeper and deeper into the Pittsburgh music scene. I wanted to find the most far out music I could find and the Internet existed back then but it wasn’t as easy to find out about music. So I kept diving in and kind of discovered underground electronic and underground experimental music and in that world you see a lot of people on stage playing computers or foot pedals or toys or whatever. So from that … you realize you don’t have to have any traditional music background to be involved in this or make music. Myself, just with electronics, formed a band with my friends and kind of got everything going and that was basically, to me, baby steps for getting into the whole Girl Talk thing that basically started once I got a laptop.
ASR: What bands were you seeing that has influenced you the most?
GG: Back then, I can kind of pinpoint two that were heavily influential. One is an artist named Kid606, who is still active today and makes a lot of crazy electronic music. Back then I saw him live in Pittsburgh. … I heard him do a remix of N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” and I don’t think he played it live, but I heard it after seeing him and that was the first time I heard someone really do an unsolicited remix of a hip-hop track that just completely tore it apart. You could tell it was paying respect to the original but still making it its own thing. … There is also a band from Pittsburgh called Operation Re-Information. They made music that was kind of more in the world of Kraftwerk or very old-school sounding electronic music but they were three people who played computer keyboards live and they played them on guitar straps and did live, kind of sample-based composition. And I got to know those guys and be friends with them and I went out to see them live as much as possible, so just being exposed to that when I was 15 or 16, it was like, this is a very exciting way to make music.
ASR: A lot of your live sets include songs that you didn’t use on your albums. Are they songs that didn’t make the cut for the album or just something you’ve been working on recently?
GG: A little bit of both. I think a lot of times I will prepare material for shows and then when I sit down to do an album, sometimes things don’t make the cut, not because I don’t like them, just because it happened to not fit there. And sometimes I feel more comfortable putting obscure elements on the album because I think the albums are something that you can kind of sit there and process and hear over and over again and it doesn’t have to be in your face.
ASR: Speaking of the songs themselves, how do you approach a song when you are first starting it? Does it
begin with a single idea or sample?
GG: When I’m doing it on record it relates to how I’ve done it in a live setting. The live shows are kind of an ever-evolving template. When I perform live it’s triggering all of the loops and samples by hand, but I can save the templates I play on. So right now I have the template from last weekend saved on my computer and I have four days off this week and I’ll sit around and fool around with new material and I’ll go through that set before I go on next weekend and say, okay, what do I want to change up? Have I been playing anything too much? Is there anything new I want to incorporate? And then I’ll substitute parts in and out of there and change it around, and when I put something new into the set, it might work, it might not work, I might want to change it up, I might want to change the placement in it. … When I start an album, it’s like having 75 percent of the puzzle pieces, and you assemble it and you kind of put it together and you say, okay, there’s these missing things, and I don’t know how to go from this to that, and then it’s a matter of just kind of figuring it out on the spot and editing.
ASR: As far as your use of sampling, has it gotten you into any major legal trouble so far?
GG: No, I actually have had zero issues so far. We get asked about it a lot and we’ve had to speak about it in interviews a lot. … Where we stand is we believe in the idea of fair use. The doctrine of fair use basically states that you can sample without asking for permission if it falls under certain criteria, and that criteria looks at how transformative your work is, if it’s negatively impacting the source material and potential sales, if it’s not defacing the artist, all of that. … I believe that you can take a sample of someone’s work and twist it around, speed it up, slow it down, combine it with other elements and it can still be recognizable. … But I think you can use it in such a way that it can be transformative and can become something else, and if you can do that in such a way that it won’t negatively impact the source material’s potential sales, it can kind of become its own entity. So that’s the goal with all of my work, to take something familiar and twist it around and make something new out of it.
ASR: What direction do you see yourself heading in the next year or so?
GG: I want to really start editing my next album by the summertime. … I’ve been putting out an album every two years so I feel like I might be slightly behind on that. But I have a lot of new material in front of me and I feel like the live show has definitely evolved to a certain point that’s distinctly different than two years ago when I put out “Feed the Animals,” so I kind of want to embrace that and do another album. I felt that there was an evolution between “Night Ripper” and “Feed the Animals” and I think there’s going to be a further evolution onto the next one. It’s hard to get into the details. … I think it’s going to be in the same family of sounds as the last two albums but I think it’s going to move into a slightly new place. I think it’s going to be more varied overall and hopefully more experimental and accessible at the same time, if that’s possible.
WANT A FREE TICKET TO GIRL TALK?
Of course you do! The first five people to bring a copy of this interview to the AS Publicity Center in VU 411 will get a free ticket to the concert. We’re open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through
Friday. How easy!