PHILADELPHIA — When Gregg Gillis, the biomedical engineer turned pop mash-up mad scientist known as Girl Talk, mixes together a mainstream hit like Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” with a less well-known song such as Washington, D.C., post-punk band Fugazi’s “Waiting Room,” he’s not doing it to force feed his favorite music to his fans.
He doing it because it makes sense, musically.
“I don’t want to push anything on anyone,” says Gillis.
“Part of the theme of the music is it’s OK to be into anything, and there should be no rules,” says the 29-year-old from Pittsburgh, talking on the phone from a tour stop in Raleigh, N.C. “But I am actively a fan of everything I sample. So if someone does get turned on to Fugazi because of my record, then I’m into it.”
Everything Gillis samples runs a rather mind-blowing gamut. On “All Day,” the latest Girl Talk magnum opus, there are 373 different song parts used, ranging alphabetically from a-ha’s “Take on Me” to Zapp’s “Doo Wah Ditty (Blow That Thing),” with everything from Willow Smith and Jimmy Smith and Jay-Z and Joe Jackson mixed in.
“It’s always fun for me to hear people say, ‘Wow, that’s great party music,’” Gillis says. “But I still want to make music that’s challenging to a certain degree on a compositional level. If you take a step back, it’s a 71-minute piece of music that’s linear with no repetition, really. Structurally, it’s kind of out there. I want to try out a lot of things, but still be accessible to someone who’s 50 or someone who’s 15.”
Gillis studied engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and worked doing sleep-science research in his early 20s while making experimental music on his laptop in the evening. “We worked on a lot of devices that would help you fall asleep or maintain sleep,” he says. Now, of course, Gillis concentrates on keeping listeners very much awake. “It’s the opposite, pretty much all the time,” he says. “I’m working my hardest to keep them up.”
Scientific discipline readied Gillis for the detail-oriented process of making music out of complexly interwoven digital samples.
“Music making to me is not the classic cliche of somebody sitting on the beach strumming a guitar, writing a new song after they broke up with their girlfriend,” he says. “It’s very meticulous and it involves way more trial and error. Going back to science, it’s like fine-tuning these little ideas that will then go together to build something bigger. It’s a detail-oriented process.
“The parallels are definitely there.”
Early Girl Talk albums such as “Secret Diary” (2002) and “Unstoppable” (2004) used pop samples as part of a sonic assault that was often proudly abrasive. Starting with “Night Ripper” in 2006, however, the pleasure principle began to reign supreme in his work.
That album got its title from an old skateboarding T-shirt and because he was sitting in front of a computer at his job during the day and doing the same thing making music at night.
On stage, Gillis is “a guy playing a laptop,” triggering samples in real time that may or may not correspond to how he does it on his records. “I tend to be more blunt during the live show. I lay off some of the more mellow stuff that’s on the record. I want the record to be something that people can have fun and party to, but also that they can enjoy for years to come. In the live show, I like to do reinterpretations of things and jump around a bit. The show is like a big collage of everything I’ve done and what I’m currently working on.”
“All Day” was released last fall on the Illegal Art label, and it’s the first of Girl Talk’s albums to be totally free.
It’s a gratis download without even a pay-what-you-wish option, on the Illegal Art website.
Surprisingly, Gillis has never been sued for sampling other people’s hits. He only half jokingly says that if he did have to clear all the samples on the album — from Nicki Minaj’s “Your Love” to Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out of My Life Woman” — he would have to charge “$1,000 for a copy of the album, or maybe $10,000.”
He’s never considered doing that, because it wouldn’t be much of a working business model and because he stands behind the copyright-law doctrine of Fair Use, which allows artists to reuse source material if the work they create is “transformative.”
“I believe it qualifies as Fair Use, and my label believes that and want to put it out there and push those buttons,” Gillis says. “I like making the music because I grew up with hip-hop and I like hearing samples. But I also feel that it’s not creating competition for the artists. Especially in 2011, where anytime there’s a pop song on the radio there are remixes of it and fan-made remixes of it, on YouTube and everywhere else. There’s a constant interaction. People are pretty positive about it. And they see that nobody’s going to be not buying the music of any of the artists I sample because they heard it on my album.
“If anything, it’s the opposite. I’m always hearing from kids on Facebook who are like: ‘I’ve gotten so into the Electric Light Orchestra after I heard that sample you used.’ I hear it every day. That’s the way it goes down.”