Laptop mixologist Gregg Gillis bares (almost) all

by Erin Podolsky

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

20 May 2008


What Gregg Gillis does on stage under the moniker Girl Talk is about as minimalist as you can get, which may be why he’s known, in addition to his prowess in mashing up song samples into sound collages, for getting undressed during performances.

“I do that in situations where I feel there’s more of a performance necessary, even in festival-style shows where people are just staring at you. Then I might put on a bit more of a performance, whereas a normal club show, if it’s going correctly, then everybody is dancing and enjoying themselves and there’s really no need for me to be running around in my underwear to entertain them,” he says, recalling a recent London show where he wore briefs and ended up freezing his bum off onstage.

Gillis, who lives in Pittsburgh and is 26, has been playing as Girl Talk for nearly a decade, first on weekends away from school and then his day job, and now full-time as a remix and mashup artist.

The term “mashup” doesn’t really do justice to what Gillis does - it implies just a song or two layered together to create a lyric over an unexpected, dichotomous beat. Gillis is way beyond that kid stuff. His tracks sample an average of 30-40 cuts per three-minute kick.

Pick a song, any song, on his “Night Ripper” album and you’re likely to hear anything from a Kanye West or Jay-Z lyric (or both) to a Smashing Pumpkins melody, a Phantom Planet piano line to an unnamed hi-hat sample or drum breakdown. The Notorious B.I.G. plus “Tiny Dancer”? It gets even older school than that, and Gillis just makes it sound so right.

How did Girl Talk get started?
I started the project of Girl Talk right when I started at Case Western Reserve University in 2000. Throughout all those years, I put out a couple of albums and toured around as much as I could on winter and summer breaks. After college, I got a day job doing biomedical engineering and ... was doing that for a couple years until my last album came out. People got into that album and show demand went up a lot and I just started playing around the whole bit and ended up quitting my job about a year ago.

How did you finally convince yourself to make the leap?
It was kind of weird because I knew I was making enough (from music) to live off of for a while, but I had a hard time convincing myself that I could actually quit my job, just because music has always just been a fun thing for me and I’ve done it for so many years without really any critical response. I played for so many years touring around playing to nobody.

I probably could have quit probably six months prior to that, but I had a hard time actually coming to the realization and believing that “Wow, I can actually live off of this.”

Your instrument is your laptop. What’s your setup?
I have two. I only operate off of one, it’s all live sample triggering on one computer, but I always have two because it gets a little chaotic and there’s always the chance that one computer is gonna break. Last year, I broke three laptops, smashed them, so I bought one of those Panasonic Toughbooks that supposedly you can’t break. That’s been going strong for months now, so hopefully that will keep up.

That’s the main one I use and I have a Dell as a backup. I use a program called AudioMulch, it’s an Australian thing, pretty bare-bones-style program, and I pretty much have a whole bunch of samples in front of me and do a lot of arrangements beforehand. But live (I) do sample triggering. It’s sort of like playing these collages that I’ve assembled, actually clicking the mouse every time there’s a change in the music. I use the laptop mouse. ... I probably break a mouse, one a month minimally.

What’s your process for creating a song?
I’ll hear a song on the radio and think, “Wow that breakdown is amazing, I would love to use that.” So I’ll go buy that CD or download that song and load that song into a wav editor, then I go ahead and sample that actual part. If it’s an older recording, you might need to fight a bit, quantitizing it, going through and making sure it actually will fall on a rhythm. So I sample it and cut it up and do a variety of things and then I just label it and store it away into my bank of samples. I just do that all day long. Whenever I sample something, I don’t worry about where I’m going to use it, I just sample a million things.

How does that translate into the live show?
For my live shows, it’s almost a grid of a whole bunch of samples and I change it up every few weeks. So maybe one melody or one vocal sample will be getting boring to me, I’ve heard it too many times, so I go through and try to swap in something new. It’s a trial-and-error process. ... I may have sampled 50 songs that week, so I’ll run through those and see what sounds OK with it. If I don’t find anything, then I won’t use it.

If I find something I like, I’ll play it live. And that process just goes on and on and on. The template I use live I’ve been using for almost 8 years now, just swapping in parts, adding new parts. I put out an album once every two years, and the albums become basically what was the coolest stuff - what did I enjoy the most from the past year and a half of shows.

Topics: girl talk
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