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During a 30-minute phone interview, I talked with the DJ Gregg Gillis (code name: Girl Talk), who was at home in Pittsburgh two days before his current tour kicked off in Cleveland this past Wednesday (Jan. 5.). He told me about how he needed to go out and buy another copy of the new Kanye West CD because he had lost his copy after only one listen. (Another interesting fact: His favorite CD of 2010 was Rick Ross' Teflon Don.) The tour — with a sold-out Louisville date at Expo Five (2900 S. 7th St. Road) this Saturday, Jan. 8 — is in support of Gillis' newest album, All Day, which he released as a free download in November. (Fans joked that the volume of people who wanted All Day broke the Internet.)
The album is a continuous, 70-minute-long "mash-up," more than 370 samples mixed together. Some of the sounds are unrecognizable fragments. Most of it, though, is the catchiest music I've ever heard, familiar songs stripped down and reconstructed in a totally new way. (iTunes says I've already listened to All Day, from start to finish, 22 times.) On the album, you'll hear Peter Gabriel, U2, Arcade Fire, Phoenix and basically any rapper you can think of. For example: It kicks off with Ludacris rapping over Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." Things get crazier (i.e. better) from there. (Fun fact: When I told Gillis my initial interview idea was to mash-up a bunch of thoughts to form incomprehensible questions, he laughed at me.)
During live performances, Gills, who is 29, lets fans onstage, and the dance party grinds into the early-morning hours. The laptop he uses, you might like to know, is a Panasonic Toughbook, which he mummifies in plastic wrap. "They built these laptops for military use," Gillis says. "It's just disgusting on stage, a real workout for me. There's always a pool of sweat sitting on top of the keyboard. On top of that, who knows what's going to come out of the crowd: beer, vomit, blood. It's all hit me at some point."
What are some of the new production elements on this tour?
"This is the first time I've traveled with any level of production outside of my friends throwing confetti and balloons and toilet paper into the crowd, which I'll still have. All of the lights in the world can't compete with those very human elements, that house-party feel. But now we have a crew and custom mics and sets. For the Louisville show we'll have a big LED wall, and we'll be incorporating a lot of video and photography of the audience into real-time processing of the images. It'll become source material for a lot of the visuals."
You've come a long way from toilet paper.
"I never really took this stuff so seriously until I worked with a lighting designer, and all the sudden it really took the show to the next level, a new way to tell the audience when to react certain ways. And it's not exact every night. The lighting guys and visual guys have to perform with me. I try to give them general ideas of what I'm getting into — I'll send them MP3s of different takes of the live show — but nobody is going through the motions. We have to improvise together."
So you broke the Internet when you released All Day.
(laughs) "Yeah, it exploded on us. Illegal Art, the label who is hosting it, had prepared for about two to three times the amount of activity compared to the last album, Feed the Animals. It went far and beyond that. Immediately, we asked mirror sites to host it, people could put it on their blogs, whatever. After 24 hours, we completely lost track of how many were being downloaded."
Why do you give away your music?
"Well, technically this is the first one that was completely given away. The last one was a pay-for-what-you-want model, and if you paid over ten dollars you got an actual CD. The three CDs prior to that, we released them in a very traditional way. I was discussing ways to release All Day with the label, and the idea of a free release came up. It seemed like the most logical thing. Even though the last one was pay-for-what-you-want — free if you wanted it to be — that's still four more words than free and extra mouse clicks. Just giving it away for free is the easiest way to get the most people to hear it."
The business model seems to have worked.
"The goal has always been to see how far it can go. I knew that giving it away for free would build buzz about it, and that would result in increased ticket sales. That's basically how it went down. Leading into this tour, we weren't sure if we'd be able to fill up certain venues. After the album came out we realized we undershot many of the venues, and we had to add second shows or move to larger spaces."
Can you enjoy a song like the rest of us or is your brain wired to constantly listen for samples?
(laughs) "I kind of get in and out of the mode of listening for samples. Right now, leading into a tour after just releasing the album, I'm in the hunt for new material. Today I might be listening for a particular 70s soft-rock sample or maybe I feel like I haven't had anything new from 90s alternative music. So I'll hunt for those things — skip through the radio, check YouTube, go over my CDs.
"Sometimes I'll be listening to some of my favorite music, stuff I've heard many times, and certain things will jump out at me. That doesn't ruin the song for me, though. I don't know how to play any instrument in the traditional way, but I imagine if you're a drummer, any time you hear a song with a lot of drumming you're probably thinking about the drum part and trying to understand how to play it. But walking through the grocery store, being in a bar at the jukebox or going to a party, there's always that moment when I hear a song and it's like, 'Oh, I've heard this before but never thought of it like this.' And that happens on a daily basis."
My favorite part on All Day is when you mix a verse from the rapper Wale with Beck's song "Loser." How does something like that come together?
"That's a good example of the way it works with a lot of this material. There's a long trial-and-error process. Those Beck instrumental parts, I've been fooling around with those live for five years, even prior to the release of Night Ripper in 2006. It's gone in and out of my live set.
"That Beck song is almost like a hip-hop beat. In a certain way, it's potentially easy to use it because it's like combining two rap songs. I only wanted to use it in a transformative way. The Beck song really builds. And the flow of the Wale verse just matched up with it really well, just in terms of when Wale really turns it on. I'll listen to the Wale verse and say, 'The first third of it he's chilling out, then he picks up the intensity.' I have all these isolated Beck parts, which could go in various ways, but I tried to have them both build the same way. That was probably the 50th thing I've played over Beck's 'Loser.'"
One thing that happens when I listen to your music is the original versions never again sound the same. On All Day you have Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" over "Creep" by Radiohead. Now whenever I hear the Radiohead song, I expect ODB to chime in. Does that happen to you?
(laughs) "It does, in weird ways. It's even with edits -- like I'm expecting to hear a drum fill. With almost all of my songs, there's a certain layer of production on top of it — added drums, pitching the song up or down. Sometimes I'll be in the car listening to music and a song I've sampled comes on and it just sounds slow to me or not as big — the drums just don't sound right. That's just the nature of adding to something. When you hear the original version, it's going to sound sparse comparatively. A lot of these songs I sample so much and play out so much live that I'm actually going to hear them more in the new state than the original state."
I think there's a misconception that during live performances, DJs just hit play on a laptop. Explain what you're doing onstage.
"Over the years I've seen many people on laptops do very live, active shows. There's software to do it. With my particular set, it's basically a whole bunch of loops and then any time you hear a change in the music, that's me actually clicking the mouse.
"You can see the difference really easily with different performers. Sometimes an electronic performer will be standing on the table or hyping the crowd and there'll be all these crazy changes happening in the song. Well, clearly they're not cuing that part of the song. You'll notice in my set, any time I engage the crowd or stand on the table, it's basically the same loops playing and there are no fundamental changes. Everything is as isolated as possible. Even when you're just hearing a drum beat play, that could be like four loops — a kick-drum loop, hand-clap loop, high-hat loop, snare-loop. At any given time I'll take out the snare or double the kick, and when the vocals come in that's me actually triggering it."
Do you practice the set like a band would?
"I have a rehearsed set of how I want to do it, and I practice it. But night to night it changes; I'll get caught up in the moment and want to repeat something."
Is there a song out there you're dying to mix but just haven't found the right spot for it yet?
"An older song I've been dealing with forever is The Cars' 'Drive.' It's one of my favorite songs — maybe sampled it for the first time in 2004 — and every record I find something that sounds good with it, but it's not perfect enough."
Who are some of the artists you've sampled that have given you feedback?
"With the new album, the Toadies were the first to reach out to me. Big Boi from Outkast came to a show of mine a couple years ago, and we've played a few shows together. I knew he was familiar with my stuff, but somebody forwarded me an interview with him recently. He was asked about my new record and he said, 'Oh, yeah, the one where he mixed my song ('Shutterbug') with Portishead?'
"When Feed the Animals came out, one publication reached out to many of the artists like they were trying to get me busted. It felt foul. They reached out to Mike Patton. On that record I had sampled his band Faith No More and combined it with Busta Rhymes. They asked Mike Patton what he thought about it, and he said, 'It was an honor to collaborate with Busta Rhymes.'"
You end All Day with the rapper UGK rapping over John Lennon's "Imagine." The Beatles are notorious for being against giving away their music for free. Is this your way of raising a middle finger to anybody questioning the legality of what you're doing?
(laughs) "Obviously, I understand the history and implications, but I do try to distance myself from thinking about that kind of stuff when creating music. The moment I'm cutting up John Lennon's 'Imagine,' I'm just doing it because I think it's musically interesting; most things I cut up don't see the light of day. I can honestly say when I'm doing that, I'm not thinking, 'I'm going to stick it to the Beatles or Metallica.'"
How many hours of music do you listen to each day?
"A lot of times, I will make music for 12 hours, sometimes 15 hours, a day. In my mind, though, I didn't really listen to music that entire day. Listening to it and making it is two different experiences. Whenever I have free time, I love making the music. I have to. When I go on tour, I can't just play the stuff from the new record like other bands can. People expect new material."
How'd you decide on the name Girl Talk anyway?
"In the early days the music I was doing was a bit more experimental. A lot of the shows I played were with other electronic musicians and laptop artists. That scene took place in an art gallery, with 30 people sitting with their arms folded watching a guy click away at the computer. A lot of those guys would have band names that were made-up words or something like X2_R.
"I was a fan of that stuff but at the same time I was like, 'That's not me.' I wanted to do music like that while appropriating pop music and pop culture. I wanted to pick a band name that didn't sound like a man playing a computer; I wanted a name that a lot of those guys would be embarrassed to be on a flyer with. I thought Girl Talk was the perfect fit."
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