Gregg Gillis doesn't care if you hate "Jock Jams," you jagoff. The dude behind Girl Talk's songs of rapid-fire samples wears his love for tumbling music like a badge of honor. We caught up with Gillis before his headlining appearance at LouFest.
Allison Babka: I'm excited to chat because you're a Pittsburgh guy. You grew up around Bridgeville, Penn., and being from eastern Ohio, I knew Bridgeville because of the Chuck E. Cheese's and [defunct toy store] Children's Palace there.
Gregg Gillis: Wow, I spent a lot of time in Children's Palace and Chuck E. Cheese's!
I had birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese's!
I had birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese's, too! It's crazy, I haven't heard the name Children's Palace in a long time, but yeah, we used to jam out there all the time.
So if I said "Sarris'," [a Pennsylvania candy factory] or "jagoff" [Pittsburghese for "annoying person"] or even "pop," you'd know what I was talking about.
Absolutely! I probably say "jagoff" every day of my life. I love saying it. It's entered pop culture. Sometimes it will be on TV outside of Pittsburgh, and it always gets me excited.
I've noticed that you often wear a Pirates cap. Are you just a baseball fan, or do you support all the Pittsburgh teams?
I support all the Pittsburgh teams. I'm a Pirates fan, but I think the cap is more of a love for Pittsburgh in general. I follow the Steelers a little more than the Pirates, and I like the Penguins as well, but I just love the city and the uniforms here. Black and yellow. All of the teams and the city are represented by the same color scheme, so if you're wearing black and yellow, you're reppin' for your city.
You had been accepted into the super-rigorous biomedical engineering program at Case Western University. You focused on tissue engineering and could have become a real-life Dr. Curt Connors from Spider-Man, growing weird shit in petri dishes. [Gillis laughs] How did music become so much bigger than that for you?
I started my first band when I was fourteen. I played a lot of different music and even ran a small cassette label, so I was always obsessed about music. Despite loving it, it wasn't really a career option, so I always did some kind of music project on the side. I started doing Girl Talk and college around the same time, around 2000. After I graduated college, I put out a few records and sort of toured before I got a new job and continued to do Girl Talk, driving to New York or driving to Cincinnati to do shows. Then I put out a record in 2006, and I thought it was a bit more accessible than the things I did previously, that it was interesting and that there was a small chance of it making a small splash on the Internet. But it just took off on a level that I really didn't anticipate.
At that point, I continued to do the day job. But I was getting offers from overseas, and by March of 2007, I thought, "Ok, I've got to do something." So I thought I would do music for one year, and then I could get another job. Things just started rolling and haven't stopped since.
How long do you think the music will go on?
I think it will go on forever, but it will be really different. The first record I did in 2002 is very experimental, and I think my fans now would not like it. If you read the reviews on Amazon.com, people talk shit on it, and it's funny. I plan on releasing some music that would be somewhat of a departure from what it is now. I never want this to be static. My big thing for each record and tour is for it to never just be what it was before. I never want to just have "Girl Talk Party To Go, Volumes one to ten." I want to raise the bar for myself and change. That's a lot more important for me than just seeing this as a career. So yeah, I'm excited. I'm very satisfied in a way that keeps me eager to experiment.
How will you keep growing?
There are so many different places to go with sample-based music. Recently, I've been experimenting with still using pop music, but cutting it up differently. Most of the music I sample is recognizable, so I've been working on stuff where it's a little more difficult to tell what the source material is. I'm also sampling slightly more obscure things, and a couple of years down the road, there could be a collaboration. I have some ideas of what I want the next step to be, but I can't officially say yet.
When I first heard your work, I thought, "That's some damn fine cheerleading competition music." Are you the modern-era Jive Bunny?
[Laughs] I feel like in the past, people were condescending or trying to say something negative about my work by comparing it to "Jock Jams" on acid. But when I heard that, I thought it was cool because I love "Jock Jams." I love that element and that energy. I think there are a lot of different influences that go into my music as far as it being detailed or changing rapidly, and I think it relates to cheerleading music and "Jock Jams."
At this point, do your older relatives completely understand what you do, or are they still waiting for you to pull out a guitar instead of a computer?
[Laughs] They kind of get it. But we have a big production with a lot of lights, and I remember my grandma telling someone that she thought I did magic tricks. I played Pittsburgh two months ago, and my parents come out to every show like they have for years, but this show, my aunts and uncles came out. Like, I don't know what they get out of it, you know? They compliment the show and go out of their way to come, but I try to tell them, "I obviously won't be offended if you don't come to the show." But they want to come. Ultimately, it's been a goal of mine to have the show be entertaining enough to where it could appeal to people who have never seen live electronic music before, or someone who doesn't go to dance-oriented shows.
Everyone always wants to talk about how you came up with the name Girl Talk. I, of course, associate it with that terrible game played at slumber parties in the '80s. Did you ever play it?
I've never played it, but my sister did. I have ten copies of it; people just have given it to me over the years. There are actually so many things called "Girl Talk," so many different objects in my house like books and different games. It was also Stephanie Tanner's band on "Full House." It's almost like a pop culture nugget.
So if the Riverfront Times brought you a copy of the game before you hit the LouFest stage, would you play it with us?
Oh, definitely. I feel like maybe I've played it in recent years. I know there are fake zits and stuff. I don't know the rules fully well, but I would learn.
You're on a LouFest bill with a lot of great bands, like the Flaming Lips, Dinosaur Jr. and Son Volt. Is there anybody that you'll try to see?
Definitely Dinosaur Jr.; they're one of my favorite bands of all time. They're coming through Pittsburgh, but I'll be out of town. I saw them in Pittsburgh two or three years ago. I love their classic material, but I also think they've done an incredible job at still churning out great records. My tour manager actually used to be their tour manager as well. It's just a band I've listened to my whole life, so I'm excited for that.
So many artists have come from St. Louis. Is there any chance we can convince you to do some mash-up of Fontella Bass, Wilco, Nelly and Chuck Berry?
Yeah, there might be a little St. Lunatics in there. I can't promise anything, but there's a chance of it.