Gregg Gillis, the mind behind the one-man mashup phenomenon Girl Talk, has spent most of his career redefining the term "recording artist." In fact, during Girl Talk's early live shows, samples often took a back seat to spectacle. Before becoming a reliable headliner, the 29-year-old toyed with rock conventions by hiring deliberately awkward background dancers. At other gigs, he began by passing out cupcakes and telling small crowds, "My primary goal tonight is to be your friend. Entertaining you is secondary."
By necessity, those priorities have inverted over the past half-decade, ever since Girl Talk's third album, 2006's Night Ripper, became a sensation. In November 2010, Gillis surprised his growing cult by delivering a new full-length album, All Day, with no advance hype or warning. Day's template is similar to that of Ripper and 2008's Feed the Animals: It's a 70-minute pastiche that blends more than 400 disparate samples into an eminently funky bouillabaisse of unrivaled duration. The album bounces from one genre to another, sampling Black Sabbath, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, General Public, Cream, Cyndi Lauper, Warrant, will.i.am, New Order, Radiohead and hundreds of other artists. Featuring a double dose of classic rock, it's Girl Talk's most aggressive outing yet — but it's still full of shake-your-ass moments such as the improbably effective fusing of Fugazi's "Waiting Room" and Rihanna's "Rude Boy."
As Gillis pointed out in a recent interview with the RFT, the Girl Talk albums have become Rorschach tests for music fans from all walks of life, from teenage hipsters to hardcore hip-hop heads. The releases truly have something for — and practically from — everybody. For more from the interview, head to www .rftmusic.com.
RFT: Why don't you pass out cupcakes at shows anymore?
Gregg Gillis: I would like to take elements of some of the early shows and go there. I'm always trying to explain those early days to people on the phone, and it's hard to articulate what it used to be like. [I remember it as] somewhere between being a miserable experience and also a very positive experience, playing in some warehouse or art space in front of twenty people and really trying to make a spectacle out of it. Those early shows, I wanted to make it entertaining and poke fun at myself a little bit, like this giant rock & roll, entertaining laptop show.
I've always been a big fan of electronic performers like Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin. And I wanted to take my project and ramp it up in a similar fashion, and as the venues get bigger, make the shows adequate for the shows of that size.
Did you have a vision of wanting Girl Talk to grow into something in particular? Or did you just go along with it as it headed in a certain direction?
I don't think I ever had a vision of where it's at now. I think it was more like me just trying to keep up with what was happening. For six years, I had a small cult following. I traveled the United States a few times. In 2006, things started to take off, around Night Ripper. By the time it hit, it was like I had been in training. So when the shows started selling out, it definitely freaked me out at first, like, "Why are these people interested in me now?"
What are you planning for this tour?
This tour will be the first tour that I've had a whole set designed. I'm actually traveling with a crew of ten-plus people, and there's a lighting designer and a set onstage, and we have a custom software guy. I don't want to give anything specific away about the way it's going to work. But I think it's going to be something special and new that people haven't really messed with yet. It's going to be based around some LED wall elements, and we'll also have live video and camera feeds that can go from the audience onto the stage. And then we have people working visual elements that can manipulate those images of the crowd and do things in real time.
You make all your money from touring, right? So many musicians say they don't make any money from records. Do you think you spotted the elephant in the room by formally giving away the music to promote live shows?
I was in a very particularly weird situation, based on samples in my music. When you do music like I do, you never expect to get a song in a commercial, because none of the samples are licensed. And you don't expect your CD to be in Best Buy. So it forces the industry to deal with your situation differently. I saw quickly that I was able to make a living touring. And I saw with a lot of my friends' bands that people who have music exchanging freely on the Internet can draw people to live shows.
You still haven't met any legal challenges to how you use samples?
No. Not yet. I still believe it should be legal. As it gets bigger, there's that concern looming over me. To a certain degree, it's a sign of the times: People are becoming comfortable with music being remixed in such a way that [they realize] it's transformative and it's not negatively impacting them in any way. I hear from labels more often now, and they send me a cappella CDs in the mail. People are interested in having their music incorporated into a Girl Talk live show or album. People are going to find out about new music through the stuff I'm doing.
One moment that stands out to me, on the album, is Fugazi and Rihanna [at 5:26 of track two, "Let It Out"]. I had been playing that live for a few months, and it went over fine. The majority of my audience wasn't that into Fugazi or didn't know about it. But then since the album's been released.... I played a show in Pittsburgh a couple weeks ago, and I played the bass line from "Waiting Room," and there were hundreds of eighteen-year-olds freaking out over it. And I'm guessing they weren't rioting to Fugazi prior to that.
That's simultaneously awesome and hilarious to me. I get e-mails every day, "What's the sample on this track?" and, "What's the sample on that track?" People are investigating, trying to learn about the music.