Words By DJ Sorce-1
Graphics By P.
Girl Talk, real name Gregg Gillis, is one of the more refreshing grass roots stories to happen in the modern music industry. Originally a noise musician who toured around the country to play in dingy basements for 20 people, he has since turned into a sample based superstar with his critically applauded Night Ripper album. In the years following its release, he has shared the stage with the likes of Kayne West amongst many others.
The road to success has not been easy as many might assume, but has instead been a labor of love. An endless tour schedule, constant experimentation with different music, and a focus on sharing his music instead of paying attention to sales have helped make Girl Talk a household name. We at TSS were able to catch up with the Pittsburgh native to reflect on his recent summer release, Feed the Animals, as well as future projects with Trey Told ‘Em. Read on as Girl Talk talks the talk about DJ’s, album sales, Pimp C, and a whole mess of other topics.
Photo Credit – Andrew Strasser
TSS: Did you start your new album with a Pimp C verse as a dedication to him after his recent passing?
Girl Talk: To some degree. I was using that verse before he passed away, right around the time “International Players Anthem” hit. It just seemed right. It had become a staple with my live set and it started the album off with the intensity I was looking for. I knew that I wanted to begin and end the album on the same tempo and make the whole album circular. It jumped out at me that I could start the album with Pimp C’s verse and then finish it with the Andre 3000 verse. It made perfect sense and made the album whole by beginning and ending in the same place.
TSS: When I last interviewed you, you said that Night Ripper was essentially bits and pieces of your live show condensed into album form. Does your new album Feed the Animals have more of an intentional structure than Night Ripper?
Girl Talk: A lot of the elements and cooler ideas for Feed the Animals were brought in from the live show. When I was making Night Ripper I was doing one show a month at most. After Night Ripper I started playing pretty much every weekend. In order to play that often I had to generate more material to keep it fresh for me and the audience. Going into Feed the Animals I had more stuff to choose from and I had performed the material a lot more than on Night Ripper. I think I had a better understanding of where I wanted to go with the new album.
TSS: Was this a more artistically satisfying album to make?
Girl Talk: Yeah. I’m very proud of Night Ripper, but in the two years since it I feel like I’ve fine tuned my process. This one feels more accomplished to me. I wanted to make it more dynamic, denser, increase the production value, and make the source material more diverse. I wanted to take everything to the extreme on this one.
TSS: Your first album, Secret Diary, is nothing like Night Ripper and Feed the Animals. Your second album, Unstoppable, is sort of like a cross between Secret Diary and Night Ripper. When did you start making music in the style of Night Ripper and Feed the Animals?
Girl Talk: The initial idea for Secret Diary was to juxtapose noise and pop music. I wanted to make experimental music out of pop. The general idea has stayed the same. I want to make new and interesting music out of pop music in a way that isn’t ironic. I want to stay sincere to the source material but at the same time manipulate it and take it to a new world.
When I was playing shows around Secret Diary I was always pushing a fun party feel, even though the music was experimental. I would get in peoples faces and try to get them to loosen up and party a little bit. Around 2002 and 2003 I started playing more house parties. While the Secret Diary material was fun and interesting, it wasn’t really stuff you could dance to. I started to move into more beat oriented material around the time Unstoppable came out. I was doing a lot of experimenting with different ways of handling percussion and samples. I’d occasionally drop the obvious, blatant sample. Whenever I did that, it seemed to be the highlight of the show.
By the time Unstoppable came out in 2004 I was already doing sets that were a lot more like Night Ripper and were made up mostly of blatant samples. That’s when I started to do a lot more house parties. It kind of made sense for what I wanted to do with the live show. Since then it’s been a slow evolution of refining that style.
TSS: Based on “Touch 2 Feel” video and the Unstoppable album artwork, it looks like in the early days you were doing house parties with 20 people. How did you make the transition from house parties to sold out arenas?
Girl Talk: My start came with experimental musicians and live bands. I never played with DJ’s because it wasn’t really the correct fit. It fit in more with someone using a laptop to create their own electronic music. When you’re doing music like that, it’s hard to get more than 20 people to come to your show. Me and my friends would drive for eight hours to play for twenty people. That was cool, and if a couple of people bought t-shirts, that would be the greatest thing. We could go eat some hamburgers that night.
That’s the way it was and I didn’t really have aspirations beyond that. I knew the music I was doing would have a very specific audience. By the time Night Ripper rolled around, I’d acquired a decent cult following. It’s hard to play a laptop in the midst of band and have people want to buy your t-shirts and CD’s. I had that to a small degree and thought it was great. All of my heroes and people I looked up to in the world of noise music were typically playing for 50 to 100 people a night.
I put out Night Ripper and realized that it was more accessible than my other work, but I definitely didn’t expect the response that it got. All of a sudden, within a couple months of that dropping, I was headlining shows that were selling out. It started out with shows around 200 people, and then it went up to 400 hundred, and so on. Eventually I was selling out 1000 plus venues.
For me it was funny because the initial presentation of my live show was almost tongue in cheek even though the music was serious. When you’re playing for 30 people and you’re jumping around stage, screaming, getting in peoples faces and acting cocky you’re kind of poking fun at yourself. I wanted to present the show as if it was the greatest show on earth even though it was me remixing other peoples music on a laptop. That was the attitude that went into the small shows. Once the shows got bigger, I stuck to my guns. I still tried to make it like a rock and roll experience. I don’t mind crowd surfing and getting in peoples faces.
I stuck with that and the shows kept getting bigger. I didn’t change much in terms of my setup or how I was making my music. It’s evolved to this point where I think people look at it as one big traveling party. They are familiar with the records and like the way they’re presented. I typically get around to most major cities at least once a year. I think people see that as their chance to go nuts for the year if they’re into the style of music.
TSS: You seem to have a tireless work ethic and are proof that if you start locally and don’t mind playing for five people it can reap benefits. It’s easy to get burned out and lose focus when you feel like you aren’t reaching the masses, but I think it’s great that you started very small.
Girl Talk: In 2008 it’s easy to get huge before you have an album out with the Internet. I think that’s great and you see a lot of artists like that. It seems like it’s becoming rarer to find a band that has been touring for six years, doing small shows and then breaking out. I think when people heard Night Ripper a lot of them thought, “Who’s this asshole who did this kitschy album?” A lot of people aren’t aware of the years and years of humiliation and horrible shows I’ve played.
TSS: (Laughs) Is there any significance to the title Feed the Animals?
Girl Talk: On the last full US tour I did with Dan Deacon and White Williams a guy named Andrew Strasser was in charge of setting up inflatable’s on the stage every night. He’s done all my album artwork, he tours with me, and he does stage visuals sometimes. When people come to my shows they know there is a distinct beginning and end. It’s difficult for me to play for much more than an hour, so people kind of come out and treat it like a rock show. They’re fiending and ready to dance.
We noticed that anytime the inflatables were placed relatively close to the crowd someone would get their hands on it and completely tear it apart or crowd surf it back. Andrew started referring to setting up the visuals as “feeding the animals.” It went a little bit further and we started referring to the shows from both our standpoint and the fans as feeding the animals. The shows are everyone’s time to just get wild and enjoy themselves for that day.
TSS: Was there anything you were trying to improve upon that you felt needed work after Night Ripper?
Girl Talk: Night Ripper is what it is and I’m very proud of it, but the style and tempo of it are kind of one dimensional in purpose. I wanted the pace of Feed the Animals to be way more dynamic and have a lot of double time and half time stuff. The main goal for me was to make it more accessible and listenable, but at the same time denser. I wanted to cram more in there without it being so obvious. I put a lot of labor into making it sound like there wasn’t a lot of labor put into it.
I wanted it to be dense like Night Ripper, but if you weren’t there to pick it apart and hear all the aspects of it, it could flow by like a normal album. I also wanted to capture the pace of the live show where I’m a bit looser and I’ll play things a little bit more slowly. I can’t edit live as meticulously as I can for an album. The pace of Night Ripper wasn’t an accurate representation of where the shows were at. A lot of people got back to me and said they were feeling the stuff in the shows more than the album. So I guess with Night Ripper I had a technical achievement in mind, but with Feed the Animals I had more of musical goal in mind.
TSS: How do you think the album has been received?
Girl Talk: When someone says they like Night Ripper more, I’m not offended in any way. Night Ripper focuses a bit more on 90’s source material. Feed the Animals dives a little deeper and there’s some older source material. There are also blatant pop hits like “Since You’ve Been Gone”, “Whoomp There It Is”, and “The Train”. Those are very over the top kind of wedding jams. At the same time, some of it is stuff from the 60’s and 70’s that a young listenership might not be as familiar with.
If people aren’t as into it I’m not offended even though I think it’s a better album. Night Ripper had a novel appeal and a lot of people hadn’t heard anything like it. When you throw on Feed the Animals for the first time it might be difficult for some people who are very used to Night Ripper to compare the two. I really wanted to prove that Night Ripper wasn’t a one time thing and I wasn’t just going to disappear. I’ve been dedicating my life to doing remixes and sample based music. Whether you’re into it or not I’m going to continue to pump it out.
TSS: How has the album been doing money wise? You’ve been using the “pay me what you think it’s worth” plan. Does it work?
Girl Talk: I have no stats as far as amount downloaded or money made. The guy who runs Illegal Art handles a lot of things himself and he always has his hands full. We’ve both been fairly busy and have only spoken a few times since the album has come out. I make a living off of playing shows; the albums only make me a fraction of what I make off of shows, especially since I’m doing around 100 shows a year. The whole point of doing the pay what you want is to be reasonable with the fans. So far the coverage has been more expansive than Night Ripper. Rolling Stone magazine had a review of Feed the Animals up within one week of the album’s online release. I feel like anyone who was interested in getting their hands on it did and that’s my primary concern.
Photo Credit – Andrew Strasser
TSS: I read the Rolling Stone review right before we started this interview. I find that a lot of times critics who review you try to make deep analytical statements about your music. The person who wrote the Rolling Stone review made some of those off base comments. Do you agree that sometimes people tend to reach to make something out of nothing when the write about your music?
Girl Talk: Anytime there is any lyrical meaning or combination in my mixes, it’s very blatant. I’m not trying to make any statement or anything like that. To get 300 songs to fit together on an album, it’s not like I choose 300 songs and say these are the ones I wanted to pick. To get those 300 songs I sampled 1000’s of songs and narrowed down the ones I felt worked the best musically. It’s rare when I feel like I can extract a lyrical message out of combining two things together.
It’s hard enough to get things to work in a musical way. I do try to pick music that is from different worlds and typically doesn’t flow together. When you do that, you get songs with conflicting messages, but for me, it’s on a musical level first and foremost. I guess people naturally try to find meaning in music. You can write very obtuse and abstract lyrics, and if they want to, people are going to find something amazing that you’re saying.
TSS: How are you able to sample so many people without getting sued? Rap records that sample a fraction of the artists you do have had serious legal problems for not clearing samples.
Girl Talk: It depends on how you go about sampling and what level you are operating at. There’s a thing called fair use in the US copyright law. It allows you to sample without asking for permission if your music falls under certain criteria. Our claim is that my music should fall under fair use because it’s transformative, it’s becoming its own entity, and it’s not negatively impacting anyone’s sales. The primary goal isn’t a financial gain; it’s to put out interesting music. We basically lost money on the first few releases before Night Ripper caught on. The point has always been to make music, it’s not like I’ve always been running a giant money making scheme.
Rappers, sample based musicians, and everyone else can claim fair use. People have used it and won. 2 Live Crew claimed “fair use” when they were sued for using Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman”. They won because their version was basically a parody of the original. Recently, Yoko Ono tried to sue some film makers that used John Lennon’s “Imagine” in their movie. The film makers claimed “fair use” and won.
There are a lot of people using it. With rap music, there are billions and billions of samples that are uncleared that people have never been bothered about on an underground level. Once you get to the level of someone like Diddy who puts out a #1 song or something that’s on the charts, it becomes an issue. You can still claim fair use if the work is transformative, but with in the case of someone like Diddy, they have a lot of money coming in and they would rather pay for the sample and deal with it that way.
For an album like mine, it’s clearly not an option to pay 300 plus artists royalties. We’d have to sell each CD for a few hundred dollars just to pay them for the money they’d be making off the CD. As the times are changing, you don’t hear as many sample issues with rap artists. Part of that has to do with production styles these days, but the nature of copyright is also changing as the internet becomes more of a giant. In the past, hearing music had more value. Nowadays when you buy music its like you’re donating to that cause, because you most likely could hear it in some capacity for free.
In 1990 if you heard a song on the radio and you really wanted to hear it again you’d have to buy it on tape or CD. Hearing music doesn’t hold that kind of value anymore because anyone can hear it. It’s going to become even easier. When millions of people buy the Lil’ Wayne album, they could just get it for free, but they’re investing in the idea of Lil’ Wayne and they want to support him.
When someone is buying a sample-based album, they are investing in the concept of that album. If they really like the original source material, they can go buy it. In our case, we’re not trampling on anyone’s feet. We’re not hurting James Taylor’s sales. I’m guessing we’re helping a lot of artist’s sales and turning young people onto musicians they wouldn’t typically be listening to.
TSS: I didn’t know the new album was operating under that license until I went to the Illegal Art website.
Girl Talk: Well, Creative Commons is different than fair use. Fair use is a part of United States copyright law. You don’t know if it falls under fair use until you go to court. Someone has to sue you and then you have to challenge it. Creative Commons is a license you can apply for. There are varying degrees of the Creative Commons license. You can allow your work to be sampled. With our work, we have a Creative Commons license saying that anyone can manipulate any of my albums and do whatever they want with it. They can remix it further and continue to spread the recycling of these ideas and doing new things with them.
TSS: Do you think you’ll see your material get remixed?
Girl Talk: Yeah, definitely. With Night Ripper someone did a full Chopped and Screwed remix of the album on their MySpace, which was great. I also got an email with some mp3s of people chopping some of the songs up. A lot of stuff off of the last two albums could become their own entities. With the Elton John and Biggie “Tiny Dancer” mix, someone could totally do some kind of dance remix of that. I think that’s bound to happen. People have already dabbled in it on a more conceptual level. I’m waiting for someone to come along and do it on a very musical level.
TSS: I don’t know how much you keep up with the opinion of your stuff in the traditional DJ world. I DJ with vinyl, listen to mix tapes, and love the whole turntablist movement. That being said, I’ve been frustrated with how your work has been received amongst DJ’s. A lot of people in the DJing community will slam your last two albums and say things that aren’t accurate about them.
Girl Talk: It’s easy to hate on things that are close to your world that aren’t exactly what you’re doing. I think a lot of times people from the traditional DJing world think I’m trying to come up with an ultimate dance mix. That’s not really what I’m doing. I’m trying to make something a little bit progressive and challenging. The fact that the songs are going by so quickly is the point. If some things aren’t exactly on key and there is some level of dissonance, that’s the point. It’s not supposed to be a perfectly produced MTV Party to Go style mix. It’s supposed to be slightly abstract in spots. I want to make something that’s fun to listen to but still challenging and unique.
I think some people form the traditional DJ worlds misunderstand where I’m coming form. A lot of times people have issues with me because they don’t understand where I’m coming from and haven’t seen the years and years of hard work and shows I’ve played. There were three or four years worth of live shows where I was going around basement to basement and performing at art galleries and show spaces where people could care less. People see me on stage and sometimes they think, “Who’s this hotdog thinking that he’s the best.” They miss the point that what I’m doing now comes from a whole different world of doing it for no one with nobody caring.
The traditional DJ world isn’t a world that I come from. I respect it and I like a lot of DJ’s work a lot, but my influences are people like John Oswald, Kid 606, Negativeland and people like that. I feel more in tune with that kind of material.
TSS: Do you have any interest in collaborating with traditional DJs?
Girl Talk: Yeah, I’m interested in branching out and seeing where my music goes. I’ve been approached about doing some live performance collaborations with DJ’s. That is something I’d be interested in getting into down the line, but I’ve worked very hard to distinguish myself as a laptop artist. I guess in a way I try to avoid being labeled as a traditional DJ.
I’m currently collaborating with different musicians from various worlds of music. I’m interested in anyone cutting up music and doing remixes. I just don’t think it would work in a live setting right now to do shows with a traditional DJ, but it’s something that might happen eventually. I think collaborating with a DJ could be interesting musically and it’s something that I’d like to get into down the road, but I think on the live show tip I’m sticking to my guns for right now.
TSS: You did a few remixes for people after Night Ripper. Are you trying to dive deeper into the remix game now that Feed the Animals is out?
Girl Talk: Remixes are a fun side project, but they aren’t what I’m most interested in. I started working with a guy named Frank Musarra and we have a band called Trey Told ‘Em where it’s just the two of us. We’ve been doing a lot of the Girl Talk remix offers that I’ve been getting together. I really liked the way the Grizzly Bear remix came out, but it’s not the traditional way I work to base four minutes around one song. Frank and I have been incorporating more original production into our remixes. We use some samples but aren’t always as dependent on them. I like doing remix’s on the side, especially with Frank.
With the “Let’s Call it Off” remix by Peter Bjorn & John, I liked it and still play it shows, but they wanted to officially release it so they told me not to include samples. Samples are kind of my instrument of choice. It’s weird for me when someone asks me to do a remix as Girl Talk and not use samples. That’s kind of why I started the project with Frank, so we could do work like that. We’re doing a variety of projects and we just played a show in Baltimore together this weekend. I want to continue to collaborate with him but traditional one song remixing isn’t going to be the main focus of my time anytime soon.
TSS: Final question. You’re standing in front of someone who doesn’t really know Girl Talk with a Feed the Animals CD in your hand. What do you say to them so that they’ll give the CD a listen?
Girl Talk: (Laughs) I’d say, “If you’ve listened to any pop music over the past 60 years and you aren’t offended by hearing that music completely mangled and pieced together then you may be interested in this.”
Girl Talk has made Feed The Animals available for download on the “pay as you go” system. In other words, you can download his entire album for what you think is fair at www.myspace.com/girltalkmusic. For more info & show dates, visit girl-talk.net or via the Illegal Art website.
Previously Posted — “The Art Of Persuasion…”