The king of controversy, Gregg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk), schools Cruzans on copyright law, sex onstage, and living a double life
Gregg Gillis is an awful lot like Clark Kent. Back when he first took on the alias, Girl Talk—long before he became one of the biggest (and most controversial) names in the electropop music scene—he was living a double life.
A mild-mannered biomedical engineering graduate student, Gillis went to school and later held a 9 to 5 job as an engineer. What his classmates and coworkers didn’t know, however, was that he was booking tours over the summer and during winter break, and later hopping on red-eye flights to Europe for the weekend to perform, then returning to reality Monday morning.
“By the time I got a job, I didn’t tell anyone about Girl Talk. It’s hard to explain. Most of the people I was working with were 10-15 years older than me. And I don’t really consider myself a DJ—I jump on top of people. So it never really came up,” says Gillis. “By the time I was getting booked all the time and wanted to bring it up, I couldn’t, because it would seem like I was a compulsive liar or something.”
Gillis admits that he never intended to pursue music as a career. Most of his friends in school were non-art majors, who found an outlet for their creativity in musical side-projects. For him, it all started with a laptop.
Purchased for academic reasons, Gillis’ laptop quickly became the birthplace of Girl Talk. In his own words, the mash-up master describes his music as “taking little bits and pieces from the past 75 years of pop music and collaging them together.” To some, it’s an abomination. To others, it’s genius.
Take Girl Talk’s “Play Your Part pt. 1,” for example. In just under five minutes, Gillis is able to puzzle together pieces of The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’,” Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door,” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” with Unk’s “Walk it Out,” DJ Funk’s “Pump that Shit,” and five other artists’ hits, into one seamless—albeit unorthodox—club-ready jam.
Whether you agree with his methods or not—he primarily uses unauthorized samples—the truth is, Gillis is unapologetically redefining what it means to make music. And so far, he’s managed to dodge the lawyers, citing fair use.
“I’m not anti-copyright,” he says. “I’m not into the idea of buying a CD and burning it. But I believe that you can create something original with pre-made sounds. There is thousands of unsolicited music on the Internet; everyone’s always recycling. Now, more than ever, it’s a valid way to sample.” The same goes for his fans, who he claims are more than welcome to sample from his songs.
Gillis has always tried to work outside the norm and test the limits of the imagination, dating back to his teenage years in Pittsburgh’s vibrant music scene. Inspired by Sonic Youth, Public Enemy and the experimental noise coming from the Carnegie Mellon radio station, he began booking his own band.
“My high school existence was going to shows. It was easy to be 15 here and get shows booked,” he says of his hometown. “I was really into electronic noise, like rewiring children’s toys, and I got into sampling by cutting up tape. My band was borderline performance art—we’d destroy TVs and light fireworks onstage.”
That idea, that anything can be a performance, led him to Girl Talk. His shows today are characterized by similar theatrics. “There are people who stand still, people who sit in chairs and stroke their chins, and those who actually perform,” says Gillis. Considering he allows as many fans onstage as can fit, he often crowd surfs during his shows, and he encourages nudity, it’s not hard to tell which category he falls into.
“I always pride on it being crazy up there,” he says. “People have had sex onstage—it happened deep in the stage, so it wasn’t really on display, but I guess they kind of got caught up in the moment. It was a huge compliment. Having sex onstage during a performance is the highest level of compliment you can give an artist.”
To prepare for the chaos that has come to define his live performances, Gillis has several pre-show rituals. The first: exercise. “I definitely stretch a lot—shows are very physically challenging, so I have to loosen up my body,” he says. Next, he readies the pièce de résistance: his two Panasonic Toughbook laptops, the only “instruments” going onstage. “My computers are wrapped in Saran Wrap because of all the sweat, beers, blood and vomit that come near them during shows,” says Gillis. “It takes about 15 minutes to cover each computer, so I do it three hours before the show.”
Once he’s dressed in a clean sweat suit—“I really sweat a lot; when you stuff a wet sweat suit in your bag it’s disgusting, so I get them cheap enough so that I can throw them out after every show,” he says—it’s “officially game time.”
In just 10 years, Girl Talk has transformed from a bedroom hobby into a headliner, selling out venues on a regular basis. For Gillis, who will be 30 in October, it’s been one wild ride.
“You’re always starting projects and you never think they’ll go anywhere, they’re just fun,” he says. “It’s so far beyond what I expected. I’m completely satisfied.”
But the hard work is far from over for this musical innovator, who admits it took two full years to simply collect all the material he wanted to use on his fifth and most recent album, 2010’s All Day, which overlaps a whopping 372 samples in 12 tracks. Eventually, Gillis says he would like to experiment with his signature sound, citing the limitless possibilities when working with samples.
“Success isn’t completely getting more popular—at some point, I want to take a left turn,” he says. “If [the fame] dropped off tomorrow and I only had 10 fans, that’d be all good.”
Considering his popularity is skyrocketing, it doesn’t seem like that day will come any time soon. Although, Gillis acknowledges that some people fear hopping on the Girl Talk bandwagon, just based on the name alone. The moniker, like his music, was chosen to provoke people by making them question what they know.
“I wanted to pick a band name that would be mildly confrontational with pop,” he says. “People would be embarrassed to say it—they’d think a Spice Girl group would be performing, or a Disney group.”
Once they realize Girl Talk isn’t anything like Miley Cyrus (although he has sampled her music), listeners find that his tracks work on two levels: theoretical and just plain fun party music. Gillis encourages fans to dissect his songs as they listen, as well as simply dance along to the beat.
“I’m proud of the fact that my music can be conceptual or surface level,” he says. “It’s based on the idea of appropriating pop culture and sampling pop music—those ideals, plus the underground music aesthetic.”
Taking in the summer rays at his home in Pittsburgh—a fleeting moment of R&R before he takes his act to the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco this weekend, where he’ll share the stage with big-name artists, including MGMT and Arcade Fire—Gillis reflects back on his life before 2007, when he quit his engineering job to focus on his music, and determines he has no regrets.
Before he leaves home, he’ll pack up his tour must-haves: DVDs (his favorite movie of all time is Terminator 2, “It was definitely the peak of that series,” he says) and a couple cold beers. Then it’s off to educate the masses in 75 years of pop music.
“I want my music to be transformative,” says Gillis. “I like people to recognize the source material. I don’t see people downloading my songs instead of the originals. We’re not in competition. Instead of hurting other artists, I get contacted all the time from people who get turned on to new music through my songs.”
Girl Talk performs at the Outside Lands Festival at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on Saturday, Aug. 13. To download “All Day” for free, visit illegal-art.net/allday. For details about Outside Lands, visit sfoutsidelands.com.
Photo credit: j.caldwell