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Girl Talk's Gregg Gillis talks music, mash-ups and more

J. Caldwell
Photo courtesy of Illegal Art

You might not know who Gregg Gillis is, but chances are you’ve heard of his music created under the moniker Girl Talk.

That’s Gillis’ music project, where he produces music mash-ups that blend hip hop and pop. The former biomedical engineer began experimenting with musical collages over a decade ago, but it’s Girl Talk’s shows that have become a kind of phenomenon. The infectious music is performed live complete with props like confetti and balloons with the end result being much like a dance party on steroids. I spoke with Gillis recently about his work. He’ll be performing in Columbia next Friday June 15th at the Blue Note

How is what you’re doing different than DJing?

When I started I really kind of came out of a scene of playing with a lot of other people doing electronic  music but more just live electronic music and also playing with bands and hip hop groups and that sort of thing. I’ve always came from more of a producer standpoint and when I put out a record or when I do a show the goal for me really isn’t to make a mix highlighting all these songs, it’s really to try to create something new even though it’s entirely based around samples. It’s a blurry sort of thing.

Can you explain how what you’re doing is creating original music?

I like walking that like where there could be debate. I think that’s part of the interesting thing behind doing this for me is pushing that envelope in terms of what’s original, what’s not. The goal is ultimately to make something that’s transformative. To take something that previously exists and just have it become a new entity. I like people to be able to recognize where it came from, but ultimately I want them to be hearing something new.

The goal is to make a complicated collage and how involved can it be but with any given album it’s not like numbers. One album I could sample 300 songs, the next album it could be 600 and then it could be 3,000. It doesn’t really mean anything. So for me it’s a matter of still having something that’s enjoyable and accessible but pushing it further and seeing how involved it can actually get. But at this point it’s wide open.

What’s the process of creating a set like?

I’m always trying to raise the bar for myself. I feel like I’ve made it more and more intense and I’m always kind of working on new little bits and pieces and it’s never like, ‘oh I’ll just play an entirely new set’ cause for a live show usually it’s maybe 300-500 samples that I’ll trigger and I’ll have to memorize where they’re all at and how they go together. So even when I substitute in one new part I take something out and put in a new two minute segment I have to learn how play that and learn how to transition into it and learn how to actually execute what I want to do within it and then learn how to transition out of it. On any given night I never really play the set perfectly. There’s always little mistakes here or there. Sometimes that leads to a lot of the character and sometimes it leads to a lot of stuff I like. It’s gotten a lot more intense specifically in the last year and a half really since I’ve brought on more people.

What’s your criteria for a successful mash up? You seem to have this gift for pairing these really unlikely songs together, how do you know when to stop tweaking?

A lot of times there are multiple things I think could work. Sometimes I find something and there might be 10 variables or 10 options that I think are interesting. A lot of times it’s where it falls into the set. Maybe I’m looking for a particular thing and I want it to be this sort of thing where it seems randomized or it seems like it’s unpredictable where it’s going but in reality it’s really very calculated. I want it to work in such a way that it sounds even more natural than the original song even though the entire mood or attitude or whatever’s been shifted. So it’s kind of like working with a bunch of puzzle pieces that don’t actually fit together and you’re kind of massaging down the edges to work them together.

You’ve said you’re using pop as a tool for rebellion, can you explain that?

Definitely in the early days of doing this it was the sort of thing where I came from the experimental music scene and in that context was sort of offensive to certain people. There was many shows where people were unplugging my equipment or people getting aggressive or there were fights. There were definitely multiple shows where it got physical because of the show. I was really trying to make a statement, I was trying to embrace this pop music and say that it’s not equal it’s ok to like these things. You don’t have to like all of it, but you can’t just box it all into one thing and there’s a lot of smart pop music and there’s smart all types of music. So in that way those early shows were pretty confrontational to be honest. Definitely kind of rebellious, definitely trying to challenge that crowd.

I think once this project gained some momentum and people started to become fans of it that changes that. Then people come out expecting to hear the pop knowing what I do. That is a different thing and at that point I guess I kind of embraced the accessibility to a certain degree and kept going there. But still to this day we play at all these festivals and there still is a lot of music that’s kind of frowned upon. Music media still pushes things into these boxes where this is smart or this is dumb, this is highbrow, this is lowbrow and I don’t think it’s always that clear cut. I think just because you’re trying to be smart in your music doesn’t mean it’s necessarily smart and just because you’re trying to come off like you’re an idiot doesn’t mean you’re actually being an idiot. So in that way I still feel like I’m still pushing buttons to a certain degree with certain demographics of people.

What was the first music that you ever bought for yourself?

My first cassette I got was Bell Biv DeVoe’s Poison record. I think it may have been a gift but I definitely wanted it, that would have been my purchase if I could have purchased it. As far as actually making a purchase, I definitely bought Nirvana’s Nevermind and I think I bought it at the same time as Criss Cross Totally Crossed Out. Man, all three of those records are classics. But that Bell Biv DeVoe tape I think I had that for like a year before I got another music release so I listened to it so so so much. I just wore it down and knew every word and that cassette is very important to me. 

Scarlett Robertson joined KBIA as a producer in February 2011. She studied psychology at Lake Forest College and holds a masters degree in journalism from Syracuse University. Scarlett began her professional career in psychology, jumped to magazines and then came to her senses and shifted to public radio. She has contributed to NPR member stations WAER in Syracuse, KUT in Austin and Chicago’s WBEZ.