Controlled Chaos: An Interview with Girl Talk

Greg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) has evolved from mash-up novelty to Pitchfork stud, performing over 100 shows a year to sold-out crowds. The 27-year old released Feed the Animals, his fourth album, earlier this year and has just finished up an intense leg of his current international tour. The album appeared on countless end-of-the-year lists, including #11 on The Fishpork 20. We called up Gillis earlier this week to find out what’s next. The former biomedical engineer who takes fair use and copyright to its limits talked about the dark process of creating Feed the Animals, the controlled chaos at his shows, and his yearning to try something different for his next release.

Fishpork: First of all, congrats on making all of those end-of-year lists.

GG: Thank you, man. I appreciate it.

Fishpork: When I talk to people or read about reactions to your music, specifically with Feed the Animals, it seems that they either love it or hate it. Comments on music bogs are usually something like, “I’m glad Girl Talk is finally getting respect on this list,” or “Girl Talk is on the top ten, that’s a joke.” Do you pay attention to music bloggers?

“I try to be able to take a step back, and I would rather be a polarizing figure and kind of push people one way or the other, rather as something that slips by as just another musician.”

GG: I try not to, but occasionally I’ll be sitting in a hotel after a show — I’ll be a few drinks deep — and I’ll just get real dark. I’ll look up negative press of myself. I think, on the whole, it’s better to ignore. I mean, I’m pretty hard on myself in terms of what I want to get out of projects, so reading stuff from bitter assholes spewing off negative stuff is valuable. It’s also probably in my best interest not to pay attention to it. So I try to ignore it, but I sometimes get into it. I try to be able to take a step back, and I would rather be a polarizing figure and kind of push people one way or the other, rather as something that slips by as just another musician.

Fishpork: Any reaction’s good, right?

GG: Right. I think when people are truly and passionately hating it, that to me means I probably did something good there.

Fishpork: Your live shows are becoming legendary. We saw you at Irving Plaza in 2006 with Peeping Tom, and the stage crowd was small. A few weeks ago at the Starlight Ballroom in Philly, there were well over 100 on the stage. How are the venues reacting to your open-stage policy?

GG: We’ve probably gotten a bit more organized with it, and that Philly date was the first show on that tour. I play shows all year round, but that was the first show with that crew. I had some extras there helping me out. I think we fine-tuned it a little bit. Back in the day, based on how this project developed, I wanted to keep it as raw as possible. I like the chaos. I like to be insane to a degree, but I’m not down really with people being hurt at a show. At some of the shows we’ve gotten to decide where. It’s just like when you’re playing for 2000 people you really just can’t have an open stage. It’s just gonna be too much. I’m kinda battling with that for a little while, and I think this tour proved to me that it’s not the worst thing in the world to get security organized to help stop people. Now, when I talk to venues, I explain to them that the majority of the audience is probably familiar with the style of show and are gonna want to get on stage. But we just kinda try to make an effort to limit it to some degree, keep it loose. I don’t ever like it to be an exclusive crew that gets to be up there, any sort of VIP club. I like it to just be people who hang out in the front row, who somehow get up there. So we’ve been a bit more organized after a few issues with too many people on stage, and this and that. So right now, I think it’s in a good place, definitely walking that line where it’s chaotic and where it’s fun. And that’s where I want to be.

Fishpork: There must be a level of trust you have with your audience to get that close to you during a gig. How do you remain focused during all that chaos?

GG: Yeah, that’s been another interesting thing as the audiences get bigger. Back a few years when you’d let people on stage, it was like, “Oh, well he is giving us this trust, and we’re going to give it back to him and help him out.” But as the size of the shows have gotten bigger, audiences have gotten more diverse — younger, older, people who are familiar with this style of show and people who aren’t. But along with that you get people who don’t really understand that level of support that I need. They’re kinda maybe thinking about themselves a bit much when they’re up there — when they’re kind of running into me, knocking things over or something. I mean, I kinda get in my own zone. And usually I find that the circle of people around me, regardless of whether they’ve been to a show or not, (that) over the course of the show understand that I need the support. They’re up there, and it does get a little chaotic. At most of the shows, the inner circle around me kind of becomes like the fence, where they’re hanging out dancing but also doing their best to protect what’s going on because the show can easily be stopped at any point. But during the show — it’s something where the set — it’s all very live, but the actual sample triggering and progress of the set are things I’ve gone over a lot. Those are the things I’ve gone over a lot, things I’ve worked on for hours in my house — so most of the set is kind of memorized. Even if I couldn’t see the screen, I would have an idea of different cues on the screen as far as which sample they are. So I’ve played over 100 shows a year for the past two years — so it’s just something where it’s become accustomed. I’m use to — all I need is my right hand. If I’m able to get a glimpse of the screen I can keep everything together.

Fishpork: What was the creative process like during the creation of Feed the Animals and how has it changed since your earlier albums?

GG: I think it’s pretty similar to my last few. The first one was really raw. Secret Diary back in 2002 was something where it was just me experimenting in my free time. I was going to college at the time. Something like — where I never sat down for a ten hour day to work on music. Whereas (with) the new one, I’m always coming up with new ideas to incorporate into the live show. This one came out two years after the one prior to it, and the editing took me about 3-6 months. It was like a year and a half of playing live shows. By the time I actually sat down to edit the album and put it together, most of the core ideas were already thought out. I kind of knew where it was going — knew where a lot of things were going to be. And then it’s just a matter of fine-tuning it. I would have to say that this album — I’m really happy with it and happy to be done. And to me it’s my favorite album I’ve done. But assembling it was kind of a dark process for me. I really locked myself away, and it was the first album where there was actual pressure.

A lot of people didn’t realize that I had been doing that for six years, and it’s just something that’s part of my life. And people thought is was a project that would die off. So on the new one, I really wanted to prove that this is my life — this is what I do.

It’s my fourth album, but I knew people were going to treat it like a sophomore effort — because people weren’t as familiar with my earlier stuff. So going into this I felt like I just had something to prove almost — just in terms of when I knew when Night Ripper came out, a lot of people just kinda dismissed that as a novelty and this one time thing — and the shows with me and a laptop. A lot of people didn’t realize that I had been doing that for six years, and it’s just something that’s part of my life. And people thought is was a project that would die off. So on the new one, I really wanted to prove that this is my life — this is what I do. And I wanted to make an album that’s better than that. So, in sitting down to do it, I put a lot of pressure on myself, and basically stopped associating with anyone I know — just locked myself away. And my girlfriend got really annoyed, because it’s all I talk about — forced her to listen to all the time. So yeah, I was definitely a weird era. I remember staying up ’til 8 or 9AM everyday, then sleeping til the afternoon and just seeing very little daylight and literally just sitting in my bedroom/studio and just staring at that screen for hours and hours and hours.

Fishpork: It was definitely worth it, man. While your songs include a sprinkling of indie rock giants like Of Montreal and Yo La Tengo, rap and pop songs make up most of the album. Why do you think you are so well received in the indie rock scene?

GG: Um, I don’t know. Where it started was as more an electronic music thing. I was influenced by guys like Kid 606, Negativland, John Oswald, all those types. Those are my contemporaries, and that’s who I looked up to in the early days. I’ve played with a lot of rock bands, rap groups — whatever — but the scene that I was most attached to was the American underground electronic scene. I definitely think that Pitchfork (the web site) — when they review anything — all of a sudden, if they give anything a positive review, it gives them a new fanbase. If they give Lil’ Wayne a positive review, then, all of a sudden, there’s going to be a whole new crew of people who like Lil’ Wayne. I think that’s just kind of the nature of that thing. For me, I follow all sorts of music, and I sample what I listen to — so I’m mainly a fan of kind of Top 40 pop these days. But ultimately with the music, when Jay-Z samples the song from Annie, it’s like that song is huge in clubs and rap fans. It doesn’t mean that those people who like that song should necessarily like the soundtrack from Annie. If you’re truly making something transformative out of samples, then ideally it would exist in its own world. There is a lot of rap and pop elements to what I do — it’s the foundation. But I try to make it transformative, and I wanna make something new out of it. Even though it contains all of these elements of radio music, at the end of the day, I hope it’s not just a mix tape of pop songs. I hope that as a collage, it becomes something else. When people from the indie rock world kind of embrace it, for me, it’s a great thing. I feel that I have transcended the source material.

If you’re truly making something transformative out of samples, then ideally it would exist in its own world. There is a lot of rap and pop elements to what I do — it’s the foundation. But I try to make it transformative, and I wanna make something new out of it.

Fishpork: You’re frequently mentioned in discussions concerning the current state of the music industry. While more established bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have released their albums in groundbreaking fashion, do you feel an artist has to be established to release music in creative ways and be successful?

GG: I don’t think so. It depends what you want out of it. When I was starting out, I would make a song and put it on Napster immediately and try to get on a message board and push it on people. And I think a lot of people do that. There’s a whole community of people pushing their own material on message boards — just giving their stuff away for free. So I think the pay-what-you-want model — if you want to make money off of that — it would obviously be helpful if you’re an established artist. But I also think that’s a great way just to get it out there. If your band is starting out, then the ultimate goal should be just to expose yourself to as wide of an audience as possible. And in doing that, if you do the pay-what-you-want thing, and if no one’s ever heard of you before, most people are going to take it for free. But that’s just the nature of music. I don’t think it should be viewed as a negative thing. That’s how bands get big in the Internet age. People get into it, and all of a sudden, people are gonna start going to your shows and buying your t-shirts, and that can ramp up into something where you can sell some records some day. Again, I think that all depends on what you want out of it. The pay-what-you-want model is a very specific version of people offering up their music just straight up for free, which is what I would guess at this point is almost the most popular way for musicians to do it in the underground world. So many people just put their stuff out there. You put up a YouTube video or do this or that. That’s what it’s about now. It’s just about exposing yourself.

Fishpork: What’s up with the “Scentless Apprentice” Nirvana cover? Is that ever going to be recorded?

GG: I have a recording of it. I maybe wanna do it. One of my best friends who does music I’m a big fan of is in a project called Hearts of Darknesses, a guy named Frank Musarra, who I do remixes with under the name Trey Told ‘Em. And his Hearts of Darknesses project I toured with recently. They did play that Philadelphia show. He’s a guy I played with a long time. He did a cover of Nirvana’s “Beeswax” sometimes, and we were talking about doing a split 7″, which I would like to do. I love the Nirvana cover. I haven’t broken it out in a long time. I feel like it needs to be documented. So I would love to do just a limited edition 7″ of that or something, just because it’s been such a big part of the live show — at least in the past. I’d love to get that out there in some form.

Fishpork: That’d be awesome, because at the Peeping Tom show in 2006, the set kind of blew me away, and, all of a sudden, it ended with that song it just brought everything to a higher level. It was really intense.

GG: Yeah, I really loved performing that, because the whole show I wanna go nuts, but at bigger venues it’s dependent on how the show’s going down. It’s like I kinda get stuck, and I literally have to be clicking a mouse non-stop. So that Nirvana cover was always a great way of — musically it was good — and performance-wise, this was my five minutes to really get in the crowd and get nuts. So I used to love doing that. The shows these days have evolved into a bit more of a party and less controversial in a way that I feel that Nirvana could be a potential bummer — like after the ending of where the sets are now — maybe not. So I haven’t done it in a while, but it’s something I really — I mean I love Nirvana, and I enjoy doing that cover. So I’d like to document it.

Fishpork: Give us one sample you have stuck in your head that you are dying to use in the future.

GG: A Capella wise, my favorite song right now it Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” So I’ve been working with that a lot. And instrumentally, I’m trying to think about something I’ve been using. I’ve been actually trying to use Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused,” but it’s not a 4/4 time signature. It’s like a 3/4 time signature, which makes it a little complicated when you’re using a lot of rap based on 4/4 things. That’s something I’ve been working with a good bit. What else? Grateful Dead, I keep jamming that at the live set, so I’m sure it’s going to pop up on something.

Fishpork: Are you always writing, Greg? It seems like the songs get mixed up here and there and your changing stuff, but are you continuously listening to the radio, just listening to things that are in your head?

GG: Yeah, I mean it’s everyday. It’s like — the day I finished Feed the Animals, my live sets probably heavily based around that. And as soon as the next day goes by and the next week, it’s like I start sampling new things. And all of a sudden, new remixes come out, ya know, new interpretations of previous material. So I feel like the album documents a specific era of the live show, but it continually — it keeps going. There’s even elements in Night Ripper that I’ve continually remixed and liked the new version better than what’s on the album. There’s never really a finalized, correct version. The show’s just a big collage. Smaller elements are always changing. Yeah, so everyday of my life I’ll sample something. On a good day, I’ll sit down for like 10 hours and fiddle around, and that will influence the next week’s worth of shows.

Fishpork: What can we expect from Girl Talk in 2009?

GG: I don’t know. I mean, right now I’m still playing shows. The Philadelphia show kicked off the most exhausting tour I’ve ever done — just really long with shows every day. And during that time period I didn’t get chance to work on too much. So now I’m kind of getting back into weekend shows and heading over to Australia and Europe over the first couple months of 2009. Yeah, just working on small things. I would like to mix it up a little bit. I have some friends I want to collaborate with. I’m proud of the last two albums, but I feel like I don’t want to repeat that album necessarily — maybe, depending on what comes up. I would be interesting in working on individual songs with repetition in the structure and maybe doing an EP or something. I have a friend out in Pittsburgh who records under the name Skymall — who uses samples. In a way, it’s a lot different than me, but I played with him a bunch. And he played the last Pittsburgh show with me. I’m a huge fan. We’ve worked on stuff together, but I even wanna maybe do a split EP with him to kind of get his name out there. I think people would really take to it.

I’m proud of the last two albums, but I feel like I don’t want to repeat that album necessarily — maybe, depending on what comes up. I would be interesting in working on individual songs with repetition in the structure and maybe doing an EP or something.

Fishpork: Please tell us you will be at the ATP Festival that the Flaming Lips are curating in the Catskills in September. Any chance you’ll be there?

GG: I haven’t heard anything. I know Wayne Coyne is a fan to some degree. He nominated Night Ripper for Shortlist Music Prize, some contest he nominated it for. I got a chance to play back-to-back with the Flaming Lips at a festival outside of Chicago. I went on before him, and it was more of a jam band sort of crowd. I don’t think a lot of people knew me, and it just finished pouring down raining. It was freezing out, and I took the stage. And people were kind of loosening up a bit. When the Flaming Lips play, they have a big truck that pulls in for all their props. And it’s just like a big open truck just sitting there by the side of the stage. And you can go and grab whatever you want, and people are coming on stage. Wayne Coyne came out during my set. And came out and started bringing out props that were going to be used during the Flaming Lips show and sorta gave my show an extra boost. People came out in costumes, and he has these giant hands. It was cool, man. He didn’t need to do that at all. It wasn’t like I requested it or wasn’t like the show was completely failing or anything like that. But he just stepped up and took it over the edge when he hit the stage. A lot of people who were standing there were waiting for the Flaming Lips. And, of course, they lost their minds. It was really cool, and I gotta chance to talk to him after the set. And he’s a really nice dude. So, I haven’t heard anything about the All Tomorrow’s Parties, but, yeah, I definitely think it’s a potential thing.

Fishpork: Did you get a chance to talk to Mike Patton?

GG: I did, because we actually shared a dressing room. I can’t remember how that worked, but it was like me, Diplo and Patton all in the same room for a minute. He was cool, ya know. I just rapped with him for a few seconds, and he was there pretty early, so we had a chance to chat. And he’s always like — seems like a  really down-to-earth guy. Actually, when Feed the Animals came out, the Wall Street Journal entertainment section, which I didn’t even realize existed, did a story where they reached out to a bunch of artists I sampled, almost trying to be an expose sort of thing — like “are you gonna sue this guy or what?” And they went up to Patton, and they were like, “how do you feel about this?” And he said, “it’s a honor to collaborate with Busta Rhymes.” Everyone else they interviewed was like, “yeah, blah blah blah.” Patton was the one guy who was like, “ya know, it’s really cool.” So, yeah, that got me pumped.

http://www.myspace.com/girltalk
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Mark Written by:

Avid concert goer and film buff obsessed with indie and electronic music.

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