One From The Vault: Girl Talk

Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, would like to set the record straight about something once and for all – he’s not a DJ and never has been.

So if what he does isn’t DJ’ing, what is it? Gillis explains it this way:

“Even if I wanted to just show up and play someone else’s songs, I don’t know how to DJ,” Gillis told Pollstar. “I make music out of other people’s music.

“If your definition of a DJ is someone who works with pre-existing sounds, then I fall into that category. To me, playing a sampler and making something new out of something old is just like any rock band. If someone picks up a guitar or plays the keyboard, they didn’t invent those sounds. They’re just shifting the sounds that someone else invented.”

Photo: Mike Bamford / 3KZL
The Nov. 26, 2007, issue of Pollstar.

Sam Hunt, Gillis’ agent at The Windish Agency, has a similar take on what Girl Talk is about.

“It’s funny, because almost everyone that I’m in the position of describing [Girl Talk] to assumes that it’s a DJ,” Hunt told Pollstar. “I tell people, ‘Pretend that it’s a band. Pretend there’s a full band on stage, but it’s just a guy and a laptop.’

“One thing that’s really frustrating to me is that I read a lot of people who say, ‘What’s the point of seeing this live? He’s just hitting play.’

“He really can do everything on the fly. I’m not actually positive how it works, but when I look at it, it’s like looking at mission control at NASA.”

Listen to a Girl Talk song for a few minutes and you’re bound to hear something familiar, but in a context you’ve never imagined. Gillis’ music is an unabashed celebration of hooks, and he plunders them from wherever he can find them.

His most recent release, 2006’s Night Ripper, features samples as varied as Boston, Black Eyed Peas, Fleetwood Mac, Technotronic, James Taylor, Madonna, Smashing Pumpkins, The Beatles and Jefferson Airplane, all blended seamlessly into a non-stop party going on behind a barrage of rap and hip-hop vocals.

But the recorded music is just a byproduct. For Gillis, the whole point of Girl Talk has always been performing live.

“I think a lot of people see me now, and they think I had to come up with a way to perform live, but from the moment I started doing remixes and cutting up songs, I thought, ‘This is my band and I’m going to perform live.’ I didn’t come from that DJ background.”

Gillis’ music has its roots in what he calls “audio collagists” like John Oswald and Negativland. In high school he was in an avant-garde noise band and dabbled with things like skipping CDs and physical tape collage.

Once high school was over and his band split, Gillis was influenced by the growing trend of using computers to dissect and rearrange music to start a band based on the idea of audio collage. What started out in 2000 as “really weird experimental work” has grown more accessible since then.

Girl Talk live shows are exercises in controlled chaos, with Gillis as the eye of the storm.

Photo: Mike Bamford / 3KZL

“He just sort of gets people energized,” Hunt said. “He gets people dancing and gets them moving and everyone rushes onto the stage. The barrier between the performer and the artist gets broken down and it turns into one big, crazy party.”

And the party just keeps getting bigger. Hunt said when he first approached Gillis, who still manages himself, about working with him, he was content just doing shows in basements and clubs. Then Night Ripper started to break and he found himself selling out shows and facing more inquiries than he could handle. Gillis went back to Hunt.

Girl Talk’s success is all the more remarkable when you consider that until last Memorial Day, Gillis was living a double life – biomedical engineer by day, rock star by night. No one in his office knew about his alter ego because he would work all week, leave the office on Friday, fly out and do one or two shows, then fly back home for work on Monday.

“For seven or eight months that was how all of his shows were booked,” Hunt said. “Fridays and Saturdays only. I would try to pair up two cities that were relatively nearby. Often I would get a college in one city and then I would do the closest major market, which worked very well. It seems bizarre but it gave him the week free.

“There were some times when I had to convince people that it was the right thing to do, but every ticketed show that he’s ever played has sold out.”

Hunt had so much faith in Gillis that he put holds on venues last February for a full-scale fall tour and began lobbying him to quit his day job.

So what’s next? Gillis and Hunt both agree that the odds of an arena tour in Girl Talk’s future are pretty slim, as it would be difficult to keep the house party vibe going once the audience gets too big.

Festivals are a definite possibility – in fact, Gillis played Coachella and Bonnaroo this year to considerable acclaim – but the main focus will be covering more ground and doing multi-night stands to compensate for playing in smaller venues.

Gillis has compiled a lot of new material while he’s been out on the road the past year, which he plans to put on a new album for release in early 2008. After that, he’ll go back to doing what he loves best: bringing the party to the masses.