Mash-ups (the art of taking two songs and mixing them together) have been around for a while. But Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, took them to a whole new level with this 2006 release Night Ripper, which featured more than 160 samples from different songs ranging from Boston's "Foreplay" to The Ying Yang Twins' "Shake." The album launched the Pittsburgh native to a level of international stardom that he never expected (he quit his job in bio-medical engineering) and had him performing at concerts and festivals as big as Coachella and Bonnaroo. Hard at work finishing up Feed the Animals, his long awaited follow-up to Night Ripper, Gregg Gillis sat down with Bullz-Eye to talk about his new album, pop music's credibility and the amazing fact that he still hasn't been sued.
Bullz-Eye: I saw you on Billboard.com a few days ago. That was really surprising.
Girl Talk: They were talking about actually having me on the cover. Then they were like "Sorry, you're not going to be on the cover," and it's almost a relief. Because it's strictly industry, and we were kind of like "Were they setting us up for something?"
BE: Like you'd show up for the interview and there'd be a guy with a summons?
GT: It's funny because when the last album came out a couple summers ago, and when the press started to get big for that, we had to consider, with the bigger interviews, whether we want to do them or not. MTV came over and it's like, "Should we do this? Is this going to be bad for us?" And at some point we were just like, "Well we did this, we put out the music, we embrace it and do every interview and do it the way you would for a normal record."
BE: Night Ripper was a lot bigger than your first two records, why do you think that was? Do you think your older albums (Unstoppable, Secret Diary) are too experimental or glitchy?
GT: I was coming from more an experimental background, and Night Ripper is more accessible. But I also think the timing was just right with it. It's like there's so much interesting music put out every day. No matter how good any of it is, you just have to be lucky. Someone just has to pick up on it and it has to be the right timing. Because there is amazing music, tons of it, that just doesn't get noticed. Especially from the electronic genre, because anyone can do it. You have to be so lucky for anyone to pay attention to it; it's not like a traditional skill. And I think in the earlier days when I was doing it; it just wasn't as accepted in the underground music [scene] to embrace pop. I think in the past few years it has become very normal and I think lines have crossed.
BE: Your stuff is a lot more complex than basic mash-ups, but do you think that mash-ups getting a lot more mainstream has helped your career?
GT: Yeah, I think it's a bit more "normal." By the time Night Ripper came out, a lot of people were already thinking that mash-ups were played out. Nothing will ever be played out, there's just a backlash to it. I think that people were so familiar with it. It's like any music, you're familiar with rock, you're familiar with rap, you're waiting for someone to just take the template and do something new with it. I think the world was so familiar with mash-ups that it was a great time to do something slightly different. And it already has this foundation. Even in the early days, like with my second album, which I think could have gone over better, maybe the world wasn't in tune with that style of music so they're really didn't understand the reference point.
BE: Is that a problem now, do people in other countries know that you're sampling pop music?
GT: When I play overseas, I don't really try to change my set and a lot of it is American classics. Unless you study the culture, you really don't know what's big over there. It's interesting for me when people in other parts of the world hear it – because if you don't recognize certain source material it might just sound like some crazy band [but] there's a bit of American influence in Europe, so they get most of it.
I did a Japan tour. It was amazing. Every show was so crazy. In the U.S., in a major city I could maybe draw 15 to 20 people and I was happy with that. I mean, this was my project and I'm happy that 15 people showed up. I came to Japan and it was like that but it was the Japanese version, so it was insane. I knew some people who had been there so I had some contacts and friends of friends were coming to show and a lot were rock bands, so I'd get these Japanese punk bands and it was so nuts.
In this one show we played at a Japanese karaoke place where you get in a room with your friends. The venue's called Harmony No. 22. Harmony is the name of the studio and it's set up like a hotel where each room was a karaoke room and they rented a room for the entire day and they brought in their own PA system. And we go in and it's just like a karaoke PA system and the kids show up and everyone has to take off their shoes to go in, which is rare for a public place in Japan. So there were these Japanese punk bands with these kids jumping around in their socks. It's one of the greatest shows I've ever been to. I really want to go back. I was supposed actually do a week-long tour there this week scheduled a while back, but I knew I'd be finishing up my album right now so I had to cancel it.
BE: Is there a date on the album yet?
GT: I'll be done today (June 10), I'm positive. I'm just fine-tuning a few things. I need to get a master. A friend of mine has mastered all my albums; he said he could start working on it Thursday. That would take a week at the longest, maybe less than that. So the week as of Thursday, between now and next Thursday it'll be on the Internet. He'll master it, and he'll send it to me, I just want to hear it a couple of times and send it to a few of my friends to make sure there's no errors or mistakes and at that point I'll put it on the Internet immediately. I hope to get it on the Internet within 24 hours of getting the masters back.
BE: How is the new album different than Night Ripper?
GT: I feel like it's in step in the more accessible direction. It's like, on Night Ripper there were sections where the album would build up, kind of like Biggie Smalls and Elton John. That was everyone's favorite part. Granted the source material was good, but I also think it was because it starts out with the piano and then the piano and the bass comes in and then the chorus kicks it in – it kind of builds, as opposed to other things on the album where it's just "here's this sample" and I remove it and go to the next sample. So I think this album is kind of based on that Elton John style where I sample multiple parts of the song. There are a lot of complex subtle things and I feel like it's more dense, even though there's less going on.
BE: Night Ripper was mostly rap vocals, are there any more rock vocals on Feed the Animals?
GT: I'm still focused on rap stuff. The a cappellas are easier to get and easier to work with, and rap is typically in monotones so easier to match with things. But there is definitely a bit more diversity in the vocals. There's a little bit more R&B, a little bit more singing and then there's more rock vocals, like Kansas on the last one. And even some older vocals, just small segments like Wilson Pickett.
BE: How do you get a lot of your stuff?
GT: Mostly online. Back in the day I would buy a little more vinyl, but everything is so available online. It's crazy. My music has changed as a function of what's become available. Pre-Night Ripper, it was hard to find a cappellas, now you can name a song and it's a good chance you find the a cappella out there.
BE: You're playing Lollapalooza this year. (Ed. note: Our interview took place before the concert on Aug. 1-3)
GT: I went to Lollapalooza ‘95. It was Sonic Youth, Beck, Jesus Lizard, Pavement; it was like crazy. That day was completely life-changing. The concert was amazing, the best show I ever been to and [a local promoter] gave me this pamphlet and that's how I discovered Carnegie Mellon's radio station. And that's how I got into noise. And that's why I started a band. So I'm really stoked to play. I was just talking to my parents the other day I was saying "If I could flash back to ‘95 and say to my 14-year-old self, ‘You're going to play Lollapalooza,' it'd be nuts."
BE: You know when you're playing?
GT: Yeah, but I don't know who I'm playing against. But I think I'm playing after Saul Williams.
BE: His last album was digital download with a unique pricing scheme, and you're doing that with Feed the Animals.
GT: I think we're doing it slightly different. I know when Radiohead did it, it was pay whatever you want but it was low-quality MP3s. We're going to do pay whatever you want with the highest quality, with like 320kbs and I also don't ever want to take it down. And the physical copy isn't going to be out for a couple months. But since the music is sample-based, there's a timeline on some of this stuff. I want to get it out.
I mentioned it in an interview and I didn't even think it was newsworthy. I was surprised people look at it as news. What else would we do right now? If you have a fan base that you know is going to download your music you might as well offer that, because the day it goes online anyone can get it for free anyways. Doing this is being cool about it.
BE: Nine Inch Nails put theirs out for free, but you need to make some money off of it.
GT: I considered giving it away for free as well. But when I heard [about The Slip] in my mind the first thing I thought was oh, it's probably like some B-sides or something. I don't want people to feel this record is any less important than Night Ripper.
BE: You probably make more money from concerts anyway.
GT: Yeah, the record sales are actually very minimal for what I make. I play so many shows.
BE: It's still just you and your laptop, but you occasionally sing, I saw you sing "Scentless Apprentice" at one show.
GT: Yeah, I can't sing that well but that song you don't have to sing. I like to interact with the crowd and I like to get with it, but I have to be in front of the computer, it's kind of labor-intensive and I want to interact and I want to go crazy, but I have to play my music. But some shows where I felt like I haven't connected enough it's like, okay, I'm going to do this Nirvana thing just to let off some energy and really make it feel like a rock concert. It's also interesting because there are so many rules for concerts. If you see a rock band, they're not going to play for eight hours and they're not going to play for five minutes. Why? There's a crazy standard that exists for no reason and I think for some people seeing a guy play a laptop for 95 percent of the set and then sing it doesn't really follow their expectations, and I like that.
I think everyone, including myself, plays it really safe. I wish I didn't care even more. I do my best to just make things interesting, but if you just take a step back and think about music from the view of like when you were 10 or something. When you're 10 years old and imagine playing a concert you have all these crazy ideas. I was in a band that had a 10-year-old on drums and he had insane ideas like, "Why don't I skateboard out and launch off this ramp and land in my drum seat and then we'll start the set!" And we were like "Yeah!" Until he brought a skateboard ramp at the show and they told us there was no skateboarding at the venue.
BE: A lot of people who listen to you won't admit to liking pop music. Is pop a guilty pleasure for you, do you like it unapologetically?
GT: I love everything I sample unapologetically; it's not tongue-in-cheek. It's funny too, because people ask that sometimes but I think modern pop music is more acceptable to the underground now. When Unstoppable came out I was always trying to defend myself, "This isn't ironic, this isn't ironic" and they wouldn't believe me. I like the pop stuff. I follow all of it and it has its value. I feel like music impacts people on individual levels. And all music's important. You have specific likes and dislikes based on life experiences. That's why I hate that it's a "fact" that Arcade Fire is more artistically viable than Soulja Boy. It depends on who you are.
I have this weird concern with underground music and the whole music industry, that there's this big brainwashing thing going on. The pacemakers say they like something and everyone doesn't want to seem uncool so they go along with it, and all of a sudden it becomes fact that Arcade Fire put out the best album of the year. I'm not trying to talk shit about Arcade Fire, but how could every magazine agree on that the best album of the year? Because of that, I feel like pop is so sincere and like, the goal of this music is to have the world singing it.
BE: But even you benefit from it from the "brainwashing" thing.
GT: I know that. I'm part of that. If Pitchfork would have never given the album a good review, nothing would ever had happened, I'm positive of it. They reviewed it two months after it came out. We had sent out press copies to everyone, "Rolling Stone," "Spin," the blogs but since Pitchfork reviewed it, Rolling Stone and Spin were emailing me and requesting press copies for it. It's just the way it works.
BE: Everyone seems to ask you this, but have you had any legal issues yet?
GT: With the new album, it's something we have to be concerned about. Night Ripper took off to places we never expected. Way beyond. And now it's high-profile. I'll be interested. We are ready to take it to court. We'd fight it. We have a lot of people on our side in as far as this whole fair use movement and creative content. We've been in contact with lawyers and various intellectuals in the field of copyright who know a lot more than I do, and they're backing us. When Night Ripper got big we were surprised, we expected a cease and desist and it never happened. The bottom line is that anyone who would sue us would come off looking bad for them. And also if I did end up losing, it would probably give me more publicity than anything I could pay for.
BE: Especially if it was someone like Metallica.
GT: There is Metallica on the new album. The breakdown from "One." It's slowed down but it's definitely recognizable. [A friend told me] "That is the one that's going to get you sued!"