Girl Talk: The Full New Times Interview

Categories: Interview
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This week's print edition of Phoenix New Times ran a shortened version of an interview with Gregg Gillis, a.k.a Girl Talk, the mashup mastermind who will tear the Marquee Theatre apart brick by brick on March 23.

As promised, here's the full transcript of that interview -- all 4,200 words of it.

Up On The Sun: You basically tweaked the new album up until the very last minute right before you released it for the world to dance their faces off. You had been working on it so meticulously for so long. You threw in some additional samples, like "Whip My Hair," at the last minute. But what else could possibly need so much fixing?

Greg Gillis: There are so many things that, when I'm editing them, I just start to dwell on the tiniest detail. Something in the rhythm throws me off, or I might even invent these problems in my head. The last thing that we were tweaking was this one moment on the album that I really loved the way it turned out. It's the a cappella for a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony song over a Supergrass instrumental. There was one point on the album where I was working with a friend of mine [to] really tweak the a cappella to hit the actual notes on the instrumental. He did a really good job. And then we would go back and forth, just trying to process the a cappella so it didn't sound so weird. It was just sitting on top of the instrumental in a strange way. Sometimes things just don't lock in. We had been on the 30th rendition of that.

We were going to release [the album] on a Friday. I listened to it a bunch of times, and that was the one part I was really hung up on. So I decided to just hold off for the weekend. I just wanted to try a couple more ideas. We tweaked it a bunch more, and I really think it kind of saved the day. It sounded 100 percent better as the final product because we waited the last two days.

UOTS: You've got a gazillion songs to choose from when you make a new mash-up. You've managed to work in nearly 400 sound bites from various songs on All Day. Describe the process of making a song. When you're building a song, do you choose a handful of riffs that you think would go well together, or do you just mix and match bits of songs you like and see how it goes?

GG: I really look at the big picture, so I'm always planning on building a whole album. I never really think in terms of songs or three-minute segments. It kind of all goes back to the live show where I'm constantly cutting up samples and trying out different combinations. It's a real trial and error process. Maybe a hip-hop song comes out that I like, and I'll get the a cappella and mess with a certain line in it. I really try out so many different things that once something kind of clicks, a melody or a vocal that I think work together, I'll try and incorporate that into a show.

When I perform live I do all the sample triggering by hand, so I can kind of take out a little piece and add a new thing. So I'm always trying to introduce a new element. From there, based on how it sounds [to] me and based on the audience's response, I'll go on to further tweak it. Maybe the drums just didn't sound good, or maybe they fell in the wrong place or I didn't like the transitioning. I'm always swapping these parts and changing these tiny little things within the structure. So by the time I sit down to do an album, I know where it's going to begin and where it's going to end. And I have a loose idea of maybe 75 percent of the album, like, "These songs will follow up to this song, and these things will go together." Then it's a matter of filling in the little gaps and making everything flow smoothly. [For] that extra 25 percent that I just don't know, [it's] just really working on making all of that work to mesh together into a cohesive whole.

UOTS: A portion of the documentary RIP: A Remix Manifesto is focused on you. In the documentary, an average of how much it would cost you to make one of your albums if you were to pay royalties for all the songs you sample was calculated, and it came out to over $4 million. Do you face legal issues about fair use from any sort of agency this time around? Some of the artists, like the Toadies, are even excited you're sampling them.

GG: I've had no problems. On top of that, I've heard no negative responses from any of the artists. On the previous albums I heard from a few people, like Big Boi of Outkast and Mike Patton of Faith No More and his various projects. For the random group of people I've heard from, media sources have contacted those people and asked for their response.

Everyone's been really into it. On this album, even more so than ever, it feels like a lot of people get excited that I'm potentially sampling their work, like the Toadies. They were on their Twitter telling people where to download the album to check it out. That's just awesome to me. I'm a fan of the band and obviously I love the song enough to sample it and work with it. I've read on other people's Twitters, "You're on the new Girl Talk [album]!" It's a celebration, or it's a positive thing, so that's great.

I think most of the artists I sample, like the Toadies, can see the value that the product is something new. It's not like I'm just playing the Toadies' song. I'm trying to make something new out of it, something that's transformative. In no way do I want it to be competition to their product. I don't think anyone's going to download my album instead of buying the Toadies' album. I don't see that connection. If anything, I feel like a lot of people might hear the sample and say, "What is that band?" and look into it and go on iTunes and buy some Toadies. At this point, I think the shock value is gone a little bit, and it's not so crazy to hear these unsolicited remixes.

UOTS: Lots of artists have hosted remix contests for their fans this year. Would you ever consider starting a contest for your fans to remix your remixes?

GG: I would love to hear that. I have heard some people do some re-workings of my things. It would just be tough for me to host an official contest. I believe the album, the final product, should quality as fair use and should be legal in the proper context, which is the complete album. But when you start to piece it apart, I wouldn't be legally allowed to just give away certain a cappellas or instrumentals when [they're] not combined and not something new. So I'd have a hard time giving out the actual source material. If it was totally legal to do that and I could just give away the album and have every layer of every piece be isolated, I would love to hear people tear it apart and rework everything. [When] doing the album, there are so many combinations that could work that it really comes down to making a final decision on what I think sounds the best. There are a million different ways to approach it. In the past and this year, people cut up my work and made new things out of it, and it's been interesting. It's something that definitely gets me excited.

UOTS: Your fans got really into All Day right from the start. Very shortly after you released it for the world to hear, people were already trying to figure out the breakdown of all the samples you used. What does that fan engagement mean to you?

GG: It's awesome. It's hard to explain: when you're working on an album for two and a half years and you're constantly thinking about it ... It honestly felt like Christmas morning the day I released it, like the world gets to open this package from me and evaluate their new present and talk about how they feel about it.

I'm a big fan of everything I sample. The reason I got into it in the first place is because I wanted to kind of be a part of the music that I like and try to make something new out of it. Now that I've put the album out, the fans are engaging my music. There are various websites that are dedicated to the sample breakdowns and there are YouTube videos about it, and the Wikipedia [page]. I feel like in 2010, music fans want to be interactive with the media they consume. I want to be interactive with I consume.

That's kind of the whole basis of the Girl Talk project. Seeing people actually make things and be creative where they pick apart and make their own version of the album and make websites and [ways] that you can interact with the album is great. It's something I appreciate. It definitely helps to continue to grow interest. There's no huge marketing campaign behind this album. We basically put it on the internet and it was up to the fans to spread it on websites and blogs. It's a 100 percent word of mouth sort of thing. So when fans build websites, it's very helpful.

UOTS: Especially because you released the album really quietly in the middle of the night. Just, "Hey, here it is. Go find it."

GG: Yeah, it's very exciting to be able to do that now. It's very special. The days I've released the past two albums stand out in my head as some of the best days of doing this whole project, almost beyond any show I've played. [You] just put it out there and here it is, and now people can react to it and consume it.

UOTS: Since the release of All Day, some people have said that your creations are the future of music. In your opinion, what is the future of music going to sound like?

GG: I think the idea of sampling has become a lot more commonplace, and I think it's going to continue to grow. It goes across so many different worlds of music. You can look at something like what I'm doing, and you can look at Animal Collective or Daft Punk or Jay-Z, which often times incorporate samples. I feel like a lot of people are doing that on very different levels. [With] something like what I'm doing, I'm always interested in pushing the identity of this project and what can be original. Some people might disagree. Some people might be really into it. But I think it's going to continue to go that way, and I'm sure there will be something in the world of mash-ups and remixes that will just become its own entity, a huge hit, on the level of any major hit.

It has happened in the past. To me it's like the song from the 80s, [like] M.A.R.R.S.' "Pump Up the Volume," an almost entirely sample-based track, was a hit. There will be more things like that. More people are incorporating this tool, and it's almost undeniable now as a fundamental tool of making music, and taking preexisting sounds and manipulating them and working with them. I think you'll hear it more in country music, jazz, hip-hop, across the board. I don't know what the future sounds like, but I do think the idea of appropriating a previously existing sound and trying to make something new out of it is becoming more and more common. It's been around for a long time, but I think it's becoming more popular every day.

UOTS: So in the future, do you think more people will give away their music for free and just profit from merchandise and touring?

GG: Yeah. It's a tough call. I think in doing what I did, I wasn't trying to make a statement or give a solution to the world. Giving it away for free was very specific to my situation, and it worked out great. I'm always trying to figure out how far it can go, how many people can hear this, how big the shows can get. I don't really know because there's not exactly a clear cut precedent for people doing highly remix-based music. In doing this album and looking at how to release it, I was just considering how I could get it out there as efficiently as possible and how we could make this bigger than the last one. The solution was to give it away for free. It's only been two weeks, but the buzz has just been insane. Ticket sales for the tour have been going through the roof since we released the album. Everything's been going great, and I think it benefited my situation perfectly. Right now I can make a living off of touring, and I'm very fortunate to be in that position. Giving it away for free was specific to where I'm at.

I don't know where it will go in the future, and I guess that's determined by where the laws are at with downloading music. I think for the time being, a lot of musicians are seeing the benefit in giving away their music for free or doing the "pay for what you want" sort of donation-based system that people often times attribute to Radiohead. It's impossible to predict what downloading music will be like years from now. But right now is a good time to be a musician. Something like this project that I'm doing wouldn't ever have existed on this level 20 years ago. Word of mouth and people distributing their music for free has been the entire reason it's grown, and [has been the reason] I'm allowed to play the venues the size I'm playing. I feel like that freely exchanging music has been incredibly beneficial for a lot of artists. But at the same time, I don't think it's necessarily a solution right now. It just is what it is, and some people can take advantage of it. I think everyone has to evaluate what's going to benefit their band the best.

Legal issues, the future of music, taking over the internet, and what's on Gregg's iPod:

UOTS: What's it like to take over the internet for a day?

GG: I was really excited to unleash the album, and I almost couldn't go to sleep that night, just anticipating the response. I was really excited to not tell anyone about it. We were keeping it as hush-hush as possible. I didn't want a big press release or anything until we put it out. I'm not trying to be modest or anything, but the level of excitement just went way through the roof, beyond anything I expected or the label that released the music expected. I'm continually playing shows and seeing the size of shows grow, so I knew there would be a fan base waiting there.

But I think the explosion was a lot more than I had anticipated. I woke up in the morning and got a call from my dad, and he was saying I was currently number one on the Yahoo search list. Just thinking about the global scale of everything that was happening in the world that day, to be the most searched on Google or Yahoo or something like that is insane. It's crazy how small this project began. It's funny to look back at the lineage of it: for six years I was actively playing to 30 people, and then over the past four years it has blown up to the point where it can be the biggest thing on the internet for a couple of days.

UOTS: So I guess it's safe to say that social media gave you all the attention you wanted and more?

GG: Yeah, I remember the last time I did it, two years ago, I basically started to upload it to MySpace, where I almost debuted it. People were excited and writing on the [Girl Talk] MySpace [page]. People were emailing; [my] MySpace inbox was full that day. And now here it is two years later. Twitter and Facebook and everything have been ramped up. It's constantly the live feed of it, just the connection that you have with your friends and how much it can spread, it's gone through the roof in those two years. It's on a whole other level. I think that's part of the reason it's successful, to be honest. The level of connection within the internet has become a lot more fine-tuned in the past two years.

UOTS: It seems like you've sampled everything there ever was. So besides all the songs your samples come from, what's on your iPod?

GG: I don't own an iPod, actually. I'm kind of old school in the way I listen to music. I really enjoying buying CDs and listening to full CDs. I know that's a dated concept, but that's the way it is. I'm really looking forward to going to Best Buy today to pick up CDs. I really want to get the new Soulja Boy record. I haven't heard the full Kanye record yet. I wanted to get that, the Nicki Minaj record, the Waka Flocka record...I really like the tracks I've heard from that...so I'm actually planning on going CD shopping today. Outside of that I've been listening to some older tunes. I've been listening to Todd Rundgren, as I always have. He's one of my favorites. I've been listening to Neil Young. You know, some mellow music.

Live shows:

UOTS: Your shows can get pretty wild, especially once people get on stage with you. You've probably had laptops broken, dropped, and sweat on. About how many laptops do you go through every year? You cover them in plastic wrap, right?

GG: I used to break a bunch. I don't mean for this to be a product placement or anything, but I have upgraded to these Panasonic Toughbooks that are like military-grade computers. They're extremely difficult to break. I've literally fallen off the back of a pickup truck with one in a backpack and landed on the ice, and it was fine. I played a show the next day with it.

I used to go through a few every year, [with] people knocking the tables over, stepping on the laptops, throwing up on the laptops, everything. Every [kind] of bodily fluid has been all over those computers. I do cover them with Saran wrap, but yeah, they used to go down a lot. It's been a bit more secure with the Panasonic Toughbooks. I also feel like my skill level at Saran wrapping the computers has gone up. I don't want to curse myself, but it's pretty solid as far as the protection level now. I've been lucky enough to not really break a laptop in at least a year.

UOTS: Is there ever anything that doesn't seem to work at shows, based on what you perceive from the crowd?

GG: Yeah, definitely. There's a lot of stuff that doesn't work at shows, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it couldn't be interesting on an album. I definitely gear the shows to be a bit more celebratory than the albums. I want the albums to be extremely fun, naturally, and I want it to be a crazy pop joyride. At the same time, I think there are moments on the album where I don't mind getting a little bit more mellow [with] something that's slightly more obscure than other things, whereas at the last show, I really wanted it to be 100 percent and as crazy as possible. So sometimes I'll drop different pieces, and it might not be that familiar to a chunk of the audience, so it might not go over that well, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's not interesting musically.

When I was fine-tuning that Supergrass/Bone Thugs-N-Harmony piece on the album, there's something that I love and I had played live. I always felt like that kind of fell flat live. I just felt like maybe not that many people were familiar with the Supergrass sample. But once you're able to put it on the record and people become familiar with the album, then it's a whole different thing where anything I reference from the albums, people will naturally know at the shows. Now, once it's on the album and it's documented, I feel like I can play the Supergrass/Bone Thugs, or do variations of that, and people will potentially be a bit more familiar with it based on the album.

So yeah, there are lots of things that fall flat. Sometimes I will never play them again [or] sometimes I won't like the way they sounded. [At] every show I'm fine-tuning small little details. At any one show, there's a chance you'll hear something there that will basically never be played again.

UOTS: Is there a chance that a piece of what you create at a show on your tour could end up on your next album?

GG: That's the way it goes. As soon as I'm done with an album I start working on new material. Now it's a fun period for me just because I have five albums, and I feel like the last three are the ones that people are really familiar with. There's no final point with any of the material, so there are certain bits and pieces and elements I use on Night Ripper from 2006 that might blend really well with stuff on the new album, or any combination of that. Now it's exciting [to] work on new material for these upcoming shows and blend new things from all the albums, and reference points from Feed the Animals to Night Ripper to the new one and do reinterpretations of a lot of that material.

Simultaneously, I'm always working on new material. A lot of fans who have come out to multiple shows and [have] seen me throughout the year were almost familiar with what this album would sound like to a degree. There are certain things that I played at almost every show over the past year, like the beginning bit with Ludacris and Black Sabbath. For fans that have seen me multiple times in the past year, I'm sure they were familiar with that part. There are certain things that just become staples in the show, things that I play every night, and that's definitely the material that will make it onto the next release.

UOTS: What sets you apart from other artists that do mashups?

GG: Everyone just tries to have their own style. It's important to be creative and innovative with what you're doing. Mashups and sampling have been around for a while, and on my album Night Ripper I really kind of fine-tuned a specific sound that referenced many other artists and many other things that came before, all while trying to carve my own sound out of that. With that album, I had a very distinctive sound that people kind of took to, and I'm hoping it's to the point where it has its own identity and you can hear one of my releases and say, "That's a Girl Talk song. That definitely sounds like Girl Talk." From there, I didn't want to abandon that sound, but I didn't want to try and recreate it.

So over the past four years, I've tried to make it grow without necessarily trying to cram in more samples. At this point, there have been a handful of artists that have tried to replicate that sound, which can be interesting. But I think for someone to take notice of any artist, you have to be doing something different. Out of all remix artists, mashup artists, bands, rap acts, whatever, there are a million versions of everything. As soon as Jay-Z comes out with a song, there are going to be a hundred versions of underground rap songs that sound like that song. But in order to really rise to the top, you have to carve your own sound and do something special and unique. That's something I've always tried to do. For the fan base, they've noticed that and they've taken to the sound I've tried to create for myself.


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