Girl Talk

Girl Talk

Nov 01/2010
by Heather Noel Photography by Heather Noel & Ashley Champagne

Sled Island, 2010. Girl Talk is closing out the Friday night show at Calgary’s Olympic Plaza. There is a chill in the air, forcing eager fans to cram together like cattle between the speakers. From the moment the music starts the crowd begins to move, streams of toilet paper and confetti fall from the sky, a pack of dancers in colourful outfits takes the stage, and in the middle, behind his laptop, Gregg Gillis bounces along. IMG_4455a Gillis is the man behind Girl Talk and perhaps the most successful mash-up artist working today. His particular brand of bastard pop consists of compiling various Top 40 samples and working them into danceable sound collages. On his 2008 album, Feed the Animals, he used over 300 songs as source material, averaging around 20 distinct samples on each track. When we met Gillis backstage for the Georgie photo shoot, he was surprisingly soft-spoken and unassuming. It was hard to imagine that this was the same guy known for tearing off his clothes onstage while playing gangster rap.

I don’t think of it as an alter ego, but I definitely behave differently onstage than I behave anywhere else in life.

“I don’t think of it as an alter ego, but I definitely behave differently onstage than I behave anywhere else in life,” he explains during our interview. Gillis describes his performances as a natural extension of his personality and insists that there is no prescribed set of behaviours which make up some contrived Girl Talk persona. Nevertheless, he admits to his own theatrics. “I think with any sort of band or performance you’re up there putting on an act to a certain degree. In life I’m pretty low- key but when I get on stage I don’t want to sit up there and bore people.” His shows are anything but low-key, and boredom is rarely reported. In fact, Girl Talk may be best known for the frenzied dance parties that continuously fill clubs around the world. On the importance of the live show, Gillis remarks, “It’s a huge part of the whole Girl Talk thing. I feel like it’s an entirely different beast than the albums, but they’re both almost equally important to me. I tour half the year and I’ve gotten a name out there by touring and people knowing the show, so the show is extremely important. I kind of view the shows as being a more functional outlet for the style of music I do. At the shows, I’m focusing a bit more on making it something that people can dance to and celebrate to.” Gillis spends the bulk of the year touring, playing two or three shows a week. It’s been three years since he played Edmonton but he remembers his last visit vividly, specifically the eager fan who thrust a hand down the front of his pants while he performed on the dance floor. “I appreciated the gesture, in terms of just showing enthusiasm for the show,” he says, completely deadpan, “but I was pulling the hand out of my pants and the hand was resisting like it wanted to stay there. So I kind of had a battle and had to force myself out of a hand job so I could continue playing.” IMG_4689 In recent years, such celebrity treatment has become increasingly more frequent. “I think people build something up in their minds about me, just like I’ve built things up in my mind about musicians I like, or my neighbours who I don’t know that well. You build up these images about people around you based on what you can gather.” It hasn’t always been sold out shows and molestation attempts for Gillis. At its genesis, Girl Talk was an experimental act, playing to crowds of 15 to 20 people while Gillis held down a day job as a biomedical engineer. But early on, Gillis made a conscious decision to push the boundaries of the experimental electronic music scene by incorporating pop music into his act. “I was playing at these more underground-oriented music shows,” he explains, “so back then it was about trying to challenge that underground music scene with pop music.” In a scene where pop music was essentially taboo, Gillis challenged norms by demonstrating that musical tastes don’t need to be so black and white and, above all, by proving that pop is not evil. Although he has since departed from that scene, Gillis still appreciates noise and experimental music. He is, however, weary of its tendency towards elitism: “I think a lot of times, in more experimental styles of music, it can be viewed as potentially pretentious if you’re aiming to make music that’s only going to be enjoyed by a couple of people. And pop music can be viewed as watered down if you’re trying to sell it to everybody…Regardless of what kind of music you’re making, you’re still going to have an album cover, you’re still going to have a band name, so you’re still packaging a product.” Of course, even Gillis will acknowledge that his music’s appeal is due in part to the incorporation of already established hits. But Girl Talk tracks have the unique and enviable quality of being endlessly surprising and yet instantly recognizable. Although you may know at one moment that you are hearing Kelly Clarkson, the Zombies, and Nine Inch Nails simultaneously, it will be an entirely different (and equally unexpected) combination in 15 seconds. In a sense, listening to Girl Talk is like boarding the nostalgia train. On the dance floor, you might begin to think your life is flashing before your ears – at least the FM radio part.

I grew up on a lot of hip hop, and back when I was a kid I didn’t know that much music.

“I grew up on a lot of hip hop, and back when I was a kid I didn’t know that much music. I’ve heard The Partridge Family theme music sampled in hip hop, and I’ve heard other familiar things. I’ve heard The Price is Right theme sampled in rap songs. Whether you love it, hate it, or whatever, you remember it a certain way and then they kind of twist it and take it somewhere new…When I found out about people like John Oswald, or Kid 606, what I liked about their work was that they were taking these familiar bits and making something crazy out of them. You could hear it and have that sense of nostalgia – it definitely takes you somewhere – but then they manipulate those feelings and take you somewhere else.” In June of this year, Gillis began work on Girl Talk’s fifth album. He describes it as similar to the last album but with more repetition and greater variation in the length of samples.“I think each album kind of gets closer and closer to what I’m doing live,” Gillis says, but perfecting the sound is a long and meticulous process. “I’m very detail-oriented and I’m kind of neurotic about it, so I end up working twelve hours a day to get 30 seconds done.” It may be a while before we see the next album completed, but Girl Talk fans can rest assured that as long as there is pop music, Greg Gillis will have an instrument. “I’m always listening to the radio. I have satellite radio in my car and I listen to local stations as well. I don’t even have to listen to the radio. When you go into a bar they’re playing music, or the grocery store…We’re just constantly bombarded with songs. I have a running list of songs I want to get to, and I never catch up with that list. There’s never been a moment in ten years of doing this when I thought, ‘man what should I do next?’”

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