Girl Talk: Interview
Manufacturing nostalgia, pushing squares
Girl Talk (Pittsburgh's Gregg Gillis) has three albums out now, but you'd be forgiven for only knowing his last, Night Ripper. It burst onto the scene in 2006 and had the indie kids flailing limbs to Elton John and Biggie Smalls and The Smashing Pumpkins all at once, sweating and caring just that little bit less. He's broken down barriers, for sure, with this record. And, of course, his frenetic live shows, which there've been a lot over the past year, frequently featuring stage invasions and semi-nudity (mostly on Greg's behalf) and a whole lot of hits.
Girl Talk takes music from everywhere -- snippets from the supermarket, the radio, the internet, parents' record collections -- sampling it all in a laptop frenzy that focuses primarily on fun. That's important, I'd venture to say; Greg's approach is always about fun, and the end result exudes enthusiasm all the same. Like the music of Girl Talk, Gregg is animated and excited, a lover of all musics, whether it's on the Top 40 or in the darkest, mustiest corner of his favorite record store. A lot has changed for him since his last album's release (a new album is due this spring), and his trajectory and scope are only accelerating as things move along.
Last time I talked to you, you were saying you lived this strange double life, working at some secret sounding science job and then playing these parties on the weekend.
Right. Back then when we talked, it was pretty much shows every Friday and Saturday. Since I quit in June, I kept that schedule for the most part, but I also did an extended tour in September where I played everyday. It's way more shows than I‘m used to. Minimally, two a week.
How's that side of things been going? Has it been fun or just exhausting?
Well, when I had the job it was getting pretty exhausting. I would go to work Monday through Friday then play shows then go back to work then repeat. It was fun, because of the newfound popularity; that was really interesting to me and the shows had been going much better than they ever had. It just started getting overwhelming after a while, so I had to quit the job.
Did you ever end up telling them about your secret DJ life?
Back when I was working there, it never came out, but when I quit, I told them I wanted to travel the country or travel the world and take advantage of my youth. But I never told them about the music thing at all. They just thought I quit, so I could see the world. Since I quit, I've been finding it all a lot more enjoyable because I can rest on the week and can have downtime at my house. I can't complain about music as a job at this point. It's so overwhelmingly fun, especially compared to sitting in a cubicle.
So it's been getting increasingly fun, then? With Girl Talk getting so much bigger?
A little bit. It gets weirder, I think. The shows, I think it goes with any band, as you get more popular, your audience starts to get broader, and that's interesting. But I think the shows now are more hit-and-miss than they used to be. When the popularity and press started going off, the shows were really enthusiastic and crazy and everything, people getting on stage and me getting in the audience. But at least in the U.S. as the shows have got bigger, a lot of the shows have been getting too aggressive with the crowd, people getting too pushy, and people wont be having as good a time because there's too many people that are too excited. But for the most part, it's been great. I like smaller shows; I liked to be intimate with the crowd. I did a tour of the states with Dan Deacon in September, and that was big for both of us. The shows were cool but just a bit overwhelming as far as the size of the audience and trying to connect with people. That was interesting, but my favorites are the smaller ones. But I guess as you get more popular you have to please as many people as possible and play as big a venue as required.
Have you noticed that your audience has changed at all with this increased popularity?
Yeah, hmm. I'd have to say its changed in a good way. I like the audience to be as diverse as possible, and I think when I started, before Night Ripper came out, my audience was primarily an electronic music crowd, and they were used to seeing people playing a laptop and they had all these references, of people like say Kid606 or other people that do sample-based work. I think the thing that started the hype of Night Ripper was the review on Pitchfork Media, who obviously have their own crowd, more of like an indie-minded crowd. So for a few months, the crowd became a lot more indie-rock-ish than it had been before. But since then, the ball has just kept rolling; that's what Pitchfork does, it just started to snowball, and if people feel like they wanna pick up on it, they will. It's at the point now, though, where there's like college types, frat boys, then there's straight up indie-rockers and hip-hop-heads. So I think it has traveled to the point now where there's no specific type of crowd, which I like. I go to see a lot of shows, and you can often so easily stereotype their audience. They dress the same way -- like you go to so many shows that seem like they have some dress code. But I think my shows, these days, vary every night and each time can have a different vibe and I'm really into that.
When Night Ripper came out, I was thinking Girl Talk was just music for everybody, for fans of music rather than just some genre. It breaks down a lot of barriers doing things like juxtaposing Elton John with Biggie and some guy in tight jeans is dancing to it and letting loose.
Yeah, it's pretty strange, but it really does make sense. Me and Dan [Deacon] have similar backgrounds as far as what sort of people might be into our music, especially a year or two ago. But I think my crowd has gotten way more mainstream-based, which I like -- I mean, there are a lot of mainstream sources I take from. Me and Dan talked about that a lot on tour, about how mainstream and normal-looking a lot of the crowds were because he's used to playing art galleries or whatever where only a bunch of weirdos show up.
Yeah, I mean Girl Talk is very rooted in the mainstream in many ways, but at the same time, the approach is kind of opposite to that. I remember you saying last time I interviewed you that you just loved pop music and just loved music, so maybe that sensibility just comes through to everyone, regardless if you're the type that only listens to ‘just what's on the radio' or if you're some intense music nerd.
That's what I would hope, especially because, yeah, I am just a pop music nerd. I hope people who also like music can like it, but I'm into electronic music, and I like people like Squarepusher and Prefuse 73, and I like the aspect of putting together very tightly edited music together on a computer. I'm hoping that people that like Aphex Twin or whatever can find some degree of appeal in my music, seeing that's the background that I come from.
Well, as a massive listener of all types of music yourself, have you found that since Night Ripper's been out and you've toured it a whole lot, that the way you now listen to music has changed?
Definitely, the way I listen to it has changed. I've always tried to search for pop music from various places, and through this whole thing, my searching for that has got a lot more intense. From touring around the states a lot, I try to change the sets as much as possible. But I'm averaging right now just one CD every two years, so 40 minutes of music every two years. It takes me a lot of time to put it together. I think the way I listen to music is that since I've been playing so many more shows; I've been a lot more intense on myself on finding new source material. I'm on the hunt and listening to the radio and going through my parents' record collection a lot more intensely than I used to. I think I'm diving a little deeper into the past. In my sets nowadays compared to a year ago include a lot more ‘60s and ‘70s music. Even if it's not necessarily incorporated into Girl Talk, I've been listening to it a lot more. I really like finding out about songs that I have heard a couple of times and loved but forget about. There's a million of them; like how many times you've heard a song in a grocery store. So I've definitely been on the hunt and diving deeper. It used to be a lot more casual, a year or two ago; if something popped into my mind or if I heard it on the radio, I'd just go sample it and relax. But these days, I'm just constantly working, probably because I've got more source material to work with than I ever had.
It sounds pretty overwhelming; does it ever feel this way, like there's too much music?
Haha, well, in Pittsburgh where I live, there are certainly people that are close to me that would call me perhaps a bit obsessive-compulsive in terms of putting together the music. It is a non-stop hunt in terms of finding these pop resources, but at the same time, it's not like crate-digging, where people are looking for these super-obscure samples that no one has heard before. I'm usually looking for the most obvious thing, but still, it's difficult sometimes to decide which part of the song to use. But I like to have an obvious source and be able to manipulate it and show my cards and have people understand what I'm doing with the source material. It's a never-ending process; some days I just need to chill out and realize that I don't have to cut up music every day of my life.
It must be good, in contrast with crate-digging, that music often comes to you, whether it's in the supermarket or on the radio or wherever.
Yeah, there are also friends who e-mail me every day with songs they'd like me to sample, or even my dad might call me up with some recommendation. Taking a step back, it's really fun; its definitely not work, it's something I've become really excited and passionate about.
In terms of what your working on next, say, the next album, do you feel any pressure to do anything radically different from Night Ripper?
Well, I'm still growing used to that attention. Especially in this day and age, where everything you do is documented on YouTube and MySpace or whatever. It's different than it used to be. I think all three of my albums are very different from each other, very distinct. With Night Ripper, I clearly found an audience who likes the sound. When it came out and the reviews were all so positive, my initial reaction was that I'd like to do something drastic and be different after that. But since then, my work process over the years has always been put out an album, keep working on live material, do those for a year, and then take a step back and look at what you have. In terms of what you've been playing live for that year, you want to try and figure out how to represent that on an album. Basically, what I've been doing for the past few years, the material has been in the same ballpark as Night Ripper, but a little different. Compared to my other albums, this next one will be as close to another release that I've done; it'll probably be similar to Night Ripper in a few ways. I think about critics and what people are going to say about it more than I probably should, but I realize that so many people have been bootlegging my sets -- people always want me to record a set and give it to them that people really do want another album like Night Ripper. They want to hear what they're hearing live. So, I think I'm gonna do something on that level. Somewhere down the road, I would like to do something drastic, but right now I'm thinking another party record would be best.