by RJ Cubarrubia
These days, laptop musicians are big: they’re in rock bands, pop bands, R&B groups, behind rappers, and even DJ’s. Mashups have gone from a fun and rare adventure into sampling done by skilled DJ’s to a common and pedestrian event performed by countless computer kids. And then there’s Greg Gillis aka Girl Talk; say mashup, think laptop musician, and envision a packed grindfest for an audience, and he’s probably first in your mind. Although he admits he wasn’t the first, Girl Talk brought in a new age where sweaty yet intelligent dance parties are possible, where watching a dude press stuff on his laptop can make you go crazy, and where you can hear Ben and Jerry like concoctions of samples and grooves and still freak the night away. I caught up with Greg when he stopped by Charlottesville, VA for a quick chat about his recent Asia tour, the different effects of each sample across the globe, his creative process, his admittedly nerdy and academic background (he said it, I didn’t!), and more.
How you been, man? What’s going on?
Good, just been traveling a lot. I recently went to Asia and I’m getting back to things here in the States.
How’d the Asia tour go? A little over a year ago I was in China and back then, they hadn’t even heard of Soulja Boy; they just got that. Is it crazy going overseas and seeing the kids maybe react differently to your music?
Yeah, yeah. I played two shows in Japan and one in Vietnam and I had only played Japan one other time like four or five years ago, so it is an interesting thing because I want the music I make to be its own new entity and exist in its own way while it obviously references so much other different music. It’s hard to gauge what’s familiar there. Of course, a lot of pop music from the US makes it over to Japan, but it’s hard to tell. There are weird things that were hits over there and there are weird things that weren’t hits over there. So yeah, those two Japanese shows were fascinating. Just the concert etiquette over there is mindblowing in itself just because people out there are just out to have a good time but they’re also so responsive and polite. You know, if you ask people to put their hands in the air or clap, everyone does it. It’s not cool to stand there with your arms folded or anything like that. It’s cool and then, of course, it’s interesting; when I’m playing sets, I’m always changing little bits, like a big collage I’m always adjusting, and I have points in my mind, at least in the US, where it’s like, “Oh, it’s going to go up here and down a little here and then maybe up.” But over there, it’s impossible to really tell what people would really be feeling.
Definitely. Is there any place in the world that you get especially stoked on in that sense?
Obviously the places I play a lot, you know, like I’m from Pittsburgh, so Pittsburgh is always great, and I went to college in Cleveland, and also Morgantown, West Virginia. With all those spots that I’ve played a lot, it’s always interesting because I think the majority of shows I play, 90% percent of the audience hadn’t heard of me prior to 2006, which isn’t a problem, but it’s fascinating going to Pittsburgh where they did know me prior to that and they’ve kind of seen the arc of what’s been going on there. And that’s cool, because playing in an arena and playing these bigger shows are great, and I’ve been doing this for a while, but it’s still surreal. I think in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Morgantown, those places, it’s a bit easier to share how weird it is with the audience because they’re witnessing it as well.
You mentioned earlier that you build collages of music as you create your own works. When you find things that really spark your interest or inspire you, is it natural and it just hits you or do you find yourself digging for cool stuff?
It’s a bit of both, you know. I feel the process for me is very intuitive, so a lot of the eureka moments that are seemingly eureka moments don’t really result in anything. It’s like, “Oh my God, this keyboard solo is perfect and it’s going to work out great and I love the pace of this and it sounds great!” And then I’ll sample it, cut it up, and then it just won’t fit with anything. So that’s a lot of music; the majority of stuff I sample and cut up doesn’t see the light of day, it’s never in a show, it’s never in an album, but I just listen to music all the time, like anyone. It’s hard to avoid listening to pop music, even if you really wanted to, so stuff just hits me all the time and I kind of keep a running tab of it. It’s rarely like I need to seek it out mainly because I still have a list of 50 songs I want to get to and that list never really runs dry. But I’m always taking out small things and introducing new things in my sets and sometimes I’m like, “Man, I just don’t have ay 60’s music,” or “I wish I had more 90’s alternative,” and things like that. So when it gets to that point, I’ll definitely seek it out, going through my album collections and be sitting there and staring at it, hunting it down sitting next to the radio stations. So occasionally I’m on the hunt but it’s sort of a rare thing.
You also mentioned earlier how you always try to mix it up, mix and match parts with different sets and keep it fresh, but when it comes time to pick what’s on the album, how hard or how intuitive of a process is that? It must be weird to commit to one thing and say, “This is it. This is the shit.”
Oh, it’s very difficult, and being slightly obsessive-compulsive about it does not make it any better. There’re so many variations and it’s tough for me to make major changes and that’s why I’ve put out on album approximately every two years, only forty minutes of music every two years. Between shows, you’ll hear small things taken in and out and each set is performed differently, so even stuff you heard from another show and you hear it again, the beat may come in differently, the vocal track might be over something else, something might be repeated more or less, and there are many variations and something is always changing. Coming to the album, it definitely is like a Greatest Hits: here are some things that really stuck in the sets, here are the things I’ve been playing a lot, here are the best things. But also, when I start to assemble the album, sometimes there’re gaps, like sometimes I don’t have anything I played in my sets that I feel is appropriate, so sometimes I have to create on the spot. But I feel like the album, when I go into it, it’s like having 75% of the puzzle pieces and you put those all together and then you have to fill in those gaps and say, “Ok, I need to come up with something there,” and I try to keep things as diverse and eclectic as possible. There’s no real formula but in my mind there’s a system and even doing so many sets, it’s not perfect to me. But yeah, the decision making process is kind of shitty and it’s just tough, especially when you’re about to document it and put it out and it’s going to be the thing that everyone critiques and what people judge you on. Live, you can drop a one-minute segment that might fall flat, but that will be the end of that. It’s very fun for me to experiment in a live setting but on the album it’s a little stressful because you want to be progressive and experimental but simultaneously, you want something that’s going to be successful, so you have to find that balance there.
I feel that I’ve come across a good amount of people who say they love your live sets, but they’re not into your albums, and just as many people who say vice versa. Do you ever feel there’s a disconnect between your live show and your albums?
Yeah, it’s definitely distinctly different. I feel like when I assemble an album, I’m not really trying to make a party set, you know? It’s definitely something I feel people can enjoy and dance to but I’m trying to make an interesting album. I think that’s why it jumps around a lot and it’s very intense. When I make an album, I’m not thinking about something that people can just put on in a club and dance to. I would rather put together an album people can listen to for years and it’s very detailed yet still listenable, so there are different goals there. I feel like the show is more functional and I feel with a lot of bands, when you go see them, they’re not necessarily going to play every single one of their slow jams live, it’s a more social experience and you have to take that into consideration. Live, naturally, I’m a bit more free form because I can’t edit; I drop every sample by hand so I can’t be as specific as I can be on the album, but I feel like I’m a bit more blatant about things: I’ll play things out a bit longer, I’ll have more repetition, those sorts of things and I take into consideration that if I could even perform new music at the pace of an album, I wouldn’t necessarily want to do that because it’s like tonight you’re going to have a few thousand people, some of them might have a couple drinks prior to coming, and it’s a crazy environment. It’s tough to sit there and process, “Oh, is that a three second Aerosmith sample?” I don’t want that to be what it’s about; I don’t want people to be standing there scratching their chins. I definitely think the show is a lot more functional and that’s something that I aim for, and I think the album is something where the ultimate goal is something you can listen to with headphones, but I definitely understand why some people like the album more than the show or the show more than the album.
I know you studied Biomedical Engineering at Case Western and that’s kind of an unexpected background. Do you ever feel that because your music sounds like it probably came from an art school kid and yet you came from a different environment that your background had an effect on the way you perceive and create music?
Oh, definitely. I think it’s a tough thing to analyze because I started college around the same time I started this particular project. I had a history going back to high school of being interested in this style of electronic music with sampling; it’s something I’ve been doing since I was about 15. But also, becoming an engineer and studying that, it definitely trains your mind in a certain way and you naturally become more detail oriented. I definitely think that was an influence on the way the Girl Talk project developed. But simultaneously, I was into a lot of experimental music when I first started Girl Talk and I still am, but I wanted to challenge my world. I went to a university that was kind of “nerdy” and I studied engineering, which is obviously nerdy, so I was always surrounded by that kind of academic environment and I feel like a lot the aspects of Girl Talk, embracing pop culture, embracing partying, having a good time, and dropping your pretensions, were definitely a direct result of my environment. It was like I was studying this stuff, I was surrounded by these people all the time, and it was kind of a tense environment so I wanted to create something not for them, they didn’t even hear what I was doing, but I wanted to react to that and just do something that was like the opposite.
When Night Ripper dropped in 2006, you came onto a lot of people’s radar and got a lot of recognition pretty quickly and helped bring about more laptop musicians and your genre to recognition. What do you feel your position is in all of that?
There are a lot of contemporaries of mine as well as people who came before me and I think laptops naturally have become more integrated into music completely outside of anything I’ve done. With all the software now, you see rock bands using laptops, all sorts of bands using laptops, DJ’s and whatever. I grew up watching a lot of live laptop musicians and live electronic music in high school and in college and I think with the success of this project, people started coming out to the shows after Night Ripper and they’d never gone to see a guy play a laptop. This is like an abstract concept to them but I don’t even think they were thinking like this; they were just thinking that this was a show where “I don’t care what he’s playing. Is it going to be entertaining? Am I going to have a good time?” and that’s it. So I think people naturally became comfortable with that idea without it challenging them. They just went to the show because they liked the record and they weren’t thinking that they were watching a guy play a laptop. Maybe they loved the show, maybe they hated it, but I think in a lot of ways they saw that happen so when they see this rock band use a computer or this other band use a computer or this DJ use a computer, they are obviously more familiar and comfortable with that. Now, it’s been a few years since the success of Night Ripper so I think that idea of playing a computer live is something that’s totally legitimized and I’ve seen a lot of people maybe influenced by my stuff or doing their own take on it and it’s interesting because for years, of course many people existed before me and did it before me, but it was a very small underground thing, this idea of playing a computer. Now, after what I’ve been through, there’s a set forum; you can make your own mixes and remixes on a computer and probably get booked shows by being a laptop musician. It’s interesting seeing the younger people doing their things because they have this platform now to exist that wasn’t necessarily there and it’s not weird to try to book a show with rock bands who play a computer and it’s very exciting and I’m very proud of that.
Does it ever trip you out that now people say they’re inspired by you?
Yeah, I see it, you know? It took a little while; I feel like after Night Ripper and the success of that, I just figured naturally people were going to start doing the same thing, but it took a couple years. Now, like I see a lot of people. People hit me up on Myspace all the time or I hear about this act and it’s weird and exciting, you know? It’s specifically weird because I have my own influences and reference points and I feel the music I’m doing has a deep history; it goes back to a lot of hip-hop, a lot of John Oswald, Negetivland, a lot of tape collage stuff and I feel that a lot of people who are influenced by me have never paid any mind to any of that music, which is awesome to me. I mean, it’s cool to be ignorant about it because that’s the way new ideas are going to develop. When everyone knows the history of music, everyone’s kind of thinking in same exact way and I don’t know the whole history of music and my music is totally ignorant to certain people. So the people coming after me have a totally different reference point for their foundation of what they want to be like and they’ve never heard of the stuff I was really into to get into this sort of thing. That means they’re going to be approaching it from a totally different perspective and I think that’s very exciting.
Cool. Thanks, Greg.