Exclusive interview with Girl Talk

More: Girl Talk returns to Iowa City

“It’s something that never really begins or ends. It began like 10 years ago, and it won’t end until I stop.”

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Girl TalkEric Sundermann: How did you get into mashups? I know you worked as an engineer for some time, when did you go full time? What made that decision?
Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis): Even when I was in high school, I was always looking for new weird types of music. I was trying to dive as deep as possible into music. Back then, the internet wasn’t near as powerful as it is now, so it was difficult to find out about new music. But I slowly began to discover Pittsburg’s underground music scene. I saw some straight up noise bands, straight up experimental acts play, and it was really fascinating to hear some of these bands play who potentially had no formal training of music and just got up there with guitar pedals or got up there with a computer. So my friends and I just started playing in bands and stuff, so even as far back as then, when I was 14 or 15, I was doing electronic music. And back then, even the idea of sampling someone’s song, manipulating it and tearing it up with something, was something that was definitely appealing to me.

Of course, in the whole hip-hop world, it was something I was aware of, but also, with acts like John Oswald, Negative Land, or Kid 606, these are all acts I found out about in high school. I thought, oh wow there is this whole world where people are just manipulating pop music and pop culture and make something new and weird out of it. That was an idea that was always fascinating to me. So in 2000, when I got a computer, my first laptop in college, I’d seen a lot of people perform on laptops, so when I got my hands on a laptop, immediately I knew I wanted to play on it. I thought it’d be interesting to start a project based entirely on sampling other people’s songs. Kind of like Negative Land, except dealing with pop music rather than using rather than old records or things like that.

“For me, I am kind of trying to push a little bit of an idea that all pop music should be valued, in some way. I try to get into things. I try to like music.”

Would you talk a little bit about your process of creating these mashups? How do you get from having nothing there and a song with over 100 samples?
It’s a slow trial and error process for me. It’s something that never really begins or ends. It began like 10 years ago, and it won’t end until I stop. When I prepare for a live show, I have a template of material in front of me, and with the show, I trigger all the samples by hand and it’s all a loop-based software. But when I’m sitting around that week and preparing for the show, I might find little bits and pieces I want to use — ‘oh this combination of these vocals over this music over these beats, that sounds interesting, I wonder if I can work that into the show.’ So with the live template, I’ll make substitutions. I’ll take out something I’ve been playing a lot, or something I’m bored with, or something I don’t necessarily like that much, and try to put in something new. And based on audience response and how I feel about it, it will influence what I do with that clip.

So the live show is a big, living collage where each show I take something out or add something new, and it’s always growing. I’ll do that for two years, slowly working in new material into shows, saving the ideas, all of that, until I sit down to do an album. So by the time I sit down to do an album, it’s almost like I’ve had two years of practicing and I have all these ideas laid out and I know these three songs go really well together and they transition well into these five songs together. So by the time I sit down to do an album, it’s like I have 75 percent of the puzzle pieces and a really good idea of where it’s going to begin and end and it’s just a matter of assembling it, the small holes here and there.

That’s interesting because it sounds like almost a collaborative effort between the audience and yourself as a performer.
It’s funny, because the shows are definitely highly influential. And also, sometimes with the album, it’s a balance of having stuff that I know goes over well and having stuff that’s a big more experimental. Sometimes I’ll come up with something that I love or I’ll play it for my friends and they will all really like it. But, it just maybe doesn’t fit the context of the show that well but maybe it will fit the context of the album a little better. It’s definitely some give and take, and I feel like on the album I have more room to explore things that I think are musically interesting that aren’t necessarily just bangers that go over well during a live show. I feel more inclined to go more in-your-face or over-the-top during the show because people are partying and celebrating so you don’t really want down moments. Whereas on an album I don’t really feel weird about playing some one hit wonder from the early ‘70s that very few people probably actually know about.

When you’re making the album, do you have a bigger motive or argument than just making really fun and catchy pop music?
Yeah. I definitely think there’s some conceptual ideas at play. I don’t want to push any politics on people, but I think with any style of music that happens. You can listen to My Bloody Valentine and just hear nice pop songs, or you can listen to My Bloody Valentine and explore the textures and get to the more experimental elements. I feel like it’s like that with a lot of artists.

“So with my music I’m trying to break down all those barriers and throw them all together to almost challenge people in a way. To say, all of these things can fit together in the same world and guess what, it’s not embarrassing, it’s not weird, it’s not guilty pleasures, it’s just music.”

For me, I am kind of trying to push a little bit of an idea that all pop music should be valued, in some way. I try to get into things. I try to like music. When I find music I don’t like, I at least try to appreciate it. I believe all music has different intentions, and I think sometimes people forget that. You can’t evaluate Radiohead on the same level that you evaluate Kelly Clarkson on the same level that you evaluate Young Jeezy. But it doesn’t mean that they’re all not excellent at what they’re doing. Everyone has their own intention. Radiohead wants to be perceived as a brainy, artsy band, and they are. And Young Jeezy wants to be perceived as a popstar rapper who’s hard, and he is. They’re excelling at what they’re trying to do. So with my music I’m trying to break down all those barriers and throw them all together to almost challenge people in a way. To say, all of these things can fit together in the same world and guess what, it’s not embarrassing, it’s not weird, it’s not guilty pleasures, it’s just music.

I think that’s how I view music, and I think it’s implied. I meet people who hate all the source material, but like the music and that’s awesome for me. This is how I feel, but I’m not expecting anyone to be brainwashed into thinking about music in the exact same way that I do, but at the same time, it’s implied in what I’m doing. With any musician, they’re influences is implied deep down in the work.

And the whole idea of originality is why I love making these records where some people really just love them as original pieces of music, and for some people are on the fence — is this original, is this not, who owns this. I think that whole idea brings up a debate and that’s interesting to me. I don’t think there is an absolute answer. If you hate what I’m doing and think that I’m stealing from people, that’s fine, that’s your opinion, but at least I’m trying to push something out there that’s conceptually challenging to people.

Most of my favorite artists are bands that have challenged various aspects of music. People that make interesting pop music, but at the same time, causes debates and breaks down things in music, introduced different ideas in music, make people think about music in a totally different way than they thought before. So that’s definitely what I go for with music. I want to make something that’s a fun, party record but I also want to make something that’s challenging conceptually to people.

Well, I definitely think that’s the case. I’ve heard you cite ‘fair use’ as a reason you haven’t been challenged legally with music, but do you think that a reason artists haven’t come after you is because maybe they feel the same way as you? All music needs to be appreciated?
Yeah, I mean it’s definitely a potential thing. In an ideal world, that would be the case. People hear my records and they believe it’s transformative and they believe the music that I’m making is not negatively impacting their sales or their product or their whatever.

If you take a step back, you see that all music has influence. You can take any band and say, ‘oh, they have they guitar tone of the MC5 or the energy of Nirvana or a rhythm section that’s like Yes!,’ or whatever, you know what I mean? I think pull from everywhere. I don’t think there’s any real difference between playing a guitar, which is an instrument, to make your own instrument by playing someone else’s, manipulating the background and trying to make something new out of it. I think it’s very similar to taking a physical recording and manipulating it and changing it around to make something new out of it.

The world has changed heavily in the past 5-10 years, especially with this Youtube culture. I think a lot of musicians and artists can look out there and constantly see material that’s based on pre-existing media. Whether it’s home made videos on Youtube or remixes or taking CNN clips and autotuning them to make a joke out of them, there’s so much stuff on Youtube that’s based on taking something that exists already, and manipulating it and making something brilliant out of it. I think to a lot of people, that idea to take a pre-existing media being able to be manipulated to make something new is not foreign. We’re surrounded by it. Which is different that 10-15 years ago before the internet was as crazy as it is now. I think the idea of manipulating samples and remixing other people’s music was kind of a radical idea, and I don’t think that it’s necessarily like that anymore.

It seems like you’re taking this idea of manipulating music and applying it to the world, more than just the music world. Would you say that’s true?
Yeah, I think it relates to everything — heavily in sciences. But I’m not anti-copyright. I don’t think that people should be able to take something that someone else made, resell it and repackage it, and put their own name on it. But at the same time, I think in sciences, art, music, anything, there is definitely a stronghold where certain aspects of copyright has gotten out of control. I think it took awhile for it to become apparent, but I think in this internet culture we’re so used to sharing and borrowing and ideas flowing so quickly and emails and Youtubes and responses and people just collaborating on that level, I think it’s becoming apparent that certain aspects of copyright are holding things back.

I definitely think science is like that. People hold copyright on certain things and that makes it difficult for other people to build on this idea. Whereas if there was more of a fair use idea and if people could manipulate people’s ideas to try and make something new out of it, then I think things would move a lot quicker. But science is a business. People do do it for fun and because they’re interested, but it’s a business just like music is a business and just like all of that.

And in my mind, it’s even more so the business of music. A lot of people just do music for fun, that’s how I got started, but many people don’t just do science for fun. Many people do science because there is a paycheck involved. So when you’re working at this company as an engineer and you might have this idea or this angle on a certain idea but there’s copyright on it so you’ll have to work you way around it, there’s no point exploring it any further because there’s going to be a hierarchy of people above you saying that is forbidden, or that idea is already held down so we can’t move forward on that, and that’s it.

So I think it impacts all aspects of our lives. Anything that copyright has a part in.

Is that one of the reasons you went the route you did for releasing your Feed the Animals? The ‘pay whatever you want’ model?
In my mind, it was the most efficient way to do it, to be honest. It was the sort of thing where I feel that we should be able to sell these CDs the way that anyone sells their CDs. I don’t see anything wrong with selling CDs. I love going to Best Buy and buying CDs. I love that experience. I love looking through used CDs. That whole culture. I love it.

So when I put together the record I would take a step back and look at it and ask, ‘do I truly believe this is transformative? Do I truly believe I’m not negatively impacting anyone’s sales? This isn’t hurting anyone?’ And if the answer is yes, then I feel comfortable with it and I want to press it on CD and sell it the way everyone sells their CDs. I put work into this the same way that any musician puts work into it. But I think the pay what you want model was just something that, I am attached to the internet, just like most people. And when an album comes out, it jumps on the internet, and the majority of the people who are going to listen to that album get it through the internet and it’s available for free on file sharing networks and this and that. Which is cool, because that’s part of the reason I’ve had the success that I’ve had and the reason many of my musician friends have had the level of success they’ve had. Music being distrubuted, people hearing it, getting covered everywhere, you know it’s reason the shows are the size that they are, and it’s great. So, I wanted to embrace that rather than ignore it. So I just thought that I’ve always been pretty upfront about things with the people I push my music on, so I just wanted to say to the fans who buy the music or download the music, ‘we know you can get this for free and go ahead if you want to, but also, we’re selling it, so if you want to participate in that experience you go ahead and do that.’ It’s an upfront way to deal with it, as opposed to pressing a CD and turning my head and pretending that downloading things doesn’t exist. That’s why we did it.

Is there a new album coming soon?
Yeah. For the last album, I took three weeks off to start developing it and getting it going. So this year, starting in June, I’m taking three months off of shows, which I haven’t really done in the past few years, to start working on the next album. I have some ideas of where it’s going to go, and it’s impossible to predict how fast my work pace will be, you know. But, it could be done at the end of summer, I highly doubt that, but I’m going to take these three months to get the ball rolling. I’m guessing by the end of the year or early next year would be the goal. I have a lot of ideas and material and most of the show material is the new material.

Yeah, so I saw you last year in Des Moines, so will this show be different?
It’s always different. It’s difficult though, because every night could be a completely new show, or at least a year later could be a new show. It’s always tough to know who came out to what show, or how familiar the audience is, and there’s always a large chunk of the audience who wants to hear album material or remixes of album material. So I’m always trying to strike a balance between playing some stuff I played last time with a new take on it, or playing some stuff from the album, but yeah there’s a bulk of new material. I try to put that pressure on myself to mix things up because I’ll meet people who will say that it’s their sixth show this year, so I’ll think, wow I have to keep this moving and keep those people entertained.

Last question — thoughts on Iowa City?
I always remember Iowa City because in 2008, when I was on tour with Dan Deacon, we passed through on one of the final nights of the tour. We were all celebrating, and we went to someone’s apartment that night with a bunch of people we met and had a really rowdy day in general. The tour was winding down. So that’s always the picture I have of Iowa City — a house party we went to that completely sealed the deal on that tour, wrapped it up perfectly. That’s always what flashes through my mind.

About Adam B Sullivan

Adam B Sullivan is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Iowan. Find him on twitter and facebook.


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