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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Interview with Girl Talk

Photo credits (top-bottom): Andrew Strasser, Strasser, Bridget Maniaci, Strasser

For the past year or so, Pittsburgh mashup artist Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis) has been essentially taking a victory lap, touring the world after the success of Feed the Animals, an album constructed using more than 300 samples of pop and hip hop songs. His concerts are known for their craziness, which may include giant toilet paper cannons, dozens of fans dancing onstage, and Gillis removing most of his clothes.

On Friday he returns to Pittsburgh for his biggest local show yet, a performance at the new Amphitheatre at Station Square, along with Wiz Khalifa, Grand Buffet, and a host of other prominent local acts. We gave Gregg a call to discuss the upcoming show, laptop breaking incidents, and the MC Hammer effect.

Your show on Friday is pretty much a who’s who of Pittsburgh music. How did this lineup come together?
We had a couple of different ideas for a summer show. One of them was more of a national festival, and then that fell through. The next idea was a smaller national festival, and while I was coming up with a list of Pittsburgh bands that I would want to have involved, it kind of came to light that it might just be cool to have it be an all-Pittsburgh thing. So I sent Mike Sanders (of Opus One) a list of 20 bands that I’d be happy with, and he went through and kind of picked out his handful of favorites. Everyone we picked was able to do it, which was a cool thing.

The venue you’re playing on Friday is much larger than some you’ve played here in the past. Are you concerned about the size of the venue hurting the party atmosphere at all?
Sure, that’s always a concern, especially in Pittsburgh where a lot of people have seen me over the years in different size venues. But this summer has been almost exclusively festivals, so this will actually be one of the more intimate shows of the past two or three months.

I feel like it’s easy to start catering the set musically and visually to the festival crowd. You learn certain things each trip out, and we’ve been fine-tuning the whole process. Our set for the larger outdoor crowd is at a point that I’m very confident with. When I first started doing festivals a couple years ago I was a little paranoid about that because I was used to doing smaller club shows, but I think it’s gone really great over the years.

How much time do you get to spend in Pittsburgh these days?
This summer I’ve been doing festival shows, and those have almost all been on weekends. So I’m usually here Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then flying out for the weekend festival thing. I’m still spending a lot of time here and just occasionally doing more extended tours. In the spring I did a month straight of college shows, and last fall I did a month and half around the U.S. But I’m spending at least half of my time here.

Do you get recognized on the street often?
Occasionally. I get excited when it goes down. In other parts of the country, I’m pretty anonymous. Even outside of my shows on the last tour, a lot of times we were doing a video blog, and a few of those days I’d go outside and there’d be a line for the show and I’d go interview people, and most of the time no one would have any idea who I was.

A lot of your early shows were in people’s basements. What do you remember most about those shows?
A whole different level of intensity. It’s definitely easier to perform when you have people buying tickets and they’re excited to be a part of what’s happening. Back then I played a lot of art galleries, a lot of basements, and the majority of the time I was opening for someone. Or if it was my own show, it was hard to get people to come out. Obviously with that level of intimacy it’s easy to communicate with people. But there were many of those shows where people didn’t want to be there or had already made up their mind that they weren’t going to have a good time. So those shows can be very mentally tough, especially when you do lots of them.

There was so much chaos back then, just touring around, showing up at venues where people forgot they booked your show, fights breaking out, people trying to unplug you while you’re playing, just so much insanity. I look back fondly on it but there’s definitely a lot of dark moments scattered throughout.

You’ve said that none of your samples are ironic - they’re all songs you like. Can you talk about the concept of taking songs by Hall & Oates or Rick Springfield that people might not like and putting them together into something that people want to dance to?

The bottom line is, I never want to play someone’s song. I don’t want anyone to hear a Girl Talk record or go to a show and say, ‘Oh, he played Jessie’s Girl.’ I do use it, but I don’t want people to hear it as me presenting the song. Part of the appeal is that I will manipulate the song and it’s recognizable, but ideally put in a new context, enough so that it has a new identity.

I like all the music that I sample but I’m also very fascinated by the act of recontextualization. It’s fun to hear pop songs mangled, sped up or slowed down. Even if you hate this particular song, it’s fun to hear it manipulated. A lot of these songs are classics and they’re kind of untouchable. You hear them all over the place, they’re staples in your lives, so it’s an appealing idea to take those familiar elements and beat them up a little bit.

It’s funny, now when I hear songs you’ve sampled, for instance when Since U Been Gone comes on the radio, I think, Where’s the MC Hammer part? It’s like your song has become the definitive version.
(Laughs). I take that as the ultimate compliment. I owe a lot to the people I sample, and obviously it’s recognizable to a degree, but ideally that would be the endpoint, where it does become a new entity and it becomes its own song.

You’ve gotten mostly positive feedback from the artists you’ve sampled, right? What’s the most positive reaction you’ve heard?
Yeah, I haven’t had any legal problems, and no one’s reached out and said anything on the negative side. On the positive side, I had Big Boi from OutKast saying it was cool. He rolled out to a show of mine in Atlanta and actually helped the guy who was running my visuals that night just because he ended up next to him. I met him after a show and he said he’d seen me in Las Vegas and knew my stuff. It was an honor that he would come out to this club on a Saturday night to check out what I was doing.

Outside of that, I’ve heard cool things from Sophie B. Hawkins, who went on record and said that she was a fan of my work and liked the way I worked her sample. So that was cool. And a handful of people reaching out on MySpace and things like that. No one really has a problem with it.

Have you started the next album yet?
I haven’t started putting it together. I’m always working on new material. How I’ve been working over the past few years is I sit down and try to build new material for the live show, and then just make subtle changes every few weeks, just changing a few minutes of the set, and that goes on to heavily impact what will be on the album.

In preparing for this Pittsburgh show I was looking back at my last set from when I was here, just looking to see what I played and to try to mix it up a little bit. Even looking back to November, I feel like I have a whole new set of material. Sitting down to actually edit it together is a whole other process that takes a lot of time and actually slows me down from building new material for the show.

There’s no official timeline yet. I’m really excited about all the music I’m working on, and I’m excited where the set’s at right now.

Finally, what happens if your laptop crashes? Is there an emergency laptop in the wings?
Yeah, I have two up there. Primarily I use one, it’s all live sample triggering on one computer, so the other one’s up there strictly for backup. It’s happened maybe twice over the past three years. And it’s not even necessarily a crash - the computer might be broken or something like that.

If both went down, I really wouldn’t know what to do (laughs). But I invest in some of those Panasonic Toughbooks. They’re kind of difficult to break. I would be very impressed with myself if I was able to break two in one show.

Girl Talk performs Friday, July 31 at the Amphitheatre at Station Square with Don Caballero, Wiz Khalifa, Grand Buffet, Modey Lemon, Donora, Centipede E'est, and DJ Kendall.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Horse's Ha to play Thunderbird Cafe

On Monday, the Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville will host The Horse's Ha, a Chicago-based folk act led by James Elkington and Janet Beveridge Bean. Touring behind their debut release Of The Cathmawr Yards, the band crafts quiet, moody songs that will fit in perfectly with the intimate, low-key setting at the Thunderbird.

MP3: The Horse's Ha - Asleep in a Waterfall
MP3: The Horse's Ha - The Piss Choir

Check out the band's MySpace for more, including the gem "Map of Stars": http://www.myspace.com/horsesha

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A few of the best Pitchfork videos

Some of the more interesting videos from the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival I've found on YouTube...

Video: Matt & Kim - "Daylight"

Video: Flaming Lips - "She Don't Use Jelly/Do You Realize?"

Video: Japandroids - "The Boys are Leaving Town"

Video: Final Fantasy - "This Lamb Sells Condos"

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Flaming Lips rule Pitchfork

The Flaming Lips

CONCERT REVIEW: Pitchfork Music Festival
July 18-19, 2009

Union Park, Chicago

The Flaming Lips'
raucous live show highlighted an entertaining 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival this weekend at Chicago's Union Park.

The Lips' Sunday evening set ended the event with a bang. There were the requisite giant balloons and confetti cannons, and singer Wayne Coyne walking through the crowd in a giant rubber ball.

Coyne says hello to the adoring crowd

The Lips were supposed to play the fans' most requested songs, but they took some liberties at times. Coyne would say, "That song was #66, but we know you wanted to hear it." They did play the top four requests - "Yoshimi," "She Don't use Jelly," "Fight Test," and "Do You Realize?"

On several occasions Coyne had to encourage the passive Pitchfork audience to get excited, and they obliged. The Lips played for only 75 minutes because of the city's 10 pm quiet ordinance, but that was long enough to deliver the weekend's most memorable performance.

Just before the Flaming Lips, Grizzly Bear delivered a satisfying set of some of their most exquisite songs, including "Two Weeks" and "Cheerleader." Forty-five minutes seems to be the perfect length for a Grizzly Bear performance, as their music requires a great deal of patience and anything longer would be pushing it.

Sunday's other excellent show came from the Japandroids, a manic garage rock two-piece from Vancouver. Many of their songs consisted of only a couple of lyrics repeated over and over, but their ferocious delivery was enough to captivate.

The Japandroids kick ass

The Mae Shi were a disappointment, delivering an unfocused performance that was at times bizarre. It took them 15 minutes to play something discernable as a song. Then later, they tossed a parachute into the audience, causing many to believe that some stage diving may be forthcoming. Instead, they did nothing at all with the parachute, and took it back from the crowd just minutes later. They did close on a high note with their best track, "Run to Your Grave."

MP3: The Mae Shi - Run To Your Grave (live @ Pitchfork 7-19-09)
[*This is coming as soon as mydatabus gets their shit together]

The Mae Shi sing about sleeping in your tomb

Elsewhere on Sunday, Pharoahe Monch brought hip hop to the hipsters, with "My Life" and "Desire" especially standing out due to his soulful background vocalists. Frightened Rabbit's acclaimed emotional rock came off as bland at first but the energy picked up as they went along. M83's dreamy electropop was the perfect late afternoon soundtrack, Blitzen Trapper weren't remotely interesting, and Vivian Girls provided proof that punk rock can indeed be boring.

Pharoahe Monch tries to fire up the crowd

Saturday's best performance was delivered courtesy of The Duchess & The Duke, a duo with an indie rock sound and folk sensibility. Their soothing harmonies were complemented nicely by a string section for "I Am Just a Ghost," which may have been the best individual song performance of the weekend.

Royalty in action - The Duchess & The Duke

Earnest and adorable, indie popsters Matt & Kim triumphed with a lightning-fast set of their sugar-sweet pop songs. Newer tracks "Good Ol' Fashioned Nightmare" and "Daylight" were received just as well as older favorites "Yea Yeah" and "5K."

You cannot help but love Matt & Kim!

Final Fantasy also delivered a standout performance. Owen Pallett performed by himself for most of the set, using violin and keyboard to record musical phrases and looping them over top of each other to build stunning crescendos.

A Final Fantasy masterpiece in progress

The much-anticipated performance by Fucked Up turned out to be a letdown, thanks to the freak show behavior of frontman Pink Eyes, who only bothered to sing about every third line. Whenever a beach ball came near he stopped singing so he could rip open the ball with his teeth. His sideshow act was entertaining for about five minutes, then ultimately became annoying as his band performed brilliantly behind him but he was more interested in making people laugh than in actually performing.

Fucked Up, in a rare moment where Pink Eyes was singing

Saturday headliners The National were rock-solid as usual, closing with a stellar "Mr. November." Black Lips offered some catchy rock choruses but weren't as entertaining. Yeasayer's combination of world and electronic music was tempting. High-energy rock band Ponytail didn't quite live up to all their hype, Norwegian DJ Lindstrom found his groove after a very sluggish start, and Bowerbirds' quiet songs didn't translate well to the festival environment.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It's Pitchfork time

I'm in Chicago, ready for my first Pitchfork Music festival experience. I haven't had a lot of time to familiarize myself with all the bands since I've been on the road all summer, so I'll be watching a lot of them without knowing what to expect. Which is cool. The clean slate phenomenon.

I've heard they'll be giving out free ice cream. I am totally down with that!

The Mae Shi

The 5 bands I'm most looking forward to seeing:
1. Matt & Kim
2. Flaming Lips
3. The Mae Shi
4. Grizzly Bear
5. Fucked Up

A full report will follow on Monday!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Hold Steady reclaim Minneapolis


CONCERT REVIEW: Basilica Block Party
July 11, 2009

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Let's face it, seeing the Hold Steady play live anywhere is a treat, but seeing them play in the city where they got their start, the city whose streets are referenced in numerous Hold Steady songs? That's pretty damn special. They rocked day 2 of the Basilica Block Party last night in Minneapolis.

I had intended to only catch 30 minutes of the Hold Steady's set before sprinting over to see the Counting Crows, but of course once Craig Finn and his bandmates took the stage, there was no way I was leaving. Finn did his outrageous lyrical miming like a charades player on crack, while keyboardist Franz Nicolay is becoming a madman onstage, jumping around with unbridled enthusiasm that was conspicuously absent the last time I saw the band.

I'm also realizing that Tad Kubler is one of the best guitarists in rock music. He's so low-key, I hadn't noticed this until recently. But when you see the Hold Steady play, Kubler is always the unsung hero of the show.

The setlist was a joy, starting with "Constructive Summer," a song that somehow gets better every time I hear it, and also including such favorites as "Massive Nights," "Stay Positive," "Chips Ahoy!" and "Southtown Girls." Nicolay's mike was noticably louder than at previous THS shows - the band has apparently (wisely) decided its background vocals should be more prominent.

As THS walked offstage, it was time to walk over to catch the Counting Crows. They're a tricky band because some of their songs are brilliant and others are incredibly boring. When I arrived at the Crows' stage I was greeted with a couple of the boring ones. A shockingly lifeless "Mr. Jones" was next, with Adam Duritz singing in a manner that suggested he's sung the song 5000 times before and no longer gives a shit.

The Crows did come alive for a spirited "Hangingaround," which featured a few dozen audience members dancing onstage, and for the encore of "Rain King," which rocked even though Duritz inserted an odd 2-minute piano section into the middle of the song.

Matt Nathanson opened for the Crows. His set included two strange covers - Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" and James' "Laid," both of which are probably best left to karaoke enthusiasts. His banter was entertaining - he introduced one song by saying that he wrote it for Miley Cyrus, to help her resolve her existential crisis as Hannah Montana.

The evening's first act was Texas band Green River Ordinance, who provided a satisfying brand of Our Lady Peace-meets-All-American Rejects mainstream rock n roll. Their lyrics need a bit of work - the chorus of one song was a trite, cliched "Don't give up on my love." But they showed enough promise with fun songs like "Goodbye L.A."

I have to comment about the logistics of the festival. This was the most poorly laid-out fest I've ever seen. There simply wasn't enough room around the stages for all the fans. They tried to fit 7,000 fans around stages that were meant for 2,000. During Matt Nathanson's set it was utterly impossible to move until you got all the way back to the food vendors - where you could no longer hear the music. This festival either needs to find a different venue, or bring in smaller acts so that people can actually breathe.

Also, you can't buy food with cash here. They have an incredibly bogus system where you purchase tickets, then use those tickets to buy your food. I felt like I was at Chuck E. Cheese. Of course this is a ripoff because you don't know in advance how many tickets you're going to need, so inevitably you purchase too many and end up losing money on the deal. I've never seen anything like this at a concert, but folks told me it was common here. Maybe it's a Minnesota thing.

Previous Summer Road Trip reviews:
7/4 Blake Shelton & Bucky Covington
6/23 Andrew W.K. & The Evaporators
6/19 Carbon Leaf
6/6 Peaches
6/3 Green Day
5/1-3 Beale Street Music Festival

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

John Mayer at the Michael Jackson memorial

I'm just now catching up on the performances at Michael Jackson's memorial today. One of my favorites was John Mayer's "Human Nature."

Monday, July 6, 2009

The veterans got overshadowed by the Trailer Choir


CONCERT REVIEW: Blake Shelton, Bucky Covington & Trailer Choir

Greeley Stampede

Greeley, Colorado

July 4, 2009

How the hell did I end up at a hardcore country concert at a rodeo in Greeley, Colorado on July 4? Well, sometimes the road trip takes us to unexpected places. And so it was that we sat among hundreds of country hat-wearing rednecks to take in a show by Blake Shelton and Bucky Covington.

I don’t know any of Shelton’s songs, but he put on a decent show. The highlight was when he brought out Miranda Lambert, of “Gunpowder & Lead” fame, for a duet. It’s hard to believe that someone like Lambert would make the trip all the way to Greeley just to appear on one song. And it wasn’t even a true duet – she only sang harmony!

Unfortunately for Shelton, Lambert’s appearance overshadowed his show, because many of us in attendance would’ve preferred to watch Lambert perform instead.

Opener Bucky Covington brought plenty of energy to the stage but relied too heavily on material that was not his own. Dude, you’re supposed to get the crowd to sing along to your songs, not the covers! But he was once a contestant on American Idol – I guess performing covers is in his blood.

The best act I witnessed was one that performed outside the rodeo on the free stage - a six-person ensemble known as Trailer Choir, featuring a rocker frontman, a hottie chick on harmony vocals and a 380-pound overall-wearing harmony vocalist who dances around like a madman. At first they appeared to be a novelty act, singing songs like “Beer Gut,” about dating a woman and not caring that “she’s rocking the beer gut.”

But they quickly showed plenty of substance. The huge guy can really sing, and so can the girl, nicknamed Fergie McClampet, who shined on a country-fied remake of “I Will Survive.” The band performed several tracks they wrote themselves, such as “What Would You Say,” about the mining accident in Sago, West Virginia in 2006.

This group reminded me an awful lot of a Pittsburgh band called the PovertyNeck Hillbillies. That group had all the potential in the world but signed with a tiny record company, then their album fizzled and they broke up. Trailer Choir are signed to Toby Keith’s label, so that should give them enough cred to break through and become stars. Based on what I saw, they’re worthy of that accomplishment.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Camera Obscura @ Mr. Small's

Congratulations to Shannon C. of Pittsburgh, who was the winner in our Camera Obscura ticket giveaway. The show was on Tuesday night at Mr. Small's. These photos from the show are courtesy of Hugh at HughshowsRedux.