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.