Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis)
MONA FOMA, Hobart
Sunny, with a brisk wind off the bay
Hobart is littered with MONA FOMA programmes, and I pick one up to check the time of Girl Talk’s gig. It falls neatly open to a centrefold—Gregg Gillis himself, shirtless and frolicking in the grass. Across the photo, someone has scrawled in underlined capital letters, GIRL TALK WAS SPOTTED ON THE FERRY TO MONA THIS WEDNESDAY!!!
It’s the low-key festival equivalent of a paparazzi photo, or a teenage diary entry with hearts bubbling over the i’s; I’m mostly impressed that someone recognised him fully clothed in the middle of the day. But though Gillis might at first glance seem an unlikely pinup, the science-nerd-turned-remix-superstar inspires early-Brad-Pitt-level devotion from an ever-broadening base of fans.
At his gig that night, it’s easy to see why. Within 30 seconds of his taking the stage, the studiously nonchalant crowd has whipped itself into a hysterical frenzy, batting around rolls of toilet paper that appear out of nowhere and shrieking with nostalgic pleasure whenever Gillis drops in a particularly recognisable hook. A net full of balloons is nestled amongst the rafters, and the light show is making me glad I’m not epileptic. The shirt comes off, the crowd goes wild, and the look on Girl Talk’s face is one of pure, unalloyed joy.
JESSICA: Do you see yourself doing this music for the rest of your life, or do you think you’ll return to biomedical engineering at some point?
GIRL TALK: I think I will do music for the rest of my life, but I don’t know if it will be a profession. So I could definitely see getting back and doing biomedical engineering at some point. I mean, I know I would like to slow down touring at some point in the near future. It’s been an incredibly fun four years of not working but you know, there’s something to be said for being home all the time, and seeing your family, and friends on a regular basis and all of those things, so there’s definitely some positive aspects about the idea of getting a nine-to-five biomedical engineering job again.
Do you miss working in the sciences, or is there enough of an engineering component in putting the songs together to keep you happy?
Yeah, I don’t… you know, I’m fascinated by what I studied, and I’m interested, but I don’t even keep up with it that much… But I do feel like the nature of what I do as Girl Talk and the nature of the engineering job are relatively similar. You know, it’s me staring at a computer and working on very detailed processes, it’s very meticulous, a lot of times it’s just labouring over very small bits and pieces. It’s all problem-solving, or coming up with an idea, or trying to figure out how something works, and building upon smaller ideas.
I’m just wondering, how did you get into that field in the first place? You were saying you were passionate about music throughout your childhood, and then it seems like you took a really sharp right turn and now have come back to it.
How I got involved in the music?
Actually how you got involved in the sciences as an engineer.
Oh yeah. I would say, when I was growing up, I always did well in school in math and sciences, when I started to get really involved in music, a lot of the bands I looked up to were people who did go to college, or currently were in college, or had a job or whatever… I was making music back then and I played shows all the time but it never really generated one dime. I think when you’re looking up to people, your favourite musicians are going to school or have more traditional style jobs, it’s kind of where I fell in line. I’d concentrate on school and the goal was always to go to college and get a job… I think, like a lot of kids, you have to pick a major when you’re eighteen years old and you don’t truly know what you’re interested in, but you kind of have an idea of what you did well in school at, so I just kind of picked biomedical engineering because a lot of people who were in classes with me or shared similar kind of academic experiences in high school went into engineering… so I figured that would be a logical thing to get into.
The whole engineering thing, it was always like, that’s the focus, you know, there’s no way I’m going to sacrifice anything for the music if it’s going to hurt the school. When I went to school, I put out two records and toured and all of that, but I spent almost all of my free time studying. I definitely wasn’t blowing anything off in college for Girl Talk ever, so you know when I got the job afterwards, again, it was like things are on track, it’s kind of the way I imagined it and when I had the day job just playing shows and all of that, it’s kind of the way I planned it out I guess.
I’m interested in this idea of the trajectory, though, talking about the trajectory of going to school and getting a job, and kind of… it seems like that narrative stops once you have the job, and then that’s the rest of your life. And I was thinking that something like biomedical engineering… one of the reasons I was asking about it was a) because it seems like kind of an odd thing to juggle with the arts, and b) because it feels like the sort of field where you take five or ten years out and it might be very very difficult to return to.
Yeah, yeah. It’s definitely a concern. It would be very weird to have to kind of transition back into it, and it is a very bizarre thing to me to put in so much effort into a four-year period, or your whole life kind of having this trajectory in mind that was basically on path and you put in all this effort to like, getting this degree and it’s been years of building and working in school and all of a sudden, you’re in the field and you’re working the job for two years and this other thing that’s always just been fun for you, a side thing, all of a sudden kind of blows up out of nowhere, and it’s you know… quitting the job… it was a lot for me to stomach. Like, it’s hard for me to believe that I could actually quit the job.
So it’s definitely a question mark for the future. Again, you know, I try not to be so concerned about it ‘til I get to that point but, ten years down the road I have no idea what I’m going to be involved with, and up to this point when I do make money touring and all that, I’m pretty conservative with it. It’s just knowing that I don’t want to have to worry about sameness, I don’t know what the job will be and it’s… I don’t know… I just feel like things happen and there’s many tangents in life, and something will come along or it will kind of explain itself at some point.
Yeah, it’s funny that you should mention being conservative with money, because I was just watching Rip before, re-watching it, and it feels like the world that doco was describing is already gone… It came out in 2008, you had maybe just quit your job?
And it was talking about a world of corporations, that had already started to crumble.
Right, yeah… Especially now, because like the economy is so rough and I think the future’s unknown for a lot of people and I think it’s the climate right now to be conservative with the money, and you know, it’s bizarre because I feel like my business has been relatively booming over the past few years and I have never…
There’s never been a show where it’s been like, “Well, the economy’s bad so tickets didn’t sell,” you know? I feel fortunate for that,
because even at my job actually, when I quit, right around the time there was potential for people losing their jobs, and I know they were kind of cutting back, and some projects were starting to disappear, and they were kind of suggesting to us to look for other positions within the company. I didn’t quit because of that at all, but it was definitely in the air, and that was definitely kind of I feel like the beginning of you know, this recession that you know, went down over the next few years.
Yeah, it’s interesting—we’ve heard economists talking a lot about the lipstick indicator in the last couple of years—that women ostensibly buy more lipstick in a recession, because it’s a small luxury. And your shows are quite hedonistic… maybe there’s something to that?
Yeah, I mean maybe… I don’t know, I don’t keep up with ticket sales as a whole, so I don’t know if my shows have been doing well but in general the industry’s been dipping, or not… There’s a lot of young music that comes out right now, and I know many bands are doing pretty well touring. I think that’s something. And I think the show is something that—this was never really the game plan, but once it got bigger I think it was an interesting outlet for people. I’d never come from a dance/DJ background; I’d never DJed in clubs, I’d never even referred to this project as a ‘DJ’ thing, I’d never sat in a DJ booth—it was always like a concert. So I think the shows allowed a lot of people who maybe don’t typically go out dancing, or go out partying, to go to an event that’s somewhere between a concert, where you can go watch this person perform live and see a show, and also somewhere that’s social, where people are going to be dancing and going crazy and ripping off their clothes and all of those things.
My shows have always had a kind of a free-for-all environment—you can crowd-surf, you can go nuts, you can jump on stage, you can do whatever you want, in that rock-show kind of style. There’s that energy where there are really no rules to what you’re supposed to be doing; but you know, ultimately, people are partying and celebrating. I think that was something that musically people got interested in—but also the show just turned into its own creature, outside of even the music. People just knew it as this event, and it got a reputation for being almost like a travelling house party that you could go to. And that’s always the vibe I wanted with the show, so when they grew larger I was happy to try to usher that in, and make them as festive and debaucherous as possible. So yeah, I think that kind of was something that came as an outlet for people, or something new, just a different alternative, a way that they could party.
I went to one of the shows in Melbourne, I guess it must have been your first Australian tour, 2007 or 2008, and I was trying to explain to my husband recently what the show was like, and he said, “So this guy just presses play on a laptop, and everyone dances?” and I said, “Yeah, and it’s wonderful.”
[Laughs] You know, I feel like the show, for me it’s like—a lot of people who see it, a lot of people don’t necessarily get the reference points of what it comes out of. This all evolved out of a live electronic music thing—it’s always been a big thing for me to do every sample by hand, for it to be a live show. I can’t imagine that there are very many bands putting in the amount of rehearsal time that it takes me to prepare for a show. I’ll be dropping four hundred samples in an hour and I’ll have to have them memorised, and it’s very intricate… I play shows every week or every day, but before every show I have to sit there for hours, going over the music in pieces and getting it organised.
I feel like my history, and even the bands I was in prior to Girl Talk, it’s very rooted in borderline performance art, and pushing the boundaries of what it could be. I’ve always been fascinated by people doing weird performance, and making people think: what is original? what’s not? what qualifies as performance, what doesn’t? So that was always rooted in the show, and I think where it’s at now, and what it’s become—naturally when I get onstage and do the show, that’s still all in my mind, where it’s evolved out of, all those things. But I think to the average person, some people come out just to get drunk and party, and some people are like, “He pressed play on the laptop and partied!”, and it’s like, no, it’s a lot more to that to me, and it evolved out of something else.
But it’s all good; some people want to come and see someone play live electronic music, and other people want to go get drunk and try to hook up with someone at a show, and that’s all good.
I like that there can be these very different levels of how it’s interpreted, and also what people think of it.
Some people hate the source material, but they like the way it’s remixed. Other people love the source material. Some people think, treat it as original music. Other people think, treat it as a DJ thing. Some people love to party to it. Other people want to go on about the copyright, and the intellectual property and originality and all those things. I like having a project that can have varying levels of interpretation. Sorry, that was a very run-on answer.
That was a great answer! I am interested in this question of creativity and originality… There was a great Jonathan Lethem article a couple of years ago, The Ecstasy of Influence, and the entire thing was assembled from other peoples' essays and articles on plagiarism.
Yeah, I remember hearing about that. I’ve never actually seen it.
It’s great, you should read it. But—do you see what you do as pastiche, in kind of that Surrealist, Dadaist sense, or is it creating something new, with a completely original drive behind it?
I feel as though nothing is truly originally new, but I like walking that line—I don’t feel as though I have the answers to how original this is. But I like proposing the question. You know, ideally with the music, from a copyright point of view, I never would put something out if I didn’t think that I was using the source material in a way that’s transformative. But I think that’s at the heart of all music, you know. You could play me any band right now and we could sit down and pick apart their influences and say what it sounds like, and what the lyrical content’s like, or what the drum sounds like, you know, it’s very common. Nothing’s coming out of thin air. I think it’s possible to use preexisting music and media as your instrument, and make something out of it, but I know, especially with the newest stuff I’ve made, there’s lots of recognisable bits and samples, and there’s just so many different ways you can go about sampling.
So yeah, I feel like the goal is to make something that’s quote unquote original, but I don’t think that anything is truly original. I wanna make something that’s as new and original as any band’s music is. Just because a band sounds like they’re influenced by music by the sixties, or have a vintage sound, doesn’t mean they cant be progressive and breakthrough in some way. I feel like, any band that’s considered progressive or original or groundbreaking now, you can point to the references, and a lot of time it’s very clear that there taking elements of something from the past, and really working with that.
You mentioned copyright a couple of times… You’ve kind of become the figurehead of this Creative Commons or mash-up culture movement, particularly with the documentary Rip. Is it something that you take up the fight for, or something that you’ve just found yourself being a symbol of, in the work that you do?
It’s something I definitely never strove for—it’s something I never particularly wanted. I’ve been fascinated by the copyright aspect of it; I’m not naive, and a lot of music that really got me into doing this were things that were really pushing the envelope on a political level, you know, like John Oswald and Negativland. Those people were interested in being figureheads of changing copyright. So getting into them on a musical level first, and the politics secondary, but it was implied in what they were doing, and to be a fan of Negativland, I feel like you have to be a fan of the politics to a certain degree, and what they’re saying about copyright. But at the same time I was always a fan of doing remixes just on a musical level, from hip hop to electronic music, and all these different applications.
So when I started doing this music, it was never, like, ‘I’m gonna change copyright, I wanna be the cover boy of Copyright Magazine’ [laughs].
And especially because when you’re doing it on an underground level, the copyright issue is less exciting, until it becomes something that’s big, or could potentially be a threat, or potentially something that could bring a lawsuit with it.
So I think with something like Rip: A Remix Manifesto, that documentary, in making it—and I think it turned out great, I’m happy with the way it turned out—I didn’t necessarily know I was going to be one of the central characters. I spent a lot of time with them, but I knew they were spending time with many people. So I think—when I saw it for the first time, I was definitely surprised. Everything that I said, I believed in, but by giving me the role of one of the central characters, I feel that definitely it put me in a slightly different light than the way I intended to be seen. I definitely never intended to be the poster child of a copyright movement or anything like that. And for me, it’s a fascinating topic and I like discussing it and I like that it generates that discussion, but it’s always secondary to what the music sounds like.
Yeah, you know, it’s funny; watching the documentary, I was thinking that the world’s moved on not just in a corporate or economic sense, but philosophically—and I was trying to imagine having some of these discussions with my fourteen-year-old cousin. She’d probably think I was being totally quaint; her language is YouTube and Facebook and memes, and everything is mashed up and recycled and regurgitated.
[Laughs] Right! Right. No, it’s crazy—I just feel like there’s been such a major change in the world in the past five, ten years. It’s like, no longer do you have to convince anyone of the legitimacy of the act of the remix. It’s been verified as an artform just through this YouTube/Facebook culture.
It’s been interesting as well to see corporations jump onboard, now that it’s a youth culture movement rather than a culture jamming movement… You see Beyonce’s record label telling fans, “Make a user-generated video for ‘All the Single Ladies’ and we’ll give you ten thousand bucks.”
Riiiight. It’s funny, I see it all the time and I’m always just wondering, ‘Wow, how did it get here.’ You see it in movies—there’s mashups and remixes and things like that—I was at Best Buy the other day, and there was a station with like a CD turntable where you could mix this, and “Mash it Up!” [laughs] you know, this big advertisement. Even the word ‘mash’, at least over here, it kind of has become so popular in culture now, it’s on sports shows, or ‘mash-up the burrito at Taco Bell’ or whatever, it’s just become a thing. You know, there’s Taco Bell commercials that are like, “Do the remix!” “The remix of the value meal,” or something. It’s just kind of inherent, even the vocabulary’s just everywhere.
But then, it’s definitely existed for years, the knowledge from labels and artists and management that someone could reinterpret your work in a way that’s no competitive and it could help you out, because you know, dating back—I don’t know the first time that an instrumental or an a capella was released on vinyl, but at least in the sixties it existed, and definitely going into the seventies and eighties it became more popular say with hip-hop records, you’d always be able to get the instrumental and the B-Side on a twelve-inch single, or the a capella. And those were always there, not necessarily for people to listen to, but for DJs to cut up, or to remix. And that was always just giving people the tools to reinterpret their music, knowing that there was a chance that it might reach a new audience if someone remixes it, or if a DJ’s using it in a weird way.
It’s still a thing; the labels, when there’s a new single out, they give away the instrumental and oftentimes the a capella; the more people who do remixes of the new Beyonce song, the better for them. It’s not going to be taking sales away from them, but there’s a chance it might reach a new audience, or new people hear it. It’s just ingrained in popular culture now.
You kind of encourage that with your own work, yes? You put everything out for free, with a list of sources, that people can play with?
Yeah, I’ve done that with the last three releases. I don’t ever want it to be a secret, or anything—everything I sample is Top 40. It’s always been a goal of mine just to work with popular music, I’ve always been a fan of popular music, that’s what’s fun for me to remix. But I like if people wanna find out what the sample is, it’s nice for them to hear that. It’s never—when I’m doing the music or doing the shows—it’s never like, “I’m gonna get these kids into this music or that music,” or anything like that, but I hear from people every day, who are like, “Oh, I had never listened to Aphex Twin until I heard a sample on your song,” or “I’d never heard of Electric Light Orchestra and now I’m downloading all their music.”
So, when it’s like that—I’m a fan of everything I sample, so it’s great if kids are getting into it and for me, it’s just like putting out a published list of samples, on top of people finding out about the music, it’s fascinating for me to see all the names together. It’s never like, “More samples are better.” There’s always a line, you know, with any album… instead of being three hundred samples, it could have been a thousand. If you want to cram them in there, it doesn’t make it good or better, but as a fan of all these things, it is really fascinating to see them all together, and it is a very intricate process for me. So, people who like to nerd out on that level, I like them to be able to get in there and just look at everything that went into making the record.
I like the idea that if you really wanted to nerd out, you could recreate an entire Girl Talk album from the list.
[Laughs] Right… right. I’m sure—I could see that happening on YouTube. I’ve seen amazing things with sample-based songs, where people recreate them, like Daft Punk songs, producers will make YouTube videos of how you can recreate a Daft Punk song. And that’s fascinating, and even for someone like myself, watching someone do that can be educational and, you know, helpful—even to what I’m doing.