In a matter of days Girl Talk will touch down in Australia for Big Day Out 2012 as well as a couple of headline gigs. In the lead up to his imminent arrival Al Newstead got the man behind the moniker, Gregg Gillis, on the phone to discuss the intricacies of sample selection, his reluctant acceptance of crowd barricades, and what to expect for his live set…
There would be few artists who would forgive a hungover interviewer like mash-up maestro Girl Talk, particularly when the cause is a celebratory night on the town after seeing Steely Dan.
“Oh! Were they good? They’re a cool band, they’ve done so much great stuff. I have sampled some drums, not melodies or anything, just some subtle stuff. One of my favourite samples is from them, used by Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz [whose 1997 hit Déjà vu samples 1977 Aja opener “Black Cow”]. That is one of the coolest samples and they worked it so well, in my top 20 samples in hip-hop music of all time.”
Even casual conversation with Gillis makes evident his encyclopedic knowledge of popular music and giddy enthusiasm for its potential use and celebratory power – something that anyone who has heard his dazzling pop alchemy or seen one of his gigs-come-party-raves can attest to. And let’s be honest, that’s an ever- quotient of people. If you’ve got an internet connection, you know Girl Talk.
His transition from mild-mannered biomedical engineer to a full-time cultural jammer is well-documented. The canvas of his albums – essentially extended mixtapes – is the complete tawdry history of 20th century pop music transformed into a hectic game of ‘spot the sample.’ However, it would be unfair to say that anything and everything is susceptible to his configurations, in fact, it speaks volumes when he’s quizzed whether anything is considered a ‘no-go’ zone.
“No, to me it’s my favourite stuff, what you love when you were young or more personal music. Like Nirvana or Public Enemy. There’s others… I’m a little bit more apprehensive with because of their status.”
So what marks the distinction?
“Well, if I want to use Nirvana, I feel comfortable because I’m a hardcore fan and I understand them inside out, I know how appropriate it is or isn’t to use. Others though, classics like The Beatles, I want to make sure I understand what the song means to everyone.”
The Girl Talk live show is all about what the ‘song means to everyone,’ a testament to the power of music, not as a performance but as a pure experience. Unburdened from its history, its context, and most significantly – it’s appropriate use. It’s not about exploitation, but celebration; an equal-rights statement that just so happens to translate to a great party: a delirious spectacle of sweaty heaving bodies, who usually end up invading the stage while Gillis strips to his undies in salutation.
It’s quite the sight to behold, and for those that caught it at the Big Day Out, they’ll be delighted to know that Girl Talk is set to return for the national festival in 2012. Gillis confirms “I have to say that [the last one] was hands down the most fun tour I’ve ever done.”
So what can punters expect from the show this time around?
“In the last couple of years I’ve been putting a lot of effort in the show to fit a festival scale, more props, people, lighting and visuals – just making it bigger, so it’s always ready for that size.”
Hasn’t the appeal of his smaller club shows, the ramshackle moments of chaotic abandon, been difficult to achieve in a festival setting?
“I know that people might prefer the smaller clubs and the more intimate show. But naturally, I think when the shows got a little bigger we had to refine it. For years I asked for no barricades, letting all the kids on stage for a free-for-all; but at some point it started getting to a size where it just became a problem; and it’s like ‘ok, this is not safe.’ That’s the constant over the last couple of years – It’s definitely become a bit more orchestrated. I never had cues once… now we’ll say “balloons here, The Strokes here, videos here” and tightening all that up.”
“It’s become a team effort to really make a big impact and the shows with that attitude are some of the best we’ve done. Chopping off all the sloppy aspects and still making it a spectacle as well, while still feeling chaotic.”
While the scale has indeed increased, the irony of his core philosophy, “just a guy with a laptop,” remains: “That’s always been the goal, I like the idea conceptually of someone that remixes with a laptop but provides this mini-kitsch arena show. That’s been the goal of the last ten years and more and more we’re realising that idea.”
Gillis’ vision of organised chaos – complete with a dazzling lightshow, impromptu dancers and toilet-paper cannons – coalesces with the spectacle of his music, his unique gift in divining startlingly creative constellations from old stars. It’s been enough to make Girl Talk a household name for the iPod generation and he’s fast becoming (if not already become) one of the most interesting figures in popular music. His indelible juxtapositions and musical recycling are divisive, to the postmodernists, he’s an endlessly fascinating subject; while to the legal system, he’s a notorious plagiarist.
But all this baggage has never been a burden that Girl Talk bothers to bear, at that moment when he launches balloons to the strains of Lennon’s Imagine, he is, to the reams of fans who flock to his shows, a hero. A music lover bones-to-balls, who will again turn the Boiler Room at BDO into his own exhibition of shared passion.
Al Newstead is a freelance music writer/commentator by day and a comic by night. He blogs about music here.