INTERVIEW

Mashing up any song in his way, Gregg Gillis makes girls want to do more than talk

Mashing up any song in his way, Gregg Gillis makes girls want to do more than talk

Did you ever see the ghastly hangover television programme ‘Beauty and the Geek’ on T4 one bleary Saturday morning? If not, you didn’t miss a great deal, but its reality contest collision of lovable yet scrawny ‘geeks’ and hyper sexualised ‘beauties’ is much like watching pop cut’n’paster Girl Talk in concert.

The Pittsburgh native hunches over his battered laptop, unruly locks covering his face, his barely-there rump bouncing in time to the hundreds of pop, rock, R&B and hip hop samples he splices together. Then, five minutes into his set, as if marinated in a mega douse of Lynx body spray, gaggles of girls clamber on stage and surround him, grinding up against him and making like it’s the hottest Malibu beach party going daaawn. We’re in the Tufnell Park Dome, for Christ’s sake!
Such is the mood that this 26-year-old – real name, Gregg Gillis – inspires. We grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and bought him a Guinness in the Irish pub downstairs to suss out why this ’90s noise rock nerd is the toast of the US party underground.

“I’ve definitely had some shows end prematurely,” he confides. “I broke three laptops last year ’cause it gets physical.” He blames his avid appreciation of punk rock for his appetite for this venue destruction: “I like it to be raw, the way punk rock shows are raw experiences. I don’t hope for problems to happen, but I appreciate that it means shows are reaching the point of chaos. I really love that house party feel.” Perhaps he’s referring to when he strapped sparklers to his laptop at a New Year’s Eve party in Chicago or when a fan got naked and subsequently tased by police at a Florida show. As a result of his shows getting shut down, there are even rumours that some bands refuse to play with him.

It may sound like bravado, but an interview with Gregg Gillis is rather like trying to chat up the irresistibly cute and unwashed swot in your philosophy class. He’s bashful at first but get him on intense nerdcore subjects like the tyranny of the music press and the “art” that goes into the corporate pop machine (topics that most bands/DJs would act like they had had a lobotomy over) and his tongue flaps endlessly. It’s almost impossible to imagine that Gillis was once notorious for stripping naked during live sets, although he insists that it’s not a common occurrence these days. “Five years ago my music wasn’t as successful and it wasn’t as dance-based so I had to put on a visual show,” he says. “I used to have a dance team and use live pyrotechnics. I wanted to make a laptop set into a spectacle.” But a credible review on influential webzine Pitchfork nudged him overground and took him from the indie scene to college radio stations and frat parties nationwide. “The shows became such a party there was less of a need for me go nuts,” he says. “I start playing and everyone jumps on stage. I barely get a chance to say ‘What’s up?'”
He claims that it’s not the same case when he tours in Europe. “It’s refreshing that shows in the US are really great but they’re automatically cool because people are ready to go crazy. I really appreciate that people are enthusiastic, but at the same time it’s overwhelming. When I come over here I have to work hard with the crowd. It’s a reality check.”

So what is this sound that causes such bedlam everywhere it’s dropped? Put simply, Girl Talk creates mash-up mentalism that rips through speakers and pulverises your ear canals as you struggle to adjust to the dozens of pop, hip hop, R&B and nineties alt-rock samples dizzyingly glued together. Classic leftfield rock riffs from the Pixies (‘Where Is My Mind?) to the Smashing Pumpkins (‘Today’) ring out over gangsta rapping and even the memorable chords of Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’. Never has an album title, his third release ‘Night Ripper’, which hit the shelves again this February, been so apt. Of his influences he says, “I grew up liking rap bands, electronic bands, rock bands, it was always bands; I always approached my music like I was playing a live set. I do everything live but all the arrangements are thought out beforehand, so when the song changes it’s me clicking the mouse every 15 seconds. It’s as live as Aphex Twin or Squarepusher.”

His idea of digesting old pop for new audiences translates live too. “I take mainstream ideas like everyone’s gonna get drunk and get laid,” says Gillis of the atmosphere his songs evoke, “and I re-appropriate that idea and put it into different contexts.” Tonight being an Upset the Rhythm gig, all stoic poses and chequered shirts, would explain his theory (an Explosions in the Sky fan appreciating Ludacris? Never!), except it has been stormed by excitable girls and the future cast of Skins.

Don’t go mistaking him for a DJ, mind. Gillis acts aghast at the comparison. “I’ve never spun records! I’ve built up this cult in the US where wherever I go now a rock gig becomes a club night; people come out to hear Girl Talk songs, not just to hear someone play records. I’ve always wanted to have my own musical identity,” he explains vehemently. “I know about mash-up DJs, but I haven’t seen anyone where they perform with sample-based music like I do.”
Copyright troubles (Girl Talk releases on Illegal Art, an anonymously run label so that no-one gets busted for his sample use), police shutting down gigs, girls rubbing themselves up against him, and, up until recently, squeezing in a day job as a biomedical engineer – Girl Talk’s life is an anarchist’s wet dream. But something just doesn’t stick. Fast forward to the gig again and the atmosphere has reached breaking point – literally. It’s pure carnage: the stage can barely take the weight of its ‘pumped’ hip-shimmiers, who fall into Gregg, thrust themselves on him, push him and stand in front of him so that us mere mortals watching from below can’t see or participate in the action. Girl Talk may think he’s recreating a raw, punk rock party vibe – and he loves it too – but from our prudish standpoint all there is to see is a load of frat boys and girls wiggling like they’re on TRL. Those over 25 need not apply.

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Originally published in issue 1 (vol. 2) of Loud And Quiet. May 2008

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