An Interview with Girl Talk

After some lengthy delays, Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals is out in stores today. I was lucky enough to catch up with him for a few minutes preceding his Louisville show this weekend. Read on if you’ve ever wondered what happens when you hold up a phone with that application to identify songs to a speaker that’s playing Girl Talk’s album… or, you know, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be the globe-trotting, widely celebrated mash-up artist known as Girl Talk.

An Interview with Girl Talk

YANP: I hear you’re a UK basketball fan?

Gregg Gillis aka Girl Talk: Yeah, yeah! I mean, I like all college hoops. I’m a Pitt basketball fan, first and foremost, but I do like the history of Kentucky basketball. I don’t really hate any college teams. I like a lot of the legacy teams. Even the Duke teams, I don’t really like, but I’m OK with.

YANP: When you’re working on an album, is it a lot of jamming or planning out?

GG: I’m always jamming out ideas in live shows. By the time I sit down to do it, I have a lot of ideas set just from years of trying out new things live. There’s maybe 25% of content that’s generated on the spot, but the rest are ideas I had already thought out.

When I play live, sometimes I come up with very basic transitions from section to section — it’s more free form and I feel more comfortable with that. Whereas on an album I like to be very detail oriented. Small parts will be … like ten seconds long in a transition from this to this, where I’d never built anything like that. During a show I might have went from A to C but I had to build this B part to make it really fluid on the album.

That’s the main… a lot of the work. I have like the A, C, F — I have all these components. It’s just a matter of building a bridge between them.

YANP: Yeah, that was always interesting to me. I’d be listening to the new album and realize that a section on it was actually something I had on a bootleg from 2007.

GG: Yeah yeah. A lot of stuff, like even a lot of stuff on the new album I might have played literally as early as 2002. Something that just never filled a spot on any other album. It’s kind of always fleshing out ideas. Even stuff I’m working out now is always going towards something else.

It was cool with this album. I had a coulple years where I’d been playing pretty successful shows enough that there’s a fanbase that had heard enough of the music to where when I put it out, it’s almost documenting that experience of going to a show.

YANP: If you’re in front of a crowd that’s just not feeling it, what do you pull out? Do you have a silver bullet?

GG: Nah.. The best thing I can do is stuff from my catalogue that’s familiar. Like the Elton John/ Notorious BIG one… if I were to have a single, it would be that. I’ve played that at almost every single show since I made it, and that’s a rare thing. I don’t do that.

Near the end of the set, I just kind of go all out. Depending on the crowd — some crowds are a bit more dancey and some are more rocky, more rock based. I’ll put in some other things, like the Kelly Clarkson sort of thing. Just familiar with that from the album; that with the NIN.

I don’t know. For me I just try to – not to sound cocky – but I like for every second to be like so over the top and relentless. But, I don’t know. If the show’s going well, I’ll go more far out and do more experimenting.

YANP: I think of your music as kind of a gateway between the music snob/indie world and the top 40 world. Which part of that interests or fascinates you more: introducing indie kids to top 40 or radio-listeners to underground stuff?

GG: Nah, I’m not trying to push anything. It’s just the tunes that I’m jamming and thing that I like. I like the idea of exposing people that are into underground music to more mainstream stuff. I think that’s kind of comedic in a certain way.

But yeah, I’m cool with it either way. I like being a gateway, because they’re all things that I like. So if you can break down walls for anyone and be able to be just like “I like this” or “I like that” and make us all a bit more comfortable as human beings.

YANP: I might be reading a bit too much into it, but it seems like there’s a lot of humor on Feed the Animals. Certain juxtapositions or samples seem like a nudge to careful listeners about either sampling culture or music history.

GG: Sure, sure. No, I’m very sincere about everything that I make, but there’s definitely a humorous edge to a lot of it. Like to link “Silly Love Song” to 2 Live Crew. And certain other things are subtle nods where it doesn’t matter if people get it or not. Like sampling Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony…”

YANP: …and with the Rolling Stones…

GG: Right. They went through a lot of legal issues. And we do music like this and it’s just a little wink wink nudge nudge. I’m sure a lot of people don’t get it, and that’s fine. For me, it has to be musical first and foremost then any sidebar thing like that has to just come along with it sounding good anyways. I would not sample the Verve if I didn’t love the way it sounded.

YANP: I work at record store and it’s always interesting to put on your music. Usually the college kids know it’s Girl Talk, but it’s often the old guys who will want to come up and discuss your placement of a sample. I’ll often wind up talking to someone about [The Beastie Boy’s album] Paul’s Boutique for 20 minutes because of it.

GG: Yeah, I see that a lot with my parents recognizing a lot of samples. It’s just different generations recognizing a lot of different samples.

YANP: So what do people expect when they meet Girl Talk?

GG: You mean meet me as a person? I think they expect me to be like, tearing my shirt off and doing a keg stand every single second of the day. Which isn’t really the case.

I go all out at the show. Like anyone, you get up there and perform and for me it’s like a way to unleash. I like to go out dancing and go partying all the time, but for me it’s a way to like… I dunno. I’m a pretty relaxed, chill dude. So I think that people aren’t necessarily expecting that. They’re expecting me to maybe be more like my stage personality.

YANP: I read that you used to have backup dancers. Are we at the peak of Girl Talk now where it’s just about the audience dancing on stage and in the crowd, or would you like to get back to planed stage stuff? What’d be your ideal setup if you were playing the MTV music awards?

GT: On this tour we’ve started to incorporate some extra elements for some festivals this year. We’ve been doing live physical props on stage like the toilet paper gun, extra confetti and giant balloons and thing slike that. I’ve brought them on tour and they’re here tonight. They’re doing all the shows.

I still like the idea of being able to play large venues with just me and a computer and just being about the interaction. I think that’s cool.But as the shows get bigger and we’ve been making more money. I figure we’ve got a bit of budget to put on a little bit of a bigger show.

It’s the same thing if it were like the MTV music video awards. I’d be very psyched for it to be just me and a laptop on the stage. That’s very cool to me that that could go somewhere and that could be a performance. But simultaneously I like to make a spectacle out of it.

But I’m not sure. right now it’s the biggest production we’ve ever had. I love what we’re doing but I’m not sure if I’d rather take it more over the top or cut it down. I could see it going a variety of ways.

YANP: I remember there was a part of your show at Bonnaroo where you told the audience to turn around and face away from the stage so they’d focus less on you and more on dancing and enjoying the music.

GG: Yeah yeah. I’ve done that a couple times… I hadn’t done that much, like it wasn’t a go-to thing. But I did it there. I felt like everyone was really having a good time, but everyone was kind of looking forward — which I understand, because it’s a concert. But it’s just lame and I felt like there’s some way people can be beyond that. I felt like when I made that announcement, people kind of took it to heart. Everyone just kind of celebrated together. That’s one of my favorite festival shows ever… one of my favorite shows regardless.

YANP: One interesting thing to me is that your albums appeal to both live settings where you can turn your brain off and just dance, and they also are great to listen to at home with the headphones on. What’s the link there for you?

GG: It’s funny because I think the live show and the albums are very related. They both influence each other. For me, the live show is a bit more functional in that it’s supposed to be a party and be entertaining so people can have a good time.

Whereas the album I’m more concerned about it being a piece of music. It’s cool if people can dance and party to it, but the main goal is to have something you can jam on your headphones — it’s a piece of art.

So ideally, yeah. I like to walk that line. I think it’s like all music. You want to be challenging, but you want to be accessible. You can take it over the top in either direction. I want it to be fun and dancable, but I want it to be cerebral as well.

Ideally I’d like to do all these different things. You can get drunk and dance to it or you can sit back and analyze it all day long.

YANP: I read somewhere that you text yourself when you’re out and you hear a song you want to sample. What’s the last song you texted yourself?

GG: We went out to get some barbecue before the show and I couldn’t figure out the song. I think it was an early foreigner song, I had never heard it before. I was trying to identify it. I would definitely have texted myself with it. It was just like the sickest instrumental that sounded nothing like the rest of the song. I think it was Foreigner or something. But outside of that, this has actually been a sort of radio free tour. It’s been a lot of people with ipods — I don’t have one — and a lot of people with CDs. I’ve actually been sort of outside that, I haven’t texted myself in a while.

YANP: Sounds like you need that thing where you hold your phone to the music and it identifies the song.

GG: Yeah! We were talking about that at the restaurant.

[Gregg’s press agent tells us that she’s got that application on her phone]

GG: We actually held that up to the speakers and played my album one time. It correctly identified the vocal track.

YANP: Really? I’d imagine it would just go crazy and nuts and cogs would start shooting out of the phone.

GG: [Laughs] Yeah.

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