By Blair Jackson
Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, recently crashed the Fayetteville nightlife scene. In conjunction with Axe body products, the artist played a free last-minute show that was hyped up to the very last second via social media and a sno-cone mobile that distributed tickets.
Girl Talk’s current sound is a kind of Franken-pop product that blends a medley of pop genres into beat-driven dance music. Since the beginning of his musical experimentation, Gillis has approached his music with a type of mad scientist mentality, dissecting songs, lifting layers and reconnecting the pieces to suit his fancy. (It’s aliiiive!)
In a phone interview Friday, Gillis explained that once upon a time he was part of a very avant-garde music community. Sampling pop songs originated, not in conjunction with the party scene, but as a stand against the underground resistance to mainstream popular music. Gillis began experimenting with mash-ups that pieced together different elements of pop music with the intentions of “pissing off the underground.”
“There was a large divide between the underground and the mainstream,” he explained. “I was part of a confrontation with the underground idea that ‘pop is evil.’”
Girl Talk’s first album, “Secret Diary,” is a far cry from the most recent release. The album, which was released almost 10 years ago, was recorded to sound like a skipping CD. The songs are overloaded with low budget synthetic effects and are underpinned by popular rap beats, rock riffs or standout lyrics. Gillis admits that this album is “difficult to listen to.”
Accessibility and popularity have never been a top priority for the artist. His focus is, instead, on what is most interesting for the project. The former engineer explained, “I never intended for this to be a career.” Touring half the year with a live stage is more than he ever imagined, and though he said he is content with his current success, he also said there will come a day when he will want to stop touring.
At 4 p.m. Friday, Gillis had just woken up, and said he was recovering from the night before. He listed his pre-game rituals as eating a bowl of cereal, taking some vitamins and loosening up. Anyone who has never been to a Girl Talk show may ask, “Why does a DJ … ahem, excuse me … mash-up artist … need to loosen up?”
The answer to this and other questions have the same answer. (Why does he wear a sweatband across his forehead? Why does he wrap his laptop in Saran Wrap? Why does he, inevitably, emerge at the end of the show wearing less clothing than when he began?) It’s all because he works his ass off behind that laptop, and it’s a hot, sweaty job.
Girl Talk’s musical project isn’t limited to digital track surgery, but extends into the arena of performance, making his show something to enjoy visually and aurally. Gillis triggers every sample live, with the intent of creating something the audience can watch. The process also makes each live show an original act as an ongoing musical project that is constantly being reworked and evolving to suit the artist’s tastes, the crowd’s responses and the click of the mouse.
Gillis explained that his tendency to shed clothes is part of his stage performance. With no fan base and no production elements, Girl Talk has used stripping and crowd surfing as a method to entertain his audience since his early days. “I try to lose my mind every night,” said Gillis. “It’s a battle of craziness. If you’re not with us, I challenge you to go with us. If you’re with us, I challenge you to go further.”
With popularity has come more stage production, which could also be considered more ammunition in the “battle of the craziness.” At the Dickson Street Theater on Dec. 2, production was amplified with balloons, confetti, custom lighting, dancers and toilet roll guns. “It’s been a long time since I’ve ended a show in my underwear,” Gillis said.
Gillis said his joint venture with Axe, during which he will perform shows in eight college towns, has allowed him to play the smaller, more intimate venues, while incorporating the big stage production of larger venues. For Gillis the idea was to “barely scale it down and force it into a smaller setting.” He also mentioned he enjoys playing larger shows, but “there’s something special about seeing every person’s face.”
Axe’s marketing approach to the concert has proven highly effective, creating a buzz bordering on hysteria in some instances. In Tuscaloosa, when it was rumored that Girl Talk would be handing out tickets in person, things got a little chaotic. Gillis described the scenario: “Hundreds of kids, police cars, people running through red lights.” Let it be noted this was not a simple response to a free show, but to the possibility of meeting Girl Talk in the flesh.
For Girl Talk, face time with his fans is important, which is why you’ll see (at least) a handful of fans dancing behind him at his shows. By inviting people on-stage, the artist incorporates an intimacy that is often absent in large live music sets. “Interaction is easy and it means a lot to the fans,” Gillis said.
Offstage, Gillis hones his live set list and conceptualizes new albums. “I work every day,” he said and described his life as “working doses of both worlds” which includes both wild nights on the road and days of meticulous trial and error of meshing samples.
So what’s next for Girl Talk?
“I have a lot of songs I want to sample,” he said, “and that list grows faster than I can get to it.”
As far as process goes, sometimes he hunts for a particular sound (like ’80s synth pop), or something clicks when he hears a song while grocery shopping, or he revisits old samples that couldn’t be used in previous albums or sets. As far as success goes, Gillis is content where he’s at, but as far as the music, fans can expect to see “more complicated, more involved music,” that is an art form first and a profession second.