Girl Talk On: The Web, The Computer as an Instrument & Not Being a DJ

Posted October 7

Girl Talk whips his fans into a frenzy when he takes the stage — ripping off his ubiquitous sweatsuit as he mashes together tracks both popular and vintage like a true rock god, a rock god whose axe just happens to be a computer.

The idea of what constitutes music and what constitutes an instrument has continued to evolve over the years — a band no longer contains a bassist, keyboardist, drummer, guitarist, etc. It might include a synth player. It might include a Game Boy-wielder. It might include your PC. Girl Talk (a.k.a Gregg Gillis) stands at the forefront of the modern electronic music movement, which is why he’s an O Music Awards nominee for Digital Genius.

Girl Talk took some time away from searching for samples and sweating through his sweats to chat with us about the impact of the web and technology on music today — among other subjects. Check out our Q&A below:

I know you don’t like being called a DJ. Does it annoy you that so many people refer to you as such?

I do get that pretty often, definitely on a weekly basis. It’s not annoying to me. This whole project kind of really evolved out of such a small subculture that I don’t expect people to know it or understand the reference points. So I’m definitely not offended by being labeled a DJ.

The world I came out of, there was a big distinction between live, electronic music and people who were producers and people who were DJing — the act of it. Are you spinning other people’s tunes, or are you creating something live in real time that’s something of your own? That’s really where I came out of, and a lot of the people I looked up to I still to this day don’t consider DJs. People like Negativland and Kid606 and Evolution Control Committee.

I understand — when people first see me play or listen to a record — if they describe it as an act of DJing or being a DJ. I’m sure those same people would see Daft Punk live and call that a DJ performance. Even though for me, you can watch that and know that they’re doing live, electronic music, and to me it’s more of a performance and they’re producers doing production live.

I don’t think any question’s necessarily that annoying. I kind of enjoy explaining it and I really like the history behind what I’m doing and the artists that I look up to, and I do think that it’s a scene that’s not talked about much.

How did you first start looking at the computer as an instrument?

I had gotten into Nirvana when I was like 10. Nirvana got people excited about finding out about new music. Also the idea of underground music was cool, because it was like, ‘What are the T-shirts that Kurt Cobain is wearing and what are these bands that he’s playing with and what are these bands that he’s always referencing that he loves?’

Nirvana for me led to stuff like Sonic Youth, which then led even further to that kind of experimental musical world and ‘Just how far out can music get?’ And I would say by the time I was like 13 or 14 I was actively listening to the college radio in Pittsburgh, WRCT, the Carnegie Mellon station. And through there, I discovered a world of music that was straight-up noise. It blew my mind. ‘Wow, this is about as extreme as anything I’ve heard.’ And I started actively getting into that and started attending shows to watch music like that and got into that world.

I started going out to shows when I was 15 and watching like some guy from Barcelona playing to 10 people in a warehouse, playing with footpedals and blowing your ears out for 10 minutes and that’s the performance. And that’s what I got into and that’s what my friends and I were into, and we actively went to these noise shows and started taking in a lot of live electronic music and with that, started to look into the history of it a bit more.

I became a huge fan of Kraftwerk and to me they’re definitely The Beatles of computer music. People did it before them, but they were the first to bring it to the pop light. Along with that, there was a band from Pittsburgh called Operation Re-information in the late ’90s [who] played computer keyboards on guitar straps and triggered samples live. So they were definitely a hybrid between a rock band and live electronic thing, and they were by far my favorite local band. My friends were obsessed with them and we would go out to every show. That was really what I was into as a teenager.

I went out before I even had a laptop or a computer to make my own music. I actively went out and saw other people performing on computers. I was fasicnated by people who used samples and collage and, at the same time, I was a big fan of rap music and modern pop — I liked the dictomy of it. I like the extremes in music. I’d go to a noise show and see the Spice Girls in the same week in high school.

By the time I got a laptop when I was 18, I thought, ‘Oh, it would be cool to do a project entirely based on sampling pop music.’ I thought this would be a fun way to represent what I’m into and do something I didn’t think was necessarily being done. That’s where it started, and over the 10 years of doing it, the sound has evolved a lot as my interests have changed.

I wanted to talk a little bit about how your sound has changed. All Day is very different than some of your earlier work, like Secret Diary. Samples have gotten a little longer, songs are more intermeshed.

To me, [Secret Diary] is very connected to what I was doing in high school and that scene. The focus back then was making experimental music out of pop. I wanted to make abrasive music out of pop.

With the shows, the performance aspect was really important since day one, because I like the idea — as a fan of Kraftwerk — of making a pop-style performance or a rock ‘n’ roll performance out of a man playing samples on a laptop. How that doesn’t really make sense in theory was what was exciting to me about it.

With the earliest music, I was making experimental music, and when I would get on stage, I would be yelling at people to loosen up and to dance and have fun, but the music wasn’t necessarily meant for that. It wasn’t for dancing and having fun. Over the next few years and when I was in college I grew more comfortable with the idea of making something that was a little bit more accessible. And I think simulteanously I kind of got the opportunity to play at a couple of parties. And I started actively going out and dancing more and experiencing more music in the club and at house parties. I think that was highly influential; [I wanted to] make something that could work at a house party as opposed to something that would be annoying to everybody.

There was an evolution out of there that was like: ‘I’ll make a song where the beat is steady for the entire thing. That’s not the end of the world.’ Or I’ll use some larger, recognizable samples. So I think that’s where it started, and as it went on I never wanted to recreate the same record any given time. So when I did one record, I would move on from that.

So you go out dancing as a form of research. How do you figure out which songs go together? How does that work in your mind?

It’s just a really drawn-out trial and error process. It’s less like traditional songwriting and more like science. Trying out a number of variables in a row. For me, there’s two basic parts of the process: one being preparing the tools to try to make something, and then trying to actually use the tools to make something.

So I spend a lot of time where it’s like, ‘Today, I’m just going to isolate samples and make sure they work in a pattern and do many variations of them.’ So I might sit down for days or weeks where I just have a list that I think may be interesting to sample. I’ll just go into the songs and isolate all these little loops and catalog them and come up with a system.

Sometimes I might do that without actually trying any combination of material for weeks. Since it is a trial and error process, the more tools I have available, the more loops, the more potential material there is that could be interesting. So I’m always obsessed with finding as many loops as possible and really putting in the time and the effort.

When I have a new vocal piece or a new song that comes out that I really want to use, I will sit down and try that out with a few hundred different songs.

I’m always going through this process, and when I’m making music, I’m not thinking about the next album, I’m just thinking about next week’s shows. I’m always trying to keep the show moving and always trying to incorporate new elements into it. When I try something out live, a lot of times, that might be it. I play it once and don’t like the way it sounds or the response it gets, and that could be the end of trying that out live. Other times I really need to change where it is in the set. Maybe I like what it did, but it needs different transitions — it needs to follow something different or be at a different speed.

And occasionally I do something that sticks in the set and it becomes a staple and I start playing it every show and I add more elements to it. When that happens, that becomes the material that will make it onto an album. By the time I sit down to do an album — the last one, for instance — it has been about two years of trial and error.

Any samples or songs recently that you’re gotten obsessed with?

It’s day-to-day. It’s hard for me to even isolate one. I’ve definitely been messing with some of the Tyler, The Creator stuff. A lot of the fans are really excited to hear what I’m going to do with [new material]. I feel like at this point the fans expect it to a certain degree. When they come to the show there’s going to be a lot of older music referenced, a lot of stuff from the album referenced, but that’s what I hear about on Twitter, on Facebook — that new remix I did of Kreayshawn or something like that.

You’ve been giving away music for free for a really long time. How did you decide initially to take that step?

There were stages to it. With the first three records I did, it was very important to me to release them in a traditional way. I didn’t want them treated as some DJ mix that was released online for free. Giving music away for free now versus five years ago holds different connotations. It was less legitimate back then.

Back then, like with Night Ripper for instance, it was very important to me to press that into CDs and have it be in stores, to be able to send out physical copies to magazines and labels. To have it be treated like a real release. When people were describing it, I wanted it to be described next to all the other albums, not as something different.

By the time the next record came around, the project had grown enough where I didn’t feel the need to have to prove that it was legitimate. So with 2008′s Feed the Animals it was like: ‘How can we take it further? How can more people hear this? How can more people be excited about it?’ That time, we thought the most efficient way to get it out to the most people would be to do the ‘pay what you want’ thing.

With all these albums, I don’t care if I make any money off the record. At this point, I’m making money off of playing shows. Those two are definitely related, but the ulimate goal is to get it out there to as many people as possible. I think the ‘pay what you want’ model was an effort to make that happen. But along with that in 2008 was this thing where if you actually paid $10, you would get the physical CD. I think we still wanted it to be legitimate in that traditional way.

Going into the new album [All Day], the landscape was a lot different by 2010, and at that point for what the project has become and the way people treat music digitally, I didn’t think we needed any physical product. I’m a big fan of CDs and I still go to the store and buy CDs and like listening to music in that old-school way, but I really removed myself from that process and said, ‘All right, again, how can we take this further? How can we make a bigger splash?’ And I thought again the way to get it out to the most people and to get people excited about it would be to just give it away for free straight up this time.

I thought doing it in that way would be a technique to generate excitement. It worked out for us. That record had a lot more hype than any of the other ones. I made a point leading up to it to not really talk about it. I thought it would be fun for it to just come out of nowhere. And I think now in 2011 it’s really exciting that people don’t have to go about releasing their music in a traditional way. They don’t have to send out their music months in advance to get reviews. They don’t have to talk about it — have the lead-up time or the advertising from the label or any of that.

It’s all good if you’re operating at that level, but I think for a lot of people — like myself — if just feels tired. It feels kind of forced and contrived. So it’s like, ‘I’m going to tell nobody about this and I’m just going to drop it on the Internet one day, and I’m hoping that in itself will generate the buzz.’ That’s the way it worked out with the last record.

What do you think of these bands who are following in your footsteps, like The Weeknd, mysteriously dropping free albums on the web?

It’s enormous in the rap community, which I love. So many hip-hop artists are releasing so much free music on a regular basis. A lot of the rappers I follow put out videos on a weekly basis, any song they record, they make a video — just keep it going, keep the content flowing.

To me it’s not like it’s the right way to do it and the old way is the wrong way or anything like that; I think when it’s the new way it’s exciting. There’s a new motivation for making music and new techniques and new attitudes about it, which is going to ultimately result in new ideas. I think the motivation behind making a song and putting it out there is just a little different than it used to be. That change is exciting.

If things were always the way they were and CD sales were always the way they were in 1998, I feel like the music in general might grow stale. If you look at any given moment in the history of music it’s attached to an era of change, whether it’s political or format. All that change results in different attitudes and different sounds and different music.

I feel like now we’re going through such a major change — actually getting out of physical products. It’s one of the biggest eras of change we’ve experienced in music in a long time. I don’t think what’s happening now is the correct way, or perfect, it’s just the fact that people are reacting to this change. It’s exciting to see how people can handle it.

Your music isn’t on iTunes, but it’s on Spotify and some of these music subscription services. When it comes to music ownership, what do you think of streaming services like this?

I think everyone has their own avenues now. I think the exciting thing is even with something like iTunes, you don’t necessarily need to be on there to make it happen. It’s so independent. There’s so many different levels of digital distribution and ways to get it out there that I feel like there’s no avenue that you have to take, which is exciting.

As someone who grew up fascinated by the underground music world — the idea of doing it on your own terms and not worrying about the system and all of that — it’s just so exciting now. Whether you’re doing pop or experimental, the DIY method online is actually really effective right now. Down the road when we take a look back at this era, that will be a common theme: This is like when people started to just take it to the Internet and do their own thing.