Girl Talk's Gregg Gillis: The Spice Girls and Radiohead aren't evaluated the same way


In perhaps a strange twist of fate, Girl Talk's meteoric rise in popularity within the dance music scene has coincided with the crumbling of many modern radio stations throughout the country. As digital channels and licensed music streaming services rose to replace the outdated formats of the past, Girl Talk has seemed to take the best of all ends of the radio dial and the genres they once represented and combine them seamlessly into his festive, endlessly catchy mashups and mixes, as his audiences (and his nonstop party of a live show) grew and grew.

Girl Talk's mastermind Gregg Gillis is now set to put on one of his biggest area shows yet at this weekend's Summer Set Music Festival, as he headlines the festivities on Saturday night along with a wildly diverse and spirited lineup that truly represents the scattershot and entirely open-minded music tastes of the modern music fan. Gimme Noise was able to chat with Gillis from his Pittsburgh home about the type of music he listened to growing up, how his creative process has changed as his audiences have grown, how he finds and connects with new music, and what he has in store for his fans at Summer Set on Saturday night.

See Also:
Summer Set returns this weekend
Girl Talk at First Avenue, 3/8/11


Gimme Noise: Your music samples from all styles and genres -- were your music tastes that diverse growing up?

Gregg Gillis: Not necessarily. I think some of the interest in wide-ranging pop music developed later. When I was really young, I was open to most pop music, like most kids are. The first music I can remember really getting into and consuming, and going out and buying cassettes was hip-hop. Stuff that was maybe even geared towards kids, like Kris Kross and Bel Biv Devoe and stuff like that. So, I kind of grew up with a lot of rap music, then got really into Nirvana around middle school time, and that kind of got me a lot more into rock and things related to that. So, during middle school and high school times, I dove more into an underground music sort of thing. I was always a fan of the extremeness of pop and I always liked mainstream rap, but as far as the music I was involved in making at that time and the music scene I immersed myself in, it was geared more towards experimental noise.

At that time, I was not necessarily a fan of older radio pop, it was something that I was surrounded by, but didn't really pay attention to. But after I turned 18 and started working on this project, I think I just started to realize that I actually liked the stuff I was surrounded by growing up. A lot of the stuff that I really love now was stuff I was rejecting when I was 15, stuff like Hall & Oates or stuff that my parents were listening to when I was growing up and I hated when I was a teenager, later on I realized that this was music that I actually love.

So, when did you first come up with the idea of blending these songs and artists that you love into your own sonic experiments?

I was doing something kind of loosely related to what I do now in this band I was in in high school. We were definitely more of a noise band, not really making songs but complete experimental structures. But we did dabble in appropriation, so we would use a lot of pop music and work with skipping CDs and cutting up physical cassettes, and kind of destroying it more or less -- like taking a pop song and making it into something almost unlistenable. And that was the first time I kind of experimented with those type of ideas.

But when I decided to start doing the Girl Talk project, it was in the year 2000 and that was right when I first got my initial laptop. Like I said before, I was a fan of rap growing up so I always kind of knew about sampling, but when I was in high school I got into bands like Negativland, Kid 606, and John Oswald and the Plunderphonics experimental scene, so when I decided to do this project, it was a combination of those influences. When I first started doing this, what I wanted to do was something kind of related to that, where you take a pop song and completely reconfigure it and recontextualize it and make it something new.

In this digital age of music, it seems that genre and classification have little importance to today's listeners. Was that something you've been trying to communicate straight from the start with Girl Talk -- that if a song is good enough, we can all get down to it?

Yeah, I think that was part of it, and is part of the message in all of the music that I've put out. The rules of music -- what's smart, what's not, what's right, what's wrong, what's good, what's bad -- aren't really that clear-cut. And they change over time. Critical consensus is always evolving, so it's hard to take these rules so seriously. So yeah, in doing this project, that was a definite part of it -- that I am a fan of this music and I want to throw it all out there on equal terms. Everything I sample I am a big fan of. You have to respect music for each of its intentions -- you don't evaluate a Spice Girls record the same way you would a Radiohead record. There's different goals, and each of those acts might be really succeeding at reaching their own individual goals.

And in doing this, that's definitely a big part of it -- just openly embracing all of these types of music. And like you were mentioning, over time, with the internet, that attitude has become more widespread. In the '90s, you didn't have access to all of this information, so people really valued what they knew about. When you found out about a band or a scene, that became your thing. But now, having access to all of these things allows people to just like what they like, and be into things completely on their own terms.

You're playing the Summer Set Music Festival here -- with artists as diverse as Big Boi, the Wailers, Polica, Passion Pit, Doomtree, Common, Diplo, and many others. Do these types of divergent festival lineups fully represent that shift away from genre for the modern music fan -- like a shuffle-play society where anything and everything goes, as long as it's good?

Yeah, I think that is true. I think that's exciting that music is moving in that direction. And I think there's still room to grow, and there is still more diversity and that can still be opened up. And I think that is a reflection of that. Each festival, naturally, has an audience that they are catering to, but in 2013 most people are open minded to a variety of different forms of music and don't feel the need to be attached to any particular scene or aesthetic. There's value in very different forms of music. And in general, most music fans understand that. And I think that's cool. I've always been a fan of being part of any event where there's a wide reaching selection of bands. That's always been something that's been exciting to me. I get offers from various festivals where its all one particular thing, and that's a lot less appealing to me. I do like it to be as far-reaching as possible.

Have you changed your creative process at all as your audiences have grown? Or is it still just a process of mining your own record collection and trying to see what fits together fluidly?

I think it's changed in subtle ways that weren't really calculated, that just happened as a result of the project getting more popular. I always experiment with new ideas in a live setting, and naturally when the audiences are getting bigger and you're playing larger festivals, that feedback you get will be different than when you're playing smaller, more dedicated shows. I don't think the audience reaction is the endpoint in terms of whether something is good or bad. But being in that cycle of constantly playing shows and always developing material for those shows has heavily impacted what I do. It's pushed me to try to even go bigger with everything. The goal has always been, both with the live shows and with the albums, to make a complicated collage of pop music. I like it to be maximalist and big in every way possible. So playing to those large audiences has pushed me further down that line to keep it growing. I think with the show, both visually, and in terms of production and musically, I want it to be as large as possible. That's where it's been growing.

How do you, personally, connect with and find new music? And how do you separate the songs that you love and enjoy from the tracks you know you eventually want to incorporate into your own music?

I guess the first rule for me of sampling something is, I want to enjoy it. I haven't ever really sampled something I'm not feeling, so I think there's a lot of crossover between the two there. But day to day, it really depends on what I'm working on. Sometimes I'm just listening to music for fun. For me, it's a very different listening experience when I'm just throwing on a record just to listen to versus hunting for a sample. Sometimes, I'm on the hunt for something in particular, which is a very different experience for me than actually just throwing on a CD I like and taking it to the head.

As far as finding new stuff, it's never really a job. It's just out there. I enjoy listening to music, and always listen to new pop music and new hip-hop and wait for things to jump out at me -- things I think are interesting or things that I think I can use in particular. So, I'm always making a list of songs that I want to sample. I'm constantly surrounded by so much music that, for me, it's hard not to be inspired or hear things that I want to work with.

I've got to ask you about the Pirates' playoff chances this year. Can the team hold it together throughout the season and finally see their way through to the playoffs?

I don't want to curse them, because I feel like in past years I've made some pretty strong statements that haven't really worked out. But I will say, it has been an amazing year, and I don't think anyone anticipated this level of success coming. I think everyone is waiting for that 20-year drought to end. A winning season would be amazing, and actually making the playoffs would be just crazy. I will say it's looking good, and I definitely have faith. But we have seen things go south towards the end of the season in the past. But it's been a great year. It's been crazy to see baseball fans everywhere get behind the Pirates.

Girl Talk plays the Summer Set Music and Camping Festival in Somerset, Wisconsin on Saturday, August 10, with the Festival running from August 9-11. 

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