Gregg Gillis of Girl Talk on how his sets have become more complicated over the years
Emily Stewart Girl Talk
Girl Talk (due this Saturday, June 23, on the Westword Music Showcase main stage) started when Gregg Gillis was earning his degree in biomedical engineering. Eventually, Girl Talk took up enough of Gillis's time to become a full-time endeavor. Although influenced in part by early mash-ups, Gillis was more inspired by the concepts of appropriating art as done by the group Negativland and almost a reaction against some of the more pretentious side of the noise scene he embraced as a rebellious teenager.
By taking popular music of all stripes and weaving it together in unexpected but curiously logical ways, Gillis has mastered the art of a kind of composition in which existing, familiar fragments of song are recontextualized to make a new song. In effect, it brings together ideas of Brion Gysin's cut-up technique with the remix and collage. We spoke with Gillis about his early days with noise, the eras of Girl Talk and his craft.
Westword: There was an interview you did with Pitchfork a while back in which you mentioned being into noise. Other than Merzbow, who really caught your attention back then?
Gregg Gillis: Back then, the Internet was going on, but it was not the way it is now. So it was just the things I stumbled upon. TV Pal from Chicago, Christian Marclay. I liked a lot of stuff that was a little bit attached to noise but had a little bit more structure to it. I liked Lesser, who was attached to Kid606 -- I really liked those records. Even more accessible stuff like Kid606 and Matmos.
I even liked people who were performance-oriented, too. So Cock ESP was a group who I had heard of. And again, because the Internet wasn't what it is today, and I know what it kind of was, the group I was in was really into smashing televisions and stuff and being confrontational with the audience -- which was the Cock ESP way. But I didn't realize that until years later that they were the masters of that world.
Oh, yeah, Cock ESP played Denver Noise Fest this year and have played at
DIY venues like Monkey Mania and Rhinoceropolis over the years.
I know they're Midwestern. Are they from Milwaukee or something? Minneapolis.
In the years of doing Girl Talk, have you solidified a method for pulling the samples together?
I kind of have a bit of a routine. It's really trial and error. The majority of things I cut up don't really see the light of day. The majority of things I try out I don't like and don't think work. Any isolated part of a song that catches my ear, whether it's a drumbeat or a melody, I kind of have a running list of songs that could work, that I could cut up.
So I'll spend days at a time just cutting up these songs, isolating different loops and trying out different combinations of splicing them up -- that sort of thing. And also quantizing them takes up so much time -- actually making sure that if I take an old sample and put a steady drum machine, it will match up rhythmically and stuff like that.
So really, a lot of my time is spent isolating those loops and trying out combinations of them together. A little bit further down the line, when I find something I think really clicks, I really like trying it out at a show and trying to get a rough demo of how I think it could work and trying it out. It doesn't necessarily make or break what's going to happen, but it definitely influences it. Sometimes I try things out at a show, and it goes over poorly.
Other times things really click. Sometimes things I love musically don't translate to the show. I get maybe the samples a little bit more obscure, maybe the structure of it isn't that danceable. That doesn't mean it's bad or it's not going to make it onto a record. But often when things that do click with a show and people kind of react to them, I get excited about it and from there I build it up a little bit. Oftentimes, I'll spend more time on that. Things that make their way into the show and stay in the show are oftentimes things that will eventually wind up on an album.
That's kind of been the process for the last five years. You know, really put out an album and then immediately start cutting up samples and trying out new things for the show. Really, touring and putting together material for shows is kind of the heart of the project and what I spend most of the time on. That's the most direct influence on what will impact an album.
Do you then feel that the feedback from the audience informs what you're going for when you put an album out?
Definitely. I feel the goals are a little different but connected. When I'm doing the show I'm definitely thinking about the physical reactions of the crowd and people dancing and moving and reacting. The album? That's kind of secondary. With the album I'm just thinking about what's musically most interesting. What's the most transformative way to use the sample?
So, like I was saying, often times I'll play something live, and it will kind of fall flat. But I'll sit around and listen to it and play it for my friends, and everyone's really into it. Just because it didn't hit in the live context and didn't dance or recognize the sample, doesn't mean it's not interesting, musically.
I think what happens at the shows gets in my head in a good way. And I think for people who have followed what I've done over the years will come out to a handful of shows and see different sets, and for them, I think part of the process is that they'll hear something unreleased ,and then might hear it at multiple shows, and those people will know that that's going on an album, or they'll tell me they hope it makes the cut for the album. There is a kind of a little community who have been bootlegging the shows, and there are some more well-known bootlegs out there.
Often people will hit me up and be like, "Oh, when's that version coming out? Or that remix? Or that and that?" I hate to use the word "demo," but there's so many variations and so many possible combinations and so many things, and I think the fans keep up with that, and the way they respond helps shape what I think will work. Naturally it comes down to me making the final decision on what I think is best. But, you know, if people are losing their minds and cheering to a particular example, then it definitely gets in my head and makes me like that material more.
You used to use a wave editor to put everything together. What do you use these days?
I still stick by what I've always used. I've added to it. But I still like to use the wave editor to cut up samples. I feel very comfortable with it. I use a program called AudioMulch that might cost seventy-something dollars or something. It's a very small program, and it's geared more for experimental music, and I got into it in the early days for more experimental purposes.
I think it's based more around being able to process instruments whether it's a software synthesizer or an acoustic guitar. Being able to put it through there and doing live processing of instruments. I think that's what fascinated me by it initially. Then I kind of learned how to use a certain device within it, like these loop players that organize my material, and that's how I perform live. So I still use that same software. I haven't really heard about too many other people using it, especially for the sort of thing I do. The other people I've heard that dabble in it are doing stuff that's a bit more left field.
I've continued to explore that software, so it's kind of that "if it's not broken don't fix it" mentality. But on top of that, I've started to work in Ableton Live, which everyone uses, but I still don't perform live with it. That's a constant rumor that that's what I use to play live because that's what most people use to play live doing the sort of thing I'm doing. But I still use AudioMulch.
For me, performing live is a lot of memorization and a lot of muscle memory. To me it is playing an instrument and I've learned to play AudioMulch well. I know it. I'm very comfortable with it. If a mistake happens or something weird happens I feel like I know how to...Even if it's a digital program, it is somewhat organic to me, how you can approach it. I feel extremely awkward and weird trying to switch over and playing live on Ableton or anything else at this point. Just because I think it would be like going from playing guitar to playing bass or something like that. In that way, I've really stuck by the same software I've always used. Basically it gets done what I need to be done.
Your live shows are very dynamic and entertaining. How do you stay focused in triggering those loops because there's some pretty precise timing there? How has your ability to do that evolved over the years?
Yeah, I think one thing is too that the sets have actually gotten more and more complicated. I used to go out there and wing it a little more. I'd have a loose idea of what I would go through. But I think if you heard a recording or saw a video of my show from 2006, you'd hear a lot of a cappella just starting or more abrupt cuts and things like that. With the show growing, I've added on a lot more people in terms of just production and lighting guys and people helping with props and cues. It's become a lot more orchestrated. Because of that, I kind of need to play the set more precisely now.
There's still freedom within there to experiment at certain points. But ultimately, there are some cues and more precise timing. I even feel like with all electronic music, the bar is constantly being raised with what people expect. So I feel like I have a higher standard for what the show should sound like now verses three or four years ago. With the show, I kind of lose myself up there. When I rehearse at my house, I play the sets often times worse than I do live. When I'm sitting there just completely still -- headphones on, thinking about everything, thinking about different mistakes, thinking too many things through -- I can miss it or get off.
Whereas I think in the show it's just one hundred percent the entire time. If I know I have thirty seconds to not click a loop, then I'm going to use that thirty seconds to engage the crowd behind me. I noticed recently when I'm not clicking on a mouse or have a few seconds, I'm just moving the mouse up and down. I just need constant movement so when I'm hitting those loops, they will hit at the correct time. Now I feel like my mind is occupied to the max during the show enough, so that it kind of helps out the show and I'm thinking less about mistakes and not thinking, "Should I click right now or right then?" It's less like that and more just a fluid motion. I think the chaos and the nature of the show helps out a bit.
Simultaneously, I try out a lot of new things live. When I play things for the first few times, I'm definitely more prone to making mistakes, because I'm not comfortable with it. So I find myself rehearsing a lot more now. Just constantly going through material. Before the show going through the set a few times the night before. A few years ago I didn't really do that. I would rarely rehearse the show the day of the show. Now I feel the need to do that almost every performance because they're getting more involved and I want it to be of the highest caliber that I can do it.
When you make mistakes, how do you handle it?
A lot of the mistakes people wouldn't notice. A lot of them are subtle. I make a ton that are subtle. There are some bigger ones, and it can get in my head, and I try to shake it. Every show, I'm aiming for that perfect show. When something does go wrong, it can definitely get in my head sometimes and then it can be like, "Oh, it might lead to more mistakes" -- because I'm thinking about it a bit too much. But for me there's no time for me to get frustrated. It's like, "I have to save this."
Sometimes the mistakes work, and I like it to be organic. If the mistake comes outside of me, I'm very open to it. It doesn't happen so much anymore, but it happens from time to time, and definitely a few years ago, more often where someone might pick a cord unplugged on stage. Or someone might jump on my table and knock a cord out or this or that might happen. When that goes down, I think it's a very fun, organic part of the show. If the music happens to stop, people might boo for a second. Then when you get it going; it takes the show to a new level that it wouldn't have been capable of reaching without that mistake happening.
Stuff like that happens and at a show sometimes when a mistake happens, it's organic, or sometimes a mistake happens and I like it and I'll go, "Oh! Whoa, we should just do that every show. I want to recreate that." That's pretty common. Just small things, "I was to start the hi-hat at this measure but started it eight bars too late but I thought it sounded cool." A delayed response or whatever. I think a lot of stuff on the album is as a result of making these mistakes live. I get used to hearing them a certain way and that went wrong and I tried to replicate it and that's the way I play it now and that's the way it's going to be on the album.