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Cover Story: Girl Talk

Written by James Parker on February 3, 2009

Picture this. It is March 2007 at the United States Congress, Washington. A greying, middle aged man, the representative for the 14th Congressional District of Pennsylvania Mike Doyle, is given the floor. “Mr Chairman,” he says, “I want to tell the story of a local guy made good. His name is Greg Gillis and by day he is a biomedical engineer in Pittsburgh. At night he DJ’s under the name Girl Talk. His “schtick” as the Chicago tribune wrote about him is ‘based on the notion that some sampling of copyrighted material, especially when manipulated and recontextualised into a new art form, is legit and deserves to be heard.’ In one example Mr Chairman, he blended Elton John, Notorious B.I.G. and Destiny’s Child all in the span of 30 seconds.”

Jump to one year later, and this time we are in a club, baselines thumping. The very same Greg Gillis, shirtless and dripping with sweat, is performing to a packed crowd when all of a sudden he brings proceedings to a screeching halt. Why? So that he can make rock history by becoming what must surely be the only musician ever to have stopped mid gig in order to give a shout out to a law professor. He had worked with Professor Lawrence Lessig (previously of Stanford and now at Harvard) on his most recent book, titled simply “Remix”, and wanted to pass on his “congratulations for releasing that shit.”

Such is the bizarre universe that Gillis inhabits: part ground breaking mash-up artist (his most recent album Feed the Animals contains exactly 264 samples of copyrighted material and has received almost universal critical acclaim), part poster-boy for the free culture movement (of which Lessig is the driving force), part bane of an allegedly waning music industry (none of his four albums to date is available on itunes because of concerns about potential legal action). When I speak to him, however, Gillis’ thoughts are of a much more mundane nature. He can’t wait to get on his plane to Australia. “I’ve gotta tell you,” he says, “it’s snowing like hell here right now, so I’m really excited to be getting out of Pittsburgh.”

I begin by asking him about a statement he made a while back in Pitchfork, claiming that he wasn’t comfortable with being associated with “the whole mash-up movement”, as he put it at the time.

“I kind of go back on that a little bit now actually. Because there’s clearly a huge mash up influence in what I’m doing. I think what I was trying to express was that my influences and the reason I got into this style of music wasn’t necessarily traditional mash up artists. I grew up listening to a lot of the more experimental guys and more pop remix acts like Negativland, John Oswald, Kid 606, all of those guys, and a helluva lot of hip hop. I do think what I do is a bit distinct from the artists who just put together two songs (JP: the distinctly average “Jaydiohead” record that’s been doing the rounds in the blogosphere springs immediately to mind at this point). I want my music to be transformative, you know. That’s the ultimate goal of what I do. To use a lot of elements so that when you listen to an album of mine the point isn’t to listen to 300 songs in sixty minutes, it’s to listen to one whole piece of music composed out of all these elements.”

Whatever the theory, the public clearly enjoys what Gillis does. 2008 was a huge year for Girl Talk. “I played around 150 shows last year. And they’re all probably double the size they were two years ago.” A result, I suggest, not merely of the growing attention his records have been getting but also of Gillis’ reputation for a crazy live act. In one show for the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2007 for instance, to the amazement of the crowd and many a policeman, Gillis spontaneously took his show outside into an alleyway to finish it off there. Oh yes, and he really likes to get naked.

“Yeah, the live show kinda got a reputation for itself. I feel like I have an influence from a more underground music world where it’s totally acceptable to get in the face of the audience and jump on top of people and go nuts. It’s become the etiquette for me. The venues know that I like kids to be on stage and that I like to get in with the audience as much as possible. Almost every venue I play at nowadays, they’re open to it.”

And how does the live act compare to the record, I wonder. I mean, can we expect the same mash-ups we’ve come to know and love at the Laneway Festival and his sideshow at the Forum?

“The transitions are basically improvised every night, how I go from one segment to the next. I never really replicate that. But with the actual combination of songs, I never really want it to be something I’m improvising. Because for me the art of what I’m doing – it’s not like I hear a Duran Duran song that I like and then immediately it clicks what that’s gonna go with – it’s a very long trial and error process. I sit there and try out many different combinations and then that goes into the show. I’ll probably know that say these three songs go together and then these next four songs go together, but how I actually execute it, when I drop the beat, when I bring in the sample, every night that changes up.”

And just because I had to ask, what does Gillis make of this huge furore that’s made about his music from a legal perspective?

“My views on copyright are implied in my work, I think. It’s something I’m very interested in; active in, in fact. I read up on it. I love what Lawrence Lessig is doing. I am mildly reluctant to be a poster boy for it though. Just because this project isn’t necessarily about pushing political views. But if someone after a show wants to ask me about it or an interviewer wants to talk about it, I love talking about it. It’s cool.”

Besides, Gillis doesn’t perceive it as being an issue for very much longer. “You know, you look at the music industry and I think a lot of people who are up on what’s going on – the Radioheads, the Nine Inch Nails – and those are artists who throw their multitracks up online for free and let people do the remixing. It’s become something that’s a part of our culture now. It used to be, 10 or 20 years ago, that remixing a pop song and trying to make something new out of it could be a somewhat radical idea, but now with the internet you can just go on youtube and everything is recycled culture. It’s kind of where we’re at right now.”

True that. And if anyone reading this also has a penchant for remix, they’re hereby invited to get online and do something with the clips listed below. We’ll post them on the website for one and all to see.

Catch Mike Doyle’s submissions to Congress here: http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=AD3ndhIcbuo

Lawrence Lessig shout out here: http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=Fm4rgRPp7cU

Girl Talk’s gig in an alleyway at the Montreal Jazz Festival: http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=iLHwbf8dmUA

Girl Talk’s new album Feed The Animals’ is out now through Inertia/Illegal Art

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