Mixing ready-made songs on a laptop used to be small beer in the music industry, but thanks to Girl Talk—aka Gregg Gillis—it’s now considered an artform. And it’s way harder than it looks, especially if one is handling copyrights of celebs like Ludacris, Lil Wayne, Rage Against the Machine, Jay-Z, Kelis, Avril Lavigne, Michael Jackson or Kanye West.
When he is not denuding at his infamous live shows, Gillis creates mash-ups of anything from Missy Eliot to Nirvana, and morphs Top 40 songs into his own stream of consciousness. Gillis released his latest album, Feed The Animals, under the fittingly-named Illegal Art label, in an In Rainbows-esque pay-whatever-you-want suppositions. It paid off handsomely--Time Magazine named Feed the Animals one of the best albums of 2008 in their December Top 10 List. The album earned high critical marks thanks to Gillis’s preternatural ability to equilibrate contrasting sounds that unpackaged a new question: what really constitutes an original song? Gillis himself evokes Picasso’s famous words: “Bad artists copy, great artists steal.”
In an attempt to untangle the knotty issue of sampling songs, Gillis chatted with CP about his upcoming album and the national tour kicking off in October.
CP: What are some of your main inspirations?
Gregg Gillis: Any music I sample. I’m inspired by all of pop music. I feel like everything I sample clashed together constitutes influences and I’m just using them, getting to my style through different bands, various people using pre-existing media and collage-ing them together to make new sounds; experimental, weird music.
CP: What’s the criteria for the songs you choose? Are there performers you tend to use on regular basis?
Gregg Gillis: I like it to be pop music and I like it to be recognizable, so ideally it would have been in the top 40 at some point during the past 60 or 70 years. When I put together an album and there are 300 samples, it’s not that I sit down and decide, “Ok, these 300 songs are going to be on the album.” I have to sample thousands and thousands of different songs, so every day before I choose the song, I have to hang out, see what’s on the radio, go buy a CD or two. And I’ll probably find a part of a song that I like—like some instrumental part that I know will work in a different context. So I’ll sample that and catalogue it. It’s a whole process in itself—just sampling songs and isolating loops. And then there’s a whole different process—trying out different combinations of material. And when some things appeal to me, I will work with them in a live setting. And then depending on how well they work out in the live setting, they may make it to the album. It’s a slow, long evolution. So the songs that end up on the album are not pre-selected. There are those tools that work on it throughout.
CP: How does that work with the copyrights? How much mixed does a piece have to be to constitute a new song? Have you ever been in legal trouble because of that?
Gregg Gillis: There are certain subjective criteria in the U.S. copyright law, which say that you can sample somebody’s songs without asking for permission if your pieces follow certain rules. The law looks at the nature of what you’re doing, on whether it is transformative; the purpose of your work; the character of your work. Are you negatively impacting the potential material or sales; all sort of things like that. You really don’t know if your album is falling under these categories until it is actually challenged. You can’t just take it to a judge and ask whether it violates those rules or not. So we put out the music and hope for the best. And as far as the work being transformative, I think that is a very thin line. When does something become original? It’s something that’s hard to judge. And it’s the heart of what the law looks into.
CP: And it seems like playing with fire a little bit. But you were never sued?
Gregg Gillis: No.
CP: Were you apprehensive of making your album available for pay-whatever-you-want on the internet?
Gregg Gillis: I had a different perspective on releasing albums. A lot of bands are living off it, professionally. But I never intended this to be a career. I’ve always wanted to get the music out to as many people as possible. If I make zero money of this, it’s not the end of the world. As long as the album actually gets up there. I make a living from touring anyway. But the further the music reaches out there, the better it is for me. As soon as music hits the internet, it becomes free for anyone connected, so it seems silly to ignore that fact. Why charge people for an mp3 if they can get it for free? I think that if you are fair with people, they’ll be a little more respectful and reasonable with you.
CP: How important are the live performances?
Gregg Gillis: It’s two different worlds to me—the albums and then the performances. I like to introduce new elements into the performance each week. The live show is the creative exercise for coming up with the album material. The albums are something of their own, something you can sit down with and listen to. The live show is a really good physical outlet for the music. It’s the place where you can party and celebrate. And it’s the environment that truly gets to the bottom of this music.
CP: What’s the deal with the nude sequences during your live shows?
Gregg Gillis: It doesn’t exactly happen every time. It depends. Sometimes I am in the crowd, and when that happens, the shows get insanely hot, and I’ll be covered in sweat to the point where I’m just trying to strip my clothes off and get some breathing and to cool off. But in the early day of the shows, I would always approach this from a performance perspective. I was playing in basements and art galleries and places like that, where there were ten people. But I got up there, trying to push the party vibe to the crowd. It was a very awkward situation-- me playing a laptop, trying to get people to loosen up. I got into the habit of taking off my clothes; I tried to push this kind of house party feel to it. That became almost like my backup plan; something that adds some performance value to the show.
Clubplanet: Can you tell me a little about your background?
Gregg Gillis: I am from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is where I grew up, and where I started some bands in high school. I ended up going to college in Cleveland, Ohio. I got my first laptop when I was 18; and I started mixing in year 2000. I went to school for a couple of years and put up a few albums. Then I moved back to Pittsburgh and have been living there since.
CP: What’s the Pittsburgh music scene like?
Gregg Gillis: It’s very approachable. In high school I didn’t like it so much, because I was a jaded, bitter high school student. I wasn’t planning on moving back here after college, but once I did, it’s been great. It’s very livable, very cheap. The people here are great. Musically, or artistically, I don’t feel like there’s any competition. I feel free to do what I’m doing and everyone is very supportive.
CP: You used to have a day job...
Gregg Gillis: I had. I used to be a biomedical engineer for 3 years. I quit last year and focused on music full-time. I’m still interested in that but… it’s like one of those academic pursuits. You pick the best one, but that might not be your passion in life.
CP: It seems like you've made a smart choice.