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Girl Talk mastermind Gregg Gillis interprets the Top 40 with a scientific approach, absorbing each rhythmic song as he pries for phrases, sounds and melodies that culminate into sample-based symphonies. His fourth album, Feed the Animals is a grandiose adventure composed through a pain-staking process of transcending typical vocal tracks and rhymes creating melodic dance tracks that force shoulders to shimmy. A pioneer in reshaping the world of pop music, Gillis borders on the cusp of producer, musician and director. Using an esoteric approach to combine everyone from Kanye West to The Band to Michael Jackson and Rage Against the Machine, Gillis’ stream of conscious is an inventive approach grasping the very essence of popular music. I called Gillis at his Pittsburgh home and spoke about everything from his love of Nirvana to his previous alter-ego as a biomedical engineer and how “everyday is his main musical interest.”

What initiated your first interest in doing such complicated mash-ups?
I had a band in high school; it was very experimental. Through that I got into sound collages and used preexisting music to sample and manipulate sounds. It’s more of a juxtaposition – taking a pop song and tearing it apart.

Was there an initial band that made you want to involve yourself in the music scene?
Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, definitely. I loved Nirvana and then went through a period where I was too call for them. Then at some point, I realized how awesome that music still is. It’s been something very influential in wanting to start a band. I think the whole Nirvana catalogue is all amazing.

Do you think being an engineer for a long period of your life plays an important role as your life as a DJ?
Maybe. I went to school for four years to study engineering to approach problems. I got very used to doing slow, meticulous work so I guess the nature reflected how I worked on music. I like to take my time on very basic elements and not worry about the bigger picture. I can work for up to and over 10 hours a day on music, which is like a regular day job.

Has living in Pittsburgh been conducive to your lifestyle and music scene?
Absolutely. There are lots of creative, interesting bands here. The support here for me has been really good over the years. There are promoters here who have helped put me on and there are people who have been supporting me for a long time. I haven’t really seen to many people copying what I’m trying to do; I’ve just seen other people doing mildly related forms of music. All the bands doing well here (in Pittsburgh) are very diverse. The aesthetics of the city are great and we all really support each other.

gtftaartworkYou’ve been with your record label Illegal Art for a long time now. What’s it like being on a smaller label with such a steady, constant and growing fan base?
It’s been fun for both of us. We grew together. I’ve been a fan of the label before I ever got involved in it. In the early days the records had a small cult following which was fine. It was kind of we were making weird music and putting it out on a small-scale label. Now, the music has become a bit more accessible. We do know there’s a wider audience out there for us but we took these steps together. Milo (the main man running Illegal Art) has almost been a part of the band. He was always very supportive when people weren’t that into it at first. When I finished Night Ripper … I sent it out to a bunch of labels, around 50, and only one got back to me. That was a really good sign that I didn’t need to deal with the bullshit of people. I’m a very DIY operation – I usually tour by myself and I feel like Illegal Art is at the same level, a grassroots level.

Why did you decide to release Feed the Animals as a pay what you want/can CD?
We put it out there as Illegal Arts’ idea. This is the one album where we had people anticipating its release because there was a fan base out there and there were people paying for shows. In 2008 everyone can get music for free. I like being up front with people. If you want to pay for it, that’s cool. If not, that’s cool too. That’s the reality of it. If you want to donate that’s fine. However, I wouldn’t have been cool releasing the album if Radiohead hadn’t legitimized it. I didn’t want anyone to take this album less seriously or think that I didn’t spend as much time on it.

Do you think the public response to it has been positive and do you thnk more bands will continue to publish albums as a pay what you want release?
It’s hard to say. I feel that we were successful with it for a large part because of how novel it is. People start to talk about it, using a pay for what you want album. It’s a new experience. If every album was released like this, I feel like people would become more comfortable with it. People, so far, have expressed gratitude for the freedom to pick what they want.

How long does it take you to “mash-up” an individual song and how do you know what kind of compilation will make a smooth transition?
It’s a very drawn out process. Separation is almost an afterthought. It’s not like I sit and say let’s start an album and pick out songs. I trigger samples when I work on music and I just try out a lot of different combinations and experiment where it will flow. After about a year and half all of the music takes shape but I have a good idea of the flow of it already. A few songs have developed on the spot but I mostly already know what I’m going to begin and end on. I pick very specifically but know specific points within the album that are going to exist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, would you consider yourself as a maximalist?
Maximalist is the way I want to describe myself and the mash-ups. I want to make something excessive and over the top. In my mind I visualize a collage of very heavy hitting songs.

When you listen to a song how do you know what lines or beats you want to pull out of it?
Usually things jump out at me. I’m always in and out of a mental state of wanting to work. Sometimes I’ll be listening to music casually and other times I’ll be listening to specific samples. I don’t always know what I’m going to do with it but I always pay attention to a specific vocal breakdown or guitar solo I like. When I listen to a song I pick out where I could add vocals or a guitar part. 50-75 percent of material I work on never sees the light of day. Finding out what I really want to use is very intuitive; very trial and error.

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With such a variation in the song, how do you decide to give it an overall title?
That’s the most annoying thing to me, especially after spending to years putting together an album. It’s frustrating because in my mind there’s specific segments of the album that are pieced in my mind. The samples don’t have a lot of theme to them. Most of the material is very linear and usually picking out the track title is fairly hard. The titles tend to be relatively vague and I don’t want it to be very vague so I try to make them fun.

What is performing like for you?
I have a different background from more traditional DJs. When I started performing, the scene was a small group of people playing laptops – anyone from Daft Punk to smaller experimentalists. My electronic band in high school was my foundation of how I understood performing live. I don’t want to be a DJ set. It’s basically me triggering samples and putting together work in real time and interacting with the crowd. Watching the guy play a laptop is not as exciting as watching someone playing the drums. I have that freedom and I like to get on the microphone and have the show make a personal appeal. I’ve always referred to myself as a producer but for the first four years no one ever referred to me as that. I like creating music and I’ve never played an unaltered song. Based on that, I do more what producers do rather than DJs. I’m trying to make a song, not play a song.

You mostly use somewhat popularized songs in your mash-ups but you relate to a more independent facet of music. Have you ever considered using more independent music as opposed to the Top 40?
My whole project is about embracing pop. It just reaches everyone and it’s the music everyone hears. You hear it at your sister’s wedding or in your car. Music is how life influences you and then you relate it other things and it gives a new light to it. When people are writing songs intended for everyone in the world to hear it, it’s a very noble goal. In all honesty, trying to make pop music is very hard because you’re trying to make an idea on the crowd; you’re trying to make them think something about you. If someone is trying to make you think they are weird, they will be weird. They all have a specific message. For pop musicians, they almost step up and talk shit on everyone. If you make music you want everyone to like, it’s less pretentious.

Do you think the face of music is definitely changing?
For the first time ever, mainstream media is not completely in control of what we hear. Before the internet, people got music from the radio or MTV. People can kind of decide on what they want now. I don’t think pop music is dying out but it’s just taking on a new face. People can set up a MySpace page and get popular by that. Obviously pop music is still relevant with American Idol and everything but when people have access to the internet they can approach alternate styles like M.I.A. or Spank Rock.

http://www.myspace.com/girltalk

–Eliza K. Johnston, Photos by Andrew Strasser