It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that Pittsburgh's Greg Gillis, the 27-year-old former biomedical engineer who "mashes" up popular music under the moniker Girl Talk, is the spiritual offspring of another son of the Three Rivers, Andy Warhol. Like Warhol, Gillis creates works that celebrate pop culture in a seemingly indiscriminate way (although there is often an underlying critique or commentary). And like Warhol, Gillis merges the high and lowbrow, compelling sophisticates to take a more serious look at elements of popular culture that may not have seemed worthwhile of study or guilt-free enjoyment. Warhol celebrated celebrity culture or (later) professional wrestling, while Gillis subversively introduces mainstream rap and R&B to an audience that typically listens to indie rock. Finally, like Warhol, Gillis leaves intact those cultural phenomena that have inspired them. Just as Warhol collected his Time Capsules, which served not only as notebooks and scrapbooks of his personal memories, but as another creative project, Gillis collects songs from hit parades past and rearranges them into a song or album that usually leaves the original piece recognizable, even if he might use only a fragment or speed up the song to raise the pitch.
Gillis, who brings Girl Talk to a sold-out show in Bloomington Jan. 16, arrived at a time when technology has made truly omnivorous mashups possible. Just as, in electronic music, those working with synthesizers in the '80s and '90s were miles beyond those working with tubes and analog tape in the '70s, Gillis can practice trial-and-error on hundreds of tracks without committing an impossible amount of time and labor to his project.
Briefly, a mashup is created by taking the a cappella mix from one song - usually widely available on EPs or on studio outtakes on the Internet - and playing that track simultaneously with another song, typically an instrumental. Gillis has moved far beyond the mashup in its simplest, two-song form, compiling an estimated 322 samples for his most recent release, 2008's Feed the Animals
. So while Gillis is often referred to as a mashup artist, one could also call his work sound collage, since he often constructs instrumental passages that lack an a cappella vocal, and he has even introduced his own music into the material (particularly on the closing track of 2006's Night Ripper
In an interview with NUVO, Gillis said that it takes him a year to two years to create an album and that he works four to 10 hours a day when he's not touring. He's created a library of thousands of loops, beats and vocals from which he can construct his finished tracks, and he'd be happy to share that library with others, if not for copyright restrictions. Gillis works almost entirely from music that falls under copyright, although he believes that his appropriation of copyrighted material is legal (and that he can create commercial recordings) under the Fair Use provision of the U.S. Copyright Act, which holds that someone may incorporate copyrighted material into their own work if certain, somewhat nebulous standards are met (including whether the work is transformative and not simply a copy of another work).
Gillis creates his sound collages from a wide variety of pop music, some widely critically acclaimed, some seemingly disposable (and note that, while some DJs spin jazz and classical along with pop, Gillis sticks exclusively to pop recorded in the last 50 years, and much of it from the last 20). On the first track from Feed the Animals
, "Play Your Part (Pt. 1)," he incorporates elements from songs by TTC, DJ Funk, Cupid, The Spencer Davis Group, Roy Orbison, Huey Lewis and the News, Rage Against the Machine, Aaliyah, T.I., Sinead O'Connor and Jay-Z. Rap vocals tend to dominate the mix, but he gives pop vocals prominence as well, including a re-appearance by a sped-up Orbison later in the album ("You Got It") and the Beach Boys ("God Only Knows"). He isolates elements of all these songs in such a clean way - excising only the bass line, drum beat or vocals - that his albums don't sound like the train wreck they could, with stray beats crashing into dissonant keyboards. The album almost sounds sparse in the interstices between vocals or melody lines, suggesting early rap or primitive drum and bass in its simplicity (often without any sustained notes that might fill in the space between beats).
While Gillis' work would suggest that he doesn't necessarily discriminate between different music based on whether it's good or bad, his position is more complex than that. "I like music to varying degrees," Gillis explains. "But I have my own taste. I might like a certain Beatles record better than another one, or one rap single more than another one. Simultaneously, I try to have an appreciation for everything. When I hear something I don't like, I wonder why people like it. I need to, at least on an objective level, understand why someone is into this."
Gillis calls his live performance "live sample triggering," meaning that he pushes a button on his laptop to play a track, and doesn't, for instance, perform music live on keyboards or other traditional instruments. Unlike DJs who have more kinetic things to do with turntables, much of his time is spent dancing or lining up upcoming tracks, or taking out handclaps or instrumentals depending on the night.
When Gillis began performing live under the name Girl Talk, he tried all the rock star tricks to try to make a laptop performance exciting: screaming, jumping into the crowd, bringing along female dancers, acting like David Lee Roth, stripping to his underwear or going completely nude. The over-the-top stage show was a way of poking fun at the notion that a laptop show has to be boring, particularly since people making music on computers at that time were often more experimental, a few years before it became accepted for a DJ to work from a hard drive full of songs rather than (or in addition to) a crate full of records.
Now, the audience supplies the energy with which Gillis tried to infuse his shows in the early going. At a recent Chicago show, a balloon drop and confetti rockets festooned the crowd and the stage filled with dancers who surrounded Gillis at his laptop rig. While there will be less pomp at the Bloomington show - as Gillis puts it, "I can't expect my friends to come along every random day," friends who helped him set up a stage show with an unprecedented number of props - a sold-out crowd can certainly be expected to dance, dance, dance.