Pants-Off Dance-Off

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H e’s been pumping out mixes since he was a kid, but this year, Pittsburgh native Gregg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, barnstormed the laptop-performance nightlife scene. His brilliantly mixed-and-mashed album Night Ripper had become the party soundtrack of the summer — 250 samples strong. It also landed him on stage with Beck at massive European festivals, and had him entertaining partygoers like LL Cool J and Paris Hilton, all of them flopping about to his unremitting clips of ’70s pop and ’90s rap. At his earlier shows, Gillis became infamous for his exhibitionist antics on stage, spontaneously removing his clothing (all of it) mid-performance. But he says he’s toned that down slightly. “Ever since my popularity started rising a bit, people come out ready to party,” says Gillis, “so it’s become less important for me to entertain people by taking my pants off.” — Sara Cardace

First of all, you’re a guy. Why the name Girl Talk?
It’s actually a reference to some obscure line in a Jim Morrison poetry book. I don’t even know which one anymore. I’ve been using the name for years now. It kind of sprung up amongst friends as a joke and it’s taken off to lengths I didn’t initially expect.

So you’re stuck with it now.
I like it. My first few albums were more experimental, so at that time it was fun to have this really straight-up name like Girl Talk instead of some made-up word for this experimental laptop guy.

I know a lot of people who’ve been getting it on to Night Ripper. Any thoughts?
I think that’s cool. I think the music is very sexual. There’s been a lot of sexuality throughout all my albums, which kind of comes with club music in general, and especially with a lot of current rap music. I’ve never had sex to it myself. I don’t know how you’d keep up with it. It’s a little fast-paced for me.

Do you intentionally put a lot of sex in your mixes, or is that just the nature of the songs you choose?
Well, I don’t pick things at random. I’ve always been into juxtapositions of really different elements. Things like really overtly sexual rap mixed with clean-cut ’70s pop music, stuff like that. You hear a guy rapping about having sex, and it’s set over James Taylor. I think it’s what makes the music fun.

How many songs do you sample on Night Ripper?
That’s a difficult question. I know that there are about 167 artists blatantly sampled, but a lot of those artists are sampled more than once, and then throughout the whole album I kind of add my own percussion, so there’s plenty of drum hits, snares, kick drums, that I could no way identify what the source material is. I’d say there’s over 250 songs sampled.

I saw someone posted a massive list of all the songs online.
It’s ridiculous. I saw that on Wikipedia and I’ve been going in there, but I haven’t actually been doing any editing, even though I’ve seen things misattributed.

How did you get into all of this in the first place?
Before Girl Talk I was in this band called the Joysticks. We were basically an experimental noise band — sixteen-year-olds who would break stuff and light off fireworks and make noise. We used to sample a lot of pop music and mix it with the noise, and we thought that was entertaining to listen to. So whenever that ended, I decided to focus entirely on making my own music out of pop music. The early years were making this really noisy experimental stuff out of pop samples, and then over the years it just kind of developed into what Night Ripper has become. I think it was mostly a matter of the live shows, because I’ve always tried to entertain people live and get them riled up, and slowly I just started making dancier and dancier music. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but all the time I was screaming at people at live shows to loosen up, but I was playing music that they couldn’t loosen up to. So to me, Night Ripper is kind of the most watered down version of what I’ve been doing, even though there are a ton of samples.

Are you bummed that that’s the one blowing up?
No, no. It’s exactly what I was going for. It’s the most listener-friendly approach to what I’ve been doing. I just feel bad for people who may be picking up my earlier albums now, because they’re definitely more experimental.

Gillis in his office. The suit will soon be on the floor.

When you play live shows, it looks like there are tons of sweaty guys there and not many girls. Is that the case?
[Laughs] Maybe I’m disillusioned, but I feel like I have a strong female fan base compared to my friends who are in rock bands. It’s a weird thing, because it’s a dance event, but the music is so fast that it’s not just straight-up dance music. People get riled up. Sometimes it almost crosses over into moshing or people just going crazy in general, to the point where guys may be taking over and dominating. That could be the problem.

Have lots of people been approaching you after shows?
Yeah. It’s actually been a little overwhelming because I still have a day job. I’m a biomedical engineer. I’m in the office nine-to-five, but the Girl Talk stuff is starting to suck up so much of my time. Show requests have really gone through the roof, so now I have a booking agent and lots of remix work. I’m mildly stressed out. But it’s been cool. Now I have out-of-town shows every single weekend. I can’t tour during the week because I only have so many vacation days.

Do girls hit on you a lot?
Yeah, a bit. A lot more now, I guess. I have a steady girlfriend so she’s always there, creeping over my back.

Smart girl. Why’s the album called Night Ripper?
It’s based on a T-shirt I’ve had for years of this skateboarder dude tearing up the streets. I wore it a lot for a while, and people used to call me Night Ripper. I think the sound on this album is a little more aggressive than my other ones, even though it’s a really playful album. So I was going for a kind of night-party vibe, but a little more aggressive. The name seemed fitting.

On the album you sample Eminem’s “Ass Like That,” 2 Live Crew’s “We Want Some Pussy” and X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage Up Yours.” Would you say you’re an ass man, a pussy man, or a bondage man?
I’m pretty much a straight-up pussy man. I’d say that’s my preference. But it also goes hand in hand with my girlfriend’s requests. Maybe if she had a different preference it might swing one way or another, but for now, that’s it.

You also sample “Let’s Talk About Sex,” “I Want Your Sex” and Busta Rhymes’ “Touch It.” Is this subliminal messaging?
I don’t think it’s subliminal at all. I think pop music in general just celebrates excess and a lot of sexual behavior and having fun, and I’ve always considered my music a celebration of pop music, so I don’t think there’s anything subliminal about it. It’s sexual music. A celebration of pop and life.

I hear you get naked on stage. True or false?
I’ve only been completely naked two or three times, back when I started. I’ve actually been keeping my clothes on more these days.

That’s a shame.
Obviously when you get up there in the beginning and people don’t really know who you are and you’re just playing pop music and mixing and matching, especially if you’re using a laptop, people are just immediately going to dismiss you. So I’ve always thought it was important to go nuts and entertain. I like to spaz out and I get really hot, so I used to, as a standard, rip off my clothes and see if people in the audience would follow suit.

Did they?
People have definitely taken off clothes. I played in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago, and it was just hot as hell. Everyone at that show, girls and guys, was taking off shirts and pants. It was almost getting to disgusting levels. Everyone was just kind of standing still, on stage together, just soaking wet. It felt really gross and weird, but in kind of a great way.

But you get naked less often now?
My parents have been paying attention to stuff, and they’ve seen me get down to my boxers on-stage before, but now they’re like, “Greg, we’ve read on the internet that you’re getting naked. This is getting out of control.”

Have you been touring a lot?
I’m flying out for London this weekend to open for Beck. That’s going to be the biggest show I’ve played at this point. It’s totally this weird thing where I’ll pack up my stuff on Friday after work, fly to London, play, fly back on Sunday and go back to work on Monday morning.

Does that kind of schedule preclude you from indulging in all the touring/partying/groupies insanity?
I don’t know if I’m at that level yet. All of this is new. I’ve been playing for years, but Girl Talk has been a slow rise. I don’t think the schedule will stop me in the future though, especially if I have some buddies with me to tear it up. As for now, I’m still looking forward to my first official hotel room to trash.

Does your girlfriend ever get to come with you?
Up to this point, most of the shows I would drive to, so she’d just jump in the car. But more and more shows pay enough to buy an extra ticket now, so I’m trying to bring her along as much as possible.

If you had to give up sex or music, which would you choose?
Oh, I think I would definitely have to give up music. Immediately.

Good answer. So what’s next?
Right now I’m doing remix work for a bunch of people, including Beck and some others. I’ve also been doing new music in the style of Night Ripper, stuff I can incorporate into my live shows, since I never do that on the fly. I’m keeping myself entertained.

I can’t believe all this is happening and you’re only twenty-four. You look older.
I think I have an old-man face. I’ve been pushing that idea for years, but people won’t give it to me straight.

© 2006 Sara Cardace & Nerve.com