F ?or two months, Gregg Gillis lived the wild life of a touring musician. Now he was about to meet a fiery end on the tarmac of Dallas Love Airport.
The 25-year-old mash-up prodigy more commonly known as Girl Talk was recently sleeping off a hangover on a flight from Seattle when he was suddenly shaken awake by the guy next to him. “He told me that the plane’s landing gear wasn’t working,” says Gillis by phone from the relative safety of his Pittsburgh home. “I was kind of out of it from playing a late show the night before, but I looked around the plane and saw people freaking out and realized I’d better wake up.”
Though there’s never a good occasion to have your plane come in for a belly landing, the timing couldn’t have been crueler for Gillis. For more than two years, he’d been the weekend warrior of the mash-up world, shuttling all over the country for gigs sandwiched between his 9-to-5 job as a biomedical engineer. Known for his playful sampling of everything from Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” to Biggie Smalls’ “Juicy,” and his ability to seamlessly lay them down on top of each other, as he did on his most recent album, Night Ripper, Gillis had painstakingly built his rep to the point where he could make a living touring full time — no small feat for a man who performs with nothing but a laptop and a microphone. Two months prior to his flight, he’d finally quit his day job to live every white-geek-with-a-laptop’s dream — playing before thousands at Bonnaroo and Coachella and opening up for Beck. He was, if you’ll pardon the pun, blowing up. Now he was going to die.
“The flight crew made an announcement that the backup gear probably wasn’t going to work and that we were in for a ‘rough landing,’ ” he says, “which basically meant we were going to crash.”
As you can probably guess, Gillis survived — the backup gear wound up working after all, and the flight ended smoothly and mercifully free of Almost Famous–like moments of candor. “No embarrassing near-death confessions,” he laughs. “But people were hugging each other in the aisles and cheering. It was one of those moments that really put your life and your priorities in perspective.”
But Gillis’ near plane crash hasn’t been the only perspective-inducing moment on his current tour. Narrowly avoiding catastrophe appears to have supplanted biomedical engineering as part of his routine. A few weeks ago, his computer crashed midset at an especially wild show in Tulsa, which, on a mash-up disaster scale, is the equivalent of an entire band’s instruments spontaneously combusting. “A combination of beer, sweat and humidity just fried the thing right onstage,” he says. “Luckily, I had everything backed up, because if I lost all my files, I’d just give up music. There’s seven years’ worth of work on there that I’d have to do over from scratch.”
Data loss and fiery death aren’t Gillis’ only potential career enders. There’s still the omnipresent threat of legal action from the recording industry and the artists he samples, though Gillis isn’t overly concerned.
“I actually ran into [Sonic Youth’s] Thurston Moore a few months ago,” he says. “I introduced myself and told him I made a living blatantly sampling his songs and had never paid him a cent in royalties. He was like, ‘Cool,’ which was great because he’s a musical hero of mine.”
Still, while the prospect of a raving Lars Ulrich–like creature storming a Girl Talk show with a crossbow and an armada of lawyers isn’t keeping Gillis awake at night, his potential legal woes do have a spot in the back of his mind.
“For a live show, I wouldn’t even hesitate to sample something if I thought it worked,” he explains, “but for the albums, I might have to start factoring in who I can safely use and who I can’t.”
Such is the precarious life of the mash-up artist. No matter what happens, Gillis is prepared to fight for the legality of his craft. Naturally, he’s an ardent fair-use advocate, and he’s even managed to solicit the aid of a congressman (Representative Mike Doyle, D-Pittsburgh) in helping his cause. “I’ve definitely got some powerful and intelligent people in support of what I do,” he says.
Even the congressman might not be able to help Gillis next month in Minneapolis, though, where he’s lined up a show with none other than Mr. “Chocolate Rain” himself, Tay Zonday, of Internet renown.
“That will definitely be interesting,” says Gillis. “No one really knows if he’s being serious or if it’s all a big ironic joke. I get a lot of that too, so I’m curious to see how it goes.”
Alas, no “Chocolate Rain” for Los Angeles. Just Gillis, his laptop, a microphone and the ever-present threat of catastrophe.
Girl Talk appears with Dan Deacon for two shows at the Echoplex, 1154 Glendale Blvd., L.A., Fri., Sept. 28, 7 & 10 p.m. (213) 413-8200.
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