In a lot of ways, Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. mash-up artist Girl Talk, isn't as reckless as he used to be. You wouldn't guess that from the toilet paper hurricane raining down on you at his show, nor the wall of pulsing neon lights, nor the mess of confetti and balloons he tends to leave behind. You also wouldn't know it from the cavalier attitude he has about getting in some serious trouble for breaking copyright laws. The truth is, Gillis has never really worried too much about getting into trouble, even way back when he was setting his high school auditorium on fire. (Or so went the rumor.)
Nowadays, Girl Talk shows are like Blue Man Group on speed. If you saw him years ago, you know things have gotten bigger and crazier with every tour. He's more famous than ever, so naturally, the hipsters have turned on him. But we discovered in a recent interview that in a sense that was always part of his plan, and to him, things are evolving as they should:
LA Weekly: So what's the story with the Joysticks? We saw a video recently that showed you as part of a duo that just stood there on stage while a record skipped. What was going on there?
Girl Talk: That band was basically, when I was like 14, I was really getting into underground music, and I got into just how obscure and weird could it get. That's what I was into. But oftentimes referencing pop, even in the Joysticks. We would turn on the radio and make noise over top of it or have skipping CDs playing and things like that. It was a very, kind of like young, bratty noise project. It was something that was borderline performance art. We rarely practiced. It was almost always about the performances, coming up with ideas, what we were going to do.
We were kind of known for just breaking shit. Like smashing TVs or lighting off fireworks at the audience or just being very confrontational with the audience coming out to the show. And that was well known. We'd played lots of shows, and we would get opening slots for bands and do that. We were banned from a couple of venues in Pittsburgh.
And we were written up [in newspapers.] People locally, if you knew local music, you knew about this group of teenagers who would just smash shit, and that's what they did, and that was us.
We were also well-known in our high school. It's like any high school – you know the few people who have bands. It's kind of like having the Smashing Pumpkins cover band. We were the noise band.
People in that auditorium are clearly pumped.
The story specifically behind that performance is that the year before, there had been an audition to be in the talent show. We had the plan that we were going to go – we had written a pop song and performed that for the audition, and we were going to do that again for the rehearsals. But for the show, we were going to do a typical Joysticks show and smash all these TVs and light off fireworks at the audience.
So when we showed up to the rehearsals, the teachers, they knew what we did. Most people in the school knew about this band. We had all these TVs there and we told them we were just using them for props, but they told us that if we didn't do our real performance right there for rehearsals, that if we pulled anything, a surprise at the show, that we'd be kicked out of school or something. So we made the decision just to perform at the rehearsals. This was in front of like 20 people. We start smashing TVs and lighting off fireworks and all this stuff, and they stopped us after like five minutes, and they banned us from playing the talent show.
The word got out in school and the big joke was that we caught the auditorium on fire because some carpet was burned. There was all this hype built up around it.
So the next year comes around and there's new people in charge of the talent show, and they had no idea about that. There were no rehearsals , no auditions this time. We were just automatically in. So everyone was just so hyped for us to just destroy things, you know, break everything there. We announced the show on our website, and a lot of people from the Pittsburgh music scene came to that show. Promoter Manny Theiner who was a legendary character in Pittsburgh came to that show and people from the band The Modey Lemon and Grand Buffet, and this band Operation Reinformation – there was a big chunk of Pittsburgh music scene people who drove out to the suburbs to this auditorium to see this show.
So when we took the stage, everyone was expecting the chaos, and we came up with the game plan that we were going to stay completely motionless and have those noise loops playing. And we were prepared to perform for an hour. We had an hour's worth of material. So we were basically good to go fully-well knowing that they were going to cut us off.
I guess what's not really seen in that video is like half of the audience leaving. Parents holding kids ears and things like that. It was definitely like an exclamation point on the Joysticks saga in terms of our high school.
What ever happened to the Joysticks?
It was just kind of the end of high school. We were going to different schools and that was it. Pretty much when Joysticks broke up, Girl Talk started. Early Girl Talk stuff kind of related to late Joysticks stuff. I definitely see some continuation there.
It was always a high school thing. We knew full well at the end of that summer before going to school that it would be over. That last summer before we broke up, we did a thing where we'd perform pretty much three to four times a week throughout Pittsburgh. Like, renegade shows and parking lots and outside of other shows. It was like our going-away tour. Pretty much throughout Pittsburgh that entire summer you could stumble upon us performing. We did that for like two straight months.
Do you feel like you've always been drawn to an element of chaos in what you're doing?
Definitely. And I think just the experience of the Joysticks – it was so highly influential into Girl Talk. The moment I started doing Girl Talk, there was no question as to whether I was going to perform or not. From the first moment I was cutting up pop music as Girl Talk, I was already thinking about the shows. And I had so many shows with the Joysticks where we were pissing off an audience or we were standing there clearing a room, or people were getting excited for whatever reason, you know, things that you kind of have to have some nerves to do. You know, playing outside a venue letting out, people wanting to kick over your amplifiers that are plugged into the wall or whatever. I had that always under my belt, just years of doing that.
So going into Girl Talk, I already was prepared to try to be fearless with it. Getting up on stage and causing a reaction, or making a fool of yourself and not caring. That was always a big element.
Even when it got a little more popular and people started to get excited about the shows, I always loved that chaotic element of getting people to come on stage or getting in the crowd. I think that relates to the Joysticks thing. I love it to be no rules. To have this thing that is electronic music be raw, like have a punk rock sort of energy.
To this day, the show now is big, but I still like to have elements of that. I see that connection from the Joysticks stuff onto this tour, even. There's no doubt some things are related.
Is it difficult for you that there's a certain amount of rules forced upon you now that the shows are so much bigger?
Yeah, but I've learned to play within that structure. Part of the idea with Girl Talk was always just to embrace pop music and culture. Ever since it's gotten bigger, I feel like it was the right thing to do for the scope of the project just to play with the rules. We've definitely lost some chaos, but I feel like even in the early days of Girl Talk I always tried to make it be a big production. There were shows when I was playing in front of 30 people and I'd have a 10-person dance squad, or just doing elaborate things, having outfit changes, this or that. And that was like from day one.
Kind of working within the structure now, it's definitely less chaotic than a few years ago. I feel like this is a more fully-realized version of what a Girl Talk show should be like. We have an LED wall now and lights and a 12-person crew, and a semi truck and all that. So it's really gotten pop for real. Which makes sense. It was what I was definitely aiming for in the early days.
So you just have to adapt.
Yeah. You know, for a few years there, the shows were well known for being chaotic. Anyone could jump on the stage and it was just lawless and anything would go, and that was fun. And people have experienced that. Then the shows grew and I felt like it was time to move onto something else. I wouldn't want to be touring now and coming back to these cities two years later and having the show be identical in energy and style. And people coming out the shows on this tour as opposed to a couple years ago, I feel like it's distinctly different. It's something else, and that's something I'm definitely proud of.
What's interesting is that before you were well known, you were definitely part of the hipster zeitgeist, which is so bizarre in a way since the first tenet of hipsterism is to listen only to obscure music. You were obscure, but your act was based on super popular music the hipsters were supposed to hate.
That's something that was calculated, definitely. With Girl Talk, that was always the goal there. It's like, I like this underground stuff, I like this obscure stuff, but I like this pop thing as well, and I see no reason why there are these boundaries. Or why you're supposed to like one and not the other.
So with the early days of Girl Talk that was definitely a calculated idea. I wanted to challenge people. I was excited to show up at these underground clubs and play rock bands or whoever, and sample this pop music. And maybe push buttons.
At every stage of this project people have hated on something, and that's always good to me. I don't want to have something that people can't hate. I want to create something that some people love and some people hate. Some people think it's the new wave of music or the future of music and some people think it's the end of creativity. That's exciting to me. And that's definitely something I aimed for this project to have.
But it's funny because every step of the way, the reason for hating this has changed. I feel like a lot of them are counter to each other. I feel like a lot of people who really dislike this probably don't fully understand the history of this or how this came up, and I don't expect everyone to. So that's all good. A lot of people can just see this now and say oh, he's sampling pop music and it's popular, and the crowd has definitely gotten more vague, in a good way. Now there's indie rock nerds and there's frat boys and there's everything. It's hard to pinpoint the crowd. Because of that I think people can come out and say it's very basic. But I don't think a lot of people could understand that for six years, I was me basically playing to no one. It was a rebellious road to a certain degree. There were a lot of people fighting against it. For a lot of those early shows, people would hate, and be unplugging me. But it just was rebellious and I was using pop as a tool to fight against that, and to try to challenge people. I think a lot of people that see it now maybe don't understand that that's what this is rooted in. Them hating on it because I'm sampling pop music, I understood that people were going to react like that, and I was excited about it.
So no shame putting the “guilty pleasure”-type songs on your albums. We admit to being psyched when “Party in the USA” made an appearance.
I actively fight that phrase, or that notion, with the music. I don't believe in having any guilty pleasures, personally. What I like is what I like, and that's kind of at the heart of the project. I have to wear it on my sleeve. And I do love [“Party in the USA”]. There's no holding back to me.
So many musicians are constantly referencing the cool things they're supposed to reference. Those important bands you're supposed to like or this or that, but this whole run has always been sort of counter to that – trying to push being open-minded towards whatever song.
What music have you been throwing into your show that's not on your album?
I've been doing some stuff with the Travis Porter song “Make It Rain.” It's just one of my favorite songs out right now. On All Day, there's drums from the song “My Boo” by Ghost Town DJs, but the melody isn't sampled at all on the record. That's one of my favorite songs, straight up. So I've been sampling “Make It Rain” with a couple different mixes but most nights, I've been doing it with “My Boo,” and I've really liked that a lot.
A big thing on this tour now has been doing remixes of stuff from the album. Different interpretations of the album. A fun part for me in the set recently has been sampling the Waka Flocka song “Hard in da Paint,” which is on All Day, and I do a reinterpretation of that. Recently I've been sampling that with Peter, Bjorn and John's “Young Folks.” I really like the way that turned out.
I've been sampling the Supergrass song “Alright,” which I sample on All Day with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, I've been cutting that up with T.I.'s “What You Know.” I sampled T.I's “What You Know” on Feed the Animals, so combining those two things, I thought they worked so well.
So there's lots of stuff like that. Stuff on older records or something that I sampled 4 or 5 years ago that happens to work really well with something new that I'm coming up.
Search for these samples and more as Girl Talk performs at 8 p.m. on Mon. March 21, and Sat. March 26, at the Hollywood Palladium.