Mash-up master Girl Talk talks back

As Gregg Gillis, also known as Girl Talk, grabbed my hand and waved it in the air with his own, his sweat spattering my face, I thought about how different this interaction was from our last. The earlier one was very tame in comparison, to say the least. It had only been about two hours ago when I had met Gillis in the very same space, but it was sweat-free and people-free (minus the sound guys and two groupies).

I was told to meet Gillis at 7:30 p.m., but he was nowhere to be found. I called the Undertaker, a manager Gillis’ PR agent told me to contact if there were any problems, but for some reason it went straight to Gillis’ voicemail. Around 8 p.m., when I was ready to concede that Girl Talk had stood me up, I saw him, recognizing his startling blue eyes immediately.

A while later, after his sound check and after he had patiently conversed with the groupies (one asked him if he knew that Master P had been a straight-A student), we sat on the floor of the wrestling room facing each other. He popped open a can of Bud Heavy, and I asked him if he was the Undertaker. His large eyes widened. “Who told you that? Jessica [Gillis’s publicist]?” he asked. “Oh man, she’s f—-ing fired.” I told him that Jessica told me that the Undertaker is his manager and he said, “Oh, right. Yeah. He’s actually not with me – he’s supposed to be here.” He smiled. “He’s like my roadie, and he’s like a collaborator in the music in certain ways.” When I told Gillis that the “Undertaker’s” number had led me to his voicemail, he said, “I don’t know, she probably gave you the wrong number.” I left it at that, and we started talking about his busy schedule – Gillis played 107 shows last year, and amazingly enough, had a day job as a biomedical engineer until June.

“It was really funny for a while but then it got to be really overwhelming,” said Gillis. “My co-workers didn’t know about my music stuff so it was this funny weird dynamic of getting to play for a few hundred kids and getting back in a cubicle and getting s—- on by some old guys.”

The unusual fact that Gillis kept his day job for such a long time is just one way he shows his modesty. In reference to being a write-on on the Spring Fling concert ballot, Gillis expressed his disbelief in his rising fame. “That’s crazy. It’s weird. It’s very hard to tell how far spread it’s got to me,” he said. “The popularity started out of nowhere when it took off. Last night I played for 1000 people in New Haven – that’s mind-blowing. For people to want to see a show with a guy playing a laptop – the fact that it’s in demand – is really crazy.”

Even Gillis’s stage name is a testament to his tongue-in-cheek style. “I picked Girl Talk because it doesn’t sound like a guy playing a laptop. It’s very teeny and over the top,” Gillis said. “Destiny’s Child original band name was Girl’s Tyme. That was the company I wanted to be in. I didn’t want to be DX38 Alpha man.”

However, as Gillis mentioned earlier, he takes his music seriously – about 10 hours of mixing per minute of music. It’s also extremely difficult for Gillis to work on his new album when he’s touring at the same time – “There’s just so much temptation of going out and drinking a beer for free with someone after the show instead of going home and sitting in front of the computer,” he said. “I haven’t done s—- on the road recently but I am squeezing it in between shows when I go home.”

For Gillis, the creative process is not as easy as listening to the radio and having an epiphany. “I have a hard time finding combinations I like, and I go through hundreds and hundreds of things to find the little ones I like,” he said. “I’m always isolating loops and messing around with the software. It’s really trial and error. It’s stressful for me to do an album with so many different options.”

As for his new album, Gillis says that while it is superficially similar to Night Ripper, his music has evolved. “With the live show, I’ve gotten a mildly slower pace, not as much jumping from one song to another – that’s not what this album is about,” he said. “I work with more parts of the songs, and building them. It’s more about building traditional song structures and I think it got slightly more accessible.”

With all of the effort and thought Gillis puts into his music, it’s clear that he considers his work original art. “The entity is my own,” he said. “I’m painting it even though I didn’t create the paints. It’s an appropriation-based art – I’m just playing these other guys’ instruments. It’s so pop and widespread, most people understand the context. It’s collaborating with people to some degree.” Surprisingly, Gillis has not gotten in trouble for violating copyright laws. “It’s weird because a lot of my contemporaries who do this kind of music got in trouble,” Gillis said. “I think maybe there are so many artists sampled it would be so complicated to figure out how much each sample’s worth.”

Unfortunately for many Girl Talk fans out there, Gillis is considering returning to biomedical engineering in the near future. “I’m going to make music forever but I don’t intend on it to make me money, and if it does then f—- it – I wouldn’t mind doing it forever,” he said. “But I can see myself in a year or two back in the cubicle – I have a thing to fall back on, so I never want to be concentrated on ‘this better be what people want.’”

But at the moment, Gillis was focusing on the very near future: the show, and what he was going to do after. He said he would love to see our resident mash-up artist, DJ Dirty Deeds, and that he would maybe drop by the tent party after the show. As we wrapped up the interview and I got up from the floor, he apologized again for being late. He smiled and said, “If the Undertaker had showed up, we would have started on time.”