Girl Talk’s Gregg Gillis talks new album, tour, and biomedical lab work

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Gregg Gillis. // Photo by Joey Kennedy

Girl Talk’s Night Ripper is one of those albums where, if it hit you just the right way on your first listen, it fundamentally changed how you perceived music, and remix culture as a whole.

Since 2005, Pittsburgh, PA’s Gregg Gillis has operated under the DJ stage name of Girl Talk. The young musician had come up in the weird art music scene of area, and had the notion to attempt something hitherto unknown: a long-form mashup of not just single songs layered atop other single songs, but free-flowing combinations of separate elements with an almost fluid nature of ebbing and flowing throughout essentially one 45-minute barrage of sound—borrowing from every decade and genre of music.

Upon release, it was the kind of thing that either floored a house party en masse, or became a music nerd’s extra credit trivia/homework, wherein you attempted to identify as many disparate (often almost hinted towards) elements of popular songs that you could identify. [If you want to see what that nightmarishly complicated tapestry looks like in infographic form, check this out.]

Gillis is about to release his first full-length collaborative album, Full Court Press with Wiz Khalifa, Big K.R.I.T., and Smoke DZA. In line with that, he’s hitting the road on tour.

Ahead of his April 9 show at The Truman [tickets here], we spoke by phone with Gillis about his new album, an inability to ever truly be done with a song, launching a musical genre, and of course, biomedical engineering.

The Pitch: I bought tickets to this show two years ago, and it just kept getting pushed. One time, I didn’t see an email about the push, so I drove all the way to the venue that night and saw that it was dark and was like “Oh, of course.”

Greg Gillis: We’ve pushed it back even more than you heard about. We probably had six different reschedules of this tour, internally, and each time we were about to announce new dates, we’d decide “Eh, not yet.”

There are financial, emotional, and ethical components related to deciding when to hit the road at this point. How did you settle on this reschedule and think, “Okay, this is the one that will work and be safe?”

No one knows. You have information coming in and I trust my booking people because they’re the ones who evaluate it. But that was information I didn’t get at the same time as them. So I’d be watching the news and calling them, asking if they’ve seen about this vaccine thing or whatever, and they’d say they’d like run the numbers and didn’t think it was time yet. It was impossible. And in retrospect? Very silly. No one knew when this was going to be possible.

We tried booking just a few shows here and there, like once per month, and we had to push all of them. There was a Pittsburg show I was supposed to do. It was the 10 year anniversary of this spot where I played their first show. We’re doing it soon—as a 12 year anniversary, now. It’s the only outdoor stop on the tour, and the last show of the tour. It’s a lot of moving parts.

I also have this album coming out with Wiz Khalifa, Big K.R.I.T., and Smoke DZA. It comes out in two weeks and we wanted to make sure the full tour was close to that, but again, there’s just no perfect time. As I said, it’s also difficult to get tour managers, lighting guys, the whole crew in sync. No one is making money when they’re off the road, including the venues we play, and we need to help these folks put food on the table. It’s just chaos.

But now I’m getting on a tour bus in a week.

Okay, but… are you sure you are?

We’re crossing our fingers. I worry it’s a bad omen to even bring that up. Let’s be positive! I will! Be in Kansas City! At some point!

Ope, so I fucked that one up. Sorry. Didn’t mean to put that evil on you. Moving on. I’ve wanted to ask you since 2006, what was it like to work in a lab all week and pretend you weren’t a DJ traveling the world?

It’s very me. I think someone else in that situation would have told their co-workers or the time. But when it was very underground and before it took off, you could see me at a show at a warehouse space or DIY art gallery for 15 people. It would be me ripping my shirt off and going crazy. It was kind of bizarre. And my co-workers were older than me, with families, and I didn’t want to try explaining all of that.

Not that I was embarrassed or anything, it was just too complicated. In a workplace, it felt important to separate those two worlds. So once it took off, I’d been working at the job for more than two years. I couldn’t all of a sudden be like, “Oh by the by, I do this thing on the side.” It wasn’t a lie, I just didn’t tell them the truth.

It spiraled out of control as this whole Girl Talk thing got bigger. There was a local paper in Pittsburgh who wanted to feature me on the cover, and I was fine with that but suggested I should be wearing sunglasses—maybe a disguise or something. I couldn’t have that paper delivered to my co-workers’ house we me on the cover. And Night Ripper came out in this period where I’m 24, 25, and very just post-college, and I felt lucky to have a real nine-to-five job. You know, in the cubicle in the lab. It almost felt like a pretend job. I had imposter syndrome. “What am I doing here?” Then on the weekends, I’d play shows and that felt more natural. I play these wild shows and get wasted at dance parties.

After I quit the job, I was in contact with a group of co-workers and they obviously found out about Girl Talk. They ended up going to a bunch of shows. It should never have been an issue, but I spun this into an unnecessary problem.

Well, you were one of the only DJs in the world to have health insurance through a well-paying day job. So. 

Right, right. I’ve done music since I was 15. I was in all these bands and projects, but I never thought it could be a job, or anything I could make money from. Because everything I made was so very weird. I did not expect a lot of people to like it. I didn’t have dreams, I just thought I’d make things for myself, and that was the game plan.

“I didn’t have dreams” is maybe the bleakest quote I’ve ever heard in a music interview. Jesus. Anyway, this may be apocryphal and I’ve just always wanted to ask you, but when you were making Night Ripper, is it true that you were doing all the BPM matching using a calculator?

Yeah, a little bit, because it’s funny thinking back, because I produce mainly on Ableton, and I’ve been using Ableton for a long time.

Right, this was when that came out, and everyone was using it as a shortcut to match BPM, but then I heard that you just made Night Ripper with a TI-82, and I found that insane. What a flex.

It’s funny thinking back on my first two albums. Those softwares could give you a grid to visualize beats-per-minute and line things up, but I never used the grid. I was using a WAV editor to trigger the loops. Everything was done by hand. I didn’t even know how to use the grid. If I was making Night Ripper today, I would be able to do it at 10 times the speed I did back then.

But yes, a lot of it was done by hand, using actual math to figure out length and quantizing in a way that programs would just be able to stretch for you now. But in doing it by hand, I think it creates this unique sound that reflects the innovative way I went about it. In doing it without an algorithm, I changed the pitch of every song. If I made it today, it wouldn’t have that… wrongness? Those limitations are what gave it such character.

There is something nice and raw there. It hits a certain spot, which I think you know, looking back now as a 15 year-old album, I think it’s has a unique sound to it based on kind of the technology and the time, that’s huge.

How does it feel to have effectively launched an entire cottage industry that continues to thrive in places like SoundCloud?

There was a wave 15 years ago where I thought people were doing the same thing I was, with sample-based music and mashups. I started off trying to emulate what others were doing, and then you carve out something that you think might be your own sound. And now, I look at Tik-Tok today, and it is just mashups everywhere! There’s a new wave. It’s everywhere. And that always made sense to me as something people would love, but I could have never predicted how relevant remix-based culture would wind up becoming now.

My college roommate was a mechanical engineer and DJ, and he introduced me to mashups via the first Diplo album. We were so blown away by two songs placed atop each other. That blew our minds. Then a few months later, Night Ripper dropped and we were like, “Okay so this is significantly more complicated than the thing that previously blew our minds.” We had to sit down and run the math on figuring out what’s going on here. So you elevated the genre very, very quickly.

When you look back on A Tribe Called Quest, NWA, Public Enemy, Bomb Squad Productions, there are just so many quick little edits. It’s detailed production. I felt in the early 2000s, as I got into IDM and Squarepusher, that I was just a more underground version of that. It’s a world of precision, and I thought I’d take these influences and apply them to 80s and 90s hip-hop. I learned, oh okay, this is how this works like this.

People have cited it as a way to try to make fun of what I do, but they’re right when they say I’m like Jock Jams or Cheerleading Squad. That influence is there because I love that stuff. I built Night Ripper in chronological order. I remember being like five or 10 minutes into it and showing it to some friends while thinking, “This might be its own thing? I haven’t heard anyone do this, what if I can maintain this pace for a whole album?”

That was the little lightbulb moment of realizing this might be unique.

There’s something so fascinating about everything that you just referenced. Because like, so many of those albums, or getting Beastie Boys or Beck album from the 90s or something the way that licensing for music sampling changed. You couldn’t make any of those albums today, which is why like, when you started doing things—like when I saw the announcement that you were remixing a Beck song a few years ago, I was like, “How’s he going to do that? Because can’t they possible afford to do it The Girl Talk way?”

There is an unreleased version of that mix with like, 50 samples on it or something. It might be floating out there somewhere. I remember it using some elements of Kanye’s first single. I loved it but also it was a chance to do my own thing through an official release somewhere, albeit having to make that version something releasable. There was a sweet spot to be found, which you had to, because there was no Spotfiy. Up until then you really had to work through official CDs. Then I got to be part of the revolution where you could put a website up and just sell MP3s directly. Radiohead did it well, and then so did we.

That brings us to like your first collaborative album, Full Court Press, which is the one that’s going to release in a week here. I think if you handed me this sight unseen, I would not have been able to pin down “Oh, that’s a Girl Talk album.” What were your influences on this?

When I listen to a lot of modern rap records, there are a few sample-based things or some songs trying similar production here or there. I just liked the idea of doing an album where every single song is based on a sample with a distinct feeling or vibe. There’s a time and place—there’s so much backstory to each sample, and the melody and so on are just so unique.

I wanted each song on the project to stand on its own, but to feel part of a cohesive whole. I adore soul samples. And it’s fun to mix that with modern production. There’s a Three 6 Mafia influence layered with a soul sample, but with skittered high hats and big 808s and modern rap drums. The core of this album is that each song has that kind of feel to it.

Over the last few years, I’ve made hundreds and hundreds of beats. The songs on this album are the few that stood out to me in terms of being really compelling, and having a melody that would gel with the vocalists, which isn’t different than how I approach mash-ups. I take acapella of all the artists we worked with and I play those recordings over many different tracks. I have the natural inclination to be like, “Maybe I should chop this up and throw part of it on this other beat.” If something isn’t working, I want to go try it in 100 other places.

What should people be expecting from the live show?

It’s always evolving. The style of the tunes is in the ballpark of what I’ve been doing, and it relates to the mashup albums. In preparing for this tour, I was excited to go back to a lot of the older stuff that I haven’t played in a while. It’s a fun mix of the new, the old, the new project, and remixing and mashing up stuff from albums and shows and the here and now—a 2022 version of what I’ve been working on since 2005—giving people a fresh version of what they’ve been listening to for years.

So 15 years in, and you’re still never done with a song, are you?

At this point, stuff even from Night Ripper was played much differently live in 2010. Or 2015. And now I find myself in 2022, still tweaking Elton John and Notorious BIG together. 15 years later, and I still want to do the newest possible edit of that mix. I’m constantly tweaking it. There are some instrumentals or acapellas from those earlier albums that sound incredible over newer songs.

To be honest, when I was touring all the time it was overwhelming trying to do that kind of work, coming up with new stuff. But we had the pandemic and two years later I finally feel locked in on having fun with this again. I’m definitely excited to play these live shows.

Girl Talk performs April 9 at The Truman.

Categories: Music