Neither hot producer nor veteran session musician, Gillis — recording as Girl Talk — is a brilliant sonic collagist with a gift for combining shards of existing and incredibly disparate work by renowned artists and turning them into supreme mash-ups.
“It’s based around preparing material for the live performances,” Gillis says while on holiday in Pittsburgh, his hometown. “It’s not very intuitive; I don’t hear a song and say, ‘Oh, the ‘Layla’ sample would go great with this.’ It’s more like, ‘That’s a nice isolated instrumental sample I might be able to work with.’ I spend a lot of time cutting things up, checking out what tempos they work at, how they pitch up or down, where it sounds interesting. From there, it’s just trial and error.”
The biggest potential problem with Gillis’ blend of Dance Pop, Hip Hop, Electronica, Classic and Indie Rock (as well as a wide range of other disciplines) is the legal liability of using samples without clearance. In Gillis’ most recent work, the album All Day, he used a dizzying array of almost 400 snippets of existing sounds, utilizing an expanded text-based cataloging system he started with 2008’s Feed the Animals to manage work and sonic flows. It would be a logistical nightmare if he attempted to secure the necessary legal dispensations. His primary defense is the concept of fair use; for All Day, Gillis obtained a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license.
“We put out the music believing that it should fall under the fair use doctrine,” Gillis says. “The Creative Commons thing doesn’t protect this from legal issues; you put it on your music and say, ‘People can use my music as long as it’s transformative.’ A lot of musicians are moving into that.
Fair use looks at the nature of what you’re doing. It is transformative. People aren’t excited about (All Day) because they’re getting 372 songs in one download. They hear this become something else. And I don’t think what I’m doing is negatively impacting the sales of any of these artists. I’m not defacing them and I think they see the benefit of it; a whole new demographic gets to hear their work through what I’m doing. Every day I get Facebook messages and hit up on MySpace and Twitter (asking), ‘What’s that sample at 2:37 on track 9?’ Oh, 15-year-old kid, that’s Fleetwood Mac.”
Just as importantly, although commercial Girl Talk CDs are readily available in stores, they are equally available for free download at his Web site (www.illegalart.com). For his earlier albums (Feed the Animals, 2006’s Night Ripper, 2004’s Unstoppable, 2002’s Secret Diary), Gillis instituted a pay-what-you-want structure, but All Day was a straight-up free download.
An unlikely Pop star, Gillis made music as a high school student in suburban Pittsburgh, morphing into his Girl Talk persona as a biomedical engineering major at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve. He did brief field work after graduation but wisely shifted to music full-time three years ago. In 2007, he received a Rave Award from Wired, and in 2008 Feed the AnimalsTime, Rolling Stone and Blender. was cited as one of the year’s best albums by
Gillis’ live intensity rises to sweat-and-adrenaline-soaked levels, with Gillis often abandoning the stage to revel in the frenzy he’s created. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Girl Talk’s live experience is the truly singular nature of the performance and the ripple effect it has on Gillis’ studio work.
“Live, I’m triggering samples in real time by hand, so when I have something new, I’ll substitute that in and take something else out,” Gillis says. “Based on how I feel about it or how the crowd responds goes on to impact how I build on it. Do I need to change it up? Should I change where it goes? Is it not working at all? Certain things I play live once and never hear it again. After doing that for two years, I’ll sit down and compose a new album.”
Gillis also clarifies what seems to be a potential but natural hazard of his process. Has he retained the ability to leisurely listen to music or is he in a constant state of awareness as far as what will fit in his next mash-up?
“I go in and out of the mode of listening for samples,” Gillis says, laughing. “The general theme with the Girl Talk material is to work within the Top 40 spectrum, ideally. Not every song, but most material has been on the radio. I love buying whole albums and listening beginning to end and checking the liner notes, so when I wake up and check my e-mail and throw on a CD, I’m not really looking for a sample on that record.
“Or if I’m throwing on some obscure whatever record from
the ’80s that doesn’t fit in the spectrum of what works conceptually
with Girl Talk, then I just listen to it. But when I’m walking around
the grocery store or at a party or hear someone playing their iPod,
certain things jump out but it doesn’t stress me out. It’s like,
‘There’s a drum breakdown. Mental note: Sample that Bob Seger song.’
It’s a non-stop activity.”
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