Kate Koenig, Arts Editor
Girl Talk performed at the Dewar Arena in SUNY Oneonta’s Alumni Field House last Saturday in a show filled with bright lights, confetti cannons and endless dancing. Before the show, the State Times got a chance to sit down with Girl Talk, formally known as Gregg Gillis, to gather some insight on his perspectives as a mash-up artist.
ST: Why are you drawn to mash-ups and how did you get into them?
GG: When I started doing music, I was definitely doing sample-based music prior to doing anything that’d be labeled a mash-up. I think when I was like 14 or 15 in high school, I started bands with friends and I was into a lot of different, experimental music that used sampling as a tool. People like John Oswald, or Negativland, and I was also a big fan of sampling in hip-hop. When I heard the initial mash-ups that I came across in the early 2000s, I liked it but I didn’t necessarily want to do that. Then a few years passed and I thought it’d be interesting to try to do my own take on that, which involved a lot more samples. I tried to make it more dense and more complicated.
ST: What are the goals that you have in mind when creating mash-ups?
GG: In doing a show, I’m definitely considering the audience’s physical reaction more; I want people to be able to dance and be able to party and have a good time, whereas on an album I’m not thinking about that so much. I think when I’m putting together the album, a goal is to have something that’s transformative. I like using source material that’s relatively well-known, the kind of stuff that’s in the top 40 world. So when you’re doing that, a big challenge is that I never want it to be something where people just feel like they’re listening to that song they already know. It’s the combination of it or how it’s presented, or how it’s cut up: It will go somewhere else and become a new entity.
ST: What are you views on originality in music?
GG: I think that everything comes from somewhere. In any band, you can hear it and figure out the influences and where it comes from, and that is at the heart of music, and that’s at the heart of folk culture, dating back to even classical music. People would take certain motifs and bars and build on them and with folk music, people take stories and pass them along generations and put their own spin on them. I think that’s what I’m trying to do, just in a very physical sort of way.
ST: So, in that sense, would you consider your use of samples to be fair use?
GG: With all of my projects, I put them together and I listen to them and take a step back and I try to figure out whether I believe it falls under fair use or not. And if it didn’t, then I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting it out. I believe in them and I think they should qualify under fair use.
ST: You’ve appeared in a few documentaries all about copyright laws; Do you side with the “Copyleft” movement and that whole thing?
GG: Yeah I mean, definitely (laughs). I think it’s weird with certain movies; I believe in what they’re saying. I definitely never intended to be any sort of spokesperson. I got involved because I like sampling in music and I thought it was an interesting technique. It’s just something I kind of started up on and I think the political side is inherent in what I do. I definitely side 100 percent with the message and what they’re saying, but at the same time it was never my goal to be a person who’s preaching to the world about doing that.
ST: A lot of conventional musicians don’t accept audio production and sampling as a form of musicianship, or a laptop, per se, as an instrument. Do you see yourself as a musician? How do you react to that kind of perspective?
GG: I’ve never been trained in traditional music. I’d say a lot of people who I consider to be my favorite musicians are traditionally trained in music, meaning a lot of hip-hop producers, a lot of electronic producers. I really don’t care how people label me exactly, but I feel like sampling, as a tool and as an instrument, has become widespread. It’s here to stay, and people are doing really crazy, innovative things with it. And I definitely think to make the statement that sampling is not a valid tool making music is very antiquated.
ST: How much does your background in avant-garde come into play with the stuff that you do today?
GG: I feel like it’s at the foundation of the project. Even challenging perceptions of that world is at the foundation. I feel like now I’m trying to make music that’s somewhat accessible. I think in listening to it, or just watching the show, you wouldn’t see the connection. In the early days, I played a lot of shows in that avant-garde world and with more experimental musicians. I really liked trying to have pop elements in my music, almost to offend them, to push buttons, and to go into these weird art gallery shows and play remixes of pop music and have people hate it. I just thought that it’s too much of a lie to think “This music’s smarter, this music’s dumb, this is experimental so it’s good and this isn’t experimental so it’s bad.” I didn’t like those divisions, I thought it was just making it more close-minded. That was part of the motivation to even start this project. As it’s moved on over the years, and where it is now – even though I’m not necessarily playing to that audience at all anymore, it’s still kind of rooted in those attitudes of trying to embrace a lot of different forms of music and play various things, and be open to a variety of different styles of music – that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure.
ST: Where’s the assurance that your laptop won’t crash mid-show?
GG:I do have a back-up that’s basically cloned. I perform on one computer, trigger every sample by hand on another computer, and then I have a clone computer up there. I haven’t had many problems in the past year or two, but I’d say prior to that, the shows used to be a little smaller and a bit more chaotic, and I’d play on the floor and just have random people get up there. Back then, cords would be kicked out all the time or someone would step on the computer. There were always problems. I felt like that was an interesting part of the show potentially. I think with my show, compared to a lot of other electronic music shows, I have always tried to have a very human element, having people around it and being able to talk on the microphone and having it be something that is somewhat organic. There can be mistakes and there can be certain stops. If there happens to be an issue where the computer stops or sometimes I will make a mistake, and mess something up, or if it crashes which may happen like once a year or something, then I just feel like it can be a cool part of the show. You might lose the audience for a minute but then it’s an effort to bring them back. I definitely think it can provide the show with a certain element of character, which I definitely am into.