Engineer by day, DJ by night
Girl Talk, whose real name is Gregg Gillis, is not your ordinary DJ. In fact, he sells T-shirts on his website that say, “I’m not a DJ.” Instead, Gillis considers himself a “producer and a laptop musician.” Though he plays other people’s music, Gillis considers his work separate from that of the average DJ who is primarily concerned with transitions between songs. To Gillis, his laptop and extensive sampling library are his instruments, and every clip is a phrase or melodic line that he has “recontextualized.”
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Gillis got into experimental music at a young age. Around the eighth grade, he became heavily influenced by local group Operation Re-Information, a computer keyboards-heavy band. “They showed me that you could play electronic music in Pittsburgh and still get an audience,” he said. Inspired, Gillis started to create music of his own.
Holding a degree in engineering from Case Western Reserve University, Gillis now works just outside of Pittsburgh as a biomedical engineer. Gillis is a musician and an engineer. He plays music after his job at night, and tours heavily on the weekends. Asked if anyone at work knew about his second job, Gillis said, “I’m semi-secretive about it. Since I’m working with a conservative crowd, I guess it would be hard to explain how and why I leave the city every weekend.”
After the release of his third and latest record, Night Ripper, Gillis blew up on the experimental, electronic, and indie rock scenes. After hearing avant-garde electronic groups like Aphex Twin, Gillis added a heavier backbeat to his music, making it more accessible to mainstream audiences. “I’ve always loved pop music, and I’ve always been fascinated by the re-contextualization of it,” he said. For Gillis, what’s important is having recognizable elements and references in his music. But the astounding part of any Girl Talk song is not the quantity of samples, but the breadth of the genres he has touched on: Dr. Dre rubs shoulders with Phantom Planet and Mariah Carey in the same song. In another: 50 Cent, James Taylor, and Weezer. Gillis said about his work, “It’s original music with blatantly recognizable elements and samples.”
Gillis has run into some criticism throughout his career. People occasionally condemn his music for being so gimmicky. He says that far too many people are stuck on the amount of samples he has in his music that they neglect to listen further. “It’s weird music,” he admitted. “I like breaking down barriers and confusing people.”
Gillis has also been criticized for having made an album almost entirely made with samples. To Gillis, sampling is just another instrument. “There are no original music concepts anyways,” he said. “Even if it’s subconscious, and even if your music isn’t sampled, it’s still based on another idea. Sampling is an original idea, except with more blatant influence from other ideas. It’s really all about how you present your idea in its context.”
And despite the criticisms, Girl Talk’s fan base continues to skyrocket. With the growing popularity, Gillis has been approached by major labels to produce tracks and do remixes for artists on big labels. Although currently signed to indie label Illegal Art, Gillis is eager to get involved in the business, saying that corporate music “fascinates” him.
Although he has no specific plans for the future, Gillis will continue to remix, produce, and — of course — to mash.