SAN FRANCISCO — Gregg Gillis — the former biomedical engineer who famously sat with a Macbook Pro until he jammed hundreds of samples into frenetic, infectiously familiar songs — isn’t trying to be subtle.
“I like the idea of a densely packed live show,” he told The Huffington Post a few days after his Outside Lands Festival show in San Francisco. “I like to get in your face a bit.”
Gillis performs under the moniker Girl Talk and has released four albums on label Illegal Art (most recently, All Day in 2010). He presided over a chaotic court of tens of thousands on San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival’s second day, inviting audience members on stage and shedding clothing — a normal night in a day of the life of the party you want to be at.
At some point, balloons, toilet paper and confetti showered on the crowd. To the dancing masses, it was just another gift from Girl Talk.
Judging by the crowd’s ravenous reaction to almost every sample he summoned from his computer, the show was a huge success. But to Gillis, success is more complicated than a good party.
“I realize what I’m concerned with isn’t always the big picture, so things that bother me won’t be noticed by anyone in the audience,” he said. “At Outside Lands the stage was more bouncy so my table was shaking a lot more than normal. It was minor, but I probably had four or five more minor mistakes, triggering samples or whatnot.”
“Technically it was not my best show,” Gillis added. “But it may have been the largest audience I’ve ever performed in front of, and they seemed to have had a good time.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone going to a Girl Talk show and not having a good time — unless they’re not sure what to expect. Gillis said the shorter samples he started with initially defined his style: “I had a background liking Aphex Twin, Kid 606 — that whole technical electronic sound. I tried to take those principles and apply it to mash-ups and make it more frenetic and more crazy.”
A few years later, Gillis is more comfortable stretching out the samples, with one key metric. “I’ve been using longer chucks, so it’s more accessible, but it’s more complicated,” he said. “I primarily sample what I listen to — from day one that I wanted to use familiar songs. Occasionally I’ll throw in something like a Boredoms sample if it happens to work, but otherwise the music is a pretty accurate portrayal of my interest in Top 40 music.”
Gillis has maybe influenced music most by making it okay for the more “indie” crowd (for serious lack of a better phrase) to dance to popular artists such as Ludacris and 50 Cent. When asked who he could hop on tour with if he could have his way, Gillis barely paused before saying Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em.
“I’ve never even seen him live before, we probably have different fan bases, and I don’t know how it would go over with our fans, but I’m definitely a fan of his,” he said.
“I like playing stuff that will push my audience,” he added. “I like to have things that I really like, even if only maybe half the crowd will love it and half won’t.”
And since he releases the music either for free or on a Radiohead-esque pay-as-you-wish model, no one can be upset with him. He says that he knows it’s not something everyone can stomach. “I’m fortunate enough to never have had to really been concerned with sustaining a career, so I can take risks because I never thought this would be a job,” he said, adding that though he now makes his living by touring and off the music, he aims to make decisions based on what works best for the song, not what would sell the best.
Gillis maintains that this idea isn’t that revolutionary, and that artists have grown fan bases either without a major label or by releasing projects directly to consumers on the side.
“Everyone from Lil’ Wayne [who releases a prolific number of free mixtapes nearly every year] to Radiohead has already proved this model,” he said. “Everyone knows how to download music for free, so if you just release an album and hope people buy it, you’re ignoring a massive way that people consume music.”
He says he now prefers to just release the music for free, on account of the simplicity of the process, arguing that it’s easier to tweet “free” than anything else. “The goal for me was always ‘how many people can hear this?'” he said. “And on the internet, ‘pay what you want’ is a few more words than ‘free.’ Sometimes that makes all the difference.”