Last Nov. 15, Girl Talk — not so well known as 29-year-old Pittsburgh native and former Case Western Reserve University student Gregg Gillis — released All Day, his fifth album of mashup mixes, as a free download. Later that day, several websites reported that Girl Talk broke the Internet. That may not be totally true, but work productivity certainly dropped that Monday morning, as thousands of music fans rushed to download the mix, which merges 373 samples (Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" mashed with Ludacris' "Move Bitch," Derek and the Dominos' "Layla" paired to B.o.B's "Haterz Everywhere") in a head-snapping 71 minutes. Even better than the albums are his popular live shows, which often turn into drunken, sweaty and occasionally naked affairs. He chatted recently about mixing things up. Here's some of what went down.
Metro Times: Can you listen to songs without thinking, "Oh, this would sound really awesome with the piano part from 'Layla'"?
Gregg Gillis: I go in and out of work mode. And the stuff I sample, I like it to be Top 40. I like it to be familiar songs. I like to take the bits and pieces and try to recontextualize them. ... When I throw on CDs, I just sort of listen and don't think about it much. But when I'm walking around in the grocery store or driving my car, things are always popping out at me. It's not always so intuitive — "Oh, that would go well with this other thing." It's more, "Oh, that's a nice isolated part. I should cut that up and try it out with a hundred different things."
MT: So there's a lot of trial and error?
Gillis: That's really what it is. It's super-rare when it's intuitive. Sometimes I can hear a song and say, "That sounds like it's at this tempo, or the rhythm of it might mash up well with that." But really it's a matter of isolating parts, cutting up variations of those parts, and then trying it out with as much stuff as possible. I have a cataloging system to make it as easy as possible to get a new sample and add a similar tempo. Then I kind of have an idea and can run through those. It's kind of the way I perform live. The program I use makes it somewhat easy to have a vocal sample loop and to just easily layer in a bunch of variations and see what clicks.
MT: You've sampled my all-time favorite song, the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," twice now [the first time was on Girl Talk's 2002 debut, Secret Diary]. Do you love it as much as I do?
Gillis: Yeah, absolutely. It's a timeless song. It's one of the most obvious samples of all time. It's such a heavily sampled song in hip-hop, a reference point for so much different stuff. Sometimes I like the samples to be something weird that you didn't expect to show up on the record, like Fugazi's "Waiting Room." Other times it's nice to play with those obvious reference points and try to do something new with them. And I'll only sample a song twice if it's done in a distinctly different manner, like if I sampled the vocals or drums last time, I'll take the melody this time. I try to have zero crossover. That may be the only case where I've sampled a melody twice on multiple records. But I don't expect too many people to be familiar with that first record.
MT: Do you still worry about getting sued for using illegal samples?
Gillis: With each release, I anticipate it: What's it going to be this time? How much bigger is this project going to get? How many more people are going to hear it? Is anyone going to be offended by it? I do believe it should be legal, and I do think it should fall under fair-use. But, simultaneously, it's a gray area. You don't know. You may be challenged. Even if it is legal, I don't want to go to court to fight it if I don't have to. It's on my mind, but as the days go by after the release, it fades away a little bit. I honestly had a dream last night about Spacehog. They were upset at me. We were playing a festival together, and they were pissed at me and yelling at me because I sampled their song. And I was breaking it down to them that I was a fan and I actually saw them in 1995, which I did, and that kind of swayed their opinion a little bit.
MT: Have you heard from anybody regarding All Day?
Gillis: A couple people. The main one is the Toadies — I sampled their song "Possum Kingdom." That's one of my all-time favorite '90s alternative songs. When my record came out, a Dallas paper ran a story about the Texas artists I sampled — mainly the rappers, because I deal with a lot of Texas rap. But they also contacted the Toadies. I don't think they heard the record beforehand, but then they got really excited about it. And now it's on the front page of their website: "Check out the Girl Talk record." They were fully into it and promoting it, which is the highest compliment I can receive.