Gregg Gillis is a modern-day Clark Kent.
During the week, Gillis punches in at a biomedical engineering company in sleepy, suburban Pittsburgh. But once the weekend hits, he plays host to riotous blowouts around the world under his increasingly popular moniker Girl Talk. Gillis’s second life remains a mystery to his fellow employees who have somehow managed to avoid reading any of the snowballing blog posts and magazine articles heralding last year’s party mash-up album, Night Ripper, as one of the most fun releases in recent memory. Comprised of more than 250 samples from 164 artists – ranging from the Ying Yang Twins to the Pixies and even James Taylor – Night Ripper is a frenzied amalgamation of bits and pieces of songs you’ve heard, but layered upon each other and warped into something that warrants no other response than a simultaneous balance of sheer adulation and confusion.
The transformation into a DJ-ing weekend warrior started well before 24-year-old Gillis graduated from Case Western University. He was part of the obligatory high school band, although the group’s incorporation of sampling to accompany its noise-rock sound provided the jump-off for his future music projects. After starting with the “sound collages” he crafted from slightly more obscure tracks, Gillis shifted toward well-known Top 40 hits, and it’s the latter that has become the bulk of his repertoire.
“I’ve always been a pop-music fan, but just as I started making music, I got into a lot more standard forms,” Gillis explained. “(Night Ripper) is abstract, but its kind of a watered-down version of what I’ve been doing over the past few years.”
The incorporation of readily recognizable songs wasn’t, however, a blatant attempt to appeal to the masses.
Gillis emphasized the fun and innovation involved in transforming such popular cuts, saying he “always thought there was a huge power to kinda just ‘recontextualize’ familiar sources of material.” Newer recordings with tighter production and the spread of “click-and-play” tracks have also persuaded him to stay away from older songs and their more loosely organized structure.
Despite increasing exposure and high-profile gigs that even landed him a spot on Chinese television celebrating the Chinese New Year in Vegas with Kanye West, Gillis hasn’t heard any feedback from artists he’s sampled.
Labels have gotten in touch with him though, and surprisingly, not with legal papers.
Almost two years before his distributor, Illegal Art, released Night Ripper, they put out the now-iconic The Grey Album – blending The Beatles’ The White Album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album – to fanfare from listeners and critics, and legal injunctions courtesy of record-label lawyers who felt it impinged upon their copyrights. But with today’s record industry in a state of sales shock, label representatives he spoke with seemed to welcome and appreciate the increased exposure for their artists.
“I think a lot of people who heard it kind of realized the potential value in it, rather than the perceived harm it could do,” Gillis said.
The open distribution of Night Ripper has helped him develop an almost rabid fan base – especially on college campuses. Tomorrow’s show sold out quickly after tickets went up for sale. Concert organizer/student group New Beat Happening moved it to a larger venue only to see the concert sell out again. Judging by Facebook pictures of a concert near the Ohio State University and recaps of other performances, it’s clear his live shows are unlike other standard lap-top DJ gigs. Frozen Kraftwerkesque figures are replaced by near chaos as Gillis throws himself into his music and his fans crowd him on stage, acting like drunken, rogue backup dancers.
Gillis recalled a highlight from a show last year, a performance following his sister’s 10-year high school reunion over Thanksgiving Break. A typical rowdy show, with the stage flooded with listeners, devolved into chaos and ended with him unintentionally stage-diving. The result was something seemingly out of “Spinal Tap.”
“I flew over my dad’s head and hit my face on one of my sister’s best friends from high school,” said Gillis. “And I got up and my front left tooth was cracked. So I lost a tooth and my mom was freaking out.”
Wild antics aside, the music is what draws the fans in. The lucky few who got tickets to the show should expect to hear their favorite clips of Night Ripper with remixes of various tracks off the album. Within the supposed performance abstraction, there is some semblance of order. “I have a template set up, you know, right now I can go through it like a song where you need to know when to click at the right time and all that sort of thing, just like normal band songs,” said Gillis.
New elements will get mixed in and bits and pieces Gillis is tired of or just don’t seem to work will get pushed aside. The changes have worked so far, creating almost legendary performances. Ann Arbor tomorrow night shouldn’t be any different.
For devout fans of mash-up (and biomed engineers with double lives), Daily Arts has uploaded the entirety of the Gregg Gillis interview transcript online. Check it out at the arts blog, The Filter.