Jumping up and down, Gregg Gillis, who is Girl Talk, exhorts the crowd to join him in chanting, “Girl Talk! Girl Talk!” Satisfied, he dives back behind the console housing his twin laptops, both pre-programmed with endless loops and mixes. The bass-driven riff from the Spencer Davis classic, “Gimme Some Lovin,’ ” kicks in, providing a dynamic backdrop for the lights, hands-in-the-air fist-pumping, and Gillis’ manic cheerleader gyrations.
It’s a fan’s ultimate triumph—Gillis behind the mic, roaming the stage, leading the crowd in a mutual admiration lovefest as he plays the hookiest, most immediately identifiable rock and rap hits. A bank of pulsating lights towers several stories high behind him, as dancers and members of his crew fire streams of toilet paper over the crowd. Their adrenaline pumping, fans mimic his moves and sing along with his samples. It’s just another of the 200 or so shows Girl Talk plays in clubs and stadiums every year.
Gillis, who is scheduled to perform at Track 29 on Friday, makes every fan’s rock ‘n’ roll fantasy a reality each time he’s on stage. It all began in 2000 when he was given a laptop his freshman year at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he was working on a degree in biomedical engineering. Schooled on a combination of punk and rap, Gillis was drawn to a form that allowed him to combine his engineer’s love of structure and design with the anarchic side of his personality, which relished punk’s go-for-the-jugular abandon.
He began playing at house parties and in small clubs. His only instruments were a pair of laptops, but unlike many of his peers, he had no intention of standing motionless, moving a mouse.
“It’d be pretty boring watching someone clicking a mouse on a laptop,” he said in a phone interview.
And although he’s a disc jockey, he has yet to spin a single disc. “In 12 years of doing this, I’ve never played an unaltered song,” he said. “It comes out of a very small subculture where you use a laptop, but you treat it like you’re playing a guitar.”
Gillis decided from the start that he’d give his audience a show. “It started with me thinking, ‘I want to have some classic rock ‘n’ roll energy. I want to jump on people.’ I’d rather be on an Iggy Pop level—I want to have that in-your-face mentality,” he said.
Unlike most DJ’s, he never worked from a booth isolating him from the crowd. He wants to be right in the middle of the action, which wasn’t difficult for the first few years when the crowds were relatively small—sometimes as few as 50 people.
Within a few years he‘d graduated to bigger venues of a thousand or more people, but he was reluctant to let go of the intimate connection with his audience. So he invited the dancers onto the stage with him. The result was often chaotic.
“It was definitely insane for a few years,” he said. “There are some shows that stand out in my mind that were some of the craziest things I’ve ever done. You know, these shows where people, maybe even the venue, didn’t know what was going to go down, or I was opening for someone or playing a festival and all hell would break loose.”
These days he’s still surrounded by dancers, but he also has a crew of assistants engaging the crowd by raining toilet paper and confetti on them, while a blizzard of lights, neon pictures and abstract images flash across giant screens and he runs back and forth across the stage and behind his enormous console fronted by yet another illuminated screen.
Although the show is carefully choreographed, Gillis is cognizant of the need for spontaneity for the thrill of the unexpected, even for those who’ve seen the show several times. Many of his fans first heard his work on one of his five albums available as free downloads through his label’s (Illegal Art) website. But listening to the albums and watching him perform are two very different experiences.
“The shows resemble the album,” he said. “I reproduce elements from the album, but there’s a slightly different pace to it. There are some details that I just can’t execute in real life … I love dense detail in music—hip hop and rock—but those details don’t translate well live.”
The albums are largely a product of the left-brained, hyper-detail oriented engineering Gillis, his “dominant side in real life.” What he soon realized, however, is that although his densely detailed juxtapositions of rap songs with (mostly) rock music worked well over headphones in his room, on stage he needed to amp everything up—a lot. As he put it, “The performance side of me is a concept I developed early on—this is what I’d like to see out of a performance. This is what I think is the coolest performance I could do.”
But he’s also influenced by the crowd’s reaction to a particular mix, like the one that opens his most recent album, All Day. It begins with Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” juxtaposed with Ludacris’ “Move Bitch.” It’s an inspired combination of two tracks separated by about 40 years, and yet sounding as if they were created together, much like the original Run DMC/Aerosmith mash-up that brought some much-needed energy to MTV’s anodyne programming during that era.
The five-minute long opening mix moves rapidly through 17 more samples, including decades-straddling combinations such as Dorrough’s “Ice Cream Paint Job” over The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter #23,” Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh rhyming over The Doors’ “Waiting For The Sun,” and a manic mix of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” with The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” The shifts from one to another, sometimes two or three at once, flash by at a blinding pace that rewards repeated listening.
It’s not only that his minutely sequenced, tightly timed mixes are almost impossible to replicate live. More to the point, said Gillis, is that they’d be lost live.
“Live I can be more transparent with the samples,” he said. “On record, I don’t want to hide it, but I do want to keep it moving, keep it complicated, whereas in a live setting it can be more effective to reveal my hand. It‘s a slightly different art form, even though the sound is related.”
It’s an open question as to how he’s managed to avoid what The New York Times called “a lawsuit waiting to happen” in its review of his 2008 album, Feed The Animals. One attorney, Peter Friedman, suggested that Gillis has a strong “fair use” defense: “Gillis’s argument that he has transformed the copyrighted materials sufficiently that his work constitutes non-infringing fair use is just too good,” he wrote in a blog.
In an ideal world, Girl Talk’s “reconceptualizations,” would be sufficient to shield him from litigation. But according to Gillis, it’s a moot point. Big record company reps and artist’s agents have been seeking him out for the past couple of years offering him tracks because they’ve recognized that he introduces diverse new audiences to artists they’d never otherwise hear.
“It was never a goal of mine to sell these artists, but I am a fan,” he said. “If anyone gets turned on to something new through what I do, I think that’s great.”
Whether they are or not, one thing’s for sure—it’s a hell of a ride.
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.