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.