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Feature Thu Aug 31 2006

Ripping the Night Away: An Interview with Girl Talk

When I caught up with Gregg Gillis one Tuesday night a few weeks ago, he was driving home from the supermarket. He gets a lot of his chatting done in the car, and one has to assume his phone's been ringing a lot lately.

Gillis, see, is the man who records as Girl Talk. Or produces. Or samples. Or whatever you want to call it. And, although he's been releasing music for a few years, he's a prime example of the third time being the proverbial charm. Amongst the indie cognoscenti, at least, Gillis's latest album, Night Ripper, went from zero to sixty in 8.4 rating points, as Pitchfork raved and assigned him "Best New Music" status. It's no wonder, really. Gillis's recordings are a trainspotter's wet dream, combining samples that cross just about every genre of popular music in a sort of Where's Waldo? kaleidoscope. It's just that Waldo is changing his red and white stripes every five to ten seconds: as soon as you've spotted him in Ciara drag, he's run off, appearing a few minutes later as Billy Corgan (never mind, of course, the interstitial manifestations as Slim Thug, Manfred Mann and Paula Abdul).


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After stumbling onto Girl Talk on some mp3 blog or the other, a friend pondered what to call this ever-morphing music. It wasn't a "mash-up," he said, more like a "pile-on." For his part, Gillis says he doesn't especially care about the label people assign his work, mash-up, mixtape, whatever. Still, if you ask him, he'd classify the music under the umbrella of plunderphonics. Citing Canadian composer John Oswald as a primary influence, Gillis describes what he's doing as "making new pop music out of old pop music." Of course, people tend to get in trouble for that sort of thing, especially when there's money involved, and one CD manufacturer refused to print this record. As a precaution, his label — aptly named Illegal Art — has crafted a Fair Use legal defense in the event some of the makers of that "old pop music" raise a ruckus.

Although Night Ripper has a Wikipedia page listing its components chronologically (there are roughly 160 artists whose material has been "plundered" to make the record), its samples theoretically function just like the chord progressions of any improvisationally composed piece. Gillis says the album is modeled after Girl Talk's performances, during which he selects his material and mixes it on the spot. In keeping with that spirit, Night Ripper was programmed as a continuous track. In other words, it's 45 minutes of juggling a whole bunch of ideas at once. The discrete "songs" demarcated on the label are little more than an afterthought — they exist just to make the album's digestion easier.


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More than anything these days, Gillis takes his Girl Talk inspiration from hip-hop DJs on Friday and Saturday night radio shows; to a person who's heard the album, that shouldn't come as much of a revelation. Despite its detours into pop and rock, rap is Night Ripper's most prominent presence. It fits, he says, because hip-hop has always been about sampling, with key phrases, lines, even songs, constantly being appropriated in service of the new. Oswald may have given Gillis the template, but Kid 606's remix of "Straight Outta Compton" served as his epiphany.

Lately, Gillis is digging Rick Ross's "Hustlin'" and worrying Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man" isn't getting as popular as he thinks it should. Rather Ripped, the latest Sonic Youth album, is another recent favorite. (The band was scheduled to play Pittsburgh not long after we talked; Gillis's girlfriend had bought tickets.) Plus, there's always Jesus & Mary Chain and Nirvana floating in the background. He records albums to cassette to play in the car, but it's the radio that's key for Girl Talk. Gillis flips around between the stations — he listens to complete songs, but also thinks in segments, figuring out which phonic to plunder next. Not surprisingly, Gillis's personal soundtrack features oldies one minute, Young Jeezy the next.

That experience, he says, is what his live shows are all about. In a recent review, the Village Voice's Tom Breihan wrote Gillis's "set didn't have any peaks or valleys or builds or ecstatic moments." Instead, it "stayed rhythmic but didn't necessarily keep a beat." Talking to Gillis, one gets the sense that's not far off his aim: under the guise of party music, he's creating a sound collage listeners can tune into for a minute or five, taking away whichever earworm they want, be it James Taylor or LCD Soundsystem. The true obsessives, though, stick around, not wanting to miss the crazy jam that might pop up next. Call Girl Talk a jacked up Jack-FM.

Whatever its name, the station is attracting some high profile listeners. Gillis has been working on remixes for Beck and the Teddybears, and Mac McCaughan of Superchunk's been in touch. Add Natalie Portman spottings at the last gig in New York, and you've got the makings of a hipster phenomenon. But what Gillis has in mind for the future of Girl Talk, we didn't get a chance to discuss. By the time we got around to it, Gillis was home, and there were groceries to put away.

Girl Talk performs Saturday, September 9th at the Empty Bottle. The show starts at 10pm with support acts C-Mass and CX Kidtronix; tickets are $8. Hear a few tracks at the Girl Talk MySpace page, or download mp3s of Night Ripper's "Hold Up" and "Bounce That."

-Matt Peck

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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