April 7, 2009

Girl Talk and Rock

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Barton Hall got rocked on Sunday night as first GZA and then Girl Talk graced the stage for the Cornell masses. The former, a Wu-Tang Clan legend, was affable and loose, freestyling about our fair alma mater and wading through the crowd — though he did botch his encore, yelling “Fuck it” and tossing his mic back onstage.
Then came the madness. Gregg Gillis — a.k.a. Girl Talk, a.k.a. America’s hottest DJ — was a ball of adrenaline from the get-go, and the crowd wasn’t far behind. It’s the best show we’ve yet seen at Cornell, and others seemed to agree: Students onstage and off were in a frenzy, with the mashed-up sounds of Girl Talk’s pop-referencing mixes leading us to ever-greater peaks of hysteria. At the end of the night, Girl Talk rode the emotion, playing “one more minute” after “one more minute” and assuring us it was the best college show he’s played.
So what goes on in the mind of this unmatched partymaker? Gillis sat down with The Sun in an ROTC classroom at Barton just before his set, offering his thoughts on GZA and noise rock and a possibly apocryphal explanation of his moniker:

The Sun: Welcome back to Cornell, man.
Gregg Gillis: I’ve never actually been here, I’ve been to Ithaca. I played here a couple years ago, you know, at some club spot. I can’t remember what it was called.
Sun: This is kind of a sketchy dressing room.
G.G.: I like it, man. This whole back area thing. Nah, all these back stage rooms at colleges are sketchy. This isn’t beyond anything. Like, this is just a normal level of sketch.
Sun: How do you feel about being billed with GZA?
G.G.: Fucking awesome. Yeah, I’m pumped. I haven’t really done many college shows with another artist or group … The other night I played at this college in D.C. and it was just me, it was pretty normal. I mean, I love GZA, I’ve been into Wu-Tang forever, it’s cool. Because I’m a huge fan, I feel like having my photo on the sign with him, [I’m] embarrassed.
Sun: So do you prefer having shows where you’re the headliner or where you’re opening?
G.G.: I’ve never really grown up playing with DJs, beause I never played in dance clubs or anything like that. When I got older I always just played with live acts. That’s the way that I like to do it. I don’t like people to be dancing already and then my show starts and then it just kind of fades into the evening. I like it to be a distinct beginning and end.
[img_assist|nid=36617|title=Barton blows up|desc=GZA got the crowd going early as day faded outside Barton Hall.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Sun: What’s the best show you’ve played?
G.G.: I mean, everything’s been cool, man. I haven’t had a bad show in a while. I mean, the best show off the top of my mind in the past year was when I played in Chicago at the Congress Theater. It was part of a really big tour. That show was like 4,500 people, but at a club. That was the largest show on the tour. It was really big and crazy and fun and it was kind of near the end of it. I was touring with some friends, I just felt like we had made it. It was like [being at] the top of a mountain at the end of that tour. It just felt really significant, so that was cool.
It’s that I interact with the people around me, so they really influence the show. If they’re like a couple insane assholes up there who are potentially bothering me -— and I don’t get bothered easily — if they were really hounding me or something and I’m just trying to play a set, people in the crowd might not realize that. I get lost in my own world. So, my perception of shows doesn’t really matter that much because people take something different away from it.
Sun: In terms of the equipment you’re using, do you generally keep songs on vinyl?
G.G.: I don’t ever play an unaltered song. It’s all loops. There’s no way this [live show] could exist on vinyl or on CD or on any track or anything. It’s always been a computer operation. I don’t collect MP3s, I don’t collect digital music. It’s all samples. You could name a pop artist and I probably have a loop of their song. I don’t have any MP3s of Elton John’s, but I have all his songs cut up and chopped up into new things.
Sun: Where do you get those?
G.G.: From CDs ideally, and I definitely download music and sample from there. I love buying CDs and I’m not trying to preach to anyone. I don’t feel that I’m morally correct for doing this with music, I just enjoy going to a CD shop and buying CDs.
Sun: What computer program are you using?
G.G.: It’s called AudioMulch. It’s the program I use a lot.
Sun: You started off with a lot of noise rock in performance. Obviously you’ve moved away from that since your first CDs, but does that still influence you?
G.G.: Yeah, I mean absolutely. That idea of performance is something that a lot of people who come out to my shows wouldn’t necessarily agree with me on. I like to entertain. The idea of challenging people is interesting. The idea of a show being chaotic, or something going this way or that way, that makes me belong to the audience [and it’s] cool. I think there’s a lot of valuable experiences in it. I mean coming from that world — in my early days it was all about challenging, just challenging the norm of performance, you know what I mean? Like how far can you push the envelope [of] what can be considered a show?
I don’t necessarily plan the Girl Talk shows as much [like that], but it’s still in my mind. Like if the show tonight just lasted 30 seconds, and it imploded, I would feel bad if people paid money and wanted to see a full show, but depending on how it went, it could be the best show ever for me … It’s interesting to me to challenge my current audience with that.
Sun: Do you think you’ll ever get back into writing your own stuff or doing the noise rock thing?
G.G.: Right now my ultimate goal is to make my own stuff out of samples. You know, back then it wasn’t really rock, it was just noise. In my mind, sampling is my instrument. Some one who plays guitar, they go after that for a lifetime.
[img_assist|nid=36618|title=Move with me|desc=Gregg Gillis and some of the luck few who got to join him onstage.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Sun: So when you’re listening to music, can you just shut your brain off and listen to it? Or are you always thinking about how it would mix with other tunes?
G.G.: You know, things jump out at me, [but] I feel like I can turn it off. But I think it’s probably similar to being a drummer: When you’re listening to music you might enjoy it, but you’re always trying to figure out what the drummer is doing. You’re probably counting out the time signature in your head or thinking about how you would play it. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, it doesn’t mean you’re not just listening to the music, you’re just thinking about it from a different perspective.
Sun: What’s the difference between when you’re making mixes for your shows and just recording?
G.G.: Both kind of influences each other. I mean, everything I do on stage is live, everything by hand, I’ll go through 400 samples in real time. But I [do] have to prepare the arrangements beforehand. And a lot of it is [that] I like trying on new ideas at shows. And I even like doing new interpretations of previously existing albums. If people like this song or that song from an album, I’ll try doing a remix in a new way …
Sun: So do you change up the samples a lot? Do you craft it differently for every show?
G.G.: For a tour, there’s usually a general base, but I like to prepare more material than I want to play so I can skip around a little bit if I feel like it. If I have time off, like this weekend’s shows are Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and this week I prepared some new material, so tonight versus last weekend, there might [only] be two new minutes or new material in there. I do that every week and it adds up … Like there’s some things I’ll play tonight that I’ll never play again.
Sun: Do you take time off to make an album or will you make a track here and there?
G.G.: You know, the albums for me are like one long piece of music because [that’s how] they function. I don’t take a whole lot of time off: For the last one, I took off two weeks but by the end it took six months. I prepared a lot but I really worked hard in the three weeks, I was going at it 12 hours a day. During that time period, when I was preparing the album, I played a lot of the same material during live shows because when I was editing the album I couldn’t experiment with new things. So those are two different processes, editing versus coming up with new ideas for shows.
Sun: So there are conflicting stories about the origin of the name “Girl Talk” …
G.G.: Actually, there’s this band TAD from Seattle. They have this record, a 7”, one of their first releases,and it’s got a cut on it called “Girl Talk.” I’m a big grunge head.
Sun: I was talking to Ludacris when he was here —
G.G.: Yeah I saw that, they sent it out to me.
Sun: Oh yeah? Well, he said he didn’t know you.
G.G.: No, it was awesome, there are people who I sample who know me, but I would have been surprised if [Ludacris] did know me … But I thought it was really cool, his answer. Like, “I don’t know that, but thank you.” Yeah, that was great.
Sun: I’ve heard you’re pretty down to chill with kids after shows. What are you doing tonight?
G.G.: [Referencing Ludacris interview] Tonight? I’m going to get on my jet and go back to Atlanta. [Laughs] I don’t know, man. I mean, you guys get school off tomorrow?
Sun: We don’t, no.
G.G.: I thought it was weird having this on a Sunday night.
Sun: You know, track gets the stadium on Saturdays, etc.
G.G.: Yeah, well, my manager, David Scheid, he doesn’t like to party too much. He may just want to lay low tonight, but we’ll see. We’re kind of leaving for a month-long thing, a month of steady shows. So this is the last show this weekend before we have a few days off. But the show’s relatively early, so you may see David Scheid raging about on campus tonight.