Girl Talk's Gregg Gillis is the man for whom the phrase “all killer, no filler” was invented: someone who makes music out of the best parts of other people's music with nothing but a tiny computer, who creates your new favorite song out of your very favorite parts from all your old favorite songs. Yes, musicians have sampled for almost 40 years, and hip-hop does it as a matter of course, but Gillis takes every pop high point at once—Ramones verse! Ludacris hook! Black Sabbath riff!—and smashes them together, leaving out anything that isn't full-on freak-out mind-exploding fun. It's as exhausting as it is exhilarating—a candy binge through a lifetime of radio hits. When he plays live, he has to armor his laptop with saran wrap and duct tape because—as five years of Girl Talk shows have proved—it will get wet.
“This is like collaborating with the gods of music,” he says. “You can be interactive with musicians who seem untouchable. You're playing with the all-time greats, and you can make them do whatever you want. Put them in weird situations, speed them up or slow them down, completely twist it around. Hearing classics—songs you love or hate, it doesn't matter—really manipulated and torn up and torn apart is naturally appealing to people. That's where I fit in. When Jay-Z's 'Hard Knock Life' came out with that 'Annie' sample, it was mind-blowing. And he completely twisted the vibe of that song. It's a magical thing.”
That's the kind of high-contrast high-octane collision you'll hear all over Gillis' most recent album, All Day, released for free last year on the label Illegal Art. (In fact, the day it came out, it was downloaded so many times that MTV jokingly scolded Girl Talk for “breaking the Internet.”) Fugazi's “Waiting Room” curls around Rihanna's “Rude Boy,” Memphis rappers Juicy J and Project Pat's “Twerk” climbs on top of ELO's staple “Mr. Blue Sky,” Portishead lend the spooky rhythm from “Sour Times” to Big Boi—on this 12-track album alone, there are 373 samples, and Gillis says many times when it sounds like just two or three samples firing at once, he's actually got up to 10 layers of music in movement.
“It's attaching puzzle pieces that don't fit together and making them fit,” he says. “The small elements give the music character and glue it together. This snare or this vocal fill give it personality, and more layers make it more cohesive. Sometimes, an older snare will have a feel I just can't replicate, no matter what. I don't like it to be too smooth—I like it to have some rough edges on purpose.”
That might be the way Gillis grew up. He was a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, kid who rejected the mainstream pop radio and TV of his early adolescence, he says, delving instead into the abysses of experimental and noise music. A committed fan of the premier Japanese noise artist Merzbow, he's instantly able to rattle off a list of the obscurest releases he owns—1997's Hybrid Noisebloom, issued on the same California label as early Gillis influence Kid606—and the ones he's still hoping to collect, namely the ultra-rare 50-CD Merzbox set. (Only 1,000 were ever made!) He even had his own noise band, which reportedly once made his mother cry when she saw it. While he now trades in the most mainstream of mainstream hits, he honors the experimental and extreme. “Every day when I make music,” he says, “I think, 'How can I go further?'
“When I grew up getting into underground music in the '90s, there was such a division between the mainstream and the underground,” he says. “If you were into underground music, you were supposed to hate the mainstream because the mainstream had control over everything. That was the only way to be heard. It's completely the opposite now. Most music fans find what they want on the Internet. Young kids can get known really fast for doing amazing things who 20 years ago could have been stuck in the underground their entire life.
“This is the glory era of music now,” he continues. “It's just new, and that spawns new attitude and new perspective, and that's the most valuable thing. It's exciting that people who are 12 years old now have such a different perspective on music and ownership and ideas than I did when I was 12. They're gonna make music that no one's thought of yet!”
This article appeared in print as “Hook, Line, Sinker: Girl Talk’s Gregg Gillis interacts with music gods by manipulating their best songs.”