Q&A: Girl Talk on Sudden Internet Fame

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Girl Talk / Photo by Paul Sobota
WRITTEN BY
Peter Gaston

This week, alongside the Internet's most discussed topics -- the Beatles on iTunes, Harry Potter, Four Loko, Dancing with the Stars -- was Girl Talk, aka Pittsburgh DJ/producer Gregg Gillis, who released his latest album of mixtape mastery for the Adderall generation, All Day, early Monday morning, seemingly out of the blue, as a free download.

"I think everyone was surprised by how crazy things have gotten," Gillis tells SPIN. "And yesterday 'Girl Talk' was the No. 1 Google search [term] for a good portion of the day, which is just really insane."

While there aren't stats yet on how often All Day has been downloaded, it's safe to say it's a complete smash hit, especially considering it's been nearly impossible to reach the official download site all week (although this mirror site works just fine). Packed with 372 samples woven together over 71 minutes (that's one new song every 12 seconds), All Day -- honed by Gillis over two-and-a-half years, while assembling mixes for live gigs around the world -- distills the spastic listening habits of today's digital music consumer into a spellbinding pop culture mishmash.

As he prepared to depart for a South American tour, Gillis talked to SPIN about the first 48 hours of All Day's existence, why his work is meaningful, and how he's avoiding lawsuits for copyright infringement.

Have you been completely attached to the computer since Monday morning, watching all the hysteria?
Gregg Gillis: I'm trying to break away. I'm going to South America tomorrow, so I'm trying to prepare sets and get some music stuff done, but it's hard not to pay attention to my Twitter and Facebook and all of the wonderful social networking sites.

You've been "color commentating" on the whole experience via Twitter. What has been the most surprising or exciting thing that you've witnessed since the album release?
The Toadies [whom Gillis samples on the album] just Twittered at me saying people should check out my album, which got me pretty pumped as a big Toadies fan.

And you really literally just wrapped up the album in the last couple of days?
I had a final edit of it done on October 26, and then was fine tuning it. We were gonna release it this previous Friday, but there was one thing I didn't really love on the record that I wanted to switch around. I was literally tinkering with it until Sunday afternoon and then made the call to go live with it super early Monday morning.

You've been touring incessantly for the last couple of years. How much of the time was spent working on this album?
Any time I'm working on something for a live show, it's gonna go on to influence the album. So, pretty much over the past few years, I've constantly been working on new material, cutting things up, trying things out at shows, without really having a sense of where I want to go with the album, but it's still almost like preparing for a potential album. Around Spring is when I took a step back and looked at all the source material I had and said, "Oh wow, I think I can do something special with this record." And then from there, I really started editing the record around June.

Did you worry at all about things getting stale if you were using brand new music with it?
Yeah, I take that into consideration. Sometimes, when a new pop song comes out that I really like, I'll play with it live, but unless it's entirely transformative, I won't put it on the record. The stuff that is on the record, regardless of whether the song came out two weeks ago or a year ago or 20 years ago -- I think it's my best material, the most transformative music I've made, in terms of having the sample become its own entity.

Also, sometimes I include a song on an album or in the show that didn't really become that big. But in the world of Girl Talk it can be a classic, if that mix was popular. For instance, Night Ripper [Girl Talk's last album] starts off with the kick drum from Ciara's "Goodies," and that's a popular song, but not a classic that floors rooms. But at a Girl Talk show, when I play that kick drum, it's like me playing my hit. People recognize that. If the material's good enough, if it stands on its own and is interesting, then I don't have to worry about it being dated because, hopefully, in the fans' eyes, these songs are all brand new as of Monday.

Have there been artists who haven't liked the treatment you gave to their track?
I haven't heard that. And I haven't actually been taken to court or anything. The French producer Mr. Oizo, who does that song "Flat Beat" from the '90s -- I saw on his Twitter someone was like, "Oh, you're on the new Girl Talk," and he's like, "Oh, I'm gonna sue them," and he Twittered at me like, "Do you have a good lawyer?" I wrote back and said, "No." For a second there, I couldn't tell if he was pissed or what was going on, because it's obviously a sensitive subject, and he wrote back, "Good, 'cause I don't care about the sample." That was as close as I've come to an issue.

At next year's South by Southwest, there will be a panel called "Why Hasn't the Record Industry Sued Girl Talk?" Why haven't they?
I believe in what I'm doing and I believe in the concept of fair use. I think this music should be legal to be put out, on CD or for free or online or however you want to do it, based on the fair-use doctrine stating that you can use other people's samples without asking for permission if it becomes transformative and doesn't negatively impact their sales. Ideally, I would hope that people would hear it and see that it's something new, that it's not hurting them in any way, and think it's interesting, creative, and potentially putting their music out to a new fan base.... The Toadies are a band that's still active and touring. They pay attention to the way the music world works. I'm sure they're up on the fact that no one's going to be downloading my album and then not buying their album instead as a result -- if anything, they're gonna be looking into [theirs]. I think if someone did want to have a legal battle, I would be willing to step up and take it to court and stand up for fair use.

On the flipside of that, have fans told you about the artists they've discovered thanks to your remixes?
That's very common. A lot of times it's not even discussing it; it's triggering up this Simon & Garfunkel sample at a sweaty dance party and seeing 16-year-old guys with their shirts off screaming the words. Or an 18-year-old girl getting pumped at a Blue Oyster Cult sample 'cause it's on the record. I get those emails, too, where it's like, "Oh, thank you, I had never heard of this artist," or "Man, I've heard of Aphex Twin, never really looked into it, I've gotta get into this, the 'Window Licker' sample's really amazing." So I definitely think that's the case.

When you go out on the road now, it'll be interesting to see if there's a new Ciara kickdrum sort of thing that people are feeling as your "hit."
Absolutely. There's definitely a lot of stuff on the record that has gotten really great responses when I've played them live.

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