It’s a stifling July day in Pittsburgh, and Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, is dressed accordingly: soccer shorts, white T-shirt, and a bandanna around his forehead. After releasing 2006’s Night Ripper, the pop-savvy cut-and-paster quit his biomedical engineer job and went from playing tiny underground venues to chaotic dance parties around the globe. With this summer’s pay-what-you-want online release of Feed the Animals (Illegal Art) — an album composed of more than 300 unauthorized samples — Gillis, 26, has made another bold, potentially litigious artistic statement. But he remains humble: “If I have a long-term career in music, it’ll be a surprise to me.”
After the success of Night Ripper and the positive critical response to Feed the Animals, have any major labels come calling?
Some have approached me looking for production, while others have said, “Can you remix the past 30 years of our catalog?” It’s already very difficult for me to put together 40 minutes of music, and if you say, “Okay, you don’t have the whole world of music to sample from; you only have these few hundred songs,” it would be really frustrating. That’s like asking Metallica to write an album but not use bass.
Are you concerned that the more well known you become, the harder it will be for these tracks to remain safe from legal action?
Yeah, especially when Night Ripper started getting wider exposure. I expected some sort of cease-and-desist. But nothing happened, and it was liberating. And you know, there’s fair use in U.S. copyright law, which allows for certain works to be creative without asking permission from [the owner of] the source material. It felt good, after there’d been all these publications saying, “This guy’s going to be sued by, like, a million people,” like we didn’t understand the law when there is a huge academic and legal movement supporting the free exchange of culture and ideas. But going into Feed the Animals, there was more anticipation and the samples of bigger artists became a concern. My interaction with major labels the past couple years gave me hope that they see we’re not negatively impacting the artists. Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” was a hit, but it was all the [unauthorized] remixes on YouTube that made it insane.
Have you received negative responses from any of the artists you’ve sampled?
No. It feels like if they were to do that, then there would also be some legal action taken. I’d be really impressed if 50 Cent were to come up to me and talk shit but not sue.
Was your reason for letting buyers name their price an attempt to deflect criticism regarding the fact that you’re profiting off of uncleared samples?
No, because there’s a physical CD, as well [released last month]. It’s completely unrelated. Illegal Art approached me and asked if I’d be interested, and it just made perfect sense. I make a living off of playing shows, so my primary goal with the album was, How many people can we get it out to?
Do you have plans to pursue a producing career?
I’d like to produce, but I don’t want to do the Danger Mouse thing. He did the The Grey Album, and now he’s one of the most sought-after producers. But he was always a producer, and The Grey Album was a side project. For me, it’s the opposite — these albums have been my main thing for eight years, so production is just this afterthought.
Girl Talk live performances have become near-legendary. What’s the craziest thing that’s happened during or after one of your shows?
I’ve had multiple shows where people have had sex onstage. That’s as extreme as you can get. I think because people know it’s going to be one hour, they prepare for that one hour of debauchery. I’ve also had a front tooth knocked out twice in the past two years.
How do you respond to people who say what you do is gimmicky or that you’re a one-trick pony?
Every band is a one-trick pony. Radiohead hasn’t made an album yet that doesn’t sound like Radiohead. When are they doing their ska release? I think when people aren’t familiar with computer music or how detailed a process it is, they think, “Who can’t make a popular album out of all the most popular songs?” It’s ironic to me, because that’s the challenge. I try to make music that’s transformative, a new entity.
Is Girl Talk’s shelf life something you worry about?
Everything is beyond what I expected, and I’m having a great year. But I’m not really trying to sustain this at all. If it tanks, it’d be cool. I don’t want to fade out; I’d rather blow up. Just have one crazy show and call it an end.