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Illegal Art

(photo by Paul Sobota)

Girl Talk on the science of samples

Not many musicians can make their listeners ponder the question “what is art?” Gregg Gillis aka Girl Talk deals with that question every day. That is because Gillis makes his music in a very unique way; he takes bits and pieces of songs you know, songs from the last four decades of music, and weaves them in and out of each other. The result is a series of mashed-up tracks that manage to match T-Rex with MSTRKRFT, N.E.R.D. with Bruce Springsteen, and also manage to raise questions about the blurring line between DJing and producing. It is an engaging experience to listen to a Girl Talk record as one attempts to identify the familiar sounds that fly by in the blink of an eye. As Buffalo will find out next Thursday at the Outer Harbor, Girl Talk’s live show is infinitely more engaging. This week Artvoice talked to Gillis about the world of sampling, Justice, and biomedical engineering.

AV: What got you into producing mash-ups?

Greg Gillis: I started off in bands when I was in high school, mostly noise rock and experimental music. I never really played traditional instruments, mostly synthesizers and drum machines. I was in a band that did use sampling as an element of it—I think it was pretty far removed from what would be considered a mashup—but we did do a lot of weird stuff, like performances with 20 skipping CDs playing at once. At that time I was a fan of musicians like John Oswald, Kid 606 and a lot of other people who were sample based, not necessarily into mash ups, but people who were taking pop music and just manipulating it into something a little bit weirder. When high school ended that’s when I decided to do a solo project. I don’t even think that I would describe the first Girl Talk album as a mash-up record, even though it is sample based. I think it was more of an extension of that high school band. It was like “Ok, now this is going to be entirely based around pre-existing sounds,” as opposed to that just being an element of it. I think from there the sound just evolved over the years. I was definitely influenced by mashups though and I wanted to put my own spin on it.

AV: There are 372 samples on your latest record, All Day, which was released in 2010 on a label called Illegal Art. How long does it take to put something like that together?

GG: That record took about two and a half years to put together. I’ve toured pretty much non-stop for the past five years, playing a couple of shows a week and some more extended runs. From the point that the record prior to All Day was released (Feed the Animals, 2008) I immediately started working on new material for shows. So, it was more like two years of just coming up with ideas and working on stuff through the live show, and then by that point I actually had enough material to start assembling the record, which took about six months.

AV: Do you ever catch flak from artists who you sample? Or do you ever get an artist who says, “whoa, I really like what you did there?”

GG: I really haven’t heard any negative reactions, but I’ve definitely heard some positive things. The week All Day came out the band the Toadies from Texas—I sampled their song “Possum Kingdom”— were immediately tweeting about it and telling their fans about it. At this point I’ve played shows or festivals with a bunch of the artists I’ve been sampling and they generally seem cool with it.

AV: How do you decide which tracks to sample for a record?

GG: For a record, like I was saying, it kind of starts with thinking of the live show first. I obviously like to sample in the realm of pop music but I listen to a lot of music that I don’t want to sample too. I like the records to be within the spectrum of what you may hear on the radio, like everything from Top 40 to 1960s pop and Lady Gaga. I’m always kind of listening for elements of songs that are isolated to a degree so that they can be added to or have things added to them. I would say the majority of things that I sample don’t see the light of day though, even though in my mind, at that moment I think that they should. There are many times where I’m like “Oh this melody is great” and I’ll sample it, isolate the loop, quantize it, cut it up in various ways and then it just doesn’t find its place. It’s a lot of trial and error for me. Sometimes things come together way after the fact, after I initially cut it up.

AV: You present your music in a very straightforward manner. You’re not at all trying to hide what you do. If you look at what someone like Kanye West does; it’s not necessarily part of the experience of listening to a Kanye West song to understand what is being sampled. For instance on “Blame Game” on his last album there is an Aphex Twin sample and I can’t imagine that there was any discussion between Kanye, or the producer of that track with Aphex Twin, yet there it is. It is hidden in a way. Or if you look at the song “Phantom” by Justice; that’s essentially an update of a 1982 song by an obscure Italian rock band called Goblin. Justice probably doesn’t care if people know that or not though. Your music is sort of all about people recognizing what they’re hearing, which puts you kind of right at the extreme fringe of producing and DJing currently. You mash up those two ideas. Do you feel like there are any lines drawn in the sand over the idea of sampling or is it a free-for-all right now?

GG: I do think there has to be lines drawn. I believe in the concept of fair use. According to United States copy write law you are allowed to sample without asking permission if it falls under certain criteria. I believe in that, I don’t think that it should be a free-for-all. I think sometimes people do get mixed up in thinking that I’d be behind total anarchy and abolishing copy write laws or something, but I don’t believe that people should be able to buy a CD in the store and burn copies of it and sell them on the street. In terms of fair use, you have to look at how your work is interacting with the other person’s work. Is it creating competition, is it defacing it in anyway, are you hurting the artist, or is it becoming a new entity? A lot of it is subjective and it is hard for me to stand back and say: “Oh, the way I use it is transformative, but the way this person does it, it’s not.” It’s ambiguous. It is difficult to determine. I’m always curious about how an artist uses a sample. Are they making money off of it in some sort of way, or are they taking money away from someone else in any sort of way? I think that if Kanye or Justice is using a sample in a way that is completely removing it from the context and taking it somewhere else—and I’m not saying that is or isn’t what they’re doing on their songs—then I think they should be allowed to do that. If it is something where the courts have deemed that this is not transformative and this is basically the same track, then that’s a problem. I think with any use it is very confusing. I think with my work; it’s not really by design that it presents an interesting example, an extreme. To clear all of the samples—the cost to recoup that through sales—I’d have to sell every copy for like thousands of dollars. So what do you do in that case? Maybe in a more traditional sampling case—where someone is using like one sample on one track—maybe it is more reasonable for him or her to clear the sample financially. I stand by fair use whether it is at the level of Puff Daddy or the most underground experimental, left field thing.

AV: You used to be a biomedical engineer. Do you still dabble in biomedical engineering?

GG: (Laughs) Not really. I don’t know anyone who just dabbles in it. I quit the job but I’m still interested in that sort of thing, I’ll still read about it. Music has always been an obsession of mine, but I never thought it would ever be a career for me. I went for so many years without making one cent; it was always just something I loved. The engineering side of things; it is just a different level of interest compared to music and art. At some point in time I could see getting back into it, down the line. At this point it would be pretty difficult, I’m having a pretty hard time recalling any level of calculus off the top of my head (laughs). I look at the project of Girl Talk as something that I would love to exist in 10 years, and I would hope that it would be very different than what it is now. I would like to just continue along the path of doing what is interesting to me.

AV: As a biomedical engineer you were essentially a problem solver. You were figuring out how to fit puzzle pieces together. Obviously your music reflects some of those same aspects i.e. figuring out which samples go best together musically and thematically. What came first? Is there a relationship between the two?

GG: I would say that I was doing music and sampling before engineering, but I do think that having a mind set that relates to problem solving and having a mind that is drawn toward math and science was probably with me before my interest in music. I essentially started studying engineering within a couple months of starting Girl Talk, so they kind of developed together to a certain degree. I think when you’re going to school for engineering you are just focused on approaching problems in a certain way. It pushed me to be even more meticulous in studying and approaching problem solving. I do think the whole essence of trial and error based problem solving; that is science. It’s really how I do the music.

AV: Which songs do you just love to drop during a set?

GG: For me I always love playing the newest stuff I’ve made because it’s less about the crowd going crazy and it’s more about not knowing how they’re going to react. So when I make something I just can’t wait to use it. Sometimes it falls flat and other times it works, and that is what gets me really excited.

Girl Talk will perform next Thursday, August 23 at the Outer Harbor Concert site, off Fuhrmann Boulevard in Downtown Buffalo (first exit off of Skyway for Outer Harbor).

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