At the center of the stage is a sweaty dude leaning intently over a laptop. Surrounding him is a forest of half-naked young people writhing to a mix of Notorious B.I.G. rapping over Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." This is the spectacle at a Girl Talk show, where Pittsburgh native Greg Gillis recombines shards of well-known pop songs into something piercingly familiar, yet pleasingly new. If the music itself, a barely legal stew of three decades of Top 40 samples, isn't startling enough, there's the contradiction of a party atmosphere surrounding a skinny guy tweaking a laptop. Yet thousands of people love to get down while Gillis makes Girl Talk's controversial, not-exactly-mash-up-music happen onstage — and thrashes his own body in the process. We recently spoke to the man himself for a window into this phenomenon.
You stand behind a laptop onstage. What are you doing up there?
When you hear [Girl Talk] on record, it's a bunch of samples coming and going and things turning on and off. Basically, that's what I'm doing. I trigger every sample by hand. When you're hearing just a drumbeat, that could be three distinct loops — one being a hi-hat, one being a kick drum, and one being a snare drum. Any time there's a change in the music, I'm doing that by hand in real time.
How do you know when to trigger the samples?
It's a set that I practice and go over and rehearse. Even though there's kind of a correct way to play it, night to night it changes. There's a certain level of improvisation within the general structure. But I have everything kind of memorized.
Do you ever mess up?
It never goes perfect. And sometimes, messing up, no one might notice it. But then there's often time mess-ups that happen, and I feel like everyone should know it. I just miss a sample, or drums are supposed to drop at a certain time and they don't. Night to night, I'd say it's never done 100 percent.
How do you concentrate on hitting all these samples on time when you're going crazy onstage?
Even when I'm moving ... I never really leave the computer. And when I do, any time you see me leave the computer, you can notice that the music doesn't change. I know the moments in the set night to night where I can really let loose, and other [parts] where I have to focus a little more.
Are you ever tempted to let the computer do more of it?
This just to me seems like the natural way that it should be done. I've seen some other shows with electronic performers, and there's crazy builds and the electronic performer or the DJ has their hands in the air, or they're jumping around when a drastic change in the music happens, and they clearly didn't trigger that. And to me it's not worse, or bad, or good, I just don't want my show to necessarily look like that.
How do you find new music to sample?
I'm not really big on reading blogs. I guess I just stumble upon things, and I listen to the radio. Of course a lot of the music I sample is older music, and I like to work with music that does fall within the Top 40 spectrum, so stuff that's somewhat familiar to people.
Do you feel a pressure to constantly find new music to sample?
It's not even finding new stuff, it's the pressure to create new stuff.
You started out making more esoteric electronic music. Do you feel inclined to get more accessible as your fan base gets bigger?
Maybe not directly, but maybe subconsciously. In the live environment, I understand that it's a party, and people want to react to it, and I want to get that out of them. On the actual albums, there's a good chance for me to not be at all concerned with how familiar people are with anything. It just comes down to what, to me, is musically the most engaging. With the show, when I'm coming up with new stuff, and I might need or want to do something that gets a heavy reaction, I'm looking for something that everyone knows. That's kind of the basis of the whole project, taking songs people know and trying to twist them into something new.
Do you worry that there's a limit to what you're doing right now with Girl Talk?
Not at all. I feel like this whole run has been great, and I never expected it naturally to get this big. I still try to push forward creatively on each album. But when it gets to the point where I feel like I've exhausted that, and I just feel like I don't want to move any bigger, or go in that direction, then that will be all good. I don't worry about sustainability.
You were quoted in The New York Times: "I want to like everything until I'm convinced why not." So what do you not like?
A lot of times, things that might not be musically so engaging to me, I respect that about [them]. I don't like the song "Hotel California," by the Eagles, but to me that's amazing that they were able to create this song that's too much for me. I just think everyone — all art and all music — has its own intentions, and you have to respect those intentions.
One of your early shows at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in S.F. was quickly shut down. What happened?
That was in 2006. It was right when things were kind of bubbling up. I started playing, it was just me onstage with a laptop, alone in the auditorium. I kind of started to instigate people getting onstage. So one person led to five led to 10, and things got out of control pretty quick, and the stage just kind of flooded with people. It was a really awesome moment. It was definitely unplanned, and I didn't have that big of a following there, people just got into it. It was chaos for five minutes, and then they pulled the plug. Security was kicking everyone off, and I said, "Please, once you remove everyone, you can plug me back in and I'll play." They wouldn't allow that. And it was cool, because I feel like that was a small little legendary thing.
Some people think your combinations of songs are supposed to be ironic, but you say they're not.
No, not at all. I sample just music that I love. These are basically some of my favorite songs. I don't really listen to music or watch movies in an ironic way at all — that's just like a waste of time. If you're not going to engage yourself sincerely in this stuff, then I just — I don't know. I enjoy so music and so much media and so much art that I don't see the reason in being wasteful with that.