When Gregg Gillis takes the stage, he’s accompanied by two industrial grade laptops, 30 or so fans and lots of confetti. It’s all part of the music project he calls Girl Talk.
For the past decade, Gillis, a 29-year-old Pittsburgh native, has been remixing popular songs from the 1960s to present day, isolating different beats, slowing them down, speeding them up and mixing them back together to create something new. Gillis is a mash-up artist, and his laptops are his primary tools.
Girl Talk concerts are more akin to a large dance party than your traditional rock show. If you aren’t dancing, you’re in the minority. “I feel like the show is more famous than the records,” Gillis says.
That’s intentional. Gillis employs several ways to keep his fans engaged, from “dancing to the point of exhaustion” to inviting fans on stage to throwing all sorts of things into the crowd: toilet paper, confetti, beach balls and giant inflatable pillows, to name a few.
But Gillis the performer and Gillis the producer couldn’t be more different, and Girl Talk owes much of its success to this split personality.
During performances, Gillis is engaging, energetic and, well, bouncing all over the place. As if leading by example, he seems to dance harder and with more apparent pleasure than almost anyone in the room. But to actually prepare the music for these shows takes a high degree of focus, patience and persistence. In fact, his off-stage demeanor is so unlike the Gillis many see sweating on stage that many of his fans don’t actually recognize him on the street.
Creating collages out of other artists’ music has a history going back at least as far as Charles Ives, the early 20th century American composer. Remixing became popular in the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of hip-hop, rap and dub reggae music, as well as the availability of cassette tapes and inexpensive recording devices.
Gillis has been mashing up songs since he was a teenager in the 1990s. Without a formal background in music, he used old toys like a child’s keyboard as his main instruments. Gillis explained that once he found a way to create music, he felt he didn’t need the traditional instruments. He recalls thinking, “I definitely don’t want to learn to play guitar now; I already have this cool band with like just cutting up children’s instruments or playing with skipping CDs or this or that. That kind of became my guitar, became my garage rock band thing.”
Gillis studied biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University and then worked as an engineer after graduating. While he quit his day job in 2007 to dedicate himself to Girl Talk, Gillis says that his music sampling isn’t far removed from his scientific work.
“I sample all these different songs and then I try out hundreds of different combinations and certain things work and certain things don’t,” he explains. “I think even just the nature of me sitting in front of a computer for twelve hours and working away doing music, it’s very similar physically to what I did in engineering work, in biomedical engineering.
“You work on these bits and pieces, and like engineering it’s all about paying attention to the tiniest detail and that goes on to impact a much larger picture.”
Of course, using the recorded, published work of other artists has made Gillis the enfant terrible of copyright law. The New York Times called him “a lawsuit waiting to happen” in 2008, after he released his “Feed the Animals” album online as a pay-what-you-want download. (The album contains hundreds of samples.)
“[Fair use] looks at the nature of your work,” says Gillis. “Is it transformative? Is it creating any sort of competition to the artist you’re sampling? Are you defacing the artist? I and the people who put out my records — Illegal Art — we both believe that [this] music should qualify under fair use and I do feel like it is going somewhere else and becoming a new entity and I don’t feel like I am negatively impacting anyone.”
A Canadian documentary about Gillis and remixing called “RIP: A Remix Manifesto” (also available for free online) argues that what Gillis does is a new form of popular art, one deserving of legal protection.
Gillis agrees, of course, saying that remixing media is becoming a common impulse, one that the law will probably come to reflect.
“People want to communicate and interact with the media they consume, which wasn’t necessarily possible when we weren’t all attached to computers,” says Gillis. “You know, you buy a CD; you buy a record; you listen to it and you’re isolated from that thing. Now it’s like people want to engage it, and you can actually manipulate, whether it’s a photo or a video — whatever kind of media — if you can manipulate it, people want to do that.”