Around the time mashup artist Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, released his third album, Night Ripper, he was still content driving eight hours on the weekends from his home in Pittsburgh to play to a modest crowd of 30 people.
“It wasn’t like I was failing,” he says in a recent phone interview. “It was that, for me, making music was just for fun.”
In fact, Gillis was doing quite well for himself working days as a biomedical engineer and playing with pop music samples in his free time. But Night Ripper’s release in 2006 generated buzz that would change everything for him.
“I saw people talking about it first on the Internet, and then the mainstream media started to pick up on it,” he says. “Suddenly I had an official booking agent and was playing a lot of weekend shows. The shows started selling out and then I was actually headlining shows [and] there were lines out the door. From that period on is when it’s become a crazy ride.”
Not long after Night Ripper’s re-lease, Gillis quit his engineering job and committed fully to Girl Talk. Along with success and increased exposure, Gillis’ signature style—he mashes together samples from pop songs to create each of his own tracks—has garnered criticism from some inside the music industry. His harshest detractors accuse him of blatantly ripping off true musicians’ work without adding much talent of his own.
“People had sort of a love-hate reaction to it,” Gillis says of his music. “Some people were very critical of it and other people would say, ‘Oh, It sounds like this [artist] or that.’”
Night Ripper’s “Smash Your Head,” for instance, employs an eclectic combination of artists, including Elton John, Nirvana, the Notorious B.I.G., James Brown and Fall Out Boy. Sometimes the samples are overpowering while others just barely emerge before the track moves on. But certain combinations exhibit exactly what Gillis is going for and why fans will tell you he’s not just making a mindless collage out of other people’s work. Case in point: When he takes John’s “Tiny Dancer” and lays it under a sample of B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” the whole mood changes. As Biggie raps “You never thought that hip hop would take it this far. Now I’m in the limelight ’cause I rhyme tight. Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade,” the added melody of John’s ballad gives the lyrics different meaning. B.I.G’s doesn’t sound simply defiant, but nostalgic, too.
Gillis, however, says he isn’t necessarily trying to make statements. With Night Ripper and his latest release, 2008’s Feed the Animals, he’s trying to bring out the dance-happy, unabashed joy of pop music—and not in the ironic way that many hipsters are prone to.
“I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with irony,” Gillis says. “But I feel like I’ve graduated beyond liking things in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. With certain songs I can understand why they’re cheesy or corny to people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re cheesy or corny to me.”
Gillis, 27, admits that in his high school years he liked some pop music, but being part of the experimental underground scene made it hard to embrace.
“And even then I really wasn’t an active fan of the Beatles or Led Zepplin or anything like that, which is very different from today,” he says. “A lot of stuff I heard growing up as a kid—like Hall & Oates or Earth, Wind & Fire—that was stuff I maybe hated because that’s what my parents were playing when I was in grade school. [But now] I’m actually a big fan of it as well.”
One reflection of Gillis’ success can be heard in his albums. With Night Ripper, he says he focused on getting a certain number of samples crammed into each track without making it overcrowded.
“I felt like if I spent too much time on any one sample [on Night Ripper] it would take away from how impressive it was as an editing achievement,” he says. “On the new one I was less inclined to show that off [because] I had established on Night Ripper what I could do. I made a conscious effort to make it a more musical album.”
Gillis says his main inspiration for his albums comes from his preparation for live shows. And stage performance itself is a whole other aspect of his Girl Talk. Gillis already has a reputation for jumping into the crowd, stealing beers, stripping off his clothes and generally creating a party on stage.
“I grew up needing to make a performance out of playing the laptop,” he says. “If you sit there and look like you’re just kind of checking your e-mail, no one would even realize that you’re playing music. So from the early days on I always tried to make a spectacle of it.”
Girl Talk plays the UC Ballroom Thursday, Feb. 19, at 9 PM. That 1 Guy opens. $18.