One of the hottest DJs on the scene right now isn't really a DJ at all. Girl Talk — the stage name and dance-music project of 27-year-old Pittsburgh native Gregg Gillis — is more an electronic music phenomenon than anything else. His fourth album, 2008's Feed the Animals, impressed respected music pundits despite being almost entirely composed of several hundred samples from other artists' songs.
Gillis is among the fast-rising faction of laptop rockers. He calls what he does "pop song re-contextualizations," which are like mash-ups, but with no less than 15 song samples in any given track. You won't find him digging in hole-in-the-wall records stores, rifling through dusty bins or awaiting the latest shipment of retro European LPs. In fact, obscurity is the one thing he tries to avoid.
"To me, the gold mine is the radio," Gillis said in a phone interview a few weeks ago, during a between-show break. "You turn it on and ideally, you discover songs that people are familiar with and you make something new of them."
Gillis is looking for music that makes an emotional connection, those Top 40 pop songs that imprinted themselves on our psyches in our formative years and have hung around in our gray matter ever since.
Gillis manipulates our sentiments so we are all but forced to like his creations, to connect with his musical collages on a gut level, sometimes with surprised recognition, sometimes with disgust or laughter. Here, a verse from Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger," there a beat from Tone-Loc's "Wild Thing." Here, the instrumental intro of "Dreams" by The Cranberries, there a piano-and-horns section from Chicago's "Saturday in the Park."
Gillis admits he's sampled all the obvious stuff and is now on a constant hunt to find the next song everyone knows and likes, music he hasn't tackled yet but that still rings familiar. "So many slip your mind until you hear them again," he says. The lightbulb-over the-head sample idea can come at virtually any moment.
"Yesterday, I was at the grocery store in Pittsburgh, and 'Fooling Yourself' by Styx came on, and I heard some sick instrumental breakdowns, and I was like, 'Damn, I need to sample Styx.'"
While some critics find his method of appropriating samples controversial at best and means for court cases at worst, Gillis isn't concerned. He says he doesn't pay for copyright usage of samples, but follows fair use laws. The sound collage-ist claims he's had no problems with artists or labels as yet, and explains that what he does is becoming not only accepted but commonplace. "All music is based around previous ideas," he says "It's impossible to have a truly original idea in music in 2009."
Gillis also argues that he is making something new and interesting — he just happens to be using pre-existing media: "It's my response, my remix."
But it was never something he envisioned as a career. "My goal was to graduate, get a job after school, and continue to make music," he says. So while he earned his degree in biomedical engineering, he developed his technique of re-processing and re-mixing pop songs; he put out records, toured and developed a cult following when he was on breaks from school. Then, in the summer of '06, he released his third album, Night Ripper, and his shows started selling out. "It reached a point where I had to choose one or the other," he says. "Music was obvious choice."
Some laptop rockers find it hard to translate the energy and excitement of their albums to the stage, but that's not a problem for Gillis. In fact, he is renowned for his spirited, engaging showmanship and for putting on explosive dance parties. "Interaction with the audience has always been a huge thing for me," he explains. "I like to get people on stage — make it a spectacle if possible."
He adds that cavorting with the crowd is easy. With his loops and samples, he's not actually creating new music but expanding upon pre-recorded material, freeing him to run around and jump in the crowd and generally get everyone pumped up without having to worry about missing a beat.
It's post-modernism meets pop culture. It's dance music for sentimentalists. It's a hoppin' good time.