Articles on Girl Talk often start off sounding like a bad joke: What do—insert three artists from wildly divergent points on the musical spectrum here—have in common? The answer is always Gregg Gillis, or rather, Girl Talk. The Pittsburgh-based laptop artist has taken the mash-up—mixing part of one song, say, the vocals, with part of another, maybe the beat—and injected it with so many steroids that his output is the musical equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Mr. Universe heyday. Like the Terminator showing off muscles you didn’t know existed, Gillis’s productions will have you asking, “Can a song have so many samples?”
Gillis’s last record, 2010’s All Day, contains 373 snippets of other artists’ songs. Herbie Hancock, Bananarama, Justin Timberlake and Phil Collins share air time on the song “This Is the Remix,” and that’s in the first minute alone. This musical short-attention-span theater is no different in Girl Talk’s live shows. In fact, it’s the main draw for non-Coldplay and Muse fans at Lollapalooza on Friday 5, where Gillis headlines Perry’s stage.
“When I play for about an hour, I may go through 400 samples,” the 29-year-old says, on the phone from the ’Burgh. “I feel like I have to be rehearsing more than almost any band. I wake up and work eight hours to prepare for a show.” His stage setup is no more than a laptop—encased in plastic wrap to keep out beer and sweat—and a mouse, but none of the lanky un-DJ’s performances are automated. “It’s like learning an instrument,” he says. “And over the years I feel like I’ve gotten better at playing this instrument.”
With that many components triggered by hand, he’s certainly taken the mash-up beyond the DJ realm where at most three or four songs can be manipulated. “Mash-up isn’t, like, a dirty word to me. Obviously my stuff is indebted to it, but from the get-go I was trying to take the idea and do a weird, perverted take on it,” Gillis says.
His pop-heavy smorgasbords have caught on in a big way with a surging fan base. On normal visits to Chicago, he’ll sell out multiple nights at the Congress, which means upwards of 8,000 fans. That’s a far cry from his experimental high-school music days. “A lot of that stuff was straight-up noise,” Gillis says. “We would have ten CD players playing skipping CDs and we’d be on stage smashing televisions for five minutes and that would be the set.”
For Gillis, the progression from smashing televisions to complex compositions is more natural than you’d think. “[Girl Talk] was an idea that may have sounded absurd to someone, but when you have a history of doing anything as a performance it seemed completely reasonable.”
His other vocation, that of biomedical engineer, might also help explain why Girl Talk is a natural fit. “It’s just laboring over these little, little details,” he explains. “That’s very much like all of the work I’ve done in engineering. Obviously there’s this creativity in what I’m doing, but I feel like the way I go about making music might be leaning a little more towards being in a lab than sitting on the beach singing about your ex-girlfriend and strumming a guitar.”
Girl Talk works his mash-up magic on Perry’s Stage at Lollapalooza at 8:45pm on Friday 5.