Backstage with...Girl Talk

Photograph: Eric Javier Velarde

We heard that a recent show at Skidmore College was shut down.
Yeah. A lot of those college shows are like that…. For that one, people jumped onstage, and [security] kicked everyone offstage. And I continued playing, but it was getting rowdier and people got back onstage again—[the students] kind of overthrew the authorities—and at that point, they told me it just had to stop.

When you play live, how many samples do you work with?
On my computer right now I probably have 50 MP3s but maybe 10,000 music loops, snippets and chopped-up beats. It’s getting funny because I can’t really deal with requests on the fly; I don’t want this to be an improvisational art. When I play a song with another song, I want it to be a pre-thought-out idea, and I want to be able to execute that in the live setting.

On your latest album, Feed the Animals, you mix Jay-Z with Radiohead. Do you have preconceived ideas about combining tracks?
It’s trial and error almost always. A lot of times I’ll sit down for a day or a week and I’ll sample 50 songs and isolate the loops, but not really worry about what I’m going to do with them. You know, get a Grateful Dead song, get a Jackson 5 song, get a Sparks song…just isolate these different melodies and loops, and catalog them. The Jay-Z–Radiohead thing is something I had been playing live, and I liked the response at the shows, so I wanted to document that.

Do you ever pick anything purely for shock value?
I’m very sincere about everything I sample, but I have a pretty good understanding of what these songs mean to other people. So I understand when I throw a Dawson’s Creek portion into the album that some people will be offended and others will love it.

When you listen to music, are you always looking for things to mash up?
I get in and out of work mode. If I’m hunting for samples, I’ll go through my CDs or get on YouTube or turn on the radio, and I’ll specifically be looking for particular songs. I like to work within the Top 40 spectrum, so I like it to be a pop song people have heard. If I’m at a party or a club, or hearing something on the jukebox, then things are popping out at me. It’s like if you play the drums and listen to any rock band; you can enjoy that music, but at the same time you’re probably piecing apart the drum parts in your mind, thinking about how to play that.

Has anyone threatened you with legal action?
No. There is this idea of fair use that allows you to sample without asking for permission if work falls under certain criteria. It doesn’t really look at the length of the sample, but how you use it. Are you creating something new out of it? What’s the intention of the work? Are you creating competition for the source materials? It’s a gray area legally. Thus far we’ve had no problems.

The people that jump around onstage during your shows—is that something you plan?
Typically at festivals, it’s just people we pick from the audience. If possible, I always try to ask the festival people to make it natural and bring them up during the show…not tell them. Every night on the tour, it’s never preselected; we try to keep it as raw as possible—it’s kind of a roll of the dice every night to see how it’s going to go. Some nights it’s just complete insanity and they need to shut it down.

Do you use the same software programs live and in the studio?
I do all the final editing on a program called Adobe Audition, so that’s actually where I physically piece everything together. I use [that] program and record my playing live, and take that recording and edit it piece by piece. The way I do the arrangements and organizational stuff at home is the way I operate live, which in my mind is kind of key.

It seems like you enjoy messing around with the speed of the songs you sample.
Very little music on the album is at its exact original pace. I never do a thing called “time-stretching,” which is used to describe changing the tempo without adjusting the pitch. If you speed something up and keep the pitch the same, you automatically lose some quality. When I speed something up or slow something down, I always really like the way it sounds when I adjust the pitch as well. So if I’m going to cut something in half speedwise, it’s going to be doubled in pitch as well.

Your albums are heavily tilted in the hip-hop direction; does that translate to your own listening taste?
Yeah, I’ve always been a big hip-hop fan. A big influence has been getting into the sample-based hip-hop production of the ’80s and ’90s—when I first started listening to a lot of rap music—which you don’t hear as much anymore. You don’t hear records that sound like De La Soul, or like Public Enemy. In my mind, I’m almost serving the role of an imaginary producer for a lot of hip-hop.

You’ve mentioned Kid 606 as a big influence. Are there contemporary DJs whose work you follow?
I don’t really follow much contemporary DJ culture. I’ve always been into the electronic-producer side, like Kid 606, a producer who happened to use samples. I am a fan of people like Diplo, who’s an obvious reference point for what I’m doing, but that’s someone who I never really grew up being influenced by—I got into his stuff a lot later. In my mind, my contemporaries are anyone from Panda Bear—even though my music sounds nothing like that, but he’s using samples—to Jason Forrest. I’ve never really felt related to the DJ world; I’ve always felt more inclined toward people using laptops, making original music and incorporating samples.

Girl Talk plays Terminal 5 Sat 15, Sun 16 and Tue 18.