GIRL TALK at Kool Haus (132 Queens Quay East), Wednesday (November 12), 8 pm. $20. 416-870-8000.
Gregg Gillis is the biggest thief in popular music today.
That's one of the first things you realize when you hear Gillis's one-man band, the genre-mashing Frankenstein's monster Girl Talk.
Girl Talk stitches together songs made entirely of samples of other artists' previously recorded material - an aural patchwork of hip-hop, rock, pop, R&B and whatever else he feels like throwing into the mix to liven up his dance party. Who needs permission, right?
Thief, yes. Then again, he just might be a fucking genius.
Either way, from his home in Pittsburgh Gillis sounds pretty nonchalant about the legal implications of how he makes his music.
"I'm trying to make transformative music that becomes a new entity, a Girl Talk song," he says. "It's not like I disguise the sources; you can definitely recognize the influence there. But I think that goes hand in hand with a lot of music where you can recognize the influence - it's a recontextualization of a previous idea."
When his first real hit record, Night Ripper, dropped in 06, the New York Times called it a "lawsuit waiting to happen," and Gillis and his label waited for the inevitable cease-and-desist orders from zealous lawyers and angry songwriters - but they never came.
To listen to a Girl Talk album is to reconsider what many of us tend to forget: creativity begets creativity. While Gillis is a little more honest about where he pillages from, what he's doing isn't really any different from what Beethoven did early on after studying Mozart or what blues riff bandits the Rolling Stones have done their entire careers.
"If you're a fan of music and you're making it, then you learn to play your instrument and you're basing it on something and basically collaging together ideas you've learned, whether it's from playing Nirvana songs or blues guitar," he says. "I feel like what I'm doing is just a very physical extension of that art form."
Now Gillis has released his second bona fide underground hit record, Feed The Animals. Rather than fretting over the consequences of his sampling, he sees his work as a logical development in the context of the way we obtain, share and listen to music in the digital age.
"It's becoming commonplace to have a dialogue with the media you consume. Everyone is so used to downloading a picture and cutting it up and collaging it, or every time a song comes up people do remixes or make a video for it. It's very different from the pre-Internet age.
"It used to be that you put out a CD, people bought it and that was the end. Now it's back and forth. The original information gets spread further. It's not creating competition for the source material, just creating a new outlet."
It's not like there isn't tacit appreciation of what Gillis is doing within the very music industry that should be up in arms.
"I've talked to a handful of people at major labels who've wanted to collaborate or get me to do production work. I think they could see that I'm not negatively impacting anyone's sales. I could potentially be turning new people on to the music."
He might very well be, considering that a single Girl Talk song can start off with a drum sample of Cameo's Word Up! before dropping in some R. Kelly, Daft Punk, Fleetwood Mac and Bowie with a dash of Tone Loc, then wrapping things up with the Cranberries, Michael Jackson, BTO and Quad City DJs (and that's not even half the music that can be interwoven through one song). It's almost dizzying, and there's a great drinking game to be made out of trying to identify every sample Gillis utilizes.
But he didn't invent the mashup.
John Oswald and his Plunderphonics pioneered the technique decades ago, while contemporary acts like 2 Many DJs and Diplo have become virtual household names. The era of getting excited over a Kylie-Minogue-meets-New-Order mash has come and gone, but Girl Talk continues to become more and more popular. Genre kingpin Diplo has recently thrown kudos Gillis's way, saying, "[The mashup was] already played out when I started doing it; I guess there's really only one person doing anything really interesting with it right now, and that's Girl Talk."
Interesting is one way to describe Gillis's blink-and-you-miss-it high-speed mixes. Judging by the way he describes his creative process, it seems to be constantly evolving.
"It's a big trial-and-error process for me; most things I want to sample do not work out. I sample music all the time but don't really consider what I'm going to do with it. So, like, today I'll go through my CDs or listen to the radio and I'll be like, ‘I wanna sample this Jackson 5 song or this Faith No More song.' It's kind of like a highlight reel of the best stuff I've come up with in my mind, but it's also a cohesive whole big collage. It's like sitting down with a big piece of cardboard and cutting pictures out of a magazine and slowly putting in things all year round and then taking things out and rearranging them, and all of a sudden you get it the way you want."
Movement is a key factor for Gillis, who continues to confront the boring-to-watch DJ stereotype by acting as both selector and showman in his live shows.
"I never really intended to play at venues the size I'm at now. Back in the day, I'd be playing for 10 people and [it was like], ‘I've got to go crazy this entire set and continually get into the audience and drag people onstage. Just do everything I can.'
"I stuck with that mentality even as the shows got bigger. I'm playing a computer, and I know that's less entertaining than a traditional band, but it gives me a level of freedom they don't have: my software is loop-based, so I can leave the computer and do my best to get into the audience as much as possible. I want to break down the barriers."
Offstage, Gillis has become something of a modern-day folk hero, a digital Robin Hood who takes from artists and gives to his fans by opting to go the way of Radiohead, making his album available to download at whatever price they feel like paying. ($0 is the frugal option, while $10 gets you the MP3s and an actual CD). Not exactly the way to make tons of cash, but the irony would be too much if he griped about not getting paid for cutting up and playing other people's music.
Instead, he realizes that the music industry has changed for good, and at the end of the day he's no different from any other music fan.
"I just felt like it was acknowledging the reality of the way people consume music right now. We know you can get it for free - why ignore that fact? If you want it, take it; if you wanna pay, pay.
"Especially when you're smaller than Radiohead, when you're at my level, I think a good chunk of the fan base just kind of appreciates your being upfront like that. They realize I'm just a dude putting this out."
Greg talks about the early years of Girl Talk, while he was still in school and working at his biomedical job.
Discuses how his background in engineering has influenced his music
Discuses how his songs take shape over time
On his love of pop music, and how he chooses his samples
On whether he thinks he's created his own songs with his sampling
On getting feedback from some of the artists he's sampled