Before the renowned mash-up DJ’s most compacted show in years, he talked about the music that spins his gears.
Somehow, Opolis remains.
It’s a surprise the cat paintings are still there, let alone the building itself. Although I imagine it had to be squeegeed clean of puddles of sweat and sticky confetti after the massive, writhing rave that thrived inside for more than two hours Saturday night.
It was the typical Girl Talk fare: One second, it felt like a ’90s grunge video, with flood lamps and the chorus from Nirvana’s “Lithium”; the next, Pimp C or Notorious B.I.G. or some other long-gone rapper had returned from the dead, accompanied by that part from the pop song that sticks in your brain like an adhesive mouse trap. The swelling synths of M83’s “Midnight City” inspired euphoria, and Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson’s vocals were isolated, and injected with teenage angst by gnarled, aggressive guitar riffage from Trent Reznor.
What I found remarkable about Girl Talk’s (real name: Gregg Gillis) show was his ability to successfully reference points on every one of his records since “Night Ripper,” (one of his goals, as you’ll soon find out) while also remaining inventive and playful. Opening with the brash, dangerous Black Sabbath/Ludacris mashup that kicks “All Day” into gear, the mix transformed as suddenly as an 8-year-old with ADHD can change the subject. A late highlight from “Here’s the Thing” on “Feed the Animals” mashes “Jessie’s Girl” with a dizzying Chris Brown verse, an unexpected gem preserved for the live show. It’s a useful strategy, enabling him to toss newer music, previously unheard or live-only mixes in without confusing the audience.
Gillis really seemed to relish the small venue (kudos to Axe Body Spray for sponsoring his current college town tour), climbing up on his table above the audience to command his laptop from a Spider-Man-like position before swinging from the rafters and eventually hopping down in the crowd to dance with elated kids. It’s no surprise he’s one of the most consistently sought-after performers of the last half-decade or so. And as you’ll shortly find out, he probably hasn’t played a public show in a venue as intimate as Opolis in just as long.
OKS: Hi, Gregg. How’s the college tour going?
Gregg Gillis: It’s been incredible. We did Tuscaloosa; then we did Starkville, Miss.; then we did Fayetteville last night. The smaller venues have been crazy. We’ve worked really hard at the show to make it bigger, to make it accessible for the larger venues. That’s something I’ve enjoyed doing.
But there definitely is, absolutely, and it doesn’t matter what band you are, there’s something special about those intimate shows. I feel like every fan can relate to that; every musician can relate to that. I think when Axe hit us up and came at us with the opportunity for this tour, where we’d get to bring the whole crew and the whole production to the smaller venues, it was — for me — a no-brainer. I’ve been looking forward to this run of shows more so than any shows out of almost this entire year.
OKS: Save for a couple of stagehands with toilet paper-shooting leaf blowers, you’ve been your own hype man onstage most of your career. How has that gotten easier over the years? Doing your own hype and working the crowd?
Gillis: It’s the sort of thing where experience is everything. Getting in that mode and behaving that way is very different from my day-to-day personality. When I’m onstage, I’m definitely behaving in a way I don’t experience outside of the stage. So I feel really grateful for having six years of no one giving a shit about this project, y’know, touring around and playing for 30 people. Thirty people, 10 people, whatever, with no one caring.
Those years were really fun because there was no fear of failing; you’re touring with your friends and it was a blast. But you really kind of learn to wear a thick coat, you know what I mean? You learn to just deal with any situation. And back then, things could get really grim. People would wanna fight you or unplug you, and it would spiral out of control. So once the shows started to gain some success and momentum, it was a lot easier — way more fun. People were coming out to enjoy the show for the first time in six years, and it just created a whole different vibe.
I think about that a lot when I see young bands because the cycle’s getting kinda fast now, and so many bands just don’t get a chance to experience that — you know, shitty shows and years of being borderline-happy and borderline-miserable. So yeah, those years are really valuable to me.
As the bigger shows have gone on, I’ve been in a lot of different situations, like playing before Kanye West in Las Vegas to playing at a weird music festival in Europe where people don’t know who I am. I think all of those are helpful and you learn, and I feel like I’m better at it now than I was a year ago, and the year prior than that, and I feel at this point that no situation could truly shake me. I’m prepared for whatever the hell’s about to go down.
OKS: Do you ever come up with a really good idea for some mash in your head or on paper that just doesn’t comport when you sit down to work it out?
Gillis: That definitely happens. But most of the stuff I put together isn’t intuitive. Most things that come together are not ideas I had until I heard them together. There might be a new hip-hop song out there I like and I have an a capella of the verse, and I might have an idea of the tempo it’s at. So typically, with that tempo, I could run through a list of songs with that tempo that I’ve used on albums, and ones I haven’t used on albums.
I’d say the majority of things get made up on the spot, but there is the rare case that this sounds like this tempo matches up perfectly with this, and I sit down and I hash it out and it definitely fails. In general, I have more failures than successes, you know what I mean? The majority of stuff I try out does not see the light of day. There are different days of work for me. Some days are just spent isolating samples, and some days are trial and error.
And when it is like a trial-and-error day or week, I can have a bunch of ideas or even try out hundreds of combinations and only a couple stand out to me. At this point I’ve just become really difficult on myself and really critical on myself to raise the bar, always. I think people want to see that, you know? People want to see that growth. What I would allow now, on an album, is drastically different from what I would’ve allowed in 2006.
OKS: Other than the obvious “wanting to improve,” what motivations have raised that bar higher?
Gillis: It’s just a personal thing. And learning how to do it. When I was putting together “Night Ripper,” I thought, “This definitely relates to many things before it,” ranging from, like, “Paul’s Boutique” to N.W.A. records to John Oswald. It didn’t come out of thin air. But I did feel like it was a unique sound. That nobody has done this exact thing. So that was at the heart of that. And once it was established, it was like, “How do I grow from there?”
I feel like when people are critical of music, it’s more often the concepts that they’re critical about. I rarely read critical stuff like, ”Oh, that was a sour note in there,” or “Oh, that transition was horrible.” It’s almost never like that, it’s more focused on “Are you into the concept or are you out of the concept?”
And I understand. I don’t expect everybody to be into it on every level. So from there, I’ve been figuring out how to make everything better, how to make my production tighter, the transitions smoother, and I think in the earlier years, it was about smaller loops. It’s been a weird thing because the music’s gotten more accessible, but it’s also gotten more complicated. The way to make it more involved was to find bigger samples and grasp multiple connections for songs.
To me, a great example would be the beginning of the new record, that Ludacris with Black Sabbath. Luda’s there, you’ve got the Black Sabbath vocals and like four different guitar lines, then you come to the vocals in different ways. It’s way different from “Night Ripper,” where there’s like one loop, then you move on.
That was just a personal challenge to myself, of how I could make this more involved. The goal was to make a really complicated collage that’s also not a chore to listen to, that people can actually enjoy. In that regard, I’ve definitely been more critical of myself than anything I’ve ever read.
OKS: Do you feel the responsibility to represent types of music that are often under-represented by, like, the media?
Gillis: That’s weird, ’cause it’s hard for me to do that. There’s so many failures in [making] the music that I can’t ever really think, like, “Oh, this album should have this, or that,” you know what I mean? I can’t actively try to represent this band or that band because there’s so many options and things I can do on the albums that it ultimately comes down to what works best musically.
But I think where each song stands in pop culture definitely factors into the mixes. I don’t mind having a song that’s considered cheesy in the entire world of the mix, but I don’t want to have many of those right in a row. I don’t want to put MC Hammer next to Vanilla Ice, next to Baha Men. But I don’t mind using an element of something like that, if it’s next to something from the opposite end of the critical spectrum, like Aphex Twin or something like that. So that sort of thing has definitely factored in.
Or even songs like one-hit wonders that I think have been glossed over and I want to definitely use them. And that’s less like trying to get something out there to the audience and more like harnessing something powerful in those more obscure pop songs that people know and love and hear, but forget about. There’s a power to that and it’s something I try to use in all the albums. It’s a characteristic of, you know, 10 to 20 percent of samples, those forgotten pop songs that are absolutely great pop landmarks.
OKS: That’s interesting. I was kinda talking more about, like female emcees, for instance. Because I know I probably wouldn’t have ever actively sought out, say, Rye Rye if I hadn’t heard her on “All Day.”
Gillis: With that stuff, it’s just kinda like, that’s my personal taste, I love female emcees. On the record there’s that Rye Rye and Dominique Young Unique. Live, I always try to do a little Nicki Minaj. I really enjoy stuff ranging from like Gangsta Boo to M.I.A. to Lil’ Kim, all that stuff. That’s just kind of a personal thing, a taste thing that shows up on the album.
OKS: I imagine it probably even feels that much better to get stuff you especially like in there when it works with the arrangement. That’s like, the sweet spot.
Gillis: Right. It’s the same with some of the more obscure, older samples. It’s not the goal to get it out there to people, but it’s definitely fun to me and enjoyable when I’m playing a college in 2011 and I drop a Fugazi sample and all the girls are screaming. It’s comical, it’s cool. I love Fugazi. It wasn’t my goal to get them out to this audience, but it’s definitely cool to me that this crowd is recognizing the sample and getting down with it.
OKS: It’s been just over a year since “All Day” came out and I understand that you’re constantly working and reworking your music. What songs have come out since then that you’ve been working with? Or wanting to work with?
Gillis: Yeah, usually once the album or song comes out, I start working. People expect that at shows. At recent shows in the last year I have a mix — I’ve been doing various versions of it — of [Chris Brown’s] “Look at Me Now,” the Busta Rhymes verse, with a highly detailed, cut-up version of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which I did use bits of on “Feed the Animals,” but this is, like, one of the more involved things. I wish it were on the last record, which is a thought I have a lot. It’s definitely of that caliber. I like it as much as, if not more so, than the majority of the record.
There’s that, Travis Porter’s “Make It Rain,” stuff off the new Jay-Z/Kanye record. I’ve been doing various mixes of Katy Perry’s “T.G.I.F.” It’s been a good year for pop, which is always the case. A hit comes out, then another one comes out two months later and I’m like, “Ah, I wish it were on the record.”
I definitely think I could do an entire show with new material, but there’s always finding that balance of referencing the old material. I know some people like “Night Ripper” more than “Feed the Animals,” and everyone has their favorite mixes, so I try to definitely reference all the albums. But now, a year later, at least over half the set is completely new material from “All Day.”
OKS: That’s nuts. I was listening to “All Day” this morning and the Drake sample on “Steady Shock” — I think it’s the song “Over,” the verse about Jada Pinkett — got me curious to know if you’d listened to his new record, and if you were gonna mine anything from it. I thought that might be an interesting challenge for how sparse and minimal it is.
Gillis: I bought it, and I haven’t listened to it yet. I went on a shopping spree the other day and bought a ton of records. I’ve heard the singles and, uh, Drake to me is really interesting because he makes great pop songs without being that exciting of a character, to me. There are so many other rappers I find more fascinating, but he definitely has this potential to be the next-level superstar.
He can sing and rap and act, and he’s smooth, and one thing I’ve always been impressed with is that he’s kinda pegged as the “emotional rapper.” A lot of his critics label him as too soft, but he’s able to have a verse or the hook on DJ Khaled songs and hold it down next to Rick Ross and Lil’ Wayne, and I’ve always thought that was cool, that he could step into that role and go next to heavyweight-hard rappers and not seem out of place.
But yeah, I haven’t heard the whole record yet. I did like the last one. I thought it was mellow, and yeah, he’s definitely carving out his own sound right now.
OKS: Definitely. I imagine it would probably be really difficult to translate into a Girl Talk mashup.
Gillis: Yeah, I haven’t tried anything off it yet, but is the single “Headlines” on it?
Gillis: That song, that’s a weird one. I like the song, that’s one I hear and it’s like, “I can’t believe this was the beat they chose for the single.” It’s minimal, it doesn’t stand out that much, but I applaud them for choosing it. It’s not what I would do; it’s a surprising pick. It’s definitely something where the first time I heard it, I was underwhelmed, but that beat’s totally grown on me. I really enjoy the song right now.
In which OKSee receives a brief comment from a real, live All-American Reject.
I was but an impressionable teenager (not impressionable enough to buy clothing from Hot Topic, I ought to point out) in middle school when I bought All-American Rejects’ self-titled 2003 debut.
At that time, actually talking to the power-poppers, even via a medium as anonymous and impersonal as the Internet, never seemed much of a possibility, so getting a couple of questions answered by guitarist Nick Wheeler is quite a career highlight, even if my tastes in music have progressed a little ways beyond mall-pop nearly 10 years later.
That said, the first single from AAR’s forthcoming “Kids in the Street” (release date TBA) is “Beekeeper’s Daughter,” which is pretty much only available on that old-fashioned medium, radio. Stay tuned to Oklahoma Gazette for a future story on the album.
OKSee: What was the biggest obstacle in recording "Kids in the Street"?
Wheeler: We always try to step outside of our comfort zone, not only in the studio, but in the writing process, too. If we don't uproot ourselves completely and really push ourselves to play a different instrument, or say something we haven't said before, the art would simply repeat itself.
On "Kids in the Street," our producer, Greg Wells, really guided us into some new territory, and keeping with a less-is-more approach, we tried to made every part count. Probably, one of the hardest things to do is put a song away and say that it's "done.”
But probably the biggest challenge while making "Kids in the Street" was letting the imperfections, caused by our most spontaneous approach to record making yet, live on the final master. There's something honest and beautiful about letting the blemishes show sometimes.
OKS: What do you think is the optimal situation for playing "Beekeeper's Daughter”? International fashion show? Saturday-night house party? Sexy photo shoot? Other?
Wheeler: D: Other.
Just kidding. I think our music is always a great listen while driving. I listened to "Kids in the Street" a lot during the mixing process by taking my dog on long walks, leaving my phone at home, and just losing myself in it. Our music has always been a great escape for us, as well as our fans. "Beekeeper's Daughter" has a lot of good sing-along moments, and can really be turned up in any setting, but, like a lot of songs on this record, has a groovy sex appeal to it.