March 16 2011 12:32 PM

Girl Talk’s sample plundering has grown into a full-blown sensation

Greg Gillis is known for putting on epic dance parties.
Photo by Paul Sobota

Last December, Girl Talk mastermind Gregg Gillis received a prestigious tribute. In honor of his one-man mashup project, his hometown of Pittsburgh, Penn., officially declared Dec. 7 “Gregg Gillis Day.” City Councilmember William Peduto publicly praised Gillis as “an international sensation.”

In a commemorative photo, a casually dressed Gillis is flanked by smiling folk mostly in suits and ties. The image itself is unremarkable, but it’s extraordinary if you consider the context: Six years ago, this laptop-wielding, sample-plundering 29-year-old was playing weird noise sets to rooms of 30 people. Now, days are being named in his honor.

During the past few years, Girl Talk’s rise has been meteoric. When Gillis first started tinkering with computer-made collages under that name nearly a decade ago, he operated on the sidelines of the avant-garde, drawing tiny audiences to his performances. Then, he made 2006’s Night Ripper, his third album, and everything changed.

“I remember going to play a show in New York a month after [Ripper’s release], and the show was sold out in advance,” he says by phone before a show in Royal Oak, Mich. “I had never headlined a show that was sold out. It was always just my friends coming out.” He recalls an alarmingly surreal scene in which a bunch of music writers—and Natalie Portman—were in the crowd. “I remember being a little weirded out, maybe a bit aggressive towards the audience because I was mildly paranoid over what was happening.”

The hype was deserved. Ripper’s dance-oriented pop was familiar but strikingly foreign. Gillis chopped up songs by famous names—Britney Spears, Aerosmith, James Brown, Nine Inch Nails and a fleet of rappers—and rearranged and repurposed those tiny slivers into an album loaded with restless wit and panache. The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” found a warm counterpoint in Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”; Kanye West, M.I.A. and Illinois alt-rockers Hum all comfortably shared a track.

All Day, his latest record, released last November, continues to build odd bridges, putting Wiz Khalifa next to The Rolling Stones and Soulja Boy alongside Aphex Twin. Gillis regards it as his most artful and densely plotted work yet, explaining that All Day is based on unpredictable shifts in moods and dynamics. “I always just want to make a very complex collage,” he says.

Even though Gillis primarily deals with prerecorded work, his mashups require an ear for rhythm, ingenuity and a lot of trial and error. His successes feel like an unmistakable product of the post-Y2K world. Without the ease and speed of today’s technology, Gillis wouldn’t be able to create new mashups so fluidly or distribute his material as easily. (All Girl Talk albums are released for free online. Owing to fair use, he has yet to be sued by a single artist.) His live performances are innovative, too. Onstage, he tends to go through 400 to 500 samples without any breaks, triggering new concoctions on the fly and constantly mapping new pop epics. Of all the mashup artists around today, none have ever devoted as much energy to taking an idea and expanding it as Gillis.
Around the time of Night Ripper’s release, Girl Talk’s popularity allowed Gillis to leave his job as a biomedical engineer to perform full-time. Nowadays, his famously sweaty shows—in a typical concert, he’ll start off onstage by himself; by the end, the stage will be crammed with gyrating bodies—are so popular that Gillis even speculates that some fans of his concerts are completely unaware of his records.

His current Girl Talk show is his biggest production yet, requiring a staff of 12. It’s a far bigger set-up than he ever would’ve expected back when he was putting on dance parties for his friends.

“Now that it’s here and going well, I could see it as it goes bigger [into] a U2 stadium sort of thing,” he says. “I see no reason why that couldn’t be the next step.”

Girl Talk plays with Junk Culture and Max Tundra at SOMA on Tuesday, March 22.