Gregg Gillis- more commonly known as Girl Talk- doesn't have a problem with challenging paradigms. He produces tracks entirely from samples of popular songs, deftly biting drum beats, pianos, vocals and anything else that catches his ear and weaving all of the pieces together in a meticulous and methodological way. The songs are often short, but they can contain 15 samples if not more.
The concept sounds strange and a description doesn't do it justice- something Gillis is aware of. People who listen to his performance for the first time aren't always entirely comfortable with the way he has reinterpreted and re-contextualized songs that belong to the canon of popular music. The quintessential example is his juxtaposition of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" with Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy."
But Gillis doesn't mind making people uncomfortable.
"So many early shows where, you know, it would be me playing at a house noise show, or me playing at a rock show, and it would just not go over well at all. Like, 'What the hell is this guy doing?' You had to fight for it," he says. "Some nights it would be magical and everyone would really get into it and other night's people would try and unplug my computer and fight me."
Gillis has managed to carve out a niche for his unique performances, but he's quick to give credit where credit's due. He points to John Oswald for pioneering the genre of sound collages and to groups like Daft Punk and Kraftwerk for popularizing live shows where musicians rely heavily on computers and synths, not on conventional instruments.
"The bottom line is that people can't see what's going on on the computer screen- they can't see what I'm doing with the mouse. [At concerts] people just assume that the people up there with guitars are playing, but often you can't see the persons fingers moving depending where you're at, but it doesn't mean you are going to assume that he's up there standing, still playing a prerecorded track," he explains. "It's becoming pretty established that you can integrate a computer in live performance or use it to do live music."
While Gillis' performances might look simple when he's standing behind a laptop on stage, a lot preparation goes into every show. He says for every sample he uses, 25 are trashed. He readies all the samples before a show, decides on an order and cues them up. Every live show is unique.
Gillis doesn't only challenge the established conceptions of how to put on a live show or how to sample pop music; his work has become part of the discussion on the legality of sampling music. Critics argue Gillis' end product is not his own, that he relies heavily on the artists he samples. But Gillis believes his work falls under the fair use copyright law that has protected everyone from musicians like N.W.A., to pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.
"If you want to make this music, you just kind of put it and hope for the best- that you won't be sued for millions of dollars," he says. "I'm not anti-copyright. But I believe that you can make new work out of previously existing things and it won't negatively impact the artist that you are sampling, and it can become something new."
In 2006, Gillis said he wouldn't be able to fight a lawsuit because of his circumstances. Now, with years of touring and the success of his albums behind him, his position is different.
"You don't want to go to court, but if it came to that, we stand by this fair use thing and we are ready to fight. If we are challenged right now, I'd definitely have to stand up for it," he says. "I'm not really that concerned about pushing the legal limits, it's almost just a byproduct of the music I'm into… but at the same time, we've put out these albums for a reason, we've put them out because we believe in fair use, and if we're challenged, we'd fight."