By Joel Silverstein
The first time Gregg Gillis, the sample-master known as Girl Talk, came to New York City, he was an 18-year-old senior at a high school near Pittsburgh.
He was given one night to choose anything he wanted to do, and his dad "would roll with" him, he says. He chose to go see electronic collage artists Matmos at the downstairs room of the old Knitting Factory in lower Manhattan.
Ten years later, Gillis is one of the world's foremost DJs and an innovator in music sampling, most recently being invited to play the outdoor stage at Vancouver's LiveCity Yaletown during the closing hours of the Winter Olympics.
Gillis, plans to put out his fifth Girl Talk album by early 2011. Preparation for his live shows - he tours year-round - informs the recording process, he says.
And if you listen to a live set from Bonnaroo, the annual music festival in Tennessee, from 2007, you hear several beat combinations that made the cut from his live show to his 2008 album, "Feed the Animals." Samples - melodies and other snippets from songs by indie rockers Yo La Tango and Neutral Milk Hotel - mesh with vocal loops from pop-hip-hopper Joe Budden and and classic rock icons, Styx.
Gillis is also collaborating with New York electronic artist Frank Musarra, of the Hearts of Darkness, on remixes and production of a "more traditional form," he says. That project, named "Trey Told 'Em," is a way for Gillis to break out of his "Girl Talk box," which means not creating 40-minute, 500-sample mixes.
"Trey Told 'Em" is a response to all the requests he received from pop-artists after his 2006 breakout album, "Night Ripper," to do "Girl Talk remixes." That seemed weird to him, because Girl Talk was this live entity, and a producer of long mix-albums.
Bands like Peter Bjorn and John would say, "We want you to do a remix but we don't want samples," and that didn't necessarily fit with Girl Talk, he says.
I call Gillis on a Thursday afternoon, and he's out walking his beagle/basset mix, in the cold in Pittsburgh.
He tells me that, despite the cold of Vancouver at night, he still took his shirt off during the Feb. 26 outdoor show - a norm for his live act.
They had heaters on stage, he says, and he was sweating, despite seeing his breath.
"It probably looked a little psychotic from the crowd's view," he says. There he was, with 8,000 people out in front of him, Canadians fresh off of their hockey team's gold medal victory over the U.S. "It's hard to beat that atmosphere."
Gillis got his first laptop in 2000, he says, which is when he started looking for ways to use the computer to create. He attended Case Western Reserve University in the Cleveland, Ohio, area, and graduated in 2004 with a degree in biomedical engineering. He went on to work for an engineering company outside of Pittsburgh that concentrated on sleep sciences.
Engineering has imbued the method of trial and error, one-element-at-a-time laptop beat construction that has made him famous.
"They're similar modes of working," he says, comparing biomedical work to laptop beat-making, "being of that mindset that you can do anything and you can make anything."
The success of "Night Ripper" and subsequent tours allowed Gillis to quit his day job in 2007 to focus solely on making music.
He operates on three different computers, he says, but doesn't have more than 50 MP3's on any given machine. What he does have is a library of thousands of loops and samples catalogued according to Gillis's own scientific method. Still slightly old fashioned, the majority of his music collection is still on CD's.
"I don't use an IPod," he says. "Yet."