Girl Talk at Jazz Aspen: A whole different art form
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Based on a surface description, what Gregg Gillis does can seem like the least artful art-form in the world. Performing under the name Girl Talk, Gillis, a 29-year-old from Pittsburgh, taps some keys on his laptop, triggering snippets of popular songs – in many cases extremely popular – one after the other. Gillis’ 2010 album “All Day” opens with the distinctively brutal power chords of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” then runs through bits of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” Britney Spears’ “Circus,” Madness’ “Our House,” Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” Beck’s “Loser,” Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams,” the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones,” the Go-Gos’ “We Got the Beat,” MGMT’s “Kids,” James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” – and some 362 others. From the wide range of styles he uses, it can seem like Gillis’ m.o. is reaching out to cater to every possible taste there is – which could be said to be the antithesis of art.To Gillis, though, Girl Talk is as arty as the noise-rock bands he played in as a teenager, and those groups were art-minded indeed. So much so that they appeared in alternative, DIY venues, the “crowds” really weren’t, and those who did show up either left abruptly or ignored the music to the best of their ability, or were eventually forced into exiting. Gillis says that Girl Talk – which regularly plays to thousands of fans, and which he has brought to such festivals as Coachella and, on Friday, Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival – for all its populist appeal, is a continuation of those earlier projects. He is, he says, “still trying to make experimental music fun.”Leaving open for the moment the degree to which Gillis’ music qualifies as art, there is a vast amount of technique. While Gillis doesn’t sing or play an instrument (nor has he ever been trained as a traditional musician) or lead a band, he is perhaps as exacting as a master instrumentalist. He comes to the stage armed with between 400 and 500 samples – some long segments of melody, others as tiny as a drum beat. (“All Day,” for example, uses the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin'” – but just the “1-2-3″ countdown.) The result is a generally seamless performance in which the attention to detail can be excruciating, if not always apparent.”When I put it together I like to draw from as much as possible, a lot of layers,” said Gillis, who is smart (before Girl Talk took off, he was on his way to becoming a biomedical engineer) and especially insightful in speaking about his approach to music. “When you hear a drum part, you might be hearing a kick drum from Jay-Z, a snare from a Paul McCartney solo record, and a hi-hat from Prince. That increases over the years, it’s gotten a lot more technical.” Gillis says that a Girl Talk performance features a fair amount of improvisation – some of it an effort to recover from a mistake he might have made; some of it a response to the energy on a given night. If an audience seems especially attentive, he feels the freedom to bring down the volume and slow the pace, knowing that he won’t lose the crowd’s attention, and then he will raise the levels, making for a more dynamic musical experience. But each performance is also meticulously planned (and each one different). The day before a show, Gillis begins running through the music, memorizing the sequence and samples and their flow, a process which continues till just before he takes the stage.A Girl Talk album – he has five of them – take two to three years to produce, with many 12-hour days thrown in, as he envisions how a hip-hop beat and a hardcore rap might fit over the outro melody to Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla,” and then makes the precise execution of the idea. “Feed the Animals,” his 2008 album, made it onto the best of the year lists of Rolling Stone, Blender and NPR’s listeners.Gillis, then, doesn’t see himself as a DJ, a guy whose role it is to make sure the mood is upbeat, the bodies are shaking.”I don’t consider this a DJ project. The role I relate to most is an electronic producer – the Bomb Squad, Squarepusher, Aphex Twin,” he said from his home in Pittsburgh. “Is that considered a musician? I don’t know. It’s a different medium, and the ultimate goal is to make emotional and transformative art. So in that sense I would consider myself more a musician than someone like a DJ, who plays someone else’s music.”••••Gillis’ early band, which he was a part of from ages 15-18, was the Joysticks Battle the Scan Feed Relay to Your Skull, and the music and performance mode was even more difficult than the name. At Gillis’ high school talent show, the plan was to play a noise loop for an hour (though they didn’t quite make it the full 60 minutes). The group took its performances – “a bratty take on noise music, completely avant-garde, firing pyrotechnics into the audience, playing 30-second sets, smashing TVs,” Gillis noted – to arty venues around Pittsburgh.Gillis doesn’t relegate the JBSFR2YS days to the distant past. “That whole experience – I’m proud of that band,” he said. “It was a fun era, a not-give-a-shit era that laid the groundwork for what Girl Talk could be. I liked going to the DIY venues and getting intellectual about difficult music.”The Joysticks audience was not, on the whole, seeing the fun in the performances. “They were stiff, sitting in their chairs, scratching their chins,” Gillis said. But as Gillis got into his later teens, then his 20s, he seems to have shed his confrontational stance – or, perhaps more significant, he started going to clubs, and became part of the audience that was looking for entertainment, rather than avant-weirdness.The Joysticks, he said, were “about pissing off the audience. And Girl Talk was a 180 – making it fun for people. There’s both of those sides of me. But it was easier to be alienating to a crowd of people when you’re doing it with two of your friends. Then I enjoyed going out to a club, got into it at a more social level. And I wanted more elements of that. But I still wanted a project that was conceptually interesting, where I’m sampling pop music and it’s fun.”Gillis says that early Girl Talk music still wasn’t a simple pleasure – partly because he was still making the transition from difficult artiste to accessible entertainer, but also because he hadn’t perfected the art of making smooth, cohesive mash-ups. “People listened to the old records and went, ‘Oh, my CDs skipping.’ No, it’s supposed to sound like that,'” he said. “I was clinging to the idea of making experimental music.”Eventually, the music became so inviting that audience members were physically drawn toward Gillis. A major part of the fun of a Girl Talk show these days is the throng of people on the stage, rubbing skin with the sweaty, bopping, bare-chested, nearly maniacal Gillis.”It came out of playing small venues, house parties, a way to break down the barrier between the performer and the audience,” he said. “I’ve always wanted it to be a performance, a show. And growing up, I was always on the bill with bands, with rappers. I was never back in a DJ booth. Getting people onstage was a fun concept, and a substitute for having a drum set and amplifiers.”Getting up onstage became the known etiquette. They’d see videos and know this was the appropriate way to behave. I wouldn’t even invite them; it would be a bum rush of the stage.”As the shows have become bigger, the logistics have become harder. But a pack of dancers onstage is a part of virtually every Girl Talk performance.”It’s become so standard that it makes a lot of sense,” Gillis said. “As much money as we spend on the production, lights and video, the people are the heart of the show. And it’s a roll of the dice how they’re going to behave and how I’m relating to them.”••••Prior to my interview, Gillis’ publicist asked that I not refer to Gillis as a DJ in my story. The request set up my expectation that Gillis was touchy about his chosen medium. But he seems noticeably comfortable with questions about the nature of his art form, even questions coming from a skeptical angle. When I commented that surely he’s heard numerous “Anybody could do that”-type comments, his feathers weren’t ruffled.”It’s annoying when people say, ‘Oh, he plays on a laptop, hits a button and dances around,'” he said. “I probably put more into this than most regular bands do. They play their set, tour it for a year, playing the same songs. I’m constantly memorizing it, improving it. When people doubt the legitimacy of it, I keep going further with what this show can be.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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The art fair will return for a second in-person edition at the Aspen Ice Garden from July 31-Aug. 4 with exhibiting modern and contemporary artwork from 31 galleries.