Girl Talk makes performance out of mash-up
ASPEN If the music of Girl Talk is an extreme mash-up snippets of classic rock and soul, and hip-hop and electronic sounds, spliced together with the sensibility of someone with a bad case of Attention Deficit Disorder; all of it tied and bound with a nonstop flow of sampled, ever-changing beats then consider the path that Gregg Gillis took to get to Girl Talk.As a kid, Gillis loved music, and had a yearning to play it. The only thing he lacked was an instrument. I just never got one, never received one, said Gillis from his home in Pittsburgh, where he was born and raised. I played saxophone for a minute, and that never turned into anything.But the 26-year-old Gillis is of the generation that doesnt need traditional music instruments to make music. And even in childhood, he was drawn to the more forward-leaning approaches to art. His early interests were in experimental and avant-garde sounds, with a special affinity for Japanese noise.Ive always liked pop and hip-hop, he said, but the avant-garde, the electronica stuff blew my mind. I saw people doing music without using traditional techniques, and thats what I wanted to do.Gillis didnt let his lack of skills on the guitar or accordion interfere with his desire to make some noise. In high school, at a school geared toward the performing arts, he formed The Joysticks Battle the Scanned Feed Relay to Your Skull JBSFRYS. Gillis refers to it as a band, but someone raised on anything from Buddy Holly & the Crickets through the White Stripes probably would find a different word for the music-making entity. Gillis, accompanied by one or two others, would play manipulated childrens toys, synthesizers and other electronic-based devices. It was a big kitchen-sink operation. It was anything we could get out hands on, said Gillis.The JBSFRYS got their start on the fringes of the Pittsburgh art scene, playing in warehouses and galleries and at odd little parties and happenings where all the weird, experimental stuff would take place, said Gillis.The group lasted through all four years of Gillis high school career, and nudged its way toward the mainstream. They made their music, which increasingly began to resemble sound collages, in clubs, generally opening for more traditional guitars-bass-drums-type bands. In keeping with the avant-garde aesthetic, the JBSFRYS attempted to make each appearance different, specific to the particular event. A performance could last as little as 30 seconds. They never rehearsed.When Gillis went off to college, at Clevelands Case Western Reserve, he finally got his first instrument. Although whoever gave it to him probably was thinking more in terms of Gillis major biomedical engineering than in music. The instrument was a laptop computer.Gillis said this was a time, around 2000, when the laptop-as-musical-instrument concept was in its formative era, and also ubiquitous. Gillis joined the ranks, taking the name Girl Talk, and launched a thorough investigation of the emerging technique. His conclusion: As a musical form, using a laptop to make mash-ups of pre-existing sounds and songs was legitimate. And as performance, it could be dreadfully dull.The majority of those shows were insanely boring, he said. I liked the art. It was valuable. It was cool. But seeing it live was boring.Then Gillis took in a show by Cex (pronounced the same as sex.) Cex was a young man from Maryland, Ryan Kidwell, who was born in the same year as Gillis, 1981. Cex mixed his own freestyling vocals with his laptop samples, and aimed to put on a show, rather than just provide a soundtrack for clubbers to dance to.That was exactly what I wanted to do. He made it a performance, thrilling, said Gillis.As Gillis became more interested in performing for audiences than in creating offbeat experimental sounds, he came to the realization that pop music, especially big, familiar hit songs, were the ideal vehicle for entertaining people. Catchy choruses, iconic lines, instrumental hooks that had endured on radio for years began to form the essential building block. Gillis has released four albums as Girl Talk, and they have become increasingly filled with familiar pop tunes. On Feed the Animals which is currently available as a pay-what-you-please download, and will be released in CD form in September the sounds are reminiscent of a radio station playing an across-the-decades Top 40 format: Hits from the Police, Michael Jackson, Procol Harum, Roy Orbison and Styx, all fortified by a myriad of sampled beats, overlap with and bump up against tunes by Radiohead, Jay-Z, Rage Against the Machine and Wu-Tang Clan and many, many more. Several hundred separate songs are sampled in the albums 14 tracks.I still follow avant-garde music, said Gillis. But Ive always been a fan of pop and hip-hop. I wanted to make a juxtaposition of pop and noise. Now, Im more embracing pop. Im a radio addict. Ive become a pop fiend. I want it to be more listenable and danceable.Gillis says the idea during the Joysticks Battle the Scanned Feed Relay to Your Skull days was to get in the audiences faces, be a bit confrontational, stir the crowd up, rather than be a cool, behind-the-scenes presence. And as he has warmed to pop sounds, that element of being live entertainment has likewise been ratcheted up. The presentation remains bare-bones just Gillis and a couple of laptops. But Gillis surrounds himself onstage with members of the audience, and on those occasions when the party needs a kick in the butt, he will start disrobing until the crowd responds.A lot of time it gets heated onstage, he said. And thats why the clothes come off. I want to push the party environment. And if the show is already going off, I dont even think to do that.Girl Talks four albums have come out of the live performances. Gillis goes into shows with an outline of which songs he will sample, and in what order. But onstage, he has his fingers on which drum tracks get used, so the pulse of a show is an in-the-moment thing.Thats me, physically putting the collage together as its happening, said Gillis, who makes his Aspen debut tomorrow night at Belly Up, with the Chain Gang of 1974, a mash-up artist who uses disco music as his base ingredient. To me, its very similar to a jam-band, where you have all these parts that you know will exist. But how you get there, and how long you played them, that all depends on the crowd and the sound system.When Gillis goes back to Pittsburgh, after a full tour or a weekend of gigs, he scans the best moments from his performances and begins to assemble the tracks for an album. The puzzle pieces are all there. Its just a matter of putting them together, he said.Last year, demand for Girl Talks brand of entertainment became enough that Gillis was finally able to quit his day job, as a biomedical engineer, and devote himself full-time to Girl Talk. Which goes a long way to answering the question whether the mash-up taking someone elses previously recorded material, and mixing it together is a valid form of entertainment.For me, its a specific strain of music, said Gillis. You cant play music without past influences. People who play in a rock band well, they didnt invent those instruments, those sounds. Its like someone who likes a Nirvana guitar riff. They take that sound and change it and make that their own thing, and its a new song.Im just using my influences, manipulating them and recontextualizing those ideas. Thats the way music works its a folk culture, being passed down.
Girl Talk, with the Chain Gang of 1974 and TeamAWESOME!, performs Saturday at 10 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen, 450 S. Galena St. Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 the day of the email@example.com
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