In the early morning of November 15, Girl Talk — not so well known as 29-year-old Pittsburgh native and former Case Western Reserve University student Gregg Gillis — released All Day, his fifth album of mashup mixes, as a free download. Later that day, several websites reported that Girl Talk broke the internet. That may not be totally true, but work productivity certainly dropped that Monday morning, as thousands of music fans rushed to download the mix, which merges 373 samples (Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" mashed with Ludacris' "Move Bitch," Derek and the Dominos' "Layla" paired to B.o.B's "Haterz Everywhere") in a head-snapping 71 minutes. Even better than Girl Talk's albums are his popular live shows, which often turn into drunken, sweaty, and occasionally naked affairs. He chats with us about mixing things up.
Where were you when you heard you broke the internet?
We uploaded it around 5 or 6 a.m. on purpose, in hopes that traffic would slowly increase over the day. I was pretty excited about it, and I knew there was a fan base waiting for it, but when I woke up, it had exploded a lot more than anyone anticipated. I had a bunch of missed calls, and everything I was reading was "Girl Talk," "Girl Talk," "Girl Talk." So it was truly like Christmas morning — I was like Santa Claus giving out the packages to everyone.
It seems like everyone was trying to download it that morning.
Yeah, it was exciting because you never really know how far you can go. I thought with the other albums, How much bigger can this get? It was an eye-opening experience to see how much further we can go. There's a huge population of music fans who don't necessarily keep up on things like this.
How did you manage to sneak this out? Nobody saw it coming.
I was excited to do it like that — just drop it out of nowhere, especially because I had been working on it for two years. The actual editing and piecing the album together started in June. I wanted to put it out there as soon as I was done, as quickly as possible, but we didn't know when that would be. It really was day to day. I didn't want to make an announcement a month in advance and not hit that mark. And we did end up releasing it a month later than I anticipated. When people asked me about a new album the past six months, I mentioned it was coming out but had no idea when. So no one took that as a solid lead, and word never got out. The game plan was basically to just put it out there and see how it goes and take it from there. Luckily, the release that day was more than enough [exposure].
Were you working on it up till its 5 a.m. release?
Kind of. I was done maybe at midnight. That was a Monday morning. The plan was to release it on Friday. A rough demo version of the album had been done for about two weeks, but I had a friend come to Pittsburgh and fine-tune some things. There was just one thing that was bothering me on the record. Come Friday, we were about to launch it in the middle of the night, and I was like, Let's just hold off — I want to tweak this and work on this part a little bit more. There was literally just one little bit we went back and forth on. And around Sunday night it got to the point where we went through 40 renditions of it, and I was feeling pretty comfortable with the final version.
Can you listen to songs without thinking, Oh, this would sound really awesome with the piano part from "Layla"?
I go in and out of work mode. And the stuff I sample, I like it to be Top 40. I like it to be familiar songs. I like to take the bits and pieces and try to recontextualize them. I still buy CDs, and I like listening to full albums. So when I throw in the new Lloyd Banks release to check it out, certain things may jump out at me, like a drum fill or a cool bass line. But at the same time, when I'm listening to a whole record, it's easy to forget about the sampling aspect, just because there are a lot of non-singles, a lot of B-sides, a lot of stuff that could work as a sample but might not have that same power as the song that will hit the radio. When I throw on CDs, I just sorta listen and don't think about it much. But when I'm walking around in the grocery store or driving my car, things are always popping out at me. It's not always so intuitive — Oh, that would go well with this other thing. It's more, Oh, that's a nice isolated part — I should cut that up and try it out with a hundred different things.
So there's a lot of trial and error?
That's really what it is. It's super-rare when it's intuitive. Sometimes I can hear a song and say, That sounds like it's at this tempo, or the rhythm of it might mash up well with that. But really it's a matter of isolating parts, cutting up variations of those parts, and then trying it out with as much stuff as possible. I have a cataloging system to make it as easy as possible to get a new sample and add a similar tempo. Then I kinda have an idea and can run through those. It's kind of the way I perform live. The program I use makes it somewhat easy to have a vocal sample loop and to just easily layer in a bunch of variations and see what clicks.
You've sampled my all-time favorite song, the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," twice now (the first time was on Girl Talk's 2002 debut, Secret Diary). Do you love it as much as I do?
Yeah, absolutely. It's a timeless song. It's one of the most obvious samples of all time. It's such a heavily sampled song in hip-hop, a reference point for so much different stuff. Sometimes I like the samples to be something weird that you didn't expect to show up on the record, like Fugazi's "Waiting Room." Other times it's nice to play with those obvious reference points and try to do something new with them. And I'll only sample a song twice if it's done in a distinctly different manner, like if I sampled the vocals or drums last time, I'll take the melody this time. I try to have zero crossover. That may be the only case where I've sampled a melody twice on multiple records. But I don't expect too many people to be familiar with that first record.
Do you still worry about getting sued for using illegal samples?
With each release, I anticipate it: What's it going to be this time? How much bigger is this project gonna get? How many more people are going to hear it? Is anyone gonna be offended by it? I do believe it should be legal, and I do think it should fall under fair-use. But, simultaneously, it's a gray area. You don't know. You may be challenged. Even if it is legal, I don't want to go to court to fight it if I don't have to. It's on my mind, but as the days go by after the release, it fades away a little bit. I honestly had a dream last night about Spacehog. They were upset at me. We were playing a festival together, and they were pissed at me and yelling at me because I sampled their song. And I was breaking it down to them that I was a fan and I actually saw them in 1995, which I did, and that kind of swayed their opinion a little bit.
Have you heard from anybody regarding All Day?
A couple people. The main one is the Toadies — I sampled their song "Possum Kingdom." That's one of my all-time favorite '90s alternative songs. When my record came out, a Dallas paper ran a story about the Texas artists I sampled — mainly the rappers, because I deal with a lot of Texas rap. But they also contacted the Toadies. I don't think they heard the record beforehand, but then they got really excited about it. And now it's on the front page of their website: "Check out the Girl Talk record." They were fully into it and promoting it, which is the highest compliment I can receive.
It's cool they didn't pull a Prince on you and tell you to take it off.
I try not to be concerned about the artists' reputation when I'm sampling it. I think about that after the fact. On [2008's] Feed the Animals there's a bit of Metallica. And on this one there's some Prince. A lot of the heavy-hitters have been sampled. I literally put it out and hope for the best. So far, the majority of artists have probably heard of it, or at least their labels have, and I think a lot of people can see the benefits of it. It's not really creating any sort of competition. It's probably turning a chunk of my listeners on to new artists.
Pittsburgh recently declared a Gregg Gillis Day. What was that like? Did you hold a big dance party at City Hall?
I've been so busy lately. It was actually one of the first days I've had off in a long time, so I didn't do a damn thing that day. I kinda laid around and watched TV. The city councilman who sponsored it is connected with lots of artists and musicians, so when he reached out to me, I wasn't all that surprised to hear from him. He asked if I wanted to be recognized by the city, and I said sure. We didn't know what it was going to be. He said, "Come to the city council building at 10 a.m. on Tuesday." So I went there with my dad and girlfriend, and we thought it was gonna be low-key. I didn't prepare a speech or anything. My dad was like, "I'm sure it's nothing." And we walk in, and there's television cameras everywhere and bright lights and a room full of a hundred-plus people. The next thing I know they're voting on whether to call it Gregg Gillis Day. I was like, What is going on? It was crazy and definitely an honor. But after that I went home and got lazy real fast.