"DJs beat-match records and primarily play other people's songs," explains Gillis, otherwise known as Girl Talk. "Not that that's easy or I'm better than that; it's just different. When I play, I feel everything I do is a remix, my own creation."
Girl Talk's basic shtick is download and remix -- the mashup. Electronic artists have been creating them for years; you can even hear them in Target ads. But what Girl Talk does differently -- which sounds like splitting hairs on paper, but often splits skulls onstage -- is to shoot his mashups full of ADD-addled impatience, nabbing only the most tooth-decaying sound bytes from pop hits and jamming tons of them together -- rarely looping or laying down repeated samples. As on last year's underground smash Night Ripper, imagine the sound of an iPod shuffle, exploding with catchy tunes, that's tossed into a popcorn maker that's tied to the back of a truck bounding merrily down the Yellow Brick Road.
"There's a multitude of things happening at once. It's never any one song," says Gillis, calling from his home in Pittsburgh. "I'm trying to make original music made out of chunks of other people's songs."
Of course, the standard conundrums of sample-based music still apply: Nicking others' tunes and editing them together -- no matter how original sounding -- is still not songwriting per se. So if Gillis isn't the Chuck Berry of electronic pop (that's Devo), Girl Talk resembles the quite lovable Monkees, borrowing eye-blink bits from Gwen Stefani, Junior Mafia, and Biggie Smalls -- as well as dipping into classic punk and smooth '70s pop.
"The whole point is kind of recontextualizing familiar songs," he says. "My parents were these old rockers who kind of faded off into the softer stuff in the later years -- Hall & Oates, James Taylor. Once I got into my own music, I got into rap first, then pop -- like Bel Biv DeVoe was the first tape I ever owned. I got hardcore into Nirvana and alternative. And then once you get into Sonic Youth and stuff, it can lead you into some really weird areas."
By high school, Gillis and a fledgling teen combo were hard-drive-deep into performance-based electronic noise. "The shows always turned out really crazy -- smashing equipment, lighting off fireworks, that sort of deal. So when I started doing Girl Talk about 2000, it was at a time where laptop performances became a normal thing. I'd go out and see that, and I always liked the music. But man, it is boring to watch a guy with a laptop. So I always thought that as soon as I do my own solo electronic project, I definitely want to entertain."
He's got that down pat. At his gigs, hands-in-pockets hipsters lose their inhibitions, maniacally yelping old Michael Jackson lyrics, while Gillis shows little regard for life, limb, or laptop. With kids storming the stage, he often leaps onto booze-soaked floors.
Girl Talk honed his arsenal of rock and roll stage antics while studying at Case Western Reserve. "I got out to Speak in Tongues, saw bands at the Grog Shop. But the majority of my shows in Cleveland were at these crazy house parties that went down at an apartment at Ford and Hessler streets," explains Gillis. "I think the whole aesthetic of Girl Talk was definitely based on my years living in Cleveland."
Maybe C-Town should start thinking about royalties, because Night Ripper has become a modest hit and a MySpace fave. Gillis, in turn, has become a sought-after remix artist (Beck, Grizzly Bear, Peter Bjorn and John). And while he regularly jets to Los Angeles for sold-out gigs, Girl Talk can only commit to weekend engagements; he still holds down a day job as a biomedical engineer working in research and development.
"Everything I work with is in the experimental stage," he says. "We have all these products that have to pass safety tests. Then I hook up electrodes to people who work there and do a whole bunch of recording, then analyze the data."
Sounds kinda like his weekend job. Never moving beyond that "experimental stage," Girl Talk is constantly tweaking his tunes -- especially live, where he even remixes the remixes on his discs.
Naturally, Gillis' success has once again rekindled the old legality-of-samples debate. And again, unlike the usual two, maybe three samples found in your typical hip-hop hit, Girl Talk employs such an infinite number of samples that it would take a battery of lawyers years to dissect the royalties owed. Recent articles in Rolling Stone and Spin have pointed this out, but Gillis isn't too terribly concerned. "When putting it together, I don't think about the legal ramifications; I just would like to be heard, like any other band."
Indeed, all this legal hoo-hah over sample-only music-making increasingly feels like a historical blip we'll have to explain to our befuddled grandchildren. It's easy to forget that the music industry claimed cassettes were going to kill music. And yet we've got more people out there making music than ever before.
"We're living in a remix era," says Gillis. "It's bringing pop music down to this real level, where some 15-year-old with his computer can remix a P. Diddy song and give it out to his friends. It's amazing -- a sign of the times."