Talking with Girl Talk

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Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, is coming to SF in November. In conjunction with this week's cover stories on audiovisual hijacking, I recently had a phone conversation with him that included a mention of CeCe Peniston. Enjoy.

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Guardian: What’s the inspiration behind the title of Night Ripper?
Gregg Gillis: It comes from a t-shirt I’ve had for years that shows this skateboarder dude with all these fluorescent colors and skulls everywhere. It’s a loud t-shirt I’ve always liked, and it just says ‘Night Ripper’ on it. For a while some people called me Night Ripper because I wore the shirt a lot. But I also wanted an aggressive name that also had a party feel because for me the album was the most serious-toned album, even if it seems fun and crazy. It’s the most focused effort. I wanted something that had a badass edge, but also a night ripper can just be taken as someone who is partying through the night.

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G: If the album had a bright pastel cover like Secret Diary people might think of it in a completely different way.
GG: Yeah. It’s weird -- this album is fun and crazy, but I’d have to say it’s my most serious album.

G: There are juxtapositions on the album, even ones that last just a split-second, that make me laugh. For example, when you move from the keyboard melody of [Paula Abdul’s] “Straight Up” to the one for [Mariah Carey’s] “It’s Like That.”
GG: In making the album, it was a real trial and error process. The sound of Night Ripper is pretty much the sound of what I’ve been doing live for the past two years. More or less it’s mixing and matching live on a laptop. But simultaneously…I kind of had like 30 chunks of elements that I really liked but didn’t know how to fit together, and I wanted to make them more cohesive as a song.
Coming up with transitions was a big part, and the Paula Abdul one you just mentioned is one of those. I’m always sampling because I’ve always loved fills and hooks and little transitional pieces. I had all these blatant elements that I really liked that I thought could fit together into an album like my live show. But I cannot edit that precise when I’m doing it live. When I sat down to do it bit by bit it was a great opportunity to snag all these two-second parts.
I grew up really liking the genre of New Jack Swing, and groups like Bell Biv Devoe. What those guys have always done might not be as crazy and all over the map as my stuff, but it’s always just really weird sampling editing – like a drum fill for five seconds out of nowhere that’s completely different from the rest of the song.
I think that was madly influential because it’s one of my favorite genres and I love their mixing and matching of different styles.

G: New Jack Swing dates back to an era when there were a lot of provocative ideas happening in terms of sampling. It’s also a time when it was happening both in areas like hip-hop with the Bomb Squad and in more “punk” areas with people like Negativland. Do you think those kind of “Straight Up” to “It’s Like That” transitions come a lot more intuitively to you now? How do you see the evolution of what you’ve been doing in terms of the three albums?
GG: I wish I could say I it was more intuitive. It really is a trial and error process, trying out different ideas with software. My process of making music involves sampling tons of different ideas and different transitions, and maybe not using them for months and then at some point I’m stuck and going through the catalogue and find something that actually fits.
For me, 90 percent of the time it’s sitting at the computer and trying out different ideas. I’d say more and more I’m sampling at a faster pace nowadays and I have a much bigger catalogue.
Before I made Night Ripper I wasn’t sure what it was going to sound like, and now that I did that, making that style of music comes a little easier. As the record went on I had an idea of what it was and became easier to develop it.

G: The new record is seamless – it’s hard to tell when one track ends and another begins.
GG: I absolutely composed it as one song.

G: It’s kind of like this big beast of pop music.
GG: I built it in three different chunks, kind of randomly. I had three different starting points and worked on them simultaneously so that just in case I got stuck on one I could move to another. It was like building a big puzzle in three chunks and then putting them together. Eventually I had this whole piece. I separated it up [on the CD] so it’s easier to navigate – so people can pick their favorite little sections.

G: Night Ripper, more than the previous two albums, features a tremendous number of artists and songs. Do you like everything that you put on the album? Are you more inspired by how one song might play off of another?
GG: As far as the source material goes, I like the original songs. I’m a pop music enthusiast, so I like it by itself. There are times when I feel more compelled to use something. I like to put things in the music that are recognizable.
Dating back to Secret Diary, the idea behind each of the albums has been completely different, but the main concept has been the same – I like recontextualizing familiar elements in my own songs. People have these connections to these songs and it’s awesome to be able to manipulate that and make a new thing.
At some points I want to sample things that people are familiar with, but at other points I really like the way things sound that I might use more obscure samples. Like the Boredoms – which a lot of people recognize.

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G: What do you pair the Boredoms with?
GG: There’s a beat – throughout the album it’s kind of like quote unquote my own beats, but percussion sampled from other people and rearranged -- maybe two bass drums from one source and then a snare from another source. It’s my own beats with the vocals from the Boredoms’ “Acid Police,” and laid underneath that is a synthesizer solo from a Genesis track.

G: What is the music that you pair with the chorus of “Laffy Taffy”?
GG: It seems like that’s the big mystery on the album – I’ve been getting a lot of emails about that. Throughout the album there are just a couple of points where I do my own keyboard synthesizer stuff, so that music is actually just original instrumentation.

G: It’s great.
GG: Thank you. It’s this keyboard pop song that I made a couple of years ago, and all my friends really liked it. But was four minutes long and it had no vocals. In the same way I’d sample someone else’s music, I just took the best thirty seconds to a minute of my own song.

G: Can you talk a bit about the way people like Biggie and Tupac figure in Night Ripper? First of all, the pairing of Biggie [his rap from “Juicy”] with “Tiny Dancer” is so great. Also, there’s another track later, or moments, where both of them and 50 Cent intersect in interesting ways.
GG: It really is a hip-hop centered record, and that stems from two different things. One, I’m just a big fan, I’ve been a fan of rap music all my life. I pay attention to a lot of mainstream music and Top 40 stuff, especially on the hip-hop side.

G: A lot of the best production is happening there.
GG: It lends itself…when you’re making this style of music, it’s almost paying an appreciation to the history of hip-hop. Sampling has been this tool forever. This is this weird way of using the medium to make a new thing.
The other thing is that getting hip-hop a capellas is an easier thing, especially on 12”. It makes it convenient to me that it isn’t all ‘80s pop vocalists with a capellas on the Internet.

G: You do like ‘80s pop.
GG: I like pretty much every genre of music. But it happens to be convenient -- I really like rap vocals so it’s nice that they are widely available.

G: Did DJ Assault and late-night megamixes influence you?
GG: I really like a lot of those mixes. You can still find them on the Internet now, especially late ‘80s and early ‘90s techno pop mixes with CeCe Peniston. You can find all of those tracks running like 30 minutes.
I liked that stuff growing up, but I can’t cite it as a direct source – I didn’t go that route. I’ve always been into pop music but I got into this style of making pop music through more experimental realms. In high school-era I was into John Oswald and People Like Us and Evolution Control Committee and all these Plunderphonics-y experimental guys. That was part of the reason I started doing this, and I fell into this mode of making mega-mix style music through that.
Even on the New Jack Swing tip, I might have heard something and really liked it and might subconsciously be attempting to make something on that level years and years later.

G: This record has a Plunderphonics aesthetic or tactics, but at the same time it has this pop appeal. In that regard, it seems very new.
GG: Right. It’s funny. Most people who listen to it wouldn’t really say that, but it’s what I’m going for. I’m making this music that is challenging yet pop. I could have gone over the edge doubled the number of sources and made it insanely crazy to listen to as an experimental piece, or I could have slowed it down and made this straight up easy to dance to sort of record. It was a fine line, and I wanted something that was fun but at the same time also interesting to listen to as a composition.
Some of the more dance-oriented DJs might be like, “I don’t understand why everyone’s so excited about this – it sucks, you can’t even dance to it!” More experimental people might be like, “Man, this is so pop, I wish he’d throw some noise in there.” I’m just trying to blur the boundaries of what would be experimental and what would be pop. That’s exactly what I was going for.

G: Do you have any hints in terms of what direction you might take next with your recordings?
GG: I don’t really know. Even with this record I didn’t ever make a conscious decision to do this –the style just developed from my live shows. I didn’t sit down and invent an idea. I think I’ll keep going that route. I think I’ve found a little bit of niche that people like that’s cool. I’m always developing new material for live shows. My live shows now are more less Night Ripper-sounding but with completely new material.
I’m really busy now with a lot of remix work for people. That’s nicely diverting my attention away from putting an album together. I’ve had two years between each of my albums.
I would love to drop another record soon in the style of Night Ripper because I have a lot of material. But as time goes on and I start editing my interests will probably change – I have no concrete plans for the future at this point.

G: I want to ask about “Bodies Hit the Floor” on Unstoppable. It has this gabber energy –
GG: [laughs] Sure, sure.

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G: And the different people you’ve assembled together are great.
GG: During that era, making Unstoppable-type songs, I was really into IDM-influenced music. I think if you put Secret Diary and Night Ripper together, it’s kind of like Unstoppable.

G: It connects the two.
GG: There’s an experimental album [Secret Diary], then more of an IDM-ish album [Unstoppable], then a pop record [Night Ripper]. At the time of Unstoppable, I really focused on the production of the beats. All the drum sounds were sampled from pop songs. I was trying to put together more or less original sounding music out of pop samples. The highlights of live sets were always just blatant juxtapositions. It was this weird style of music where I was sort of making Prefuse 73-ish influenced beatwork mixed in with blatant samples.
“Bodies Hit the Floor” was a remix of this song that was on a compilation.

G: Do you have any interest in people who are applying a Plunderphonics type of approach to video work?
GG: I’m interested in recontextualizing any media. I don’t follow video art that actively, but Paper Rad, what they’re doing is pretty amazing. They’re taking a lot of ‘80s and ‘90s commercials and juxtaposing them with overwhelmingly psychedelic imagery. They’ve done videos for Load Records and Lightning Bolt. What they do is amazing, and I would kind of like to collaborate with them on a video at some point even though I haven’t approached them.

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