Girl Talk Talks Tech

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Photo: Doug Lasstewart

With the ease in which digital technology allows for the manipulation of audio, it''s no wonder that the mashup, which combines elements of multiple songs together to form a new piece, has developed into an art form. While some might quibble with producers who use samples of others'' work as their entire musical palette, when you listen to the music of Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, and hear him discuss his production process, there''s no question that he is an artist of the highest order.

Girl Talk''s latest, All Day (Illegal Arts), is his fifth full album since 2002, and contains his usual high-energy juxtapositions of hip-hop, pop, and classic rock songs. Due in large part to his high-energy live show, and the attention that brings to his meticulously crafted mashups, Gillis'' popularity has been growing steadily. I had a chance to talk to Gillis recently about his production process, software, background, and a lot more.

How did you get into doing mashups in the first place?
I guess it kind of goes back to the first bands I was in. Like the first things I started doing were more experimental, more electronic music, like when I was 15. And I just kind of really dove into the noise and avant-garde scenes, and was just really interested in seeing how far out music could get. So back then, I was in a lot of bands and projects; [the music was] just very abrasive, not melodic or accessible. But it was all electronic; it went from synthesizers and children''s toys, and also a lot of sampling—just like cutting up. And that wasn''t always computer based. Oftentimes it was like playing with skipping CDs or just appropriating chunks from the radio, or cutting up physical cassettes.

Who were you listening to back then?
People like John Oswald, Negativeland, and Kid 606. And also, I''d always been a big hip-hop fan. So I think, when I got my first laptop, I decided it would be interesting to do a project, kind of like Negativeland, where the conceptual focus would be in the direction of appropriating pop culture- based things. But I wanted it to be focused on radio music. And I think the stuff I was doing on my earliest records, I don''t know if anyone would even call those mashups, even though it was entirely sample based; it was just a lot more based around the process thing, and kind of tearing new songs up. And again, it was a lot more experimental, and over time the projects evolved and started to embrace more mashup-based sounds.

FIG. 1: One of the programs Gillis uses heavily for his production is Sonic Fritter's AudioMulch.

What is the primary software that you use for producing your mashups?
I''ve been using the same software for about 10 years now. The primary tools are just kind of two pieces of software. One is Adobe Audition, just for cutting things up and editing. And I do a lot of stuff by hand in there: quantizing samples and cutting up beats using a calculator to just kind of come up with the rhythmic arrangements. And then I use a program [by Sonic Fritter] called AudioMulch (see Fig. 1) to do the arrangements that I perform live. That program allows me basically to have a bunch of loops and samples and makes it easy for me to try out different combinations of material together. And in the live setting, I actually have that open and trigger the samples in real time.

Have you ever tried Ableton Live for that?
I have, and I''ve started to fiddle with it a bit. I bought a copy a year ago, and it''s really powerful, and I really like it, and I don''t know if I''d ever transfer over to it for the live setting, because I''m so familiar with AudioMulch, and it kind of feels like my instrument.

Is AudioMulch the program you do your time stretching in?
Yeah. For almost everything on the record, I''ll do some time-stretching in Ableton if I want to do adjustments without affecting the pitch, sometimes I''ll do that in Ableton and then use those loops in AudioMulch. But in AudioMulch with the loop-based setup that automatically time stretches and pitch-adjusts—if you''re going to make something faster it''s going to be a higher pitch. I like that aspect; it doesn''t lose any quality. I like to mess with it so everything''s not the original pitch, so a lot of things are tweaked up or tweaked down, just to give it a little bit more character.

Talk about how you put your mashups together. Do you know in advance which songs you''re going to combine or is it a more of a trial-and-error- based process?
It is very trial-and-error based. It''s not very intuitive. I''m always hearing songs that I want to sample, and things jump out at me, just isolated parts. But I rarely hear a song and say, “Oh, that would be perfect with that other thing.” I just usually hear something and say, “That would go well with something.” I would say over half the material I sample and cut up does not see the light of day, not in the live set or on the album. There are a lot more failures than there are successes. A lot of times I''ll have a hip-hop verse or something, and I''ll try it out with a hundred different things at that tempo. Maybe half of them sound okay, and maybe five of them are really interesting to me. Then out of those five, maybe two are more conceptually strong. So it kind of always goes that way.

When you find song combinations that work well together, what do you do next?
When I get an idea that sticks, I try to incorporate it in the live show if possible. And then from there, I start to build it and understand it as far as where it should fall, and what it should transition in and out of. So by the time I get it into an album, it''s after two or more years of experimenting with it live, so I have a really strong idea of kind of where the album is going to begin and kind of most of the pieces in between.

So you basically develop the material live, so by the time you get to putting it together in the studio you already kind of know what''s going to work.
Yeah. I would say that at least half the pieces are there when I sit down to start the record, you know, in studio, in my house, when I''m just getting ready to get going. Most of the material, for fans who come out to the shows, I think they hear it as well. I think a lot of people who''ve been out to any show in the last two years prior to the new album release probably could have guessed there''d be a moment with Ludacris and Black Sabbath, the thing that kicks off the record [a mashup of “Move Bitch” and “War Pigs]. That''s something that I''d played a most shows prior to the record. I think in the live show I have to be a bit more blunt about it. The focus is creating a fun atmosphere, and it is a party, whereas on record, that''s not the main focus for me. I want it to be fun, and it''s cool that people can play it at a party, but ultimately, I want it to be what''s most fun and musically engaging.

Is your studio just your laptop and some monitors?
That''s basically it. I''ve gone through various mixers, no real preference there, and monitors. A lot of times I''m on the road and I get things done on headphones, and I get to try it out on a real sound system, during sound checks and things like that. That''s been a big advantage for me, all the time when I''m fooling with mixes and trying out different things. A lot of the time, right when I make something, I''ll probably have a show within three days. So when I go there and there''s a giant booming P.A., I can get on there and play loops of it and just sit back and check it out, and compare that EQ to the way it sounded on my headphones in my room, or on my studio monitors at home, or anything like that.

On your recordings, at any given moment in time, how many samples are typically playing simultaneously?
I think that the number of layers has increased on each album. So for example, the new album versus the album Night Ripper (Illegal Arts) from 2006. On that album, basically, what you''re able to identify was all there was. So at any given moment, maybe four samples, maybe three, just the percussion, vocals, and melody. Whereas, I think on the new record, there''s a lot more tiny things happening. I got a bit more detail-oriented, and just over the years was interested in making production more full. A lot of times I''ve got two samples and it sounds good and you put the drums on it and it could sound okay, and then it''s really just adding those little bits of percussion and little bits of vocal samples, and hi-hats that are sampled from the ‘60s from the Rolling Stones. It''s hard to replicate things like that. There''s a lot of points in the record where it may seem like three samples happening, but there might be 20. Tiny little things. That''s even something that, in the structure of the music, that''s always changing, but I want it to be cohesive.

When you want to sample something like a percussion element or a hi-hat, it''s not that easy; you''ve got to find a place where it''s in the clear on the album. That''s got to be tedious.
Yeah, it''s a constant hunt for many different elements. For me, a really big thing on the record that I think is easy to kind of gloss over are the transitional elements. Just tiny things that are used for five seconds: A drum fill, a vocal part. And now, when I''m listening to music or throwing on a CD or at a club, I''m always looking for that. Because those things are really valuable to this style of music I''m doing. Those little, literally three-second parts, whether it''s like Janet Jackson screaming, or the industrial drum fill on a Nine Inch Nails song, I just collect those. I''m constantly just collecting bits and pieces. And on the computer, I came up with a cataloging system for keeping all these things together. But it''s something where I literally cut up music almost every day.

Do you get percussion sounds from instruments as well?
A lot of times you can just sample a hi-hat from a sound bank or from a drum machine. But sometimes that quality from an older rock song or from whatever recording is just hard to match, and it gives it a lot of character. You can tell the difference: that that was produced in the studio or that it was recorded at a different time period. It''s something that''s just difficult to replicate. I have to ask you about the issue of the copyrights of the material you sample. Somehow you''ve managed to do this without legal hassles.

Photo: Dove Shore

What about processing. Do you do any overall compression on top of the tracks to try to give it a glue.
Yeah. I EQ just about every sample, depending on where I'm playing it. And sometimes things will be processed to different degrees, depending on whether it's going to be on the record or played live. A lot of times I'm just tweaking the sounds. And that's something again where I've been paying attention to a lot more on the new records than the older ones. A lot of times, it's just fidelity issues that tie things together. Sometimes you can have an a cappella and an instrumental that match really well, but if the fidelity is very different, it could clash that way.

Sometimes [I'm] trying to make older samples sound newer or make newer vocals sound old. That's kind of a constant effort and there's more of that on the new record than on previous records. I do remixes, a side project thing with a friend of mine named Frank Musara. And he kind of came in the last week of the new record, and we sat down and kind of really focused on that aspect of the production. You know, listened to the whole album, and said, "Okay, what sounds like it's alien to this whole record? What doesn't sound like it fits?" On our record we were sampling 60 or 70 years of pop, and things jump around a lot. And the ultimate goal is to hide that.

I guess it's easier to make a new track sound old than vice versa?
Right, absolutely. A good example of just beefing it up, EQ'ing it, is the Black Sabbath intro for "War Pigs." That song sounds awesome by itself. I love the way that song is recorded. But you put it up against these crisp Ludacris vocals, and these really crisp JZ drums that were recorded in the past 10 years, and you just need to kind of beef it up to make it not sound weak. We didn't want to necessarily take too much away from the original recording. We don't want to make it sound like totally compressed, 2011-style radio-rock music. But at the same time, you don't want it to sound weak. So it's just about finding that happy medium.

It seems like a lot of the material will have a hip-hop vocal over an older song, a classic rock song or whatever. Do you think there's more impact when you're mixing genres?
Yeah, I definitely think so. It's almost more of a challenge for me, the more far ranging the songs are from each other. There are moments on the new record where there's a hip-hop song over the top of a hip-hop song. And stuff like that exists, and I do that sometimes on the show, but to me that's kind of the easy way, and it's been done for years, that people are familiar with. There's more of a calculated effort for it to be transformative if you're combining these things and you couldn't imagine them existing in the same world but they sound good together—if you can entirely flip the mood of a song, or if the mood is very similar but kind of done an entirely different way. Things like that. I never want this to be something where I'm just DJ'ing songs. That was never the goal; it's always to try to create a new entity, sometimes when you're trying to tap into this music that's very distant as far as the way people generally hear it on the radio or at clubs or bars. The further apart they are, if they can come together and sound interesting, that's what makes it exciting for me.

Because all this existing material has been mastered before, I assume your material also goes to a mastering engineer.
I have a friend who masters all my records. Things are mastered at very different levels of qualities on purpose. Of course, time changes, vocals now sound a lot different than vocals in the '70s, and drums now sound a lot different than drums in the '70s. I like the sound to jump around, and I like the fidelity level to jump around, but not so much that it's something that's widely apparent. Yeah, it's a big effort to kind of keep things on a similar level and a constant battle to have that thing that's really compressed sit in the same space as that old Fleetwood Mac recording that had so much room and space. Even the guy whose mastering my records has done all of them, and I think that even we've grown together as to how we should approach it.

I think on some of my earlier records we would just heavily compress, kind of like hip-hop-style mastering jobs and just keep it loud and crisp. On the newer record, there's more of a dynamic to it. And that's been more of an effort on my part, and on [mastering engineer] John Schenke's part. And the effort he's put in just to keep it dynamic. I think musically, as each album's gone on, I think what I'm reaching for, the reference points. I just want to keep it as dynamic as possible, as jumping around as much as possible. I like some space in that mastering job so that everything's not in the red. There's moments when it is slightly quiet, and then it can get very loud. I think that was definitely different on this record from some of the earlier ones.

I have to ask you about the issue of the copyrights of the material you sample. Somehow you've managed to do this without legal hassles. How do you explain that, and what has been the reaction from artists whose material you've sampled?
I haven't heard anything negative thus far. Everything I've heard from artists has generally been positive. And even beyond the artists, a lot of the labels and A&R people and managers have been reaching out more and more, even as this project has grown bigger. I've just been hearing from these people a lot more. It's hard to say why there hasn't been an issue with copyright. Theoretically, I'd like to believe that people hear my music and think it falls under "fair use." They think it's transformative, and it's not negatively impacting the sales of the artists, and things like that. And that's where I think it should fit in.

How do you explain that, and what has been the reaction from artists whose material you''ve sampled?
I haven''t heard anything negative thus far. Everything I''ve heard from artists has generally been positive. And even beyond the artists, a lot of the labels and A&R people and managers have been reaching out more and more, even as this project has grown bigger. I''ve just been hearing from these people a lot more. It''s hard to say why there hasn''t been an issue with copyright. Theoretically, I''d like to believe that people hear my music and think it falls under Fair Use. They think it''s transformative, and it''s not negatively impacting the sales of the artists, and things like that. And that''s where I think it should fit in.

Explain Fair Use.
Fair Use is not like a loophole or anything like that. It''s a doctrine of United States copyright [law] that basically states that you can sample without permission, if it falls under the criteria. So yeah, theoretically it would be great if the labels and the artists and everyone just thought of it on that level, and really believed it should fall under Fair Use. But I really can''t say if that''s the case. But I also think many of these artists are used to this. I think any song that comes on the radio now, you can ump on You Tube or jump on a music blog and immediately there are hundreds of remixes of it. Or when a movie trailer comes out, someone''s going to do a parody of it, or someone''s going to animate it.

That''s certainly true.
It''s kind of like the age we live in now, where everyone likes to be interactive with the media they consume. And I don''t think it''s so radical anymore as it may have been 15 or 20 years ago, the idea of an unsolicited remix. I think a lot of the artists that I''ve sampled on the new album have been positive about it. I believe the reasonable way to look at it is that the music is now being heard by a demographic that wouldn''t have necessarily listened to it in the first place. Like on the record, The Toadies reached out to me the day it was released, and were sending some Twitters out to me, and they put it up on their front page, and all that. [The Toadies song “Possum Kingdom” is sampled in Girl Talk''s “This is the Remix.”] And that was cool. That''s a band that''s had a long-running career and a band that I''m a fan of. But it''s hard to say whether a lot of younger kids listening to my music had heard The Toadies and knew of them. I''m sure many people have, but not all of them. So I''m sure someone like that band can see it from that perspective, where it''s like, “wow, there''s a whole bunch of new people who now get to hear that song in a different context, and it may turn them on to that music.” And that''s the way I''ve been with just so many hip hop and soul samples during my whole life, just hearing that sample and trying to figure out where it''s from. And looking into the original and liking the original on an entirely different level than I like the sample-based version. Now I think it''s just very common in the world that we live in.

I understand that your live show is pretty crazy. I'm guessing that it's much more improvised than your albums.
I think for this tour that I'm on currently, it's the least improvised of the live shows I've ever done. Everything is done on the fly, all the samples are triggered by hand, but it is rehearsed. And it is something I go over and I have a set list. In the past, I've pretty much toured by myself, and the general idea was just, as far as the show goes, I've brought a couple of friends along over the past two years to handle physical props and do confetti and balloons and things like that. But with that, we never had any cues; we just went out there and did it. I would freestyle a lot of stuff, and kind of improvise and jump around a bit more. And it was raw, and there was mistakes, and that was kind of the nature of the show. That's where I kind of wanted it to be.

I think on the new tour, there's a certain level of improvisation, and even if you see me every night on this entire tour, you might hear me go through the same material, or maybe the drums will come in at a different time, or maybe I'll loop something a different amount of times. So it kind of changes night to night, different aspects. But this is the first tour that had a set designer come on and design a show, a physical show, with this LED backdrop, and a lighting guy ready for lighting cues, and the guys in props.

It sounds like it's become pretty intricate.
There are all these kinds of different levels of cues, and it's definitely a bit more of an elaborate production than it's ever been. Because of that, I've really wanted to get the set tighter. Everyone has to be performing and everyone has to be ready because it changes on the fly. But at the same time, there are a lot of cues that I try to hit every night. And sometimes I mess things up, and sometimes I don't feel like doing it. But regardless, because of the interaction with the whole crew and the different layers there, it's more rehearsed and more similar each night. But it will be the sort of thing where if I want to make a change, I'll go to them and present it, and say, "Well, this part is going to be different this night," or, "Today's a day off so I'll probably work on stuff and have some changes for tomorrow." And during rehearsal or soundcheck, I'll kind of go over the changes and make sure everyone understands what's happening. So that's been an entirely new experience after doing this for 10 years, that level of interaction with the whole crew; it's really exciting for me. I feel like the shows are kind of paying off because this is the most fully realized version of what a Girl Talk show should be.

You're doing a lot of touring this year?
Yeah. Right now I'm in the midst of like 25 dates. And then I have a couple of weeks off, and then it's like another 20 dates. I tour all the time. It's kind of been non-stop for like three or four years. A lot of times I'll do weekend things, like most of the year I'll do weekend shows, and just literally go out on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and come home, which I still love—that makes it nice to be home a lot. The shows for me are very physically demanding. I kind of try to bring myself to the limits as far as interacting with the crowd, and never stop moving and just really pushing myself. So it's nice to have two or three shows and be able to relax. But you can't come through with a big rig full of production or a 12-person tour bus just for a weekend. It just financially doesn't work out. So that's why we're doing the bigger touring now; I'm hitting most U.S. cities.

Mike Levine is a New York-based music journalist, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, and is the former editor of EM.