‘I’m Meant for This!’

DJ/producer Girl Talk sprints through samples at downtown’s AfterGlow

The inaugural GlowRun (co-sponsored by Vegas Seven and Insomniac Events) is nigh, and participants are feverishly crafting illuminated costumes for the Oct. 7 event downtown. As exciting as the fun run itself is, DJ/producer Girl Talk (a.k.a. Gregg Gillis) is stocking up on samples for AfterGlow. Before he headlines the afterparty in the Fremont East entertainment district, Girl Talk lets us in on his plan to keep the energy going following the 7-kilometer race.

Any plans to participate in the race or get a team together before you headline AfterGlow?

I do have a history of running; I used to run in high school. I actually do a little bit of running when there’s downtime between shows. For me, performing is pretty physical. Usually the whole day is [spent in] preparation leading up to it, and then the show afterward. I just couldn’t imagine running and doing that.

GlowRun participants might themselves be a bit exhausted after the race. How will you keep them moving?

Every show is a different beast. I never really came from a traditional DJ background. It’s always a show [format] for me where [I’m] performing and there’s change-over music [not just DJs’ sets mixing together]. I’ve played to a lot of audiences who are standing still. I’ve played at a lot of festivals where I might be the only thing related to dance music. It might be a rock band for a little bit, and then I come on and say, “Now we’re gonna start moving.” I definitely feel pretty well equipped for that sort of role where people might be tired, or might not be in the mindset that they are gonna be dancing. Then you have to beat them over the head with it a bit. A lot of the fans and people have been responding well to the new stuff, so it should be cool.

Will your set have a running theme? Maybe mashup “Chariots of Fire” with the Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started” and that “Runnin’, Runnin’” vocal, or something like that?

Anything is possible. I feel like there is at least a general workout vibe to the show. I’m personally getting a workout. The thing I hear the most on the Internet or on Twitter is, “Going for a 5K run listening to Girl Talk!” or “Working out listening to Girl Talk.”

If race participants want to load up their iPods with your music, what would be the best tracks or album to motivate them during the GlowRun?

I definitely think my music works best as an album. When I make an album, I separate the tracks as an afterthought; I compose it as one big thing. That’s probably why a lot of people take to it, that it is a continuous thing, it’s not gonna stop, and you can get lost in it. The last record I did, All Day, is the longest and most dense. Also the pacing of it is a little bit more unpredictable, but also there’s more breathing room in that album than the rest. People can get into the groove of it easier than the early records.

Might you get into the spirit of the GlowRun costume-wise, or end up eventually going shirtless as you often do at gigs?

I’ve played just about every show in the past four years wearing a sweat outfit with a headband on my head. I’m meant for this! I’m always dressed for a run onstage. And yeah, I really have a difficult time keeping my shirt on while I’m performing, so there’s a good chance that the shirt will be off. It’s as fitting [a place as] anywhere to go shirtless.

Since you’re a master of sampling, how have you not been sued yet—or have you?

I haven’t. There is a doctrine in United States copyright law called fair use, and it allows you to sample without asking for permission if it falls under certain criteria. Technically when you’re sampling, it’s not automatically illegal. It’s a gray area. It will be determined by a court whether it falls under fair use or not. Fair use looks at the nature of your work and whether it’s transformative, re-contextualized, if you have any negative impact on the source material—if you’re beating them with sales—those sorts of things. I’ve always felt that my work in no way hurts sales for any artist. If anything I feel people are turned on to new music and then will download or buy music because of it.

I’ve never wanted this to be a project where I just play other people’s songs, or it’s just a collection of other people’s songs. I want it to be something new. I’ve put out these records and hoped for the best. If someone wants to take me to court, I’d be happy to defend it under fair use, but obviously I don’t want to spend the time and money on that, so thus far it’s been good, and no one’s had a problem with it. These days a lot of people are sending me tracks, “Check out this a capella,” “Check out this instrumental,” more or less pushing stuff for me to sample, which makes sense to me because in no way do I feel like it’s hurting these artists. If anything I feel like it’s providing a new platform for them, or different demographic or audience.

Is your style influenced by the likes of DJ Shadow or Z-Trip?

In all honesty, I love DJ Shadow. I definitely grew up with that, and inspirationally in general, a lot of the Dust Brothers and [The] Bomb Squad, who did the production and all those Public Enemy records, De La Soul—that’s the scene I came out of and connected to more than the Shadow scene, more just laptop glitch. There’s subgenres that exist that people just don’t even know about and don’t really understand it. To me, [those artists] definitely had a hand in shaping what is music right now, but people don’t see that. For me big inspirations are Kid606 and Tigerbeat6—the label he ran, Blectum From Blechdom, Gold Chains, and that whole scene of musicians. In the grand scheme of this electronic explosion I have never seen those names mentioned in major articles even though to me they’ve had a huge impact into what electronic music is now, so that’s always funny to me. There are a lot of subcultures of electronic music that have existed and do exist and influence all these people, and people trace the roots of a much more shallow history than what actually exists.

What’s the key to making a living when you have to give out your sample-heavy music for free? Is it all based on touring and selling T-shirts?

If you go the traditional route and clear all these samples and pay 400 artists for clearance, you would have to end up selling that CD for a couple thousand dollars each in order to make the payment.

The last record is the only record we gave out entirely for free. For the first four records we pressed CDs and we did it traditional. The label that releases the music, Illegal Art, everything I’ve put out other than the newest album has been on a pay what you want model. I really didn’t start this project with the intention to sustain a career. I did this for six years before making a hundred dollars. I did it for fun and any success that came really came as a surprise. We don’t even do a lot of numbers on merch. It’s just been staying active touring. It’s less about the money and more about keeping the project alive. The shows are always a place for me to experiment with new ideas and for fans to check it out and keep the buzz.

Anything you’ve been dying to sample, but haven’t found the right place for it?

One off the top of my head would be The Cars’ song “Drive.” It’s one of my favorite songs and I probably first sampled that around 2004 and played it live with at least 20 different things. It almost made every record, but it just hasn’t found its spot and I’ve literally been working on variations of it for eight years now.

What’s the key to identifying tracks that will blend well together?

You can use anything; all it needs to be is isolated to some degree. There are no official quantitative rules. It’s more of an instinct of what I like. The majority of things I try out don’t see the light of day. My big secret is to really put in the time to isolate as many samples as possible. The more things that I have isolated and the more loops I have in front of me, then the more potential combinations I hear, the more tools that I have, the more potential interesting things will come out of it. It’s less about hunting for that perfect one and more about amassing a lot so you have as many options as possible.

Do you create your mashups in advance, or is it all live during your gigs?

I use a program called AudioMulch and I trigger every sample by hand. Typically in an hour of performing, I’ll trigger 400 samples. Every loop is isolated. When you’re hearing a drumbeat, that might be three loops—there might be a loop of a kick drum, a snare and a high hat. The set is something that is rehearsed, and I have an idea where I want it to go. I memorize where every single sample is going to go, how I’m going to play it and the order of everything. Within the set everything is live, I have an idea of how I want to get through it but that changes every night, I change small things with the arrangements, a lot of times I will make a mistake and try to get out of it or sometimes I feel like looping something over it, so it’s always figuring it out on the spot.

There are people like my lighting and video guy, and we do a lot of stuff with props, balloons and confetti where there’s these cues and it’s up to them to keep up with it and in that way, I feel like now it’s more like a improvisational band. We might get off track a little bit, but it’s up to everyone to feel it out.

Does your background as a biomedical engineer ever come into play in your current career?

I do think there’s some parallels with the style of work with the music. They’re both meticulous, detail-oriented and just the nature of the work and sitting down every day for 10 hours and laboring over these fine little details. There are a lot of similarities in the mindset to approach these things and engineering style problem-solving. In the traditional sense, it’s not like I do any of my medical engineering day-to-day.

Have you gotten any feedback from artists you’ve sampled—or angry letters?

Everything’s been pretty positive. I’ve played some festivals with these people and a few of these artists I’ve played with over the years. Wiz Khalifa is from Pittsburgh where I’m from, we’ve played some shows together, I’ve sampled him on recent albums, so during [Coachella] he came out and was dancing and hanging out. It’s cool when you’re sampling someone and they actually come out and are dancing and supporting. The first big one to me that was mind-blowing was four years ago in Atlanta. Big Boi from OutKast came out to the show. It was a tiny little venue, sweaty and dirty. I immediately started doing OutKast remixes. In the back my guy, who was doing visuals and improvising on the spot, and Big Boi went back there and actually jumped on for a minute. No one knew that Big Boi was actually back there triggering visuals, which was a mind-blower afterward.