Featured Artist – Girl Talk
From his laptop, Girl Talk’s Gregg Gillis, has launched an assault on the music industry’s failure to accept change. For eight years and through four albums Gillis has produced sample based music, taking at times hundreds of samples from tracks some new and others long forgotten. His collages are introducing classic artists to a new generation of music enthusiasts. A generation demanding free access to music. The 2006 release of Night Ripper, spread like wildfire making Girl Talk a mash-up megastar overnight. His newest album Feed the Animals was released in July with a “pay what you want” revenue model. We caught up with Gregg to find out more about his new album, his stance on the industry, and the ideas behind the music.
NEU BLACK: You’ve been compared to John Cage and have said that you’ve found inspiration in the work of John Oswald. How is your work changing the world’s perceptions of music as art and music composition as a whole?
GREGG GILLIS: I think I’m challenging some ideas of originality. People have seen sample based music before, especially in hip hop, but maybe not to the extent that I’m doing it. A lot of young people who have gotten into my style of music, kinda see it on a more surface level as some fun dance music. The fact that I play in traditional concert venues and put out CD’s that are generally regarded as albums rather than mixes, helps people see me as more of an artist. They come out to the concerts and listen to the albums as albums. It brings up some questions in terms of how is that different from another band taking their influences and manipulating them and recontextualizing those ideas into a new whole. I think that’s one the main ideas I’m playing with. Also the format of the album goes along with the more traditional DJ style mixes, but they are very linear and I think they are pop and accessible. But at they same time it’s structured into one flowing album. One big collage made out of samples that’s 50 minutes isn’t really a typical route for an album.
Feed the Animals: Still Here (excerpt)
NEU BLACK: There are a lot of new ideas spreading about how work like yours changes the game. Both the owners of copyrighted material and lawmakers are siting your work in discussions. How do you feel about the part your you’ve played in the overall debate within the industry.
GREGG GILLIS: The CD is kind of dying off and people are trying to cash in on what’s going on. What’s going on is the industry is going to rely more on interactivity with music and communication by creating a dialog between artists and consumers. This is already happening, every song that comes out gets a remix on YouTube. For every pop song that comes out, the a cappella is released and that results in different remixes out there. Even things like rock band the video game are to a degree people getting involved with the music. They are consuming and buying music through that. That’s the new thing, as the CD dies out we’re loosing that aspect of needing to buy physical media. With the digital age people can become more involved with the music. I think something like my album is a piece of music that is, at it’s core, a reinterpretation of a lot of old musical ideas. That’s not negatively impacting any of the artists potential sales and is probably turning a lot of people on to the original artist. I think that goes well with the Rock Band [example], with the YouTube [example]. These things are not actually taking sales away from artists and labels. Hearing my music isn’t taking sales away from people, because people can hear music for free if they want. They can hear any song for free online. So any further communication and dialog, any extension of the original source material is getting the message out there and helps spread the information. People are going be opened up to it. I think it even goes back to the Rolling Stones biting a Chuck Berry riff or even Nirvana being influenced by the Pixies. If you get into Nirvana you may get into the Pixies through them. Remixes are a more direct version of that, people clearly know what my influences are. By knowing what I’m into they are exposed to new artists and can find out more about those artists if they want to.
NEU BLACK: At this point does it seem like the general public values sample based music?
GREGG GILLIS: Yeah, it’s a weird thing. For our model if you put in zero dollars and decide to get it for free, we ask a little questionnaire. It asks why did you decide not to pay did you not have money, do you not value sample based music. I wish I had those stats in front of me. I think some people with this music, because it is sample based, and sample based music is relatively new, there is a chance that less people will be willing to pay for this because it is non traditional.
NEU BLACK: Does the recording industry see your work as revitalizing artists that younger audiences haven’t heard of, except through your music?
GREGG GILLIS: I haven’t seen any direct response from the industry. None of them have called to thank me for doing what I’m doing. But I definitely see it. I get Myspace messages all of the time from kids asking for specific sample sources. Even at the shows I see young people singing these older songs by someone like James Taylor, which I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be jamming to otherwise. Right now my relationship with the industry has been pretty minimal, besides people being into the music. No ones really come up to me from a major label and really thanked me for doing anything, but also they have not had any issues. Right now there has been minimal dialog.
NEU BLACK: It looks like no cease and desist orders are coming out of Night Ripper. Is this also true for Feed the Animals?
GREGG GILLIS: Yes, there have been no issues thus far. I think with Night Ripper, when the press hit [for the album] we were almost anticipating a cease and desist or at least expecting to hear some sort of response. Maybe not when the album was released but when it got picked up by the more mainstream media. But with [Feed the Animals], that is something we were thinking about going into it. We weren’t sure, because it was going to be a bigger deal and hyped up a bit more, whether or not it was going to be more of an issue. More than a month has passed since the album’s been out. I can’t say one way or another, but I think this is more or less the way it’s going to continue to move. People in the past like Negative Land and Danger Mouse, who have had copyright issues, despite that their albums did very well. I can’t rally compare any of my records to those, as far as exposure I really don’t know [how well they would compare]. It seems like in the past people were a bit more quick to jump on top of the issue of copyright. The people working a major labels aren’t idiots, they study this industry. Most if not all of the a cappella’s on the album are released by labels on vinyl and they put them online, they do that for a reason. People are starting to see the value in certain music and in reinterpretations.
Feed the Animals: Here’s the Thing (excerpt)
NEU BLACK: Can your collage style compositions be legitimately commercialized for use given existing copyright law?
GREGG GILLIS: I have been approached by major labels and asked to do a remix of a back catalog. I know in Europe, a few people have started to do more legal based mash up work. Where they are actually working with a major label. So I could see something like that taking off. It’s interesting because ten years ago you needed to be on a major label to be on the radio and to be on MTV and that was the only way to attain mainstream success. That era is pretty much over now. A lot of the biggest bands in the world are on indie labels or even on Myspace. People can just get their music out there through the internet. That question really would be, is it possible for any truly independent underground artist to be successful on a mainstream level? What even defines mainstream success is confusing to me in this day and age. The radio is still big, I live in Pittsburgh and they don’t really play the Arcade Fire on the radio even though that might be number one on the billboard charts the day the album comes out. Right now, we are at a time where there will eventually be an underground Nirvana, they’ll be the biggest thing. A number one artist and they are going to be on a completely independent label. They won’t need the support of the mainstream media outlets. Even now I saw the band No Age, who’s signed to Sub Pop on MTV, I don’t think you necessarily need to be on a major anymore to be on MTV. If that’s the case, I could see something like doing remixes or collages catching on. Some particular remix of a song could become the biggest thing. Something like that could get insanely big online. I think the potential is definitely there.
NEU BLACK: Will the “pay what you want” model be successful with your fan base?
GREGG GILLIS: It’s so hard to quantify whether or not people are going to donate for your album. People have different fan bases. I think Radiohead has probably one of the best fan bases for this model. People who are die hards and really think that this band is doing a great service for the community by making music, I think those people want to pay money. So it depends where you are at. Also a big thing is, if you are just releasing your debut album people are experimenting by buying it, they may not be as willing to donate. Where as if you are a few albums in and people have had your albums before people might even feel more indebted to pay for your music.
NEU BLACK: Is this model something where you and the label can be profitable?
GREGG GILLIS: It depends. For me in terms of being profitable I probably have a different perspective than a lot of other bands, because I’m a solo touring artist and I play over 100 shows a year. So for me, at least for the past year, I truly make a living off playing shows. Sales of the album and what people pay for it are not really much a concern for me. The more people who have it the more people who come out to the shows. That’s kind of how this whole thing functions for me. We never made a killing off of any of our albums, so it’s hard to compare. I think with Radiohead they kind of cut out a lot of the middle men involved, by going with the pay for what you want model a lot of the money when directly to them. Where as with Illegal Art there weren’t to many middle men to begin with, it’s a pretty bare bones operation. So we weren’t cutting to many people out. At the same time a lot of people have offered money. I think it’s hard to judge this model in terms of could it be viable in the future ’cause it’s so novel that I think more willing to play with it and participate and give money out, based on the fact that it’s new and exciting to them. So it’s hard to imagine how it would be if everyone were doing this. I think for us a lot of people decided to pay money which is cool. To me, like I was saying before, any song can be downloaded for free. I think even buying a CD is like donating to that cause, it’s really not much different. Doing this whole think for me was less about being concerned about what’s the best way we could bank it and more about how up front can we be with the people who are buying the music and how can we get it to them in the easiest possible way.
NEU BLACK: Do you feel like you’re generating that kind of loyal fan based now that this album is out?
GREGG GILLIS: Definitely going into this, especially because people have been anticipating the album, it had been in the works for two years, and I’ve been talking about it a long time, enough so that people were waiting on it. I think if people are waiting on any thing it gets them excited to just throw some money at it once it’s ready to go.
Feed the Animals: Give Me a Beat (excerpt)
NEU BLACK: Do the downloads of this release compare to Night Ripper?
GREGG GILLIS: Probably better. But as far as the amount of people hearing it and having it in their hands, I’m guessing it will be similar if not better. Especially cause there was a lot more excitement with this one. The build of Night Ripper was slower, it came out and then it sat there for a while and then people got it. There wasn’t much anticipation going into it, which was different on this one. A lot of people were waiting for it. I think the pay for what you want model got it to people in a very easy way and at a high quality. That was my big concern with going with that model. I wanted to get this out there as efficiently as possible. I wanted to get it to the most people possible. It seemed like the pay for what you want model wold work for that. I think it’s on more peoples hard drives than even night ripper at this point.
NEU BLACK: What would would you say to people who don’t really have an impression of Girl Talk or are just hearing your music for the first time?
GREGG GILLIS: Keep downloading music for free if that’s what you want to do and keep buying music if that’s what you want to do. It’s an exciting era in the industry. It’s changing, CD’s are dying. I’m gonna buy CD’s until I can’t anymore. But I have no problem with people doing what they want. I appreciate the support. Hopefully more people will continue to dive into sample based music now. I really feel that eventually there will be a jewel, that the masterpiece of this genre will be made. Whether it’s dance music or experimental music. I feel like there is so much room to explore. When you start a band you typically don’t think of incorporating samples first things first, but I think that’s changing. Now that you don’t really have to release a physical album you can just put it on the internet. I think there will be some amazing sample based work in the future that will be the “Never Mind” of sample based music. It’s so relatively new, there is so much room to do that. It’s an exciting era. People can trail blaze it into the future.
Neu Black Review: Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals
Feed the Animals: No Pause
This is truly an album to be compared to greats like Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique. In much the same way we were excited to get nostalgic about our favorite samples from 10 years past, my mom would get nostagic about this album. Strewn with samples from the late 70′s and early 80′s, both the prominent and obscure samples make me want to dig out a dusty 8 track. The juxtaposition of Yael Naim and Eminem on No Pause is amazing.
Download Feed the Animals here.
Girl Talk will be coming to Los Angeles, Oct. 24-25 at the Henry Fonda Theater.