Interview: Girl Talk a/k/a Gregg Gillis
Girl Talk plays Terminal 5 on Saturday, November 15, Sunday November 16, and next Tuesday, November 18. The shows are all sold out.
"To me, there's not a huge difference motivationally between whether you're trying to be respected for being weird, or trying to make a million dollars. You're still just trying to create a character."
photo by Rebecca Smeyne
Girl Talk may be a PC, but he's also a one-man party machine: his shows are the sorts of outrageous spectacles where everyone tries to storm the stage, bouncers pull kids from the ceiling, and you find yourself wearing strangers' hats. He comes to town this weekend to play three shows at Terminal 5. I recently spoke with him over the phone about Sophie B. Hawkins, those pesky potential lawsuits, and the first tape he ever owned. --Ryan McLendon
Girl Talk as a project is kind of a lawsuit waiting to happen, not least because of New York Times headlines like "Steal This Hook? D.J. Skirts Copyright Law." Is it a miracle you haven't been sued yet?
No. I think the New York Times, they obviously don't need any help upping their readership or anything like that, but I do think a lot of mainstream media outlets want to create controversy where it doesn't really exist. There's an idea in United States copyright law called Fair Use. It basically states that you can sample previously existing works without asking for permission if the new work falls under a certain criteria. It looks at the nature of the new work; it looks at if it's transformative, how it impacts the source materials, the original sales, things like that. The doctrine basically analyzes how you're using the source material. And people have cited this and won. 2 Live Crew sampled Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" and Roy Orbison sued 2 Live Crew and 2 Live Crew won because they said the new work was not creating competition for Roy Orbison's song. There was some level of social commentary because the track was kind of poking fun at the original song a little bit.
I'm on my fourth album now, and with an album like Feed the Animals, there's 300 samples on it. I believe it should fall under 'fair use,' especially in 2008. There's a big push from kids to the legal world to the academic world for a more open exchange of culture and media. I think people are getting used to that. People don't really consume media anymore: they interact with it. Everyone downloads pictures and manipulates them and collages them and puts them up as their MySpace picture. When a new song comes out people make music videos and remix the song and put it on YouTube. It's just kind of the way the world exists right now. I think something like my new album falls right in line with a lot of that in that it's a new transformative work that's not creating competition. If I wanted to actually clear all the samples, it would first of all be impossible, and then if [the other artists] went for it, it would take forever. And if we could clear all the samples, we would probably have to sell each CD for a couple thousand dollars each just to pay back the individual artists.
Have you ever run into an artist who wasn't exactly pleased that you had used their work in your work?
I've had no negative experiences. I've had basically lots of different people from major labels reaching out to me saying how they enjoy the work. These people aren't idiots; they see the value in the work, and how it turns new people on to the work. Sophie B. Hawkins, whose manager emailed me, wanted to collaborate on something. Big Boi from OutKast came out to a show of mine in Atlanta and I talked to him and he was cool with it. I met Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and he didn't know what the hell I do, but I explained it to him and he was open and cool with idea of me using samples. I think a lot of the artists have evolved. If you have paid attention to music in the last 20 years, you understand sampling as an instrument. There's clearly been a lot of creative work done in that field.
With the Fair Use policy, is there a time limit of how much of someone's work you can use?
You can basically be sued for using the smallest fraction of a song. It doesn't matter how big it is. It's more how you use it.
It what ways could you use the source material such that it could create a conflict with the original user?
If you're creating competition for the source material or if it wasn't transformative. If you were kind of using a song and marketing it to the same market, and not really doing anything new with it, not really recontextualizing it from its original context.
Your tracks are spliced together in such a way that I interpret them--in a very loose way--as a kind of social commentary or some kind of critique of pop culture.
In the world of music that I come from, and at the label that releases my music, there's definitely a history of people critiquing pop culture and being a little subversive with their work. That's what I grew up with, listening to people like Negativland and John Oswald. I think my music is more of a personal reaction to that world. I want my work to be a celebration of the music. I'm a sincere fan of everything I sample. If anything, the commentary is that all music, if you're releasing it to the public, you're creating a character for people to digest. Whether you're in Sonic Youth and you're treated like one of the greatest artists as far as rock bands go in the last 30 years, or you're Young Joc and people create an image of you as being a disposable ring-tone rap artist. To me it's all on a similar level of entertainment. If you're truly making music, putting it out on a label, and selling it, then it's all on a level of entertainment.
To me, there's not a huge difference motivationally between whether you're trying to be respected for being weird, or trying to make a million dollars. You're still just trying to create a character and trying to push that image upon people. For me, I try to break all music down, because if you bring it all together you can kind of see how this all works within the same world of entertainment. Whether it's '70s Pop or '90s alternative, whether it's Nirvana or P. Diddy.
Right. It kind of breaks down barriers between certain genres of music. I see it as more of an egalitarian genre. There's something for everyone almost, and if there isn't, there's going to be.
Yeah. I think for me, it's like I almost use the bands in my mind as instruments. I like to use them in a way that everything is recognizable. That's a part of the fun where you recognize the sample and you hear how it can be manipulated. In the long run, going along with the idea of fair use, I want the new work to be transformative. Even if you hate Wings, maybe the way I'm working the song and the way that I'm recontexualizing it, and how it comes out in the end, that's the new product. So it's like I'm using the whole world of pop as my sound palate. And I'm going to combine it all together and make an intricate collage out of it while trying to push it to be a new entity.
Do a lot of people have a hard time understanding what it is that you're creating, or do they think that you're slamming a bunch of songs together?
It's not very black and white. If someone thinks I'm just slamming a bunch of songs together, that's fine. That's their interpretation of it. And if someone thinks it's very intricate work that's very musical, that's cool too. Some people hate Beethoven, some people love him. The way people interpret it, I'm cool with that. Understanding the exact the reason for doing this music or the exact appeal of all these songs is very personal.
Where do you see sampling as a medium coming from?
It's existed since hip-hop. I'm 26 and that's how I understand music--without even thinking about it. My first tape was Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison," and that's primarily a sample-based cassette. You get into Public Enemy and it's just a big wall of noise created by the Bomb Squad with beats overtop of it. As a kid, you're not sitting there trying to pick apart what instruments are playing or if this is relevant or not or if this is music or not. You're just listening to it and enjoying it. Hip-hop certainly broke that through to the mainstream.
In 2008, you released Feed the Animals as a pay-what-you-want download, a la Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails. Why did that method of distribution appeal to you?
For me, even starting with the early days of doing this, as soon as I would finish a track I would get on SoulSeek or Napster and upload it and send it out to all my friends, try to burn it to CDs, and pass them out. It's always been my motivation to get the music out to as many people as possible. I don't think I've ever stopped doing that. With the new album, it's something I've been working on for two years. I'd just been had waiting to put it out for a long time. The money thing was like, even if I make zero dollars out of this, I'm fine as long as people take the album seriously, and put it on par with any physical release. It seemed cool and I knew we had fan base waiting there. I like to be upfront about this whole project. I've never tried to be weird about it. We know you can get it for free, go ahead and take it for free if you want it. If you think it's worth money, then that's cool.
Are you making comparable amounts of money to what you took in doing other projects?
It's really impossible to say because the fan base has been steadily growing since the last album. It's just impossible for me to relate this album's release to anything else I've done. I don't know the difference in money; it's all theoretical. I basically work by myself and the label that puts out my CDs is run by one guy and some of his friends, so it's not like we have a marketing team out there to strategize or analyze which way we go. We kind of just did it and at this point there's no real way to go back and compare it to anything else.
Did you find that releasing it this way more liberating?
The music would have been identical no matter how I released it. It was liberating in terms of just finishing an album... it's cool to finish it, get the album master sent out to a few of your friends, and then just post it online within five days and then having everyone digest it. Hearing it finished within the same week that you heard it for the first time. That was very cool to me.
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