Thursday, November 01, 2007

Girl Talk Interview: Not Just A DJ

(Photo: Moe Train on Flickr)

Music writing hyperbole often seems misplaced but when it comes to a Girl Talk show it's entirely justified. At the first leg of his North American tour with Dan Deacon nearly a month ago, Girl Talk weaved a messy mix bag of down town hipsters and fresher week college drunks into a sweltering, unified but squirming beast of jiving bodies, sending 'em ga-ga with his irreverantly mashed beats and acapella. I caught up with Girl Talk a week or two after the show and chewed the fat over crowd control, how he re-defines sampling and the politics of piracy. This interview was first published in Fact Magazine in the UK.

Can you give Irish readers some idea of what to expect from your shows and do you have any plans to make it over this side of the Atlantic any time soon?


I haven't been over to Europe much in the past year because I was holding down a day job and only doing Friday and Saturday shows. I quit that job about 3 months ago, so I'm planning on traveling world wide very soon.

My shows are highly dependent on the people who come out to them. I play a single laptop. I mix and match a bunch of samples and loops on the fly. It sounds like my records, but it's a bit more free form. I like to party every time I play. I get sweaty. I get in the crowd. I dance with people. But, it's really up to the people as to how insane we're going to get. I'm ready to take it to the distance.

People like to read into things like an artist getting fans up on stage, or playing in the crowd like Lightening Bolt or Dan Deacon even, whats your reason - is it just a better party or do you like levelling it out and reducing that 'me the artist up here, you the fan down there' buzz?


To be honest, I never made a decision to have it happen. I've been playing live as Girl Talk for seven years, and sometime last year, fans started jumping on stage. People saw video of that on the internet, and it spread. Within a few months, it became this standard for my shows. It makes sense to me now. There's only so much I can physically do on stage to entertain people. I actually have to click the mouse every 10 seconds to keep the music going.

I think the people on stage is pretty much the best visuals I could have. There are some people who just like to come out and hear me do the music live, and to them, there's also some entertaining to watch. To those people who want to come party, then there's a whole dance floor and stage for that. I'm just a dude playing a computer; I'm not Steven Tyler up there. I like people to be able to interact with me to any level that they want. I like to minimize as many pretensions as possible with the music and shows.

I caught you at the Toronto show, it was pretty hectic, I'm not sure what your other shows are like - but have you ever seen bouncers do anything particularly stupid in getting fans off the stage and has the hectic crowding around you ever interfered with your ability to perform, like knocking your laptop over and people hitting keys drunk off their face and stuff?

With my shows, it's probably a bit more work for bouncers than the normal gig, so I really respect them for putting up with any bullshit. But yeah, it can get crazy, and sometimes, people cross lines. I always talk with the security before the shows and let them know what's going to go down.

I've had tons of problems in the past people stomping on cords, equipment, hitting the computer, spilling things, not having any room to even move my arm, and so on. I don't like it when those things happen, but it comes with the turf. The shows to me oftentimes feel like house parties, and I love that. It doesn't feel like going to a standard dance club or a rock show where nothing is going to go wrong. When the music stops prematurely at my show, that's a sign that things are truly getting insane. That's cool to me. It's part of the experience. I like when the shows are just barely staying together, everything is on the verge of falling apart. That's a great party to me.

I heard you recently posed for Playgirl in the man of the year issue, how the hell was that?

They wanted a "sexy photo shoot," which I think meant nude. I ran it past my parents, and I decided to keep my pants on. I've been a lot more nude at some of my live shows this year, so it wasn't too big of a deal.

You've talked before about how being Girl Talk and an engineer by night was like leading this double life, you sort of kept it quite from your work colleagues - when you finally made the decision to quit did the people there discover your other side and how did they react?

They never officially discovered about my music world. I told them I was quitting to travel the world before I was too old to do something like that, which isn't really a lie but not the complete truth. I'm still convinced that someone there knew but chose to not call me out.

You refuse to be seen as a DJ, hence those famous "I'm not a DJ t-shirts" - so what sort of live set up do you use and how much time do you think you spend on each track, from the initial idea to its readiness to be played live or dropped onto a CD?


(Photo: Tom Purves on Flickr)

I perform live on multiple copies of a program called Audiomulch. It allows me to cue up, mute, and manipulate a bunch of samples in real time. I perform it all live, but it's a rehearsed set. I think people get my records and come see my live to hear the compositions, rather than to hear me improvise. So I spend a lot of time on doing arrangements prior to performing.

It's tough for me to calculate how much time I put into specific tracks. I'm constantly working, and most things I sample don't see the light of day. I'm about ready to put together a new album right now, and it's been about a year and half since I finished up my last one. I've been averaging releasing a 40 minute album every 2 years. That's about as quantative as I can get.


I've heard you were in a few noise outfits before Girl Talk, when did you make the switch to party music and how does it relate to the sort of projects you were involved in before Girl Talk? I'm just wondering where the name comes from too?

I was in a noise band in high school. It definitely laid the ground work for Girl Talk. We worked with many different forms of experimental sound collage. We made music using physical tape collages, skipping CD's, and manipulated four-track machines.

I started the Girl Talk project in 2000, and I initially had a glitchy and avant-garde sound. I've always been a pop music fan; it just took me a few years to be comfortable making more accessible music. I started playing house parties around 2002, and I think this is when my music started to take more traditional form. The name Girl Talk comes from Yes lyrics.

You like to see your own compositions as original mash ups and sort of separate yourself from the whole mash up movement, are you still critical of it and why?


I just don't feel comfortable with many genre names in general. They are all silly to me. I like mash-ups. I don't want to separate myself from anything. For me, I was influenced to get into this style of music by people like John Oswald and Kid 606. I also listened to bands like Public Enemy growing up. These are all people who are sample-based at times but aren't usually labeled as "mash-up" artists. I'm down with all types of music. I just thought the label "mash up" might mislead people with my music. Maybe not, I don't really know.

One thing that interests me about Girl Talk, and I've heard a lot of people say this is that you are legitimizing listening to forms of commercial music that people would otherwise scoff at, sometimes this music is damn good but people need to hear it through an irony filter before admitting this. How do you feel about being this "cool" filter for people, do you think they should just drop their pretensions and recognize a good track when they hear it and not when its a safe "classic" years later?

I sample everything sincerely. I like all of the music I sample. There is no irony. I'm definitely not trying to act as any sort of "cool filter." I'm down with people being turned on to new forms of music in any way. I like how people have major differences in their interpretations of my
music. Some people like it because they love the source material; some people like it because they hate the source material. I've always hoped that my work is transformative. I want people to hear my songs and say "That's a Girl Talk song," rather than "That's song A mixed with song B mixed with song C."

I think the act of sampling music to make new music, and the fans of the new music not necessarily being into the original source material is not a new thing. Think about the history of hip hop. Producers will sample anything to make a hip hop beat; that doesn't mean that the people into the beat will be into or should be into the source material. Most young kids who jam Kanye West could probably care less about Chaka Khan. It's the context and the additional production that makes people get down with it.

Your congressman Mike Doyle seems to be quite taken with you, you are well aware too of the dangers you face from major labels around being sued for copyright breaches and have played a benefit for the Creative Commons project - how does it feel to be turned into something of a figure head for "free culture"/or the fair use movement? Can there be a reconciliation with existing copyright law or do we need a complete rupture with the economic mentality they base it on?


I've never pushed a political agenda with my music. I've always made music with samples because I simply enjoy it. If my music makes people think about these type of things, then that's cool to me, but it's really a side note.

Fair Use is a progressive idea with the existing copyright law, but it's very black and white to me. I think the current law doesn't taken into account an album that can be made from 300 samples that most major music sources and publications treat at as an original work.

I see your website links to Drop the Lime, who I've interviewed before, he's really one of my favourite DJ's and producers, have you been up to any of the Trouble and Bass parties he puts on and what do you think of the whole thing thats going down at the moment from "bass music" to new rave/french electro etc? Is there something in the air and people are just looking to dance?

I haven't been to any of those parties unfortunately. Luke and I go way back. We did one of our first tours together in 2003 or so, back when he was called Dysis. He seems like he's really shaking things up in New York right now, which gets me pumped.

I notice as well you mentioned elsewhere you liked Kid 606, Shitmatt and Jason Forrest, do you think the whole breakcore thing, aside from the frantic amen breaks and cut up sampling technique of it had any influence on your approach to music production?


Yeah, to a degree. I was more into the music known as IDM when I first started doing Girl Talk productions. I think the quick-paced nature of my music is influenced by guys like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher more than anything else. It seems like some breakcore artists came from this sort of background, so I think it's related.

I've always felt more connected to guys like Jason Forrest than more standard mash up artists. He's another guy who's make original music almost completely out of samples. I was reading on your blog about a remix project that you're working on called Trey Told 'Em. Could you tell me a little bit about that and what you have planned for the future?

It's a project with Frank Musarra and I. I'm dedicating all of my remix work to it. I want to concentrate on other material for Girl Talk. Frank and I are also doing beats together. We work with samples at times, but it doesn't have to be appropriation-based. We also do original instrumentation.

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