When I arrive at the scene of a Girl Talk show in Oakland, California, one recent rainy night, front-man Gregg Gillis is just 15 minutes into his set. At center stage, Gillis is in a glowing neon light box, hunched over his laptop, T-shirt and hair soaked. He's bouncing left to right so intensely that the sweat on his hair sprays over his table. His laptop is bandaged in plastic for protection. A thick crowd of 70 people is moshing around him on stage. The air is already moist from the sweaty bodies smashing into each other.
Gillis, who has gone by the stage name Girl Talk for the last decade, fills an unconventional gap bordering rogue punk rocker, underground DJ, and international pop-star. In hip social circles, he's a household name. Many of his live shows sell out within a day. He has 22,693 Twitter followers. (He follows just one: Soulja Boy.) A few weeks after he released his latest album, All Day, the city council of Pittsburgh (his hometown) designated December 7 as Gregg Gillis Day. But by standard measure, he remains under the radar. It's not clear how many of his five albums he's sold thus far—some are sold in stores but others are downloadable with a donation. He peaked at number 14 onBillboard's ranking of "uncharted" artists, which is measured by the frequency of streamed plays, page views, and followings on sites like MySpace and YouTube.
Gillis, formerly a biomedical engineer, is best known for his ability to throw a fantastic party. He strikes the emotional chord of his crowd so perfectly that he appears to posess a prodigious intuition about it. "It's second nature to him," says Jaime Herrero, Gillis' long-time friend who handles the stage props.
Before each show, Girl Talk crew members talk about planning for what they call "choreographed chaos" or the "big moments." (See video below.) This is when Gillis builds things up to a climax, with a result both real and dreamlike—akin to being at a rave in outer space where the Beastie Boys and Cindy Lauper are singing an anthem in your honor and Biggie Smalls has reincarnated from the afterlife to join in. His table pulsates with neon lights that tint your face pink, purple, and green. Confetti and balloons shower down on you from above. Thousands of limbs armed with glow-sticks flap back and forth to booming hip-hop rhythms leavened by punk guitar riffs and pop melodies tired out on the radio. Near the front row, a guy jumps up to catch the waving hands for a surf. You're dancing and shouting along to the song, except it's to 30 different songs instead of one. Then you wake up and can't seem to recall how you got there in the first place.
Photo by Graeme Flegenheimer.These high-impact moments are refined byproducts of Gillis' meticulous experiments: countless hours of cutting and pasting together samples and testing them on live audiences for more than a decade. His live experiments have come at a physical cost. Though Gillis does not have any tattoos, he wears scars from all the times he jumped off stage, and engaged in other antics that have come to define his performances ever since the early days, when his shows were raw and confrontational.
In 2000, when Gillis started performing under the name Girl Talk, he was simply a man with a laptop. He played in small venues to audiences of no more than 50. "I was serious about music and having a good time, but also poking fun at myself that this is a show with a laptop," he told me. He would go through multiple costume changes during a 10-minute show (a fraction of his current 75-minute sets) or choreograph a dance for people to engage his audience. He would pour beer on their heads. Even then, Gillis—who at the time was making more abstract-noise-influenced tracks versus the pop-infused mashups he's now known for—wanted to create an intimate and overwhelming experience. "I get so fired up playing," he says. He would sometimes get the crowd so riled that fights would break out during his shows.
In 2006, Gillis' career kicked into high gear with the release of his third album, Night Ripper, which focused "less on beat-fuckery and more on bringing heat to the party." The album generated praise from Pitchfork, and later in Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. He began headlining shows, and they were selling out. The venues got bigger. "I didn't have the resources to bring in a choreographed dance team or an indoor pyrotechnician," he says, so he started to invite people on stage. That became the "focus of the visual element" of Girl Talk performances.
That was also when "shit hit the fan," says Herrero.
How crazy is it that this goofball amateur phenomenon of combining the vocals of one song with the instrumentation from another continues to produce interesting, amusing, and hypnotic tracks, despite being declared dead, useless, and stupid? While Girl Talk's more or less enjoyable album (consisting mostly of fast-paced combos featuring rap over hipster rock) is landing in many year-end Top 10s, I've always...
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