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Girl Talk: The Making of a Mashup Star

How Gregg Gillis, armed only with a laptop, came to rule the dance party.

| Mon Apr. 25, 2011 6:09 AM EDT

Photo by Shaun Hollingsworth.Photo by Shaun Hollingsworth.At one show, Gillis was standing on his table slapping hands with fans in the front row, when someone accidentally pulled too hard. Gillis flipped off the stage and landed on several heads. He cracked his back. Five minutes into another show in Vancouver, a fan threw a can at Gillis' head, hitting him between the eyebrows. As a blood-and-sweat cocktail trickled on to his computer, the crowd froze for a moment, then went wild. Sometimes Gillis' table shook so much it would cave in on itself. On several occasions, the audience got so out of control that the venue pulled the plug on him.

"I want to be the sweatiest and taking things the furthest," Gillis says. Bruising and bleeding are just part of the routine. When going into "tour mode," he says, he ends up with Achilles pain and sometimes can barely walk due to swollen calves. Gillis doesn't have a particular physical regimen besides stretching for hours before and after his shows and overloading on vitamin C and water. "This is going to sound totally nerdy...It's like training for an athletic event, a 10k race, every day," he says.

Before the Girl Talk days, in high school, Gillis was part of a band that combined noise and performance art. During live shows, he and his bandmates would smash TVs and light fireworks indoors. Once, weirded out by their act, Gillis' mom ran out of the room in tears. "What they're seeing now is cake," he says when I ask how his parents deal with the risk of injury tied to his career. "My mom's never left a Girl Talk show crying." Still, there was that time recently, when his family came to his show in Pittsburgh; Gillis impulsively jumped off the stage, flew over his dad's head, and cracked his front tooth on the landing.

The madness began tapering off in 2008 when Gillis hired David Scheid as his tour manager. The two met at a party Hugh Hefner was throwing for his son's 18th birthday, where Gillis was performing. Scheid joined the crew shortly afterward and worked his first Girl Talk show that fall in Philadelphia. After Gillis started playing, he invited people up to join him, and suddenly some 150 people were rushing a stage the size of a living room. "I was freaking out," Scheid recalls. He ran outside and called Gillis' agent, Sam Hunt. "I don't know if he's all right up there," Scheid told him. Hunt responded nonchalantly: "Dude, it's fine."

"It was fun and crazy," Scheid recalls, "but it gets to the point where the shows where it's like, 'It's getting too big.'"

If Gillis wanted to keep growing, there had to be a few rules. These days, crew members handpick fans to go on stage, and the most avid ones know where to line up if they want to get lucky. Scheid gives them a pep talk: No cell phones or cameras; no bathroom or water breaks. "I tell them to be in the moment and killing it, and not worrying about telling your entire Facebook page that you're at a Girl Talk concert," he says. If they breach the code of conduct, they're out. Girl Talk shows are no longer as aggressive as they once were, says Herrero, but they're no longer letting the crowd run too wild. "You give them an inch and they'll take a mile," he says.

Photo by Graeme Flegenheimer.Photo by Graeme Flegenheimer."As he gets bigger, they really try to maintain the intimacy of a small show," says Tony Leong, a production manager who's worked on multiple Girl Talk concerts, including the one in Oakland last month. Creating a sense of intimacy in large venues required bigger props. So for his 2009 New Year's Eve show at the Chicago Congress Theater, Gillis hired lighting designer Ben Silverstein and producer John Frattalone to build a two-story house on stage. "The idea developed on the tour bus. It took a crew of 20 and six months to plan, but I went there," Gillis says. "It was a massive project," says Silverstein. "It was 24-hour days of freaking out." As a liability matter, only friends and crew were allowed inside the house.

At the Oakland show, Gillis' crew showed up with a semi full of equipment, lighting panels, and homemade props: 30 pounds of confetti, 50 rolls of Scott 1000 toilet paper (it comes off the roller the easiest), plus 1,000 balloons that Leong had to supply because they'd run out. Unloading and setting up took eight men and six hours, says Leong. After the show, he adds, "Our janitorial crew was there until about 7 a.m. cleaning."

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