Northeast Underground

Mash-up maestro Girl Talk shifts his party to the Calvin Theatre in Northampton

Girl Talk (Photo credit: J Caldwell)Even though a forecast of inclement weather has moved his August 18 show from the wooded surroundings of Mountain Park in Holyoke to the stately confines of the Calvin Theatre in Northampton, pop music sampler and DJ extraordinaire Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) is ready to get the party started Saturday in the Pioneer Valley. And audiences should be ready for sensory overload.

Calling in for a phone interview this week from his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Gillis said, “We are touring with a new rig now, and it’s kind of an LED-based set-up, so it’s kind of like layers of LED panels and that sort of thing. We have physical props like confetti and balloons and all those things. I think it’s a bit more fit for larger venues, [but] it’s nice to kind of take that show and compress into what would be a smaller club show.”

Since starting out as Girl Talk in 2000, Gillis has been taking his unique brand of musical mayhem on the road for as many 150-200 shows a year. Triggering collages of pop music from his laptop on stage, the former biomedical engineering student deftly manipulates tracks listeners have likely heard before into whole new conglomerations featuring dance-ready hooks and crowd-pleasing choruses.

Despite having no traditional musical background, Gillis’ appearances at festivals like Coachella have been met with critical praise. And Girl Talk’s latest album All Day was even released online for free in 2010, though widespread demand for the record momentarily swamped the servers at Gillis’ label Illegal Art.

Still, such accolades haven’t stopped some people from taking the name Girl Talk at face value and misinterpreting just what type of person they’re booking for a particular venue.

Gillis said, “It’s an easy name to pass judgment on. All the time I’ve had people mix it up. It’s funny because the first show I played actually was at Chatham College in Pittsburgh. I don’t know if it still is an all-women school, but it was an all-women school. And if it’s not now, then it’s still like 80 percent women. Anyways, the show I was on, they had a lot of punk rock shows in this basement. The first show I was on every other artist was either an all-girl band or at least female-fronted, and they booked me I think because [with] the name [Girl Talk] they thought that I was a woman. And that was my first show ever.”

“It cracks me up now because it’s been the name for awhile and I stand by it,” he added. “But every once in a while I take a step back, where I can’t believe the name of this project is still Girl Talk. It’s really crazy where it came from and that it stuck.”

Watch part 1 of the story behind Girl Talk's 2009 New Year's Eve in Chcicago here:

While his appearance during a live show would suggest an energetic guy cranking out hits from his laptop in front of a crowd, the work that Gillis puts into his performance is actually much more involved and calculated.

Often rehearsing his remixed tracks until he knows each part inside and out, Gillis is also a born tinkerer, who constantly fine-tunes portions of his set and adds new material on a weekly basis.

He said, “Everything is triggered by hand for the show, so it’s the sort of thing where it’s almost impossible for me to make it up as I go along. The set is the sort of thing where I sit down and I rehearse it, and go over it like, ‘Here’s where I click the snare, and then I bring in the bass line, and then I bring in the vocals.’ So I really have to know the songs in a way like a traditional band has to know the songs. But that being said, it’s kind of like a band that has certain room for improvisation. At any given moment it could be like, ‘Oh, I want to skip over this,’ or ‘I want to do this twice,’ or ‘The bass is really heavy on stage, maybe I can cut it here, add this.’”

“When I work in this new material,” he continued. “It takes a lot of time for me to learn how to play it. And even when I play it for the first time, that’s usually when there are mistakes, and I’m not as familiar with it. It’s kind of impossible for me to go, ‘Oh, I want to change up like half the set tonight.’ I just couldn’t do it. I just wouldn’t have the time to memorize it and learn how to play it and all of that. It’s really just based around these small little tweaks. Right now where the set’s at, I’m comfortable with it. I like it. But I’m always sort of eager to work in that new material.”

Speaking of new material, Gillis admitted that he has enough for a new record. However, he’s also been working on another project of sorts that could push his music in a new direction.

He said, “I have somewhere close to an album’s worth of source material. It’s kind of geared around a live show and would be a next step from the last record. I’ve also been working on a lot of stuff in the past few months that’s not intended for the show. This is the first time in maybe five or six years that I’ve worked on anything that’s not geared for the live show. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff that’s based around sampling pop music, but just in a slightly different way, so I guess that the source material is a bit more manipulated. It’s a little more difficult to tell where it’s coming from. And I’ve also been sampling from some slightly more obscure sources.”

“I would hate to announce it before I get it down,” he added. “But I do think that there’s a pretty good chance that my next release will still be sample-based, but will be a little bit different. I’m excited to make that turn eventually.”

Girl Talk (Photo credit: Dove Shore)  Any news regarding continued Girl Talk output is probably doubly reassuring for fans who read of Gillis’ previously announced plan to play a 24-hour show, and then retire on the day the Mayan calendar is slated to end December 21. Then again, with the world also predicted to end that day, fans probably had bigger things to worry about anyway.

“It’s funny how often that comes up nowadays,” Gillis said. “I don’t know why, but that has really stuck with people. I’m not planning an official last show then, but I am planning on taking a little time off the road actually next year and it’s not because I announced that date at all. It just happened to coincide. That was just dumb luck I guess.”

He continued, “I’ve been doing 150 to 200 shows a year for the past five or six years, so I thought it would be cool next year to do like 10 shows and just limit it, go slow, hopefully take a sort of slight turn of direction with the music. That’s kind of where I want to go. It’s all up in the air, but I would love for this project to exist for the rest of my life. And I think where it’s at now versus where it was at 10 years ago are very different places with what the music was like, what the fan base was like. I would hope that in 10 years that would [still] be true as well, not that it would be more popular or less popular. I would just love it to keep growing, and if at some point I make a decision and people don’t follow it or are not as concerned about it that’s cool. I would like to just grow with this thing.”

Girl Talk with openers Home Body performs August 18, 8 p.m., $25, Calvin Theatre, 19 King St., Northampton, (413) 586-8686, http://www.iheg.com/calvin_theater_main.asp.

For more information on Girl Talk or to see future tour dates please visit http://illegal-art.net/girltalk/.

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