Gregg Gillis, the mastermind producer behind Girl Talk, isn’t one for looking backwards: “I want to keep moving. This whole project started somewhere different and it’s grown.” It’s a fitting statement for where Hive caught up with the electronic musician, aboard the S.S. Coachella, the inaugural traveling music festival where he performed as one of the marquee acts. Gillis has taken a step forward with every album he’s released in his decade-plus career and later this year, he’ll evolve his approach once again with his forthcoming sixth album, the follow up to 2010’s All Day. Hive spoke to Gillis about what to expect on his next album, his thoughts on the EDM surge, and that time he interrupted Kanye West eating a fruit plate.
Last summer, you penned a letter that was a defense of your live set and the amount of music manipulation that’s actually involved. What prompted that?
Deadmau5 — and I didn’t want to directly address it in the letter — wrote about all of these people at festivals who just press play. I liked what he wrote, I thought a lot of it was accurate but it was reaching far to say everyone does it this way.
I don’t really fit into it. I like what’s going on with EDM and the community of contemporary electronic music. I think it’s exciting that electronic musicians are on the cover of Rolling Stone, but I’ve always felt isolated from that world. I’m a stepchild of it. My influences are different; overlooked a little — people like John Oswald, Kid606. Since I was 15, I would go out and see electronic shows but it was never a rave or at a club; it was going to a venue to see someone perform with live electronics and watched it like a band, guys like Fennesz. When I started Girl Talk, I thought it was going to be an extension of that, even though it was sample-based. Once it got going, people lumped me in with this other crowd and thought of it as a DJ thing. No disrespect to that world at all, but I’ve never really connected with it and that’s not where this came from.
So, when I saw the Deadmau5 quote I saw a lot of people coming out and saying, “Here’s what I do.” My entire life I’ve had people onstage and you can see what I’m doing — I’ve never tried to hide it — and still, to this day, you always see, “He just presses play and dances around.” I never fight it because people are going to hate but it’s kind of inaccurate, so I’ve always wanted a reason to be like, “Here’s what I do. Let me trace the history of why I do it.” Once the talk started, on what electronic performance is, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to explain. It’s pretty misunderstood from a technical standpoint, not that it has to be understood. I’m fine with people interpreting whatever they want to. But, I think people who talk shit never saw Kid606 play on a computer, never grew up listening to Negativland. The only time it bothers me is when people judge the project as if they know something more about it.
As far as social media goes, you’re one of the musicians who’s a little bit more elusive so I thought it was interesting you took the opportunity to talk directly to your fans. What is your stance on it?
I love checking it out. I think if I was 20 years old, I’d be an animal on it. Even doing this project when I was 20, I was more bratty and arrogant, saying offensive stuff, challenging people, and airing it out. Back then I was on a mailing list with experimental musicians from the Great Lakes area — people plugging their albums and stuff. My friends and I made a point to post a tour diary every few days about how hard we were partying — diving into unnecessary details. We thought it was funny to be characters in this electronic world.
Twitter is weird because it feels like you’re trying to brag. It’s a character and you’re playing it up and at this point my public media character is more accurate: boring and low-key. I’m happy to share things I think might be somewhat interesting to people who follow what I do. I can’t bring myself to share all of these details because it feels so ridiculous, even though I really enjoy other people doing it. I’ve always loved engaging fans and meeting people after shows and I’ve really enjoyed this cruise ship because you’re casually hanging out with people the whole time so on the last leg I ended up recognizing an eighth of the people at the show, like, “Oh yeah, we gambled together; we ate together; we did this or that.”
“I feel like the next level for me isn’t adding live instruments, it’s using samples in a different way. I’m diving into slightly more obscure samples and using popular samples in different ways and cutting them up a bit more. I’m taking a break from touring and for the first time ever I’m making music that’s not concerned with the live show, [which] is liberating.”
Would you ever consider using live instrumentation in your music?
I’m always thinking about the next stage and the places I can go, so I’m already working now on material that’s a departure, but it has nothing to do with live instrumentation. Some of the stuff I’m working on has more original instrumentation with supplemental synth lines and bass lines. And there’s been more and more of that on each of my albums, but in a way that people don’t hear it. I don’t want them to hear it; it’s more like filling out the sample or writing a supplemental bass line or an original synth line. At the end of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” there’s some subtle string parts on there that don’t exist on the song that me and some friends worked on to tie things together. I’m working on that more and more.
I feel like the next level for me isn’t adding live instruments, it’s using samples in a different way. I’m diving into slightly more obscure samples and using popular samples in different ways and cutting them up a bit more. I’m taking a break from touring and for the first time ever I’m making music that’s not concerned with the live show, [which] is liberating. Working on it gets me so fired up. I’ve been obsessed with it. A lot of these ideas have been piling up for years.
Is this new project going to be under the Girl Talk name?
Yeah but I think it will be different from the last three records. Even though I have a ton of music done, I’m pretty far from the release date. Usually, I prep stuff for two years and then there’s a few months of actually putting it together. I’m still in that prep phase where I really don’t know where it’s going or know what it’s going to be. I hope to have it out [in 2013], but within the first six months would be rad.
You mentioned using obscure samples. Sonically, how is this going to be different?
Sonically, it will be similar. With any electronic producer, you would love to have a sound where people instantly recognize it. It’s especially difficult using samples but the classic heroes of that world, the DJ Shadows, have it; it’s just immediate. So that’s always what I’m aiming for. The new thing I’m working on sounds more inspired by traditional production. I’m paying attention to that stuff a lot more. I’m not intending for it to be on the radio, but I think it could stand side by side the stuff on the radio better than the previous stuff. It’s harder hitting than my previous stuff.
Have you considered producing for more traditional artists?
Not really. People used to ask me that a lot, especially because Danger Mouse did The Grey Album and went on to be one of those famous producers. I never thought of this as a stepping stone. I think of this as the project. If it makes sense I would be open to it., but it’s definitely not a goal of mine to produce for the radio. This whole project has gone way beyond the point of popularity than I ever imagined or dreamed and I feel no pressure to sustain it.
Back to the original question, I did one track with Jim Jones last year [“Believe in Magic”], which Pitchfork arranged, and that was really exciting and eye-opening. I didn’t think it was going to be that much fun. We went to the studio and he was supposed to freestyle over the track and it was supposed to be a 30-minute thing and then it turned into us hanging out in the studio for six hours and we made a whole track out of it. His whole entourage was there and it was a classic cliché crowded studio experience with people drinking and smoking and weird characters everywhere. It was really fun and I loved the way the song came out. It was a different creative experience and that got me motivated to branch out more.
Who are some rappers right now that you connect with?
Killer Mike has been my favorite thing on this cruise. I’m happy for him because I think he’s had amazing work throughout the years; it’s really cool that the record he put out this year has been so critically well-received and he’s being invited to play festivals. I really like Gunplay from MMG and think he’s insane. I’ve loved the mixtapes from the A$AP crew and SpaceGhostPurrp. I think he’s underrated and awesome. I really loved that Meek Mill record Dreamchasers. The Future stuff has been insane. It’s been a really good year for rap, there’s been so much. Juicy J’s been the MVP of the year.
Which rapper would you most want to collaborate with right now?
If It was a dream pick, it’d be the biggest rapper: the Kanye West or Jay-Z. Kanye is in another league. I had the chance to meet him this year. He’s such an iconic guy. He has his own vision but it’s interesting because he does keep his ear to the ground, knows what’s going on, has a lot of people around him who put him onto new stuff, and he’s quick to work with people. I’ve had a couple of friends who aren’t the biggest musicians around who have gotten flown out to Hawaii to work with him, and that’s insane. I would definitely be down to do something with him but I’ve never had a long conversation with him about music. I’m sure we’d get down.
On another level, if I was trying to work with a rapper, someone like Juicy J would be insane to me. If I was going to collaborate with someone, I would want to jump on the phone with them or sit down with them and be able to connect. Since I don’t really collaborate with people, I would want to make sure that if I had a vision for someone they would be on board. I’m 100% about what I’m going in on or if someone was 85% it wouldn’t be cool to me. I need to go fully in.
What was your encounter with Kanye like?
It was in Australia. I know his DJ Mano, who I used to work with when I did shows with Hollywood Holt. We were doing a traveling festival and did a few shows with Kanye and Mano came up to me and was like, “Do you want to meet Kanye?” I was like, “Sure, if he’s down to meet people.”
So I went backstage and they had this private party going on with someone DJing and it was cool. I met the whole crew and I went to this room and Kanye was just chilling there eating his fruit plate. They introduced me to him and I was like, “Alright, I’m going to make small talk with Kanye while he eats his fruit plate.” We started talking about his show, because I had seen the Watch the Throne tour and I had seen him a few times, so I have opinions on the shows and I threw them out there. I thought his shows went to a place where I had never seen rap shows go. It was so big and theatrical and in our couple seconds of interaction it did seem like he was engaged, even when I said something that wasn’t entirely positive. He would hang onto my criticism for a second and was open to discussing things about the show. I told him to check out my show because my music is best experienced live.
Do you think that your music is a good fit for a cruise?
Yeah, it translated well. People are here to party. People are going off. I’ve played so many weird events in my career — I try not to do too many private events but I’ll end up doing a couple of them a year like corporate events, where you have to break the ice and it’s really difficult. I feel really well-seasoned going into an awkward room and taking it to 100%. So, I like playing in the theater here; that room needs some ice broken. It’s a little stiff compared to the rest of the ship. It’s fancy, and people like to see those rooms covered in confetti.