By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Is Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, providing a new litmus test for how a performer or band confirms their place in popular music? Based on the reaction from Fort Worth's own Toadies last November, who were excited to hear their hit "Possum Kingdom" sampled on Gillis' latest album, the answer is yes.
Often cited as the poster child for illegally appropriating and repurposing samples of popular music, the long arm of the recording industry has not bitch slapped him. November saw the surprise release of All Day, a 71-minute mashup opus constructed from nearly 400 samples from the Toadies, Lady Gaga, Jay Z, John Lennon and countless others. The release was a masterstroke on two levels. It stepped it up a notch musically by giving passages more breathing room, and it further insulated Gillis from the threat of legal action when it was offered strictly as a free download.
All Day has proven to be far from a source of trouble for its creator. Indeed, Gillis was included in the Fast Company magazine's list of the 100 Most Creative People in Business for 2010. Maybe even sweeter, the city council in Pittsburgh, his hometown, declared December 7 as Gregg Gillis Day. That's quite a change for a guy who for three years led a secret dual life of biomedical engineer during the week and mad party DJ performer on weekends—often in distant cities and even countries.
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On paper it sounds like a plot for a Mike Judge movie. "It was funny at first, but it quickly became insane," Gillis recalls, "literally running for my car after work to run to the airport to buy a ticket for a flight to a show that night. Getting back in town on a delayed flight Sunday night and in the office at 7 on Monday."
After feeling like a double agent for a while, he finally decided he had enough traction to maybe live on Girl Talk for a year. He carefully backed out of the office scene, explaining he had an interesting opportunity for some work that involved travel. "I didn't want to burn any bridges in case I needed these guys for a job reference," Gillis says with a laugh.
That kind of strategic thinking is reflected in the way Gillis has approached his career. For his first release, Gillis was enamored with the idea of having a physical CD that people could buy as a way of validating himself as an artist.
But he saw there was a real limit to distributing a CD. "It wasn't like someone was going to go to a Best Buy and find a CD of sample-based music, regardless of how popular it is," Gillis says. And with the growing success of the tours, making money from the CDs became far less important than simply getting the music into as many hands as quickly as possible to drive ticket sales.
By the time of 2008's Feed The Animals, Gillis had adopted as "pay what you want" model for a release that was exclusively in download format. The strategy was fully optimized with the free release of All Day, with the number of downloads unknown because of the nature of mirror sites.
"The business of Girl Talk is performing," says Gillis, underscoring the strategy of releasing music for free. "I have always been a stage performer, playing with other live performers, and have shied away from the DJ world and working in a booth."
Starting out, that often led to audiences puzzled about what a guy with a laptop and microphone was doing opening for a punk band. But years into it now and with the ability of people to see performances on YouTube, "it's been pretty well established as a way to perform now everywhere," Gillis says, and audiences jump up on stage to dance with him from Argentina to Germany. Readers may recall the time he performed in Dallas at The Loft and the stage collapsed under the frenzied dancing audience.
Performing at substantially larger venues on this tour, Gillis is stepping up the spectacle. "This tour will be the first time I've had a set designed specifically for this show," he says. There will be special lighting and video projections, but still a whole lot of dancing and audience participation. "For the audience that has seen me before, this will be a step in a whole new direction that I think they are really gonna love."