ABUSER FRIENDLY: “I’m playing a computer, so you can only do so much to put on a physically entertaining show.”
From my vantage point at the side of the stage at Philadelphia's Starlight Ballroom, I can see all the faces in the front row of the sold-out crowd gazing up at a large table, upon which sit a laptop, a few monitors, and a bottle of beer. A youthful ocean of neon T-shirts and glowsticks seethe, all waiting for 27-year-old Gregg Gillis, a/k/a Girl Talk, to appear and give the silent signal for what everyone knows is about to happen. The long-haired, headbanded Gillis rushes out waving a towel over his head, retreats behind the table, clutches his mouse, and begins launching beats, bracing himself as the crowd rushes the stage as if they were storming the Bastille. Within seconds, he's swallowed in the sea of dancing humanity, as his crew (some in police garb) unload the contents of their confetti-and-toilet-paper guns into the air. Within minutes, more of the audience is on the stage than on the floor.
"I'm totally down for the chaos," Gillis tells me later, during a much calmer moment. "I'm playing a computer, so you can only do so much to put on a physically entertaining show. So with all that pandemonium, in my mind it's like, well, they're providing the visual entertainment and helping push the shows over the top, so I can just have a good time with it and concentrate on the music."
Girl Talk shows — and one is coming to Showcase Live in Foxborough this Friday — weren't always like this. A few years ago, Gillis — then a biomedical engineer — was playing basement shows on the weekends for 20 or 30 people. When his third album, 2006's Night Ripper (Illegal Art), garnered some serious press attention, gigs got bigger and crowds rowdier. Girl Talk went full-time, graduating to venues with stages. But fans still wanted to be right in the middle of the action. Videos and photos of the stage invasions began surfacing on YouTube and Flickr. Now the mayhem occurs at virtually every show.
Although Gillis resembles Andrew W.K. — both physically and in his upbeat, super-energetic live persona — his process is more akin to that of DJ Shadow or Negativland: in his sample-based music, he recontextualizes hundreds of snippets of well-known tunes (and a few obscurities). On his latest, Feed the Animals (Illegal Arts), samples come together in clever, intricate, ways; opener "Play Your Part (Pt. 1)" alone mashes tracks by Roy Orbison, Huey Lewis, and Pete Townshend with Kelis, Ludacris, Temple of the Dog, Twisted Sister, and more than a dozen others. No, none of the samples has been cleared, and yes, the New York Times has called Girl Talk "a lawsuit waiting to happen." But after four albums, no legal action has been taken, and in fact Gillis believes his work is covered by the fair-use doctrine under US copyright law.