A fellow music critic pulled me aside at a party a few years back, conveying in a conspiratorial whisper that I should check out an album called Night Ripper by someone named Girl Talk — as if somehow talking about it too loudly might make the record disappear. The work of one guy, Greg Gillis, Girl Talk took the concept of the mash-up (juxtaposing two dissimilar songs so that they might reveal an interconnection — such as the Strokes and Christina Aguilera to its exhaustive extreme, hinting that in the 21st century all stripes of music might somehow come together.
Night Ripper, his third album under the Girl Talk name, was akin to being swept up in the Wizard of Oz's twister, shards of recognizable pop and hip-hop Cuisinart-ed as they whipped by, copyrights be damned. One could either attempt to parse the slivers of Lil Kim and Elastica, Nirvana and Clipse as they whirled past, or simply get down to the business of getting down to it. Was it party music or musique concrete? Gillis traded in the pleasures of instant recognition, not in clever or obscure music sources, so that it became almost an afterthought to consider the sheer amount of listening, sampling and synching of rhythms that went into every selection on the disc.
For the fourth Girl Talk release, Feed the Animals, Gillis took the Radiohead model to heart, making the album available as a free download from his website in the months leading up to an actual physical release. Sitting down with him in the eMusic offices, we played him some of his splicing'n'dicing forebears as well as a few artists he's sampled to see if he could pick through the sonic wreckage.
Is this the Steinski thing?
This isn't Steinski. It's considered a novelty record, a call-and-response thing. This is the guy that invented it, Dickie Goodman.
I never actually heard a Dickie Goodman record, but Steinski talks about him often.
This newscast sort of thing juxtaposes seriousness with something really humorous. I wondered about your own take on using humor in music.
I take the music I do really seriously but there's obviously a humorous edge to it. I never would put humor at the forefront but I think it's cool. I think something like that can be musical. I think the appeal of that is similar; you hear people manipulating these things. Hip-hop beat records used to be interactive like this in the eighties. Like NWA's “1000 Miles and Running,” where they do the news-broadcaster thing and they do the “you don't have to run” sample. It's entertaining to take these things and manipulate them. It's obvious what they're doing here, playing the samples and clearly poking fun at being able to manipulate the context and change the words.
There's this familiarity with what you recognize as it gets re-cast.
Exactly what I'm doing, just a different intention. I know Steinski was an ad man himself, so things like that are right up his alley.
So this is Steinski. I had heard of him for a long time, but had never heard all of his works until the Illegal Arts set, who put out my stuff. They're all good. Even his later stuff gets so elaborate. One of the most important things in here is the goofy TV samples. That's what sets it apart. Hip-hop mixing existed but not of this intensity, with him grabbing things from all over.
He's taking from the entire spectrum of pop-culture saturation, not just records.
This one's all based on James Brown samples, and I'm sure he was sampled prior to this, but I don't know if that was necessarily the case back then. I'm not sure JB was a heavily sampled concept yet.
What is it like to be on the same label as Steinski?
It's intense. It's great to listen to him. And it's an important historical document. A lot of people look at my stuff and see only that there's a surface level to it: it's easy to get drunk to and have fun, and a lot of times people have problems with this: “Oh, he's just throwing out every pop single.” Having Steinski validates the label (and what I do). It forces people to look into the history of it.
I'm curious as to your impression of the craft of splicing tape like this. Could you fathom Girl Talk cutting this much tape?
No! And it's funny because sometimes it takes me hours and hours and hours on a computer with all of these processes that make it smooth and easy. It's insane how creative and elaborate it is…it's really over the top. I like that the Lessons are all five minute lengths, just dense.
Merzbow. I heard him on the radio in high school and I just thought it was insane. This is so punk to me. I got into Nirvana and Public Enemy and I just wanted to go further and further, diving deeper into underground music.
Merzbow is sort of the threshold for this. There's no one/ nothing quite "beyond" him.
Especially with the amount of releases. Noise to me was super-exciting and I still like it. I love seeing this stuff live, and it's interesting to see how they do it, and it's nice to listen to really loud. But it's also entertaining in how people respond to it. How does one person become popular? When you're making music that's supposed to be difficult and you become famous, are you doing a bad job at it?
Aside from knowing your background in the noise scene, I picked this as an example of music that requires stamina and physical duration on the part of the listener. Your music too seemingly belies such density.
Noise is actually the reason I started making music, because of Merzbow and music like this. It was like "Okay, I don't need training (on an instrument), I could just do something." For me, I like music to be challenging and interesting, but I don't want it to be difficult. I do want to take it over the top as much as possible though, to see how elaborate this can get without it being annoying.
How do you keep up that manic metabolism over the course of an entire Girl Talk album?
On any of the albums I could cram in ten times the samples, but there's just a thin line to it. I want to just make it sound like a song. It's like you have to trick the listener with the transitions and things. That's the art of it. General mash-ups are interesting to listen to, but for me, I spend all the time with the transitions, the subtle elements of keeping one thing going while other elements come out to make it sound cohesive. It's intense to keep it so dense, but only if you're picking it apart. I want you to be listening to it with your friends and be able to just enjoy it. But if you're sitting down with headphones, it can an overwhelming experience if you're sitting down, picking it apart. The noise stuff led me to such extremes. I want to be the most extreme one, more or less.
I think you sampled this.
I lived with a couple guys from Houston who turned me onto screwed'n'chopped music. I like people manipulating music, and that was straight-up uncut and raw; the sounds were really psychotic. Sometimes when I'm remixing things, I'll speed them up and get off on hearing pop music so compressed. Screwed'n'chopped really blew my mind when I heard it.
You tend to prefer more southern rappers to those from elsewhere.
The Houston scene is great. I like rappers with heavier inflections, the punctuation and the cadences. As opposed to someone like Jay-Z: the flow is lighter, there's not as much emphasis on every line. With southern rappers, the emphasis is on every other word; it's more rhythmic. The stuff I try to do, matching up the rhythms in music with the vocals, it makes it easier. With certain stuff, even hardcore stuff like Wu-Tang, the flows are a bit more abstract at times. Which is fine, but it's hard to find music that matches up rhythmically with it. I won't say the southern stuff is simpler, but the flows and rhythmic structure is more straightforward than that of east coast rappers.
This is someone else you've sampled before. I couldn't get the exact song… What Elastica song is it? Is this later Elastica? I only own the first one.
They got in trouble for the song that you used from Wire.
People debated if what I used was a Wire sample. This stuff is great though. It's like machines making rock music. It's very precise, but bouncy.
Is this Jon Oswald? I lost this album for a minute. This is it, this is the standard. I love this. When I was into experimental music, I heard Negativland, but this is classic, just someone really tearing it apart.
He's drawing from the same familiar pop music sources as you, but inverting the ends. He's abstracting something that is popular, making it totally unfamiliar and alien.
Apparently Oswald was interested in pop music but thought the structures were just bland to him and he wanted to spice it up and he wanted to make it more active and involved. I'm more or less celebrating the simplicity of certain things, and how disparate things blend together, but the intentions are different. But definitely, my early work was me enjoying the juxtaposition of pop, and how you can make something completely avant-garde out of it. He was playing samples as an instrument, especially with (Oswald's background in improvisation), making completely new music out of it. (Listens further) But I can't tell if he thinks it's funny or not.
Do you consider what you do now to be avant-garde, experimental?
In a larger picture, it's experimental in that people don't make 40-minute pieces that are linear and composed wholly of pop music. Conceptually, it's experimental, but musically it's more pop than anything.
I've been trying to get my hands on the book that the KLF guys did. They wrote about how to make a number one song and then they went out and did it!
You mean “3AM Eternal”? There were these odd legends about them: burning money, destroying singles. What's awesome about them is that while you can do these press stunts, the Timelords/ KLF have that big single and they did break through. People who do experimental art do crazy stuff on the underground level and that's cool, and there is some audience for it, but to me, I'm more interested in things on a larger scale. A lot of subversive people are simply being subversive to people who want to be subverted. The KLF actually crossed over with that single and performed live. I mean, you didn't even know if they were actually there or not. And how the hell do you get Tammy Wynette involved?