Things were getting a little too big for Gregg Gillis, the laptop DJ who performs under the name Girl Talk. The venues were getting bigger, to the point where the set for Girl Talk's 2009 New Year's Eve show at the Congress Theatre featured an actual house built right on the stage. The crowds -- much of which routinely joined him on stage -- kept filling the venues. Even his level of fame was growing. A Pittsburg native, that city last year actually designated Dec. 7 as Gregg Gillis Day.
He decided he had to scale some things back.
"By the 2008 tour, that's when everything kind of got bigger -- and started to get out of hand," Gillis said from a rare layover at home.
Traditionally, a Girl Talk show features no security barricade. Fans can come and go from the stage freely, dancing and gathering around Gillis at his table of computers and mixing gear. But the bigger the venues, the bigger the crowds, the bigger the headaches caused by that well-intentioned idea.
"The shows were cool, but with half the people fighting to get on stage I wind up crushed against the table. I can't move or interact. I didn't mind a cable getting kicked out once or twice -- it's part of the fun -- but then it started being every show and causing some shows to end prematurely. It became detrimental. It was going to get dangerous. ... It used to be fun chaos, now it was damaging chaos."
7 p.m. March 4-5
Congress Theatre, 2135 N. Milwaukee
The new tour features light security. Fans can still get on stage -- but only a certain number, around 50, who are randomly selected before the show ("It's by no means some kind of VIP experience," Gillis said). Gillis is working with a more structured, less-improvised set. He's got lighting and sound cues.
"There's still some improv, but it's a lot more choreographed. The peaks and valleys are very calculated," Gillis admitted. "If there's a sound I want to riff on or repeat, I can still go off and follow the crowd. I still have that freedom. But now we're getting back to what the earlier shows were like. When I started, the focus wasn't on 90 percent of the crowd trying to get on stage. Shows in the past were more tailored and adherent to the albums. I think the reason people enjoy the music on the albums is because they're very precise, the composition is very intentional. I want the live show to relate to that. It's never been about this being a traditional DJ set, with me going off on 'I feel like playing this now!' It's about hearing these compositions. It's more of a challenge that way. It's certainly less sloppy."
A lot of frenzy over a guy who doesn't actually play a note.
Gillis' Girl Talk project is the epitome of collage music. He composes songs using fragments of other people's songs. Every sound is borrowed from somewhere and someone else. On his latest collection -- "All Day," released for free online -- the track "This Is the Remix" opens with a nip from Justin Timberlake's "Sexyback," the recognizable rhythmic melody from Bananarama's "Cruel Summer," some grunts from Lady Gaga's "LoveGame," plus rapping from Mr. Cheeks' "Lights, Camera, Action." That's the first 48 seconds of the six-minute song. After that, it's Lil' Kim, Genesis, the Jackson 5, George Michael, Beastie Boys, U2, Kid 'n Play, INXS, Method Man, Billy Squier, on and on.
During his brief stint at home, Gillis was hatching ideas for new mixes -- don't call these "mash-ups" -- and explained his method for creating his mosaics.
"These two weeks at home, I'll sit around listening to songs I think could make interesting samples, stuff I haven't touched before," he said. "I'll cut some stuff up, try it at different speeds. I'll try various combinations. Something clicks occasionally. It takes time, but when something does click I look at the current live show. What am I playing a lot of? What am I tired of hearing? I try out the new ideas in the show. That's how all this gets tested. When I play it live I can see if it falls into the right spot or if it doesn't go over. Maybe I'll try it in a different place, or transition into it differently. If it works, I keep it in the set. After a couple of years of doing that, I've got a new album."
Gillis does not have the aural equivalent of a photographic memory. He meticulously catalogs all his samples and song fragments on a series of computers. Each is classified by percussion, melody, soundscape, vocals, etc. As he begins trying out combinations and decides he needs an uptempo vocal, he snatches one from the uptempo vocal folder. He'll cut up more than a thousand songs to create one album of material. "All Day" features a dozen songs Frankensteined together out of 372 samples.
His background definitely informs his creative process. Before he was a sweaty, in-demand remix artist, Gillis was a biotech scientist working on tissue engineering.
"The music definitely relates," he said. "For me, making electronic music is about coming up with solutions. ... You find your solutions through the scientific process. I'm dealing with small details and manipulating small variables to influence a larger picture. That's science. I enjoy the meticulous processes, the databases. I love going over the details for hours. My work days as a musician are similar to my work days as an engineer. It's sitting at a computer terminal for 10 hours going over fine details."
In science, the details being fused, however, are not copyrighted material owned by another artist or record company. Gillis has released five albums of his sample-based music, via Bloomington, Ill.-based Illegal Art Records, employing more than 1,500 samples -- not one of which he's cleared legally. But he hasn't received so much as a cease-and-desist letter.
"Not so far," he said. "I believe what I do with the music falls under the fair use doctrine of copyright law. I'm quoting. There's always the potential that someone could call, but I think it's a sign of the times that no one's called. Musicians and labels are used to unsolicited remixes. They've come around to the fact that it doesn't negatively effect sales. They don't have an issue with it. A lot of people are turned onto other music through this sort of thing. Nowadays we have remixes of remixes of remixes."
Still, the legal status of his work prevents Gillis' music from being sold through iTunes or national retailers, but that hasn't stopped the growth of Girl Talk.
"This project has grown to a size I would never have imagined, and I'm very happy about that. The limitations of being on iTunes or in major Walmart kind of retailers is not a bummer to me. The music gets out there just fine through blogs and word of mouth. This is the perfect size for things."