A few days before Girl Talk's Summerfest show this Saturday, Rocks Off took some time to chat with the mash-up maestro - who refuses to call himself a DJ - about his biomedical engineering degree, the much-anticipated follow-up to 2008's Feed the Animals and Super Happy Fun Land. Rocks Off: You earned a biomedical engineering degree from Case Western Reserve and went on to become a tissue engineer. Why did you quit? Girl Talk: I've always been actively involved with music, starting at the point when I was 14 or 15, starting bands with friends. It was never anything that was intended to be a profession or something to actually make money. All the projects were very specific and underground and not really geared toward having much success - just kinda doing it for fun. So when I was in college studying tissue engineering is basically when I started doing Girl Talk. It was over the summer or during breaks when I would tour on the side. I was pretty much studying all then time, and when I could get a minute or two, I'd be fiddling around with music. The music thing was always something I always pushed as much as possible and did as best I could. But I did it really for six years really without playing for an audience of more than 50-100 people, and I thought I was doing well at that time. Then when I put out my third album in 2006, it just kind of blew up. Music has always been my passion and something I've always been excited about, but not something I ever wanted to go to school for or make into a career. And after the album took off, it turned into this thing where I was working a day job and literally every Friday and Saturday, flying out to do shows and basically taking days off and constantly working on music or playing shows. Things just kept building up, and after about a year of doing that, it got to the point where I just had to choose one or the other. I was getting offered gigs in Europe or Australia, and I just had ten vacation days at the office. It was kind of becoming a headache. At that point it was just kind of the obvious pick. Doing music for a living was nothing I ever dreamed of as a possibility, so I ended up quitting the job then. RO: At your ACL show last year, you had huge video screens, along with tour T-shirts that said, "I am not a DJ." If you're not a DJ, what are you? GT: You know, I'm comfortable with people calling me whatever they want. I've always just compared myself to a producer. In doing these albums or live shows, the point for me was never really to play other people's music - it was to was to try and take other people's music and make something new out of it. That's always been the goal.
Especially when I was getting going in those early days, it's not like I ever really played in a dance club or ever played in a DJ booth or with people spinning records. I always played with live bands. You know, the first time I played in Houston was at Super Happy Fun Land. That's the sort of places I'd play across the country. You know, more underground spots I'd play with bands, whether it be an electronic band or a hip-hop group or rock group. The point was always to get up there and try to remix other people's music but to try and make something original out of it and present it as new music based on other people's stuff. And then once I started blowing up a little bit more, I started getting offers like, "Can you come DJ at my club for three hours?" I'd never played a show over 20 minutes in my life at that point. And I kept getting all these offers to play at all these dance nights at clubs. It was so far from what the project actually stemmed from. That's kind of why I made those shirts - as a joke. RO: The New York Times called your music a "lawsuit waiting to happen." Can you state your defense in a nutshell for fans who haven't seen Good Copy Bad Copy or RiP!: A Remix Manifesto? GT: There's a doctrine in copyright law called "fair use" that basically states that you can sample other people's work visually with collages, with video, music - kind of appropriate people's work without asking for permission if your work falls under certain criteria. It looks at the nature of what you're doing: What is the purpose of it? Is it competing with sales? Is it defacing the old work? I believe that doing music - and doing it basically based around other people's stuff - I respect the work of the people I sample, but at the same time the ultimate goal is to take it somewhere new in such a way that it's not going to affect potential sales. And I don't think when people hear little snippets of music that I'm sampling, that they'll buy my album instead of someone else's. If anything I think it has a kind of opposite effect where people are turned onto music they might not have heard of before. In doing music with samples, there's a whole history of potential legal issues. I think with that, when you're dealing with the media like The New York Times or magazines, they want to write an interesting story. They want it to be provocative, so naturally they're going to talk about the angles that are controversial. They hear a record with samples and think, "Oh, he's going to be sued by hundreds of people." It's kind of the uneducated perspective. There's a potential there. I'm not saying that's stupid or anything, but it's more of a gray area. I've been doing this for 10 years, and at this point, I haven't heard one negative bit from any band or label. RO: You've hinted at veering away from the mash-up format for the follow-up to Feed the Animals. Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I'm going to start on my next record as soon as the Houston show is done. It will be very sample-based, and it will be kind of in the same world as Feed the Animals except taking it somewhere new. I am excited about exploring different ways to use samples and a digital project with a friend of mine called Trey Tolb 'es? We use samples, but it's not entirely based on using remixes of people, but it's more original instrumentation involved. I've been into music my whole life, and it's no always about cutting up samples. Where Girl Talk's heading is not going to change that drastically overnight. On the new album, I'm definitely interested in making it sound new and taking it somewhere else, but that doesn't necessarily mean not working with samples. So hopefully I'll start that this summer. It's hard to predict how long it'll take. I think I'll definitely finish it by the end of the year and hopefully a little earlier than that. RO: What do you consider the best track you've worked on and why? GT: That's tough. The last two albums - I composed those as one individual song. When I break it up into songs, it's more or less just to make it easier for the listener to navigate through the album. Even breaking the album up into songs is frustrating for me because I work on the album for two years, and I build it as one piece of music, and then I spend one or two hours sort of semi-arbitrarily breaking it up into tracks. You know, I don't have an individual favorite. I'm most proud of the last album I did. I think with every album I've done thus far, I like them all for different reasons. I think Feed the Animals is the most cohesive work I've done as far as putting it together and where it begins and ends. It's more thought-out than I think any of my other releases.
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RO: What do you think about Ginger Ninja's visual interpretation of the samples on Feed The Animals? GT: I thought that was amazing. Stuff like that cracks me up because it's pretty easy to get in contact with me on the Internet or say "What's up?" People involved in those projects must take a lot of time with video mash-ups, taking the videos from the actual songs and dragging them out to the music. I rarely ever hear from these people and end up reading about it on Pitchfork or something. I think that stuff is great. I think it's kind of the essence of what I'm doing to some degree. It's a digital age, and everybody has a computer in front of them. A lot of people are very interactive with the media they consume. And that's what Girl Talk is. It's a product of me wanting to interact with the music I really like. RO: What's the method behind your madness? How do you choose which songs or genres of music should go with which? GT: It's very trial-and-error. Most days I'll come home from off the road, I kind of just have a running list of songs I want to cut up. And it's just little things, like when I hear a song that has an isolated part that I like - you know, isolated drums or a guitar solo or something I think I can add to. I'll make a list of that. So I kind of have this running document on the desktop on my computer of songs I want to get to. And when I hear something I think I want to use, I don't necessarily think about what I'm going to use it with. It's not really that intuitive for me. It's just that I know that it can potentially be used with something else. So I can spend a week cutting up songs and isolating little parts - speeding them up, slowing them down, hearing different versions of them - without actually ever trying to combine them with something else. There's almost two parts to the process. One, just preparing the tools and isolating the segments, getting loops ready. And the second part is just really trial and error - trying out different combinations of material. I might get the a cappella of Rhianna's "Rude Boy," so I find out what tempo it's at. I have a list of hundreds of songs at this point, and I'll get through most of them. And maybe if I try it out with 50 songs, ten of them will sound interesting to me. And out of those ten, a lot of times I'll experiment with it during the live show. I'll try out one thing in particular and the other on another night to see how people will respond to it and see how I think it worked out. In doing the live shows, I'm constantly changing up little bits and pieces. Sometimes I'll play something once, and I'll take it out. Other times I'll play something, and it'll stay in the set; six months later I'll still be playing it. So something that winds up being a staple of my set will eventually find its way onto the album. So when I actually sit down to do the album, most of the ideas are thought out just through doing the live show. RO: That process sounds, sorry to say, sort of scientific... GT [laughs]: It definitely is a process. It's very different from the way I would imagine that most musicians write music. Like I said, it's not intuitive. It's not like I sit down and have an idea and do it. It's much more drawn out, and I think it's somewhat related to the biomedical engineering world I used to be in. It's a similar-style world. I'd be on a computer all day, just trying to pick out the tiniest, tiniest detail and try to make something out of that. RO: Technology obviously has changed the game of album sales. You began utilizing the "name-your-price" method of online sales for Feed the Animals in 2008. Was this inspired by Radiohead's similar album pricing for In Rainbows, and what have the benefits been?
GT: It was 100% influenced by Radiohead's In Rainbows. You know, I was working on the album, and it wasn't this thing about how we were going to release it. I knew I wanted to put it out on the internet first, which we'd done on prior albums. So kinda going into this album, I just wanted to finish it and get it out there as quickly as possible. With something that takes you so long to make, you're kind of eager to just push it out there to the people. About a month or two before I finished up, the people who release my music proposed going with the Radiohead model, and it made sense to me. You know, we're kind of hands on with the things we're doing. There's no fail or success in terms of money with the album. We don't invest a lot in promotions. It's more grass-roots. It seems like the easiest way to get it out there to the most available of people, which is the ultimate goal for me. My one fear was that people wouldn't take it as seriously as seeing a CD, which was not the case. You know, we put it out there online, and within two weeks there was a review in Rolling Stone and The New York Times was writing pieces on it. People treated the Internet release as the release, and that was that. And I do think it got out there to a much wider audience based on the fact that people could easily download it for free. I think a lot of the fans take it as the artist being up-front with them, basically just trying to say, "I know you can download this for free, and that's not a problem," but if you want to support the project financially, that's great. It worked out so well financially, that the label Illegal Art released their back-catalog that way. RO: What music are you listening to these days? GT: Right now, what's in front of me is LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out," Wings' "At the Speed of Sound" and 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin'. New albums - I've been jamming the new MGMT a little bit and the new 8Ball & MJG. It's been one of my favorite records of the summer. 8:35 p.m. Saturday, June 5, on the Main Stage. See freepresssummerfest.com for ticket information.