In this week's issue, I was happy to get a full page to write about Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, who's performing Saturday at the Wexner Center. I found what he had to say when we talked last week to be quite fascinating. Therefore, as usual, here is the entire conversation.

Alive: The first thing that crossed my mind when I saw your show listed for Columbus is that it's at the Wexner Center, which doesn't serve alcohol. Given the decadent reputation of your shows, is that going to be a problem?

Gregg Gillis: That's a good question. I've been there once. I went to school in Cleveland, and I saw Peaches there in 2002 or 3 or something. I totally didn't know they didn't serve alcohol. I haven't played at a non-alcoholic place in a while. But I don't know, it doesn't phase me. I do a lot of my own shows stone-cold sober sometimes. A lot of times I'm kind of in a rush to go wherever. But yeah, I think most of the shows kind of have that party vibe, so freely flowing alcohol's always a plus. So I don't know. Hopefully we can just take it on some other level. And maybe I'll just make my own alcohol and distribute it or something.

You make sort of bootleg music, might as well make bootleg alcohol as well.

Yeah, I really can't think of any show that hasn't had alcohol. Oh! I played a dry campus just a couple weeks ago in Sacramento. And it was a bit of a stiff crowd, I think, compared to normal, but I don't know, it got completely crazy by the end. So I have no fear, really.

In this week's issue, I was happy to get a full page to write about Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, who's performing Saturday at the Wexner Center. I found what he had to say when we talked last week to be quite fascinating. Therefore, as usual, here is the entire conversation.

Alive: The first thing that crossed my mind when I saw your show listed for Columbus is that it's at the Wexner Center, which doesn't serve alcohol. Given the decadent reputation of your shows, is that going to be a problem?

Gregg Gillis: That's a good question. I've been there once. I went to school in Cleveland, and I saw Peaches there in 2002 or 3 or something. I totally didn't know they didn't serve alcohol. I haven't played at a non-alcoholic place in a while. But I don't know, it doesn't phase me. I do a lot of my own shows stone-cold sober sometimes. A lot of times I'm kind of in a rush to go wherever. But yeah, I think most of the shows kind of have that party vibe, so freely flowing alcohol's always a plus. So I don't know. Hopefully we can just take it on some other level. And maybe I'll just make my own alcohol and distribute it or something.

You make sort of bootleg music, might as well make bootleg alcohol as well.

Yeah, I really can't think of any show that hasn't had alcohol. Oh! I played a dry campus just a couple weeks ago in Sacramento. And it was a bit of a stiff crowd, I think, compared to normal, but I don't know, it got completely crazy by the end. So I have no fear, really.

At that show in Columbus your opening act is the local band Times New Viking. It seems like you play a lot of shows with rock bands and not DJs.

Yeah, I'm familiar with Times New Viking. I like them a lot. But yeah, I've never really considered myself a DJ, necessarily, kind of just a sample-based artist. I come from a background of playing with rock bands and rap groups and just coming from the performance end of things, where you get up on stage, and you have 45 minutes to do your thing as a band. That's kind of my background. My new album's the first time anyone started to throw around the word "DJ" to describe what I'm doing. My earlier albums are all sample-based but just very experimental. The live shows were like, you know, you open up for a weird band, an indie or electronic style band. I like to keep that tradition because I like to interact with the audience; I like to put on a concert. I just don't really like playing with DJs that much because when I perform live, everything I play is live, every time you hear me change something, I'm doing it by hand, but I have a template of materials I have to get through. So when I'm assembling my template before shows, it's kind of just like I'm writing a song, and then I have to get up there and perform the song. I can't mess up. But it's very difficult for me to just at last minute get rid of something in the template and throw something else in there. So in my experience of playing with DJs in the past, it's kind of a little annoying whenever I'll be playing with a DJ and they'll be dropping all these cool mixes made by other people—which is cool to hear, obviously, at certain spots—and then I have to get up there and compete with that and do everything on the fly. So I've always just kind of had a preference towards playing with bands as much as I can.

So with the live show you have to do all those clicks at the right times?

Yeah, exactly. It's a thing where I try to interact with the audience and party with people as much as possible, but I always tell people that any time I leave the stage you can notice the same things looping over and over and over, because the software I play live is loop-based software. So any time I'm not up there clicking the mouse, the same things are playing over and over, and anytime changes happen, I'm actually doing it by hand.

You mentioned that it's hard to take things in and out of the template on the spot. So is the set pretty much set in stone before you go on stage?

A little bit. See, I try to make the templates large enough that I can jump around. It's always kind of different, but I like to have enough material that if I want to jump around, I can. But a lot of times I'd want to play a remix of a particular song that's out right now, and if I play with a DJ they'll just straight up play it right before I go on, and that becomes problematic. But yeah, I definitely have multiple templates, and it's more than I'll get through in a night, typically. So yeah, there is freedom to jump around. I guess you could compare it a bit to a jam band where you have this loose formula of what you're gonna go with, but within there things can change dramatically. But I think depending on the sound system and depending on the crowd, I just flip it. A lot of times, stuff that's supposed to be set for 90 bpms, if it's not going over well, I might just crank the whole thing up to like 150 bpms. I might just change the entire format of it just for the show. But usually I try to stick to what I organize. I like to be less of an improviser and more of a performer. I feel like I'm better at composing than I am at improvising. So I like to perform compositions rather than try to improvise live.

So is that why you shy away from the term DJ?

I've never considered myself a DJ. Cause to me, first of all, a traditional DJ uses turntables and knows how to beat-match records, which I don't know how to do. Whenever I say I'm not a DJ, I'm not talking shit on DJs. I think DJing is a specific art in itself. I just think I'm doing something differently. Whenever I think of a DJ performing, either they're A) using turntables or B) primarily playing other people's songs. A lot of DJs do their own remixes of stuff, but when you see a DJ perform, they play someone's song for one to five minutes, then move on to the next song. And when I play, it's all my own remixes. I've always been striving for whenever someone hears my record or you hear me live, it's like you recognize these elements, I'm obviously sampling, I'm not hiding that, but it turns into its own entity. You know, you go out to hear a Girl Talk song. And people come out to shows and they crazy and people dance, but I think if I was to go to maybe a more mainstream club, I wouldn't necessarily be a good DJ because I'm playing my own songs. No one wants to hear just exclusively remixes. And like I was saying before, I think when I was a bit more experimental back in the day, no one was really calling it DJing, everyone was just saying "You do sound collage" or I was just considered an electronic performer working in the field of samples. So that's what I've stuck by over the years.

So once the shows became these big parties, people were like "You're hosting parties, so therefore you're a DJ"?

Right, and I'm not offended by the term, and I'm open to it. And I know my new album's totally accessible and is on the level of a DJ style thing. I just always say the "I'm not a DJ" thing because people are like "Come out and play at my party for two hours," and it's like, well no, I don't actually spin records for two hours. I perform all my own remixes, and everything I play is kind of my own creation. I like to distinguish this. And I think I come from a long line of sample-based musicians like John Oswald and Evolution Control Committee, who's from Columbus originally, just all these guys like that who have always worked in found sound, sound collage, no one ever really labeled them DJs. I'm definitely walking that thin line between what is a DJ and what's not, but I definitely come more from the background of the sound collage world of artists.

Right, I've read interviews where you talk about having a background in noise music, and I wondered how you shifted so far to the other end of the spectrum from noise to essentially just incorporating the poppiest of stuff.

I think I've always been a pop music fan, as far back as I can remember. I got into really weird music in high school, just a lot of noise stuff, and that's why I was in a noise band. But I think simultaneously during that period, even in high school, I was always kind of into the really bubblegum pop world. I can remember going to a noise show and then going to see the Spice Girls the next day, stuff like that. It's always been an interest of mine. Even in my noise band in high school, we did a lot of pop music sampling, just grabbing big chunks of stuff and making noise. I always thought the juxtaposition of noise and pop was interesting. So I think with the early Girl Talk stuff, especially with the first album, it was very much like that. It was very noisy, very experimental, and that was kind of how I started the band. I wanted to make fun experimental music, stuff that's noisy and kind of difficult to listen to, but simultaneously there's all these pop references and it's more of an enjoyable form of avant-garde music. And then I think over the years my interest in experimental music just faded in general. And I've always been into pop music throughout all the years. It's not like in 2003 or anything I decided to get strictly into pop music. I just was always into it. But I think the other end of things, the more experimental world, for me, became a little less interesting. So yeah, I don't know, it just sort of slowly faded into this pretty accessible project.

When did you start thinking about combining old songs into something new?

I probably started when I was like 15 or 16 years old, which is about 10 years ago. From the first stuff I did with my old band called The Joysticks, we used to always work with skipping CDs and tape collages. So I think that's officially where I started with that, and then that band eventually broke up once I graduated high school. And I started Girl Talk in 2000 and I just kind of made a conscious decision to dedicate myself exclusively to sample-based music, whereas in the old noise band sampling just kind of came up here and there, it wasn't a primary thing.

Can you listen to music now without picking it apart and finding ways to recontextualize it?

A little bit. It's weird because I think my main music listening time is—I do a day job, so I drive about a half hour to and from work every day, and that's my main time when I listen to music. When I come home, I'm usually working on music. And I like to listen to music, and I love just... whenever I hear things, I just listen to them. It's not like I'm stressing out trying to find a sample. But sometimes I notice myself very strategically jumping around for songs I haven't heard in a long time to see if there's something I can use there. So yeah, I think my ears are always kind of perking up. It's kind of a simple formula as far as what I like to sample. It's just my favorite parts from songs, and often times parts of songs that don't have music or don't have lyrics, the a capella portions or the instrumental portions are easier to collage together. When I'm hearing a song and I hear all the instruments drop out, just a nice drum beat or some sort of keyboard solo or something like, I obviously would kind of tune in immediately and start thinking about where I could potentially use that.

So what's caught your ear recently on the radio?

I just got into some George Harrison song the other day that I really can't remember the name of. My girlfriend was playing it for me, and I'd sing it for you but it'd be bad. And the other day I got into this song by Kapow, the 80s song "Heart and Soul" popped up on the radio, which I haven't heard in ages, and got really into that. I don't really know. The hip-hop stuff I always pay attention to. Like the new Lil Wayne album I like a lot, and stuff like that. That's kind of the standard. But then I'm always hunting through the oldies stations. So I don't know. It's kind of like a never-ending process, trying to hear stuff and track it down and figure out what I'm going to do with it.

Not to drive the DJ thing home, but it's kind of like as opposed to digging through the crates, you're kind of digging across the radio.

Absolutely. It's been an idea that I like to recontextualize these familiar elements. A lot of DJs are always searching for that obscure sample at the bottom of the crate. I'm looking for the most obvious sample, almost.

Was Girl Talk always a performance thing, or was it something where someone heard your recordings and asked you to perform?

I think it always was a performance thing. My high school noise band was a heavy performance thing. I'd say half the time we actually made music was based around live shows. We used to smash computers and stuff like that. It was very performance arty for 16-year-olds just going up there and making noise and stuff. So I think once I started doing Girl Talk, there was no doubt in my mind that I should perform, just because I came from a background of going to laptop music shows, electronic music shows all the time, so it was never a conscious decision to have to come up with a performance style. It was just, I'm making music, so I'm going to perform. The early shows were around 2000, 2001.

So that's when you were at school at Case?

Pretty much. This project just started whenever I started going to Case Western. My first show was in Pittsburgh, though, I think on like a winter break or something, but yeah, most of my early shows were in Cleveland.

Your dancing and stripping and all that has already become semi-legendary. Does it ever start to feel scripted or lack spontaneity after doing it so many times?

Yeah, I definitely don't necessarily take off my clothes every show. And I definitely dance every show, just like Metallica headbangs every show. Those guys have played those songs a million times, but once they're in the live setting and performing it live and getting feedback from the crowd, I'm sure they're not just doing it to do it. I'm sure they kind of get into it. So that's a big thing for me, that I'm always working on new material live. It's a non-stop process. I'm always working on new things. So when I perform live, often times it's my first time hearing the stuff on a good system. It's my first time seeing a reaction. So I'm definitely not forced. It's not like the millionth time of dancing to the song. And obviously a lot of people paying to come out to see you and getting into it kind of gets you fired up too. I think in the early days it used to be the bit where I'm going to take this to this level tonight whether they respond or not. But anymore it depends on where they're going with it. I'll keep all my clothes on and keep the dancing to myself unless the crowd gets fired up. And a lot of times the stage area becomes a sweaty mess, and everyone starts taking their clothes off. And in that case, I'm going to join in. I think recently I'm usually not the first guy or girl to take his shirt off. So yeah, I try to keep it as unscripted as possible and keep it fun.

I read an interview from the last couple days where you said you're still keeping your music career secret from the people at your day job. How is that even possible at this point?

If you can just think of some engineering job 20 minutes outside of Pittsburgh, as far as them catching on through media or something like that, I'm not going to say they're oblivious, they just have their own areas of concentration in life. They have kids and families. And I'm sure they don't even go out to see movies very much, you know what I mean? I work with like eight guys, and they're all pretty isolated from pop culture. So as far as that goes, they're not really going to pick up a Rolling Stone and see me in it. And the Pittsburgh press that's been on me recently, they've agreed to not use my real name, just call me by Girl Talk, and use a picture of me with sunglasses on that I use in all the Pittsburgh press stuff because it doesn't really look like me. So from that end, that's how they don't know. And from the other end, it doesn't necessarily affect the job too much. I tour exclusively on Friday and Saturdays, and I just go in there Monday. And it's a little hard for me to not explain it, if I was out in LA, you know, sold-out show on Saturday and flying back and come into work Monday and not being like, "Wow, I'm tired. I was in LA." It's a little weird to not talk about it with them. But it doesn't really affect my job. I stay late during the week days a lot of times so I can leave early on Friday and just do the Friday and Saturday show. And then there's the occasional weekday thing that I want to do so I'll take a sick day or take a vacation day. So yeah, I'm in the office 40 hours a week, so that's pretty much why they don't know.

And you've said before that you're worried that at this point, if they find out, it will be like "Why have you been keeping this from us for so long?"

Yeah, I just think it would be incredibly awkward. Cause I mean, occasionally we'll go out for beers and stuff with the guys that work there. It's an older crowd. I'm 25. I think the next youngest guy's probably like 35 or so. So we hang out. I'm not tight with any of them, really. But I think if it came up that I was selling out shows every weekend, and going out to play with Kanye West in Vegas on Valentine's Day and stuff like that, it's just like, "Gregg"—exactly, like "how could you be holding this from us? What else have you been lying about?" It just seems like if I was able to hold this from them, I would be able to hold anything from them, such as not doing any work and kind of lying to them the whole time.

Because the work you do, I remember reading, is kind of experimental stuff. It's stuff where you would be able to say "I'm working on this experiment," but you're really not doing anything?

(Laughter) Yeah, but they know what I'm doing. But there are times when they don't know how long things should take, necessarily.

Aren't you getting to the point where you could do Girl Talk full time? Or is that something you even want to do?

I've been thinking about it a lot more recently. Right now, I think the main thing holding me back is I do like my job, and I like the people I work with, and we're kind of at a crucial point in the project I'm working on. So at least for the next couple months, I'd like to help them out. If I left now, it'd be screwing over a lot of people, so it's something I wouldn't want to do. But yeah, I think financially I would be able to support myself for at least a year. And even if it's over after a year, I think it would be an amazing year to just focus on music and be able to wake up at noon every day. So I've been thinking about that a good bit because I do like the job, but I hate waking up, and I hate being rushed for time. Every day I kind of go home, grab something to eat, usually talk on the phone with someone for a little bit, and I have two hours to work on music that I'm not gonna get done. In that regard, it's a bit stressful, I don't have enough time. But as I said before, the touring and everything, other than getting over to do European shows, which I've been getting a lot of offers I can't really do, touring the US has been completely thorough. I've done almost every major city right now, and it's no problem getting around on the weekend. It's just me and the laptop. Flying is pretty much cheaper than driving these days. It's really good. And I think the fact that, on the touring end of things, whenever people see me perform live, it is usually my Friday or Saturday. I went to work all week just like everyone else. It's not my 28th day of tour and getting drunk in a row and trying to have a good time. If I wasn't dancing around on stage Saturday, I'd probably be dancing around somewhere in Pittsburgh. I'd be having fun. It's my time to have fun. So I think that has helped out the shows a lot, that every single time people see me, I'm rarely fatigued because I'm ready to go. It's my weekend. I kind of like that aspect of it. And I always have had music as my main hobby, and I've always liked to be able to make musical decisions based on what I want to do from a musical end of things or from an artistic end of things rather than from a financial end of things. So I've been getting a handful of offers here and there for various things, remixes and stuff, which I try to do as much as possible, but anything that I don't want to do that seems financially great, I don't necessarily have to do it because I have this job as a backbone. And when I go out to play a show, I don't necessarily have to sell every single CD to pay my rent that month. I can give away a few free CDs if people don't have money or whatever. So I think it helps me too as a musician because there's no pressure on me to have a good selling album or to do anything on that level. I'm just doing it for fun.

Still living lawsuit-free?

Yeah. No problems thus far.

Did you hear about the DJ Drama thing? (Drama and Don Cannon, Atlanta DJs known for their influential mixtapes, were arrested Jan. 16 after an RIAA raid, "for making and selling illegal CDs.")

Yeah, it's pretty extreme. I heard he was released after one day. I don't know what the situation is now. It's obviously kind of a different world with him, but I think a lot of similar ideas, where I feel like I'm not negatively affecting anyone with what I'm doing. If anything, I'm kind of promoting the artists. And even if DJ Drama's a millionaire from what he's doing, he's also helping the music industry out a ton, in promotional tools. The artists probably beg to get on his tapes. So it's different worlds, but I think it's a similar idea where I think both of us are in general sparking people's interest in music. So it's a sad thing. It seemed like kind of an idiotic move on the RIAA's part. It seemed like kind of a knee-jerk reaction. I don't know what the deal was.

By thanking all the bands in your liner notes, it almost seems like you're daring people to come say, "Hey look, these bands are on the album." I imagine that's not something you're openly courting though. You're not trying to be some sort of martyr for copyright law.

No, no. Not necessarily. I think the people who release my album might feel differently. Illegal Art, their goal has always been to release music that otherwise wouldn't be heard. And I'm a sample-based music fan. I like a lot of people who release sample-based music. So I think that's kind of the perspective of the label too. But simultaneously, I think there's some political undertones to the label, and a little bit of political motivation. For me, the main motivation is musical. I actually put that on there just as a fun sort of thing for people to try to have people pinpoint the samples, a little bit of a guide, pretty much. And also, to me, it's like, I sample music, I like it. Those are all my influences. And rather than it be a smartass thing, it's almost an out-of-respect thing. I'm doing my best to make the best music I can make, and I appreciate all of their music. If anything, I'm kind of paying my respects.