Talk the talk

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Eighteen months ago, Gregg Gillis quit his engineering job in suburban Pittsburgh to focus full-time on his wildly successful music project, the ultimate pop mashup known as Girl Talk.

A few months before that, when Girl Talk had begun to blow up bigger than Gillis ever imagined, he told Alive he was hesitant about leaving behind life as a working stiff. He didn't want to be in a position where making a living might require him to compromise his artistic vision.

Gillis took the plunge anyway, and he hasn't looked back.

His fourth album, Feed the Animals, racked up countless critical accolades last year. Meanwhile, his sweaty, attention-deficit-disordered dance parties - Gillis manipulates samples on his laptop while fans gyrate around him - have become one of music's hottest tickets. That's especially true in Columbus, where both Girl Talk shows this weekend at the Newport are sold out.

Thus far, he doesn't regret making music his meal ticket.

"When I quit the job, I was thinking at the very worst I could sustain this for a year," Gillis said during a recent phone interview. "So where it goes from here I kind of don't care, in terms of a career. I want to make music for the rest of my life, and I'm sure I will whether I have a day job or not."

These days, Gillis works on new material during the week and hits the road on weekends to test it at packed shows. Although he spent five weeks on tour last fall, he prefers to stick to weekend gigs so he can be just as ready as his audience to blow off steam.

"I try to not really consider what's going to sustain this as a career," Gillis said. "I try to just think about today. What am I going to do today? How am I going to make music?"

On Feed the Animals and his 2006 breakthrough Night Ripper, Gillis did that by slicing up hundreds of hits from hip-hop to classic rock to indie to disco and sewing them into a body-moving pop patchwork.

His work takes the concept of a mashup - playing two songs over top each other - to exponential new levels. Each "song" is built on dozens of pieces of other songs.

Before Gillis hit it big, his music was more abstract. A child of the experimental noise scene, he began by adding glitches and distortion to pop songs until they became unrecognizable. He expects his gradual progression toward pop to continue on future releases, perhaps molding his source material into newfangled verses, choruses and bridges.

"I'm trying to introduce certain things like that into the show now, where instead of it being completely linear, I go back to certain elements," Gillis said. "At certain points in the set, that is very refreshing for the crowd to hear."

Girl Talk's music is, of course, illegal. But Gillis, who thanks every artist he samples in his albums' liner notes, is up front about his source material, and his label, Illegal Art, allowed customers to name their price for Feed the Animals.

Shockingly, Gillis hasn't been sued yet. But if a court order forced him to stop making a profit off Girl Talk, he wouldn't be too bummed.

"I can honestly say right now," Gillis said, "if this stops being a full-time gig and I have to go back to a day job in six months, then that wouldn't be a failure by any means."

Maybe Gillis could even go back to his old job, where he hid his Girl Talk exploits from his coworkers until months after he quit. The jig was up when one of his fellow engineers looked Gillis up online and discovered thousands of raucous performance photos. His middle-aged colleagues have since become fans; some of them even came to a Girl Talk show in Pittsburgh to show their support.

"One of my coworkers hit me up on Facebook," Gillis said. "He did some research and he was just really excited about it."

What: Girl Talk

When: Saturday-Sunday, Jan. 17-18

Where: Newport Music Hall, Campus