Interview: Girl Talk a/k/a Gregg Gillis
Girl Talk plays Terminal 5 on Saturday, November 15, Sunday November 16, and next Tuesday, November 18. The shows are all sold out.
"To me, there's not a huge difference motivationally between whether you're trying to be respected for being weird, or trying to make a million dollars. You're still just trying to create a character."
photo by Rebecca Smeyne
Girl Talk may be a PC, but he's also a one-man party machine: his shows are the sorts of outrageous spectacles where everyone tries to storm the stage, bouncers pull kids from the ceiling, and you find yourself wearing strangers' hats. He comes to town this weekend to play three shows at Terminal 5. I recently spoke with him over the phone about Sophie B. Hawkins, those pesky potential lawsuits, and the first tape he ever owned. --Ryan McLendon
Girl Talk as a project is kind of a lawsuit waiting to happen, not least because of New York Times headlines like "Steal This Hook? D.J. Skirts Copyright Law." Is it a miracle you haven't been sued yet?
No. I think the New York Times, they obviously don't need any help upping their readership or anything like that, but I do think a lot of mainstream media outlets want to create controversy where it doesn't really exist. There's an idea in United States copyright law called Fair Use. It basically states that you can sample previously existing works without asking for permission if the new work falls under a certain criteria. It looks at the nature of the new work; it looks at if it's transformative, how it impacts the source materials, the original sales, things like that. The doctrine basically analyzes how you're using the source material. And people have cited this and won. 2 Live Crew sampled Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" and Roy Orbison sued 2 Live Crew and 2 Live Crew won because they said the new work was not creating competition for Roy Orbison's song. There was some level of social commentary because the track was kind of poking fun at the original song a little bit.
I'm on my fourth album now, and with an album like Feed the Animals, there's 300 samples on it. I believe it should fall under 'fair use,' especially in 2008. There's a big push from kids to the legal world to the academic world for a more open exchange of culture and media. I think people are getting used to that. People don't really consume media anymore: they interact with it. Everyone downloads pictures and manipulates them and collages them and puts them up as their MySpace picture. When a new song comes out people make music videos and remix the song and put it on YouTube. It's just kind of the way the world exists right now. I think something like my new album falls right in line with a lot of that in that it's a new transformative work that's not creating competition. If I wanted to actually clear all the samples, it would first of all be impossible, and then if [the other artists] went for it, it would take forever. And if we could clear all the samples, we would probably have to sell each CD for a couple thousand dollars each just to pay back the individual artists.
Have you ever run into an artist who wasn't exactly pleased that you had used their work in your work?
I've had no negative experiences. I've had basically lots of different people from major labels reaching out to me saying how they enjoy the work. These people aren't idiots; they see the value in the work, and how it turns new people on to the work. Sophie B. Hawkins, whose manager emailed me, wanted to collaborate on something. Big Boi from OutKast came out to a show of mine in Atlanta and I talked to him and he was cool with it. I met Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and he didn't know what the hell I do, but I explained it to him and he was open and cool with idea of me using samples. I think a lot of the artists have evolved. If you have paid attention to music in the last 20 years, you understand sampling as an instrument. There's clearly been a lot of creative work done in that field.