Most people wouldn't mix the rhymes of Notorious B.I.G. with the melody of Elton John's Tiny Dancer and expect an ear-pleasing result. But then again, most people don't have an ear like Pittsburgh native Gregg Gillis, better known as the one-man band, Girl Talk. The musical misfit and laptop magician broke into the mainstream with his 2006 hit album Night Ripper, whose 16 tracks sampled more than 150 artists, from Abba to 2 Live Crew to Aerosmith. His latest album, Feed the Animals, is already available online; the CD is out November 3rd. TIME spoke with Gillis about the art (and science) of sampling and what it's like to create a house party on stage.
TIME: For someone who's never seen a performance of yours, it's kind of hard to visualize a guy with his laptop, inviting fans onto the stage or jumping into the crowd.
Yeah [Laughs]. It's concert meets house party. For me, the people and the interactivity become the visuals. It's loosely a populist sort of idea; having a stage full of people is a lot more valuable than having a million dollars worth of lights. For people who want to come up and see me do a live collage on the laptop, they have visuals presented for them made by everyone there in attendance. And for people who want to party, then they can kind of join in on the celebration.
What's the craziest thing that you've ever seen fans do at one of your shows?
Last year I played the Starlight Ballroom in Philadelphia and a couple definitely had sex on stage. I have not yet seen it, but it's apparently happened at multiple shows. Typically, after the show the promoter or one of their friends will be having a beer and will be like, "That was amazing when those people started having sex," And I'm like, "What?" And everyone will be sharing their story about it and I will be the only guy who didn't realize it was happening two feet behind me.
How do you stay focused during your shows with stuff like that happening and all these people up on stage with you?
Sometimes it's intense. During the actual performance, I kind of just glue my eyes on the screen and there's so much going on around me it's almost like half the time is spent just doing damage control, making sure things aren't being broken, and half the time focusing on clicking the mouse every ten seconds.
How do you choose each sample?
I will sample any song, just in different ways. Certain songs I like the melody, other songs I like the lyrics or I like the way the vocals flow so I just appropriate those aspects and use them in a new context. Other times, I may not like the song on the surface level but there might be a cool snare sound or a kickdrum. It's like playing with dolls, like your favorite G.I. Joes or whatever, you get to put them in imaginary scenarios. Here I get to play with Notorious B.I.G. a cappella and the Tiny Dancer instrumental.
Tell me about the name "Girl Talk."
I was coming from the more avant garde world and when I chose it, I clearly wasn't trying to figure out a game plan for a 10-year project that I would eventually live off of. Back then, I was almost using pop music as an act of rebellion, especially being part of the experimental-music community. I thought a lot of those people were recycling a lot of ideas, like playing noise and feedback and having some name like X_R2. So I kind of picked the name Girl Talk because it was so glossy and sounds like a 10-year-old girl's band name. I just thought it would be the most inappropriate name for the music community that I was involved with. And some people really hated it. I was playing with some really serious academic laptop musician, and he'd play first and sit there and stare at his screen and people would stroke their chins and take notes. And then I get up there and I have a pre-recorded introduction and outfit changes. So yeah, a lot of people hated it.
You used to work as a bioengineer, how has your scientific background influenced your music?
I think, if anything, just the meticulous nature of engineering goes hand-in-hand with what I do. I use a calculator to make sure things fall on a rhythmic pattern that is informed by math. My work has always involved sitting down at a computer and focusing on the smallest detail and working on tiny little things for hours at a time that eventually go toward a bigger picture. And that's kind of how I approach my music.
One of your earliest and more surprising supporters is Pennsylvania Congressman Mike Doyle, who cited your music during a hearing on copyright law. What did you think when you first heard about that?
One of his advisors e-mailed me a YouTube link of him speaking before Congress and I thought it was a spoof at first. I think he went out on a limb there with this relatively progressive idea, probably to a room of people who had no idea what he was even talking about. Sometimes people seem to think me or my record label don't understand the law, that we're just idiots, that we're just releasing this music and waiting to be sued. And that's so far from the truth. Mike Doyle speaking on our behalf was kind of like, "In your face! Here's a politician who's backing us." It was just great to have someone that legitimate on our side for once.
How do you respond to critics who think you should seek permission and pay artists for the samples you use?
I feel a certain way about the laws, but I don't necessarily want to wear that on my sleeve. I don't want to go play a show and then preach to the audience about sampling rights. If my music generates thoughts on those issues, that's fantastic, but it's not goal number one.
I read that you go through laptops pretty quickly. What other supplies do you need before you go on tour?
I lose my clothes a lot when I play so I just went out and bought 34 hooded sweatshirts for performing every night.
So basically 34 fans will hopefully have a hooded sweatshirt of yours by the end of the tour?
[Laughs] That is the game plan.
Download Girl Talk's latest album here