Any question of whether Girl Talk is still a force in the live music scene was clarified last weekend in the desert of Indio, Calif.
This wasn't the first time the Pittsburgh-based electronic artist did Coachella, but it was his biggest showcase there, rocking an estimated 100,000 people, including a Beatle, on the main stage and coming out of the weekend with a huge buzz for his surprise-filled set.
Girl Talk (real name Gregg Gillis) -- who broke into the scene in a big way in 2006 with "Night Ripper" -- built this following with albums that mash up hundreds of samples in a dizzying blur and ecstatic, sweaty live shows.
For the past four years, he's been a road warrior, but going into Coachella, he finally offered a follow-up to 2010's "All Day." In a departure from his past work, the new "Broken Ankles" EP (available as a free download at datpiff.com) is a straight-up hip-hop collaboration with Philly rapper Freeway. It's accompanied by his first true music video, for "Tolerated," a funny horror movie send-up where no limb or body part is safe.
Before heading back to Coachella for a second weekend (with more secrets in store), he checked in on his recent exploits.
So, how was your weekend?
Coachella was just out of control and definitely on some different level than anything I've been a part of. When they gave me the offer a few months back, they told me then they wanted to put me on the main stage before OutKast. I've played a lot of festivals with a lot of big bands, but that just stood out. I knew we had to come out correct and go as big as possible. So the past few months, I've just been working on a lot of new stuff, musically and production-wise, with the lights and videos. I also reached out to a bunch of people to get some guests to come out, and the time slot was so appealing to so many people. We reached out to a bunch of rappers, a bunch of people I've sampled over the years, and almost everyone expressed interest. Overall, it went off without a hitch and it was probably the most people I've ever played in front of, and E-40 and Too $hort and Juicy J and Busta Rhymes came out during the set, and Paul McCartney was dancing on stage and Puff Daddy was watching side stage. It was just surreal. I've never had big celebrity appeal. I've kind of floated below the radar just because it's more of a grass-roots thing. I'm not on TV or on the radio. This was the first time it was like that. I think Paul McCartney dancing on stage is clearly on some other level.
Did you know he was there?
I didn't see him. Just after the show I looked at my phone, and I guess the webcast was going on and they caught a glimpse of him dancing. When I looked at my phone, I saw a text from my girlfriend who was watching at home, going, "Paul McCartney! What's going on?!" I guess he was there with his kids and he was out on stage, and at one point he was standing right behind me bobbing along and he went up to one of my good friends who was a lighting tech, and he was like, "This is amazing!"
Did you hit any Beatles samples by chance?
No, I wish, because I pretty frequently use Beatles or Wings. Unfortunately, I didn't use anything, but that would have been interesting.
How did you work the rappers into your live set?
I was worried about it being confusing for them because I wanted to take famous songs of theirs but basically do a remix or a mash-up and have them come out and do it live. So, I sent it out to them to get the approval and they were down with the first take. I wanted to keep reiterating, "Just make sure you listen to this, and let's come up with cues," because they know the song lyrically, but I went double-time. With Busta I used a sample of Arcade Fire, who were playing [Sunday] night and thought that would be a moment because they were headlining. I didn't get a chance to speak to him until before the show, and he was really into it, really fired up. All the guests were very appreciative to be there, but Busta had a certain energy about him.
So, the crowd must have gone crazy when they saw these guys.
Yeah, I've never done that. Coachella is kind of known for the guests, but I don't think anyone expected me to do that, because I still feel kind of removed from the pop culture that I sample. I think that's the way people perceive me as well. When E-40 and Too $hort came out, it was kind of a warm surprise, and I think it kept escalating. When Juicy J came out people couldn't believe it and when Busta came out, that was the moment it was crazy and I looked up and pretty much saw every phone in the air.
I felt bad for the Replacements because I heard they had about 200 people and everyone was at your set.
It's so wild at stuff like Coachella because it really is a young crowd. You can tell that the people who put on the festival are music lovers and it's very highly curated, but I've seen live music that caters to an older demographic that doesn't get the draw. The Replacements was one band I really wanted to see but simultaneously knew that was a good band to play against.
I read this piece [Monday] on edm.com about how the EDM [electronic dance music] made the OutKast gig flop, how the high energy and bells and whistles made it seem boring by comparison.
I only got a chance to see a chunk of the OutKast set and did see the general Internet response. And I think it's a combination of things. I think Andre 3000 wasn't totally engaged every moment of the performance. But it is a bit more nuanced, and a lot of their best material can be mellow. A festival for any headline act, people expect the bells and whistles. You know with a band like Muse the other night, that's going to be a crazy production with everything kind of in your face. I do think that's kind of part of it. It's weird to judge live music based on the crowd jumping up and down. I feel like people get caught up on that all the time. At Coachella, there's five stages and one of them is kind of dedicated to electronic music, and if you go into that tent at any time of day, it is just an entirely different festival. If you judge people jumping up and down as the quality of music, then that is the greatest music that has ever been invented. But there is music that you just stand and watch or groove to, and it doesn't have to be going crazy every second. I've actually avoided playing that tent because what I do, I don't need people jumping up and down the entire time. I don't want my show to feel like going to a club. I'd rather it feel like going to a house party or something.
You've made it a point to distinguish yourself from the EDM DJs.
I feel like I don't even have to. I feel like a cousin of it, and I'm a fan of it. And next week I will be hanging out in that Sahara tent and going crazy a little bit. I'm into it that it exists and I like its influence on popular music and culture, but I've always felt separate from it. I think from the start the goal of this project was never to be in the clubs and do the mainstream dance thing. The behavior at my shows is related but just different. Sonically, that music is really focused on certain sounds. If you're gonna go into that world and do an Electric Light Orchestra remix, it's probably not going to go over that well. I've always wanted what I do to be on its own path. I think one of the complaints of people in that scene is that a lot of the acts are carbon copies and it's kind of like a factory.
You were off the grid for a while, recording wise. What made you come back with this EP?
Well, 2013 was the first year since 2005 that I've done less than 100 shows. And that was calculated. I was going really hard and the offers didn't stop and I just kept taking them and being out on the road for over half the year, which I love doing, but it wore me down a little bit and I thought it would be nice to chill for a minute. So last year I did 25 shows total. When I have shows all the time, I'm scrambling to come up with new material that's related to my last album. Once I had a little time off the road, it allowed me time to do whatever. So I started doing what I do with a different style of samples, just messing around, and what was coming out of it was more or less beats, like hip-hop production. I had the idea to do something that was in between one of my albums and a rap mixtape. I made like 70 or 80 beats and had some people in mind. I've been a fan of Freeway for a long time and felt like he was a guy who sounds good on a variety of beats, and he's known to be high energy. He was in a position where he was hungry for a next step, and I wanted it to be special for that person. I didn't want to push for the huge name who wasn't going to care or phone it in, and didn't want to get the young guy who wouldn't get it. We met last summer and just kind of started recording and it turned into a nine-month-long thing. He recorded more or less like 30 songs and then I took that material and collaged different things together.
Who came up with that crazy video concept?
That was my idea, and I never had a project where a video made sense, and growing up in the '90s I loved MTV and videos, and to this day I love checking out videos on YouTube. So as a fan I was like, "I can finally do a video." And there are tons of rap videos that are weird, but not that many that are funny. So I wasn't sure he would be on board, but he loved the idea. Once we connected with a director, the ideas were real easy and fun. I wanted that '80s/'90s action-horror-movie effect of guts flying out, and it doesn't look realistic but it looks tight. Hooking up Allen Cordell, he really took it over the top.
So what's next for you?
I want to keep doing stuff like the Freeway project with other people. I came into the project with 80 beats and we used like 10. So I'd like to do more work like this and work with some other rappers. A lot of people have been excited about the production on it and have been hitting me up. I'm not too worried about putting out a solo release at the moment even though I'm sitting on more stuff than I ever have.