Q&A with Girl Talk

A breakout year for the band and the 'Night Ripper' release

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Girl Talk's 42-minute "Night Ripper" collage landed the No. 22 spot on Rolling Stone's list of the year's best albums.
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The year started quietly for Girl Talk, with the Pittsburgh-based laptop artist hesitantly issuing a 42-minute collage called "Night Ripper."

A departure from his usual electronic adventures, it's a mind-blowing, booty-shaking, nonstop mashup that dares to splice Elton John and Biggie Smalls and samples ABBA, the Ying Yang Twins and everything in between (Boston, Three 6 Mafia, James Taylor, Nine Inch Nails, Smokey Robinson and hundreds more) without blinking.

It could be the decade's most brilliant act of thievery.

Pitchforkmedia.com -- music-snob central -- caught wind of it and called it the "soundtrack of the summer." The next thing he knew, Girl Talk was flying to London to open for Beck, at Beck's request, and entertaining Paris Hilton and 50 Cent at Blender magazine's MTV Video Music Awards after-party.

In November, Girl Talk, who has a day job in Pittsburgh and jet-sets on weekends, ventured into Lawrenceville for a triumphant homecoming at Belvedere's that found the stage packed with friends and drunken revelers.

The crowning achievement in Girl Talk's breakout year is the No. 22 spot on Rolling Stone's list of the Best Albums of 2006.

Last week, the media-shy Girl Talk agreed to a rare local interview.


Q: What did you think when you saw "Night Ripper" on the Rolling Stone list?
A:

I got a little blurb in Rolling Stone earlier this year, and I thought that was the level the album was on, just this little dent in pop culture, just an eighth-of-a-page-type thing. It blew my mind when they considered it a legitimate album and ranked it up there.


Q: Did you have any clue this record would cause this much of a stir?
A:

I knew it was more accessible than my other ones, and I knew with the sheer number of recognizable samples, it would do well, but nowhere near the level that it happened. It was set off of by the Pitchfork review, and I think by that time it was already out for two months. Prior to that, my stuff was pretty much fairly well received, good reviews on the Web. I knew this one could stretch beyond that, but I had no idea it could do this kind of damage.


Q: How long did it take you to make "Night Ripper"?
A:

The sound of the album is based on what I do live, where I kind of mix and match samples on the fly. My last record was released two years prior to this. So, there was roughly two years of trial and error building up to it. The actual sitting down and editing process probably took about seven to eight months.


Q: The range of music is so broad. Is this a representation of your tastes?
A:

Yeah, I think so. I think I'm directly influenced by all the music that's on there. A lot of those songs are my favorite songs. Most of my time is pretty much spent either listening to WAMO or a bunch of cassettes of bands I have from the '90s or things that are on 3WS. It's a pretty good representation.


Q: Were you inspired by other mashups?
A:

When I first heard mashups in 2000 or so, I thought they were cool but I wasn't really interested in making that kind of record. It wasn't a genre I was ever dedicated to. But I do like pop music sampling in general and sound collage in general. I think I was more influenced by guys like John Oswald, who was doing the "plunderphonics" thing in the '80s, and even guys like Kid 606 way more than the actual mashup guys. I don't think there was a definitive mashup that blew my mind. It was kind of like I like a few of them and I think I can apply this electronic music influence to the genre of mashups.


Q: Now that your record is in the Rolling Stone Top 50, you're no longer under the radar. Are you concerned about the legal issues?
A:

I definitely try to limit my comments on that for obvious reasons. So far there have been no issues. I've actually talked to a handful of major labels who are more or less supporting the album and offering to work with me. I think in the future people will realize this style of music isn't hurting anyone. If anything, it's getting people excited about music in general.


Q: Going after you would be like kicking a puppy.
A:

Yeah, whoever would come after me would be the giant going after this guy who was doing this more or less for no money over the course of the past eight years or whatever. I don't think it would look too good on their part.


Q: Can you make another record like this?
A:

I don't know. Whenever I perform live I always try to make it new, and I have a bunch of material in the style of this record. But I'm not sure if I want to go there or not. All my records sort of naturally evolved. I don't ever make a decision on what they're going to sound like. Once I start putting it together, it's whatever happens. But I think there's enough source material for another record like this.


Q: What remixes are you working on now?
A:

Right now I'm working on a remix for Grizzly Bear, one of my favorite bands this year. It's really hard 'cause they make really slow music and they wanted kind of a party track out of it. I just finished one for Peter Bjorn and John, this Swedish group, and I did one for Beck earlier. I did one for Good Charlotte, which is still kind of up in the air. I kind of made it pretty weird, and they were so-so on it. They didn't know if it was too extreme, so I'm waiting for them to get back to me on it.


Q: Are you going to end up making beats for rappers?
A:

I don't think it's necessarily a goal of mine. With the case of Danger Mouse, he'd already been a producer, and did 'The Gray Album' as a side thing. For me, this kind of music -- sample-based music -- is my main thing, and always will be, whether it's experimental or accessible. I'm going to continue doing it, but I've been talking to some major labels about doing beats, which is something I'd be interested in. I did beats for Grand Buffet one time, which was a lot of fun. I wouldn't mind taking that route, but it's not a goal. If it happens, it happens.


Q: That would get you the mansion in Sewickley.
A:

Right, absolutely. I'd have to move out of my apartment.


Q: What's the most fun you've had this year?
A:

I would have to say I just got back from Australia, three dates, and that was relatively amazing. So was getting to play with Beck. The most fun was probably the day the Steelers won the Super Bowl for me. These days my fun is hanging out in Pittsburgh when I can.


Q: You played the after-party for the MTV Video Music Awards? Did you run into 50 Cent?
A:

50 Cent and Paris Hilton were there. My girlfriend met LL Cool J. And at the end of the night my friend actually spilled a drink out of the window of this VIP room we were in and a few minutes later the rapper Lloyd Banks, 50 Cent's main sidekick, came charging into the room and was threatening to beat us up. It was really late and he came in the room saying, 'Who threw this drink?' and the whole room filled up with his entourage. ... Security ended up breaking it up and actually tossed him out of our VIP room. And then they kicked me out shortly after. The whole night was great. I saw Kanye West in the bathroom. You see all these celebrities but having someone threaten to beat you up is when it officially gets real.


Q: You're a player at that point. At Belvedere's you had a stage full of people. Has that been happening wherever you go?
A:

I've been roughly performing in a similar style for a long time now, and I don't know when it started the first time, but at one particular show, everyone jumped on stage. I don't know if people saw photos of that or YouTube clips but that's somehow become the standard etiquette at my shows. I think it's cool, because I think there was no etiquette beforehand, whereas if you go to a punk show, you expect to get in a mosh pit, or if you go to a dance club, you expect to dance. I think my shows were always a hybrid of a rock show, where you could sit back and watch, and a dance thing, where you dance with your friends. But in the past six months I think the concert etiquette for a Girl Talk show has been a little more defined. What it is now is, get as many people on the stage as possible. I think it's cool, so anyone who wants to hear the music live can come and they have an interesting visual with all these drunk people dancing. It's definitely the equivalent of watching someone strum a guitar as far as entertainment value goes.


Q: What are you actually doing on the stage?
A:

Pretty much every time you hear a change in sample, I'm cuing it up. I set up a template of a whole bunch of samples and whenever I build a template, it's kind of my songwriting process. So I have this template in front of me and I know what order to go through, and sometimes you can cut up some samples on the fly and manipulate some things, but it's more or less an effort of cuing things up at the right time. So, yeah, whenever I play live it's loop-based, so if you ever see me leave the stage, you'll notice that the same things keep looping over and over. And then anytime a change happens in the music I actually have to be touching the mouse and doing it by hand.


Q: OK, I'm glad I was brave enough to ask that question ...
A:

I think a lot of people assume you're not doing much, which is cool and I even think a lot of times fans will be shaking me and pouring beers on me and going crazy, which is fine and I endorse that, but I don't think they realize that for the music to change I have to be standing there staring at the computer for at least a second.


Q: You must be in great demand on New Year's Eve.
A:

I'm doing a show in Chicago at the Empty Bottle, where I had one of my crazier shows and it has a wonderful sound system. All of my good friends agreed to go out to Chicago and meet up, so I'm pretty excited about that. I would like to be here -- any Pittsburgh time is great for me. I work during the day and fly out on the weekend, so anytime I get to chill out here is a good time.


Scott Mervis can be reached at smervis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2576.


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