Fun With Samples or Illegal Art

For Pittsburgh mash-up artist Girl Talk, music is pop art ... or maybe just 'a lawsuit waiting to happen'

Nov 5, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Just hours before his new album is released to the Internet, Gregg Gillis is at home in the gritty Pittsburgh suburb of Wilkinsburg: a two-room apartment crammed with the detritus of his life on the road as internationally acclaimed mash-up artist Girl Talk.

A worn couch dominates the living room alongside a heap of brightly colored high-tops and two tagged, travel-worn suitcases. The rest of the room is awash in miscellaneous rubble: A Dungeons & Dragons statuette shares space with concert memorabilia, a “Rave Award” from Wired magazine and dirty clothes. The windows are open wide, and trains rumble just outside. The heat has also brought out the building’s odors of lots of people living in close proximity: strange cooking smells, animals, the unmistakable aroma of roach spray.

“This is my street cred,” Gillis jokes about the disarray, adding that his girlfriend recently has refused to sleep here any longer.

Two days earlier — against the protests of his mother — Gillis brought MTV News upstairs to interview him. While MTV was visiting, he received a mastered mix of his new album, Feed the Animals.

“Gillis seemed so happy with it that he asked us to decide when it should be released to the Net,” MTV’s James Montgomery posted online. “Our producer picked Thursday, and that’s the day you’ll be able to hear it.”

On this day, Gillis perches on a stool in cutoff jean shorts and a vintage Metallica T-shirt. His long, sweaty hair is a testament to the past year he’s spent supporting himself on the road as Girl Talk: Gone is the conservative look he sported back in 2006, when he held down a day job as a biomedical engineer, flying out to gig on nights and weekends.

He sips a giant Wendy’s fountain drink as he talks about the new album and the ways his career has taken off since 2006’s breakthrough CD, Night Ripper. It helped transform his live act from small underground shows where “everyone was like, uncomfortable” to his current soldout melees, in which the audience is encouraged to join Gillis onstage in a crush of dancing bodies.

Success snowballed until Girl Talk — which is just one 26-year-old man and his laptop — sold out the legendary Fillmore Ballroom in San Francisco.

“I’m really excited,” he says. “The shows have gotten bigger. It’s been two years since Night Ripper, and even last month the shows are bigger than they were six months ago.”

Periodically Gillis slips into his bedroom, which is just big enough to hold an unmade twin bed and an end table supporting his rugged Toughbook laptop, making last-minute edits to his music and uploading the files to his label’s Web site.

“I literally finished it last Thursday,” he says. “It’s weird to make a change that the world will hear two days later.”

Feed the Animals is a seamless mix of more than 300 samples of other people’s music, combined in an album that lasts 54 minutes. The result is an impressive audio collage, one that sets Rap lyrics from Ludacris, 50 Cent and Yung Joc atop Pop hooks that range from the contemporary (Rihanna’s “Umbrella”) to yesteryear (Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants”), Classic Rock (“Styx’s “Renegade”) to classics (David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”).

The album screeches off the lot with “Play Your Part (Pt. 1),” kicked off with the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin” set against lyrics from UGK’s “Int’l Player’s Anthem”: “My bitch a choosy lover, never fuck without a rubber/ Never in the sheets, like it on top of the cover.”

It’s like Girl Talk has brought out what young Steve Winwood’s id was really trying to say. Multiply that little heat-exchange times 150, and you get an idea of Feed the Animals’ scope and density. To create one minute of this collage takes Gillis an entire day’s work.

“The ultimate goal is to recontextualize the material enough where it has its own identity,” he says. “The whole idea of the project is just embracing Pop. I want to make the most over-the-top pop-collage album.”

But Gillis’ use of other artists’ music is entirely unauthorized, which means that his album could also be a collection of 300 potential copyright-infringement lawsuits. Gillis and his label contend that by using the snippets in such unorthodox ways he’s creating new material rather than copying what others have done.

So far they haven’t had to argue that case in court, because no one has sued.

But Animals is upping the ante from Night Ripper’s roughly 200 samples, and it borrows more heavily from Top 40 artists — some of whom are famously litigious, including Metallica, who sued Napster in 2000, effectively shutting down the Web site.

“If you were gonna pick five artists that you may think would have an issue with this,” Gillis acknowledges, “then there’s probably three or four of those … on the album.”

It’s taking a risk, he says. But when the goal is the ultimate pop collage, “the correct way to do that is to use the biggest artists, and the biggest artists are oftentimes the people who have had these issues.”

Gillis has had a successful run so far, including a summer-long blur of European festivals; the physical version of Feed the Animals just came out on Oct. 21, and a vinyl edition is also in the works. And his current fall tour — a 30-date jaunt which brings him to Bogart’s Sunday with Deathset and CX KiDTRONiK — seems ripe with possibility. He’s even slightly upgraded his living quarters, moving into a house in Pittsburgh’s more centrally located Polish Hill neighborhood.

But how far can this renegade run before the law catches up with him or, perhaps worse, decides he’s legitimate after all?

••• Potential $45 million problem •••

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Gillis began to dip into the city’s underground scene in the mid-1990s; in high school, he formed the experimental band The Joysticks, a blend of noise and performance art with Gillis on keyboards and electronics. A key moment for him was seeing live-electronics artist Kid 606 play in Pittsburgh and hearing his radical remix of NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.”

“It was the first time I’d heard someone really go crazy on a Pop song on a computer, completely mangling it,” says Gillis. “That was absolutely the foundation of getting into Girl Talk. I was like, ‘I want to do a project where that’s all I do, mangle these songs and piece them together.’”

During his first two years of college at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve, he began to refine what would become Girl Talk, eventually playing house parties and small underground shows in Pittsburgh, often with goofy theatrical elements intended to entertain music fans who weren’t quite ready for just a guy with a laptop onstage. After college, he did some DIY touring — even going to Japan — until he ran out of money and, like so many musicians before him, got a real job.

Even before copyright infringement was a concern, there was a certain covert quality to Gillis’ on-stage alter ego. He kept his musical aspirations a secret from his co-workers at a biomedical-engineering firm, whose name he still won’t divulge. Until he began supporting himself with shows, a little over a year ago, he refused to allow his real name to appear in the local press.

By 2006, Gillis had already released two mash-up albums to a small audience. But when Night Ripper came out at the beginning of that year, he found that tastes — and times — had caught up to Girl Talk.

“This is an era right now when people involved in underground music are into dancing, as opposed to 10 years ago,” says Gillis, who says he now listens almost exclusively to mainstream music. “When I first started listening to college radio in the ’90s, it was all about Pavement or noise, something like that. Anymore, it’s just so diverse — a Pop era.”

With some help from the indie-friendly Fanatic Promotion company, music blogs began to buzz, followed by a favorable review on the taste-making Pitchfork Web site.

“That was a huge push,” Gillis says, “and everything has just continued rolling since then.”

And at roughly 7 a.m. on June 19, it rolled to the next stage of Girl Talk’s career. That was the moment when Feed the Animals was released online as a pay-what-you-want download, a variation of the much-touted model successfully employed by Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. Customers choosing to pay $5 or more received an additional single-track lossless-audio version; those paying $10 were offered a physical copy when it became available; those paying zero had to answer a brief questionnaire explaining why they want it for free.

Holding the tail of this tiger, after a sleepless night of last-minute tweaks, was Philo T. Farnsworth, proprietor of the Illegal Art label.

“People ask us what the average price that people are paying, but it’s hard to collect all that information and say what’s really happening. But it seems really positive,” Farnsworth says a week later by phone. (His real name, like Gillis’ once was, is a secret.) “It’s exposing a lot of people to Girl Talk who wouldn’t ordinarily have come out and paid full price for a CD.”

In fact, while most of the paying customers were shelling out at either the $5 or $10 price-points — rather than a random figure — Farnsworth says, “A lot of people are getting it for free.”

That doesn’t trouble Gillis, who says he makes his living off his live shows and that “putting out the albums is definitely not a financial thing.” Citing the sensitive legal issues surrounding the album, Farnsworth won’t reveal sales numbers or even say how sales compare to Night Ripper. (The fact that he plans to implement pay-what-you-want for future releases, however, suggests that the album is producing some revenue.)

According to Farnsworth, the label is trying to avoid a large sales spike in hopes of staying just below the radar — which explains the spread-out download, CD and vinyl release dates.

Of course, some of this is calculated mystique. Both Farnsworth’s pseudonym and the label’s name are intended as jokes — riffs on the music’s perceived outlaw status.

“Creating a pseudonym and pretending like we’re hiding is all part of that,” Farnsworth says. “But if someone really wanted to find us, it’s not like we have offshore accounts.”

It might yet come to that.

Already, Gillis been less than pleased with some of the recent attention he’s received. Prominent articles in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have “contacted people that I’d sampled to see what they thought about it. In my eyes, at least, it’s like trying to out the small guy.”

While some respondents, like Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton, seemed pleased (“It is an honor to collaborate with Busta Rhymes,” Patton said), as a result of the Wall Street Journal article a representative for The Guess Who promised to “chase it down.”

“It pissed me off a little bit,” Gillis says of the reporting. “(It) seemed a little crazy for them to give them a heads-up unnecessarily. … It seemed like they were trying to create a controversy there that didn’t exist.”

In fact, though, the legal issues surrounding the album are unresolved. Gillis and Illegal Art maintain that his music is covered by the “fair use” doctrine. Fair use allows replication of copyrighted materials within certain parameters, mainly commentary and review. (Fair use is why we were able to quote the UGK lyrics earlier in this story.)

“There’s an argument to be made that it’s fair use,” says attorney Christopher Bradstreet, who practices entertainment law and litigation in Rochester, N.Y., and manages two nationally touring indie bands. But the only way to know for sure is to go to court. If that happened, Gillis would have at least two strikes against him: His use of the music is commercial — he’s making money from his use of the copyrighted material — and many of his samples are easily recognizable.

Howard Hertz, a Detroit-based entertainment attorney whose clients have included Marilyn Manson and Eminem (whom Girl Talk samples) says a fair-use defense is a long shot. He cites a 2005 case, Bridgeport Music vs. Dimension Films, in which a movie soundtrack used a two-second sample from “Get Off Your Ass and Jam” by George Clinton and the Funkadelics. In ruling against the filmmakers, a federal appeals court asked, “If you cannot pirate the whole sound recording, can you ‘lift’ or ‘sample’ something less than the whole? Our answer to that question is in the negative.”

But Gillis and Farnsworth aren’t just relying on a courtroom defense. They’re also putting their faith in the court of public opinion.

“Public perception will be very negative toward someone who goes after” Girl Talk, Farnsworth surmises.

He cites a compilation Illegal Art released in 1998 entitled Deconstructing Beck, comprised entirely of unauthorized samples from Beck’s music. Beck’s representatives threatened legal action, then backed off. Farnsworth’s theory is that they realized “what does he have to gain by taking our profits from that or shutting us down? The negative PR far outweighs that.”

In the event of a court battle, Farnsworth says, several people have offered to defend the label pro bono, such as “the Stanford Fair Use Center, who would like to see a test case go to court.” And he hopes the overwhelmingly positive responses from music critics could prove important testimony in a case.

Hertz says there’s a lot on the line for both sides if Feed the Animals goes to court. If Girl Talk won the day, he says, “I think it would destroy our copyright system unless the court severely limited the length of a permitted sample without a license.”

And if Girl Talk loses? Hertz says courts can award up to $150,000 for infringement. On an album consisting of 300 samples, Girl Talk’s potential liability is $45 million.

In any case, Farnsworth thinks the industry is too occupied with illegal file-sharing to bother coming after Girl Talk.

“They have a much clearer case against people who are file-sharing and copying things than something that’s solved in a more legal grey area,” he says. “Sampling was a battle they seemed more engaged in, in the 1990s, but the battle for this decade has been downloading.”

And Gillis, at least, says he’s tired of having his music characterized as a “lawsuit waiting to happen.”

“On a very simplistic level, I just want to release these records and I want people to hear them as music,” he says. “I’m happy to talk about the copyright, it’s very interesting to me, but sometimes it’s frustrating.”

But perhaps on some level what Gillis hopes to avoid isn’t controversy but the resolution of it. Because it’s nice to be wanted — in either sense of the word.

••• Audio outlaws •••

One part of Girl Talk’s fame, Gillis admits, is that “there’s definitely a component there of seeming like an outlaw, and I think that appeals to some people.” He himself felt the attraction early on: “It’s always interesting to mess with the big sources and kinda play with these untouchable characters, and that was cool about Negativland. I’m sure that aspect of my work appeals to some people on that level.”

Playing fast and loose with copyright law might seem a pretty tame sort of transgression — whatever happened to sex, drugs and Rock & Roll? But Gillis’ appeal, perhaps, speaks to the preoccupations of a new generation raised online, and he might be just the sort of celebrity it fosters.

Pop-culture theorist Shelton Waldrep, for one, sees Girl Talk and the mash-up scene as “maybe the biggest underground movement since the ’90s (Rave scene), but rather than the onus of drugs it has the onus of legality to deal with. It’s sort of like the revenge of the nerds.”

Waldrep, an associate professor in the English department at the University of Southern Maine, in Portland, has studied everything from casino architecture to queer theory and celebrity and is the author of The Aesthetic of Self-Invention: Oscar Wilde to David Bowie. He’s also a fan of Night Ripper — burned for him, naturally, by a student who thought he should hear it.

When Girl Talk “finally blows up,” Waldrep says, it “will be a really important test case for this whole genre or metagenre of music.”

For young music fans who’ve grown up with the Internet and file-sharing, Gillis’ music might be seen as “a kind of forbidden document or text in the way they might when they download music and put together their own discs.” Part of the appeal, Waldrep adds, is the transgression of the gap between the original artists’ intent and consumer use, in this case, by Gillis — “the revenge of the user of the product over the artist, in a way.”

Yet for all Girl Talk’s cultural relevance, Waldrep isn’t that sure Gillis is really making art, illegal or otherwise.

Waldrep wonders whether Girl Talk’s sonic collages are popular because they reference already-famous music — “in which case, they are about stardom itself, or celebrity or branding” — or because Gillis actually has manipulated them into something really new.

“Does mash-up just represent a sort of continuation of Brahms doing a variation on Hayden or famous musicians like Beethoven taking themes from less well-known musicians?” he asks.

Girl Talk is having it both ways, Waldrep points out. On the one hand, Gillis’ samples are intended to be identified and thus take much of their meaning — and perhaps their success — from that recognition. Yet at the same time Gillis wants the credit for reframing that meaning, too.

The question goes back another celebrated Pittsburgh native: Pop artist Andy Warhol.

“What happened in the ’60s is a kind of collapsing of those two things,” Waldrep says. “You’ve got the Andy Warhol soup-can effect.”

When Warhol did a celebrity portrait, Waldrep asks, “is it famous because it’s of Marilyn Monroe, which is already a kind of commodity, or does he do something to make her image new again through his technique or his color?”

Waldrep has doubts about Girl Talk falling under fair use but admits it’s a complicated doctrine.

“I don’t know what they’ll do with him,” he says with a laugh. But he’s confident that Gillis is just the tip of a subcultural iceberg.

“It’s everyone wanting to manipulate music and video and technology and the Internet and Apple computers and all the tools we have for doing that now,” he says. “But it’s also a kind of movement or underground aesthetic that may be bubbling underneath the surface of the mainstream right now, in what seems to be a fairly blah time in music. This might be one of the important kind of changes that we don’t yet fully see.”

Taking in the best- and worst-case scenarios, Gillis says the future looks bright. Even if fans and critics hated Feed the Animals, he would be able to keep touring for another year or so, he estimates — and that would be fine.

“I’m sure I’m going to make music forever, but I don’t really have long-term goals associated with this,” he says. “Because it’s so youthful, it’s really about embracing right now. I’d be happy just riding this out and then going back to a job.”

But if all goes well, “I don’t know what the upper limit of this would be,” he says. “I could move forward and make new music and I should be able to play shows for at least a few more years. I’m 26 now, and by the time I’m 30 I don’t think I’d want to be doing the same exact style shows.”

In the meantime, he’s just gotten his hands on some rare Nirvana multi-track recordings that he’s itching to mangle. And piece back together into something new.

GIRL TALK plays Bogart's on Sunday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here. A version of this story was originally published in Pittsburgh City Paper.