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Pittsburgh DJ Girl Talk mixes up familiar music into a whole new dance party

A lot has changed since Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, last played a show in Knoxville. Way back in 2003, Gillis was working as a biomedical engineer through the week in his hometown of Pittsburgh and traveling on weekends to play shows for small crowds. He had released an album on his own Illegal Art label, but it was only the beginning.

"Yeah, I played the Pilot Light in probably 2003 and it was a cool show," say Gillis in a phone interview from his apartment in Pittsburgh. "There were maybe 20 or 30 people there and I remember there was some sort of street fair within walking distance of the club, like some fun all-day outside Knoxville event, and I just walked around and then I did the show. It was a lot of fun."

Since then, Girl Talk has transformed into a one-man party monster equipped with a laptop and thousands of samples and loops. Since 2006's breakthrough album Night Ripper, Gillis has been selling out headlining tour dates around the globe and remixing indie and mainstream heavyweights alike, including Grizzly Bear, Peter Bjorn and John, and Of Montreal. Girl Talk has played the festival circuit, including Coachella and Chicago's Pitchfork Festival.

But is all this attention a case of Girl Talk catching up with the times or the times catching up with Girl Talk? Well, maybe both. Much like Night Ripper, initially an Internet-only release based on reworkings and juxtapositions of hundreds of unlicensed samples, Girl Talk's latest release, Feed the Animals (already available on the Web and scheduled for physical release later this month) prominently features more than 300 samples from top 40 radio and classic rock mixed with some more obscure classics. It keeps the party thumping without sounding instantly dated like your typical mash-up fare; Gillis' approach is much more subtle and refined, and comes from a true love of music.

"Playing around with top 40 music as an instrument is something I've always been interested in," he says. "For me, I'm a big, sincere fan of everything I sample, and I like listening to the radio and going to Best Buy and picking up a major label release. As far as the music goes, I really am trying to keep the source material recognizable but make it transformative. So when people come out and they're not traditional top 40 fans, or I am playing at underground clubs, I almost take it as a compliment. I don't want to get up there and just play top 40 songs. I want to make new, interactive music out of it."

And Girl Talk performances have taken on a life of their own, which seems like it should be a challenge for a guy on stage with a laptop. But Gillis plays to crowds of all sizes, and somehow it just works. "I like to break it down and not have any barriers between the performance and the audience and just make it as huge a celebration as possible," he says.

Speaking of big crowds, Gillis cites his experience at 2007's Bonnaroo as his favorite festival performance. He was scheduled just after the Police on a separate stage and didn't expect the crowds to turn up.

"When I was setting up there were, like, only 30 people in front of the stage 30 minutes before my set. And I was like, ‘OK, that's fine. No one is going to show up.' It wasn't really a big deal. I just assumed everyone would be stuck at the Police the whole time. But once I started playing, it filled in and I thought the energy was great. People were just there to have a good time. It was definitely one of the only festivals I've played where people in the back were getting as crazy as the people in the front. It was basically just the biggest party I've ever played. It was a wonderful experience for me."

Gillis sounds amazingly grounded and not jaded for someone who travels the world and shares the stage with legendary performers.

"For a while I was shocked every single week," he says. "It was like, ‘You're in Rolling Stone this week.' Or, ‘You actually sold out a headlining show.' Everything was crazy and it really hasn't stopped.

"But I've become very used to being shocked. Like, I was playing at some festival in Europe this summer and I got to play directly after Neil Young. It's ridiculous. There's just no other way to describe it. It's totally amazing and I love it, but it's just one part of many things that keeps me going."