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Coachella: To Girl Talk's Gregg Gillis, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

April 14, 2009 |  4:46 pm


The former biomedical engineer composes songs that sample the catchiest on the Top 40. His instrument: a computer.

On the opening 15 seconds of "In Step," a track from Girl Talk's latest album, "Feed the Animals," Gregg Gillis, the male musician who works under the unusual moniker, crosses the bass line from Roy Orbison's "You Got It" with the vocal line of Drama's "Left, Right, Left" and adds in a few lines of looped kick drum from Jermaine Stewart's "We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off." By the end of the song, he's sampled Fergie, Michael Jackson, the Beach Boys and a dozen other artists.

It's difficult to imagine what it would cost for the licenses to use that material -- Gillis certainly can't. He's one of free culture's most colorful icons, and the title of his most recent full-length collection captures his general attitude toward the sorts of authority figures that worry about copyright law. He willfully ignores the rules and is perfectly comfortable rattling cages.

Of the 322 samples he deploys on "Feed," almost all are recognizable Top 40 songs, and precisely none is used with the copyright owner's permission.

Since 2006, Gillis, who has no formal music training, has released two popular albums, received considerable media attention and played hundreds of shows around the country, including at major gatherings like Lollapalooza and the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where he'll perform Friday. But he's managed to avoid legal skirmishes over artistic and intellectual property.

"It's three years later, so it's not something I can lose sleep over every night," he said on the phone from his Pennsylvania home. "It's something I think about, and it's part of the music. It's implied in all of the music, but at this point we haven't had any issues."

Not that it's much of a legal defense, but publicity is expensive and Gillis is a walking advertisement for the last four decades of pop music: His albums sound like a jukebox that's put on five chart-topping records at the same time.

Gillis, 27, quit his job as a biomedical engineer a couple of years ago to compose and perform full time. He said he makes about 10% of his income from selling his music online. His label, Illegal Art, is offering "Feed the Animals" for download on its website; fans can pay any price they would like for the collection.

The rest of his living comes from a grueling performance schedule, during which Gillis upends convention by allowing audience members to jump onstage and dance around him; often he'll be swallowed in the commotion only to emerge, shirtless, to take a swan dive.

He arrives to shows with nothing more than a waterproof laptop that he uses to trigger and loop his vast catalog of samples, like playing an instrument, sort of.

"Gregg is playing your brain," said filmmaker Brett Gaylor, a friend of Gillis' who featured the Pittsburgh-based artist in "RiP," a new documentary about remix culture. "He's playing your memories and your emotions. He's combining a song you made out with a girl to for the first time with a song that was playing when you were driving down the street in your first car."

Girl Talk's endless devouring and regurgitation of the pop music lexicon makes him a kind of hero to copyright skeptics like Gaylor -- those who believe that remix and reinterpretation are the main ways culture is generated. The "copyleft" movement decries the U.S. system of copyright as an outmoded framework that enables corporate entities to wall off the most popular works of art and entertainment.

Whether Gillis' original collages of recycled material are truly new is a question without a real answer. "He has a considerable amount of skill and creativity," said Ben Sheffner, who has worked as a litigator on behalf of 20th Century Fox and NBC Universal. "That said, doing it without a license is walking on very thin ice."

One artist's infringement is another's homage. On his album "Night Ripper," Gillis sampled the dreamy opening piano chords of 1992's "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover" by Sophie B. Hawkins.

"When I was writing the song," Hawkins said, "just looping those chords on the piano is exactly what I did. I thought he used them beautifully. He's really an artist, and I felt complimented."

--David Sarno

Photo: David A. DeNoma/For The Times