Fame, fortune and globetrotting was the furthest thing from Gillis' mind however when he began taking snippets of top 40 tracks and mashing them up into lively re-contextualized nuggets. Gillis was enrolled in Cleveland's prestigious Case Western University and biomedical engineering was his focus at the time he began releasing work under the pseudonym Girl Talk.
Gillis released two albums while at Case Western -- 2002's Secret Diary and 2003's Unstoppable -- and toured with his sample-loaded project while on summer and winter breaks. He went on to graduate from Case Western and landed a job as a biomedical researcher, all the while rocking the socks off art galleries and house parties on the weekends with his mashups.
"I never saw it as a viable profession," Gillis tells New Times about his sizzling music career. We caught up with the affable computer music whiz when he was relaxing at home in his native Pittsburgh. "I'd book a tour, jump in a van, and aim at breaking even," said Gillis about his early stages. For him, making music was not about "making a dime," but rather "fucking shit up."
The artists Gillis looked up to -- such as glitch DJ Kid606 and multi-layered electro-acoustic rocker Fennesz -- were not raking in the dough, so he didn't think twice about seeking notoriety, he was simply content with pushing the envelope, musically, in front of five to thirty people at a time. "The shows I was doing back then, basement spaces and art galleries, were not a sign of failure to me, they were what I thought the Girl Talk project was intended for."
Gillis had a passion for making music without any career ambitions intertwined. "Never was it a case where I said to myself, 'ah man, the music thing is not working out, I better get a day job,' I always planned on having a day job." However, despite all of Gillis studies in structural analysis, kinematics, and dynamics, he hypothesized wrong on the potential popularity of his mishmashes. His third album, Night Ripper, took off like gangbusters on the internet.
Almost overnight, the audiences Gillis was performing for began to snowball in size. Art galleries turned into nightclubs, nightclubs into international festival gigs. "I didn't make the decision to leave my engineering job, the demand for Girl Talk grew so much that it was impossible for me to do both."
To some it certainly seemed like an overnight success story, but Gillis was six years into his music career when Night Ripper broke and he had to hang up his laboratory goggles for good (technically we do not know if biomedical engineers really wear goggles, but you get the idea).
Considering Girl Talks' multi-layered, methodical dispensing of samples, we wondered if Gillis' engineering background played a role in what he does stylistically? "The way I approached music is very connected to the engineering mindset," says Gillis, who tells us he didn't have any kind of formal musical training. "My song-crafting is very trial-and-error based, much more a scientific process and less traditional."
Nowadays Gillis spends more than half the year on the road, but becoming an electro-troubadour hasn't enticed him to leave the 'Burg (as he calls his hometown of Pittsburgh). "I've never seen the advantage of moving to L.A. or New York, for me the heart of Girl Talk is what happens on the road, not where I'm based out of." And, since Pittsburgh, PA, named December 7 "Gregg Gillis Day" back in 2010, we'd say he is certainly beloved in his birthplace.
"I always speak highly of Pittsburgh and believe my experiences here have helped paved the way for my success. I think city officials acknowledge that and the fact that I never left."
Something else that audiences would acknowledge about Gillis is that he gives astoundingly energetic performances. Given his notoriously raucous and high energy shows -- dude literally goes bonkers on stage, hopping around next to his gear like a maniac -- we wondered how his laptops survive such a pummeling of fervor? "I'm using a Panasonic Toughbook now and it has proven to be extremely rugged, the military and cops use them." Gillis tells us he used to break computers at gigs all the time, going through four or five a year, but his shows are a lot more organized than they used to be. Former instances of "someone vomiting on his computer or a high heel slamming into his computer screen," have gone down significantly.
For added protection, Gillis wraps his devices with Glad Wrap. He describes it as "a little computer condom that keeps all liquids out... You got to understand," Gillis explains " I sweat out a small pool every single show, I really like to push myself to the limit on stage."
Gillis is coming off two beat-riveting performances at Indio, California's indie festival Coachella, and is scheduled for a set on the FPL stage at SunFest on Saturday, May 5.
About performing in South Florida, Gillis says he loves it. "It always feels like I'm on vacation when I play down there," said Gillis. "Definitely a unique part of the United States, in much of its own world, it has its own culture."
We hear Girl Talk performances these days encompass a serious light show, impromptu dancers, and toilet paper cannons. What can South Florida dance-aficionados expect from his performance in West Palm Beach? According to Gillis everything mentioned above and then some. "We have brought an arsenal of things we intend to use." Gillis promises us we will be impressed with the custom LED show he has been setting up for the stage. "In general, we go full-blown at every single show."
Girl Talk performs at Sunfest May 5. 9:30 pm. One Day Pass Cost $35. 525 Clematis Street West Palm Beach. Call (561) 659-5980 or visit www.sunfest.com.