There really should be a 17-syllable German word for it: the feeling you get when the underground thing you discovered goes mainstream. Suddenly, you can’t get tickets to see the band you’ve been saying should be famous forever. But there’s no way to make something obscure again once it’s gone viral. Or is there?
Enter the Secret Concert. Axe (of body spray fame) has been sponsoring a series of free secret performances by mash-up god Girl Talk (real name: Gregg Gillis). The Axe truck rolls into a town and gives out free tickets to those who found out about it via Axe’s Twitter feed or Facebook page. Voila: The underground is underground again. We caught up with Girl Talk before his final show of the tour (and the year) at the Rock and Roll Hotel this past Saturday to find out whether the secrecy makes it hotter.
So what kind of workout is touring for you? It’s a really physical show, so give me an idea of your typical day before a concert.
I have to stretch the whole day. It’s physically exhausting for me. When I wake up and roll out of bed, I’m limping around, having a hard time walking. I keep it mellow, but I stretch all day long, depending on how much I’m hurting from the night before. And eating at the right times is really important for me, because of the physical nature of the show. If I eat too close to the show I feel like throwing up or I get tired. Usually a couple of hours before the show, I get into performance mode. Wrap the computers with Saran Wrap and have a couple drinks. We keep it pretty mellow until the last second. Once we hit the stage it’s time to transform into a more animal character.
Who’s we? You and the guys at your concerts wielding leafblowers and toilet paper guns? How did they become part of the show?
Their role was undefined at the beginning. They were releasing balloons and confetti, things like that. But they’ve evolved into performers. They reach the crowd in ways I wish I could, if I wasn’t stuck behind a laptop clicking the mouse the whole time. They do the physical props, but they’re also the hype men and women. They jump in the front row a lot and interact with the crowd at a one on one level. And the people on stage — they’re a random group of people every night, so it can be very different. Some nights they’re amazing and other nights they’re more low-key and other nights they’re more drunk. If the guys think it’s not going right, they’ll instigate stuff to push the crowd in the direction they think should be gone.
How do you audition people for that job?
There’s a rotating cast of people that do it, but everyone that does it is a friend of mine of 10 plus years. These are all people that I’ve known, so we’ve been friends but they’ve also seen many Girl Talk show over the years, dating back to playing shows in basements with 10 people. So they know where it’s come from and what it’s become. There’s no need to define what needs to be done; they know exactly what I want out of the show. They’re basically my best friends.
Do they help you come up with ideas for things to do during shows?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of the prop things are crafty things that they come up with. They’re definitely skilled craftsmen. Sometimes we’ll buy a balloon drop net, but they’ve built them. They built little parachute things where you could throw t-shirts out and they’d parachute down.
Are they going to build you a jet pack?
We’ve definitely discussed a jet pack before. I don’t know if I’d officially trust them to build a jet pack. Maybe. They’re skilled, but that would be some next-level engineering on their part.
How has the fact that these shows are barely advertised affected the kind of audience you get?
This filters it down to more hardcore, enthusiastic fans. A handful of the shows on this tour stand out as the best shows of the entire year. All of these shows have been really crazy. There are very few shows that I play that I wouldn’t call crazy, but at these shows the bar has been raised in terms of positive energy. People feel fortunate for being there.
This tour isn’t connected to an album like your last one was. How does that affect the music you choose to play?
The live show is always changing, small piece by small piece. Every week I try to change a few things. Sometimes when I’m working on new material, cutting up a new melody, sometimes it’ll work really well with a piece that may have been on “Night Ripper” in 2006, and I’m just discovering it now. It’s exciting to do remixes of the remix. On this tour, a couple mistakes I made early on the week, I liked and I started doing them every show. That’s how the shows evolve, and all of that impacts the albums.
Are you working on another album now?
The work I put into the shows will definitely result in something for a future album, but that’s a different thing in my mind from “working on an album,” when I’m actually editing it together piece by piece. I had some time off in November and was working on a lot of sample stuff that I don’t imagine playing live any time soon. I don’t know if that will result in a different style album, but I have some ideas about how the next release might be a bit of a left turn. But that was the first time I was working on cutting up samples and trying out things that I knew were not going to go over in the live show, more obscure things, not as directly aggressive samples or stuff that was cut up to more heavy extremes. It was liberating, because most of the time I’m thinking about the shows and what’s going to go over well there. I’m excited to see what that will lead to. I have a concrete idea of what I want it to be, but I don’t want to say it out loud yet. It’s definitely outside the box, compared to the last three records. But simultaneously, a lot of the live show is newer material. With any given album, I need to reach a point where I have enough stuff in front of me to see what the album’s going to be. So I’m almost working on two separate projects, and I have to choose which one gets me more excited.
When you started out, your audiences were really wild — people would just rush the stage to dance. Now it’s much more regulated: people are picked out of the crowd beforehand to dance onstage and let on in an orderly (sort of) way. How does that affect the energy of the shows?
The getting on stage thing became more and more well known and it got to the point that it was like a war every night. People were doing anything to get up there and the stage was so crammed you couldn’t move. A lot of shows were ending prematurely; people were being hurt and it lost its original meaning. The shows were getting bigger and I wanted to adapt to that. But also it lost the energy of what it was originally about. We used to say ‘no barricades, no matter what.’ Then we had a barricade and we could get more orchestrated and tighten the show up. We lost some chaos, but the stage isn’t a VIP section. It’s just random kids. And I feel like that’s more similar to what it was like initially, ten years, ago, when I was really trying to put on a spectacle.
Do you think there’s an element of the underground in doing small, secret shows that lets fans reclaim your music when it’s gotten so popular?
That’s part of it, but on top of that there’s just something inherently fun about small shows. There’s something underground about it, a VIP element — which is something we try not to push, but something exclusive is naturally appealing to people. But also you’re experiencing a show at a level that I hope transcends labels like “VIP.” These are special shows. I think big shows can be really fun and really amazing — I went to see the Kanye/Jay-Z tour in Pittsburgh a couple weeks ago, and I thought that show was mind-blowing because they made that arena feel like a club. People were dancing on seats. I wasn’t really planning on dancing, I was planning on chilling and nodding my head, but I lost my mind at that show. They convinced me to go there. But that’s more and more difficult at a larger level. But in a small place, it’s more guaranteed to be insane, and the people who are getting tickets understand that it’ll be distinct from other Girl Talk shows.
How do you feel about increased corporate sponsorship of tours like this? There’s this idea that musicians shouldn’t sell out to the man, but at the same time, you need money to run a tour.
When you grow up in the 90s — there was such an anti-corporate mentality, and I think that’s changed for this generation in a positive way. A lot of that stuff was just blindly disliking something, because it’s big. There’s a value to deciding which companies you don’t want to support. But when it’s “Either we can do this tour the way we want to do it, bring everyone we want to bring with us and make it free for kids — or not do it at all,” I think everyone sees the value of [corporate sponsorship]. I like that “Of Montreal” has no issue with having their song in an Outback Steakhouse commercial. I read an interview with Kevin Barnes [of Of Montreal], and he said “Look, we can do this commercial and our next tour can be way better.” That makes sense. There are bands that our struggling, and if they can get money from companies that want to be associated with them and they have no issue with it, then I think it’s great. Everyone understands advertising, music fans understand.
And there’s a difference between having your tour sponsored or your song in a commercial, and Mountain Dew wanting a band to drink soda in public. You don’t have to stand up onstage and say “Hey, I’m wearing Axe body spray RIGHT NOW.” Do you?
Nah, I wish. But people get it. The advertisers get it, the fans get it. Any festival has corporate sponsorships. To pretend that doesn’t exist is naive. But as someone who grew up loving Public Enemy and Nirvana, there was always a thing in the back of my head, like “Is this wrong?” But I don’t see anything wrong with it whatsoever. Ultimately a bunch of kids are getting a free show. I think that’s cool as hell.