"Is Pittsburgh really a rap city?" the waiter asks, jumping into the table's conversation while refilling water.
Gillis—underdressed even for this casual restaurant, with blue mesh Nike basketball shorts, a red hoodie and Air Jordan 3s—looks up from his sausage, greens and cannellini beans. He's a regular at Zarra's, and the 32-year-old producer best known as Girl Talk reacts without any hint of annoyance.
"It's got two famous rappers from here right now," Gillis says without hesitation. "Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller."
"Mac Miller's white, though," says the waiter. "Really, he's a rapper?"
"He's a rapper," Gillis deadpans.
Unfailingly polite, Gillis can get defensive when it comes to music, especially if it's being dismissed without being understood. Because he's often been misunderstood. The leading practitioner of sample-based electronic music on the planet (he has a T-shirt that reads "I'm Not a DJ"), Girl Talk's sonic tapestries have made Gillis a sought-after headliner everywhere from Coachella to this weekend's MusicfestNW, where he's playing Saturday night at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. But back in his hometown, servers are ready to argue with him.
"Wiz Khalifa, they gave him his own day…I couldn't believe it," the waiter says. "Didn't he just promote kids that killed a bunch of people, stabbed somebody?"
"He definitely didn't promote kids who stabbed anybody. But they also give days every day to about 10 different people," says Gillis, who received his own such day on Dec. 7, 2010, from the Pittsburgh City Council.
"Really? I mean, I'm not knocking his hustle—congratulations, you made it in life—I'm just not that big on violence, hurting people, and drugs," the waiter says.
"He doesn't really talk about violence," Gillis responds. "He definitely talks about weed."
"Well, there's nothing wrong with weed," says the waiter.
Donny, who owns the restaurant, interjects.
"How was everything?" he asks.
That may be because fans are too busy dancing or dodging confetti and toilet paper to look too carefully at the man behind the laptop. Girl Talk shows feature live mixes of his intricate collages, which are made almost entirely of samples: nine seconds of Portishead plus 16 seconds of Miley Cyrus with the guitar hook from the Edgar Winter Groupâs âFrankensteinâ and a Jadakiss verse. If that sounds like a neat party trick, live it looks more like a bumpinâ block party with Nicki Minaj playing on the street where you grew upânostalgia and discovery wrapped into one immaculately mixed package.
By design, his creations are genre-agnostic and blend the critically beloved (Radiohead) with the arguably disposable (âTeach Me How to Dougieâ). To Gillis, thatâs the whole pointâheâs always been a proud pop iconoclast, starting in high school when heâd see the Spice Girls in concert one night, then work the merch booth for an avant-garde electronic act the next.
âPeople are really scared to like the wrong things,â Gillis says. âThereâs these lines that are drawnâthis is smart, this is dumb, this is good, this is bad. You donât like this thing because you donât like the fans of the band, which to me is a bad way to go about it. Thatâs the enemy of music.â
Over the course of a decade, Gillis went from being an arthouse freak to an unlikely festival headliner. His next step seems to be becoming a legitimate producer in the pop world.
The house where Gillis lives with girlfriend Kendall Bieselt; his beagle-basset mix, Wally; and Chloe, also known as âCollective Soul Cat,â who scored 4.5 million YouTube views meowing along to âShine,â sits on the side of a hill in Pittsburghâs well-worn Polish Hill neighborhood. The local watering hole is Gooskiâs, which serves breakfast pierogi, still allows smoking and sells six-packs to go. Gillis doesnât smoke, but he loves the vibe, and the Buzzcocks-heavy jukebox.
Polish Hillâs ubiquitous speckled-brick row houses typically have âno loiteringâ signs in front yards and clotheslines in back. Everywhere, there is a view of a massive Catholic cathedralâseemingly one of Pittsburghâs few big, old churches that hasnât been turned into a club or brewery. About a mile away is the largely black Hill District, where playwright August Wilson chronicled a century of African-American life, winning two Pulitzers.
Gillis is aware of that dichotomyâheâs a white kid from the suburbs who makes his living partly by repurposing black music. Itâs probably why heâs willing to argue about the value of âBlack and Yellowâ rapper Wiz Khalifa, the only man in town who can rival the Steelers as a topic of conversation.
From a barstool at Gooskiâs, where heâs drinking an Iron City Light with a scowling Pittsburgh Pirate on the label, Gillis talks about showmanship, an art heâs been working on since he turned from heel to face.
âIf Wu-Tang shows up on time, for me that sucks,â he says. âItâd be like going to see the Sex Pistols, and Johnny Rotten being nice to everyone. Theyâre performing, and part of the performance is when they show up and the crowd waiting for them.â
Gillis knows how to work his crowdâheâs been doing it for almost 20 yearsâthough his technique has evolved drastically since he was a high-school music geek stirring up trouble. Gillis tweaks his set almost every night, and before taking the stage, he demos the set with a laptop, reviewing everything he plans to play with his lighting guy and the hype men who fire toilet paper from the stage with leaf blowers.
He started on this path at Lollapalooza 1995, the day he met Manny Theiner, a legend of the Pittsburgh underground who was then a writer for the alternative weekly Pittsburgh City Paper. Theiner was there to pass out a zine called Lollapalooza 1995 Does Not Present Pittsburghâs Guide to Underground Music to kids who came for a taste of counterculture.
âA couple of the kids who picked it up are still around doing important stuff today,â Theiner says. âGregg picked up the flier, I guess. I donât remember meeting him until he came and asked to start playing with his band.â
Theinerâa notoriously prickly electronic-music junkie and jazzhead who still runs a venue in Pittsburgh and peppers conversation with frequent references to obscure artists heâs embarrassed youâve never heard of, like the Evolution Control Committee (âMark Gunderson? He did that Public Enemy over Herb Alpert thingâ) and Otto von Schirach (âplayed with Skinny Puppy a bunchâ)âtook Gillis under his wing and on tour.
âTo him, it really boiled down to âI really like this Top 40 shit,ââ Theiner says of Gillis. âHe didnât sit down to write some postmodernist thesis, he just embodied it. It represents his cultureâhe has two sides. One, he really was a music nerd. Two, he really liked pop songs.â
Gillis found himself a regular at Theinerâs Millvale Industrial Theater and palling around with a slightly older local band called Operation Reinformation, a Devo-esque electronica act that influenced Girl Talkâs wild laptop-fueled shows. Gillis and his friend Richard Saporito started a band in the same vein, the Joysticks Battle the Scanned Feed Relay to Your Skull, and started doing shows with earsplitting noise loops, smashable flea-market televisions and smoke bombs.
The Joysticksâ biggest moment came at the Chartiers Valley High School talent show in 2000. Wise to the act, teachers were ready to shut down the show at the first whiff of smoke. Instead, the Joysticks wired their speakers to the PA, put on an hourlong noise loop and stood onstage in borrowed hazmat suits as a slow strobe blinked behind them. In a YouTube video of the incident, the crowd grows increasingly agitated for almost 10 minutes until a teacher cuts the sound and lights. In the dark theater, part of the crowd chants, âEncore!â; the rest chants, âBoring.â At the end, a teacher pronounces it âhorrible.â
To Gillis, itâs a career highlight with a lesson.
âThe guys who were in rock bands really hated usâkids who grew up really playing and knowing their instruments well,â he says. âIâm still not playing instruments. You could really hate what Iâm doing. I almost feel like I gave them really good fodder to hate me now more than ever. âHe doesnât play anything! Heâs sampling music and violating copyrights!â Itâs crazy because so much has gone on, so much crazy shit has happened, but I still think about that night.â
Girl Talk was born a year later, when Gillis went to college at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. For the first time, he had a fast Internet connection, which he used to lard his hard drive with musicâeverything from Squarepusher to Christina Aguilera. Though he was studying biomedical engineering, he made friends at the neighboring art school. He worked on music in his dorm room, then booked his first Girl Talk show at the basement coffee shop at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Thereâd been some confusion: It ended up being a showcase of female acts.
Those early shows bear only a passing resemblance to todayâs Girl Talk concerts.
âThereâd be a big introduction, Iâd glitch out a Britney Spears song and make a wall of noise, then run back and do an outfit change,â Gillis says. âMy friends and I liked experimental noise, but we also watched a lot of MTV.â
In 2002, Gillis released his first album as Girl Talk. Secret Diary is experimental and confrontational, featuring Papa Roach sliced into blip-blops with a beat. Young Girl Talk fans who seek out his early work are often unimpressedâespecially those who ignore the two-star rating and buy it for $6.99 on Amazon.
Two years later, Gillis got the first inkling that he might make music for people outside the arthouse scene. First, he walked into his favorite pizza shop to find they were actually playing his second album, Unstoppable. Then, he was asked to DJ in Brussels, for a club that requested a continuous 20-minute set.
âI was tearing my shirt off and doing Nirvana coversâit didnât go over well,â he says.
But the idea of doing his set as one âreally technical megamixâ stuck. Gillis decided heâd do that for the next album and told his friends and family, none of whom was excited about the idea.
That next album was 2006âs Night Ripper, which proved to be his breakthrough. In the meantime, he graduated from college, got a desk job and continued with his arthouse act. In one of the last Girl Talk shows before he exploded, Gillis karaoked Panteraâs âWalkâ (âAre you talking to me?/ARE YOU TALKING TO ME?!â) five times in a row.
Then, suddenly, he became a success, thanks to a glowing review on Pitchfork. Night Ripper âabsolutely detonates the notions of mash-up,â the music blog of record wrote, as Gillis âpieces together the voracious music fanâs dream: a hulking hyper-mix designed to make you dance, wear out predictable ideas, and defy hopeless record-reviewing.â
Girl Talkâs next big show, in New York, was sold out. Natalie Portman showed up.
âI had a chip on my shoulder about the new instant love,â Gillis says. âIâd been on my grind, and itâs like, âWhy does everyone now like it all of a sudden?â Iâve got a lot of critical love, and itâs helped me, but I still think it can be a really negative thing, that groupthink.â
Onstage, that manifested itself as petulance, with Gillis throwing drinks on people and insulting the crowd. âI was always trying to warm up such a cold crowd, and it was never working,â he says. âAll of a sudden it became warm, and I was like, âI canât just accept this, it feels wrong.â I remember my friends were like, âYou need to cool it out, that was really dark.ââ
The excitement was heightened by the specter of legal trouble. Back then, everyone assumed Gillis would be sued for copyright infringement. The New York Times called his music âa lawsuit waiting to happen.â It never didâGillis has never been sued, though he gets asked about it every day. Instead, heâs settled into life as a studio rat and headliner for sunbaked summer festivalsâand recently, heâs started to further explore the pop universe beyond his bubble.
Right now, everything in Gillisâ life seems pretty comfortable. Heâs got a routine, just like the men in dirty jeans who congregate around a cooler at a neighboring house, which has been gutted for use as a workshop. âThese guys are holding it down so hard,â he says. âThey pound beers all day, but they get shit done.â
Gillis has always been a night owl, usually sleeping until 1 pm, then working until 5 am. Left to his own devices, heâll put in 14-hour days, stopping only to microwave a Lean Cuisine, shoot hoops at the park or play Nintendo. Even 16-bit video games are subject to his obsessive mind: Gillis and his friend J.P., also an engineer by training, play NBA Jam as the Golden State Warriors (âIâm always Tim Hardaway, a defensive specialistâ) while listening to Juicy Jâs Rubba Band Business Mixtape 2. They call out numbered plays, with the goal of blowing out the computer 100-0. âYouâre not supposed to be able to blow out the computer with assist mode on, since it makes you miss your shots, but we did,â Gillis says.
His secondary goal is to not wake up girlfriend Bieselt, who runs a boutique on the south side of Pittsburgh and is the nanny to two small children. Sheâs into emo and has a tattoo of Jimmy Eat World lyrics. Like Gillis, sheâs notably indifferent to whatâs considered cool.
âIâve never been aiming to hit that cool new sound,â Gillis says. âIâve always wanted to exist in my own lane. In 2006, I was that cool thing. That was never the goal, and I think you can see that from the beginning. Now, this project exists on its own terms. Itâs not really cool, itâs not uncool, itâs just its own thing.â
Getting there meant getting through the whole cycle of popularity: first hipsters, then bros, then kids. Now, thereâs a whole group of longtime fans who bootleg shows and can tell when heâs played something new. He hasnât dropped a new album in four years, and heâs sitting on more material than ever. The new album wonât come out until he thinks itâs flawless.
But that doesnât mean Gillis isnât open to new and different projects. He recently collaborated with Freeway, a Philadelphia rapper left in the lurch when Jay-Zâs label imploded, and whoâs widely considered underrated and underplayed. For their six-song, 18-minute EP, Broken Ankles, released earlier this year, Gillis asked Freeway to redo some verses five or six times until they were as tight as possible before matching them to his beats. It was a nice breakâbecause compared to a Girl Talk album, basic production is easy.
Gillis gets a glimmer in his eye when discussing the potential for producing a radio hitâperhaps the ultimate evolution for the talent-show flop-turned-coffeehouse iconoclast-turned-festival headliner.
âIt could definitely happen,â says Freeway. âHeâs good, man. I mean, Iâm sitting on a bunch of material that was great but didnât fit the EP.â
Theiner, Gillisâ old mentor, is more skeptical.
âWhat would Girl Talk have to do to be an actual pop star?â he asks. âWell, heâd have to get played on the radio like everyone else; heâd have to get featured in major media outlets besides Pitchfork and The New York Times. If heâs going to function in that world, heâs got to be more of a Timbaland and less of a mash-up guy.â
Which, someday, he might. âI love pop music, so making a hit would be so fucking cool,â Gillis says.
More than anything, though, heâs excited for the day when he no longer likes pop music, when heâs the old man at the Italian restaurant griping about the kids today.
âIâm always excited for the walls to crumble,â he says. âWhoâs going to break the rules and take it to the next level? Thatâs the thing that gets me excited about music. Iâm looking forward to being so out of touch and like, âI donât get this at all!ââ