Feed the Animals: A Look Back at the Colgate Girl Talk Concert

Harry Raymond

The day of the show, the Colgate campus was buzzing with excitement. The Publicity Club had designed posters hanging all over campus. Just after sunrise, SCOPE (Student Committee on Providing Entertainment) set up the small stage and the rented sound equipment at the Academic Quad. Nine hundred Colgate students had responded “absolutely attending” to the Facebook invitation. When the concert organizer, junior Jake Epstein, applied for the show, he told the Colgate administration he expected attendance of between 500 and 1,000 people. He was wrong. Hundreds of students from Cornell, Syracuse, Buffalo and Hamilton showed up early to ensure a good view with concert-goers arriving five hours before the show was scheduled to start. Certain groups of people stood out in the forming crowd. One couple looked like they were still stuck in the 1960s with long, stringy hair, too old to be wearing bandanas. Four teenage friends dressed in black sat near the stage, listening to iPods with just one ear phone in. It was not the usual Colgate crowd. Epstein estimates more than 2,000 people showed up. One of the three heads of SCOPE, senior Steven Butler, reflected on the event.

“We had no idea [the crowd] was just going to decimate a section of the quad,” Butler said.

In April 2008, Butler, Epstein and senior Liz Le sat in an office of WRCU, the college radio station. They are the core of SCOPE. If you visit SCOPE’s website, it looks like a high school student put it together in about an hour. The home page proudly states that SCOPE is a Colgate organization “dedicated to bringing independent bands to campus.” SCOPE has long been overshadowed by CAB (Colgate Activities Board), and everyone in the room knows it. CAB has more money, more volunteers and bigger shows.

SCOPE had already decided they were going to have a big show for “Welcome Back Week” in August, but the artist had yet to be decided. These three people know music better than almost anyone on campus. They throw out ideas. Many of the ideas are either jokes or economically impossible. They discuss recent shows, both success and failures.

“The Spring Party Weekend show with GZA was great while OK Go, well, was pretty whack,” Epstein says. A Grammy-award winning pop rock band, OK Go had just played what was supposed to be the biggest concert of the year on the biggest party weekend of the year but it was poorly attended.

“We could have gotten a ten times more talented artist for that price,” Epstein says. Then, in a moment of cliché epiphany, Epstein realized what they needed was Girl Talk.

A younger and relatively unknown Girl Talk had played at Colgate a year earlier. Epstein brought him to play what became a “ridiculously well-attended” show at the Creative Arts House.

“[He] killed a bottle of Jack and then broke the ceiling during the act,” Epstein recalls. “He was body surfing and just broke the tiles. It was insane.” That insanity is what makes Girl Talk so appealing to “party-hard” Colgate students and why the SCOPE members left their office that afternoon so excited.

“Colgate wanted to see him again so we brought him again,” Epstein says. Four months later, after countless calls to agents and promoters, Girl Talk was booked. Butler elaborates on the choice.

“We wanted a big artist and a big venue and we got it. This was the show that was going to make a name for SCOPE.” But it didn’t turn out that way.

The crowd had filled half of the massive academic quad. The show was supposed to have started five minutes earlier. The crowd was already restless. People pushed their way closer to the stage just to get a better view. They wanted to get a better look at the infamous Girl Talk, who had been talked about so much around campus in the previous week. But Girl Talk was nowhere to be found. With each passing minute, the crowd grew more restless. They wanted Girl Talk. Now.

Gregg Gillis is Girl Talk. Friday afternoons are when offices become less productive, as everyone starts thinking about the weekend. However, there’s still an hour before employees can leave their cubicles, an hour before they can stop crunching medical research data, an hour before their weekend begins. For twenty-six year old biomedical engineer, Greg Gillis, his cubicle is already empty. He has slipped out of work early as he does every Friday. His co-workers have no idea where he goes. He’s not trying to make the first pitch for that night’s Pittsburgh Pirates game and he’s definitely not firing up the grill with his buddies. Gillis is flying somewhere to play yet another packed weekend gig. Like Clark Kent stepping out of a phone booth, each weekend Gillis becomes his alter ego. He becomes Girl Talk.

Gillis leads the new age of mash-up as an art form. In 2004, Danger Mouse popularized the phenomenon with the release of The Grey Album, a mash-up of Jay-Z’s The Black Album and the Beatle’s The White Album. The success of The Grey Album, along with the continued digitization of the music industry, created a new wave of mash-up artists. However, Gillis has taken the art of the mash-up to a new level. His recent 54-minute album, Feed the Animals, is a fast-paced audio collage of more than 300 samples from top artists in pop, rock and rap.

“His life is listening to music. He just sits in his basement for weeks, just listening to music,” Epstein says enviously. One minute of track takes Gillis approximately one day of mixing on his laptop in his basement. The result is an energizing musical experience. On Feed the Animals, the fourth track alone includes samples from the Jackson 5, The Police, Phil Collins, Beyoncé, 50 Cent, Rihanna, Wutang Clan and 28 other artists. One track.

“In his car he had CDs from Three 6 Mafia, Kelly Clarkson, and The Strokes. Just the most random artists but that’s what he does, he makes the random organized,” Epstein says.

The New York Times called Gillis a “lawsuit waiting to happen.” The 300 samples also mean 300 potential copyright lawsuits. Gillis claims he is protected by the “fair use” doctrine which allows for replication of copyrighted materials for commentary and review. There is little precedent for a case like this because no mash-up artist has ever warranted the attention of a lawsuit. As Gillis’ popularity grows so does the potential for lawsuits. For SCOPE, everything was riding on this “stolen” art form.

“People criticize him for using other people’s material but his albums are awesome to listen to and you can’t argue; he gets the party started,” Epstein says. Butler admits there is something strange about a group dedicated to independent music having so much riding on a mash-up artist.

“It’s essentially a guy up there pushing the play button from something he has made before and just, sort of, dancing around.” Butler adds, “Sometimes I wonder if I could have just put on a CD and pretended to be Girl Talk.”

The pressure from the restless crowd and the weight of the sound equipment caused a few clamps to fall off. Those clamps were supporting the weight of the stage.

“We could see from the back that sh** was going bad,” Butler remembers, feeling completely helpless the night of the concert. From his view point, he could see the stage partially collapse on the left side. The restless crowd on the other side had no idea. SCOPE was able to fix the stage but they knew it was not stable. A group of five or six varsity hockey players volunteered to help with crowd control, pleading with the restless crowd to “take three giant steps back or there will be no show.” The excited crowd did not listen.

“Not even the biggest people at Colgate could push the crowd back,” Epstein says. This is the type of atmosphere on which Gillis thrives.

Colgate has a unique social culture. Hamilton, New York is remote and cold, which is one explanation for why Colgate students love to drink. Princeton Review ranked Colgate tenth in its list of “Schools with Lots of Beer,” an impressive feat for a school of Colgate’s size.

“The biggest problem with Colgate students is they are focused on the pre-game instead of the actual game,” Epstein explains. This philosophy does not create a concert culture that serious music buffs like Butler and Epstein crave.

“Colgate is about party-based shows,” Butler says. Looking like a person who has come to grips with an unfortunate reality, Epstein sighs and reflects.

“Colgate students are just looking to dance. They’re not looking to admire some dude’s guitar skills,” Epstein says. The poorly attended OK Go concert helped prove Butler and Epstein’s theory. So did the massive crowd that filled the Colgate academic quad to see a DJ press a play button.

Gillis began to play about an hour and a half late. He looked like a wizard standing over his cauldron trying to add just the perfect ingredient to his magic party potion. Was it rat hair or lizard scales? Was it Cher or Three 6 Mafia? He pushed a button and a pre-recorded mix of a Jay-Z and Daft Punk burst through the speakers. Then, the speakers blew out. SCOPE frantically worked on fixing the speakers. The show had to be stopped three times to restore sound equipment that Gillis was promising the crowd was “to the max.” But people in the back of the crowd had trouble hearing. In his contract, Gillis explicitly stated that there could not be a barrier between him and the crowd.

“His DJ philosophy is why aren’t there ten people up on stage with me right now,” Butler acknowledges, adding, “He DJs to party.” Thirty minutes into his set, he invited people to dance on stage. The weight of the enthusiastic partiers was too much for the stage to handle. It collapsed and, this time, for good. With a smile on his face, Gillis grabbed his laptop and leaped off the rubble, vanishing into the summer night like a phantom. For his own safety, he took refuge in a nearby cop car.

“The night of the show we thought ‘oh my fu**ing God the stage fell apart. This is an absolute nightmare. I just want to forget it. This could not have gone more poorly,” Butler says.

No one was blamed for what happened at the concert that night. SCOPE met with the administration several times to discuss the event. CLSI (Center for Leadership and Student Involvement) now admits they should have had more security. SCOPE still believes they should have received the $10,000 they requested for a professional stage and sound set up. The Colgate student body’s opinion of the show is still a mystery to SCOPE.

“We have heard nothing about it from the student body,” Butler reflects. With sincere perplexity, Butler adds, “literally no one has mentioned a thing. I was surprised we got no fallout or flack from anyone. It has literally just been crickets.” Epstein speculates that those who were either “inebriated” or close to the stage were the only people who enjoyed the show. To Butler, the show did nothing to help out the organization.

“It seems like there was no positive reaction, no negative reaction. Zero. Our [SCOPE] position on campus has not changed. Our notoriety remains the same,” Butler says, sighing and running his hand through his long curly hair. “It’s almost as if the show didn’t happen.”

Colgate sophomore Sam Worth had been looking forward to the show for weeks. He owns every Girl Talk album.

“I was really disappointed,” Worth said. The night of the concert, Worth arrived a little late and couldn’t get close enough to hear. “The speakers were so bad that I could barely hear anything.” Colgate sophomore Ben McCabe however had a different opinion.

“It was one of the best concerts I’ve been to at Colgate,” McCabe said. “I was in the third row and it was just an insane mosh pit. It was an awesome show.” It is hard to believe they were at the same concert.

After the crowd slowly dispersed, Gillis, still drenched in sweat but full of excited energy, reappeared from the chaos. A reporter from an Ithaca newspaper wanted an interview. Gillis was wearing a pair of vintage jeans and a red bandana. He made sure he approached the still distressed Epstein. Gillis smiled devilishly and said “that was the greatest show I’ve ever played.”