While growing up in Melbourne, Australia, multi-instrumentalist Wouter ‘Wally’ De Backer was always playing live music in bands, but after high school, he found himself without a band and alone in a house with some new technology and some old records (donated by an elderly neighbor who knew he loved music). From those seeds grew Gotye (pronounced ‘go-tea-yay’ and based on the French translation of Wouter), a project that began with a new-found love of sampling but recently leapt into the consciousness of music fans around the world via the incredible success of “Somebody That I Used To Know” -- Wally's collaboration with fellow Melbourne-based artist Kimbra as featured on the latest Gotye album, Making Mirrors.
The song is everywhere, the video recently passed 70 million YouTube views, and the album just helped Gotye sweep the Australian Recording Industry Awards (ARIAs) winning Single of the Year, Video of the Year, and Best Male Artist. On the crest of that wave, Wally recently sat down with Buzzine’s Stefan Goldby in the Hollywood Hills to chat about found sounds, high aspirations, and an overnight success ten years in the making…
Stefan Goldby: Let’s begin by going back a decade or so to a place where your band had just broken up, you were living in a house that your parents had just moved out of, and had just received the gift of an instant record collection…
Gotye: It’s interesting. When I think back to being between the ages of 16 and 20, when I was playing gigs with my high school band before we broke up, it’s hard for me to remember sort of what it was like…how I approached or felt about live performance. But I think I was mostly interested to make records.
I’d be so aware, when I’d go work with local engineers at, say, cheap rates at local studios, that local punk bands would come in and knock off 20 songs in a day, in a session of four hours, easily. And I’d come in there with the four of us and I’d be like, “Right. Now, I’ve got this one song -- that’s what I want to do...” [Laughs]
That’s the reason I kind of bought a lot of computer equipment… I mean, not even a lot -- I bought one reasonably cheap computer that I could afford, hoping to try to maybe record an album for our band myself, rather than always feeling like we got three-quarters of the way to a good production with our songs at local studios…which was highly ambitious, because it didn’t take long for me to realize that it’s quite difficult to get things to sound good when you’re recording them. [Laughs] But the band broke up around the same time because everyone was going different directions. And yeah, sampling was a real breath of fresh air, I guess…
I was already dabbling with synthesizers and piano and recording my voice, but I had nothing to work with really. I had an SM58 microphone, no pre-amp – just a soundcard to go straight into an old PC. I had Acid Music, which you could say is like a precursor to…well, I use Ableton Live these days. But I was always learning as I went along, getting a lot of tips from friends. A lot of friends were using the same software, similar computers, similar cheap gear, but I just felt really excited once I discovered taking breaks from records -- music to me that I’d never heard of or that I never even knew existed, and using that as a platform to find a new world of sound to manipulate.
SG: Is it that element of discovery that really first turned you on to bringing samples into a world you previously created all by yourself?
G: Yeah, I love it because it can also be exciting, say, looking through patch-banks on a new synthesizer, or starting off with a generic patch and slowly discovering what the functions on the synth can do, tweaking things and seeing what the potential parameters of the sound are, maybe striking on something you think is more original and unique… So it’s the same if I hear a break or an incidental bit of music from a record that just hits me a certain way and I feel like I just want to respond to it. Then I can do something to it that re-contextualizes it or adds it to something else, changes its pitch, turns it into something different enough from what it is originally, then it feels like a similar process to me. It’s responding to something, hearing the potential for doing something else with it, and then trying to turn that into, eventually, a song. But first it’s usually just the fun of sound play.
And there’s all sorts of little different, I don’t know… I suppose they’re emotional responses. I’m not into sampling the way a lot of people do it, in terms of those tips of the hat or as homages to records they really like that are contemporary, or artists they are paying respect to. That’s fun, but I’ve never approached it that way. I feel a bit like the records I love and the artists I idolize are like hallowed ground. I’ve never thought to sample their records really. I mean, I’ve kind of maybe thought about it, but then it doesn’t feel that interesting to me. Those records are great already. I sometimes take a perverse pleasure in finding crap old records [laughs] and trying to make interesting records out of them.
SG: You’ve become immersed in found sound and sampling, but you started in traditional live performance and have oscillated back and forth between the two, between being ‘Gotye’ and being a member of The Basics. At this point, what makes something you’re writing a Gotye track, as opposed to a track for The Basics or anything else?
G: I don’t know, sometimes the line has been more blurred in recent years, I guess. I even had a sort of sample-based track I was developing that I thought was definitely something for the Gotye record, but I started trying to co-write a lyric with Kris [Schroeder] from The Basics on it, and we ended up not quite being able to come up with something that was finished, so it fell by the wayside.
I suppose, for a long time, it was just if something started from a sample-based perspective or from me doing stuff on a computer at home, that was a Gotye track and I would just keep tinkering with it myself until it became something I was interested in.
If it was something I sat down and wrote with the band in mind, or that I wrote on a piano or guitar or a more traditional instrument, I would suggest it to the band and we’d thrash out an arrangement and develop it, or maybe I would just have a verse or a chorus and Kris would add an alternate verse or chorus, so we’d directly collaborate and mash ideas together. So, for a while, the main distinction was just whether it was something I was doing more with technology and sampling, rather than if I was writing the scraps of a song more traditionally in terms of what would divide them…
SG: That music that you’ve been making with technology and sampling has been steadily gaining popularity in Australia over the last six or seven years. Did any of that experience back home prepare you for the global successes of the last few months?
G: Yeah…as you said, it’s a classic overnight success after ten years of work. I’ve never felt unsuccessful in any of the things I’ve pursued with my music. It’s just been the scale has increased, I guess. It’s just that the environment has changed, and there have been constant surprises. It feels like everything has always exceeded my expectations. Maybe I just aim low. [Laughs]
But everything that’s happened with the single ["Somebody That I Used To Know"] has still shocked me sometimes in the last six months. But I think, even with my last record in Australia, which didn’t get a lot of looking internationally, even there, within the first week of it coming out, it started to eclipse my expectations of what it would do or what it would mean for my opportunities to play live or to make more music, or find an audience – things like that. So it’s been a pretty steady momentum, I guess, that’s been upwards, seemingly. It’s been a nice trajectory! [Laughs]
SG: That trajectory with Making Mirrors began with you spending many, many, many, many hours in a barn over the course of a couple of years. Are there any moments that stand out most in your mind as the defining ones from the creation of this new album?
G: Well, “Somebody That I Used To Know” has been such a big song, so I remember sitting in my lounge-room – I wasn’t even in the barn, I was just in my lounge-room at home working with the main break that started it, and I started to scribble down lyric ideas, and showing them to my girlfriend Tash, actually. [Laughs] Yeah, I remember that!
Otherwise, I remember things like just going for a jog in the middle of winter in between vocal takes – multiple jogs, just because it was so cold in the barn. I just couldn’t stand there and sing for more than five minutes before I’d have to go warm up physically.
SG: The other feature of the barn, other than a lack of heating and judging from “State of the Art” and some photos we’ve seen, is the collection of musical ‘stuff’ in it. Is it safe to say that you’re a bit of a gadget freak and a collector?
G: Yeah, I’ve got a junkyard kind of approach... There’s nothing I like more than digging through secondhand markets or Op Shops/ secondhand shops, so whether it’s electronic gadgets or whether it’s old records, I’m much more drawn to the obscure… I don’t know what it is I’m looking for. Something to surprise me, I guess: Something that isn’t mundane.
It’s so easy to access things that everybody knows, especially with the Internet these days. It’s almost like nothing is inaccessible. So there’s a part of me, I guess, that wants to find things that are really peculiar and strange, that just excite my imagination. So sometimes I live at the dusty bottom of a secondhand record crate, sometimes a little window is opened by a gadget created sometime in the ‘70s that I never knew existed. Especially when it has a certain weird character, even if it’s a crap piece of technology… I’m looking for some way to put a stylophone into one of my songs. Somewhere. I really need a spot! [Laughs]
SG: When you are starting with such a wide world of sounds, and as you obviously had a lot of time to do whatever you needed to musically in your own studio, how did you know that the album was finally finished?
G: I don’t know…it took a while. There were times, after maybe a year of working on it, where… I’ve got scribbled notes of possible tracklists of the record, which include maybe half the songs on Making Mirrors, and then they are padded out with a couple of instrumentals, one or two songs I ended up not being able to finish, and maybe one or two other songs that were only just embryonic that I thought, “Oh, I’m gonna finish these. These are gonna be great. Once I write a lyric, it’s gonna be great. It’s gonna round out the record…” And a year later, I was still working on some of the other five or six songs that became the bulk of the record.
So I don’t know, I would sit down sometimes and think about: what does this feel like as a collection of songs? And pretty much along the way just consistently go, “It’s not a record yet. It’s not a record I want to put out yet.”
SG: But then it was, and now it is, finally, out everywhere. Though even that process has taken a few months, just to get it released around the world. Enough time, perhaps, for a little hindsight. What about the finished record are you happiest with?
G: I’m happy that I stuck with a lot of things that were hugely challenging and sometimes made me quite depressed on it. I was aiming very high; I had high aspirations for the production sound and what I wanted to achieve with the mixing on the record, and also the way I wanted to make it.
Some of those things I managed to achieve; others I had to make compromises on, in terms of there was a point when I was really trying not to make any songs with any elements of old records. I was still happy to take a sampling approach to sound, but I didn’t want to use any breaks of records at all. I wanted to challenge myself and make a record that was free of using existing material.
That sort of didn’t happen, because the mixing of the first three or four songs I wrote, which didn’t have any breaks from records on them, proved so frustrating and longwinded and difficult to finalize that, in the interim, I guess I consoled myself with a more tried and true working method. And, in the end, possibly that led to some of the best songs on the record, I think.
Songs like “State of the Art”, “Somebody That I Used To Know”, and “Bronte”, I think, are three of my favorites and among what I’m most proud of on the album. They came about mostly because I allowed myself to go back to a mode of operating I’d first said I wasn’t going to use...
SG: You’d known Kimbra for a long time, since she first moved to Melbourne from New Zealand. What was it about her and her voice that, when this opportunity came up, she was the artist that you thought of?
G: I must admit, I didn’t immediately think of Kimbra when I wrote the part for this song. [Smiles] We’d met years before, and I really can’t remember whether I looked up some of…because she just had started releasing singles off the album that’s since come out in Australia, but not yet over here in the States. And I think maybe I decided I wasn’t sure her voice was right for it because she uses her voice like…
She’s so talented, and she’s so flexible with what she can do with her voice, I feel like she’s still able to tip her hat, in a way, to so many great vocalists, especially a lot of great jazz vocalists. I hear lots of reference points, very subtly, in how she uses her voice in her own material, which is really impressive. But I feel like I didn’t hear maybe that thing that I thought I wanted or needed for this character in the song.
It took Francois Tetaz, who I was mixing my record with and who was also producing Kimbra’s record, to say, “I reckon you should call Kimbra because she’ll be amazing…” I’m like, “Okay!” And she really liked the track, it was great, and once we got together and demoed some vocals, it was pretty instant. I could tell she had a sense of what to do with it. And we tried different interpretations, but it didn’t take long. It was a matter of singing it a handful of times before I went, “Okay, wow. I should have thought of this earlier!” [Laughs] All credit to Francois for suggesting it…
SG: Visual interpretations of your music are also a big deal for you, right? You have onstage projections when you play concerts, different specific pieces for every track. And beyond that, when it comes to “Somebody That I Used To Know,” 68,000,000 YouTube viewers can’t be wrong, right? [Laughs] It’s a great video. When it comes to actually adding the visuals to your music, starting using your father’s artwork on the album itself, how are you as an artist who has such total control over your music in the studio, when it comes to actually bringing somebody into your world in terms of making a video for that music?
G: I really like collaborating with other people. It’s really inspiring. I’m not able to do everything: I’m not an animator, I’m not a film clip director, and neither am I really a good engineer or mix engineer, so I really would like to work with people who can help me make better sounding records, more exciting, more rich-sounding records than I would be able to do on my own…same with making film clips.
I really enjoy working with talented people who hopefully make a more enhancing audio/visual experience through their ideas and their creativity and their talents. So most of the ideas for the videos to my songs are the director’s ideas. Sometimes there’s a more collaborative process, like the guys from Rubber House -- an animation duo from Melbourne. Both the clips for “State of the Art” and “Don’t Worry, We’ll Be Watching You” were more about just the three of us sitting in a room, me talking a little bit about where the song came from for me, and getting a sense of what they heard in it purely having been sort of fans and listening to the track and trying to come up with ideas of their own. So we’d just thrash out a lot of things, and then they’d go away and try some style sheets, design ideas. I’d like some, I wouldn’t like others; I’d strike upon something and say, “What if you did this?” And they’d come back with a whole other idea. So that would be a very collaborative process.
In the case of a video like “Somebody That I Used To Know,” I really wanted to do something with Natasha Pincus because I liked a lot of her work, and she had a really fully formed concept that she came back to me with, and the most collaborative, I guess, I was on it, apart from appearing in it, trying to follow her direction in terms of performing the song, was that I chose the piece of art of my dad’s, that ended up on our bodies and on the wall, so that was a significant one because, yeah, at first I was a bit surprised. I thought she might have more of an idea of what she wanted from that, but she was quite free, so I just took the reins of that, like, “Okay, I’ll do some testing,” and I took some photos of myself and scanned them into a Photoshop document, and just tried different artwork across different body positions and what it would be like in close-up and what it would be like farther out.
But everything else about the concept and how it was realized and what the clip became is really full credit to Natasha -- her idea and her vision. She already had Emma Hack, the body painter, involved. So there was a collaborative element there between me and Natasha and Emma, but I was very happy to be presented with an amazing idea [laughs] and just contribute whatever I needed to, to make it be the best it could be.
SG: For you, was it more exhilarating or frightening to expose yourself quite that fully, in so many ways, in front of the cameras?
G: I didn’t find that too hard. I thought it might be a challenge… I wasn’t sure if Kimbra would be interested to do the clip, but she was also very easy-going about it. She was like, “Wow. Great idea! Sounds great! Let’s do it.” No, I mean I might have thought about it for a second, but it seemed pretty clear to me that this song with the right song to perform more directly to camera, and I was just really happy that Natasha had come back with an idea that I thought had that directness and had that as one of the clear intentions of the clip – to really try to do something honest and direct and believable in the performance that involved both me and Kimbra, but that also still had an element of symbolism and an art element, and that tied it back in to other aspects of what I do. So yeah, I was really ready. I thought that was the perfect song to do that with.
SG: Why is there such a strong visual element in your live show? Especially when you’re playing with ten people on stage – there’s already a lot going on, so what was the genesis of putting that huge production together as the best way to present your music?
G: I don’t think all my visuals necessarily function as well as they should, in this regard [laughs], but hopefully the visuals just give more of a sense of a world that you enter – a space, something that contextualizes where the music is coming from and where what’s happening on stage, where that springs from.
In a couple of cases, I’m playing animated video clips that I really like as clips to my songs, but maybe they’re not as strong as I think, because when they’re played live, they’re potentially more distracting because you’ve got a narrative element, and there’s potential for the audience to be drawn away by that narrative element, rather than the way that’s coming through the performers on stage or what I’m singing.
So I think, going forward, making a show for the end of the year, that’s something I’m very conscious of: good live visuals. I want them to be more immersive and more dimensional, rather than just a screen – even if it’s a matter of just playing with different shapes, rather than things being on a rectangle. But also that there’s elements of narrative when that narrative is enhancing and immersive with the music and with what the performers are doing, rather than being like a sideline or a backdrop. So we’ll see. There’s a lot of work there to be done…
SG: You have a lot of variety in your live show. You played first here in LA at The Satellite with four people and about two-thirds of the instruments working (which was still a great show, so kudos to you)… but Gotye ramps all the way up to a full ten-piece setup. In the studio, the music starts with you, but then there is a lot of transitioning of the heart of the song from one place to another. What are the consistent elements, for you, that make a Gotye performance a good one, no matter what the format that the core compositions are placed in?
G: The consistent thing, I think, is the aura or the emotion at the heart of the song. If that comes across, then yeah, there might be a lot of transitioning, there might be a lot of switching, bouncing, and re-bouncing of audio files, or recreating or reinterpreting parts or patches between studio and between live, but in the end, the main thing, at least, to come across, I think, is the… I wouldn’t say it’s a core message in the song, but it’s a feeling, and sometimes, to me, even that’s nebulous, what that feeling is…but I know it when it’s there, and sometimes in the studio, it’s very hard to grasp; sometimes live it’s hard to grasp.
You can play every single note that’s on the record with the band to a ‘T,' with a combination of live instruments and samples, recreate all the sounds exactly, but it will not necessarily make sense or communicate the right way. And it’s hard for me to know because I’m on stage. I try, as much as possible, to stand at the front of sound-checks and get a sense of how that will come across to people.
To cut a long story short, I think that’s the main thing I’m always looking for – that there’s what I deem to be the essential truth of that song and that sound world, that that somehow comes across. And it’s sometimes hard for me to let go of things that I’ve taken a long time crafting in the studio, whereas I know there’s sometimes a barrier to actually making that be as strong as it can be in a live show. So I’m trying to get better at focusing on that essential…vibe [laughs] and how best to get that across with the band, or whatever the context of a show you’re playing is.
SG: If communication is the key, then what is it that you hope somebody walks away from seeing you play for the first time thinking?
G: I hope people come away with something like I think I go to concerts hoping for, which is kind of sublimating my attention and, in a way, myself completely to…and it sounds vaguely religious, but it’s a moment. Something transcendent.
I hope something feels like you really just disappear for however long it is – an hour, an hour and 15 minutes, or even if it’s just for a song. But that’s a hard task, I think. That’s where I still feel self-conscious about what my role is as the singer and the maker of the songs and the communicator of that, because there’s that other aspect which goes more with, I guess, rock ‘n’ roll, which is all about, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m the guy! I’m The Man!”...which is not what most of my music is about, I think, even though I’m playing a lot of fruity things and trying to do stuff that’s, on some level, doing a performance for people and trying to impress people with how I use my voice or how I play instruments, but I hope that’s not what people come away from the show with. [Laughs]
SG: For our final question, let’s loop back to start: If we could go to the Wally De Backer playing in a band with his mates at high school and run for him a montage of the things that have been going on for you over the past couple of years, is there a definitive pinch-yourself moment -- something that would simply blow his mind?
G: I can’t think of a single moment. It’s more the overall scale of being someone who can make music full-time, I guess. I can call myself a professional musician who’s playing concerts all around the world and who’s got people listening to my music in all parts of the world. It would be pretty interesting… I don’t know, I feel like that would probably be the most excited I could be -- to tell a 17-year-old version of myself that what I’m doing now is gonna happen sometime, or that it’s gonna happen soon.
Your perceptions change so much over the years, in terms of how you perceive the lay of the land and how you fit, and what it is you’re doing, what the meaning of that is, and as a kid, I was much more like, “That’s what I want to do! Wouldn’t that be amazing to do that?” And on some level now, I feel a bit more like I’m looking for something else beyond everything that’s happening. I’m always looking for what is at the back of the record crate, or what is that window in the world that I haven’t quite opened yet.
Because the more I find out about things, the quicker I get a sense I kind of know them or I want to explore other things. Some people take that as if I come across, not as ungrateful, but as if I’m not as excited by… “You should be so excited!” I put on an American accent because you get that: “Wow, man! Wow. You’re exploding! You’ve got to be so excited, YOU GOTTA BE SO EXCITED, right?!” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s cool… yeah, it’s great.” I mean yeah, I am excited, but not in that way!
I sometimes feel a bit more like a curious bystander watching these things happen that are really fascinating sometimes, especially when things happen online. I feel like some of the things that have happened with the song “Somebody That I Used To Know” – the covers and the remixes -- they make the Internet a more interesting place for me. [Laughs] I’ll come to my inbox, I’ll look at YouTube and go, “Yeah, wow. Somebody just decided to do that with my song. How hilarious...”
Gotye’s amazing new album, ‘Making Mirrors,’ is out now on Samples 'N' Seconds/Universal Republic Records.
Do yourself a favor and make the extra effort to also pick up a copy of Gotye’s 2006 album, ‘Like Drawing Blood.’
Trust us, you will be happy that you searched all the way to the back of that particular online music crate...