STORY / LOGAN BRENDT
PHOTOGRAPHS / CYBELE MALINOWSKI
Belgian-born Wally De Backer otherwise known as, Gotye, has attracted much deserved international success through his hit song off his third album, Making Mirrors, and its accompanying video, “Somebody That I Used To Know,” which features New Zealander singer-songwriter Kimbra. With over one hundred million Youtube views, this song has become an international break-up anthem.
De Backer is currently touring the US for the first time and has upcoming performances at Coachella, and Saturday Night Live. With all the success he has achieved in his music career thus far and with the breakthrough of this song to the mainstream, he is taking the whirlwind transformation of his career in stride, as fame isn’t nearly as important to him as making good music and being happy doing it.
Though he admits to me that he gets a little nervous before a big TV appearance, not wanting the nerves to affect the way he sings, I find it hard to believe anything can ruffle him. He’s confident, intelligent, and brilliant just like his song making. It only makes sense that he would have found success in such a humble, integrity-maintaining way.
As a resident of Australia for the bulk of his adolescent and adult life, Gotye’s charming accent is easy to listen to as we discuss the music industry, our mutual love for Depeche Mode and his artistic influences.
Performing in general comes naturally to him as is tangible in all video documentation of his work, including the most recent for his song, “Easy Way Out”. He is a true artist who embodies music itself. Gotye’s passion is undeniable.
You’re by no means a new artist, because you’ve been known in Australia for quite a while. But, you’ve recently seen tremendous international success with the song, “Somebody That I Used To Know”. Did it sort of feel like, “Finally!”?
Not really. I was disappointed that I couldn’t find a way to even release my second record, Like Drawing Blood on a label in the United States. So I had to set it up on iTunes and kind of do a very low key— not really promoted release. It was disappointing that I couldn’t make it properly available.
I’ve kind of always been lucky enough to feel like there’s been momentum that’s been upwards with my music, and that I’ve felt successful. The main thing is that you’re happy with how hard you’re working, and you’re challenging yourself and finding new things and ways to be excited about the music you’re making. Commercial success is always nice when it comes along—and I guess it’s been a gradual building thing for me. With this song breaking through in the UK and in the States, it’s exciting. But I haven’t been holding out like, “I need to be a massive pop star, otherwise I’ve failed”.
Has the music business jaded you at all?
I just try to focus on doing interesting, creative things, things that will bring me joy and hopefully that will help me stay as close as possible to the initial spark that has made music and making records my passion since I was a teenager. I’m much more inclined to be someone who is reclusive, or introverted and would prefer to make music and put it out there with as much control, and little hype and razzle dazzle as possible, and let people make up their owns minds about it.
More distractions come with a certain level of fame and commercial success, like the promo trailer and the public expectations. I know I’ve done interviews where somebody called me first thing in the morning, and I’ve just been so not interested to talk about myself or answer the same questions with pretty much the same answers, or even felt like I had the energy to try. Or I might have had 20 interviews that day, and the first one’s a complete dud where I’ve just been totally tired and kind of bratty. Afterwards I feel kind of embarrassed, like, “Oh, I didn’t have to be an idiot to that person.” I’ve had my moments where it’s overwhelming. [Sometimes] nice conversations develop and things digress to weird and strange places, which I do enjoy.
To read more about Gotye and his interesting obsession with Depeche Mode, and his thoughts on the comparisons to Sting and Peter Gabriel, read the feature on Gotye in LADYGUNN’s “Obsession + Confession” issue, due out in May.
…You’re so relevant because you have a brilliant way of creating music that is catchy without being infectiously obnoxious.
That’s very flattering, because some sort of balance that I’m trying to strike is—I have grown up loving a lot of pop music, mostly loving the less leading alternative pop music that is very catchy and often very tightly arranged and has a real element of exploration and idiosyncrasy—you could listen to it in 20-30 years time, and it would still make sense. It has some element of universality, or just a special-ness about it that doesn’t sound like, “Oh that was 1991, and now it just sounds so horrible.”
Your songs tell interesting stories. The lyrics seem to really touch people in a way where they try to figure out what they’re all about. Are these lyrics personal experiences or are they observations?
Mostly both. It’s what happens when you decide to marry words to melody and harmony. That’s the magic I really look for in music. Some of the songs I love the most, if I were to read the lyrics on their own might not necessarily even [make sense] and would be far short of being considered great poetry as pure lyrics and pure words. But combined with that particular vocalist, or inflection, or melody, and production aesthetic, they create a meaning that’s almost beyond language.
It’s flattering. Some people read some of my lyrics and find them poetic on their own terms. I’m kind of looking for that space when that peculiar confluence of certain words and melody and harmony, [and] texture of the sounds that you use— feels like it creates its own world. Maybe you can’t quite put your finger on what it is, but it makes you feel sometimes confusing, maybe conflicting feelings and emotions and responses. It’s very different from other types of pop music [where] the lyrics are pure fluff, or there’s a very clear intention—”I’m here to sell this track, a certain production aesthetic, get many people dancing as possible, in the quickest way possible, sell as many singles and build the particular image of this artist as clearly and unequivocally as possible, and not bring into any question the artist as the great singer.”
In regards to “Somebody That I Used To Know”, have you ever had someone that you’ve dated, call you up and say, “Hey, was that about me?”
One [ex-girlfriend] was concerned that she had heard a bit of gossip that the song was about her, and was like, “Is that true? Should I be worried?” I’m like, “No, it’s not about you, and that’s just gossip.”
Have you ever been driving, and heard your song come on the radio, or heard it in a store?
I’ve walked into a restaurant and sat down, realized the song’s playing, somebody recognizes me, and they recognize the song’s playing at the opposite table, or things like that. It can be kind of weird, sometimes awkward.
I know that you also play the drums. Is this another passion of yours?
It’s what I focus on the most other than my voice or the studio. It’s the main instrument in which I can engage physically. I love playing percussion and drums—what you can do with two hands, two feet, or any part of your body, and sticks is incredible. It’s a very direct, visceral relationship you have with hitting things, making rhythms.
I [also] love opening my mouth and singing. There’s a very physical thing that happens there when you sort of really feel that opening up in your chest. I tend to feel it more when I’m in an acoustic space. But I still love playing drums. I don’t get to do much of it at the moment, because I spend a lot of time producing records, and sampling things, trying to learn how to use synthesizers and stuff like that.
Is there anyone that you have admired that has shown appreciation for your music?
A producer Matthew [Herbert] who worked with Bjork. He’s an intellectual powerhouse in terms of his approach to producing and music sampling. That’s what’s flattering—when someone like that who’s working at such a high level, is into what I’m doing.
However there’s been a bunch of artists—the Jonas Brothers and Chad Kroeger from Nickelback. Laughs. I’m kind of like, “Wow these people are fans of mine.” It’s too funny. It’s nice that it seems like musicians and producers from lots of different fields are responding to what I’m doing. I think it’s cool. Maybe it means I’ve found a peculiar balance that’s somewhere between pop and catchy…and unique in its own way.