TWJ Interviews: Gotye
The slow, rhythmic buildup and big payoff of Gotye’s hit song “Somebody That I Used To Know” could be considered an apt musical metaphor for the Belgian-born, Australian singer’s rocket-powered rise to international notoriety during the past year. The second single from the excellent Making Mirrors was released in Australia and New Zealand in July 2011, and then hit the UK in December 2011 and the US in January 2012. And in a short time, the song was everywhere – it reached No. 1 in more than 30 countries – and eventually its body-painted music video was just as ubiquitous.
Many may not know that Gotye, aka Wally De Backer, has been a solo artist for more than a decade. He has released plenty of quality material that, while it never reached the super mega-hit status of his most well-known track, won him respect from peers and critics alike.
Flash forward to present day, with Gotye set to embark on a two-month long North American tour that will have him criss-crossing the U.S. and playing plenty of notable venues. It was in anticipation of that tour that we spoke with De Backer recently, and heard the Aussie’s musings on touring, making music and how Joni Mitchell inspires him. What follows is that Q&A. Enjoy!
This North American leg of your tour seems pretty massive. What’re you looking forward to about playing so many dates over the next few months?
Good times on the road with some of my best friends. I’m lucky enough to play in a band, in a crew with some of my best mates. So that’s going to be great. Catching up with a lot of people from the last tour – new friends, old friends – all those things. And also like you said the scale of the show is quite large. We’ve got a lot of cameras and screens on the side of the stage and we’re actually hoping some of that will help transmit some of the details of the show that were probably lost on the thousands of people who saw the previous shows when we were in large venues but the majority of people couldn’t tell who was doing what to make a lot of the sounds for my tracks. We switch instruments a lot and there’s a lot of sample triggers and manipulation of sound. Even my guitar is making four or five sounds on every song. So hopefully that aspect of the show might be better transmitted at these bigger shows.
You’ve talked before about how important your live show is to you. Why is that?
It hasn’t always been. I think performing my music live has always presented this huge challenge that I didn’t always feel like I succeeded in or enjoyed that much. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve started to maybe hit my stride a little and have an amazing band. I’ve just kind of worked out how to enjoy more of the touring experience.
I think the live show, especially now, is important because with this album and the single that’s become supermassive, for better or worse, that people are coming to a show to connect with something more than just that song. And some people might not be interested in anything else. And I’ve been working very hard on that aspect because it’s a big part of everything else that I do – making music, sampling or playing instruments and making fairly diverse stuff.
When the show is going well and you feel a connection with people in the audience, whether it’s in the front row or the momentum of when a large number of people are with you in some way, singing along to your words or dancing. When you’re getting that feedback, there’s a really incredible energy that can come back to the stage. So it can be a real elation experience. I guess there’s also a part of me that gravitates toward taking on the challenge of doing very detailed and very diverse music song by song, and feeling like we’re actually pulling it off.
It’s kind of satisfying, going ‘Okay, for years, I haven’t quite been getting there. Now it’s getting there, and it’s sounding really good.’ That’s a good feeling too to kinda be getting to that stage.
So many of the songs on Making Mirrors have all these layers that are interesting to unpack with each listen. What’s it like for you to blend all of those elements together in production?
It’s a lot of fun! It’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of making records the way that I do. Not really knowing at your starting point where a song is gonna go. And as you collect sounds and find other things stick together and manipulating and stretching, and all these possibilities sort of unfurl in front of you. Yeah, that’s really exciting with those possibilities – you get little glimpses of what the song could be – and even then, I don’t know, I sometimes feel when you’re writing with a very clear intention in mind perhaps you can almost enjoy the process of being the orchestrator of what becomes the music. But you’re also potentially a bit more of a spectator. So you can have some more distance rather than having some really clear vision in your head maybe than you realize. So yeah, it’s really enjoyable. I love that part of the process.
There’s a lot of self-examination on this record. Was making it cathartic for you in any way?
Yeah, I’d say so. There are some songs more than others that kind of helped me get a different perspective on some things I was dealing with in my life. There’s certain songs that were written for people. It’s interesting now, because I feel like they’re all a part of my live show having played them so many times that I’ve become resistant about tapping into some of those feelings. Playing some of those songs for the first time to the people they were written for were very special moments. I would say there was some catharsis in that.
What’s intriguing about this album is that stylistically, it ventures in so many different directions. I wondered where you pull inspiration from, and who you might consider your musical peers?
I do like a bunch of artists that are quite diverse in what they do on record. I mean Ween would be one band that I love dearly and who – especially after the first few albums – didn’t give a shit whether they stuck to one genre or developed one sound. But I love that they always sound inimitably like Ween and maintain that same perspective and sense of humor even when they were sounding exactly like Thin Lizzy on one track and like a song from Sesame Street on the next. I love that.
I love plenty of other music that’s more consistent in its aesthetic. Maybe it’s just my interest in so many different types of music or a short attention span. Or it could be that I spend a lot of time making each track and each one becomes sort of a world unto itself. And I’m piecing sounds together and trying to find things that fit the puzzle. So maybe just because there’s a certain amount of work involved with the things that I do that they sort of open up another world, as such. And I want it to be a different world, because I’ve already spent time exploring one place.
I’ve seen you mention in a couple different places digging Joni Mitchell quite a bit. What is it about her music that sort of drew you to her?
I’m intrigued you’ve seen that, because when I think about it I don’t feel like I have mentioned Joni Mitchell much. But I do. I’m a huge fan especially of her early- to late-70’s work. I don’t know, I think she’s in that certain special echelon of artists who – especially in that period – who were just in touch with something of another world with her ability to express through her voice and the touch she had on the guitar and with her band and the sound she developed in the 70’s. There is something so magical and strong in how she could express things unlike anybody. You just kind of feel like she’s singing directly to you. And the recordings are so vibrant from that period in recording history, before the 80’s where a certain amount of production and technology maybe allowed some people to start getting too finicky about how they produced records. Joni Mitchell’s records certainly have incredible performances captured. She’s just an incredible guitarists and vocalist and performer.
Whether it’s listening to it or making it, what is it about music that makes you feel alive or energized?
(Pause) Uh. I’ve gotta think about it I guess. It’s one of those things that you can’t easily put into words. Music has this magic for me. I find it interesting to read really great music writers. But there are different times I feel like I don’t want to read writing about music, I just want to experience it. It feels so impossible for me to wrap words around how, you know, this certain timbre of, I don’t know, a gong, combined with a sample of something combined with a turn of phrase of someone’s voice in a lyric, when put together can have meaning beyond any of those things separately or maybe even beyond any possible expectations of the meaning you think those items in the physical world could hold. That’s just a really fascinating thing.
I think that’s why I’m so passionate about finding a few examples of that, or losing myself in it by trying to get in touch with that feeling by making music myself.
Can you talk a little bit about how the concept for the video “Somebody That I Used to Know” came together?
It was very much the concept of Natasha Pincus, who directed, edited and produced it. I knew I wanted to make a clip with her because I guess I had it in my head that this song would be well-supported by a direct sort of treatment, one that Kimbra and I appeared in. I’ve done a lot of clips that I’ve appeared in, but I guess I thought doing that here might be selling myself short, or that just the most appropriate thing was something very direct that involved singing the song. I approached nobody else but her, and she spent some time with the song and came back pretty much with a fully formed treatment of what you see in the film clip. Perhaps the final piece of the puzzle was what the actual artwork on the wall and on our bodies was going to be. So I suggested that it was some variation of my dad’s artwork that I used to make the album cover, and I did a bunch of Photoshop and presented things back to her and the body paint artists created it. Everything else about how the clip came together and the performance aspect and managing it and editing it to get a feeling from it was really all a credit to Natasha.
What is it about that video that’s sparked such reaction, do you think?
I guess like the song, it’s quite idiosyncratic and takes a while to kind of unfold. I get the feeling especially from some of the parodies and the things people have honed in on that it strikes some kind of balance between being kind of– what’s the word? I suppose it has what you’d call a sort of novelty aspect with the body painting and some of the stop-time But I think it also has a certain type of gravity to how it transmits the song. But I guess it just kind of strikes a balance between those things that people have found sort of oddly compelling (laughs).
I’ve read that at first you weren’t sure if Kimbra was the right vocalist for this part. Now having heard the song and heard her vocal part, do you feel like she was the perfect choice for that song?
Oh, undoubtedly. It wasn’t that I heard her sing the song and had doubts. The second I heard her interpret the part when we did some demo vocals together in her apartment in Melbourne, I kinda knew she would be amazing for the song. I think it was because of some of her other material that maybe her voice wasn’t from the right world or something for this part. Francois Tites who was working with both of us at the time, said ‘I think you’re underestimating how versatile Kimbra is and her ability to interpret material,’ so I went okay, called her up and said ‘Take a listen and see if things are right. And if you like the song let’s get together,’ and, like I said when we got together, as soon as I heard her sing I had no doubt.
With the number of quality submissions we get from Australian artists, and ones who call Melbourne home specifically, it’s clear there’s a vibrant music scene. What has it been like to come up as a part of that?
I guess I’ve never felt very strongly that I was a part of a Melbourne scene. I’ve always known that Melbourne has a very vibrant arts culture, and there’s great music in all sorts of different styles and from people of all kinds of backgrounds, and it’s been an interesting scene to grow up in because of that. There’s a plethora of interesting and inspiring options you could go to and learn from. But I’ve always felt like I was kind of spending a lot of time in thrift shops and kind of doing my own thing, and making music in my bedroom and working with something until I felt like it was finished.
That said, there is an incredible host of music in Australia, so many accomplished artists making such a variety of interesting music. In fact, my friend Tim who plays keyboards in my band just did a blog post on his Faux Pas blog of like, 30 bands from Melbourne, and they’re all great and just all so different. And I listened and thought man, how many incredible musicians are there doing their thing here in Melbourne. You should check it out.