By Kendah El-Ali; photo by Warwick Backer on December 13, 2011
There’s something about Wally De Backer that makes you feel as though you’ve found something you lost when you were 15 but could have never understood you possessed except in hindsight. Teetering on a precarious balance between an innocent wonder with the world and a sturdy pragmatism, the Belgian-Australian known widely to the world as Gotye (or “Gaw-tee-ay”—the French variant of his first name, Wouter) undoubtedly has a bright musical future to which he can look forward. It’s hard to even know where to begin with his musical imagination, which seems to know no ends.
Born in Bruges and raised in Australia, De Backer’s musical career has been running 10 years strong, but it wasn’t a prestigious 2007 ARIA award (the Australian equivalent of a Grammy) that pushed his music past his native continental and Benelux borders. It was a recent YouTube hit.
“I’ve been releasing myself in a very cottage-style, beyond the cusp of being a one-hit wonder,” says De Backer via Skype. “Over the years, there’s been a lot of stamp-licking. But after 10 years working very doggedly and independently by myself, I have a great surprise in a YouTube-fueled, pop crossover song.”
The song he refers to is “Somebody That I Used to Know,” which was a collaboration with fellow Aussie star Kimbra. Most musicians would be enthralled with five-time platinum sales and over 11 million hits on YouTube, but De Backer always keeps a sideways glance in the midst of the fireworks.
“The danger with that is it becomes about the song and not about what I do beyond it,” he says. “There’s more going on than what I do with that song.”
De Backer grew up with a perhaps-unfortunate penchant for synthpop while the rest of his friends loved Nirvana. Citing drummers Stewart Copeland and Ringo Starr as early idols, he admits that he was “mainly obsessed with Depeche Mode and tried in every way to be just like them.” “Nobody really agreed with me,” he admits. He began playing the drums in high school bands, but it was a quotidian teen crisis that probably saved his future musical career.
“I spent three years after my teens deciding that I didn’t want to become a drummer in a bedroom anymore,” he says, laughing through a toothy grin. “I fell in love with sampling, and listened to a lot of music I had never heard before. I really got off on a feeling that I could access a huge world of sound out there and turn the direction of songs.”
It was that derailment from drumming that lead De Backer down a wild road of crate-diving. In fact, his 2006 album Like Drawing Blood was created almost exclusively from samples that came from his vintage vinyl collection. His newest album, Making Mirrors, is a bold attempt to push his production constructs into the realms of human, field and live instrumental recordings. The result is a successful marriage of everything from dub to Motown, a recording of an Outback art installation called the Winton Musical Fence and shrills robbed from a 1970s Cathay Pacific Airways promotional record. But pulling back to his lowlander roots, any suggestion that his efforts are extraordinary is quickly subdued.
“I’m not very prolific, contrary to what [is suggested]. I take a long time to make tracks and there’s a lot of nutting things out and piecing things together,” he says. “There are samples of acoustic instruments and wherever I could pull my sounds from. I’ve never really worked with a producer before, not in the traditional sense at any rate. I’ve been a bit of a self-taught producer, as a drummer, and that’s really it.”
Unlikely though the algorithm may be for De Backer’s success, praise comes to him despite his low profile. With the help of Australian radio station Triple J (known for breaking acts ranging from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to The Bumblebeez), he was able to emerge from recording albums at his parents’ farmhouse to a performance at the Sydney Opera House.
And as for his ability to pull together a mélange of styles that never sound like a mash-up, he simply says, “[It’s] partly boredom, partly interest. I’m endlessly fascinated by [music]. I also just struggle with making decisions, so I want to try and cram all the different directions and ideas I have, if possible, into some sort of musical journey.” He admits to recently listening to Enigma’s first album as quickly as he does St. Vincent’s newest, as well as a general adoration for London’s The Chap. But it’s the insightful reconfiguration of the sounds he immerses himself in that sets him apart from his peers.
“I don’t know what it is about The Chap, really. It’s like they put their sound through the viewfinder of contemporary corporate business-speak, but I have a very emotional response to what they do. They have this highbrow aesthetic that highlights the disconnection in modern society in a way, yet I really marvel at it and always find myself laughing,” De Backer says. “Most people are like, ‘Who are these dudes? This isn’t funny at all.’ I’m just peculiar like that.”
And sometimes it’s a second glance that makes all the difference. F
3 albums that inspired Gotye’s Wally De Backer to make music
The White Room
They nabbed me with their sample, pop smarts when I was 10 years old. I still can’t resist the massive hooks and crowd noise samples on stadium-house classics like “Last Train to Trancentral” and “Justified and Ancient.”
Tomita’s arrangement of Holst’s The Planets—turning it into a synthesizer fantasy about a spaceship’s travels through the solar system—has a peculiarly intoxicating combination of novelty and grandeur.
Baxter co-opted ethnic music styles from various countries and used them to explore a fascinating collection of sounds and arrangement ideas. The drum sample on “Mozambique” directly brought about the song “Bronte” on my new album.