Wouter ‘Wally’ De Backer is the name of the man behind Gotye, one the biggest names in Australian music at the moment. He might not be so well known over here just yet, but if anything should endear him to these shores, it’s the accolades he’s stolen from the abject pairing of Savage Garden and Silverchair. With the success of single ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ he became the artist with the longest stay at number one since the former’s horribly ubiquitous ‘Truly Madly Deeply’, and when fourth album Making Mirrors joined the single at number one, Gotye became the first band since the latter, in 2007, to have a number one single and album simultaneously. With an album launch at the Sydney Opera House, and the backing of influential indie music station Triple J, Gotye stand astride the Australian indie world as giants, but with bags of integrity.
So, to these shores they come, to promote new single ‘Easy Way Out’, released on 28 November and subsequently the album, Making Mirrors, on its way in February of next year. With its huge drums and pop heart, ‘Easy Way Out’ is the perfect entrance into the world of Gotye, and we were pleased to catch up with Wally on his recent visit to London to play a couple of gigs in support of the releases.
I asked first about his visit to the UK. “Yeah, we’re in London for a couple of dates, then to Europe and back to Australia. I couldn’t say I’ve played much here, done a few shows for the last record and this is basically a promo tour for the new one.” Given that Wally launched his new album in July with an epic show at Sydney Opera House, how does he feels about coming and playing somewhere a bit smaller. “No, it’s cool. Because the record’s done well in Australia and also in Belgium and Holland – we’re playing big venues over there that sold out in like 50 minutes, the crowd have a real energy and are familiar with the material. But it is a step down from 5000 people a night…but I’ve enjoyed that. We played this really beautiful church [St Stephen’s Chapel, London] in front of 200 people. It was cool, a really intimate feeling. I mean, I was worried that playing in a church it would become too loud, too resonant in that space… but it sounded fantastic and it was a really nice night. So yeah, smaller gigs are great!”
I ask about Wally’s move to Australia from Belgium as child with his parents, and given that he’s still very popular in the Low Countries does he still have a connection to the country of his birth? “Belgians have kind of claimed me as their own. All my extended family are still there, so there’s a strong connection. I went back every year ’til I was 18 years old, and four or five times since then [outside of touring]. I feel I’d like to experience a bit more of Belgium, spend a little time to get to know the feel of a few different cities. I have childhood memories, which are really lovely, but I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with what it’s like to live there. I mean I can remember riding my bike around and playing basketball, eating lots of chocolates at my Gran’s… but not as much as an adult.”
We move back to music, and Wally’s new single ‘Easy Way Out’. I ask about previous single releases in the UK, and how that went. “Well, we released a couple of 7-inches from the last record on Lucky Number, and that was cool because I love vinyl and they looked great.” The single is reminiscent of Lou Barlow’s Folk Implosion, there are samples in there and then in the context of the album as a whole it’s hard to tell what’s sampled and what comes from instruments, so I try and get Wally to clear it up. “It really varies. Song by song it’s completely varied. Something like ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ [as mentioned, an Australian number one single for a number of weeks] is a reasonably, almost entirely organic sounding song, yet it’s completely sample-based. But I chop things up a lot, on that I sample a couple of notes from a Brazilian guitarist called Luiz Bonfa, then play a bit and superimpose the sample back on top of it to change it. Then there’s another guitar hook in there that I sampled from a classical guitar record from the 1950s.” Wally goes on to explain that “as it came off the turntable I was cutting it manually, touching the turntable at random moments to create a vibrato – and then various notes would jump out at me that sound interesting, I’d chop up those individual notes and play them back at different pitches. So there’s a completely sample-based approach to the creation of that track, but there’s definitely also aspects of performance and composing with minor chords and melodies. But, you know, with ‘Eyes Wide Open’ I don’t use any samples at all. I play drums and pedal steel guitar is performed by a friend, Michael Hubbard.”
Isn’t there, though, a sample of the Winton Musical Fence [an Australian tourist attraction near Melbourne] on that song? Wally explains: “Well, there’s actually a doco, a video on Youtube of me playing this musical fence - it’s in the outback of Australia. So there’s an inherent aspect of taking things and using the wonder of technology like Pro Tools, but I’m really drawn to more analogue sounds.” So does Wally delve into second hand record stores? “I like older records,” explains Wally, “because technology has killed the aura of those sounds. It had a grit to it, you know, and I could never find myself sampling a record from the 90s because of the drum sounds and things are recorded better, and they don’t have that spark for me, and I find them a bit soulless. I guess it’s partly changing technology, partly changing tastes. I dunno, it’s a very long-winded way of explaining myself!”
I’m finding myself dazzled by Wally’s passion for explaining his approach to making music, and I’m intrigued as to how this all comes together when Gotye plays live. “In Australia, I just succeeded for about the first time in five years to play most of the record without any aspect of a backing track or any loops.” No samples at all? “Well, there are small sounds that are kinda looped,” explains Wally. “They’re loop-like, but they’re being treated by a human either as samples from the record, or recreated by a digital instrument or a live instrument, and that’s been really nice.” So what about when the band played at St Stephens? “Coming over here we had a four piece band so we had to work with more bits of backing track – maybe for the backing vocals, some horns and bits of guitar. They’ve had to be put on triggered loops or the backing tracks because the band is so much smaller. But it’s great to play with a large ensemble featuring percussion, horns, vocalists, guitar, bass, drums; it’s cool to be able to have that arrangement.”
Wally’s that rare breed of the singing drummer (Phil Collins, that bloke from Jellyfish, Ringo Starr), so does he do the drumming and singing live? “I’m kind of up the front,” reveals Wally, “mostly singing and I’ve got a standing drum kit set up, got an electronic marimba, and a pad to trigger samples.”
Moving on to the album Making Mirrors, there’s so many different styles and genres packed into its running time; I can hear indie, some Peter Gabriel, The Police, a bit of DJ Shadow perhaps, and then there’s the stunning Motown number ‘I Feel Better’. Does this reflect Wally’s own musical tastes? “Ah yeah, some of them are,” admits Wally. “If I gave you a chronological rundown, I would probably say I was drawn to alternative stuff from an early age. Even though I listened to pop radio I was massively into the KLF. You really wouldn’t be able to picture me trying to convince my parents to buy me their singles… ‘I really need Justified and Ancient’!” laughs Wally. “So they were my first musical crush, and then I got into Depeche Mode as a teenager, had a goth period with teenage angst and melancholia, and they meant more to me than any other band. I did spend a lot of time with this tunnel vision in my music tastes.” How did that manifest itself? “You know, I did listen to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees and a lot of the grunge, but Depeche Mode did set a path for me.” And what was it about them that got you obsessed? “Martin Gore had that lyrical vocabulary,” explains Wally, “and that sense of harmony that set that band apart. They’d use really long periods of unbroken minor chords in a really creative way. So I spent a lot of my teenage years ripping off Martin Gore, but the band I was in was happy to put that through other instrumentation which was kind of grunge and left me going ‘yeah, can we put a synthesiser in this tune?’”
Wally goes on to reveal that come the end of these years, the tunnel vision began to disappear. “I consciously opened up my ears, and I think I got a bit bored with what I was listening to, so that was the time when I got into more sample-based or cut and paste music. DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist had a big influence, the Beastie Boys and a lot of mixtapes from the 80s. I bought a couple of turntables and started getting vinyl, going out to a lot of second hand shops and collecting records – anything strange, or odd, or foreign to me, and a lot of jazz.”
I often wonder how much people can sit down and listen to a jazz record and enjoy it. I do like a lot of jazz music, but it can become a chore. Does Wally feel the same? “It takes a bit of effort for me to put on a jazz record. I’m a bit turned off by the intellectual aspect – I mean, I respect the technique and the musicianship, and the freedom a lot of jazz records have got. But it doesn’t speak to my heart in the way that someone like Kate Bush does. I guess I’m drawn to a psychedelic type of thing and trying to find other worlds through sounds, so artists like Kate Bush, or going back a little further The Silver Apples. That’s the sort of thing that excites me.” Does that represent Wally as a musician then, a psychedelic heart? “I’m not sure how much that’s represented in my stuff,” admits Wally. “I think in the last few years I’ve done more stuff that’s controlled. Making Mirrors is more of a pop record than I’ve done before, or might make next.”
There’s a history of remixes to the work of Gotye, both by Wally himself and other artists, is this something he’s keen to explore more of? “Not so much. I kind of wish I’d been able to find more time to do more remixes of my own. Mixed Blood [Gotye's third record, a remix album] was an interesting experience. There are about four or five songs that combine the pop element with the found sounds and samples in a really interesting way, but I dunno if I’d do that again.” So something of a qualified success? “I mean, some have just gone crazy online – and I’ve gotta say I’ve fuelled it a bit – I put a track on my website for free, and I checked the other day and the upload I had had expired again, which means that over 1000 different people had downloaded it for remix. And you know, some of the crap that’s out there certainly reflects that!” Were there some forgettable versions then? “Yeah, just lots of people doing really hacky edits of the master. It’s nice that people are inspired by the track to do something with it, but man, some of the stuff that’s out there, some of the remixes are just so shit – fucking hell! I sometimes wonder if that’s detracting from my music – does that reflect badly on me? But I’m generally okay with it being out there. If someone in Germany does a really hacky, boring edit of my track with a shit drum machine and then people like that version and want to hear it in clubs, that’s fine, I have no problem with that… then there’s the other part of me that goes ‘oh God, can’t someone do something really good?’”
We talk some more about the visual aspect of Wally’s music, given that there’s an accompanying DVD for Making Mirrors. He goes on to discuss its importance to him, and the success of the record does allow him to experiment more with videos and visuals, some of the inspiration coming from seeing DJ Shadow on a tour to support the release of The Private Press. I ask about the cover of Making Mirrors, and it being a painting by Wally’s father. Was he an artist? “He wouldn’t call himself an artist. He hobbies with art, but he’s very talented. I love his work and I mean I’ve used two of his pieces on two out of four of my records. He would just experiment, during the week he’d be using computers and concentrating on engineering, and then at the weekend he’d be building chairs – he’s a bit of a renaissance man. It was really nice to discover that piece – it was very much discarded and he’d forgotten about it, and it was sitting amongst old newspapers and bills in a box. I pulled it out and went ‘wow! That’s fantastic!’ So similar to the way I’ll appropriate samples, I did a bit of photoshopping and changed the colours on it, making it a parallel of the record I guess.”
Finally, having got through the interview without raising the question of the name Gotye, I decide to ask where it comes from. “Ah! Well I was born in Belgium to a couple of Flemish parents and was given the name Wouter. That translated to French as Gauthier, and I think I was 20, 21 and looking for a name for this act with a bit of a personal resonance. It kind of felt right in my head, and my mum, being a French speaker, she called me Gauthier when I was younger as a pet name. So I came up with my own spelling for it – to cut a long winded story short!”