From legions of Youtube covers to international success, Gotye has evoked a reaction from his fans that is unmatched as of late. Not intending his music for pop radio, the man often compared with the likes of Sting and Peter Gabriel has received just that. Going Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and making the rounds from SNL to Letterman has brought Gotye into an unfamiliar space. Here at Chromatik, we got a chance to sit down with Wally De Backer, the man behind the Gotye façade, to discuss his development as a musician and where he sees his music going in the future.
What do you see as the most pivotal influence on you’re early development as a musician?
I think I was lucky to have a really great teacher early in my life on the drum kit. He was a private teacher. My mom found him through the local ads and I had lessons with him once a week for at least three years I think. It just used to be something I looked forward to. I was practicing every night and couldn’t wait to get to the lesson. He’d have a really great balance of first working on technique and reading and music theory skills and approaching the instrument studiously. But he’d also sometimes just start a lesson with ideas that he’d been working on and sort of give me a little glimpse into what he was working on in the band he was playing in. He would randomly come up with fills and things and transcribe them for me on the spot. I felt really excited about that way of kind of learning together. He would throw me different ideas. I really credit him for getting me enthused about the drum kit as a real musical instrument. And yeah he put me onto a lot of bands I’d never heard of before, a lot of progressive rock stuff. So that was pretty significant I think.
When did you start picking up different instruments and start to think about sampling?
I gravitated towards the family piano I think because I was so into the Depeche Mode records I was listening to. I was fascinated by how different harmony-wise their records sounded with the gloomy, minor-tonality stuff they were doing. So I was trying to pick out chords and work out how those songs felt different to other pop songs that I was into.
Sampling was maybe another moment that was sort of pivotal for me in terms of the records I have been making for the last ten years. When I was 20 or 21, I got a turntable when I started thrift shopping really avidly. That just changed the way I was listening to music a lot. I think I’ve been, not narrow-minded, but a bit more directed in the bands that I was really into and the range of music I was listening to. So yeah, just collecting all sorts of secondhand records at 50 cents a piece at thrift shops opened my ears to an incredible range of music that existed and that I had never heard of before. And as I started to sample, it led me to start to toy with these sorts of styles of grooves and harmony tracks that I would have never considered if I had just been sitting at the piano or maybe playing traditional instruments. I think that was a formative time because I had a lot of time on my hands – skipping a lot of classes at the university, having a great time hanging out with my friends, and teaching myself how to use a computer to manipulate sound and playing with effects. I was very excited about every new record I could get my hands on and sample bits and pieces from to turn into something else.
There seems to be a strong connection for you between music and visual arts. Can you talk about what it’s like bringing the visual aspect into your music?
Yeah it’s interesting to me because I think that the visual side of the live show or the film clips I’ll work on with different animators or directors are usually a stage that comes after recording and making the tracks. I’m certainly never envisioning a music video clip or a certain type of visual while making the music. The music itself, especially if I’m interested in the textures I’m working with, conjures up a whole visual world for me by itself. So there’s a part of me that can sort of quite happily operate just making music because I think arrangements of sound can be so illustrative, exciting and intoxicating the mind in a visual way so strongly that I don’t feel like I actually even need to make a certain video clip or range of colors or texture visually explicit. But I don’t know; I really enjoy it as a separate stage. I’m just flattered to be able to work with such incredible animators and artists whose processes fascinate me. I feel like there is a whole visual world that can exist for a song in my mind and it’s very different from say a clip that might end up being developed. But I love how that thing creates a different visual world and another set of meanings for the song.
Can you talk about putting together the “Somebodies Youtube Orchestra”? It was a whole other work in and of itself.
Well it was relatively quick. I kind of felt like I hadn’t done anything new creatively in quite a while. I put all of my creative energy into developing the show and how aspects of our performances were working. So I thought about it for a while. There is so much material out there that I could use. I don’t know, I guess one day I just said, “Right, I’m going to do this.” I had Travis Banko who works in my management company download as many of the videos as he could find. He did a really great job, but even then I still found about 60 more that were actually really good [laughs]. In fact one or two more I found after I had finished the arrangement visually and audio-wise, so I was like, “Oh no!” It was just great fun though. It reminded me a bit I guess about what I was doing in my early twenties when I was first just working out how to hash the music on an old PC with pirated plug-ins and whatever I could find. I had never really done any visual editing myself aside from the two documentaries I put out about “Eyes Wide Open” and Making Mirrors that I made with my friend James Bryans. But I only did one or two edits in those while he showed me how to use After Effects.
I had great fun though. It was the first thing I’ve done where I’ve figured out how the visual language of Somebodies songs would work with what they were doing audio-wise. It was like a puzzle for me. I was proud of it in the end because it became what I kind of wanted it to be which was a celebration of the absurdity of the range of covers and parodies, but also really capture some really good musical moments. It had aspects of all the things I like my music to be which is not necessarily simultaneously, but over the course of at least an album where I can really connect and be heartfelt and I think sometimes poignant musically. There are a couple of moments I really feel are better than the original song. So yeah I’m stoked because there were a number of times where I was like, “There’s a lot of challenge here; there’s a bunch of material, how do I bring all of these things together?” I don’t know, it seemed to happen pretty naturally.
I enjoyed being able to follow your process in the notes you put up as well. Was that something you did as a tool for others or more of a transparency type of situation?
Sometimes I feel like it’s nice to have a bit of mystery, but I also remember being younger and how great it was when you’d find something you liked creatively and you wondered how it was put together. So it was great when I was in a student headspace going, “How could I do something like this?” I just wanted to be as transparent as possible so that if anybody appreciated how the piece kind of worked, and they wanted to do something similar, they could get some tips on places to start in terms of software at least.
In terms of putting your live band together, what is the process like for conveying what it is you want from them?
I definitely use the album as a starting point. And then I guess things just kind of get refined or get looser. I’d like to use the live element more in the future along the lines of a song we did called “Giving Me A Chance.” It was made up of a bunch of different samples and loops and virtual instruments on the record. I kind of knew that it wasn’t going to translate trying to match those parts with the instruments we played.
So I already kind of mentioned stripping it down and removing all of the percussion and drums from the track. I just asked my guitarist, Ben, to experiment with different picking styles on different types of acoustic guitars. He sent me a bunch of quick recordings of him trying nylon strings, steel strings, and different picking patterns and I responded more to some than others. Once we struck upon that, we got together with the rest of the band and worked out what other instruments to have. Here and there we went back to some of the patches that are on the record like this sampled wine glass patch that I had and it made its way to the live arrangement. Otherwise it’s completely rearranged being led only by the chords and melody of the song rather than being fixated on creating the exact textures or samples I used on the record. I think it might even be more of a direct and strong song than the version on the album. That’s been a really good experience for me. It’s the first time I’ve done that. I’d definitely like to do a lot more of it.
From a songwriting standpoint, you work in an extremely personal space. Considering that Making Mirrors seems to be about your life and your experiences, do you think your next series of songs will be impacted by this sudden fame you have encountered as an artist?
Potentially. I won’t really know until I start launching into it. I don’t feel like any of the experiences I’ve had in the last year, such as becoming more of a public figure or all of the changes that have happened in my life, inspire me to make new material. I’m not that interested in speaking about myself as much anymore. I think I would actually like to try to write more stories and find other peoples’ stories that could be told through song.
This album [Making Mirrors] is more based in autobiography than almost anything else I’ve done before. I think there are good things about that, but there are also things that I’m self-conscious about. It’s right down to the album title, Making Mirrors, this quandary of wondering how to write autobiographically. There are positive and negative things in the reflection of examining yourself or examining the world around you. I think there might be a part of me that, as a reaction to that negative scrutiny of a lot of people, wants to record as a platform for stories and just sonic creativity. I guess more creativity with words rather than putting myself out there. I’m not really sure though. I think if there’s something I’m going to hold onto from the way I’ve worked in the past, it’s to start with a blank canvas and just experiment as widely as I can and try to see where that leads me.
Have you encountered anything recently that has inspired you to create?
Well, I haven’t really been writing. What I often find is that these things I take in unconsciously seem to come out at the right time. Sometimes I feel that’s why it takes me as long as it does to make a record. I can’t be experimental sometimes for months. I try and try to do what it is I think I’m meant to do. I’m a songwriter, I’m an artist, I’m a sonic dude. I’m doing stuff, but nothing is working out, nothing is becoming interesting or inspiring and then some experience a friend has had or a story I’ve heard from years ago comes up at the right time to match a track that’s just come together or something that’s been sitting dormant on my hard drive for months maybe. I get that moment, that little glimpse of how they could work together.
Sometimes it takes months for those things to happen though. I don’t seem to be getting any better or prolific at making those sorts of moments happen [laughs]. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a reflection of life. Not everything in life is that interesting. There are a lot of things that are repetitive and you have to really try sometimes to put yourself out there in new experiences and look for change. So even if I’m not intending to write autobiographically, just going out there and experiencing different things, maybe travelling a bit more of the world will be a platform for collecting a bunch of different inputs at the right time.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)