Photo by Warwick Backer
Bieber, schmieber: this year, the pop charts belonged to a 30-something Belgian-Australian record nerd.
Thanks to an eye-catching video, a slinky earworm of a xylophone riff and a he-said-she-said narrative straight out of the Human League playbook, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” became inescapable worldwide for the better part of 2012. But the onetime Wally De Backer didn’t just come out of the woodwork (or the geometric painted wall frieze). His eccentric, sampled compositions and Peter Gabriel-esque vocals have been a known quantity in Australia for nearly a decade. Berlin’s been a regular stop, with the venues ever-expanding; you’ll find him at C-Halle on Monday, November 19.
Been record shopping in Berlin?
Not so much. I bought some pieces of gear. I found a Boss voice transformer, which was a fairly integral voice effect in the show for a while. I couldn’t find them on Ebay, and then on this German-language second-hand site in Berlin I found one little lady who was selling them directly. That was a success for me. Actually, I did go record shopping once. I found one I remember that was great, where the deviation of genres included things like “wobble-hop”. Or one where the owner talked endlessly about Neu! and Cluster… we bought a good bunch of records there.
All those teen girls singing along with the line “Have your friend collect your records and then change your number...” Do you wonder if they even know what a record is?
[Laughs] I’ve thought about that here and there. Inevitably, when you have anything – just a song, in my case – that crosses over to the mainstream, you get a very wide audience. I tend to get a few emails from the people that really got into some of the less single-y tracks on the album: organ enthusiasts who appreciated a song like “State of the Art”, people who collect exotica records… it’s nice to connect with those people, because you realise that there are people other than teen girls buying the single on Itunes coming to the show. That’s not disparaging in any way.
A while ago, you were talking about sampling elevator noises…
I thought of it, but I didn’t. I brought my little stereo recorder on this tour, so maybe I will. I’ve heard a couple good ones already. I’m in Denver at the moment, and the key card on my hotel room makes an interesting kind of “bzzzhhhup!” I was also thinking of buying an old VHS player and then looking in thrift shops for old videos. I had a lot of fun recently putting this video mashup together.
You mean your “Youtube Orchestra” remix of “Somebody That I Used to Know”.
I was definitely of two minds. Like, do I really want to do anything that brings more attention back to The Big Song – which eclipses everything else I do, whether I like it or not? But then, I kind of felt it was irresistible, because it played so perfectly into my love for amassing large amounts of data and corralling them into some kind of creative thing where they talk to each other. And I love that it ties The Big Song back to slightly more obscure music I’ve made over the years. There’s a track on the  Australian release of Like Drawing Blood (Creative Vibes) called “A Distinctive Sound” that had a lot of people saying I should do more instrumental cut-and-paste, spoken word stuff. I’m a big fan of The Books. So the mashup kind of tied the emotional, melodramatic big single back into that aspect of what I do.
It was already everywhere, yet you voluntarily spent what little free time you had listening to it over and over and over.
That was a barrier I had to get over. I listened to so many different interpretations – I downloaded 130 different versions, and I had to listen at least once or twice through each of them to hear whether there was an interesting or usable bit. Once I kind of prepared myself, it did turn out to be quite fascinating and hilarious at times. But when I launch into that song now, sometimes I sing the first lines and feel like I’m covering someone else’s song.
It belongs to the cloud now. Any favourite covers?
There are a few that are fantastic. The guy who does solo guitar, Mike Dawes – he’s incredible. There’s a group from LA, the Pentatonics, who did a really nice modulated a cappella arrangement. So there are a bunch of good ones, a bunch of absurd ones, a bunch that have other people saying “I love it!” but that to me are emotionally bombastic and over the top in a way that I don’t relate to, and others that are just really hammy and not very good. But there are some moments in it where – and this reflects the thing that I love about sampling – three or four unrelated pieces of music come together and become quite sublime. That soft section in the middle, there’s almost kind of a samba feel. I like it better than the original! So I think the mashup addresses all the aspects of what a piece of music can be. The humour I like, because I feel like there wasn’t as much humour in my new record as I desired there to be.
Humour in music is a delicate proposition.
I love Ween. Everything from Pure Guava onwards. I can’t think of many bands who have done it – to be able to strike a balance between music that’s light-hearted, absurdist and silly, but also with real musical chops and great production. Maybe my song “State of the Art” tries to approach that; it’s very tongue-in-cheek, but also providing a commentary on the human relationship with technology.
Apropos, 10 years into your career, you’re suddenly a social media poster child.
When I was making that video, between prepping for the tour and rehearsing and doing animation and things, I spent every spare second of my time trying to get that mashup done. I just kind of checked out of Twitter, Facebook, and my inbox for two weeks and didn’t connect. Other times – I was sitting in my hotel room the other day and smashed out like 20 tweets in a row, random things I’d been looking at or thinking about. But I’m not exactly a power user.
Now that people are digging into your back catalogue, is there anything you hope they don’t find?
There’s a bunch of stuff that’s not very good out there, for sure [Laughs]. My high school band, Downstairs… some of it was ambitious and quite good for teenagers, I think, but then other stuff is hilariously embarrassing. Like one track was kind of tribal heavy metal, others were very derivative of Depeche Mode. There’s even stuff on the recent record where I don’t think it’s bad, but I kind of wish I hadn’t put it on the album. It’s a certain aspect of the music that I can make, but I don’t necessarily want to make? The other day, I had just put all my music library back into Itunes and I stumbled upon this folder full of like 300 tracks, and a lot of them were demos I started during Making Mirrors. I just felt so alienated from them. Like, “This is shit! I was actually considering making this music?”
GOTYE w/JONTI Nov 19, 20:00 | C-Halle, Columbiadamm 13-21, Tempelhof, U-Bhf Platz der Luftbrücke