We all know the story by now: Australian singer-songwriter Gotye, aka Wally de Backer, works for years at home. His international presence is pretty quiet. Suddenly, his song “Somebody That I Used To Know” explodes, giving oddball pop a place on the charts again. Now, he’s performing at Radio City Music Hall, riding comfortably on the back of his 2011 LP Making Mirrors. He’s the guy with the unlikely hit on club-obsessed radio playlists, and he’s holding his own.
I caught up with de Backer on the phone to talk touring, writing, and itching to get back in the studio.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Las Vegas right now, at the House of Blues.
Is this your first time in Vegas?
Second time, first time playing a show there.
It’s kind of overwhelming, isn’t it?
Yeah, when I was first here a few years ago, I didn’t really enjoy it much. But we’re playing a show, and it looks good, we’re playing upstairs. Got a bunch of friends in the band and crew, so maybe we’ll head out and see something later. I wish I could see a Cirque du Soleil show while I was here, but no such luck.
At least you can fit in some gambling at the airport.
It’s amazing what kind of poker machines they have there.
You recently took Chairlift on tour. How was that?
It was great, I love that band. They were really fantastic to play with.
How did that come about? Did you invite them?
Yeah, all the guys in the band were really big fans of their second record. We played in Hamburg in Germany on our last tour and they were really lovely and played a great show. So I just asked, and they said yes.
What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you on this tour?
I’m not really sure, not very much. Nothing really comes to mind. Been pretty even-keeled. I met Akon last night, that was interesting.
Oh, at the VMAs?
Yeah, I was at the VMAs. It’s pretty likely that you’ll bump into somebody at one of the parties. He was very enthusiastic about my music, which was cool and unexpected.
You know by now that you’re ubiquitous. Being from Australia, was being successful in America a goal for you when you were starting out?
I don’t know if it was a goal. I guess my goal with this record, as far as America was concerned, was just to get the record released. I tried to find an American label for my last album, Like Drawing Blood, and didn’t succeed after trying. I didn’t have a manager or an agent or any connection to give me a platform, so I ended up putting it out myself on iTunes and a few other services. My hope was for it to be coming out and be available on vinyl and CD and just broadly release something. The fact that it’s gone so well has been great.
Growing up and making music over the last ten to twelve years, I’ve never really dreamed about the scale of doing big tours or being onstage in front of thousands of people, as exciting as that can be. I don’t know; I like disappearing into the world of music itself and staying home and experiencing the connections that happen between people when you’re making music, recording records, or playing with my band. I like the audience as well, but I guess I just haven’t dreamed about it, like it’s some kind of goal or that it will satisfy me to get to that point to be able to do that. It’s been incredibly fun, and I’m enjoying it more and more, especially touring America over the past year. It’s almost like I’ve discovered it rather than it having been a thing I’d dreamed of for ages and now it’s coming true.
Would you say that in Australia, the music scene is more insular?
Well, because Australia is so far away from so many places, it’s very expensive for a band to get out. Not even out of Australia, just out of their city.
What’s coming up for you next?
Lots of shows, really. That’s what we’ve done for four months so far, here in the States. I’m going to Europe and playing some places I haven’t been to before, going to Poland and Portugal for the first time. Then we finish with shows back in Australia, which is going to fun. I’ve got some friends who’ve played in the live line-up for the band who are going to be back in the band, I’ve got horns and more backing vocals. I’m just taking it a day at a time on the tour, trying to enjoy different aspects. We spent a few days in LA and I’m really getting to like LA because there are so many interesting people and I’ve met a lot of people I’d like to work with in the future. I’m excited to travel next year and start writing new stuff and see some different places around the world.
Do you write on the road?
I’ve tried in the past, but it’s never been very successful.
Are you one of those people who needs to have a cabin in the woods, a total seclusion kind of thing?
I think it does help. I think it’s also because when you’re on tour and you’re meeting so many people and playing shows, there’s so much input. Especially when you’re enjoying it, it’s great. It’s not even necessarily that it’s overwhelming, just that you need a certain amount of withdrawal or a little bit of boredom, just that space to push myself to create and process a bunch of stuff. There’s just not much space or physical time to do that on the road.
Do you still try to take note of smaller ideas to expand on when you get to settle down?
Here and there. I try to recollect things we might jam with in sound check. I’ll make notes on potential song titles or sketches of lyrics, but it’s pretty infrequent. They’re only little placeholders at best.
What would you say that your writing process is like?
It is, for me, confusing, challenging, scary, and self-defeating. But good, usually, in the end. Going through that process and ending up with anything I find half-decent has always been kind of cathartic.
You can’t be too self-defeating, or you wouldn’t be here.
Yeah. I get asked a lot about being a perfectionist and stuff like that. It doesn’t matter if it hasn’t been tinkered or labored with too studiously. Usually I go in with one idea about what a song is about or what I want the production of a certain recording to evoke sonically for me. If I have that in my mind, [I make it happen], whether it happens quickly or whether it takes months of tinkering with samples and remixing or redoing vocals so that I can realize that feeling that I want from it. That’s kind of my process.
Which also makes it so compelling that you have become popular in America, because we’ve become used to everything being optimized for low-quality mp3s, and then you show up with something much more rich and subtle.
Thank you. Other aspects of my record, they’re still quite lo-fi, that’s because of the sources, the sampling, and I’m really not a great engineer. Francois Tetaz, who mixes my records, sometimes has to do it. I think sometimes the challenge with my stuff is trying to hold true to the vibe of what I record in my own way, which can be quite idiosyncratic and very lo-fi in certain ways. The challenge can be to make that translate when it’s put alongside something like what you described, very highly synthesized, heavily compressed pop music that has a lot of transience and tries to jump out of your speakers and smash you in the face. A lot of contemporary music is produced that way. It’s not like you want to be competitive with that stuff, but sometimes the challenge is making something sound like it’s not completely from a different world and still staying true to the aura of what I produced originally.
There’s also so much diversity to Making Mirrors. Do you try to mix things up live and present different versions of songs?
There are a few arrangements we’ve done on this tour that are new, songs we haven’t played before and really tried to come up with arrangements that suited the live environment. We take the album version as a starting point. I should do more of it with other songs in the future with the live show.
Is there anything specific that you hope people take away from your show?
I guess I hope that they feel like it was an immersive experience, between the visuals and sound, and one that has some twists and turns and surprises and is a moving thing, one that makes you feel like you’ve gone to a lot of different places, maybe somewhere you didn’t expect to go to. Maybe it’s a lot to ask, but I guess that’s what I hope.
Who are some new artists you’re excited about right now?
I really love tUnE-yArDs. I recently downloaded the Divine Fits record, and I really like a few tracks off of that. It’s great, I’m a big fan of Spoon and it’s interesting to hear a different take. Nick Launay, who produced the record, tipped me off to that album, so that’s a good one.
Would you say that you try to keep up with new artists, or stick with older stuff?
I’m always looking out for new stuff. I discover older music [as well]; my drummer Michael’s always good because he’s got a very encyclopedic music collection. You go record shopping with him and he’ll be like, "Yeah dude, have you heard of this record? You’ve got to check it out. 1974, these guys were doing this stuff, that guy was playing in this band and produced this thing and it all connects." He’s very good at contextualizing and giving tips for records I might otherwise pass by. My friends give me a bunch of new music and I’m always looking for new things that I find interesting. There’s a really incredible amount of new music that’s being recorded and released that’s very inspiring.
You mentioned you’re going to Poland and Portugal soon. Where’s the most unusual place you’ve ever played?
We played at this pool party for the KROQ radio station at Coachella Festival earlier this year. It was about 110 degrees and some of the computers from the house desk had a meltdown during the set, and there were girls in bikinis at this pool party and I’m trying to sing these peculiar songs about my home organs, and that felt quite incongruous.
Is there anywhere you haven’t played yet that you would like to go to?
We haven’t been able to go to Scandinavia yet. I have friends in Norway, and I would love to go and play in Oslo. I hope we get to Scandinavia, and I would love to play more broadly in Asia and see more of those countries. Maybe next year, we might go to Singapore and visit China, so that’s really exciting.
It’s interesting that you mention Scandinavia, because some of what you do also has that clean, well-measured quality to it that a lot of music from there has.
Is there any Scandinavian stuff you’re really into?
I just saw this group called Icona Pop, but that’s more straight dance-pop, following in the whole Robyn or Annie kind of thing. Would you say that a lot of Scandinavian artists inspire you?
I’ve liked a bunch of stuff that Robyn and Annie have put out. Others from Scandinavia, I’m trying to think. I really like the Jónsi record, but that’s not technically Scandinavian. Kings of Convenience, from Norway, are one of my favorite bands. Really beautiful band, one of the best live shows I’ve ever been to.
Where do you think you can go from here?
I don’t know, Siberia? Maybe I’ll just go home for a while, that’ll be welcome.
Anything else you’re into right now that you want to shout out, bands or anything else you think is cool?
Jumping into my mind…you mentioned Chairlift before, the other guy supporting us on this tour is a young guy called Jonti, who put out a couple records on Stones Throw, and he is really fantastic, I think. Beautiful producer and sonic experimentalist. I think people might really enjoy listening to his records and what he does with sound and the melting pot of things he brings together. He’s doing some really clever things with his live show, and his records are sterling, so check them out.