Gotye’s Confusing, Challenging, Scary World

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.

Bands You Should See in New York This Month

Here are our recommendations for May shows with a few videos for your perusal. 

TIMBER TIMBRE (opening for Feist)
May 5

Radio City Music Hall ($40)
Show: 8:00 p.m.

Feist fans will have the chance to discover Timber Timbre at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday, when the Canadian blues-folk band (who recently supported The Meat Puppets) takes the stage opening for the fellow Arts & Crafts-signed-singer-songwriter. Timber Timbre, composed of Taylor Kirk, Mika Posen and Simon Trottier, have been on the road since the release of their fourth record, Creep On Creepin’ On, in April of last year. Their atmospheric sound is dark, haunting and worth a listen.

 

SPIRITUALIZED (with Nikki Lane)
May 7

Terminal 5 ($30 Advanced/$35 Day of Show)
Doors: 7:00 p.m./Show: 8:00 p.m.

The Englishmen are back on tour following the April release of their seventh studio album Sweet Heart Sweet Lights. “I always shy away from anything I write that sounds like a pop song […] This time I’m embracing songs like that and seeing what happens. I’m not fighting it any more,” Spiritualized mastermind Jason Pierce told NME during the making the new record. Critics have praised the results, calling it the band’s best work since 1997’s acclaimed Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. You be the judge.

 

TY SEGALL AND WHITE FENCE (with The Strange Boys, The Men)
May 16

Webster Hall ($15 ADV/$17 DOS)
Doors: 7:30 p.m./Show: 8:30 p.m.

Don’t miss your chance to catch garage and psych rockers Ty Segall and White Fence (Tim Presley) when the Californians present their Drag City collaboration Hair, a brilliant 60s lo-fi psychedelic revival record that’s begging to be heard live. The LP features Presley on lead guitar and bass, while Segall plays drums and rhythm guitar.

 

THE DIG (w Taurus)
May 20

Glasslands Gallery ($10 ADV/$12 DOS)
Show: 8:30 p.m.

Brooklyn’s The Dig have all the elements of a power-pop band; they’re four guys – David Baldwin, Emile Mosseri, Erick Eiser and Mark Demiglio – on guitar, bass, keyboard and drums. Their new record Midnight Flowers comes out May 29th, following their catchy debut LP Electric Toys, released in 2010. Give them a listen and check them out, so you can say you “saw them back when they played Glasslands.”

 

THAT DOG. (with Kurt Braunohler, Baron Vaughn)
May 25

Music Hall of Williamsburg ($20 ADV/$25 DOS)
Doors: 8:00 p.m./Show: 9:00 p.m.

The L.A.-based punk-infused power-pop band known as “That Dog.” (Anna Waronker, Rachel Haden, Petra Haden and Tony Maxwell), who formed in 1991, dispersed in 1997, only to reunite in 2011, are playing their first NYC shows in 15 years on May 24th and 25th at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. As expected, their first show sold out, but wait – there are still tickets available for the second night.

Antony Hegarty Gets Synesthetic for Swanlights

Antony Hegarty is one of those artists that America produces but never seems to quite know what to do with. Technically born in England, yes, Hegarty grew up in America, and it’s where his music, under the name Antony and the Johnsons, became more-or-less famous for its ethereal, emotional nature, and the way repeated phrases grow new tendrils of meaning through repetition and Hegarty’s evocative, ghostly, undulating voice. He’s a darling in England, where his 2005 album I Am a Bird Now won the Mercury Prize, a sort of combination Grammy and MacArthur Genius Grant. But, when I told my usually-in-the-know friends I was going to see a one-time-only piece from Antony commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, I got mostly blank stares. Hegarty’s work can be hard to access — it has no hooks, no beats, usually not even a proper chorus or verse. That is not his mission. Instead, he broadcasts directly to a listener’s heart using his powerful, ghostly voice over simple arrangements.

It was fitting, then, that the show (concert? event? installation?) Swanlights mostly featured Hegarty singing alone on the stage at Radio City Music Hall, a tiny figure at first silhouetted behind a screen, then alone under the stage’s impossibly towering curve save for some playful lasers which danced around him and a sort of pixelated paper asteroid which hung over his head and was slowly pulled apart over the course of the show’s two or so hours.

The show also featured stunningly emotive arrangements for a 60-piece orchestra by Nico Muhly, lasers designed by Chris Levine that could expand into vast green and purple clouds or dance like tiny fairies, and the aforementioned asteroid created by Carl Robertshaw, which I am sure served a metaphorical purpose which escapes me. The night took its name and themes of poetic environmental alarm from Hegarty’s most recent album, but it featured songs from all four of his releases. Originally planned to take place in MoMA’s towering atrium, a space which has hosted similar multimedia events from artists like Pipilotti Rist and Marina Abramovic (Doug Aitken’s work was similar in spirit, but also grew beyond the atrium), the addition of the orchestra made it too big – it had to find another home.

Despite moving a few blocks downtown, the work is “in the same vein,” as the above pieces, explained Klaus Biesenbach, Chief Curator at Large of MoMA and Director of MoMA PS1, and the man who’s been working with Hegarty for three years to make Swanlights a reality. “I am interested in this idea, what you would call in German synästhesie. This idea of the unity of what you see and what you hear and what you experience. So of course, I’m also very interested in Antony.”

If anything involving a two-hour orchestral laser show at one of New York’s most monumental theatres by one of the world’s greatest modern art museums can be said to be odd, then the origins of this project are indeed extremely odd.

“A couple of years ago, I visited an artist upstate, and Antony and I just ended up being the two people who travelled together,” Biesenbach explains. “And while being with this artist upstate — the artist actually was Marina Abramovic — [Antony] found this huge branch of a tree. He took it with him to the city, and I remember how he we got it into the train. Then I saw a little poem he made, and I kind of recognized that tree branch in it, and then I saw that drawing in Swanlights, where there’s a little introduction book. First I see it in a poem, and then I recognize the branch somewhere in a drawing, and in the end it ends up in his music. I think I’m fascinated by this [method of] really looking at the whole world and very holistically making something out of this that is otherworldly, perhaps because that is what he is.”

This movement — tree branch to poem to drawing to song — solidified Biesenbach’s instincts that Hegarty was on the same synesthetic mission as him. Indeed, sitting in the audience of Radio City, with lights changing from tiny pinpricks to vast color fields as Hegarty’s voice seemed to momentarily latch onto and ride the swell of the orchestra before pushing off and soaring above it, it was easy to see that Biesenbach’s instincts were correct.

“I’m intrigued that there is no difference between his opinions, his daily experience, no gap between who he is and what he does,” Biesenbach continues. “So he is really a true artist. Which is pretty fascinating, I think.”

Gig Guide: This Week’s Top Indie Rock Shows

The Decemberists play a couple of gigs to show off their shiny new album, White Lies performs at Highline Ballroom, Peter Bjorn and John throw a late-night throw-down at The Rock Shop, and Real Estate sidles up to Andy Rourke of The Smiths at Union Hall — my list this week’s not-to-be missed indie shows.

Tuesday, January 25

Who: The Decemberists, Wye Oak @: Beacon Theater, 8:00 PM Tickets: $39.50 Details: Touring with a spanking new album, The Decemberists will also play Beacon on Wednesday night.

Who: Suuns, Takka Takka, Milagres @:The Rock Shop, 8:00 PM Tickets: $10 Details: Secretly Canadian’s Suuns play electronica/shoegaze alongside Takka Takka’s gorgeous, melodic indie rock. Highly recommend the show—either band could be headlining, so don’t be late.

Wednesday, January 26th

Who: Yuck, Total Slacker, Fergus & Geronimo @: Glasslands, 8:00 PM Tickets: $10

Who: Liz Phair @: Music Hall of Williamsburg, 8:00 PM Tickets: $25

Thursday, January 27 Who: Cloud Runner (Comprised of Matisyahu and friends) @: Bowery Ballroom, 8:00 PM Tickets: $17 advance, $20 door

Who: White Lies, Asobi Seksu @: Highline Ballroom, 7:00 PM Tickets: $20 advance, $22 door Details: White Lies, an indie trio that sounds like Tears for Fears and Echo & the Bunnymen, has been making all sort of toplists in London since 2009. They’ll pair nicely with opener Asobi Seksu’s dream pop sound.

Friday, January 28

Who: Peter Bjorn and John @: The Rock Shop, 11:00 PM Tickets: $10

Saturday, January 29th

Who: Mission of Burma, Grandfather @: The Bell House, 8:00 PM Tickets: $20 Details: Can’t miss 80’s post punk rockers, Mission of Burma, take the stage at one of Brooklyn’s best venues.

Who: Beach Fossils, A Place to Bury Strangers, Caveman, Guards, ARMS, Dreamers of the Ghetto (I Guess I’m Floating 5-Year Party) @: Glasslands, 8:00 PM Tickets: $12 advance, $14 door

Who: Baby Dayliner, Five O’Clock Heroes @: Mercury Lounge, 10:00 PM Tickets: $10

Who: Iron and Wine, Edie Brickell @: Radio City Music Hall, 8:00 PM Tickets: $51.55

Who: Real Estate, Andy Rourke (The Smiths) @: Union Hall, 8:00 PM Tickets: $15

Sunday, January 30

Who: The Hold Steady, The Gay Blades @: Music Hall of Williamsburg” title=”Music Hall of Williamsburg”>Music Hall of Williamsburg, 8:00 PM Tickets: $25