Interview: Gotye’s Not Quite Overnight Success

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You’ve probably heard of Gotye (Say it with me in your finest French accent: Gauthier). In fact, you’re probably one of the over 325 million notches on the headboard of his video with the body painting and the Helen Frankenthaler palette and that cute-and-quite-possibly-nude girl from New Zealand. You might know a thing or two about him. Maybe that he’s from Australia, perhaps that he was born in Belgium, and possibly that he speaks Dutch. Trivia, but not trivial.

And you may have heard on the Twitters that he recently ripped up Letterman’s Ed Sullivan Theater with an hour-ish set (musically…there was no vandalizing of the venerable venue). Or that he impressed many a festival-goer with the strength of his set(s) at Coachella earlier this year. Maybe you’ve even seen him perform Stateside earlier this year at what is sure to be an increasingly rare event moving forward…a club show.

If you’re familiar with more than just the star-making single, you know it won’t be long before others are too. It’s a phenomenally universal-ist song and a memorable video, sure, but the depth of Gotye’s musical beauty extends beneath the skin (whether watercolored, or, not). Those with greater exposure to his decade plus artistic career know, then, that this poly-percussionist is just as apt to play his mic stand as a drum kit. That he’s a producer whose arsenal includes instrumentation popular in years-gone-by as well as samples sure to be popular in years-yet-to-come. That his complex compositions lay down layer after elusive layer, partially and purposely submerged under various other delicate layers. And after all this composing and arranging, Gotye’s final product usually accomplishes a feat that Rothko popularized in modern art; remaining atmospheric and airy amidst the weightiness of heart-wrenching lamentation. Warning: attempting this balancing act is not recommended for either the faint of heart or virtuosity-challenged.

It’s not as if he whipped this up in his parents’ barn as his first musical offering to Apollo; Making Mirrors is his third major release in the decade plus that he’s been making music. Its best songs traffic in acoustic subtlety and embrace lyrical simplicity. Varieties of muted sounds are punctuated with samples that provide an emotive center of gravity for the listener. All this, sometimes wrapped inside a phyllo wrapper of pop pastiche, makes for a distinct and uniquely enjoyable listening experience.

On some tracks you may hear hints of what Florence & her (the) Machine have been doing. Others serve as a showcase for Wally De Backer’s vocals (the timbre of which is oft-compared to those of Mr. Gordon Summer and Mr. Peter Gabriel) soaring towards Icarus’ heights, and at other times plumbing the depths of the Mariana Trench. (Ok, not quite that deep. But down an octave from Sting’s habitué, at least). There are songs with a reggae infusion and those with auto-tuned vocals that DON’T make you want to kill someone. There are light touches that democratize electronica in a not-least-common-denominator way. In short, there’s something for most everyone who appreciates complex music made simple. And more importantly, it cogently coalesces as a musical inversion of the famous Blaise Pascal quote, “Je n’ai fait cette lettre – ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.”

Weeping Elvis spoke with the author of these short letters – Wooter “Wally” De Backer – about his eventful year and newly-found fame, the innocence of the xylophone, and the contemplative restraint he may employ on his next album.

 

Weeping Elvis: It’s obviously been quite a year for you.  What have you learned along the way?

Gotye:  Ohhh…I feel like I’ve learned that a certain amount of exposure or success can take you by surprise, and so you should really feel comfortable about what it is you’re putting out there, what you’re expressing, and what you do.  Not that I don’t feel that way …. But you know, I think I’ve learned that I can tour quite extensively and do shows that I’m proud of, and do that quite regularly and really enjoy the experience. If you asked me about that maybe two years ago, I would have been highly dubious.

You’ve played major festival shows this year, and have played some cities multiple times in progressively larger venues. I’m wondering what it’s like to return to a place where you’ve recently played a club, and then maybe a bigger club, and now have graduated to outdoor amphitheaters in a lot of cities.

Yeah, I guess it feels like life has been crazy in a short period of time. When I think that it’s been only one year to have done this much touring, and as you say, to have returned to cities and played lots of new venues…it’s been very busy. I’ve been kind of a busy guy for a number of years, very busy, always keeping myself focused upon what’s next and trying to keep a balance between everything while working on multiple projects at the same time. But yeah, when I think of all that’s gone on in the past twelve months, it does sort of surprise me.

You had a fairly high profile in Australia before this album (Making Mirrors), but the single and accompanying video have to some degree defined your profile in the States. As those crowds have grown, largely because of a specific song, does it present any challenges to know that these crowds may not be overly familiar with your catalog or sonic range?

Well, I guess it means that for a certain period, (some of) the crowd is going to be fairly weak, and there might be a section of the crowd that no matter how good what I put on, or diverse, or how interesting it may be, they just probably aren’t going to be that interested. But I’ve had a few people (at shows) who are superfans who know all the stuff I’ve done over the years and can sing along to songs off of my first record that were only released in Australia. And they express a little bit of annoyance when they’re next to someone at a gig who clearly hasn’t listened to anything but the single, so, you know, when that occurs it makes it a different sort of experience for the audience. But I think that’s just something you go through when you have this sort of crossover moment, and what happens is that it will settle down with people who actually are interested in the rest of the stuff too, or at least more of it than just the big hit. So, I’m not down on those people who might be coming out to a show just because they know “the” song, hopefully a bunch of those people go away seeing something a lot more than that and end up sending messages and emails and tweets to other people to say that they were hugely surprised in a really great way with the variety and the range and the audiovisual material, and that they’re going to check out the previous records and other stuff. So, I don’t look at it as a problem.

It’s an opportunity.

Yeah, it is.

Your songs feature diverse instrumentation. One non-traditional rock instrument that seems to be everywhere these days – and was prominent on “Somebody That I Used to Know” – is the xylophone. When you were composing / arranging that song, what drew you to its sound?

Definitely its child-like quality, both the sound of that instrument and also the fact it’s playing a nursery rhyme melody. To me, it was a fairly specific choice because I felt like it had some kind of melancholy about it that fit with the song – a scene from between two and four years of age – and it somehow connected it back to the innocence of childhood or how messed up things can become emotionally between people as they get older and get more confusing or complex. Somehow the sound of that instrument has the resonance of a nursery rhyme; I don’t know, somehow it was a counterpoint to me that had a rhythm to it that spoke to me and added to the kind of sense that we’ve reached a garden or something.

“Giving Me a Chance” shows a lot of contemplative restraint while creating a very visual aesthetic. It also really never gives the listener catharsis…can you talk about the symbolism of the composition? Was it a specific choice that it doesn’t have that rock moment where it builds and releases? The lyrics are simple but poignant; there’s one clear thought, and there you go.

Gotye:  Yeah, well I’m glad you appreciate that. It’s a bit different; the sentiment is very direct. It’s a song recognizing another person’s grace, it’s a song of apology, it is a very specific thing and I’m trying to use plain language that hopefully says something in an eloquent way about redemption and regret and also recognizing the grace in somebody’s forgiveness. I’m also singing it well below my usual range, probably too low really for me to sing well. But in a way I think that’s a bit more honest, a bit more true to me.  We’ve worked out a way of playing it in a stripped back way with a tuned down acoustic guitar and some telephone bells on stage. I’m really into that arrangement; I think it speaks better than the album version that just builds around a sample. I appreciate you picked that song out; not a lot of people often mention it, but I actually think it might be the strongest one on there.

To me, it was really poignant. Like you said…it’s very direct.

It’s probably because of how understated it is, it’s quite low-fi as a recording, too. You almost need headphones before it comes across.

The restraint is what really got me on it, sort of like the song “Infinity” by The XX, or even going back to 1987 and “With or Without You,” those are songs that don’t really have that climactic catharsis moment…they give you what they give you.

You mean “With or Without You” by U2? That has more of it, I think. It starts off in a lower register and he jumps up an octave at one stage. It has different release moments and I think the arrangement builds in a way that you can still hear that song in a stadium and it has these musical creations involving the vocals jumping an octave, the guitar jumping…if not a rock guitar moment, at least a sort of hook guitar moment and entry. That is sort of different to me by comparison.

I don’t necessarily hear myself sonically in that…although then again, I don’t know…I’m a huge fan of Sufjan Stevens and I love the restraint and the eloquent way he manages to express sometimes very complex things in a very simple way, though also containing oblique references. But, how restrained it can be and the beauty of the arrangements in the recording. I feel like…that’s what I want to explore a lot more on a record and something I’ll appreciate even more in the live shows because I (now) have to struggle with my vocal against loud arrangements or against complex frequency triggers. I (could) enjoy the act of singing and trying to connect with what I’m trying to say lyrically as opposed to maybe fighting against the technology of the vocal monitors or the particular acoustics of when a loud song bounces off of the walls of a venue. That puts me in a very different head space, and one that is less related to the music that I’m trying to communicate to an audience. So yeah, I think that maybe that’s something in the next record that I might explore more of…more restraint, more stripped back.

I understand that you haven’t started writing for another album. As you’ve spent more than a year on the road supporting Making Mirrors, is it possible to find the time (and perhaps more importantly) the inspiration to work on another project?

The time, maybe. I struggle with the time, considering how long it has taken me to come up with ideas I feel are worth pursuing. Definitely time to experiment. There are certainly times I could have been sitting in my hotel room tinkering with a virtual instrument or trying to make stuff up for some new songs. The inspiration I kind of struggle with, I feel like there are so many inputs and I probably do need a sense of withdrawal for a while or a quiet time to process everything that’s been going on, or maybe just traveling without being on a touring schedule, collecting new instruments and then ideas start to come up. So, I think next year is that for me.

When you’re touring, I guess your “normal” life is sort of on hold.

Yeah, well luckily the routine is something I’ve managed to get my head around, and it’s one of the reasons I’m enjoying this very long tour. It’s not a normal life, for sure. I don’t even know if I know what a normal life is anymore. It would be interesting, for a change. I’m always thinking about what could be, rather than some sense of what normal is and how to maintain that.

It seems like more Aussie bands are making their way over here the past few years…yourself, Cut Copy, Temper Trap, for example.  Is that a function of globalization and the Internet, or is there something different going on in Australia the past few years?

Maybe more bands – younger bands – are starting to go overseas earlier on in their career. But, there are still plenty of barriers if you’re a young Australian band or musician…distance, the finances to be able to get overseas. There are great things about growing up in Australia; I think it’s a very eclectic music scene. There are a lot of incredibly talented people….The Australian music scene is reasonably small and maybe unable to support as many musicians as we’d like– I know that – so sometimes artists have to go overseas to get financing or for industry conferences or just to start your career off overseas. People don’t get there a lot of the time, which is maybe why you don’t see as many Australians in America. Or, maybe more of them head to Europe to give it a go.

 

Gotye is touring extensively through the end of the year before his artistic hibernation / germination period resumes. You can see him perform live at these locations.

 

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.