One year after releasing the world's most accidentally famous song, the Aussie crossover phenom chatted with us about challenging oneself, monitoring public statements and the magical music of L. Ron Hubbard.
Words by Kenny Herzog
In the “About” section on Gotye’s site, there’s a charmingly dated bio crafted by Gotye (nee Wouter “Wally” De Backer) himself. About halfway through, shortly after cheekily boasting that he purchased a bear-stitched jumper with earnings from his 2003 solo debut, Boardface, De Backer offers the following missive: “There’s so much space junk out there these days. Maybe one of my tunes will be lucky enough to find its way into the orbit of the International Space Station’s Hot 30 countdown. And I will laugh maniacally while tap-tap-tapping my fingers together.”
If Gotye’s goal had been amassing nearly 300 million YouTube views for “Somebody That I Used to Know,” the second single off his latest full-length, 2011’s Making Mirrors, his words would have rung prophetic. But then, who could have foreseen this 32-year-old Aussie’s rise from humble drummer of idiosyncratic pop band the Basics to bedroom-demo wunderkind and, eventually, the biggest global art-rock crossover since the Talking Heads?
Those are questions for pundits and future music historians to mull. As for Gotye, he’s just trying to keep his head down, seize the exposure with noble creative intent and find some time to get back to a record store every now and again. A couple weeks shy of launching a massive, headlining world tour, the witty, gifted songwriter spoke with us about never standing still, grooving to L. Ron Hubbard and becoming just a little bit press-weary.
As people are discovering, Making Mirrors is a fairly experimental pop record. Do you feel any responsibility to make its follow-up streamlined for people?
No, not at all. I feel more compelled to make something that stretches my legs more, that, musically, is more challenging and maybe brings some unexpected things to a wider audience. I’m aware that maybe that audience might not be there if I don’t have another big single. And I’m aware that it’s a big single that draws some of the wide audience to take a chance on the album…. I don’t get a good sense, I guess, of whether people maybe are discovering more of the details on the album.
I get a kick when I get a musician who I admire saying, “Man, that little track at the end of the record’s really interesting or really good.” And I’m like, “Oh, that’s great! Nobody ever mentions that bit.” I’ve come out of my own little barometer of what’s the more interesting stuff I think I do, and in response to the success, I think I’m more compelled to try and explore that side of things. I think this was my record on which it happened intuitively, that I was more cohesive and more pop, and even included more pop moments that I maybe wish I didn’t.
Even for Making Mirrors, the recording process was very DIY. Are you going to at least take advantage of a presumably bigger budget in the studio next time?
I don’t think so. I had that option with this record, really. I was lucky enough with the underground and independent success of [2006’s] Like Drawing Blood in Australia alone that I had the money saved up to record this album myself… so there’s no issue I guess with having access to interesting instruments or bits of gear. For me, it’s probably about the skills. I just want to challenge myself, try to maybe become a better engineer, try to be adventurously more experimental with what I can achieve on record. I had this experience a little bit with Making Mirrors, where I thought I’d attempt to open up my process more to collaboration with people who I’m inspired by.
I went to Francois Tetaz, who mixed Like Drawing Blood and Making Mirrors and said, “Can you produce [lead single] ‘Eyes Wide Open’ because I love working with you and love your range of interests and influences, and you’ve introduced me to so much interesting music?” And he kind of did it a bit, like he engineered bits of drums for me and he suggested things, but at some point into producing that track, he kinda went, “Ya know what, Wally? As much as you might sometimes feel like this is the loneliest part of the process, I reckon you should go and do your thing. Follow your intuition. That’s where you come up where the idiosyncratic things that define what you do, and I’m happy to be here and be a soundboard.” So, who knows? Maybe it’s the same thing with this record. Maybe I could be tempted to go work with those producers who dropped me an e-mail and who now are interested in my stuff because I’ve become more well-known. Maybe in the end, I should just find a new location, grab a bunch of instruments and records and just get down to it and see what happens in my own head.
Your recent success was ultimately impossible to predict, so perhaps that dictates just continuing to go with your instincts.
I think so, yeah. I think it always feels like a blank canvas every time, and the same challenges and anxieties come up, you know? Can I still write songs? Will I think this is any good? It’s just trying to get back to that very simple, intuitive place of just being so excited by the sound you’re playing with or the song idea as it’s forming that none of your brain is on, “What will people think of this? Will it sell records? Does that matter?” It’s more about, “Yeah, this is awesome! This is great!” Kind of riding that wave of excitement about the little world you end up in when you play with sound and instruments, trying to keep that as fun as possible and as open and free from needing to follow any kind of rules. That would definitely be the best thing I can do, and sometimes is the hardest thing to do….
I think I need to kind of withdraw for a little while to be able to do that, just sort of process thousands of records and find samples and juxtapositions of odd sounds that suggest an idea and give you a little perspective of what could maybe be a significant chunk of the record. I’m looking forward to doing that, but it won’t be probably till next year.
Given your interest in engineering and other artists’ sudden interest in you, are you considering producing for other people between your own albums?
People have definitely asked me, and I’ve either never had the time or probably felt a project yet where someone’s come along to me and I’ve both loved their music and also thought that I was the right person to add that particular set of skills that didn’t mess up everything good about what they do, but actually enhance it. Which, I think, is what the best producers always do. They might add some sort of sonic imprint or personality, but they’re really just a great sounding board and facilitator to the artist. And I haven’t maybe had someone come along where I go, “Yep, I feel like I’m that guy to make that happen.”
As far as your own career arc, at what point over the past decade did you really hone in on what felt like the Gotye sound?
I think that’s just been something I’ve been working on slowly and unsurely [laughs] for 10 years. Each record’s been sort of different in terms of the materials I’ve used or how heavily sampling has been central to them, the way I’ve approached software to use sampling as a songwriting process. But it’s been a slowly evolving thing, and for me, it’s very much always been about making it up or discovering what it is as I go along, and that’s often the most fun about it. Sometimes, also, it makes me feel the least like I’m a genuine artist, because I don’t often start with a very clear vision of, “This is my aesthetic. This is my artistic vision. This is my code, and I’m gonna follow this and do this.”
I respect artists who can define things so clearly and then really go for it, but I also think that can be extremely limiting, and sometimes the breakthroughs you have, not just in music or a song but in life in general, are when you leave yourself open enough to consider what comes your way and respond to it and discover what your life becomes as you go along. I like giving myself over to that kind of feeling to a certain extent. So on the one hand, I’m very drawn to being a real planner, carefully organizing, very tidy, very meticulous. Kind of very boring and nerdy. But on the other hand, I’m also really drawn to it being sort of unknown and open. It sounds kind of cheesy, but not messing with the mystery of it.
I know you get a lot of your inspiration by digging through vinyl. What have been a couple of your recent or all-time mind-blowing finds?
I did find a great stash of Moog records once. I was living in a little town called Oakley, southeast of Melbourne. Someone had obviously just pawned their entire collection of Jean-Jacques Perry, Gershon Kingsley and Moog Plays collection, and I was like, “Holy motherload!” That was great, and I’m a huge fan of late-’60s, novelty, humor electronic. I haven’t been digging for a while.
I guess when I’ve been buying records on the road, it’s new vinyl, but I did have a great time in Amoeba in L.A. and found Battlefield Earth, which I’d been interested to hear. That was up on the wall. I had to ask them to take it down for me. I’m really into L. Ron Hubbard’s music. Not many people know he has this music website [pauses to pull up the site]. Somebody sent me this link years ago. It’s called RontheMusicMaker.org, and it’s a little shrine to L. Ron’s sideline interests in music. There’s this great section [of the site]. I remember I loved it, because it was like L. Ron’s history of music. It was like four sentences, an attempt to condense the entire history of music, or at least 20th century music into four sentences, and it was absolutely magic [laughs]. I’m a huge fan. Especially when you find the bit about his studio and his philosophy about performing in a space where it feels like you’re doing a live performance, but in the studio.
When it comes to your studio philosophy, you’re actually very transparent and post lengthy videos about the making of your albums. Why are you willing to be so open?
I just had a lot of fun making those documentaries. Me and my friend James Bryans made those ourselves and edited them, did all the color-grading ourselves. He taught me a thing or two, and it was fun to operate in a different medium. I used it as a bit of a vehicle for me to explore a new mode of production with images. I’m happy to be open, because I feel like any strengths or possible magic that there may be in the music, it sort of comes out when you play it again on speakers. That’s the wonder of reproduced sound. You can have that spine-tingling moment with a recording, and when it can do that to you more than once, that’s an incredible thing recorded music can give you.
No amount of breaking that down or removing the mystery of how that process works takes that away. If there is something special in that combination of textures and words, and moments captured on record, then you can’t really explain it, ya know? I don’t think of it as some kind of black art, lest people find out how I do it [laughs].
In terms of being open about yourself as a person, do you feel the need to be more guarded after a year of heavy press scrutiny?
I think, here and there, maybe I’ve been a bit burned. I think I’ve realized I’m probably quite naïve in many ways. I do assume sometimes [that] journalists are my friends just because they smile and they ask a nice question, and then they quite happily will paraphrase or misquote grossly out of context [sighs], or just try to focus on what I realize in retrospect for me are things that are the furthest away of what we’ve been discussing: making music, my dedication to a craft, my interest in trying to better myself in a craft—the things I’m really into talking about…. When it becomes more about the personality, people seeking some aspect of celebrity or some sensationalism from me, who’s a very not-sensational type of guy [laughs], I guess I probably do find myself sometimes thinking twice before I talk to people, going, “Who is this person, and what do they want from me, and what do I really want to tell them?” Because I don’t feel like caring. Because I do know that I say the odd thing in the press and then go, “Why did I say that” or, “Why didn’t I think twice before I talked off-hand about something that comes across as some kind of really direct statement about something, when for me it was just a little bit of chit-chat?”
In the end, that stuff for me is so separate from what it is I’d like to put out there and be public about, which is the music I make…. It sounds cliché, but I just kind of wish it could be about the music.