:: Red Rocks Amphitheatre ::
:: August 22 ::
By Timothy Dwenger
Music lovers have been besieged by the name “Gotye” this year. Anyone who has turned on the radio even once in the past few months, has probably heard his recent mega-smash single “Somebody That I Used To Know.” Let’s face it, this song is everywhere — literally. It’s on in shopping malls, taxi cabs,and dentist offices, and it was even featured on an episode of Glee. It’s been almost impossible to avoid this unnervingly catchy tune as it has sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. alone. Oh, and don’t bother trying to skip the country if you can’t get the tune out of your head, it charted at #1 in more than 23 countries worldwide from South Africa to The Czech Republic. Simply put, it’s one of the biggest selling singles ever.
But unlike so many ‘superstars’ today, Gotye isn’t the winner of some televised, scripted “contest,” shepherded along by the biggest and best record labels and given the best session musicians in the world to work with. Nor is he an extraordinary one-hit wonder that just managed to get lucky with his first single. Instead, the man behind the mega-sensation is a simple music fanatic who spends his time digging through bins at second-hand record stores picking up anything that catches his eye so that he can later possibly sample them in a barn at his parents’ house in Australia.
Gotye was born Wouter “Wally” De Backer in 1980, and to date he has released three studio albums as Gotye and another four as part of the band The Basics. With countless hours of time spent in the studio and on tour, De Backer has proved over the course of a ten year career that he is a hard working musician who just happened to hit it big. He is living proof that it can happen to anyone, and proof of the old adage that “overnight success” often takes decades.
“I can’t ask for anything more in terms of what’s happened with my music in the last year, because it’s given me a new perspective on just how different it can be when you have a song in the charts and when you find a huge new audience. So, it’s kept things interesting for me,” De Backer said in a recent phone interview with The Marquee, from a chair in front of the fire as the clock pushed midnight at his home Down Under. “The momentum and the changes have meant that everything is new. There are new challenges and experiences and some of them are pleasant and some of them concern me. But overall, the whole thing has certainly been interesting every step of the way and I can’t really ask for more than that.”
The journey that got De Backer to where he is today started more than 20 years ago when he first started getting into pop music. “I remember getting really obsessed by The KLF when I was 10 years old,” he admitted. “I would hear their songs on video shows and then I would have to go out and convince my parents to buy me cassette singles of songs like ‘3am Eternal’ and ‘Last Train to Trancentral.’”
This fascination with pop music formed a solid foundation for his foray into creating music, which began a few years later. “I got a drum kit when I was 15 or 16 and I found a really fantastic drum teacher. I was just so excited about it,” De Backer said. “I remember going to drum lessons once a week and looking forward to him showing me new music, beats he’d come up with, things he’d scribbled down and notated, or books he suggested for me to find ideas for beats in. I have very strong memories of that. I’ve actually been intending to contact him to thank him because he was really my earliest musical mentor. He just inspired me with his playing and his passion for exploring rhythm, both mathematically and also emotionally.”
Today, De Backer is still exploring rhythms and sounds, and he is doing it on a variety of different instruments including the melodica, some old bike horns, the omnichord, which is the electronic equivalent of the autoharp put out by Suzuki in the ’80s, and of course the drums. While live instrumentation is an element of his music, a lot of what is going on his albums is made up of samples and sounds that are tweaked out of synthesizers.
“I do a lot of digging through second-hand shops and over the years, I’ve found a lot of things on Sharity Blogs as well, but it’s not always that great sampling MP3s. I like taking a punt on strange records with weird covers. Things that feel like they may reveal some surprising musical quality or incidental sounds,” he revealed. “I like stumbling upon things that people have ignored or forgotten or might have looked over even at the time they were released. Sometimes they are from really big records from the past, though I do sort of prefer things that are quite obscure or strange or peculiar and in the little nooks and crannies of musical history. Rather than nabbing the main riff from some little known, but still maybe celebrated electronic record in the ’60s, I would prefer finding some reverb trail or a snippet of a snare drum or something that feels like it’s an incidental aspect or an afterthought. There is something about excavating those bits and then using them as the material for stuff that becomes central to my music that I just kind of like as a process.”
It’s that process that he used to create the track “Somebody That I Used To Know,” that has made his name almost a household word around the world at this point. “I was at my local record shop and I found what to me was a very enticing album name: Luiz Bonfa Plays Great Songs. I just had to take that record home,” he remembered. “The song ‘Seville’ starts with four notes descending and there was just a certain texture to the way the strings were played and I immediately heard something in those first two notes that made me go ‘ahhhh!’ I feel like there is something in the repetition of that moment in sound. I just immediately felt that somehow the back and forth looping of those first two notes, out of his four chord opening, just had something very hypnotic about it. I’ve thought about it since, especially after the song has become so big, and I think it’s a combination of things. It’s partly the tone of his guitar and the tone of his playing with a pick on the string, but it is also the fact that there’s a bit of a weird tuning thing about it. The whole thing is not quite at concert pitch. The first note, D, is a little bit flatter than the second note, C, so you wonder if maybe that slightly intra-off relationship between the two notes maybe has a yearning aspect to it. I’ve wondered. I wouldn’t say that I’ve come to any conclusions, but I’ve wondered.”
De Backer went on to explain that an enormous amount of his songwriting is focused on trying to convey a certain emotion and feeling with a song and in the case of “Somebody That I Used To Know,” that feeling was melancholy. He acknowledged that Luiz Bonfa’s original tune “becomes quite a celebratory Tijuana brass style tune,” and that “it’s pretty upbeat,” but he went on to say, “I kind of like the fact that I could find a little bit of that song that, when isolated and focused on and looped, gave me a platform toward a whole different set of emotions. Those two notes, when looped, gave me an instant feeling of a hypnotic kind of melancholy. I guess I felt like I was just trying to be sure I didn’t mess that up with the song.”
Judging by the reaction from the record buying public, he didn’t mess anything up at all. In fact, he created a song that was somehow greater than the sum of its parts; a song that has taken on a life of its own and grown into something he never could have imagined as he dug through old dusty albums in his local record shop.
While “Somebody” is clearly the breakout song of De Backer’s career as an artist, it’s important to remember that he has a body of work apart from that one song and it’s a body of work that is worth listening to. Songs like “Learnalilgivinanlovin” from 2006’s Like Drawing Blood and the third single from his recent record Making Mirrors, “I Feel Better,” draw on the Motown sound for inspiration, while “State of the Art” from Making Mirrors experiments very successfully with dub. It’s songs like those that positioned De Backer for the success that he is currently enjoying and which will sustain him long after “Somebody That I Used To Know” fades from the airwaves and public consciousness.
:: Gotye ::
:: Red Rocks Amphitheatre ::
:: August 22 ::
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