My first issue as triple j magazine editor equaled a huge scoop. After convincing triple j that Gotye would make a terrific cover, especially if the cover concept was strong, I headed down to Wally’s parents place on the Mornington Peninsula just as ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was starting to go viral. The video had been released the previous week, and triple j had just started playing it relentlessly. By the time the mag, with its super-striking cover (which was shot by Sydney photographer Cybele Malinowski – Wally himself had brought the mirror-ball fragments on a whim) came out, Wally was on his way to international super-stardom.
WORDS: Jaymz Clements PHOTOS: Cybele Malinowski
Five years on from Like Drawing Blood, GOTYE reflects on going down the rabbit hole with Making Mirrors
AT THE end of a long country road, a stone’s throw from a peaceful deserted beach on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, there’s an unassuming barn. Inside its surprising number of rooms are the beginnings of a bed and breakfast, a jumble of furniture and chandeliers in various states of refurbishment, and a newly acquired antique pump organ. Wally De Backer’s father is sitting at a workbench, patiently constructing beehives. “I think he wanted some bees this summer, so he’s making hives,” laughs Wally, the
man behind the Gotye moniker.“He built this barn [which sits at the end of his property] himself as well.”
Wally points to the intricate windows at the front of the barn.“He taught himself the leadlighting in those windows, too.”
These renaissance man tendencies certainly don’t go unnoticed upstairs, either: here in the recording studio/nerve centre of Gotye are a number of modular soundproofing pillars also constructed by Wally’s dad. Nor does the apple fall far from the tree. Gotye makes deceptively simple-sounding, but incredibly complex, pop tunes and it’s here in this remote, as-yet-uninsulated studio that his new album, Making Mirrors, was meticulously crafted using everything from the sounds of a fence to an ’80s autoharp.
“I had the freedom to wake up in the morning and be,‘Right, well, today I work on my record,’”Wally recalls.“A lot of days I did that it was really difficult, almost because I wasn’t so crazy busy. I’d spend a full day trying things and the ideas wouldn’t work, or I’d come up with half of a shit song… I was feeling like the more time I had, the harder it was to actually make anything I thought was any good.”
Wally started on his follow-up to 2006‘s Like Drawing Blood — the No.11 Hottest Australian Album of All Time, as voted by triple j listeners — in earnest towards the end of 2008 when he sampled the ‘musical fence’ in Winton, Queensland, while on tour with his other project, Melbourne three-piece the Basics. He realised it was the starting point of a new Gotye song, which eventually became Making Mirrors’ lead single,‘Eyes Wide Open’.
The process would become indicative of how Wally approached the album: crafting the countless tiny pieces of samples into larger melodic parts.“That was one of the things I enjoyed the most,” he says.“I like when instruments would become something different, completely repurposing it, using it as a textural or timbral starting point and then making my own parts.”
Wally bounds out of his chair and rummages through a collection of exotic instruments, toys and knick-knacks.“I went through a lot of acoustic instruments and sampled them one note at a time, then I’d make my own multi-samplers of them — virtual versions of these acoustic instruments.”
Wally opens up his laptop and finds — among his “ten gig[abytes] or so” of new samples — an example of a bamboo instrument he created this way. Indeed, the time and effort that’s gone into producing miniscule elements of his songs is remarkable.
With countless other musical titbits floating around his computer and sample systems dating back to his 2003 debut, Boardface, Wally made a conscious choice to settle into his studio, shut himself off and begin his sample bank again.
“I decided to make a clean break, to not look at the past stuff. Which is ironic,” he reflects,“’cause I’m looking at the past all the time by collecting records… but I decided to not look at all those projects and to start afresh; creating my own instruments out of samples, seeing where they’d take me.”
There were some mammoth changes in Wally’s life post-Like Drawing Blood: moving out of the city, buying a house in the country with his girlfriend (it’s just around the corner from his parents’ place) and constructing the studio in his parents’ barn.
He was also dealing with the pressure of suddenly being a successful solo artist and live drawcard, while trying to keep up with the Basics, who released two studio albums and a live record in the time between Gotye albums.
Starting “afresh” gives Making Mirrors not just a new sense of musical direction, but also a narrative voice. It’s one that’s at times deeply introspective and darkly insular (‘Easy Way Out’), but also remarkably hopeful and celebratory (‘Save Me’).
“It was about being in bad headspaces: frustration and dissatisfaction with a sense of powerlessness, or a sense of nihilism, about not being able to change [the] human global direction of basically rorting our planet,”Wally says.“Not effectively addressing all the core issues that will lead us, probably, to some kind of Armageddon.”
Ah. All the easy stuff then. Wally laughs loudly.“Yeah, love songs and dedications,” he grins.
“Maybe I can’t escape my own headspace,” he muses.“I try to be as open as possible to whatever comes into my life, whether that’s a physical item like an instrument, a cultural artifact or a record that I can appropriate in some way, or whatever thoughts are floating around in my head… and not put any limits on what it could be.”
Wally found himself exploring the depths of confusion, sadness and anger about the state of the world while trying to channel his optimism and faith that, underneath it all, a life full of love and appreciation for all the good parts is still, y’know, pretty damn ace.
“[The record] has an arc that I really like,” he nods.“A bit less of the all-over-the-place of Like Drawing Blood. I like how there’s a turning point: the exuberant point of ‘I Feel Better’, which as a song is analogous to ‘Whoa, there were times when I felt this [frustrated], but now I feel really good’.
“I want to try to fit the whole world of music in my head into an album, or even into a song”
“So it sounds like me, I guess,” Wally grins.“Which is good! I feel like I can stand behind all the lyrics more, in every song. It does feel like an evolution from what I was starting to do on Like Drawing Blood.”
OUTSIDE, it’s getting darker. It’s incredibly peaceful and impossibly quiet: just right for Wally to immerse himself in his musical world for a couple of years. You certainly get a sense of the isolation — even with his parents and girlfriend close by — that pervades his albums.
Aside from the extraordinary musical textures Gotye achieves, the most interesting aspect of Wally’s music is this concept of duality. On one hand, he’s a charming, grounded young man in a loving relationship; on the other, he’s an artist who places himself at the centre of his art like few others. He’s writing songs, finding samples, cutting them up, playing and creating instruments, then recording, mixing and producing everything (with François Tétaz helping him out).
“There’s that dark path in you as an artist,” he muses.“There’s the romantic in you, a little voice that goes,‘Maybe you’ve gotta fuck something up here, create a little chaos’… I really struggle with that feeling, ’cause I’m someone who really looks for balance in my life.”
The constant struggle of competing emotions and viewpoints in relationships is something that sits at the heart of the album’s choicest cut,‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ (featuring Melbourne-based Kiwi singer Kimbra). It also begs the question as to whether Wally himself is ‘good at’ relationships…
“It doesn’t sound like it!” He laughs uproariously.“Well,” he qualifies,“it depends on which song you listen to on the album. I’m really lucky to be in a great relationship. At some points during the making of this record I felt a bit like,‘Oh… there’s this sense of domestic bliss and relationship satisfaction and mutual support… is it actually counter- productive when it comes to trying to create things?’ ’Cause you can easily get into a comfortable zone…”
It also meant Wally had to rummage around in his rucksack of experiences for inspiration. “‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ did require me to dig back to older relationships,” he says.“Like when I was 15, in love with this goth-y chick and I was so torn up about this… I remember feeling, in hindsight, there was something quite peculiar about how I felt, and how I think she felt. Stuff like that worked its way in there to push the intensity of the feelings I express in that song.”
“Same with Kimbra coming in and changing your perspective, because when you hear
a narrator, you tend to [accept] their point of view. I like that [second perspective], as that song for me is all about the range of things you can go through in a relationship… and [serves] maybe as a microcosm of the rest of the record.”
Kimbra’s involvement only came about after Wally had spent countless hours refining Making Mirrors in François Tétaz’s studio in Melbourne’s Richmond (“it’s laborious, but you’ve got to trust each other, let each other do their thing and not interrupt them too much”). Wally had met Kimbra four years ago when she was covering his ‘Hearts a Mess’. But the pair didn’t stay in touch “even though I thought she was great”, and it took François — who was working on her debut LP, Vows — to mention her after they’d tried other female voices.
“It didn’t have that moment,”Wally recalls of ‘Somebody’,“that zing it needed to have, and I was almost talking myself into ‘good enough’. [François] knew it wasn’t, and was like,‘Get Kimbra.’ I’m like,‘Fuck yeah! Great idea,’ and I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. And it sounds great.
“I think one of the aspects people are responding to is the duet aspect: two artists, two people giving their perspectives. It just gives it something more.”
With the album wrapped up before the ‘Somebody’ clip went viral in July (thanks to the odd unsolicited push from Ashton Kutcher and Lily Allen), the response to the song was a welcome reminder of how deeply Gotye resonates with punters. Wally, however, has little idea as to why this may be.
“I think there are far more interesting things in life than to listen to my music,” he chuckles. “But I try to be honest with what I do, however peculiar that might be, so I think I’m drawn to be even more peculiar with my music and see if people will go with me.
“I get a sense that there’s a fairly wide range of people who respond to my music, and it’s just nice to notice that people like it for different reasons — I find that really heartening. I don’t what it is about my music that maybe does that, but maybe it’s the variety in it, maybe it’s the honesty… I don’t know.”
WALLY’S point brings up a strange thought. It’s odd that there’s such honesty in something that’s almost completely constructed from artifice.“Yeah, maybe that’s the balance I’m trying to find,” Wally ponders.“’Cause I feel like I’ll never be ‘cool’.”
How refreshingly honest.
“I’ll listen to bands that are really cool or look at artwork and I go,‘I’m never going to be cool like that’ — because I’m not cool like that. But it’s alright; I think I can accept that.” He grins.“I hope to maintain that, regardless of what music I make, to be able to avoid too much artifice, regardless of how complex my process might become… it all comes down to genuine feeling.”
Wally says that he finds it difficult to satisfy himself musically — which pushes him ever onward.“I have these high aspirations and I want to try all these things… I want to try to fit the whole world of music in my head into an album, or even into a song…
“You have all these hopes and you end up shaving away little layers as you get closer to the mix, and going,‘I need to slightly lower my expectations of what this song means to me’ or what it’s meant to make me feel… because I’ve been chewing on it for a while and it’s not likely to send chills down my spine the way it did when I first wrote it, when I was like,‘Oh! This is amazing! I’ve really nailed it here!’”
Even with an overseas release in his sights, Wally is contemplating how to challenge himself further.
“There’s a part of me that feels really drawn to, on the next record, doing something completely different,” he says.“Y’know, trying to find an aesthetic I’m really into and exploring that for one whole album, and not worrying if there’s a single on there, or a chorus even.
“Hearing the new Bon Iver record makes me kind of inspired to do that… There’s a part of me that wanted to do that on this album, just go,‘I just want to do something that’ll fuck people up.’”
: Jaymz Clements