Gotye: "It's all plastic surgery from here."
Wally De Backer has had a decent run of late, you could say.
The ridiculous success of 'Somebody I Used To Know' has sent the singer/songwriter/percussionist around the world solidly for the last year and a half, playing to a wildly increasing audience. With that infamous video now sitting in the top 5 all-time viewed clips on YouTube, the song's unlikely omnipresence has made household names of both De Backer and his co-star Kimbra, single-handedly launching them on the world stage. Beyond that one tune making the pair an internet meme, Gotye's 2011 album, Making Mirrors, swept the recent ARIA Awards and he's just been nominated for three Grammy awards, due to be announced in February.
Chatting to De Backer this week, on the morning after his set at the Riverstage in Brisbane—the second last date on a triumphant victory lap of Australia (this writer saw the singer's hometown show in Melbourne)—the man was amiable and talkative. As befits both a meticulous producer and someone who's spent the last year talking to globe's media, he's adept at stringing incredibly articulated ideas together in quick and highly specific fashion. He talked to TheVine about the personal journey of his success, the musical direction that he's considering next, and the urgent issue of his horn sections' fashion sense.
Are you coming down from last night? Or staying down, maybe?[Laughs] I'm coming down from breakfast.
I spoke to you early last year, around the time 'Somebody That I Used To Know' was being released. You were talking then about being a solo artist finalising your band. I saw you in Melbourne this week and it struck me that you're a bandleader now.
Yeah, I guess! On some level. What I do in the studio and on the records, they lead the way in terms of jumping off points for arrangements. But everyone in the band has ideas and it's really great to be able to take that input and work through it. We've been doing a lot of that over the past year, through rehearsing and doing a lot of shows -- people suggesting ideas or even urging me to be freer with certain things. Especially on one or two songs where I decided to arrange things [live] from scratch, rather than using the album as a starting point -- thinking of it as a song, a set of chords and lyrics. That felt really good. So there's good communication between all of us [in the band] and it brings out the best in us I think.
Was that collaboration a begrudging process? For someone so used to working on their own and calling the shots?
No, not at all, it's usually quite clear. I think the [band] are always open [to it]. I mean, especially on the drums, Michael [Iveson, Gotye band drummer] is quite free to do different turnarounds and different grooves, experimenting with the drum parts every night and I'm really open to that. Then sometimes we'll be in rehearsal and he'll suggest something more formal: 'what about we change this section or do that?' And I feel strongly one way or another, and I feel free to say that [to him]. I guess it's still quite clear that I call the shots in terms of how the arrangements are going to be finalised. But everybody suggests things.
I saw you at the Sydney Opera House show in 2011 when you launched the album. You were playing drums a lot more on stage then. Was coming out the front of the stage part of that process?
Yeah. I've gotten a little bit more comfortable moving around the stage, just singing and stuff. I think when we launched the show at the Opera House, despite a few months of rehearsals, there was still a lot of nerves. And I think I probably still couldn't really sing a lot of the songs. I really stretched my vocal range on [Making Mirrors]. So all the touring and working on my voice means I'm a lot more comfortable being able to get up on stage and, y'know, sing the songs (laughs). And maybe just picking my moments on the drum kit a bit more.
When you open your voice up a bit more, get better at it, you're able to access different emotions and project differently. Do you think that might lend a different approach to singing in future?
Potentially. I don't think I'm a natural vocalist. I've never had lessons. I kind of started off as someone who always wanted to sing -- I feel connected to a sound that I make with my voice, that resonance. I take some stock in the fact that I've gotten slowly better over the years, and I think there's still plenty of places to go in terms of accessing the potential for expressing things, maybe more truthfully. Or connecting what you can do with the texture of your voice -- not just technically extending my range, or anything like that.
This might be partly a result of playing with samples, which tend to not be as flexible in terms of key signatures, but it seems like a lot of my stuff ends up being either really low in my range—husky and soft, perhaps a bit too low for me to actually sing with much projection—or I'm absolutely screaming my nuts off at the top of my range.
Some of my songs' strengths maybe come from that intense contrast of range and texture. But sometimes I feel like I could do better, even just to find the middle of my range; things I can express with it. I'm not actually singing that much in the comfortable meat of my range [at the moment]. When I sing along with other vocalists, like, I dunno—people use Peter Gabriel comparisons, but—sometimes I'll sing along with songs of his and go 'oh there's a part of my range here that I can access quite easily that's actually quite powerful and strong. But I've never really been here.' It's always half an octave above or below [where I usually sing].
I don't know if I'm just not aware of what sort of key changes really work [for me]—probably really pro vocalists are aware of what key they sing best in, the strongest bits of their range—but I've never formally looked at that. I just kind of follow each song in terms of what it allows me to do melodically.So—to cut a long story short [laughs]—I have thought that a good approach to another record might be to focus on my voice. Whether it's electronic modulations and playing with talk boxes or just harmonising—start off with the voice as the instrument and not think about percussion or keyboards or things like that. Just use the lyric or melody as a starting point.
Playing such large venues now, a lot of that lower range maybe doesn't connect live the way it does in headphones.
No, it's hard. Although I think my sound guy does a really incredible job. You saw the Myer Music Bowl Show [in Melbourne]? I had mixed reports there. That venue is inconsistent sound wise. I had some audio engineer friends of mine who were siting in the middle of the seated section at the front and they were like, 'all your soft stuff, it's gotta come up 6db. Couldn't understand any of the soft stuff, it's gotta cut through.' [Laughs]. But then other people who were up in the general admission area, where the delay stack speakers have no physical objects to bounce around or get confused in, they were like 'nah we understood every single word no matter how soft you were singing.' So it's tough for the sound guy to make every venue that you play in sound perfect. But that's something that we've definitely worked on.
Whenever you travel for a long period of time it's always a great revealer. Of both yourself and the people you're travelling with. Have there been any discoveries?
I've felt a lot of satisfaction in the last nine months. After many years of striving very hard and maybe feeling dissatisfied or disappointed with what I've been able to do in my performance, or in the overall feel and sound of where the show got to, things have moved forward a lot. Just by being able to focus on a few very simple but very key things in the whole process of touring and the shows. But it works.
If anything I think there's been a lot of endurance and stamina and commitment involved and everybody has done remarkably well. Everyone goes through their ups and downs [on tour], everybody in the band has moments where either you're getting a bit sick or feeling down. And you can tell because they won't talk very much for a day or two. But otherwise no, we've had such a fantastic time with the band and crew. We got a basketball ring on the U.S. tour and set it up in the parking lot in the sunshine. A table-tennis table surrounded by twelve of us every day on the European tour. So yeah we've had a lot of fun and the shows have been great. That's been one of the best experiences.
I'm really glad I didn't finish the long U.S. tour we did in March and April and decide that that was it. Because there were moments—especially on the European tour we did before that in February—where I was still in the head space of, 'oh it's so much hard work. I'm just not enjoying it, despite all the success. It seems like people keep telling me—more than I am actually experiencing—that this must be living my dream.' Or something.
But then I had a real turnaround through touring the U.S. where I figured out [some things.] The shows started to get a better direction and my experience of how things fit together started falling into place. That was fantastic. Especially working towards new music, [I feel] like that might be a launching point next -- that I can be ambitious with the show but some of those logistical decisions mean I will be able to enjoy it from the start.That must be a pleasant and relieving discovery in terms of looking at the next couple of years.
Yeah, as opposed to having those times, I suppose, where, about a year ago [I was going] 'wow. Things are beyond my expectations and it's huge and successful and this is great, but will I really want to continue with this at this level?' Because it's such a vexation. That kind of feeling. 'Why am I not enjoying this?' So that turnaround has been really good.
The irony of your success as a solo artist—one working in a relative vacuum, at least on a global level—is that you can now choose to work with anyone and in any capacity that you can conceive of. Do you begin the next chapter by opening or closing those doors? I don't know. It would be good to explore. I'm only interested to collaborate with people if it feels like a mutually interesting thing. I think experimenting would be good. It would be nice to not go into making any kind of music with the preconceived expectation of 'this is a Gotye track', or 'this is going to be on a Gotye album'. Just trying to be as open as possible. Not going, 'oh this kind of collaboration would never work with a Gotye track so I won't work with them.'
But there haven't been that many people [in question]. There's been people I've been a fan of for a long time, producers or musicians who have said 'let's get together and do some stuff'. So hopefully I'll have time to do that in the coming months.
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