Interview: Wally De Backer / Gotye
[sydney festival 2011]
Crossroads and Compromise
By Jordan Smith
Wally De Backer (Gotye, to your playlist) is exactly the kind of artist one wants to interview – genuine, open, funny and a bit eccentric. In a constantly bubbling stream of eloquent chatter, the Belgium-born and Melbourne-based artist paints a very candid picture of the difficulties he faces, what keeps him going and how he’s changed – in the same amount of time it takes most artists to say they’re “very fortunate” and “working hard on the new tour.” Our conversation traverses every which way, as De Backer energetically follows through on every tangent; so for the purposes of coherency (and with a defiant grin to every HSC English teacher who warned me never to write articles as recounts) I’ll relay this chronologically.
Somewhat surprisingly, De Backer was a comparatively late bloomer, taking up his first instrument (every neighbour’s delight – the drums) at the ripe old age of 16. He doesn’t remember the first song he wrote, but admits it’s probably cringe-worthy now – he’s in no hurry to go digging it up. “You might find somebody you don’t connect with anymore and realise it’s yourself at one stage!” De Backer took some time discovering and developing his voice as a teenager, starting off only singing baritone on account of a healthy obsession with Depeche Mode… “I do distinctly remember my mum telling me ‘maybe you should just stick to drums… you’re pretty good on drums, but singing – not so much.’ I didn’t really take that to heart though. I just thought, ‘well I’ll show you!’ ”
These days it’s safe to say that mum has been “shown”, as De Backer’s vocals are a defining aspect of the sound of Gotye. To anyone that sings, or has tried to sing, join me in marvelling at the accuracy of his summary of the relationship between our voice and ourselves: “On some level, your voice is the most transcendent expression you can make of something you feel or want to express. I find being able to sing just as frustrating as I do liberating, as you get more aware of your limitations and the instrument you have in your throat,” he says. “You want to express things you think you feel, but you can’t quite make the sound that you want to hear coming out of your throat… It can be especially frustrating, because you feel a bit closer to the sound of your voice than maybe you do an instrument that you play.” Try and sing along to ‘Heart’s a Mess’ and tell me you don’t know what he’s talking about…
Fast-forward now to the making of his long-awaited fourth album (which is almost finished – he pinkie promises). Following the mantra of “strike while it’s fresh,” De Backer has pieced this album together through a variety of methods and places: from Melbourne studios, to a barn on his parent’s land, to the back of a bus between Hamburg and Munich. Some parts were arranged with samples on a laptop, others born from more traditional man-at-the-piano song-writing methods. Place affects music, says De Backer. “The sense of place gives me a more personal memory of creating certain songs; it can often be richer than if you’ve grabbed lots of digital samples from all over the place and put them together.” Such an approach can have its difficulties at times, though – De Backer encountered a bunch of hassles recording in some awkward spaces, and went to peculiar lengths to cut out the ambient sounds: “I’ve cut open mattresses in share-houses and stuck who knows what on the walls,” he laughs – but it’s not indie unless you’ve recorded somewhere impractical, right?
Whilst hanging the final baubles on his album, De Backer has been preparing for his upcoming live performances (Sydneysiders can catch him in his own show at City Recital Hall, and at Laneway Festival). He reveals that although he’s very happy with the final product, the show is quite different from his original vision. “I’ve always had ideas for a multifaceted audiovisual performance, but I now realise I have to take baby steps. We went out there looking to do something very elaborate, and after three months of trying it just wasn’t coming together.
“It’s hard because I feel like I’m moving in two directions,” he continues. “One direction is trying to take my music to a completely live environment where I’m using a mini orchestra of 15-20 people … The focus of the whole show will be around the music and about how I interact as part of that ensemble or conducting that ensemble.” The other direction, he says, is where the live-ness is secondary to the experience; the music exists around a projection between two screens, where Wally himself is just a sillouette. It’s this vision which has had to be sidelined for now. “It’s a bit debilitating, to be completely honest with you – having these ambitions and things you want to do, and trying to live between the incredible limitations that a stage at Laneway has, and the greater possibilities that a theatre offers.”
As the writer of “pop-rock music that maybe wants to be something artier,” De Backer is often dealing with contradictions in realising his vision. “[The trick is] working out whether that’s a compromise that really cuts against something you hold dear, or whether it’s just an inevitable compromise you make so many times a day just to have a music career.”
What: City Recital Hall, Angel Place
When: Thursday January 27
More: Laneway Festival, Sydney February 6 @ SCA with Chk Chk Chk, Beach House, Deerhunter, Holy Fuck and more