It’s rare for an independent artist to put out a record on his own label and win a clutch of national awards. It’s rarer still for said album to be recorded and produced in the artist’s bedroom. And for that artist to be a singing drummer with a seemingly unpronounceable name? Gotye (pronounced: ‘Gaultier’, like Jean-Paul, the French clothes designer) is a singular find.
This Belgian-born, but Australian based, singer, songwriter and sampler, christened Wouter De Backer, (but known to friends as Wally) was awarded the (Mercury Prize equivalent) 2006 Australian Music Prize award for outstanding potential as well as the Australian Independent Records album of the year and, in September 2007, he bagged the Australian Recording Industry Award (ARIA) for Best Male Artist. He also picked up, Australian national youth radio station, Triple J’s Album of the Year for his second album Like Drawing Blood.
Like a newfound Beck- minus the self-conscious satire – Gotye conjures incredible tunes from the most unlikely places. Phil Collins-style yacht rock morphs into Tijuana brass-flavoured orchestral pop on Like Drawing Blood, while DJ Shadow-style sample layering excursions are pieced together from second-hand vinyl, cassettes, VHS, mp3s and a smattering of live instruments.
Part of Gotye’s unique appeal can be traced back to 2000, when the 20-year-old musician, then residing in Melbourne, Australia, received a strange legacy. “The lady next door to me passed away,” recalls Wally. “She had a huge collection of assorted vinyl, and her husband didn’t want to keep it. He came around one day and said ‘I know you’re a musician. Do you want these?’” This assortment of Elvis albums, eighties pop compilations, plus a few good Herb Alpert platters, set Wally thinking: “There’s this treasure trove of weird and wonderful undiscovered or simply forgotten sounds out there.”
Around the same time as he took possession of his late neighbour’s record collection, Wally also finished putting together a simple home studio. “I had bought a computer, soundcard and microphones,” he explains. The intention was to record his old high school band, a grungy outfit called Downstares in which Wally played drums, yet the group had broken up the year before.
Seeing that the would-be producer was now bereft of band, a friend lent him a DJ Shadow album, and suggested that he record some sample-based material. This advice was remarkably well timed. “I used ACID [software], got my head around how it worked, and it turned out great for doing what I wanted to do.” Neither straight-forward trip-hop compositions, nor conventional pop songs, Wally’s new recordings combined freshly played licks and fills with crackly snippets of other records. Rather than simply looping beats or lifting melodies, he let the found sounds glide in and out of his own tunes, in a near-orchestral manner, giving his tracks a unique and fresh, yet retro, appeal.
When dreaming on a new artist title for this project, Wally reached back into his childhood. De Backer was born on 21st May 1980 in Bruges, Belgium. His parents had met at community choir, and the music, language and culture of European traditions remained with him. “They were very interested in folk music, choral traditions and Georgian singing,” he says of his folks. When he was young, his mother, a Flemish speaking French teacher, sometimes called him ‘Gaultier’, which is the French equivalent of “Wouter”. Wally played around with the spelling, keeping the pronunciation the same, yet skewing the letters a little, and finally came up with his new name: Gotye. “It seemed to suit the music,” he explains, “taking something old, from my past, modifying it and making it new.”
Despite sharing in his parent’s appreciation of folk and choral music, Wally’s first passion was the magpie pop of Britain’s early nineties rave outfit, The KLF. “The KLF really caught me when I was 12 years old. I think the first tune I heard was 3AM Eternal,” he remembers, “I bought all their cassette singles, and I still love their music. They were a big influence on me, especially for pop riffs, I love their ear for sampling and their recycling of their own hooks. It was only as I grew a little older that I realised they were commenting so cleverly on pop culture, politics and the music industry”
Wally began making music on a set of African tom toms his parents had bought for him, initially using a pair of chopsticks to bash out rhythms. “It took me until I was sixteen to convince my parents to buy me a drum kit,” he says, “ and when I got my first set of proper sized drum sticks I thought they were way too big!”. Initially he played along to Police tracks. “I remember trying to cop a lot of Stewart Copeland’s riffs,” he explains, “he’s a big influence, if not my favourite drummer. I was fascinated by how he would weave reggae and rock beats together, and the driving energy he put forth in his playing.” The sample-pioneer and singer-songwriter, Kate Bush, also holds sway in his record collection.
If these influences weren’t suitably varied, as he matured Wally began buying masses of obscure jazz, classical recordings and other, more difficult discs, partly for the samples, but also for the compositions. “I’ve found that all the records I tried to disown as influences or deny quality in, I’ve later returned to, and ended up really liking them,” he explains, “so I bought a ton of stuff from [Aussie Oxfam equivalent] op shops, trying to pick out styles of music that hadn’t interested me before.” In so doing, he came across some surprising finds. “I quite like the English composer, Delius, and I found Holst’s Planets Suite very stirring stuff,” he says; though it should be added that he also appreciates Massive Attack, fellow Melbourne sample-hounds, The Avalanches, as well as eighties heavyweights Depeche Mode and The Cure, and sixties luminaries like The Beatles and Phil Spector.
With a newly amassed record library, a suitably eclectic set of influences and with no-one else around to tell him what to do, Wally began work on the first Gotye album in earnest, holding down a number of lowly day jobs and recording in the evenings and at weekends. “I worked in cafes,” he recalls, “and then in libraries, as well doing data entry for a while.”
His debut Gotye album, Boardface, came out independently in 2004 with Wally acting as his own record label, and it was made available in Australia by independent distributor Creative Vibes. Thanks to Wally’s own hard graft and self-promotion, a few of the shimmering, hook-laden album tracks gained plays on Triple J; the Aussie equivalent of BBC Radio 1. Yet sales remained too meagre to support a full-time career. Despondent, he held down his library job and decided to try once more.
This new album, Like Drawing Blood, a distillation of all his pop hopes and fears, laid over an uncanny patchwork of 20th century sound snippets, proved far more successful in his adopted home than Wally could have imagined; and though he composed and recorded the album, he owes a debt of acoustic sophistication to contemporary composer, film scorer and producer for the likes of Architecture in Helsinki, Francois Tétaz; who mixed and mastered Like Drawing Blood. “He is responsible for some key additional production flourishes, creating a great depth of field to the mix of the record, and developing the space and breadth of sound in the tracks,” Wally explains.
His initial radio success with Boardface was redoubled with this sophomore CD. Triple J began playing a selection of tracks in 2006, before Wally had even begun to shop his album around to labels. Bloggers began to comment, and offers began to come through. However, having acted as his own producer, publicist and manager, Wally thought he would try his hand as a record label boss, releasing the album on his own label, with a little help from Creative Vibes.
“I did it as an independent release,” he explains, “I did the artwork and packaging. I pressed up 1000 CDs and mailed 500 out to media. It all rolled on from there.” Radio support strengthened and the Aussie press was filled with glowing plaudits for the album. Wally began touring the album (sometimes as a one man show, sometimes with a mini orchestra), corralling his new album’s multilayered tracks into workable live arrangements.
Then the nation’s judging panels began to pay attention. Like Drawing Blood won Triple J’s, and also the Australian Independent Records, Album of the Year. Whilst Gotye picked up the Australian Music Prize award for outstanding potential and, in September 2007, won the Australian Recording Industry Award (ARIA) for Best Male Artist.
Now, thanks to a random and solitary late night play of album track Learnalilgivinanlovin on Sean Rowley’s BBC London show back in early 2006 and after two years’ worth of transcontinental telephone calls, Like Drawing Blood is getting a UK release, on Lucky Number.
“It’s been a crazy time,” reflects Wally, “at the start of 2006 I didn’t dream that I could be a full-time musician, letalone that my music might see a release outside Australia”
Wally handed in his notice at the library in 2007. The re-shelving trolley may have lost a
pair of hands but music has gained a sampladelic alt-pop wunderkind.