When Wally De Backer first came to Japan with his rock band The Basics, his prospects didn’t seem very promising.
“We’d come to Japan and play at these live-house venues. We got about 30 or 40 industry people to come down to a show and one guy from a label came over and whispered in my ear, ‘Hmmm, you are a very good band. This does not work in Japan. You should sign to a U.K. label or American label, have success, then you sign Japan. This will not work.”
So that’s exactly what De Backer did. He now records as solo project Gotye (pronounced goti-yeah) and his recent infectious single, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” has had more than 250 million views on YouTube, sold millions of copies, and made the Top 10 charts in 30 countries — including the highly coveted top spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
After all this, De Backer has come back to Japan to promote his new album and a slot at the Summer Sonic festival in August. But if anyone’s surprised by this 32-year-old Australian’s success, it’s De Backer himself.
“I was picturing myself never having a hit single, really,” he says at the Tokyo office of record distributor Hostess. “I thought where I fit was very much in album territory in a kind of … trying-to-write-alternative-pop-music-but-never-having-a-hit-single realm.”
Now that he’s had a taste of chart success, De Backer is fully committed to pursuing it. He has conducted interviews for 10 hours straight when he speaks to The Japan Times. He’s been using Japanese when possible to speak to the media (he studied it in university), and he has had to do short — but surreal — stints on Japanese TV shows including “Waratte Ii Tomo.”
Still, he says he’s intent on “really working this album. Doing this, getting it out there and then getting back to making music.”
After all, that’s what De Backer does best. “Making Mirrors,” the album “Somebody That I Used to Know” is on, is the result of five years of hard work. It was created over hours and hours spent tinkering with vintage organs and synthesizers, and sampling tiny snippets from records found in second-hand stores near his hometown on the Mornington Peninsula in Australia.
“Somebody That I Used to Know,” which also features New Zealand singer Kimbra, came from sampling the guitar break of Brazilian composer Luiz Bonfa’s “Seville.” It took more than six months to make.
One thing that’s clear about De Backer is that he’s a perfectionist. The music he makes must satisfy his own sonic desires and when other people like it, that’s a bonus. Despite the success he’s had with “Making Mirrors,” he still seems a bit unsatisfied.
“Reviews just confirm to me things that I already know, which is I really tried f-cking hard on that song for the months I worked on it and it still ended up being only an average song,” he says, referring to tracks he’s still not 100 percent sure of. “But it doesn’t really make a difference to me if someone at a certain paper or whatever says, ‘Yes, he did it,’ or, ‘This is a pile of bullsh-t.’ “
This passion, which almost borders on obsessiveness, comes across in all aspects of Gotye’s work, including the live performances he often does with the help of a 10-member backing band. He says that he has only recently felt that after seven years of trying, his live shows are actually good.
“Despite all the energy and effort I’ve put in in the past, I feel like (the shows) have always just been OK or not very good,” he says. “If (band member) Tim’s sampler doesn’t work for that song or we’ve missed the three main hooks, then it very significantly affects the musical quality of the show.”
De Backer doesn’t want to fall into the trap of playing a substandard set just because it’s electronically produced. All his samples are triggered or manipulated live in an attempt to challenge his band and the audience.
“You do see shows that sound great but where, as a musician, you’re looking at the band going, ‘He’s just been miming for an hour,’ ” he says. “It’s totally on the level of pop stars playing and miming along with a microphone.”
De Backer’s attention is incredibly focused when he talks about managing every aspect of his live performances. But if there’s one thing he’s unable to control, it’s how people interpret what he does.
Do a search for “Somebody That I Used to Know” on the Internet and hundreds of fan-made versions will pop up. Becoming famous can be hard for many people to handle, especially someone who prizes originality and craves creative control.
“Am I somehow responsible for putting a lot of crap versions of this one song ad nauseam into the culture sphere?” De Backer asks. “I have a lot of people still going, ‘Hey, I noticed you’re putting out a compilation of the official remixes of ‘Somebody,’ I reckon mine’s better than any of those. Check it out.’
“And I almost feel like saying, ‘I don’t even want to listen to it. I don’t care whether it’s better than any of the other remixes. You have come along after this song has already been out a year and a half, after being the biggest song in the world, and after I’ve listened to it as many as a hundred times — and you want me to care about it? And you want me to think that that’s somehow a good musical decision?’ I feel like going to them, ‘You should rethink your sh-t.’ “
De Backer pauses and laughs; he’s not angry, just a little perplexed. But people bastardizing his work is clearly something he’s given a lot of thought to. He mentions Prince’s “Internet is dead” response of hiring people to take down unauthorized recordings as a way of controlling his image, but dismisses it just as quickly.
“On the other hand, that’s heavily imperialistic and goes against one of the things that I find genuinely exciting about the Internet and YouTube and how weirdly mutated things can become,” he says.
It’s also difficult to be against the Internet when it’s the medium that helped make him famous.
“The YouTube views directly led to (industry) people going, ‘Wow, people are really responding to this music, this is gonna be a hit. We should consider talking to this guy.’ “
When we discuss the future of Gotye, De Backer speaks breathlessly about the kind of music that inspires him — leftfield and alternative pop artists such as Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel.
But the newfound chart hero is acutely aware of commercial viability.
“I would love to see stuff like Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver in the pop charts,” he says, “but there might be aspects of the music they do that inherently limits that happening.”
De Backer is a pop-music lover at heart and still wants to create his own brand of quirky, catchy songs. But he wants to move in a new direction from “Making Mirrors,” either into more electronic music using only synth and auto-electronic sound boxes, or into a more organic place.
“I know I’ve said there’s a lot of live instruments on this record, and there have been,” he says. “I still feel it’s very loop-based and I feel like that is one of the things that holds it back as a record. I think it lacks a certain human energy that comes from not being on a grid in software but from actually playing.”
De Backer finally stops to take a breath at this point. You can almost feel his excitement at the thought of this whirlwind of fame finally slowing and him being able to record music again.
“It just means it’ll have that aura of people, in a room … having a moment.”
“Making Mirrors” is in stores now. Gotye plays Summer Sonic’s Tokyo leg at Makuhari Messe in Chiba on Aug. 18, and at Maishima in Osaka on Aug. 19. For more information, visit www.gotye.com or www.summersonic.com.