“There are just tons of bands in Melbourne, and I think there is a bit of a chip on the shoulder that too many of them are going unrecognized.” So says Wally De Backer, aka Gotye.
The Belgian/Australian sampling guru’s second album, “Like Drawing Blood,” has been a phenomenon in Australia, and could be set for the same success when it is released in Japan next week — and he doesn’t take his recent success lightly. He talks at lightning speed and with breathless enthusiasm about everything from KLF and Depeche Mode to 1960s rock ‘n’ roll to Japanese artists such as Cornelius, YMO and Yura Yura Teikoku. But at the moment he is talking about the state of the music scene in Australia, in particular the rivalry between Sydney and his adopted hometown of Melbourne.
“There is this kind of thing where you see the newest band signed to Modular and it’s four more kids from Sydney with ’80s haircuts, and they’ve got a drum machine and maybe they’re gonna put some guitars on top. They’ve just signed this massive deal after four weeks practicing in their bedroom and the next thing you know they’re on planes drinking champagne. And you’re like, ‘I started this 12 years ago and I’ve been working so hard to get a chance to do that!’ “
De Backer isn’t bitter though. Within seconds he is enthusing about the new album by (Modular Records band) The Presets and singling out the success of indie-dance act Cut Copy in hitting the top of Australia’s Aria Charts as a sign of the positive impact that the label has had on the music scene.
The path to success for Gotye was very different to the “fashion and drugs and fast times and money” image of Sydney, however. He would work on tracks during downtime from his full-time job and his other band The Basics, he says, “gradually building up the tracks and mixing them, making the artwork myself and then sending out demo copies to every radio station in Australia, publicists, following everyone up for months afterwards by e-mail and over the phone.”
The years of hard graft were sometimes discouraging. His first album, “Boardface,” had a good critical reception and radio support but only managed to sell 800 copies, and his early attempts to find a label drew a blank.
“I think in some cases they were worried by the number of samples they’d have to clear, so I just decided to put it out myself and not clear anything. I mean, it’s going to cost them more money to pick up the phone to their lawyer than it does to sue this kid from Melbourne who’s only sold 2,000 copies.”
Because of the heavy emphasis on sampling in De Backer’s work as Gotye, he has been compared with groups such as The Go! Team and The Avalanches, but he believes he has a very different approach.
“The Go! Team and The Avalanches have this very layered, throw-the- kitchen-sink-in attitude,” he says. “Maybe there’s an influence in how I take the samples, but I’ll always try to hide the seam or make it sound like it’s a sort of orchestrated track in a vintage style rather than a guy who’s cut up 12 records and put them together. That’s where the influence of people like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush comes in; I love ’80s-type songwriting.”
It’s this emphasis on “vintageness” that is at the core of his use of samples, leading to the paradoxical situation where the technology of electronic music has come full circle to re-create vintage sounds that are difficult to produce live using modern equipment — an idea best displayed on the track “Learnalilgivinanlovin” from “Like Drawing Blood,” with its exuberant Spector-esque wall of sound.
“In some of my old bands,” De Backer explains, “it was like, ‘I really think the songs are good and the ideas are there, so why does it keep sounding sh*t?’ And I really think that’s because in Australia the studios aren’t good enough, the gear isn’t there, the people don’t have the time or the interest in making a world-class-sounding record. That’s one reason why I started sampling, because I had access to textures that have a far greater range of vibe.”
The most obvious display of his love for vintage rock sounds is not to be found on “Like Drawing Blood,” however, but with The Basics, and this is where the enthusiasm in his voice rises to its most passionate. The Basics, with De Backer as drummer, are a traditionally song-based rock band with a ’60s Mod image. He talks with raw, earnest intensity about the frustrations of playing live and trying to build support while being ignored by radio and the press. Nevertheless, it was with The Basics in 2007 that he first toured Japan.
“We came over here last year on a wing and a prayer,” he says, and as with his Gotye work, everything was organized from the bottom up. “We really enjoyed ourselves. We were playing on a lot of these six-band bills in tiny venues because we just had friends who booked things for us, since (The Basics have) no label over here, no management.”
With Gotye, however, De Backer is more ambivalent about playing on stage, with the challenge of translating such intricate, sample-based music into a live format having proved a logistics nightmare in the past. Nevertheless, he has recently settled on a format with which he is satisfied: “It’s a nine-piece orchestra with a string quartet, bass player, two sax players, clarinet and percussionist, and I play drums and sing, and then various kinds of pre-prepared backing material is dropped in,” he explains.
Reviews and audience responses from Australia have been encouraging, sometimes ecstatic, and he will be debuting the live show to Japanese audiences at this summer’s Fuji Rock Festival.
“The great thing,” he says, “is that all these people have never heard all this stuff before, so (I) have to be really into it too.” De Backer might have finally got the planes and champagne, but he certainly isn’t taking it for granted.
“Like Drawing Blood” is released on June 25. Gotye plays at Fuji Rock Festival at Naeba ski resort, Niigata Prefecture, on July 26.
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