“Somebody I Used to Know” is one of the best-selling singles of 2012 so far. He has rocketed to international success, even having a song featured on Glee. I interviewed Gotye just before he hit the big time about how he makes music, his major influences and what makes him tick.
SO WHAT ARE YOU UP TO AT THE MOMENT?
I am just hanging out at the Universal building actually, in Kensington.
IS THAT YOUR LABEL?
Yes. Island yeah, Island Records.
CAN YOU FILL US IN, IN A NUTSHELL, ON YOUR MUSICAL JOURNEY SO FAR?
I think my musical journey has been spent largely outside the music industry. I’ve been an independent songwriter, producer, musician. For many years, I made music in my bedroom in various share houses around Melbourne, Australia. I released my own records, handmaking demos and sending them out to people and radio stations and things; and I released my first three records independently on my own record label in Australia.
The project started with me sampling records I’d collected in second hand shops. I’d spent years in my high school band playing off synthesizers and drums and singing, writing songs. I sort of discovered sampling for myself as a method by which to write, you know and to produce songs differently. So, a lot of the Gotye project has grown from finding different ways to collect sounds, and hone them into my songwriting process. More recently I’ve been sampling things like sounds from environments, places I’ve travelled to, weird instruments in the middle of Outback Australia or old acoustic instruments collected in second hand shops. I started to kind of encompass that in the sampling process as well.
SO SAY YOU ARE OUT IN THE OUTBACK AND YOU HEAR A NOISE THAT YOU THINK IS INTERESTING. WHAT DO YOU RECORD IT ON SO THAT YOU CAN THEN USE IT AS A SAMPLE?
I tend to travel with a little stereo – a portable recorder. They are very lightweight so it fits in your hand, you can sort of walk around with it. You can plug an external microphone into it as well if you want a different kind of quality to the sound. I could happily walk around with my laptop sometimes with the internal microphone or with a small sound card and a good microphone plugged into it, and just set that up in a location and record things. So it’s pretty mobile what you can do these days.
IS YOUR COMPUTER AT HOME, OR THE ONE THAT YOU TRAVEL WITH, JUST FULL OF LOADS OF NEW SOUNDS THAT YOU’RE SAVING FOR YOUR NEXT RECORDS?
I haven’t done much of that here. I don’t collect a lot of sounds just sort of day-to-day. It really has to be something kind of peculiar and different from usual. I haven’t sort of been sitting on the tour bus, you know, recording background sounds from a venue in Holland or recording the chugging of the tour bus wheels or anything!
But every so often yeah, you stumble across interesting things, like in particular, this instrument that I found in a small town in Outback Australia is pretty amazing- it’s a huge fence. But it’s actually a Melbourne guy who designed it and built it on a commission from the Queensland government- but I’d never heard of it. When I was out there a few years ago it was a pretty joyful thing to discover- this really amazing sounding kind of instrument, just sitting on a dusty plateau, ready to be explored.
FROM WHAT AGE DID YOU KNOW THAT MUSIC WAS GOING TO BE YOUR CAREER PATH?
I took a punt around late 2006 on the back of my second record coming out in Australia. It was starting to go quite well. I quit my job at a library, moved back to my folks place for a while to kind of try to save on rent and bills. Since then I’ve been lucky enough, I guess, to call it a professional career.
WHY DO YOU WORK UNDER THE NAME GOTYE?
When I wanted to come up with a name for the project, I figured my own name was, a- not very showbiz and b- just didn’t really feel very right. Wally is my nickname but you know, Wally doesn’t really feel right for a performing artist – maybe if I was writing some kind of novelty music! I don’t know (laughs). Gotye is a name that my mum used to call me sometimes when I was little.
AND WHERE DOES IT COME FROM, WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
It’s a French translation of my Flemish birth name. So, I was born to Flemish parents in Belgium. They christened me Wouter and in Australia I took on Walter by extension, because no one could really pronounce Wouter very well. And so from Walter came Wally. But Wouter, my birth name, is obviously what my parents call me. It is my name and when I was young, here and there my mother would sometimes call me Gaultier because that’s what Wouter translates to in French.
Mum and dad spoke Flemish. It was their main language but they were also fluent in French and then obviously learnt English in the time since. They speak a lot of languages.
But I wanted a name for my project. At the time I was just starting off when I was 20, 21, sampling a lot of records. I was living in a share house with a couple of mates spending time at university and hanging out with my buddies, but otherwise just spending a lot of time in my own head. I was loving collecting records and the process of grabbing different sounds and manipulating them, spending time by myself in my bedroom, with my computer producing tracks.
So for me it was this kind of a little personal music journey. I wanted a name that it felt like had a personal resonance for me, but also maybe felt like a little like I was kind of a stepping in front of maybe me as a person. So yeah, Gotye seemed to kind of fit that bill, being that it was kind of my name but was also kind of put through the viewfinder of something other, you could say.
DO YOU GO BACK TO BELGIUM A LOT? DO YOU HAVE FAMILY THERE?
I did do until I was 18 years old, I went back almost every year with my folks to see family, so I have a lot of childhood memories of Belgium. But in the last 10 years I haven’t been back as regularly. Music in the last four years has taken me back maybe four or five times.
DO YOU GET MORE EXCITED WHEN YOU PERFORM THERE? IS IT LIKE GOING BACK TO YOUR SECOND HOME?
I have felt that way because yeah, the release of my new record in Belgium and the singles have been a little bit ahead of the game so it’s kind of already been a number one single in Belgium.
OH, HOW EXCITING!
Yeah, the album is already selling quite a bit and been in the charts there. But yeah, the concerts I’ve done there recently have been kind of hilariously huge. Like I sold out 2,000 tickets in 15 minutes. Two more shows of 2,000 tickets each in another 15 minutes, that’s in February next year.
So the audience has very much claimed me I guess as kind of honorary Belgian.
IT’S GREAT TO HAVE THAT DUAL NATIONALITY.
Yeah, I mean I do speak another language still okay. It’s funny sometimes I’m over there and I feel like I can’t speak it at all, stumbling over all my words and other times it feels completely fluent and I’m just chatting happily.
EVER WANT TO INTEGRATE IT INTO ANY OF YOUR SONGS?
It would be really lovely to write a Flemish song. Yeah, I’ve thought about it but it still feels a bit like a second language for me. It still feels like I don’t know- it would be a really good challenge.
I’ve spoken to Flemish press before as well, saying that I would really like to do it and they do keep asking that question- are you going to write some Dutch? When are you going to write a Belgian song?
I think I should probably spend some time over there, come over and live for a while and really engage a bit more sort of as a young person on my own terms. I’d learn a bit more about my home country, a bit more about its history directly. Then maybe I might feel able- like what would be the right first thing for me to write in my first language.
THE SOMEBODY I USED TO KNOW VIDEO HAS BEEN VIEWED 15 MILLION TIMES ON YOUTUBE. HAVE YOU READ ANY OF THE 22,000 COMMENTS THAT HAVE BEEN LEFT?
I read more of them early on but I haven’t looked at it for a while, for a couple of months.
THEY SEEM TO BE GETTING QUITE HEATED ABOUT YOUR HAIR AND YOUR APPEARANCE IN THE VIDEO
PEOPLE ARE KIND OF ARGUING BACK AND FORTH, YOU KNOW, “DON’T COMMENT ON HIS HAIR, IT’S ABOUT HIS MUSIC!”
Yeah, that is pretty funny. There have been various comments about my mouth, how big it is, so you know.
DID YOU ENJOY MAKING IT? WAS IT YOUR CONCEPT, THE WHOLE THING?
No the concept was very much Natasha Pincus’. She’s the director, it was her concept. She came to me with a pitch for the idea and I really liked it from the start. She already had the idea of having Emma Hack do body painting, kind of integral to the clip. So she’d already provisionally got interest from Emma Hack to be involved. She had a scenic artist to kind of recreate my dad’s artwork on the wall as well.
So she had most of the pieces of the puzzle together already and thankfully she pitched it to me and I was immediately like, “This is great, I wouldn’t want to speak to anybody else. Let’s do this concept!”
Kimbra was really great. She was really into it right from the start. So yeah, actually making it, it was a challenge. It was just an endurance thing because the stop time animation obviously takes a long time. Doing one shot at a time and a little bit of body painting each time, taking another photo. There were some shots where it took four or five hours.
HOW LONG DID THE WHOLE VIDEO TAKE IN TOTAL?
It took three days of awake time, squashed into two days of actual hours.
Yeah, the second day we started around 7am and we didn’t finish until 9am the following morning – 26 hours straight.
SO IF WE LOOK CLOSELY WE CAN SEE YOUR EYES GRADUALLY GETTING MORE TIRED?
Yeah, people are like, “Is he stoned?” I’m like “No, I’m just very, very tired.” And also I have paint in my eyes, which is why they’re bloodshot.
HOW DO YOU THINK THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE COMPARES TO THE UK?
I guess every city kind of has its own little scene, I guess that’s always similar. You’ve got local legends and every city has sort of had its moment in the sun.
In Australia it’s the same. I think Melbourne feels like it’s been a real hotbed. Melbourne is kind of consistently a really vibrant, cultural scene. There are moments when Brisbane has even internationally had a spotlight on it.
Then you’ve got like Perth in Australia, which is a very isolated city. I think technically, the most isolated city in the world – five or six thousand kilometers away from any nearest other major town in Australia. Yeah and there’s been times when there’s been all these successful bands in Australia coming out of Perth so it kind of makes me think of similar things, you know Manchester’s had a big moment and going back to the sixties Liverpool had its moments – I’m reluctant to say “in the sun” given the English weather.
HOW DID IT FEEL TO BE NOMINATED FOR AN EMA?
THE MTV MUSIC AWARDS.
Actually, I was completely unaware of that!
FOR WORLDWIDE ACT.
Oh! What category?
YEAH, FOR AUSTRALIA. HOW DOES IT FEEL?
It feels like a genuine surprise! Who else is in that category?
WELL, YOU WERE BEATEN BY A SOUTH KOREAN BOY BAND CALLED BIGBANG.
That’s so good I need to look that up, that’s fantastic.
THE FELLOW NOMINEES INCLUDE SIA SO YOU ARE IN PRETTY GOOD COMPANY. SO YEAH, WELL CONGRATULATIONS FOR BEING NOMINATED FOR AN EMA THIS YEAR. TELL ME, WHAT’S PLAYING ON YOUR IPOD AT THE MOMENT? WHAT MUSIC DO YOU LISTEN TO?
I’ve really got into a psychedelic record by a band called the Silver Apples from San Francisco in the sixties. I mean a lot of people know that record, but I’d never really heard it and the drummer in my band, Michael, gave me a copy on vinyl from a German second hand record shop recently, which is great. But yeah, I’ve been really vibing on that record. It’s just got really great synthesizer and really raw kind of garage-y drum sounds and completely off the chart, kind of drug-induced psychedelic meandering musically. I’m really into that.
The Chap, out of London. They are a band that I understand is not really well known over here. They deserve much more, I think, than they have received in terms of coverage. I think, you know, some of my favorite contemporary British music is by The Chap- really sardonic, intelligent, black comedic kind of pop, which production-wise is really impressive as well. They kind of weave a lot of unique electronic textures into a kind of an indie rock, kind of drum-bass guitar line up. And they also play strings. I think all four of them can play the string quartet. But yeah really great band The Chap. They’ve come out on Lo Recordings. I’m really into their recent record.
IF YOU COULD COLLABORATE WITH ANOTHER MUSICAL ACT, LIKE IN YOUR DREAM MUSICAL COLLABORATION, WHO WOULD IT BE?
It probably would be… I’m sure I’d feel quite daunted but just to meet Kate Bush, I don’t know, musically in any kind of way would be cool, I reckon. With her in a studio, I’d find that really interesting.
FINALLY, WHO ARE YOUR IDOLS?
Well, a couple of odd ones. Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley-they are a couple of electronic music pioneers from the fifties and sixties. Gershon Kingsley, you may not know by name, but he happens to be the composer of the song Popcorn. He was a very, very rich man I believe, 4,000 cover versions later.
Jean-Jacques Perrey is also a real pioneer at using tape loops and sampling. Him and Gershon Kinglsey made this series of – I find really amazing- novelty electro records with moog synthesizers and tape loops.
And what else is there? KLF. Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty from The KLF. I got into them when I was ten years old, mainly because of their pop smarts and their big stadium house hits, at various times as The Timelords or later The KLF. The more I found out about those guys, the more I read about their kind of media stunts, their kind of philosophy and the way they went about producing their music, the more I’m fascinated by everything about their project, so they are still idols of mine.
Interviewed by Holly Rubenstein
The original interview can be find at www.idolmag.co.uk