“One guy wrote to me on Youtube saying ‘I just sat drinking cheap beer for two days listening to your track on repeat. I rode around to my ex-girlfriend’s house at 5am and stood outside her window until she saw me. I told her ‘I want to get back with you because I don’t want you to be somebody I used to know’ and they got back together.”
Sitting in a leather chair in his publicist’s Sydney office in mid-July, Gotye, aka Melbourne multi-instrumentalist Wally De Backer, is recounting one fan’s reaction to his latest single, “Somebody That I Used To Know”.
Built on xylophone, synth and a guitar break from obscure Brazillian composer Luiz Bonfa, “Somebody” compresses a whole relationship and its paranoid post-mortem into four fraught minutes. “You didn’t have to cut me off / Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing!” he bellows, dragging us to a place we’ve all been, before Kiwi co-star Kimbra flips the script as his jilted lover.
Online, the video, which stars the pair wearing only bodypaint, is going off, spreading like wildfire through social media and clocking up more than 200,000 views on Youtube in two weeks. As a thoroughly rational man, it’s a feat De Backer’s still struggling to fathom. “It’s an exciting feeling,” he says in a measured tone that doesn’t sound too excited. “When you feel it tipped that way, you get the sense that it’s really resonating.”
He’s tasted success before but not like this. His breakthrough hit “Heart’s A Mess”, from his landmark 2006 album Like Drawing Blood, established him as an indie darling (in the true sense of the word, he licences his music to the Eleven label via his own Samples ‘n’ Seconds) and earned him eighth position in Triple J’s Hottest 100 poll. A year later, he took home the ARIA for Best Male for its remix album, Mixed Blood.
This time though, something’s different and it’s not just the droves sharing it on social media. People aren’t just listening to it on repeat, they’re analysing every aspect. Amid thousands of Youtube comments, there’s in-depth dissection of who’s to blame, the symbolism of the bodypaint, the way he recoils from her words. Of course, being Youtube, there’s also plenty of less serious discussion (Does he sound like Sting or Peter Gabriel? Just how big is his mouth? Is he a hobbit?)
“Wally has an amazing way of writing lyrics that really hit the nail on the head,” Kimbra tells Rolling Stone. “Everyone’s been through a break-up and I think people are responding to the song’s honesty and fragility. They’re craving that authenticity and vulnerability in music, which you don’t often see in the charts.”
Amid all the acute Youtube analysis, there’s one question no one seems to ask – who is it he used to know? Initially, De Backer, who’s been in a relationship with singer-songwriter Tash Parker for four years, plays down the idea of any one catalyst, instead attributing it to both “a romanticism of melancholy” and “a curated reflection of multiple past relationships.”
But when pressed, he admits one does resound louder than the others. “There is an ex-girlfriend I know.” Long pause. “It was five-six years ago. It wasn’t a nasty break-up, but it was messy in the sense that we hurt each other more than we needed to because it wasn’t a clean break. I guess it’s closest to what the chorus is about. We both realised we had to move on and we haven’t seen each other since.”
He did get in touch a few years ago and they planned to catch up in London, but it fell through. Lately, he’s been thinking about calling again. “I feel like I owe her a call to say ‘just in case, I don’t mean to come across as self-important to suggest you’ve heard my new single, but you shouldn’t be worried about it, but let’s catch up for a drink, ‘cause it’s not really about you and I hope you’re not worried about it.’”
How does he predict she’ll respond? “I don’t think it’d be awkward. I think it’d be good to catch up and find out what we’ve been doing. I wonder if she might have decided to avoid listening to my music.”
Is she a muso too? “Yeah, a singer, actor and a dancer…” It’s Holly Valance, isn’t it? I joke. “Nah,” he says, smiling, “Nikki Webster!”
So just who is Wally De Backer? To the Triple J faithful, he’s a tinkering troubadour, an eccentric outsider that revels in post-modern pop, and a member of art-pop trio The Basics. To the uninitiated mainstream, he’s the painted, naked guy from the video with a weird name who’s appeared from nowhere with the year’s most contagious break up song.
Born in 1980 in Belgium, he moved to Australia at the age of two, growing up in Melbourne’s northern suburbs before moving to the Mornington Peninsula in his twenties, where he still lives today. In person, he’s highly intelligent, affable and unassuming; a deep thinker and a fast talker, especially when he’s discussing music instruments, which is often (ask him about the Roland VP-330 vocoder some time).
“I might like to think I’m easy going, but maybe other people might find me slightly manic,” he tells me with a smile. “On my down time I might come across as very low key, but maybe at other times I come across as a mad professor, scattered and with energy coming out in all directions.”
Not surprisingly, he admits he’s both a perfectionist and his own toughest critic, two traits which conspired against him when it started working on his latest album Making Mirrors. Its predecessor Like Drawing Blood was called that for a reason and the new material, painstakingly crafted in a makeshift studio in De Backer’s parents’ barn over two and a half years, proved no different.
“Somebody That I Used To Know” may reflect on relationships past and first single “Eyes Wide Open” might protest against inaction over climate change, but much of Making Mirrors sees De Backer battling himself. The lyrics openly carry the scars of writer’s block and bouts of depression, often playing out like a conflicted, confused conversation with himself. On “Smoke and Mirrors”, he labels himself “a fraud” and questions his music direction (“What is it that you’ve done to make the grade? / Are you only trying to please them?”) – while “Save Me” initially spirals into despair (“I was not well / But I could not help myself / I was giving up on living”).
“It was one of the first times in my life that I felt I could completely devote myself to my career and creativity, without having any barriers like finance or a studio, but I’d wake up a lot of mornings unable to make a choice about what to do.
“I had really depressed periods especially after trying to mix the first few songs, whereas I felt it just wasn’t happening. I was like ‘I’ve put so much work into this. Do I go back to square one? Do I book more time and try again?’ Or write new songs, which turned out to be the answer. And I did go back and revisit those initial songs, which did get mixed and turned out great.”
He credits Parker for dragging him out of his hole. “I feel very much that she led me out of a lot of depression through her grace,” he says earnestly.
Their story is a touching yet unlikely one which began in the remote town of Kununurra in north Western Australia while he was on tour. “There was an instant spark but we met for a few minutes,” he recalls, his voice softening. “We found each other online and met again two years later at a music festival. I think we both knew we were meeting up again because we were so interested in each other and wanted to be together.”
At first, they did the long distance thing until Parker packed up and moved to Melbourne. De Backer penned “Save Me”, a rousing redemption song built on four-part harmonies and handclaps, as a thank you (“You gave me love / When I could not love myself” he sings in the second verse). He says: “I really wanted this song to express the salvation I find in the love she’s given me and how blessed I feel in that.”
Ironically, for all the turmoil, it’s his creative struggle that ultimately makes Making Mirrors so compelling, even if this mad professor almost lost his mind in the process. “There were points that I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish a record I was really into or that I’d give up at some stage,” he reveals. “Even with mastering, the first master was completely shithouse, and the artwork hasn’t been alright at points, but I do feel really good about the album as a journey, to use a cliché.”
One month later, that journey finds him on-stage at the Sydney Opera House for the second of two sold-out ‘Animated Album Preview’ shows for the Graphic Festival. Dressed in black jeans and t-shirt, De Backer is leading his ten-piece band of merry men through soundcheck as custom-made animations play behind them.
Since we last spoke, “Somebody That I Used To Know” has gone from a social media sensation to a song everybody now knows. It’s been viewed 2.5 million times on Youtube, ‘shared’ over 400,000 times on Facebook and tweeted by actor Ashton Kutcher and singer Lily Allen, who share ten million followers between them.
As of tonight, it’s topped the ARIA charts for a second week and has already sold Double Platinum (140,000+ units). Meanwhile, one-off shows in Melbourne and Brisbane have blown out to four due to popular demand and commercial radio jocks across the nation are struggling to pronounce his name as they spin “Somebody” on high rotation. In a week’s time, Making Mirrors will debut at number one, ending Adele’s 15-week reign and making him the first Australian act since Silverchair in 2007 to simultaneously hold the number one album and single.
Once again, De Backer’s having trouble computing it all. “I don’t know how to respond to that stuff. Obviously, it’s really great and I feel good but my response is more like ‘wow, that’s interesting, I didn’t expect that.”
Right now, he’s far more concerned with tonight’s imminent performance. “It’s just a really tough show to sing,” he says. “I set myself a challenge making a record like this where I sing at the limit of my ability on a number of songs and they’re all in the set. I’ve been rehearsing for four days straight.”
That attention to detail is rewarded tonight with a rapturous standing ovation, and a queue of more than 100 people snaking throughout the Opera House foyer afterwards for his signing session. There’s gushing girls, loved-up couples, giggly kids and their parents waiting in line down the stairs and De Backer greets every one of them with a giddy schoolboy smile. “It’s always nice when people say g’day, although the cheekbones do start to hurt after a while,” he quips.
The next day, De Backer’s back in Melbourne just about to sit down for a home-cooked meal house when we speak for the last time. Back on home turf and with a month off before his tour of Australia, Europe and the UK, he sounds positively buoyant.
“It’s pretty crazy,” he says of his new-found popularity. “It’s the Youtube views that are slightly more scary to me. That so many people have seen something that intimate or know more about me as an artist. That has some weight for me somehow.”
He’s aware, too, that success can have its side-effects, especially for an independent artist suddenly swimming in the mainstream. Already online, old fans are arguing superiority over new ones, with one fan recently posting “Retweet if you knew who @gotye was before the start of this month” (which De Backer did).
So is he ready for the bright lights ahead? “I feel a little nervy” he admits. “Mostly about what it means for elements of my life outside my comfort zone or out of my control, but I hope it’s something I can manage. I don’t think it’ll change who I am. I’ll still be someone who seeks time away from the public eye and still enjoy hanging out making music or collecting old records without thinking about my career or the media. If anything, I’ll be trying harder to find those moments.”
He says he’d love to follow in the footsteps of ‘80s artists like Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush, who “really did their own thing but found a mainstream audience.”
And then dinner’s ready and he’s being called. The quiet life beckons for now.
There is, however, one final question. That girl, the one he used to know, has he given her a call?
“No, I haven’t but I should, I should,” he laughs. “I’ve seen some of her family recently, because they live around my area, and they told me she’s doing really well and that we should get in touch. So I should.”
Got feedback on the story? Hit me up! Amazing photo shoot by Emma Phillips