A Belgian Aussie?
His lyrics may now resonate with millions, but Wouter De Backer did not learn any English until the age of 6. He was born in Belgium, and even after the family moved to Australia two years later, the household remained Flemish-speaking. His mother also taught French and her pet name for Wouter was Gaultier, the French equivalent (in Australia he switched to the English version, Walter, because "no one could really pronounce Wouter very well", but soon was widely known as Wally). Years later, when his new solo project needed a moniker, his mother suggested the old nickname: with a slight adjustment Gotye was born.
Back to Basics
Wally has long been a maverick musical spirit: at 10 years old his favourite band were the controversial art-punks KLF. Discovering heavy rock as a teenager, he took up several instruments and began a long-running collaboration with his fellow student Lucas Taranto, initially in a quartet called Downstares (Taranto is now Gotye's regular bassist). After that band split, Wally formed another relatively straightforward combo, The Basics, which is still a going concern. Indeed, he thought them more likely to succeed, and admits that the solo project "was always a sideline".
A reluctant pop star, Wally can be assertively careerist when necessary. The Gotye project initially involved him making tracks using samples culled from old records, sending them to radio stations, then hassling the stations for airplay. It worked, and those songs were eventually compiled into the first Gotye album, 2003's Boardface. The 2006 follow-up, Like Drawing Blood, became a huge hit in Australia and one track, Learnalilgivinanlovin, made a minor splash in the US as Drew Barrymore used it in several films. But another song would really break Gotye abroad.
That song (Gotye's version)
The biggest-selling single of this year, Somebody that I Used to Know also brought some belated attention to a deceased Brazilian jazz musician. Musically, Gotye's breakthrough was built around a sample from a record by Luiz Bonfa, but the lyrics were his own, inspired by numerous break-ups. He spent two years on the song and six months finding the perfect voice for the counterpoint verse, eventually selecting the New Zealand-born singer Kimbra following a suggestion by his father. Released in Australia in July last year, it slowly became a global phenomenon, topping the charts in 18 countries, including the UK and US. Sales currently stand at 12 million.
That song (The other versions)
Huge hits always inspire covers, but the Ontario band Walk Off the Earth actually beat Gotye into the Canadian charts: their YouTube-popularised rendition involved all five members playing the song on one guitar. Wally praised it, but was less charitable about a version by the cast of Glee, who "made it sound dinky and wrong". Other notable interpreters include Kelly Clarkson, the pop-rockers Fun and numerous reality-show contestants, while video pastiches involved Darth Vader, Lego and a dog. Gotye uploaded a beautifully arranged video compilation of them in June, entitled Somebodies: A YouTube Orchestra.
Gotye readily admits that Somebody that I Used to Know's worldwide success is chiefly due to the YouTube buzz surrounding its video. Directed by Natasha Pincus, the distinctive stop-motion film features Wally and Kimbra being body-painted bit-by-bit, a process that lasted 26 hours. Then again, that was nothing compared to the nine months it took to create another innovative stop-motion affair for the follow-up single, Easy Way Out. In fact the majority of Gotye songs have accompanying animated films, which form an integral part of his live show.
Musical farms and fences
While clearly influenced by smooth 1980s pop-rock, Peter Gabriel's output in particular, Gotye's latest album Making Mirrors had a more rustic birth. He made it in a converted barn on his parents' farm, using field recordings for the first time. The single Eyes Wide Open was based on a sample of the Winton Musical Fence, a huge instrument in the outback featuring five metal strings attached to fence posts: "It goes 'thwack' and 'boinngg' in a remarkably pleasing way," he explained. Many songs also feature the Lowrey Cotillion, a vintage organ that cost US$100 (Dh367) from a second-hand shop. A prudent investment, given that Making Mirrors has now sold two million copies.
Wally's real idols are the sonic experimentalists Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley and his live show reflects that meticulous attention to detail. The 32-year-old presides over a well-honed and varied mix of musical styles and visuals, but remains aware that much of the audience might still "consider leaving the gig after that song". Wally has watched crowds do just that during festival shows, but no matter: when this tour finishes early next year he'll return to his natural habitat, the studio, and has pondered making an entirely electronic record next. Given his working methods, expect it in around 2017.
Gotye performs at the Dubai World Trade Center on Friday. Tickets are Dh250. For more information, visit www.dubai.platinumlist.net