Australia's Gotye on Taking His Offbeat Pop to the Top of the U.S. Charts

Wouter "Wally" de Backer is just your average Aussie with a left-field smash hit currently residing on the Billboard singles chart somewhere near Adele and Nicki Minaj. The 31-year-old's fourth album, Making Mirrors, has been out for over a year in his native Australia, and was successful there. But even fans of the gorgeous he-said, she-said breakup ballad "Somebody That I Used to Know" — a duet with New Zealand singer Kimbra — couldn't have anticipated the explosive popularity that its iconic, body-painting video would find among Americans. That's partly because hits from eclectic unknowns like Gotye have mostly disappeared with the anything-goes climate of the late '90s, when Moby, Sugar Ray, and Chumbawamba all blew up out of nowhere. Success has been grand, but as he told us over the phone, Gotye (pronounced like "Gaultier") is only interested in getting weirder.

Between your crossover hit and Adele's worldwide success, breakup songs seem to be making a huge comeback. What's your favorite heartbreak music?

[Laughs] Um, I reckon Ween's song "Buenos Tardes Amigo." Serious breaking up going on there.

So you're a bigger fan of weirder, more satirical stuff.

I guess I am, yeah. I'd like to see a bit more of that come out of my music. I feel like sometimes I want more of that to happen but it doesn't always find voice on the soundstage. In the future I want to focus on being more whimsical, inject more humor in my music.

Do you see yourself trying to write more accessible songs, or do you feel the urge to spring even weirder ones on your new pop following?

I don't know. I mean, I do like that kind of middle ground. "Somebody That I Used to Know" seems to have found a balance between sort of working as a pop song — it's not particularly weird I think — but it's also quite idiosyncratic and you might say out of step from what pop sounds like these days. I kind of like living in that world.

Did you have any idea "Somebody That I Used to Know" would be a hit when you wrote it?

Not at all the way that it has been. I was actually more worried that existing fans of mine would compare the song unfavorably to "Heart's a Mess" off the last record. I wasn't thinking so much about if it's gonna be a hit or not, but more, Are people gonna hate the thing?

I heard the guy from Nickelback likes it.

Haha, yeah. Chad [Kroeger] is a fan of the song.

Have any of your exes really changed their number?

That is one definite line of fiction. There are parts that I remember more specifically from different relationships, but that is made up. Someone just alerted me to the fact that some of the things in the song might be quaint to a lot of younger people, people for whom collecting records doesn't make a lot of sense. "What's a record?" They could talk about returning your hard drive, maybe.

You're one of the few artists on the pop charts recently who's hard to categorize. Do you listen to a lot of uncategorizable music like Ween, who you mentioned?

I do really love Ween; they are one of my favorite bands. They've made so many records that inhabit the soul of other bands yet sound imminently like themselves. If I could do that I'd be probably onto a good thing, or at least making records I find interesting. But I'll listen to Ryan Adams and alt-country, or put on very purely electronic dance stuff. I tend to appreciate certain songs and artists rather than following movements of music. I mean, I keep my eye on what's happening, but I've never felt like I'm part of a scene, or chased being part of one. I've never even had a taste for that kind of excitement that can come from a scene of people developing a whole sound, which then often very quickly can become quite dated.

Are there any genres you've tried to write a song in but failed?

Ten years ago there was a very Johnny Cash-inspired, "Badlands" ballad type of thing I tried writing. Next I'm going to attack, I don't know, '70s Nigerian Afro-punk.

Are you tired of being compared to Sting and Peter Gabriel? Who do you wish people would compare you to?

There was a dude who interviewed me in L.A. who kept saying, like, "You have so many influences, you sound like so many things ...the Police ..." I'd say DJ Shadow's been a huge influence, same with the Avalanches in terms of sample-based composition. Godley & Creme, their '80s work I really love as far as off-center, intelligent eyebrow-pop that's really interestingly produced. I think I hear more of that coming out of my songwriting than Sting. It's flattering to be compared to those guys, but when you hear it again and again you're like, 'Come on. I'm just a guy singing with a high tenor. It's such an obvious comparison, I'm sure you can think of something else.'

 
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