Anyone with the most primitively functioning ears has vaguely noted the inescapability of Gotye’s smash single, “Somebody I Used To Know.” Wally De Backer – “Gotye” is a phonetic spelling of the French “Gaulthier,” the nickname his Belgian mother gave him after assigning him the English equivalent, Walter, when they moved to Australia – couldn’t be more aware of the simmering backlash: “To some people, the song has become overplayed and maybe ubiquitous,” he acknowledges. Hell-bent detractors will dismiss his across-the-board, worldwide chart success, while mocking him with the fact that his song was dethroned in the U.S. by teenybopper du jour, Carly Rae Jepsen.
But as much as you might wish him to be, De Backer isn’t some dumb-luck bogan flailing wildly at each fleeting thread of fame like so many paper bills in a Cash Cube. When he connects with IE, he’s bundled up in front of a fire at home in Melbourne – where it’s winter. It maybe doesn’t represent the full power of an Australian’s ability to isolate himself, but it’s pretty low-key from someone Everybody Most Certainly Now Knows.
Appearing: 8/24 at Charter One Pavilion (1300 S. Lynn White) in Chicago with Missy Higgins and Jonti.
In a year full of firsts, however, one recent moment at home stands out: “We had a very small earthquake in Melbourne the other day – that was a first for me,” he laughs. “Me and the girlfriend were sitting around; I think it was a 5.2. I could see our floor shifting left and right like 5 to 10 centimeters. I was freaking out, but keeping quite still. It went for about 20 seconds and I was thinking, ‘Wow, what if it gets worse?’”
The man with one arm around Lady Luck and the other in her purse suddenly felt very mortal. “I didn’t quite know what was happening, I guess. I’ve never experienced one before. Things started shaking, and I just turned to my girlfriend – brain racing – going, ‘What’s happening?’ It probably took 10 seconds out of the 20 to think, This is an earthquake. We don’t really have them, so it was a bit of a thrill. Twitter lit up from 5 seconds up to a minute afterwards, all Australians going, ‘Oh, my God!’ I guess while I was sitting there, I suddenly felt very small. You’re not in control of the world around you – the shelter over your head starts seeming like it could be your downfall.”
That was June 19th. On July 1st, De Backer really did die. Well, if you believe the CNN-sponsored citizen-journalist site iReport, he shot himself and was pronounced dead just before dawn at what skeptical people discovered was either a veterinarian’s or a family practice.
“I was out to dinner with some friends,” he recalls, “and we were about to leave [the restaurant] and I just got a call from someone at management very nervously asking if I was all right, if anything had happened. And my stomach started to ache, because they wouldn’t tell me what [was going on].” Among his first actions were to diffuse the bomb before his family caught wind, and by the time he could get to formulating a public response his band seized the moment.
“Tim [Heath] managed to fire off three or four tweets responding to my supposed death,” he laughs, “like about Terrence Trent D’Arby replacing me on tour.”
Welcome to 21st-century celebrity, right? A guy just wants to make music and enjoy a normal night out, and the next thing you know you’re a suicide and complete strangers are not only speculating on the causes but ridiculing them.
“I’m someone who likes to be personal with people and open,” De Backer relates, “but as you get a very public profile it can potentially – I wouldn’t say it’s a danger, but – it doesn’t do you any favors when you’re exposed in a way to lots of people who aren’t looking to send you any positive energy. You’re just something fictional to them, and they dehumanize you because you’re in the realm of celebrity. It happens very quickly, so you need to be aware of it on a level. I don’t know. I mean, the death hoax I think my management put out a note about and there isn’t a need to respond at this point.”
Any future pranksters should note that it doesn’t sound like he’s the type to do himself in. An accident, maybe. “I broke a lot of bones when I was a kid – must have been pretty clumsy. Been on crutches, broke my nose, fingers, broke my arm multiple times,” he jokes.
While internationally he’s a new artist (and will be as far as the Grammys are concerned), De Backer’s been recording as Gotye for the better part of a decade, and established himself at home with 2006’s Like Drawing Blood (which will be released stateside this year). The record made him a staple of Down Under’s Triple J Radio, and its strength allowed him to pave several European inroads before the 2011 release of Making Mirrors. It gave him the confidence to be able to look after his own affairs, but he wasn’t prepared to see how much his mettle would be tested with a huge hit.
“Before ‘Somebody I Used To Know’ came out,” he recalls, “I actually didn’t have licensing deals set up in North America and in large parts of Europe. I had some possibilities with independent labels and distribution options, which would have meant more investment from me and deciding on how much to spend on marketing and investing my own funds. But after ‘Somebody I Used To Know’ some much bigger labels came along and I ended up doing multiple licensing deals in countries around the world. They meant that my masters still belonged to me and at some stage the right to exploit them comes back to me.”
However, “I’m disappointed that some pop stations in Europe have playlisted unofficial edits and remixes of the track and they don’t even announce it – they play what’s effectively my master with some really stupid drums put on top to quote-unquote make it more like their playlists. I’m really not into that. I’d prefer not to be played than hear those versions of the songs. That’s not the song. It’s like playing some other piece of music and going, ‘That’s that song.’ There’s some things, yeah, that are a bit out of my control. Maybe I feel like in the future I would need to work harder to ensure that the radio people understand that I’m not into that. Being number 1 or number 200 means less to me than staying true to the principles of the music. Not ‘do whatever at all costs to get on the radio.’”
Other inconveniences, like the interruption to his creative needs, he’s learned to get over.
“I’m just patiently waiting ’til the end of this year to start writing new material,” De Backer says. “I’ve made my peace with it. I used to get more frustrated feeling like I should be able to be producing a new track, when I’ve only had 15 minutes free that day.”
It’s an interesting admission, given that the five-year gap between albums doesn’t paint the most prolific of artists. If there were ideas held over from the Mirrors sessions, surely they’ve survived the year it took to get famous.
– Steve Forstneger
For the full story, visit the issue through our partners at ShadeTree, or grab a copy available free throughout Chicagoland.
About the Author: