Forget about that song for a
minute. You know, the one everybody sings along to and
that almost everybody has remixed. What first grabbed our
attention about Wally De Backer—Gotye to his fans and the
myriad of charts on which he’s hit number one—was “State
of the Art,” a surreal ode to a real instrument, the Lowrey
Cotillion organ. In the video (a retro-mod treat by animation
studio Rubber House), a Cotillion displaces a suburban family’s
TV, usurps all their free time, comes to life, and eventually
assimilates them into its electronic innards. Our first thought:
This is one guy who knows how a new keyboard makes you feel.
His singing has drawn comparisons to Sting and Peter Gabriel, but a good listen to his quintuple-platinum album Making Mirrors proves that
this compliment is just as aptly paid to his production ethos: He masterminds
every phase of the process hands-on, melds globetrotting musical motifs into a
sound that’s chameleonic but always unmistakably him, and unfailingly presses
technology into the service of memorable hooks and melodies. That he has
rocketed to international stardom in spite of being so musically and technically
deep gave us our next thought:
There’s hope for pop music.
Scroll past the video for the full cover story from the October 2012 print issue, or CLICK HERE
if you can't see the player.
“State of the Art” is about one of those
living-room organs, the ancestors of the
modern arranger keyboard. How did you
come to write a song about that?
My parents found a secondhand Lowrey Cotillion
about three years ago. They gave it to me as a
Christmas present, and I was fully functioning. It
just really caught me with all the sounds. Mainly
the “Orchestral Symphonizer” [a pseudo-synth
for acoustic sounds], the choir, and all the cool
sounds on the top manual. I wanted to make
a tune with just that organ. That didn’t quite
happen, because there are samples and other
instruments on the track. But it still showcased
the organ, and I struck upon the concept of a love
song to the organ itself, and maybe a broader
reflection on what the nature of relating to a
“state of the art” piece of technology can be like.
So most of the sounds on that song were
from the Cotillion?
Yeah—the leads, organ sounds, and things the
lyrics talk about like the repeating banjo, Orchestral
Symphonizer, Genie bass, things like that.
What was your first instrument?
Drums. It took me a few years to convince my
folks to buy me a drum kit—maybe by the age
of 15. I avidly pursued that until about 19. I
played in my high school band, brass bands, and
a band I put together with my mates. I naturally
gravitated towards the piano from there to try
to work out the Depeche Mode and Pink Floyd
songs I was into. Then, I started to discover
different synthesizers and went through that
tech-head phase you go through when you first
discover the amazing world of technology.
On that subject, what was your point of
entry into synthesizers?
I don’t remember specifically. Depeche Mode
would be a good example of hearing a synth
sound and wanting to know what it was. The
record of theirs I was really into, though, was
Songs of Faith and Devotion, which had a more
“processed organic” kind of sound—a rock
sound, even—rather than more synth-y stuff. I
wondered about how those sounds were made.
Probably the first “synth” I bought was a Roland
Groovebox—an MC-303—on which I programmed
drum parts and played around with synth bass
parts. I also bought a Yamaha DX7 secondhand
around the same time, which I still have.
Tell us about producing your first tracks.
In your bio, you talk about an old 386
computer and putting up mattresses.
I bought a computer to record that high school
band of mine, and then the band promptly broke
up! [Laughs.] So I was left with a computer, a
soundcard, a mic, bits of gear, and a few songs
we hadn’t recorded yet—but no band to play
with. That’s really when I started getting into
Did you have any traditional piano training?
Not at all. Between my drum skills and bits
of keyboard skills, I sort of acquired that
peculiar sensitivity you need to play sampled
instruments—that sense of anticipations and
delays, of the different feels and velocities that
you need to apply on MIDI controllers or a
Mallet Kat or a Novation Launchpad. But I don’t
consider myself a great keyboard player.
You could have fooled me, given the record.
There’s this keen sense of counterpoint
throughout all the songs.
I’m glad you hear that. There’s a lot of that in
the vocals. It’s something I realized very clearly,
especially when I started to arrange it for playing
live. One example is that a lot of the backing
vocals provide very strong hooks and there’s a real
conversation going on between backing and lead
vocals. You couldn’t just drop the backing vocals
or let them get lost in the live mix—you’d be
losing a whole conversational aspect of the songs.
One really hears it on the bonus track “Dig
Your Own Hole”—to my ears the closest
thing to synth-pop you’ve done.
You know, I thought that was a shoe-in for
the record, but it just kept getting harder to
make it make sense. On one level I feel like I
overproduced it, or maybe produced myself out
of being energized by it. But it does have those
counterpoints, those micro-hooks that keep
coming back over each other on different
At the time, I was really into a blog called
Arawa.fm. It’s sadly now defunct, though I believe
they switched to a Tumblr thing. [The contents are
archived at arawafm.tumblr.com. —Ed.] It had this
dark, ’80s analog synth, Italo-disco, horror-goth
aesthetic, which I just loved. They’d dredge up all
this Eastern bloc, bad English lyrics, Euro-disco
that had great sounds and production. So making
a track like “Dig Your Own Hole” was sort of a
direct response to that, just in terms of playing
with those sorts of sounds.
You sampled the Winton Musical Fence in
Queensland, Australia, for the bass part of
“Eyes Wide Open.” How did you turn struck
sounds from the fence into pitched notes for
the bass line?
I sampled the fence using a little Roland R-09
recorder. We ran it through some guitar amps
and there was some pitch-shifting of just a few
samples. But really, that was it—the recording
of the fence plus some re-amping and reverb is
pretty much what you hear.
The drums on “Eyes Wide Open” play ghost
sixteenth-notes on what sounds like toms,
creating a galloping effect not unlike Kate
Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”
That song was an inspiration, in fact. When I
hear “Running Up That Hill,” the drum sounds
are much bigger—and the tempo slower—for
the “gallop” aspect. The gallop part of “Eyes Wide
Open” used close-mikings with high gain on a
snare drum with the snares turned off. We did
things like pressing down on the skin and letting
it go, so when the sweat on your finger would
finally let go of the drum, you’d get this sort of
soo-whack, soo-whack sound.
That’s how you got those ghost notes on it. . . .
That’s how the ghost notes for the “gallop”
happened, yes. The main sound is more
programmed. The fills—the watery, explosive
drums that fill into the first chorus—that was
actually me playing some floor toms in the studio.
We recorded them through mics that sat near an
open piano, picking up resonance from the piano
soundboard. That was an idea of François Tetaz,
who engineered that session. He loves doing stuff
like using a piano as a reverb chamber.
What’s your platform of choice for music
I start in Ableton Live, generally. My first two
records were made in Acid Music Studio, and then
I moved to Ableton around 2005 to do live shows.
Then I began starting projects in Ableton. At some
stage I usually cross over to Pro Tools to save
engineered vocals and to do any vocal comping or
live instruments, partly just because Pro Tools is
really good at editing audio on multiple channels.
Also, François and most people I know will be mixing
in Pro Tools eventually. Songs that are halfway
done will migrate, and there’ll be Ableton and Pro
Tools projects at the same time, with ten versions of
whatever’s been engineered in each—until I finally
bring everything out as audio tracks into one master
Pro Tools project and start doing rough mixes.
Do you start writing songs on just the
computer or do you have external synths
from the get-go?
It varies. It could be a sample from a record that
I chop up and make a new loop from in Ableton.
Then, I might play something like a thumb
piano or a Stylophone and record that with a
mic—maybe onto a tape machine. Then I might
run that tape machine into Pro Tools, chop it
up, turn it into a sample, and play that back in
Ableton from a drum rack to come up with a
line. So it’s usually just running things through
different signal paths until an idea sounds right.
Do your ideas begin more often with a
melody or lyric that then suggests a rhythm,
or with a beat that suggests a melody?
It really varies. I wrote “Eyes Wide Open” at the
piano, plunking out chords, which prompted a
melody and lyrics, and then started the process
of arranging the sounds, and then the whole
sense of it found its way into my field of vision,
On the other hand, “Bronte” started with
a few different loops from records that I had
running together. I did some backing vocal ideas
to create a harmony structure for which I had no
song yet. Months later, I listened to it once and
then immediately wrote the melodic backdrop
for the lyric about friends of mine who’d had to
say goodbye to their dog. It was on my mind and
raw at the time, and just went with the music.
Other times, it’s certain instruments—a
synthesizer, a piece of hardware, or an acoustic
instrument—which prompt a hook, and away I
go. So it’s just fishing until something feels like
an exciting catch.
One aesthetic in pop music is the singersongwriter.
Another is the technical
production wizard. How do you feel about
being the rare synthesis of both of those?
That’s interesting. If we’re talking mainstream
pop, I’d say the acoustic singer-songwriter—
other than Adele and her success—isn’t
represented so much in the charts. Maybe you
get Jason Mraz or Bruno Mars, who’s obviously
a talented guy as he’s got a great voice and can
play all those instruments and produce. But
otherwise, I’d say the thing in mainstream pop is
super-aggressive dance production that’s mostly
about sex and being in the club.
There are also the big MCs, and maybe a
corporate rock thing where bands like Nickelback
are still somehow among the biggest acts in
the world. To me, those are the tropes that you
have to match up with to be a big hit. What I do
is pretty removed from most of those things,
so it’s been kind of peculiar to have the success
of “Somebody That I Used To Know” put me
amongst all that.
Having become what can only be called
huge, how do you want people to perceive
you and your music?
I’m just interested in a lot of different things, so
I try to bring them together. I’m grateful that the
more peculiar aspects of what I do haven’t been a
barrier so far. At the same time, I’m quite aware
that it’s one song that seems to have resonated
with people so strongly. When I get recognized on
the street, people are like, “You’re the singer guy!”
It’s only those who check out the album or do a bit
of reading online that realize there’s a whole other
aspect of how I put music together. It would be
great if more people discovered that.
Gotye on Gear
“Me and Tim Shiel—who plays main keyboards
and samples other than whatever I trigger—
we’ve condensed it down to two MacBook
Pros, and we put solid-state drives in both of
them,” says Gotye about his band’s touring
rig. “We also bought LaCie Mini Big Disks,
which are SSDs in external cases, connected
“Each system runs Ableton Live. One
sits with our drummer Michael Iveson,
and contains bits of backing vocals and percussion that we can’t
play live. This also hosts our visuals, which run in HD. Michael has
a Novation Launchpad, which starts songs, switches sections, and
keeps a section looping if we want to improvise over it. One laptop
takes care of all that.
“The second laptop sits with Tim. All our MIDI inputs go into
Ableton Live on that. There’s my Mallet Kat
and my Launchpad. Tim has an Akai EWI.
He had a MIDI Theremin until recently when
it broke. He also runs a Launchpad and a
little Akai keyboard. We have a Nord Stage
for piano sounds. All those things go into
Ableton and then through various effects.
“Tim managed to set up all of our live-triggered
sounds in one Ableton project
with no changing projects between songs.
He doesn’t need to look at the computer—he can switch all our
different channels and groups of sounds in between songs on his
Launchpad. That’s really freed it up for us, making it much more
about performance. If Tim wants to ham it up and make things very
visual, he can do so on all the different shapes and sizes of MIDI
instruments we have, rather than being stuck behind the computer.”