December 12, 2012

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.

Wally De Backer, a.k.a. Gotye“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 sampling.

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 little layers.

At the time, I was really into a blog called It’s sadly now defunct, though I believe they switched to a Tumblr thing. [The contents are archived at —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 production?

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, nicely formed.

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 onstageGotye 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 by Thunderbolt.”

“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.”

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