by ADAM BAIDAWI
This story appeared in GQ.
In an age of shoegazing troubadours, hipster rappers, and rapidly fading middle-of-the-roaders, Gotye represents a forgotten art: the male pop star. Really, Wally De Backer is more than that—a Pop Star: the dapper, obsessive and fantastical beast that once was Ferry, Bowie and Morrissey, and has since gathered dust.
The waters of the Yarra River are lapping below us in hazy sunshine. We’ve gone exploring, settling on Ponyfish Island, a timber-happy café/bar that sits hidden between the Yarra Footbridge and the river beneath.
The joint is busy. The civilian in me is patently conscious of the eyes that divert to our table. (A favourite: the gawping bartender, who, a second later, adopts extreme nonchalance.)
De Backer—obnoxiously affable—is either too humble or too used to it to notice. Of course, they really are looking, and it really is obvious. His new single, “Somebody That I Used To Know” has officially clicked into Big Time. Before reaching number one in Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and in his birthplace, Belgium, the song catapulted to online buzz via its minimalist (read: minimalist-clothed) clip. Eye-catching visuals and insatiable hooks pricked the attention of thousands, and eventually millions, after it was given tweet-endorsements by Ashton Kutcher, Katy Perry and Lily Allen.
Evidentially, once 10 million eyes have studied your naked torso (in 1080p!) and many more ears have had your gateway drug of a melody burned into their ears, the looks come a little more often. Happily, the burgers are delicious, the beer (his organic cola) is cold, and the rain is staying away.
A drummer in popular, but commercially wanting Melbourne rock trio, The Basics, De Backer’s experimental solo side project, Gotye (gor•ti •yeah), began in 2001. After 10 years of toiling as a critically acclaimed, but cult-favourite independent musician, De Backer now finds himself deep in alien territory—the mainstream.
“Maybe I’m trying to be slightly oblivious to it,” he shrugs across the table. “I really don’t feel people treating me any differently.”
Once he’s comfortable, De Backer is animated, engaging: full of eye-squinting grin and considered wit. He is, unquestionably, a renaissance man. He has a way of making fabulous adventures out of vinyl cutting processes, hidden production frequencies, international licensing profit-shares and the intricacies of digital artwork. And, he’ll do all of this with panache so emphatic and boyishly enthused that hell: it’s hard to begrudge.
The anatomy of a pop hit is rarely identical. They’re all different beasts, game-winning in increasingly idiosyncratic ways.
“Somebody That I Used To Know”—which would propel Gotye and the new album, Making Mirrors to dizzying heights and eye-boggling viewcounts—was the final track to be completed on the album. And in reality, says De Backer, the song was a burden: it delayed the album by six months.
“I was tired,” he admits. “It had taken me so long. I felt a bit deflated. I had such aspirations for the song, almost as though nothing I could have done could have met them.”
The wholly unexpected success of the track—punctuated by millions of views on YouTube—is testament to a nouveau-democracy fuelled by social media.
“I was watching it, and then, I wasn’t. I’d come back and another 200,000 had watched it. I let it go,” De Backer raises his hands, “it was out of my control.”
Once indispensible, major label marketing budgets are an afterthought when the masses make up their mind like this. It’s a sort of Great American Dream that promises that, yes, every so often, the cream will rise to the top.
The rest of new album Making Mirrors is a deep-dive beneath the man’s surface. Like its hit, the album is emotionally and musically forthcoming. Like exemplary pop LPs tend to do, Making Mirrors teases the ear with impeccable reference points. So brash and cheesy is “I Feel Better” that top notes of Hall & Oates pervade the senses. We dance through a Marvin Gaye backbeat and an inimitable Motown tambourine before twisting into creepy art-rock and a rather confronting inkling of post-WHAM! Michaels in all of his polarising enthusiasm.
Wally De Backer could be every one of those things. His refusal to sit still? This is Gotye. This, we’ve learned, is Wally.
Moving to Australia as a two-year-old, De Backer grew up in a Catholic primary school and a Christian Brothers secondary school, taking in a synth-soaked musical diet of Peter Gabriel, KLF and Depeche Mode.
“I was always a pretty studious, pretty nerdy, pretty do-good kind of kid. I was conformist like that, I guess,” he laughs. “I felt like I was getting away with it: getting straight As and being, basically, a nerd, while also playing music and being kind of being cool to most people.”
He pauses. “Part of me still feels like I’m getting away with something."
When De Backer woke up this morning his first thought was of more sleep. His next thought, he says, was that he could really use a day. A day to wrap his mind around what the hell happened over the weekend.
Friday was the beginning of a big, weekend-long Melbourne homecoming. A quiet highlight in a sold-out tour that started at the Sydney Opera House and will soon stretch to New York and Belgium. But Friday’s show, by De Backer’s reckoning, was disastrous. Whether it was the mix or his voice or the vibe—it was disheartening. Soul-destroying. Call-your-manager-and-throw-it-in bad.
Of course, the following Saturday and Sunday shows were a rousing success, and balanced the emotional ledger. Just how much all of this turbulence registered with the show’s audiences is hard to say. All signs point to: very little.
“This weekend has made me realise that it shouldn’t get me too black about the whole thing—and I certainly got black,” he admits. “It scares me that it happened so quickly: This is all a waste of energy. What am I wasting my life on this for? It’s all going to be mediocre. I shouldn’t bother. I’m ready to quit.”
Such nuanced doubts—the stage positioning during this chorus, the reverb on that microphone—prove the counterweight in the De Backer puzzle. The cyclical give-and-take of world-conquering inspiration and ruthless self-criticism.
“I saw a dude wearing my t-shirt. He bought it at one of the shows,” says De Backer. “And all I could think was, ‘Yeah, fuck, I’m not really into that merch design.’ It made me want to go and destroy all my merchandise. The poor bloody guy.”
“Sometimes, you feel like you’ve shown somebody something that’s not really finished. And you’ve got to own it. I can come across as a negative, miserly barstard about my success, and I’m not,” he explains.
“It’s just that I didn’t genuinely feel that overwhelming joy. I felt as much fear as I did elation.”
And you want to believe him. That, maybe, he’s still the Catholic boy from Belgium who spends his days working studiously and his nights playing with wonky Depeche Mode samples in his bedroom. That he’s still getting away with it.
Of course, it seems a silly proposition now, but you can’t help but wonder: was Wally De Backer really meant to be famous? He’s too affable. Too humble. He lacks the socialite turn, the wanker swagger.
Was he really meant to win over everyone from discerning-for-discerning’s-sake Pitchfork to Ashton Kutcher—the man who was, y’know, deemed a logical progression from Charlie Sheen? Musicians aren’t meant to suddenly shoot to stardom at 31. Musicians who reject major record deals are aren’t meant to “arrive”. And, yes, musicians whose beverage du jour is organic cola aren’t meant to have a simultaneous number one single in four countries.
It could be that this success—a success so sudden and so tangible—may prove a brilliant accident.
The sun is low in the sky when a cute waitress saunters shyly towards the table, carrying a huge plate of waffles, strawberries and cream.
“So, um, we accidentally made these extra waffles. I thought maybe you might like them. But also,” she cracks a smile, "I did go to your concert the other night. You were fantastic.”
Secretly, Wally De Backer might wonder, “But was it Friday, Saturday or Sunday’s show?”
The regal serving probably suggests the Saturday. The glimmer in her eye insists it doesn’t matter.