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Q&A: Gotye is suddenly someone that everybody knows

Mid-biography on the “About” page of Gotye’s website, the singer-songwriter (real name: Wally De Backer) suddenly exclaims, “Explosion!” It’s an apt word to describe the career of the artist behind one of the year’s biggest viral hits.

Following the release of his beautiful earworm of a single “Somebody That I Used to Know” (featuring New Zealand singer Kimbra and a video involving a whole lot of body paint), the Bruges-born, Melbourne-raised De Backer is now a hit on both sides of the Pacific. The “Somebody” video has amassed more than 128 million views on YouTube since its July 2011 release and inspired covers from around the world in all genres, from singer-songwriters like Ingrid Michaelson to the kids of the P.S. 22 Chorus in New York. 

Now, Gotye’s got a hit record (“Making Mirrors,” his third album) and string of sold-out shows stateside, including two sets at Coachella in April. From Brussels, Belgium, the 31-year-old De Backer talked about his favorite YouTube cover, why we should visit his hometown and tips for traveling internationally.

A fan recently tweeted about a bartender in Laos referencing your single. Was there a moment when you and Kimbra realized the scope of how viral ‘Somebody’ had become?
I think there might have only been a couple of moments. I think when the video hit a million views on YouTube for the first time; that’s kind of a significant figure. It feels like something I wasn’t sure if any of the videos would hit a short time after being released, and when that happened, I suppose that was the moment when I got a sense that this thing was taking off. Having a U.K. No. 1 single, I didn’t think that would ever happen. I think I assumed the music scene in the U.K. was a little too set up for a song like mine to find its way through.

Have you watched many of the YouTube covers people have posted? Do you have any favorites?
I’d say a handful. There’s certainly a lot. I think my favorite is the one with just five guitar students just covering it instrumental in front of a video camera. It’s pure, and in a way it’s one of the most faithful of all the different things I’ve heard.

You seem comfortable moving between genres and influences — there’s the Motown element on ‘Learnalilgivinanlovin’ and the trip-hop feel that appears in other places on “Making Mirrors.”
I think a lot of the time I let myself decide whether I want to do certain things with genre. There are some things I do that are more genre studies, and on other occasions I’m just deciding to allow myself to blatantly dress up a song in the clothes of a certain genre. It’s probably the least interesting thing I do musically. I think it’s kind of nice paying homage to a certain production style, as I do with the soul sort of stuff. It’s not done ironically. A song like “Somebody That I Used To Know,” even though it tips its hat to dub and reggae, may be more interesting because it’s sort of genre-less, just in their own weird world, which is a place I should be looking to inhabit more often rather than jumping between obviously recognizable genres or production aesthetics.

Your sound is very sample-heavy, but it doesn’t feel that way. How do you go about choosing your samples and making electronic instruments sound like a mbira (an African piano) … or whale noises?
It just happens quite fluidly, you know? It’s not really different for me. I mean, it’s a different process, sampling off old records or sampling on instruments or directly playing odd instruments as opposed to jamming with friends on instruments and playing certain parts. They’re not that different to me. It’s just a different end result in the sound world that you make and however you get to it, it doesn’t really matter to me one way or the other. Certain sound techniques tend to make you work in different ways and different ideas maybe musically spring to mind, so I try to be as varied as possible in looking for inspiration sound-wise. You can do a lot with technology in music these days.

I read the mayor of Bruges called you a great ambassador for the city. As ambassador, please give us your tourist pitch for why we in Chicago should come visit Bruges.
[Laughs] I don’t think there’s many other cities, little towns quite like Bruges in terms of being as maybe untouched by the centuries as Bruges feels. It’s been untouched by a lot of the wars as opposed to other cities in Europe which have sort of been built and rebuilt. Bruges has held on to its middle-centuries kind of feel and its quaintness, which is a nice thing to experience.

A lot of the early instances that preceded your rise in Australia — your neighbor giving you his wife’s record collection, play on local radio — seem ingrained in the music community in Melbourne.
I don’t really feel like I’ve ever been part of sort of Melbourne scene. There are plenty of musicians around Melbourne who I’ve played with, my other band, The Basics and related bands. There have been lots of Melbourne bands that I’ve seen over the years and who have inspired me in different ways. But in terms of my own music making, I think I’ve always been a little bit off the map, just kind of doing my own thing.

You have a post on your blog about having kept all the CDs bands have given you at festivals and through the mail over the years, and listening to nearly 200 CDs. What’s it like sifting through that much music at once?
Sometimes I find it a bit overwhelming. Sometimes I think it might be nice to take a bit of a break, a vow of musical silence. Don’t listen to any music, don’t make any music, try not to even think about it, and then see what happens when I come back to it.

For someone touring as much as you are, what advice do you have for the frequent international traveler? 
Don’t forget your toothbrush. Try not to sleep too much. It’s more interesting if you get out there. I’ve been sleeping too much.

Lindsay Eanet is a RedEye special contributor.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Aragon, 1106 W. Lawrence Ave.
Tickets: Sold out

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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