Gotye on His Viral Hit ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’
The Australian crooner’s hit song has 134 million YouTube views and counting. He talks to Marlow Stern.
A light guitar strum—sampled from Brazilian maestro Luiz Bonfá’s “Seville”—oscillates back and forth, before merging with a spare xylophone solo. Hushed, melancholic vocals disrupt the hypnotic interlude, reminiscing on a past love. Synths follow. Suddenly, the voice soars up an octave and defiantly sings: BUT YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO CUT ME OFF!
“Somebody That I Used to Know,” the moody, meandering ballad by the Belgian-Australian singer Gotye, has struck a chord with listeners across the world. Its artistic, stop-motion music video has become a viral sensation, racking up 134 million views (and counting) on YouTube. In it’s 12th week, the song is in the top five on the Billboard Hot 100 stateside, and it’s the top-selling single of 2012 in the U.K.
“Maybe it’s just an anomaly!” says Gotye in an interview with The Daily Beast. “It seems to have connected with people on the strength of the lyrics and the vocals. Perhaps it’s connecting with a large number of people who aren’t interesting in that whole swathe of club/dance-oriented, heavily compressed style of music.”
Born in Bruges, Belgium, Wouter De Backer moved with his family to Australia at the age of 2. While his name, Wouter, is Flemish from the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, his mother used to refer to him by its French translation—Gaultier—when he was younger. He eventually adopted it as his stage name.
“When I settled on the sound of it as a name, I didn’t like the resonance of the fashion world that it had with designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, so I came up with my own spelling,” he says.
As a youngster, Gotye rifled through his parent’s record collection and, amid their plethora of folk, classical, and world music, took a liking to The Beatles’ Abbey Road and the music of Kate Bush. He soon began playing drums, before moving on to playing Pink Floyd tunes on the piano, and dabbling in synthesizers. When he reached his teens, he—along with three of his high-school pals—formed a Depeche Mode-inspired band called Downstares, which he describes as “a rock-synth-pop hybrid.”
In a bit of role-reversal, his parents moved out of the family home when he was 19 and into a new one, leaving Gotye there to focus on his studies. Instead, several of his friends moved in and they dubbed the place The Frat House. In between playing basketball and videogames, watching movies, or occasionally attending classes at Melbourne University, the boys would make music together. When bass player Lucas Taranto left Downstares, the band dissolved and, at 20, Gotye didn’t know where to turn. He purchased some computer gear and decided to go solo.
“I was interested in recording music and had just gotten the technology to do that independently, so I just started experimenting myself,” says Gotye.
He put together several EPs in four- or five-track groupings and used pencil to handwrite the track listing and credits. After burning the CDs at home, 50 copies at a time, he sent them to the local libraries and community radio stations to get some airplay. The Australian indie label Creative Vibes eventually took notice, and Gotye collected 11 tracks from his various EPs and released a full-length album called Boardface, which was well-received by the Aussie press.
Following the release of Boardface, Gotye began working various odd jobs to fund the mixing of his second record, including customer service at a library in the Southeast suburbs of Melbourne, as well as a data-entry position seven days a week. Because of his financial struggles, he was forced to move his studio gear to six different share houses around Melbourne and, in the process, lost several music tracks due to what he describes as “bad data management.” The result was the aptly named Like Drawing Blood. But it still took a few years for this album to catch on.
“I put out a record of remixes, mashups, and interpretations of cuts from my first two records and this remix record, Mixed Blood, was nominated for all these ARIAs”—the Aussie equivalent of a Grammy—“and I won Best Male Artist,” says Gotye. “It was kind of odd because it felt like it wasn’t really my original material.”
Because of the awards consideration, Like Drawing Blood was granted a second life, and went on to become certified platinum in Australia, selling more than 70,000 copies.
For his follow-up album, Gotye decided to set up a recording studio inside a barn on his family’s block of land in Southeast Melbourne near the beach.
“It felt luxurious to me to have a few large rooms to record at odd hours and not have to shift a lot of mattresses around to try to make makeshift vocal booths,” he says with a chuckle.
Since all of Gotye’s album titles are inspired by artwork, he was searching for inspiration for the name of his third studio album when he came upon a painting his father had made in the 1980s with gray lead pencil and watercolors. He applied Photoshop to tweak the painting, and it became the album cover art for Making Mirrors.
“I decided that a lot of these songs, with their personal nature, felt a little bit like holding up a mirror to oneself and getting a different perspective,” Gotye says. “So it was the idea of these songs being visual sounding boards for things going on in my head and aspects of my experience.”
The first single to Making Mirrors, “Eyes Wide Open,” was released on Nov. 5, 2010, but it was the album’s second single, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” featuring a vocal interplay between Gotye and the New Zealand chanteuse Kimbra, that immediately cemented Gotye’s status as one of the world’s hottest artists. After the single was released on July 6, 2011, an accompanying music video soon followed depicting Gotye and Kimbra with their naked bodies painted against a wall. Celebrities soon took notice, including Ashton Kutcher, who shared the video with his close to 10 million followers via Twitter, and it soon became a viral smash.
“It’s a big part of the song and the video being seen by people,” says Gotye. “When I put my second album, Like Drawing Blood, out in Australia, YouTube didn’t even exist yet and MySpace had just started to gain steam.” He laughs. “I’ve been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of this … virus!”
According to Gotye, the video’s director-producer, Natasha Pincus, developed the concept for the video and enlisted the services of body painter Emma Hack (they weren’t completely naked, in case you were wondering). While it was Pincus’s idea to employ stop-motion animation, as well as a split-screen format, Gotye contributed the painting itself. And the song “Somebody That I Used to Know” was, according to Gotye, inspired by several different breakups experienced by Gotye, as well as some fictional elements thrown in for good measure.
“The song is as much about confusion and the inability of how to feel about something that’s from the past, and how two people can feel really differently and not know how the other feels,” he says. “It was a bunch of recollections from different relationships that combined to make the lyrics.”
These days, things are going a bit better for Gotye in the relationship department. He has a girlfriend of five years, the singer Tash Parker, and has garnered comparisons to Peter Gabriel and Sting for his modulated, soulful voice (he finds the comparisons both “repetitive” and “flattering.”) He still performs occasionally in a side project called The Basics with singer-songwriter Kris Schroeder, and has even found an unlikely fan in one of the world’s biggest pop stars.
“My drummer was at the Playboy Mansion watching Bruno Mars perform recently and he said he wished he had his camera on him to catch Britney Spears dancing to ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ at the Playboy Mansion,” says Gotye, with a chuckle. “That’s pretty surreal!”