Indeed, Wouter “Wally” De Backer, the Australian-Belgian musician known as Gotye behind the 2012 superhit “Somebody That I Used To Know,” seems to have dipped. But among the endless ranks of one-hit-wonders fading to obscurity, I think Gotye is special.
Objectively, “Somebody” is a super unlikely hit—structurally, it does all the wrong things to construct a pop earworm. It doesn’t get to the chorus-payoff until not one but two verses in, more than a minute into the song. At that point, De Backer jumps up an entire octave, to great effect, but not making for a very singable, accessible anthem.
But the most immediately noticeable thing that’s different about “Somebody” is the instruments. It starts out with a tiny looped sample of Brazilian bossa guitar, then its lead line is plunked on a kindergarten xylophone. Instead of a four-on-the-floor kick, the drums sound more like the back row of an orchestra. The background is filled out with lots of tasty bits of plucky atmospherics, almost sound effects from a cartoon or a haunted house. The song is catchy and devastating, but instrumentally, it’s also overwhelmingly playful. It’s so good. (I also think the simple but unique instrumentation made it low-hanging-fruit for reinterpretation in endless YouTube covers, a phenomenon which almost eclipsed the song itself that summer, as they fueled each other’s ubiquity.)
Anyway, the whole album “Somebody” appears on is so good! I remember I wrote about it for my high school’s newspaper! A stand-out track is still “State of the Art.” The entire song describes the features of a family’s new Cotillion D575 electric organ. In call-and-response, a robotic voice reads off the manual’s instrument options, then demonstrates. It’s dark and wonderful, and it uses instrumentation as narrative in a goofy, literal way. Through high school, if I wasn’t in front of a laptop, I was sitting with a similar second-hand electric organ which my parents let me put in my bedroom.
After “Somebody” dies down, De Backer indeed dips. “Gotye” goes on hiatus. He later admits to forgoing ads on the “Somebody” music video, missing out on millions of dollars. He doesn’t seem interested in staying famous, or even attempting a follow-up. After winning three Grammys, he begins playing drums in the back of a band with some friends.
De Backer still produces music and collaborates quietly. Investigating his favorite sounds keeps leading him to one rare, early electronic instrument called the Ondioline, a bit unlike anything before or since. He acquires several antique models. He befriends an old Swiss composer named Jean-Jacques Perrey, the original promoter and foremost virtuoso of the instrument, who nonetheless has hardly any trace of recordings with it. In the last years of Perrey’s life, De Backer decides to completely devote his musical energy to preserving the legacy of both the composer and the synonymous rare instrument.
The Ondioline looks like a tiny organ, but its keys are pressure-sensitive, like a piano. Its most unique physical feature is a spring-suspended keyboard that can be wobbled side-to-side to similarly wobble the pitch. But it’s an electronic instrument—it produces sound with vacuum tubes and a circuit. What makes the Ondioline especially unique is its approach to timbre:
Its filter bank… features an array of 15 slider switches for various tones. Selected combinations of these switches can create sounds ranging from near-accurate recreations of symphonic instruments (oboe, French horn, etc.) to totally unique sounds of its own. (“Ondioline,” Wikipedia)
Timbre is hard to define or talk about. It’s what makes instruments sound like themselves even when they’re all playing the same note. It’s sort of like texture—especially since acoustic instruments get their timbral signature mostly from their construction material. Early electronic synthesizers created timbre from scratch by adding or subtracting multiples of pure-sine-wave frequencies. (Practitioners developed recipes, ratios of harmonic frequencies and waveforms that sounded most like recognizable acoustic instruments. The novelty of early synths mostly came in their flexibility and ability to imitate.) The Ondioline does something in between. The switchboard allows someone to play timbre itself like an instrument, with the intimacy of valves and keys.
The album of Perrey’s Ondioline songs De Backer ends up producing could alternate soundtracking a romantic silent movie and a Tom & Jerry cartoon. They definitely sound old—but also in concert with the pop sounds of Gotye’s Making Mirrors.
All of this is to say—no wonder this is where De Backer ended up. Relistening to the 2012 pop artifact of “Somebody That I Used To Know,” the lineage feels so clear. And look how much fun he’s having!