How does it feel to have written one of the biggest pop songs of the last 20 years, or possibly ever? Don’t ask Wally De Backer. Ten years ago, the Belgian-Australian singer-songwriter known to the world as Gotye achieved the kind of massive, world-conquering hit that few even dream of releasing: the oceanic, soaring soft-rock juggernaut “Somebody That I Used To Know.” The song (released 7/5/11) was a duet with New Zealand singer Kimbra from Gotye’s third album Making Mirrors, and it topped charts in nearly every place there’s a chart to top.
Besides being — let’s be real — an absolute banger of a single that resembles the millennial generation’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” “Somebody I Used To Know” achieved the type of mass-level ubiquity that seldom happened pre-streaming and will probably never happen again. What makes the song’s success all the more remarkable is how thoroughly out-of-time it sounds: Circa the time of its release, pop was facing a sort of post-Teenage Dream identity crisis, with the emergence of EDM as pop’s dominant sound clashing heads with the folksy “real music” revival spearheaded by artists like Mumford & Sons and American Idol winner Phillip Phillips. With its warm xylophone line, sparse instrumentation, and cool-handed sound evoking pop-rock luminaries like Sting and Peter Gabriel, “Somebody I Used To Know” might just be the most unlikely hit song of the 2010s.
And once it started, it never stopped going — launching practically thousands of covers, homages, remixes, and parodies. SNL even spoofed the instantly iconic and mega-viral video. Justin Bieber interpolated its melody on this year’s “Hold On” (yes, DeBacker was credited as a songwriter), while Canadian rock veterans Three Days Grace charted (!) here and in their home country just last year with their own take on the tune. “There’s something about it that feels like it’s always existed — like there’s been echoes of it throughout time,” Kimbra told me during a phone conversation. “If you’re able to tap into that, that’s how you write truly timeless music.”
But when I ask De Backer, now 41, in conversation about the fascinating ways the song continues to live on today, he has no idea. Really. When I tell him about the Bieber interpolation and the Three Days Grace cover, he chuckles with the surprise of someone who just found out that they, in fact, wrote and recorded “Somebody That I Used To Know.” He’s similarly shocked when I inform him in a follow-up interview that the single recently received a 14-times platinum certification from the RIAA — tying Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” for the most times platinum a song’s ever gone. De Backer is, of course, well-aware of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s polka-tastic take on the tune: “I’m a huge Weird Al fan, but I wish he’d done something more elaborate — I’d have been all for it,” he laughs good-naturedly.
There’s a beautiful irony to De Backer’s current neck-and-neck status with Lil Nas X. While the latter is perhaps one of popular music’s canniest and most ingenious self-promoters, De Backer is anything but — not a recluse, exactly, as much as a chill, thoughtful musician who just so happened to write one of the biggest pop songs of all time. He seems happiest when talking about music — making music, listening to music, reading about music, talking about talking about music — and everyone I spoke to for this feature on the long, strange trip of “Somebody That I Used To Know” was reverent about De Backer’s calm passion for all things sound.
Of course, there’s been nary a minute of new music under the Gotye name since — but DeBacker’s been anything but slouching. Since Making Mirrors and the success of “Somebody I Used To Know,” he’s made three albums with his long-running rock band the Basics, guested on electro-acoustic wizard Bibio’s 2016 album A Mineral Love, founded several record labels, and released a compilation of rarities from electronic synth pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey. In some instances, the funding for these projects came from DeBacker’s decision to recently monetize “Somebody I Used To Know” on YouTube after years of choosing not to do so: “The paradigm has changed,” he explains about the change of heart. “I decided to use the income I’d make from that to fund the other projects I’ve been working on.”
He’s also tinkered steadily on the proper follow-up to Making Mirrors over the last five years, but as DeBacker explains himself near the end of this oral history, he’s just as content to continue taking his time as long as he can, too.
Long before the success of "Somebody That I Used To Know," De Backer was already established in the Australian music scene with a slowly amassing body of work that included the hit single "Hearts A Mess" in 2007.
WALTER DE BACKER (SINGER/SONGWRITER, GOTYE): Even when I had started Gotye, the Basics had made a lot of records and played thousands of shows over the years. I had a feeling that we were a really good band — maybe a lot better than a lot of the other bands I’d seen touring around the country. [At the beginning of our career], we probably played five or six times a week in Melbourne, even though no one came out to see us. For one of our first gigs, we were onstage upstairs in a little club, and there was a bartender upstairs and a bartender downstairs, and no one else came. At one point, the bartender upstairs said, “I’m so sorry guys, I gotta go clean some things downstairs.” So we were literally left by ourselves on the stage. [Laughs] We had plenty of experiences like that.
FRANÇOIS TÉTAZ (ENGINEER/PRODUCER): I started working with Wally around 2005, when he was around town working on an album. He’d just finished college and was working in a library. He didn’t have much of a budget, so we’d work on a song a month. It was really sweet. He’d bring in a loaf of bread and tomatoes and make me a toasted sandwich. I thought, “This guy’s very serious.”
DE BACKER: Before Making Mirrors, my second record Drawing Blood had come out in a really small way on a really lovely independent label called Lucky Number in the UK. Other than that, I’d only put out music in Australia. I found the dual life [of making music as Gotye and being a member of the Basics] kind of frustrating. I spent my mid-20s trying really hard to make both my projects successful while coexisting. That just proved to be increasingly difficult, and by the time Making Mirrors came out, the Basics were already on a hiatus anyway.
KIMBRA (SINGER/SONGWRITER): “Hearts A Mess” was the first song I heard. It was fucking great pop songwriting, and I’d become fascinated with artists like Nine Inch Nails, Björk, and Cornelius who created soundscapes in their music. Wally checked that box for me too. When I started work on my first album at the age of 18, I was really excited to co-produce it with someone I admired. I loved Gotye’s music, so I did some research on who co-produced with him, and I said to my manager, “I’d like to work with François Tétaz, I think he’s amazing.”
JOHN WATSON (MANAGER): In Australia, “Hearts A Mess” is his most beloved song. “Somebody That I Used To Know” is the bigger hit, but if you look at lists of the top Australian songs of all time, it’s on there. Baz Luhrmann was putting the finishing touches on The Great Gatsby right around the time that “Somebody That I Used To Know” was becoming a huge hit, and he’d actually put “Hearts A Mess” in the film and had it as a recurring theme.
DE BACKER: There’s a vibe in the music I make as Gotye that’s reflective of the loner in me. I enjoy time by myself, and I get into the escapism of disappearing through pure sound, which I get into through sampling. I was burning CD-Rs in my bedroom, hand-drawing the artwork, and sending small batches off to community radio stations and dropping them into local record stores myself. I thought I’d be doing it on the side, calling it a hobby, while being motivated to share it to see if something would happen.
Eventually, Tétaz and De Backer started work on what would become 'Making Mirrors.'
TÉTAZ: We did five songs [for Making Mirrors], and Wally and John went around the world playing it for everyone — but there wasn’t a song that everyone was excited about. John said to Wally, “If we want to get these people onboard, we really do need a song that resonates with people.” And Wally said, “OK! I’ll write some more songs.”
I think he wrote three or four songs in a week, and one of them was “Somebody That I Used To Know.” He’d written a verse and chorus, and when he sent it over, I just thought, “This is amazing.” He has an ability to write something incredibly personal and universal that you can really feel, and it had that. When the chorus hit, I was like, “Wow, this melody is beautiful and heart-wrenching.” I didn’t think it was a hit — I thought it was a beautiful song.
De Backer had gone crate-digging and discovered the sample-based anchor of what would become "Somebody That I Used To Know": Luiz Bonfá's "Seville," from the bossa nova guitarist's 1967 album 'Luiz Bonfá Plays Great Songs.'
DE BACKER: It was just part of my regular sampling process. I went down to my local thrift shop near where I was living at the time outside of Melbourne, I rifled through a bunch of records, and I picked that album out because I found the title of the record so tantalizingly absurd. Luiz Bonfá Plays Great Songs! I pulled it and said, “Well, we’ll see about that.” [Laughs] Sometimes I pull records out because the cover is so great. You hope there’s something interesting to sample or enjoyable to listen to, but mostly it’s just because the cover is so brilliant.
It’s hilarious to think I didn’t know his work before that, because he’s one of the most prominent bossa nova guitarists of all time. When you’re lucky with sampling records, you hear this piece of music for the first time and when you hear an indefinable quality you say to yourself, “I have to hear it again and again.” The first time it dropped out of the speakers, it had an undeniably hypnotic quality, and building the song was about trying not to lose that feeling.
With the song fully written, De Backer tried to find the female singer to accompany him.
DE BACKER: I tried a few different versions. I tried it with my ex-girlfriend, who has a beautiful voice, but that didn’t work out. Franc Tétaz, who I mix and produce with, had also been producing Kimbra’s Vows, and I’d met her a few times and loved what she was doing. I actually thought she wasn’t going to be right for the song, but Franc said, “Think again. She’s really versatile vocally and will be prepared to arrive at something special.”
KIMBRA: Franc had a really good idea of my voice, and when Wally was struggling, he said, “Why don’t we try Kimbra?” Around the time Gotye had asked me to be part of the song, I was at the end of the album process and I’d signed with Warner Bros., which was great. I figured I could put music out around the time of the song and continue to grow my fanbase.
DE BACKER: So I called her up and said, “Would you want to try this song?”
There was a theatricality to my work, but he didn’t want that. He wanted me to sound like I was having a conversation.
KIMBRA: He said, “Why don’t we do it where you’re comfortable?” I was producing out of my bedroom at the time, so he just came through and we sang through the song. And we found the take, which is crazy to think about. These songs sometimes take multiple sessions just to get that take. It was very cramped and the bed was one of the only seating spots in the room, but I think that just added to the vulnerability of the session. He also had a clear vision of what he wanted out of me. He knew there was a theatricality to my work, but he didn’t want that. He wanted me to sound as little like a singer as possible — like I was having a conversation.
I thought it was almost too direct when I first heard the lyrics. There’s nothing poetic or metaphorical about it, it’s to-the-point and it took me a second to get my mind around what other people loved about it.
DE BACKER: I’ve seen people respond to the song as if you need to take a side with mine or Kimbra’s [lyrical perspectives in the verses], which is interesting. There’s lots of different shades of gray. You can take some of the things Kimbra and I sing in the song in a bunch of different ways, but it’s unclear, and that’s always the reality between two people, or when outsiders have perspective on a couple’s relationship. It’s always so complex. Finding a way to tell a story that leaves things open to interpretation is always more interesting.
De Backer and Kimbra teamed up with director Natasha Pincus and body paint artist Emma Hack to put together the striking, stop-motion animated video for "Somebody That I Used To Know" — a labor-intensive process that required more than 23 hours for Hack to paint De Backer and Kimbra's entire bodies to blend in with a painted backdrop.
NATASHA PINCUS (DIRECTOR): I actually met Wally a few years before directing “Somebody That I Used To Know,” at an awards show, and we just got along. He became more and more aware of my work until we eventually collided. I’d been making music videos for at least four years earlier. Generally it was artists that came to me instead of labels, and Wally approached me himself in 2011, before Kimbra had come on yet.
DE BACKER: Up to that point, I’d kept myself out of videos for the most part. If I was gonna use my face or elements of my body, it had to be interpolated into an otherworldly landscape. But I knew it wouldn’t be the right thing for “Somebody That I Used To Know,” and when me and Natasha talked about treatment ideas, I felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of being so literally exposed — but it also felt right for the song.
EMMA HACK (BODY ARTIST): I met Gotye and Natasha for this collaboration at the peak of my career as a body artist, when body art was new for people. I’d really loved “Hearts A Mess,” but when Natasha contacted me I was in Bali and didn’t want to take on any more work. Then Wally started hounding me, so I talked to him while I was by the pool about doing the clip. It was an idea I’d wanted to do for ages, but I wanted to do it right. I’d always been in love with animation. He sent me the song without Kimbra’s voice on it, and I loved it, so I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” [Laughs]
PINCUS: The budget was small because Wally was funding it himself, which was fine because we had time to execute it. The concept was that they were trapped in a painting cloaking their togetherness, and we’d witness the construction and destruction of that throughout the narrative of the video.
KIMBRA: I’d done body paint for the cover of Vows, and it was done very DIY no-budget. We used cheap eyeliner pens for all of the ink work. So I had that experience of getting into a meditative trance and letting someone make art on you. But it was still a lot to go there and be painted for hours and be almost naked with Wally. We both had to get into a very surrendered space for that video, where you’re a vessel for the art you’re serving — and I saw myself that way in the song, playing an important part for Wally and the body artist. It was freeing not to have to overthink anything.
HACK: Around 17 hours, my vision was pretty tired. I lost complete view of what I was doing, it was really hard and Kimbra was really tired too — of course, she chose to wear boots when I told her to wear sneakers. [Laughs] I talked to her about the pain of having this work done on you, and I said, “If you could just push that into your performance, you can use this.” And she really did pull out the stops.
DE BACKER: There’s worse things to experience, it wasn’t so bad. [Laughs] It was two very long days with quite a small amount of sleep in between. I did go through the McDonald’s drive-thru at the end of the second night, in a beaten up Mazda van, with full face paint, getting coffee. The teenager at the window didn’t bat an eyelid.
After accidentally leaking online through Take40 Australia's website, the video for "Somebody That I Used To Know" was officially released on YouTube on July 30, 2011. It was an instant viral sensation, going on to rack up more than 1.6 billion views to date.
DE BACKER: Somebody just ticked the wrong box on a particular website. It wasn’t ages before we planned for it to come out, but since I was already in a headspace where I was quite stressed about the record, that accelerated everything further. It was a taste of where the next three or years would be.
PINCUS: It still feels like it happened to someone else. When I finished the video, I thought, “What have I done? Maybe this isn’t good.” I sent it to a friend of mine who lives in Norway and is brutally honest, and a few hours later he called me back and said, “Holy crap, what have you done? This is a once-in-a-generation thing.” He was totally convinced from the get-go.
DE BACKER: How people reacted to it didn’t change my feelings of self-consciousness about it. There was such a strong response. I guess it had an iconic quality, especially when people started parodying and paying homage to it. A year or two down the line, I was in a post office in Melbourne, and when I walked up to the window, the woman working there was like, “You’re the guy!” and swished her hand around her face to signify that I was the guy with the face paint. That, to me, is when you know you’ve made something iconic.
With a mega-viral video in tow, "Somebody That I Used To Know" became inescapable, topping charts and being covered and spoofed everywhere from 'Glee' to 'Saturday Night Live.' By the time 2013 rolled around, it even won two Grammys — Record Of The Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.
KIMBRA: I didn’t understand, at first, that the song would be a hit. It never crossed my mind at the time. A lot of label people have said, “Oh, I knew it would be a hit,” and I just roll my eyes and scoff because there’s no way they could’ve known. The way Wally presented it, it seemed more like a “track six” type of song. It wasn’t the type of song he was known for.
TÉTAZ: When people call me up and say, “I’ve heard the song and it’s amazing,” that’s how I know I’ve worked on something good. I got two or three of those, and then it kept going and going. An A&R guy for Universal and Sony who’s now retired, out of the blue, sent me a note after he heard the song and he just said, “Lock it in for Song Of The Year, congratulations.” It hadn’t even come out yet!
WATSON: It was one of the first songs to spread globally with the audience driving it. There was some good work done by labels and so forth to support the momentum the song had, but the truth is that the song itself took off in a way that we’ve become very accustomed to now: Someone tweets about it, someone adds it in a playlist, cue bidding war. That’s how the music business is now, but that was not the case in 2011 and 2012. Having an unconventional artist from Australia find himself on Z100 was almost unthinkable at that point.
DE BACKER: People would be walking up to me on the street screaming “You didn’t have to cut me off!” in my face. That’s a real aspect of pop, where a cadence in a song can stand in for someone’s entire perspective of you. Around 2011 and 2012, the landscape had changed pretty fundamentally too. Facebook shares were still a big thing, and it was one of the first music videos that was just shared so much on those platforms that it was one of the most viewed things period. Now, pop clips get billions of views and streams and whatnot.
KIMBRA: I didn’t let myself get too excited too early, and I had a healthy skepticism about it — and Wally doesn’t hype things at all. But I remember arriving in Heathrow to do a show in London and having a realization that a song that I sang on is #1 in the country I’m arriving in — and then I’d leave that country and go to another country where the song would be traveling up the charts. It was a global thing.
HACK: It was interesting to watch the trajectory of what happened, because it was released in America first and nothing happened. Then when it became viral, it got relaunched to the right market. I was in Spain the following year, and every shop, restaurant, and nightclub I went to would be playing the song. My friends would look at me and go, “Bloody hell! Are we over this song yet?”
PINCUS: I was standing in line at a food truck at SXSW, and I was watching people watch it on their phone saying, “Wow, check this out!” It never stopped from there. I’d see people sitting at a restaurant table watching the video, or on a bus. I had a friend call me and say, “I’m sitting in a bar in Nepal, and they’re playing the video.” Marines in Iraq contacted me to tell me how much the video meant to them.
DE BACKER: The fact that the song had become a hit in Australia was already huge to me. It became a hit in Holland before we even did a licensing deal for it — we were scrambling to put it up on iTunes independently. It was a rolling cascade of crazy moments, right towards the Grammys and when we finished touring in 2013. Walking around Coachella, hearing multiple bad dance remixes of “Somebody That I Used To Know” pumping out of tents… that was a moment where I was like, “Wow, I’ve got this crazy big hit on my hands, but it’s completely out of control.”
KIMBRA: At Coachella, we literally could not hear ourselves sing that song from start to finish. I had my in-ears turned up to 10, and I couldn’t hear a thing because the crowd was overpowering my in-ear monitors. That’s more than just popularity — that’s passion. A crowd of people saying, “This is my story and I’m gonna sing it from the top of my lungs.”
DE BACKER: There was a feeling that it wasn’t me who was shoving the song in everyone’s face, it was the rest of the world, and I was kind of like, “It’s okay! You don’t have to play my song so much! Play some other songs! We can listen to different music!” I’d show up at commercial music stations and they’d be like, “The star has arrived!” And I’d be like, “I’d like to hear some other music, please.”
TÉTAZ: When a song’s a classic, it can ride the line of kitsch. I’m sure there’s people who think of the Gotye project as a one-hit wonder. But the song itself transcends generations, and that’s the nature of songs that are true and real. They can reach beyond popular culture and the industry of selling those things and find their place in people’s hearts.
Since the release of "Somebody That I Used To Know," careers have continued, changed, and taken abrupt turns — as De Backer continues pursuing his passions alongside working on new music.
KIMBRA: I look back and am grateful that the experience didn’t hinder my optimism with my own work. Sometimes people can feel very inhibited by a big hit, like they need to repeat it. But I was called to do something quite different and push pop in different directions, which is what Gotye does too. “Somebody That I Used To Know” broke all the rules for a successful pop song, so why would I start following the rules?
HACK: It was this iconic piece of work that I’d never replicate again. I’ve never been asked to do something like it since, which I find quite unusual since it was so big. No work came in from it, which was really interesting. Usually, when you do something that’s out-there artistically, people want to try to replicate it. I can’t put my finger on why that didn’t happen, but I wouldn’t have done it anyway, to be honest. I don’t want to recreate the same thing.
PINCUS: It probably happened to the wrong person. Before making music videos, I was a lawyer and a scientist, so if I wanted to make money I wouldn’t be making video art. I’m particular about what I choose, and certainly the offers were flattering, but none of it was going to make me think, so I said no to everything.
DE BACKER: All the success I’ve had through those three odd years allowed me to go very deep and try and answer a lot of questions I had for myself about the musical process — about what I’m searching for, and how I want to challenge myself. I feel that even more keenly than the most diehard fan of mine, and hopefully that results in releasing music.
HACK: Wally never wanted to be famous. I remember talking to him afterwards and he was like, “This is getting really big,” and I said to him, “Just use this to be able to work with whoever you want and do whatever you want afterwards.” He’s always created for himself anyway, he’s not a pop star in that way.
TÉTAZ: It’s obviously very difficult when you have something that’s that stupidly big — to even think that you can engineer something on the same scale when that wasn’t even the intent with the first song in the first place. But people are always going to look at it through that lens.
DE BACKER: I’m just trying to give myself time to step through a lot of questions to see where I arrive — and maybe I won’t find answers. I want to allow myself to be guided by other principles other than “This is a reasonable amount of time before you have to put out another record.” I’ve probably had too many projects over the years, some of which are finished, others are on the shelf, and a huge amount that’s unfinished — and I’m just trying to work out what, and how, to finish all of it. What’s the story, and how do I tell it to other people? We’ll see.