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Interview Mon Aug 20 2012

Interview: Gotye Talks About Songwriting, Record Shops, and His Live Show

If you've been steering clear of Saturday Night Live, your radio, your friend's radio, cars with their windows open, You Tube, or just about everyone's iPod, I could see how you've avoided hearing the song "Somebody That I Used To Know" by Belgian-born, and now Austrailia-based singer/songwriter Gotye. It happens. Take a moment and watch the much-parodied and remixed video for the song, below:

Gotye's sample-heavy music is catchy, and instantly likable — filled with intriguing sonic diversions that head all over the musical stratosphere. In advance of his show at the Charter One Pavilion on August 24, I was lucky enough to get him on the phone in Australia for a quick chat, in which he opened up about the odd likability of the breakup story in his hit single, his songwriting process, how he likes to discover new tunes, and more.

Gapers Block: I've been thinking a lot about your breakout hit, "Somebody That I Used to Know" and I think that a lot of the success has to come from the listener's ability to easily relate to the characters in the song. What also draws you in, I think, is we also don't really know who to side with or who to root for — so we really want to spend some time with the story. Do you feel that ambiguous aspect was a kind of conscious choice when you were writing the song?

Gotye: I think maybe that indeterminate quality is part of what I think gave it a ring of truth between the two characters. I think despite that both Kimbra and I in the song are kind of unreliable narrators, people still choose to side with one or the other, or still have emotional reactions, or feel they can relate to one side of the story or another.

GB: Yeah, I feel that almost anyone who's been through a breakup could side with one or the other or feel that in some cases they were more like one person or the other.

Gotye: Yeah, either way, at least my character at least, in the song, is kind of examining how you can be multiple people, in a way. That's going to kind of sound schizophrenic, but that's an element of truth for where the song comes from, at least for me. The fact that when you start thinking back, sometimes years after a relationship. You sometimes realize you didn't like yourself. You feel like a different person, so in a way, you begin to wonder how clear your present self can get some perspective on a given time or how you acted. That confused aspect appealed to me. That's the part that came from me actually sort of ruminating on past relationships which came out in the lyrics. You can think back to certain points and be really uncertain.

GB: That sitting and thinking and stewing about it is so much a part of a breakup, especially if you don't have contact with that person, like in the song. All you have is what's in your head.

Gotye: Yeah that's right. And often you can be extending the story maybe kind of walking it further away from what might have been the truth at the time. Or you make your own memories and they degrade or get altered, like a degraded VHS. Memory is very fallible, at least in my character. I think Kimbra's part is a bit more convincing, not as contradictory.

GB: I think also what's so interesting about the song, is it's actually a quite genderless story. Your character could be a male character talking about a girl or a boy or vice versa and I think that ambiguous aspect makes it really relatable as well. It's just "they're gone and this is the aftermath." And I wonder was that intentional, or did that quality just kind of grow out of the song?

Gotye: It wasn't consciously intentional but as with much of what I write....it's not quite like you're stumbling on the meaning of the song as you go along, but it falls somewhere in between working on your craft and trying to be in touch with what's going on with your head and your heart. I'm fascinated by the sound of music itself, the sounds of chords changing or a melody changing. I kind of discover these things as I go along. If I make a song, it doesn't come about because I sit down even with an idea that's formed as much as "I'm going to write a duet" or "I'm going to write an emotionally potent song...." It kind of just becomes as I respond to musical aspects, sounds, scraps of words that just kind of come out and suggest other possibilities. That seems to be the way that my most interesting material happens. I've had other moments where I kind of think "Oh, that's a great idea, I should write a song about that guy and I'll use that story for a metaphor about how I'm in the situation and I'll use these sounds because they mean this to me, etc. etc." but I don't think that on any occasion has that kind of spark turned into a song for me. I think it happens more when I'm just groping around in the dark, letting things like sounds and words pull a story out of me. Afterwards I realize that's what it is.

GB: So what's your favorite part of the life cycle of a song? Do you like that moment when you realize you have a song, or that collecting aspect at the very beginning, or when you're really diving into it and getting into the thick part of it, or when it's done?

Gotye: The parts I find the most exciting and joyful...are in the process usually when you have a glimpse of what it could be. When you hear that first sample that gives you this feeling when you combine other sounds with it, or you do something to it, editing it into some other structure, or just responding to it with a melody or some other instrument, it just has this kind of promise. Just when it feels like you have all these options open and you've just got this exciting feeling like something special could happen. That's a really exciting moment.

And at some stage when writing a song or producing a track, it can get to the point where you've got enough of a vision of what you have worked out and maybe some vision of what you want this song to be and how it should make you feel, and that can sometimes get difficult then if it feels like it's not measuring up to the promise you thought you saw in it. It can get quite frustrating. You start searching and wondering why.

So there's another moment....when you finally get over the line, especially if it's been a long haul and there's been maybe multiple mixes or revisions or you've spent a bit of time with the song. I'll count on that moment where I'll sit back and take a few days away from the mix and then I've had a really strong emotional reaction to the song. I actually can just hear it, even just for a few seconds, kind of like a third party and have some feelings like it's something maybe like a perfect piece of music. That's a really special moment too, where you think "Wow, I might have something special here."

There are different points throughout that are exciting. Partly because I work in kind of a piecemeal fashion, things form bit by bit, but when major chunks of a song come along, each one can give you a glimpse of the song as whole....For me, that's very different than being another songwriter who maybe works hard at writing a song for a certain purpose, because [what I do] it's different — it feels like you're discovering something as you go along. And for me, that probably relates to that way that I'm curious about what I might find at the bottom of the thrift store record bin, or what I might discover on the record with the engaging cover that I haven't heard anything about before.

GB: Now, is that how you go about finding new music? I know you're well known for your many samples and song layers and you must have this amazing library of songs and records and samples and bits and ends. But do you go into record stores and crate dive or do you scour things online or do friends hand you new music?

Gotye: I think a little bit of all of those. I do like records. I'll buy things on iTunes and Bandcamp, but I love vinyl as well. I'll take things just out of curiosity in second-hand record shops and then I do love buying vinyl albums from artists that I'm already familiar with that I really love so I can play them at home. I guess that's the physical medium that I love. And in terms of new music, friends will suggest things, or I'll make one connection between artists, or I'll just go randomly into record shops. I'm always listening out for something new and exciting.

GB: You're heading back to Chicago this August. How would you describe your live show as opposed to what gets put down in your albums?

Gotye: I guess on the record, it's me, playing and sampling things, whereas in the live show I've got a great band playing and bringing a great human energy. They reinterpret some of the parts and there's a lot of very visual content we get to present with different stories that get to be told by the abstract things up on the screen while we play. This show has a bunch of songs we're putting together off of Like Drawing Blood and Making Mirrors that we hadn't arranged yet [the last time in Chicago] and new visuals. I hope to have a bit more dynamism on stage in terms of movement between us, since last time we were kind of surrounded by a fortress of gear. I hope to be a bit more... streamlined with instruments and with stuff on stage.

I think the live show feels more immediate and energetic because I still feel like there are aspects of my records that are held back a bit by the looping and sampling, but some of those aspects sound better live and come alive more and there's more of a human energy and musicality that comes out when we're playing together as a band.


Gotye performs at the Charter One Pavilion at Northerly Island on August 24 at 7:30pm. Missy Higgins and Jonti open. Tickets are $39.50 (plus fees). Charter One Pavilion is located at 1300 S. Lynn White Dr. The concert will go on, rain or shine.

 
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By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

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