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Gotye imagines life beyond the hit that ruled 2012

Greg Kot

4:22 PM EDT, August 23, 2012

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Wouter "Wally" De Backer, better known to the world as Gotye, knows the perils of being typecast as a one-hit wonder, an overnight success, a guy who will go to his grave playing “that song.” After an everywhere-all-at-once hit such as “Somebody That I Used to Know,” where else is there to go?

“I have a little self-talk along the lines of ‘Enjoy the moment, while it lasts,’ ” says Gotye, in the kind of low-key Australian accent that suggests nothing fazes this guy. “Having this level of success, it wasn’t something that I necessarily aimed at. Things might change very quickly, next year, whenever, and I’d be alright with that. I’ve got plenty of friends, guys in my management, who keep perspective. We all realize this has been a really interesting, amazing, strange year. Nobody sees this as permanent or something that can be reproduced.”

Then, almost as an afterthought, he says, “On some level, it helps to be a bit older.” 

At 32, Gotye has been around long enough to know what it feels like not to have anyone care about his music. After a decade of performing in Australia with his indie-rock trio the Basics and his Gotye studio project, he’s paid dues and then some.

“I’ve done hundreds of rock ‘n’ roll shows with the Basics, and not all of them were well-attended,” he says with a laugh. “One gig we played to zero people. It was a small upstairs bar and eventually even the bartender left. The three of us were left on stage alone, so we treated it like a rehearsal. That was eight years ago. Fortunately, it’s been slowly growing since then.”

Not fast enough to anticipate the massive success of “Somebody That I Used to Know,” though. The single has generated more than 6 million sales in the United States alone, though it nearly got shelved last year. Gotye says he was seriously considering leaving the song off his latest album (and U.S. breakthrough), “Making Mirrors” (Universal), because it was taking too long to finish.

It began with a flash of inspiration nearly two years ago as he was piecing together bits of music for the next Gotye album at his recording studio -- a farm outside Melbourne. He had stumbled upon a two-note guitar pattern on a 1967 instrumental recording, “Seville,” by a Brazilian bossa nova artist, Luiz Bonfa, and it triggered the song’s opening line: “Now and then I think of when we were together.”

“I dig through thrift shops all the time, taking a punt on a record that has a strange cover or has something that piques my interest,” Gotye says. “In this case, it was the album title that caught my attention: ‘Luiz Bonfa plays Great Songs.’ OK, ‘great songs,’ eh? So I decided to buy it and have a listen. I heard those few guitar notes and looped them. It registered intuitively some kind of atmosphere, a melancholic feeling. The song was written very linearly from there, with the soft padded drum loop in the left speaker; the xylophone hook that I played; more guitar sound samples, which I manipulated to create the wobbly vibrato; a melody between the verses; the break before the chorus. But I hit a brick wall where I felt the story was going nowhere with this voice, so I came up with the female part in the space of a few weeks.”

That’s where things broke down.

“It took five, six months to find (New Zealand singer) Kimbra to sing it,” Gotye says. “At a few points I was ready to give up. At one stage I thought I had the right person, but she pulled out. I tried some vocals with other people whose voices I love, but it didn’t feel quite right for this song. I thought about putting it aside because it was holding up release of the album overall. Fortunately, I did have an inkling that musically it had a strength worth waiting for. So it was great to finally go to Kimbra’s apartment and hear her sing it and realize, ‘That’s it!’ ”

The song is part of an album that plays mix and match with electronic and world music, tribal rhythms, dub step and psychedelia. Gotye is a multi-instrumentalist who is also a visual artist, and his collage-style arrangements merge the two disciplines to create subtle if unexpected juxtapositions and transitions. Part of the staying power of “Somebody That I Used to Know” is that as worldwide hits go, it’s fairly understated and idiosyncratic.

I ask Gotye to play rock critic for a minute and explain what it is about the song that has resonated with so many people. “I can see that the song has a peculiar balance about it,” he says, “a tension that balances opposing tendencies. It’s a restrained ballad with something angsty about it, and it pushes that out to the world, with big reverb. There are hooky parts but they are revealed in slow fashion, requiring investment from the listener, which most pop does not require. Most pop songs just smash you in the face.”

Now he’s on the victory lap of a tour that brings him to the Charter One Pavilion, a venue nearly twice the size of the 4,500-capacity Aragon, which he sold out in April. It’s been a year of Gotye firsts: First U.S. tour, first U.S. album release, first worldwide hit.

What’s he got planned for an encore in 2013? “With things so absurdly massive, I don’t feel compelled at all to match what’s happened. I just want to make the most interesting, challenging music that I can. As long as I’m into it, without regard to its commercial considerations, it’ll be alright.”

greg@gregkot.com

Gotye: 7:30 p.m. Friday at Charter One Pavilion, 1300 S. Lynn White Drive, $39.50; ticketmaster.com.