Ask Gotye about his new album Making Mirrors and he’ll speak not of songs, but of sounds.
He’ll describe the various valves through which strings and choirs cycle on his Lowrey Cotillion, a vintage organ bought for 100 bucks in a second-hand shop that features on the record. Or how he constructed a bassline by sampling the Winton Musical Fence, an unlikely instrument he discovered in the outback of Queensland, Australia, comprised of five large metal strings attached to wooden fence posts and a resonant chamber. He may mention the horn break from a traditional Taiwanese folk song he discovered on a 1970s Cathay Pacific promotional record, which he sampled, sped up and dubbed out, before introducing it to some Turkish drum sounds. Or the unique, virtual versions of acoustic instruments - among them a chromaharp and an mbira - he created by painstakingly multisampling every note.
Listen to Making Mirrors and you’ll be drawn in by the details, transported to a world where every moment matters. This is pop at its most precise, but also electronic music at its most emotional. The record delves into dub, Detroit-era Motown soul, stadium-size politipop, synth-folk and world music on glorious, sprawling, huge-hearted songs.
Gotye (pronounced Gauthier) first found fame in his native Australia with his second album, 2006’s Like Drawing Blood. Radio station Triple J named it their album of the year, as did iTunes on its release in Europe in 2008. It was recently voted the 11th greatest Australian album of all time. In Britain, Like Drawing Blood became a cult hit while in the States, it made waves after Drew Barrymore fell in love with single Learnalilgivinanlovin’ and used it in several of her films.
Making Mirrors, its extraordinary follow-up, was more than two and a half years in the making. To write and record its dozen sumptuous songs, Gotye moved from Melbourne to a barn on his parents’ remote five hectare block on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. There, he had the space to permanently set up his growing array of instruments and recording equipment, and found the isolation that allowed for sonic experimentation and recording at any time of the day.
After Like Drawing Blood, which was constructed almost entirely from samples of old vinyl, Gotye set about making an album using more physical and acoustic instruments.
“I ended up sampling a lot of them note-by-note and turning them into virtual instruments,” he explains. “It’s a slow and sometimes laborious process, but it can completely change the sound of the instrument and how you approach playing it. You can buy so many virtual instruments online these days, but it’s not nearly as personal as making them yourself. I found a beautiful old chromaharp at an antique shop, and ‘virtualised’ it in this way. It ended up sounding more like an unusual hammer dulcimer when played on a midi keyboard or programmed with software”
Meanwhile, Gotye continued to raid local second-hand shops for obscure vinyl to sample.
"A lot of samples came from 1950s and ‘60s exotica records,” says Gotye. “Guys like Les Baxter; these amazing orchestrators and producers who experimented so boldly with musical colours and the stereo spectrum”
“For Bronte, the closing track on the new record, I used a sample of ‘60s orchestrator Leo Addeo. He made an exotica record called Calypso which featured lots of wildly out-of-tune steel drums. I pitched some grabs of these around, really messing with the overtones of the samples, and it became a gentle, beautiful loop, while still being quite odd sonically.”
Gotye’s background is as a drummer and often plays his shows solo, setting off samples from behind his drum kit while singing. On Eyes Wide Open, the first song recorded for Making Mirrors, he played live drums for the first time on a Gotye record. There is also live piano and bass guitar, plus some strange field recordings.
“I recorded sounds from around my parents block - me walking up the path, the frogs in the background – and wove them subtly in to several songs. I even included the ambience of the barn in the background of Don’t Worry, We’ll Be Watching You. The most obvious field recording is of the Winton Musical Fence. I played the fence strings one windy night in the outback and recorded it on a portable stereo. That became the bassline for Eyes Wide Open.”
The dubby State Of The Art, with its spooky, pitch-shifted, sci-fi vocals, is an ode to the Lowrey Cotillion, with lyrics that mention its keys and functions.
“I’m fascinated by how attached to certain pieces of technology we can become. I mean, I love this organ!,” laughs Gotye. “But I was also interested in how these relationships don’t often hold between generations. Certain pieces of gear that once captured peoples’ imagination can now appear quaint and outdated to younger people. Yet those who experienced them when they were at the vanguard of technological achievement, sometimes still hold onto that glorious vision of the future they provided. It’s like we inscribe our dreams on these machines sometimes; we can develop these peculiar yet profound personal relationships with them.”
In contrast, the joyous, uptempo I Feel Better revisits the Motown sound of Like Drawing Blood’s breakthrough single Leanalilgivinanlovin.
“That song was a direct response to listening to Martha Reeves’ Dancing In The Street when I was driving home one day,” says Gotye. “I was struck by how massive the tambourine sound on the recording is – it feels like it’s being hit by the hand of God. I thought it was cool that such a wall of sound could be dominated by a physically quite small instrument like a tambourine. So I arrived home, played a tambourine backbeat at a similar tempo and put an impossibly big plate reverb on it. Sitting down at the piano in response to this percussion track, I had I Feel Better written in about an hour.”
Already Making Mirrors is making waves thanks to stunning, Peter Gabriel-esque, first single Somebody That I Used To Know, a collaboration with New Zealand singer Kimbra which is currently nestled in the Australian Top 10. Within three weeks of its striking, stop-frame, body-painting video being posted on YouTube, the song had received more than two million hits and made it to No.1 on the Hype Machine Twitter chart. Hear it once and you’ll be haunted by it for weeks.
Gotye launched Making Mirrors in Australia in August with a gig at Sydney Opera House, which is followed by a tour in the autumn. For the first time, he will be playing Gotye music completely live.
“I have a ten-piece band, in which everyone sings and plays multiple instruments,” says Gotye. “These are by far my most ambitious shows to date. There will be no backing tracks used. All visuals will be triggered live too. We’ve been rehearsing twice a week for the past 3 months, and it’s exciting because it’s dangerous. It could go wrong on every song. I’ve never been one to make my life easy.”