LOS ANGELES — Australian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Gotye had two big concerns ahead of his debut at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival last Sunday night: how hot would it be out in the desert and how his massive hit, the understated lovelorn jam “Somebody That I Used to Know,” would play out in front of the crowd.
“I’ve played plenty of festivals in Australia. But none I’ve been to have been in the desert,” he laughed over the phone in an interview days before the festival in Indio, Calif. “How much water do I need to drink to make sure I can sing on the Coachella stage?”
The 31-year-old artist born Wouter “Wally” De Backer, who performs under the oft-mispronounced moniker Gotye (it’s Gore-ti-yeah), made his Coachella debut in the Mojave tent the night after appearing on “Saturday Night Live” for the first time.
He plays again this Sunday on the closing night of the two-weekend festival, as part of his sold-out spring tour.
In just the last month, the gentle yet addictive tune — a duet with New Zealand breakout vocalist Kimbra — has hit No. 1 on the pop charts and has been covered on “Glee” and “The Voice.” Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler admitted he kept the song on repeat on his iPod while praising contestants who covered the song on “American Idol.” And the video for the single has been watched more than 154 million times on YouTube.
“It’s a very peculiar track,” De Backer said. “It’s supremely soft and reflective. Both my vocals, the loopy guitar part and all the little hooks in it, they really only operate when they are very understated and soft. So I wonder how that will come across on a festival (sound system). It’s been tough when we’ve had a chatty crowd and the quietest part of the whole set is actually the first two minutes of the big hit single that everybody has come to see.”
“Somebody That I Used to Know” is taken from his third album, “Making Mirrors,” which he recorded entirely in his parent’s barn on farmland near Melbourne. The eclectic record is filled with warbled noises he’s found by manipulating sounds, including his own tenor — which sounds like Sting, Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins shoved into a blender — fiddling with technology and sampling whatever vintage records or instruments he can get his hands on.
The disc, which was released in the U.S. in January through Universal Republic (it came out in August in his native land), is the first by an Australian-based artist to make the U.S. top 10 this century, after it peaked at No. 9 on the pop chart; it hit No. 1 on Billboard’s alternative albums chart.
It’s also the only album on the charts that experiments with effervescent Motown/ Stax riffs, ‘80s pop, garage rock and pays tribute to both the vocoder and a rare antique organ called the Lowrey Cotillion — all while keeping a cohesive groove that’s accessible to both indie and pop ears.
At Coachella, De Backer breezed through a focused set of his genre-bending songs, choosing to plant The Hit three-quarters of the way into his set.
“This is a song you might have heard,” he said, sounding ambivalent and ready to free himself of the track. As he began the opening riffs of the hit, the tent glowed thanks to hundreds of cellphones, glowsticks and lighters hoisted in the air by an audience eager to capture the moment and sing along.
De Backer took his time with the opening verse. He wanted every word to be heard over a makeshift choir that was actually thousands of festivalgoers chanting the lyrics, waiting in anticipation for that big chorus with that anthemic hook. Despite his initial reservations, De Backer was heard loud and clear in the tent, even as cheers nearly drowned him out.
With time left in his set, those who came for the four minutes of angsty heartbreak had gotten what they needed and started to file out.
“Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get onto the real ..,” De Backer joked to the crowd that was pouring out.
Those who stayed were treated to a rocking drum solo from De Backer as he launched into another album standout, the Motown/Stax-influenced “I Feel Better,” to a noticeably smaller crowd.