I recently had a chance to catch up with my friend Wally. Wal is one of my biggest inspirations and it’s always great to get a chance to catch up with him and talk about what he’s been working on, creative processes, inspirations, etc. What makes Wal slightly different, in context, is that he’s also known as ‘Gotye’. You know, that guy who used to know somebody? Wal is one of the hardest working and most intelligent people I’ve ever met, and his passion for what he does is infectious. But while most people would be aware of ‘that song’, many are not aware of the long road it took for Wal to become an overnight success.
I met Wally a couple of years after he’d finished high school. Wal had been in a band with some high school mates, a very good and well-known band (locally) called ‘Downstares’, but after graduation the band drifted apart, the guys moving on to their respective next things. You could see this kinda’ broke Wal’s heart, he loved music and he loved performing, but without a band he had no outlet. Wal was studying at uni and working part-time, but there was definitely something missing. He wanted to make music again.
It was around the same time that The Avalanches’ album ‘Since I Left You’ was going well, and DJ Shadow had just released his second album, ‘The Private Press’. In retrospect, I would say that these two albums were among the most influential in the Gotye project coming into being – not musically, necessarily, but in terms of them showing Wal the possibilities of sample-based music. Wal had never really considered using samples – he’s an excellent drummer and pianist, and I imagine the thought of samples seemed somewhat inferior or not as tangible as actually playing an instrument. Either way, he’d never seriously considered it, then one night he tried it out, mucking around with records, playing with sounds on his PC. Wal’s a perfectionist, so once he’d started on it, there was no stopping him, and he worked with the samples till he had something he felt was great. And it was. His first tracks were amazing, way beyond what anyone would have expected. Wal was excited, he’d found a way to make music again, now he just had to work out what to do next.
Wal read up on agents and record labels and radio stations, sifted through the phone book to find as many contacts as he could. Wal hand made hundreds of four-track CDs, printing up the CD labels and hand writing the track listing on each sleeve. I remember seeing the pile of worn down brown pencils in his room. He sent the CDs out to everyone he could, then followed each one up with a phone call. The workload was amazing – Wal was driven to do whatever he could to find an audience for his music. Early feedback was limited. Most places didn’t respond, some did but weren’t able to offer anything. Wal kept calling, kept making CDs, kept chasing, and kept making new music. Eventually, Triple J added one of his songs to their playlist, an amazing day. I still remember hearing Wal on the radio for the first time. It was an incredibly proud moment. I think some other smaller stations played a track or two, and Wal was getting mentioned in street press, nothing major, but the first stages of Gotye had begun.
Wal released two more four track CDs, all hand made (though he cut out the hand written business after the first one).They got limited attention, but music critics were highlighting his stuff in their weekly columns, even if it wasn’t getting added to radio playlists. Wal continued to get support from Triple J and he gained enough attention to develop on a live show – a small gig in a city bar with a bed sheet as a projector screen. Wal worked extremely hard to try and perfect a live show, unsure of how to do it with sample based music. And afterwards he thought it was crap (one of the difficulties of Wal’s perfectionist nature is he always notices every tiny error – in his head those errors are highlighted way more than the audience would ever notice).
Eventually a small record label agreed to distribute an album of Wal’s music, a selection of highlights from those first four-track CDs. This was another amazing milestone, Wal’s CDs were in JB Hi-Fi, in between ‘God Speed You Black Emperor’ and ‘Green Day’. I remember going into stores just to see it on the shelves. Wal was a legit superstar in our eyes, but even at this stage, Wal was still doing all the work – the label was distributing the music, but Wal still had to work on all the production and manage every aspect, along with creating new tracks. After all the work and all the effort, Wal went quiet in Gotye stuff for a little bit. He was still working on it, but he’d started playing in another band and he’d moved house and he just hadn’t been able to give his new music the time he needed for a little bit. And in some ways, I think the whole process burned him out a little. This was probably three years after he started recording music as Gotye.
We were on a group holiday on the Gold Coast when Wal first played us his new tracks. He’d put together an album, had had it all mastered, professionally done, it was a major step up from the previous stuff. The album was called ‘Like Drawing Blood’ and as soon as Wal played the first track, ‘The Only Way’, I just wanted to listen to it over and over again. ‘Like Drawing Blood’ is an amazing album, and not only good because he’s a friend, a seriously amazing album, among the best of any released that year. Rightfully, it was recognised with an ARIA Award along with many other accolades. His track ‘Hearts a Mess’ was number 8 in the Triple J’s Hottest 100 in 2006. Wal had become a fully-fledged rock star. People recognised him in the street (it’s still pretty cool seeing it, seeing people do a double-take as he passes), he played sold out shows and huge, surging crowds sang along to his tracks. And people stopped believing me when I told them I know him. For years, I’d been pushing his music at people, saying they needed to listen to his stuff, now I couldn’t even convince people that he was a mate. It was all pretty great – amazing, inspiring stuff.
Then Wal waited a couple of years, recorded his next album in amongst his other musical and professional commitments. Quietly, patently, took his time getting it right. Then he released that song. No doubt you know the rest. Wal’s first Gotye recordings were in 2001 in his basement bedroom in Montmorency. In 2011, Wal released ‘Making Mirrors’, his third album. Ten years to become an overnight success.
Why is this overly long Gotye history lesson relevant?
As noted, Wal is one of my biggest inspirations. He has taught me so much about following your dreams and allowing yourself to be creative, and about how much work it takes to achieve something great. Wal’s story highlights three important things:
1. Persistence is key. Wal had to work so hard to get recognition. There were so many times when things seemed like they might never go anywhere and Wal could easily have walked away. But he never did. No one wants to be sending out hundreds of copies of their work knowing that many of them will never even get read or listened to. No one wants to follow up with phone calls and hassle people who probably have no interest in talking to you. But this is what had to be done, and Wal did it because he was driven to succeed. He believed in what he was doing, he believed in his music, and he worked and worked and did whatever he could to get it heard. You have to be willing to put yourself out there and to put in the consistent effort required to succeed. It took a decade of persistence for Wal to achieve that ultimate success. An even now, he’s still working on his music, every day.
2. Practice makes perfect. Wal is an amazing musician, always has been, but it took time for him to work out how to perfect his sound. He had to learn a heap of new instruments, read through pages of software documentation (the worst of all documentation) and he had to practice over and over and over to get things right. One time Wal told me how about he records around 100 vocal takes for every track. He knows what he wants and he tries and tries again till he gets it exactly right. Wal practiced over and over again to get to the point where he can produce the amazing live shows he does today, none of that came easy. He’s tried, he’s failed, he’s been dejected, then he’s tried again. You have to practice to get it right. As much as you possibly can.
3. Passion is your push. No one made Wal succeed. No one pushed him, and as noted, he could’ve given up several times. But he was passionate about what he was doing, he wanted it more than anything. That’s what makes Wal the success he is. It’s not his intelligence or his natural ability – those elements play a big part, but Wal taught himself most of the skills he needed because he had the impetus to do so. Because he was totally driven by his passion. If you’re passionate about something, you can achieve great things. You work hard, there’s nothing you can’t learn to support your art. You have to be self-driven, you have to make it happen, and you have to be willing to listen and learn and take in everything you can along the way. Take risks, be strong in your self-belief, trust in your ability even when no one else does. If you do these things will that turn you into an international superstar? Probably not, but it’s these fundamental elements that position you to achieve your greatest success.
Also if you’ve been living on an island with a volleyball as your only companion for the past few years, go check out www.gotye.com and listen to Wal’s music – if you’ve read through this whole post, surely that’s enough context to pique your interest.