A black Escalade is idling in downtown Manhattan, waiting for a guy called Gotye. After about 20 minutes, the Belgian-born, Australian-bred singer climbs in. He’s just finished an interview at pop powerhouse Z100, which has put his breakout hit, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” into heavy rotation. “That was good, right?” asks Dave, a representative from Gotye’s label, sitting shotgun. “Yeah…,” says Gotye, whose real name is Wouter De Backer, sounding skeptical. His speaking voice, warm and quiet, is better suited for NPR kaffeeklatsching than Top 40 blitzing. “The energy was very hyper.” He raises a hand, shakes it wildly. “They wanted me to be up here. I felt that if I so much as paused to take a breath they’d cut me off.”
“Somebody That I Used to Know” has been Number One on Billboard‘s Hot 100 for three weeks. Its video has earned a startling 190 million YouTube views, not to mention tweets from Ashton Kutcher and Katy Perry. But Gotye – pronounced “go-ti-ay” – is a strange, manifestly 21st-century sort of star: huge on Web browsers and radio dials and Glee, but unlikely to be recognized on the street. (He’s been in Manhattan for the better part of a month: walking the Brooklyn Bridge, touring Rockefeller Center, visiting the Guggenheim. Have fans accosted him constantly? “Not so much,” he says, chuckling at the suggestion.) His brown hair falls in unkempt curls, and he’s wearing jeans, canvas sneakers and a gray cardigan he got at Uniqlo for $30. From some angles the 31-year-old singer is wolfishly handsome: piercing green eyes, wide mouth. From others he looks totally unremarkable, a bookstore clerk on his break.
On pop playlists, though, Gotye sticks out. “Somebody That I Used to Know” revolves around an arresting two-note guitar sample, xylophone plinks and Gotye’s understated vocal, which tells the story of a failed relationship before leaping into an accusatory howl. In the second half of the song, a singer named Kimbra shows up, contradicting Gotye’s verses with the woman’s side of the story. The chorus doesn’t come until the minute-and-a-half mark and repeats only once – a reserve that is basically unheard of in the era of pre-hook-, bridge- and b-chorus-stuffed smashes. It seems to issue from a different planet than the brightly bludgeoning cyborg pop that fills contemporary airwaves. “It’s so soft by comparison,” Gotye says. “But maybe that’s a good thing, because you need to turn it up. A lot of compressed, superloud radio formats, you’re not engaging at all. You’re just hearing the glittery end of high-hats and bullshit.”
Team Gotye makes a stop at another major pop station, 92.3 NOW, where the singer is led to a recording suite to tape drops (“Hey, this is Gotye and you’re listening to Cannon’s Countdown, with Nick Cannon!”). Between takes, he makes small talk with a producer named Will. “What do you guys play besides me?” he asks.
“You know, your Rihannas, your Calvin Harrises, your Chris Browns – it’s a dance dance world,” Will says. “We’ve actually been playing this remix of your song. A DJ called Mike D threw some drums on it. It sounds awesome.” Gotye smiles, but his brow furrows and he stiffens up. “I don’t think that’s an official remix,” he says. The radio guy, caught off-guard, doesn’t immediately reply. “I love that,” Gotye adds. “‘We like your song so much, we threw some drums on it!'” He excuses himself to confer with his label rep, who assures him they’ll get to the bottom of it. Gotye returns to crank out the remaining drops. “Best of luck to you,” Will says when he’s done.
Next, Gotye’s due at the soundcheck for his sold-out concert at Webster Hall, an East Village ballroom with a capacity of 1,400. Months ago, Gotye’s people booked him on a small-club tour. Now they’re scrambling to add dates and scale up venues; he played Saturday Night Live. As Gotye climbs back into the SUV, Dave tells him they’ll send a cease-and-desist to the station about the remix, if necessary. Gotye doesn’t seem angry so much as irked. “It’s so funny,” he says. “‘It’s great how different your song sounds. Now let’s homogenize it for our playlist!'”
This sudden blockbuster success – the Escalades, the Z100 appearances, SNL: He doesn’t care if it all disappears, knows it has to, sooner or later. When he was growing up in Australia, the son of a software-designer dad and a French-teacher mom, De Backer loved playing music, but he never wanted to be a rock star. He adored Depeche Mode‘s Martin Gore, the behind-the-scenes mastermind, rather than Dave Gahan, the frontman. “I love his voice, but when they played live, he was a big turnoff for me,” he says, eating vegetable paella at a Spanish place in Chelsea. “I’d be like, ‘Look at this guy in his black suit.’ Kind of a very try-hard frontman, shaking his ass.”
In a high school band covering Nirvana and Soundgarden, he played drums. When the group broke up, De Backer, inspired by DJ Shadow and the Avalanches, traded the company of people for that of records and gear. “I bought a Pentium 4 or something, a sound card and a terrible SM58 microphone,” he recalls. He became a crate-digger, buying albums regardless of genre – “Appalachian yodelers, dueling banjos, late-Sixties mood records” – and scouring them for sounds he could weave together into new songs. “I just loved discovering old culture and discarded things, thinking maybe I could make them relevant again,” he says.
He began releasing music under the moniker Gotye, and his 2006 album, Like Drawing Blood, became a surprise hit, eventually going multiplatinum in Australia. Two and a half years ago he sequestered himself in a barn on his parents’ property, an hour and a half outside Melbourne. The result was his third album, Making Mirrors, a pleasantly schizophrenic set. Exuberant, adept Motown hommage (“I Feel Better”) butts against sweeping Eighties rock (“Eyes Wide Open”), Beck-esque Sixties psych riffs (“Easy Way Out”) and unclassifiable detours like “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Holding everything together is Gotye’s voice, a reedy but powerful instrument that can sound uncannily like Sting’s.
Gotye paid for the album himself, spending about $70,000 (mostly on mixing). He licenses it to labels, which means he gets much more per sale than he would otherwise. But the most lavish indulgence he’s considering is a Vespa. “I try not to buy wastefully,” he says. He owns a “weatherboard house with two tiny bedrooms, a vegetable garden and koalas in the backyard” that he shares with his girlfriend.
Recently, while in L.A., Gotye learned that the superstar producer Dr. Luke wanted to meet him. “I went up to his place in the Hollywood Hills,” Gotye says. “He didn’t ask me as many questions as I asked him.” Luke wants Gotye to try to write some songs for him. “I’d do it out of curiosity,” Gotye says. “Like, ‘Who is this person and what would I write for them? How do I wanna play with their vibe?’ That would be the most interesting question for me. I’m a fan of Katy Perry. I like what she does with her voice.”
At Webster Hall, the roar for “Somebody” nearly drowns out the first 10 seconds of the song. Ringed by four musicians, Gotye stands center stage, within a phalanx of keyboards, percussion instruments and assorted gear. He’s comfortable – bashing ecstatically on a snare during the loud parts, bantering amiably between songs – but moving minimally in his T-shirt and jeans. He saw Bruce Springsteen in Philadelphia, and he clearly admires a career like Springsteen’s. “I’m less interested in ticking the boxes for the sake of trying to maintain some level of profile, fame, commercial success,” he says when he’s off-stage. “I’ll play live, maybe. But I’m not gonna talk to people.” He smiles. “I make a record, it goes out there and that’s it.”
This story is from the April 26th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.