Gotye Makes His Return with an Ondioline. Sorry, a What?
While we mightn’t have heard from him in a while, to say Gotye (AKA Wally De Backer) has been on a musical hiatus since Somebody That I Used To Know is pretty far from the truth.
Last year, when a follow-up to his 2011 play-on-repeat third studio album Making Mirrors suddenly seemed like a real possibility, fans asked: "Where’s Wally?” He wasn’t playing crowded concerts, releasing chart-topping hits, and racking up hundreds of millions of YouTube plays – but Gotye seems to have spent the past few years doing what Gotye does best. That is, researching, creating and playing incredible sounds and songs.
Those plugged into the earliest horizons of electronic music will likely be familiar with Perrey. Most of us, though, probably haven’t heard of the pioneering French electronic music producer, who’s lasting influence leaps from Disney to South Park to the Beastie Boys to a 1996 House of Pain song (Guru's Fed Up) that samples him.
“I was in François Tetaz's studio in Melbourne and he played me some tracks from the Perrey and Kingsley record The In Sound From Way Out!” Gotye says of his first encounter with Perrey in 2005. “What were these highly unusual but infectiously joyful sounds? What was that great emotive lead sound? It was the start of a life-long fascination.”
The lead in Perrey’s buoyant, joyful early electronica is the ondioline – a small keyboard instrument he championed throughout his oeuvre. It’s an early iteration of the modern synth, invented in 1941 by another Frenchman, Georges Jenny. As a descendant of the eerie whirring of the theremin, and the soft wavering of the ondes Martenot, the ondioline is capable of a diverse scale of electronic sounds. And since hearing Perrey in 2005, Gotye has become somewhat of an ondioline and Perrey virtuoso.
For Gotye, the ondioline is an incredibly “expressive and timbrally versatile electronic instrument”, and Perrey its inspired master.
“You can dial in an incredibly wide range of sounds on the ondioline, and the unique mechanics for playing it allows you to create sounds very sensitively and with a musical deftness I just feel isn't present on most other electronic instruments from the '40s – or decades since,” he says.
Eventually, Gotye connected with Perrey, and the two became good friends in the final years of Perrey’s life. “I sent Jean-Jacques a demo of a song from the forthcoming Gotye record, a piece that pays tribute to his sounds and spirit,” Gotye explains. Perrey and his daughter responded warmly, and the Belgian-born Australian artist then visited the family in Switzerland a number of times before Perrey’s death in 2016.
On Facebook, Gotye penned a moving eulogy calling Perrey a “visionary of alternative pop music”, a “pioneer of wildly rhythmic tape-edit sampling techniques” and his “spiritual grandfather.” He also revealed his efforts to painstakingly restore Perrey’s work, plans for a tribute concert and a new consortium of musicians: the Ondioline Orchestra. “Ondioline Orchestra features some wonderful musicians that I met in New York and whom I feel very honoured to play with,” says Gotye.
As well as two lovingly restored ondiolines, in the band’s rhythm section is Nick Oddy, Sean Dixon, and Jordan Scannella – alumni of Zammuto, one of Gotye’s favourite bands. On keys will be former Psychedelic Furs member Joe McGinty, and Rob Schwimmer, who is, Gotye says, one of the world’s foremost thereminists. “Together I think we've got a groovy goo going on,” he says, smiling.
For their Sydney Festival Carriageworks performance, the electronic orchestra will be playing Perrey’s more well-known pieces, as well as rare and unheard Perrey projects. There’s a piece he made with Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti, and the score for an old French film. “Some of this music was never really played live – it was too complex with its melting pot of samples and multi-tracked ondiolines to pull off decades ago,” says Gotye. Now though, armed with ondiolines and original samples, the Ondioline Orchestra is capable of performing Jean-Jacques arrangements faithfully.
“I just find it to be very magical music,” Gotye says. “Its chameleonic quality, the unusual meeting points of surface-level simplicity with great arrangement depth, not to mention really muscular musicality in the playing.”
For him, creating the tribute show and compilation of archival rarities was “a gift to a friend”.
“It's pure joy to play his music,” he says.
This piece was published for Broadsheet Sydney, on 12 January 2018.
Image, Gotye's Ondioline Orchestra, courtesy of Gotye.