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 weekend: the desert heat and how his monster hit, the understated lovelorn jam Somebody That I Used to Know, would play 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 said, laughing, over the phone 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?"
Wouter "Wally" De Backer, 31, 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 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. And the video for the single has been watched more than 168 million times on YouTube.
"It's a very peculiar track," De Backer said. "It's supremely soft and reflective. ... 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 parents' barn on farmland near Melbourne. The eclectic record is filled with warbled noises that he has 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, released in the United States in January, is the first by an Australian-based artist to make the U.S. top 10 this century, when 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 and garage rock, and that pays tribute to both the vocoder and a rare antique organ called the Lowrey Cotillion — 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, planting 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 the makeshift choir of 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.
Those who came for the four minutes of angsty heartbreak had gotten what they needed and started to file 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.