If you want to know what loving your job sounds like, talk to Gotye.
The Australian-born musician, whose real name is Wally De Backer, speaks with such fervour about his most recent project that it’s hard not to feel envious. On the 16th and 17th of January, 2018, as part of Sydney Festival, Gotye and his Ondioline Orchestra will perform four moving tributes to one of the earliest pioneers of electronic music, the legendary composer Jean-Jacques Perrey.
De Backer first discovered Perrey twelve years ago, after being introduced to his music by his production and mixing partner, Francois Tétaz. “He thought he heard a little of the whimsy, or, I don’t know, the resonance of some of Jean-Jacques’ mid 60’s music in some of the stuff on Like Drawing Blood,” he recalls. “I’d never heard the music before, but I was glad to be introduced, ‘cause I instantly loved it and started digging into different records that he’d made.”
De Backer, who is now based in Brooklyn, New York—“You meet people you wouldn’t really meet anywhere else in the world here,” he says of his new home—became so enthralled by Jean-Jacques’ music that he penned a tribute song in 2013 and sent it to him. In the song, he used an Ondioline, an early electronic keyboard instrument invented by Georges Jenny in 1941 and championed by Jean-Jacques throughout his career.
“To my great joy, Jean-Jacques and his daughter, Patricia, both responded really warmly and said it was really sweet that a young musician would be inspired by his work but also respond to it in that way by writing a piece like that, and they invited me to visit.” A few weeks later, De Backer was at Jean-Jacques’ house in Switzerland. “To me, it was incredible as a fan and long time listener just to meet the wonderful old man who had a lot of great stories and a wink in his eye, who made time for me to come and chat about the aspects of his work that I was really interested in. We had such a good feeling that I came back and visited a number of times in the subsequent years,” he says.
As the two got to know each other better, their friendship grew, and Perrey began to entrust De Backer with the arduous task of archiving his life’s work. “As I got to know Jean-Jacques better, and as it went from the initial excitement of meeting a musical hero and sort of getting to know him, he allowed me to become more and more an archivist for him, and eventually he realised this enthusiasm I was bringing to each of my visits wasn’t just to hang out and chat with him, but to sort of be digging up early pieces of music that he hadn’t released or were very rare,” he says.
It wasn’t long before De Backer was granted an all-access pass to Jean-Jacques’ work. “Eventually he just said, ‘Feel free to just dig around, whatever you find in cupboards, I know there’s a bunch of stuff in those suitcases in the cellar—you can have a look and if there’s anything interesting, go for it!’ The love of his music and I guess the love of the man as I got to know him better, just really spurred me on to be more of an archivist than I’ve ever been before.”
Over the course of about two years, De Backer scoured through endless drawers, suitcases and crates, with the process cumulating in the release of a compilation record, Jean- Jacques Perrey et son Ondioline, that he curated and put out on his label, Forgotten Futures. “What I wanted to do was tell the story of his early musical life, which was also very intertwined with his developing mastery of the Ondioline. That compilation was a big labour of love, and through that process, me and the guitarist in the Ondioline Orchestra, Nick Oddy, thought this would be a great time to make a tribute show to his music,” recalls De Backer.
The process of creating the tribute show began in early 2016. During that time, De Backer had also grown closer to acquiring his very own Ondioline, a search that had been ongoing for almost five years. “It just feels like all of the energies of the universe pointed me towards finding these instruments,” he says. The first Ondioline he came to own was in a bad way, severely water damaged, rusted, and covered in grit and dirt. He managed to track down a technician named Stephen Masucci from New York City who painstakingly worked for a year to restore the instrument to working order. Since then, De Backer has managed to acquire 10 more. “It’s become a little crazy, after years and years of not being able to find one,” he laughs. “But, we’ve very actively made this pact—the idea is we keep restoring them on my dime, and once we have a few of them that we can learn from and I can keep and use in the studio, that we start to place extra models that are restored, you know, one in LA, one in Melbourne, etc., so that other musicians can actually use them.”
Sadly, the premiere of De Backer’s tribute to Perrey took place a week after Jean-Jacques passed away in November of 2016. “When we did that show in New York, in this beautiful venue, after I’d been gunning for a month and a half to learn how to play this Ondioline instrument from scratch, I truly felt like Jean-Jacques’ spirit was in the room with us playing all of his music that night. I could just feel it, it was incredible,” he says.
Now, De Backer and his Ondioline Orchestra will pay tribute to his late musical idol in four intimate shows over two nights at Carriageworks, Sydney, in January. It will be his first celebration of both Perrey’s music and of his favourite instrument, on home soil. “I just love this instrument so much,” he says of the Ondioline. “I love the way it sings, more maybe than any other synthesizer or early electronic instrument of the early part of the 20th century. When you develop certain techniques on the keyboard and how you combine the different mechanisms it offers you, I think it’s the most in touch I’ve felt with how much I love to sing and use the instrument that exists in my body, and to be able to have that same feeling through a device you use other parts of your body to control, I think that’s one of the reasons I’m so attracted to it. It’s just a real joy.”
Although Perrey passed before he got to witness the opening performance paying homage to his life’s work, De Backer says he was thrilled by the prospect. “I had a beautiful sense that he got such great energy from knowing that people would be discovering some of his unknown work, or that young musicians like me were energised by it,” he says.
And with that in mind, if one day the tables should turn and someone were to pay tribute to De Backer’s own musical legacy, who would he like to be behind it? “How about a re-incarnated Jean-Jacques Perrey?” he asks.
Get Your Sydney Festival Tickets to GOTYE PRESENTS A TRIBUTE TO JEAN-JACQUES PERREY here
or see the show at MONA FOMA in Tasmania on 13 January