Moogfest: Gotye Presents a Tribute to Jean-Jacques Perrey
Downtown Durham
Thursday, May 18, 2017

Shortly after his hit song “Somebody That I Used to Know” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2011, it seemed, by all accounts, that Gotye had vanished back into the foothills of Australia whence he came. As it turns out, he’s spent the last five years tinkering with Ondiolines, rare French electronic instruments pioneered by alternative pop visionary Jean-Jacques Perrey.

On Thursday afternoon, Wally De Backer (aka Gotye), along with members of his Ondioline Orchestra, gathered on stage for the second time to play a tribute concert to Perrey, with whom De Backer had developed a friendship before Perrey passed away in November 2016. Some festival attendees were told the event at the 1,300-capacity Carolina Theatre was sold out, which seemed improbable for 5 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon. In the end, we learned that the festival only allowed three hundred people in to see the performance, a curious use of one of downtown Durham’s biggest rooms.

About five years ago, De Backer started on a quest to find and restore a vintage Ondioline, a forerunner to modern synthesizers invented by Frenchman Georges Jenny in 1941 during his time in a sanatorium as he recovered from tuberculosis. After scouring eBay and Craigslist and phoning French secondhand instrument stores with no luck, De Backer finally received a call about an Ondioline for sale from someone in Connecticut, who would only sell the instrument blind.

“I bought this instrument sight unseen for two thousand dollars,” De Backer recalled in a master class session immediately after the performance. “And it came in a box and had clearly been underwater. It was completely rusted in the back and I just took it out and felt like, Well, this may never make a sound again.” After years of searching, De Backer presented this shabby find to instrument restorer Stephen Masucci and asked if it could be brought back to life.

“And I lied to him,” Masucci said. “I said, ‘Absolutely, I’ve seen worse than this. I got your back, don’t worry. How tough can it be?’ And I got a quick education. First lesson: don’t lie.”

But despite the “certain amount of implausibility” in putting this project together, the orchestra rehearsed and performed a flawless sampling of Perrey’s work on Thursday using two fully restored Ondiolines, among other instruments. Though Perrey himself wasn’t there to witness it, his daughter Patricia Leroy was.

“Wally is a genius,” Leroy said in the session. “My father was a genius in his time, but nowadays Wally is just as well because, to play an instrument that was made in the 1950s and make it sound the way he does, is overwhelming.”

Thursday’s performance was intimate by design, with the musicians forming a circle on the stage of Fletcher Hall in the Carolina Theatre as if in the midst of a casual jam session, and many audience members being brought on stage to sit up close to the performers and witness the precise movements Ondiolinists make to draw out the whimsical notes of this uniquely expressive synthesizer.

The performance began with a short, earnest series of high, wistful notes, but quickly broke into a devious grin with tunes like “Swan’s Splashdown,” “Mod Ghost,” and “Chicken on the Rocks,” which incorporate, respectively, comical quacking samples, a pair of wind-up plastic teeth, and a can of Sapporo fashioned into a rhythm shaker.

As Leroy put it to De Backer after the show, “You seem to have as much fun playing the music as my father had making the music.”

And it’s true. The Orchestra members were beaming like children through the entire performance, an effect De Backer would likely attribute to the infectious, whimsical nature of the Ondioline itself.

De Backer’s current venture is his efforts to preserve and spread the work of his hero Perrey with his new record label, Forgotten Futures. The label’s first release, titled Jean-Jacques Perrey et son Ondioline, is a compilation of rare and previously unreleased Perrey recordings. It seems De Backer has used the fame and fortune generated by a hit pop single in the best way possible: to revive the spirits of Georges Jenny and Jean-Jacques Perrey and to rehabilitate an instrument that otherwise would have sat gathering dust and mold in basements, doomed never to make a sound again.