THE GO-BETWEENS: Robert Forster

Cars, Girls, Libraries, Lee Remick
Hearsay #14a / 1996 / Interview with Neil and Ewen


"I've done phone interviews and they'd go: 'is it true you and Grant don't speak to each other and you hate each other?' when he's upstairs playing my guitar!"

IS 1996 THE YEAR OF THE GO-BETWEENS? Their record label certainly thinks so. The fresh-faced Australian band who began life in 1978 as a poetic duo mixing Dylan-esque folk with punk rhythms and attitude, and finally called it a day in 1989 as a five-piece ensemble with a string of mesmeric and underselling records to their credit, are due for a renaissance. Beggars Banquet have just re-issued their six albums with extensive new sleeve notes and photos (in addition to the original packaging), making some of their work available in your local record store for the first time in years. And then there are the solo albums too, which keep flowing from the pens and guitars of the band's two singer-songwriters, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster. Getting in on the act, Ewen and Neil decided to run a double Go-Betweens feature this issue in celebration of the legacy of this wonderful band. You can, therefore, read a retrospective of the band's career elsewhere. But first, your co-editors braved the sunny depths of South Kensington to meet ROBERT FORSTER, busy promoting his new album Warm Nights, and to ask him if 1996 really is the year of The Go-Betweens...

ROBERT FORSTER: Well, a number of things have happened that have just coincided with this year. My manager managed to round up all the albums, our last three albums came out on Beggars, our first two on Rough Trade and then Sire. It's just taken this amount of time to actually get the three earlier albums transported back to Beggars so they would have the whole six. Then just a variety of things happened, a book is going to come out this year, a Go-Betweens tribute album is coming out in Australia, we did a show in Paris last week, Les Inrockuptibles brought us over, and I was doing the album with Edwyn [Collins]. A few things coincided to give that appearance, which is why they'd say that.

HEARSAY: It was often said the three pivotal bands of the 80s were the Go-Betweens, REM and the Smiths. The Smiths and REM were quintessentially English and American, respec­tively. Do you think there's something quintessentially Australian about the Go-Betweens?

I do. A lot of people talked about this in the 80s referring to the sound of the band, and there would be a sweep that would probably include the Triffids; that sort of sound. I could never answer this question when it was asked of me in Munich in 1986 or Oslo in 1984 but I had this thought the other day; there was a cassette playing in the car when I was driving and the first two songs were by Vic Godard–one's called Johnny Thunders and the other's called The End of the Sorry People–which are very wordy and funny songs, with very intelligent lyrics. The next two songs on the tape were by the American group the Jayhawks, two tracks off my favourite album of theirs, Hollywood Town Hall. The lyrics were throwaway, these generic country-rock lyrics, but the whole sound of it was so authentic and so warm and I thought, between that I can see the smartness of Vic Goddard and the feel of the Jayhawks, you know America/ England, that was just filtering down. I think that's just something Australian and you add Australian ingredients but, for me anyway, Australian music moves somewhere in between those two things.

The Go-Betweens seemed to have a great drive for success. You weathered numerous set-backs, but when Amanda Brown joined the band she announced ‘the plan this year is Go-Betweens World Supremacy. We want to have hits, we want to sell millions of LPs.’ Do you think it ironic that you were pushing for this, yet one of the things your fans really treasure about the Go-Betweens is that they are a well-kept secret?

Well, you see, I was never pushing for it. I never thought that we would become a top 40 band in the 80s. I never thought we stood a chance. When we started the band I honestly thought we'd appeal to about fifty people and when it started to get beyond fifty people I was quite frankly surprised. If you know where we come from, from Brisbane, the fact that we made six albums and toured the world, to me that's enormous success, that's incredible for where we come from, to actually do this! But you've got to look at the fact that we never had any of the machinery pushing for us. We lived here for five years and were never in the whole of those five years once on the cover of any of the music magazines: NME, Melody Maker, Sounds. We were never on things like The Tube. There's a machinery going on behind the charts even for bands that aren't really typecast for the Top 40. A lot of our friends in a lot of those bands got those things and that helped them on the ladder to the charts. We never even got on the ladder because we weren't getting any of these things, the machinery just wasn't turning for us. When people go 'Why weren't you in the top ten?' I go, 'Okay, that's a fair question.- why weren't we on the cover of any of the music magazines? Why were we never on television?' You have to ask all those questions too, and I think they all add up to the fact of why we didn't become successful. But then at the same time I'd look at Top of the Pops and find it totally alien to the music that I was making anyway, so it never bothered me.

You've moved about a lot, lived in different countries and many cities. How has being in different places affected your writing?

I do think that has a big effect. You move to a city, and it's subtle things like the people you meet, record collections that you run into or musicians that you run into. The songs I wrote in London connect very much with that time, and the album that I've just made, half of side one was written last year, and I hadn't written anything really for quite a while, and I just hit a house where we lived - normally I don't believe all this stuff when songwriters go on about it, I'm always really sceptical, but I think it does play a large part.

How did you start writing songs, growing up in Brisbane, what inspired you? Did you write songs to make people fall in love with you?

We're talking 1975-76 in Brisbane here. I was trying other areas, trying to express myself, and I was getting blocked avenues everywhere and was getting quite worried. Songwriting, well, obviously it occurred to me, but I just really fell into it. It sounds amazing, it looks so obvious now. I was in a band and we were mainly doing covers. We only played three times. This is getting into '76-'77, and then I just started to write songs and these shit-hot guitarists would come down and say 'have you written any songs?' and they'd be doing all this Jimmy Page stuff, and the songs would be crap. Then they'd say 'Robert's got some songs' and we'd play one of mine and the person would go, 'that's really great!' It was obvious then that I didn't have to follow some sort of super musician thing, that my playing was good enough, that I could write songs and somehow it just got vented into that. At the same time I had a movie camera and was trying to write something outside of songs but it just collapsed and songwriting came through. But to get people falling in love with me, well, I was trying but it didn't work, believe me. It doesn't seem to help.

It's interesting that you should mention the movie camera, because some of the songs like The River People, Spirit of a Vampyre and Clouds have a cinematic nature... is that something you're conscious of when writing?

Well, Grant and I are writing a film script at the moment. We're just coming to the end of it, we've been doing it for four or five months. But, no, I think if I ever wrote a book or something I'd just be doing it pretty much the same way. I think if you're writing well, something like the cinematic quality should be there anyway. If it's well written, people will ask that question, because it throws up images.

On the sleeve notes of 1978-1990, you said you made the decision not to write about universal themes, but about things in your bedroom. Is this still the case? How did the decision affect your career?

Well, at the time I was very impressed with Dylan’s early work and even someone like David Bowie around the Ziggy Stardust period, listening to people like Jonathan Richman and Lou Reed and to a small extent David Byrne. It was like, eventually if you're really gonna do it, you have to look at yourself, you have to look at your own back yard - Jonathan Richman was a real big one; you know, like shopping centres! I was living in suburban Brisbane, I wasn't living in London in 1971, I wasn't in Greenwich Village in 1962. I had to really start to get down to cars and girls and libraries and Lee Remick and all of these things that were really close. I had to break through to them and stop trying to make big. The smaller I made it, the bigger the statement and I had to get to that. That's why I was rejecting universal themes and I've pretty much followed that ever since. Obviously, I don't have to think about it. If it ever comes to some time in the future when I have to write a protest song, I have to write my Times They Are A-Changin', then I'll write it. I’ve got nothing against political songs, if I have to write one, or the time comes, then I'll do it happily.

The form of your songs is also something which seemed to develop early, the way the words often seem to dictate the structure and the rhythms and the unconventional phrasing, detailed use of language. Your songs are often referred to as poems set to music. Do you agree?

No! I never see my lyrics as poetry. I see my lyrics as song lyrics. That’s what they are. If I was writing poetry it would be completely different and it probably would be nowhere as good as what I write, because I like being a lyric writer. I was at university studying, part of my course was literature, so it's obviously something which very much interests me, and I think that was one of the really good things about punk rock - that it broadened out. Before that, it was very much almost self-consciously anti-literate. You had to know Johnny Be Good and Honky Tonk Woman and that real rock and roll. Punk, you know, Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, David Byrne… that was good for me. I could hear how literate and how reading-influenced these people were and, like, they're reading the same things I'm reading! They're as interested. Before that, I hate to what Genesis or the Allman Brothers were reading; it was probably Hustler magazine! I never tried to deny that I read and that I enjoy reading as long as it doesn't become too harsh and stuffy and schoolboy-ish, which I try to avoid.

How did you and Grant meet and what were your initial reactions to each other? What made you feel you could work together?

We met at Queensland University in late 1975 or 76. He was just a precocious bastard like me! He was doing very well at university; I was doing very badly... You know, film magazines, records… he was just carrying them around. He was the only person I could see doing this and our courses started crossing and I could talk about records and books and films with Grant and he with me. He was the only person I could do that with, the only other person on the ball, basically.

What do you see as the differences and similarities between you and Grant as songwriters? It's an unusual set-up for a band to have two independent singer-songwriters. Was there musical tension or were the styles purely complementary to make the albums work so well and the songs fit together?

You know what I was saying about Grant being on the ball. I knew he'd start writing songs and I could teach him the bass and he'd be away. Then he'd go on to guitar and I'd show him the chords and he was writing songs. I knew it because he was a creative person, I could see that, but it was still going over years. I could see where his songs were coming from. It was purely luck that they complemented each other that way, pretty much the way we do as friends or as people. In terms of competition, fairly healthy, he and I have always got on really well. People have this idea... I've done interviews over the 'phone, especially in Germany, and he'd be there staying with me, and I'd be doing the interview with someone in America and they'd go 'is it true you and Grant don't speak to each other and you hate each other?' and he's upstairs playing my guitar! We weren't competitive with the albums because we always agreed we'd have five songs each on the albums so that if someone was going through a lean patch it never meant that someone's got eight and someone's got two. That cut out the friction. It was like: okay we know what we've both got and it was just like 'bang!' Obviously, when we'd come to an album and Grant would have two super poppy things, I'd immediately go and try to write something ten minutes long, com­pletely incomprehensible and difficult, cause I'd got my image of what the group is, it wasn't about me writing another two like that. I think we bounced off each other a little like that which helped build up the picture of the band, helped build up the picture of the records.

You essentially seem to write love songs. Lindy Morrison once said that one is usually either desperately out of love or desperately in love, and that one is always inconsolable when one is in love. The root of your songs often seems to be that 'inconsolableness' of relationships. Do you agree?

I like the idea that all my songs are love songs. I like that. That's a good overview of what I do, but I think 'love songs' can have a very broad definition. I think you can almost stretch anything into it which is what I like. I don't know. It's very much the people that I've met, the things that I've seen, the way that I've reacted to them is very much in my songs. I think all of it, without being too heavy, is very much the story of my life. It doesn't have the feeling of an instalment of ‘here's what's happened to Robert Forster over the last two years’. On my new album, two of the songs are set in 1978; for some reason I'm right back there, suddenly that happens, and both of them are in a way love songs, set in that period, so it's a story and it's a love story if you like, but it's jumping perspectives all the time and it's jumping time. It's not 'okay I've put out an album and this is the last two years of my life’; it's not that at all.

How did the end of the Go-Betweens come about? How did you know it was the end?

The fire had gone. It was just over. If we hadn't broken up that day, we'd have broken up a month later. If we'd stretched it, we might have broken up three months later. A lot of people have got a lot of theories about it and I read it. I have to read people's theories. Most of them are really off! We were together for twelve years. We started the band when I was 20. We broke up the band when Grant and I were 32. Twelve years is a long time to give something. We broke up right at the end of 1989, which I really love. We'd done six albums, we'd done a body of work. We could have gone in a number of directions. Grant's songs were becoming very, very melodic and even the photos were very sheeny and shiny and poppy. I didn't want to follow that trail. The next album that we were gonna make I wanted to just be virtually live, just us playing, no producer, just very organic, big studio like Hansa and record a lot fresher, quicker, us in a room all looking at each other playing. This was not well received in the band. The other thing that I say when people ask me this is look at the records we made, our first records after the band broke up. I made a record in Berlin in twelve days with Mick Harvey. Grant made his in Sydney with a very well-known commercial producer. Lindy and Amanda made a very sort of synthetic pop shiny album with a well-known Australian producer in Sydney. That's where they were. I was over in Berlin doing something in twelve days with Mick Harvey in Hansa. That's pretty much where we were six months earlier before the band broke up. Before that we'd always been able to go from, say, Tallulah to 16 Lovers Lane. I mean that's just one thing. We were in the practice room coming up with the next album and Grant and I just looked at each other and I couldn't crawl through another record.

Making your first solo album was obviously liberating, but was it frightening too?

No, not really, it was fantastic. Danger in the Past I love. I think it's com­pletely overlooked. People who know it love it and I think it's a wonderful, wonderful record. I play it now and the nine songs... I'm stunned and amazed. I've only matched it with the album that I've just made which really makes me happy. It was great, it was the way I wanted to record. It was very vindicating as well in a private way because I always said to the group I felt we could make a record in two weeks, and people would look at me in disbelief. Danger in the Past was made in twelve days, we never even rehearsed. Thomas Wydler from the Bad Seeds, mostly it's about the third or fourth time he's played the songs. Mick's on bass, I'm on guitar, we're looking at each other in a room. This is where Bowie did Heroes and U2 went there a year and a half later and did Achtung Baby. This is this famous German studio, it sounds great. My whole thing was just 'let's record it!', so what we're doing live goes to tape direct and sounds big. I have very fond memories of that album, being in Berlin in the summer with Mick. It was great. I still play quite a few of those songs live. I love 'em, love 'em, love 'em. When people do the top 100 albums of the 90s, it should be there, it's that good.

Danger in the Past and Calling from a Country Phone are very different albums. The former is quite dense, the latter very light and playful in comparison. Jules Shear once said that every new album he makes is a reaction against the last one, do you think that's true in your case?

Yeah, that's a good point from Jules! I don’t know... Calling from a Country Phone, it's a very different album from Danger in the Past. It was going back to Brisbane, you know my first time back there and I was recording in the same studio where we recorded Lee Remick which wasn't my idea but it turned out that was the best studio still in town. I was returning to Brisbane to live, it was like returning to my home town. It was very much commercial suicide, madness basically, because here I'd made this sort of big sounding Berlin record, a sort of Bad Seedy-sounding record and then I go and make this... I went back to my home town and wherever my home town would have been, that's where I would've done the album so I might have gone back to a town where the only recording facilities were a cassette player or I could have gone back to New York… if I'd ever been born there. It was what I was going back to and I wanted to find local musicians and a little studio and make not a small sound but a more compact sound and that's what happened. In a way it is a reaction to Danger in the Past. I was completely happy with Danger in the Past but I just sort of... well, the next two years that's the direction I moved in. I don't think the songs were as good as Danger in the Past's. I was listening to a lot of American country music from the mid 70s which I could never write like, I never tried to, but that's the most that I ever sort of did it. I was listening to a lot of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt. Tarnation got the sound and the feeling of that – they probably got a better collection of songs on their album than I did on Calling from a Country Phone, but that's the vibe I was going for.

Was recording your covers album, I Had a New York Girlfriend, a lot of fun? Was it something you'd wanted to do for a long time?

Again, madness! Again, absolute and utter madness! People in London are shaking their heads, management and record company were like, 'what's he gonna do next?' Again, I just had this idea. A lot of this tuned in to what was happening in my life, I realized that's the thing. Many people separate career and life, and all the decisions are made on the career basis–where you live, what you do–and so the career decisions always have to have a logic: you record in London, you record in New York, you record with the best producers you can get. You're really thinking about things, you're in London, you're buying the records, you're right there. You go from year to year and it's all planned, which is very much what we did with the Go-­Betweens. I sort of flipped over and it was like my life became more important and my recording started to follow what I thought were just good ideas in terms of my lifestyle. My songwriting was not going and I so wanted to get in the studio and record again but I didn't have really any songs. I thought, if I do this it might kick-start my songwriting too. I also know at some stage I'm coming back to Europe, I'm going to be back in London, I'm gonna be back with a producer. I knew this in '93. I knew that Warm Nights would happen but I wanted to make New York Girlfriend, so I did. It would have been really good if we'd kept about two or three songs off that album and I'd had the budget to go back again cause I was learning more as I was going, but Beggars said 'OK, there's your album budget' and I would have liked to have said, 'well, I think I've got a third of an album and I'd really like to keep going back cause I'm getting better' but I couldn't.

What drew you to the particular songs you covered? Was it essentially all of your heroes?

No, it's not, it's not! My heroes aren't on it. That's what I learnt! It's really hard to pick songs that I can do cause I'm not a great singer. No, correction: I am a great singer, I'm not a great classical rock singer. Give Rod Stewart ten songs and he's gonna give them the Rod Stewart Treatment. He's gonna belt it out. You give him the soul number, you give him the Marvin Gaye number, you give him the reggae number, you give him the hard rock number, he can do it. I can only sing a certain type of song. Certain ones worked like 3 A.M. which I think is really great, which I've really come to love. A simple three chord easy sort of Velvet Underground meets the Country thing; completely my bag, great lyrics, so why didn't I do ten of them? Don't ask me, but if I'd kept on recording I might have gone down that route a little bit more and I wouldn't have been trying to do Keith Richards numbers! Some things worked and some didn't. I started to see strengths coming out as the album was being done but by then I was knee-deep in it and musicians were running around all over the studio. The engineer walks out the day before I'm gonna start recording. Madness. It helped me. It was like, okay, my next album I'm going to write, I'm going to be the artist. I produced my last two records. I'm going to sit on the couch, first thing I'm going to do when I get to the studio in the morning is read the newspaper. People can be doing all that shit around me and then Edwyn [Collins]'s gonna turn to me and go, 'Robert, it's time for you to sing. Robert, it's time for you to go out there and play the guitar,' and I go, 'Yes, Edwyn.' Do you know what I mean? I learnt that!

What did you think of The Walka­bouts' version of The River People?

I thought it was great! Really great. I ran into them on the street three days ago, just near here, they were playing last night. I found out they were in town and they said they would put it back in the set, and they had this string section and I was gonna go last night to Dingwalls... I've just made my first video in eight years and so I was in the editing suite, looking at this for Crying Love and I'd be finished around ten, and I'm rehearsing like crazy for my show on Friday and I just had no energy, so I didn't go and see them. I think they're a really good group. Chris and Carla made a record that I really like too, which I thought was even better than anything the Walkabouts had ever done – which I didn't tell them! They're good, she's got a great voice, fantastic voice. It was really smart of Tindersticks to pick her up, really smart of them.

Do you think after all this time you've earned the right for creative indulgence, that you've found your natural level and can essentially go off and do what you want? After New York Girlfriend and the way Grant went and made a double album, for example...

NO! I think Grant's double album was silly indulgence. Silly! I'm not gonna sit here and go, 'I was wronged, I should be selling eight million albums.' I could, I don't know. I know horrible stories about people who should be really content with what they do... I'm working with a producer who's just had a huge world-wide hit single and I'm fully aware of that, and I think that's great. I am interested in playing bigger places. I am ambitious. I could hit my peak audience when I'm in my mid-fifties, scary thought that it is. I could very, very easily turn into Willie Nelson and everyone else will be dead or alcoholic. And there's just a chance that I'll still be going.

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