Robert Forster Interview

Robert Forster was one half of our greatest band ever, our ultimate cult heroes, our very own Velvet Underground. With Grant McLennan, he formed the core of The Go-Betweens who began in Brisbane in 1977, punk’s year zero. As nihilism and anger overturned music’s world order, they swam against the tide, releasing the double A-side Karen/Lee Remick, a glorious and crashingly romantic slice of sunshine pop that was more Monkees than Sex Pistols.

The Go-Betweens continued to be blissfully adrift of musical fads and fashion throughout their career, producing classic albums like Before Hollywood and Spring Hill Fair, before signing off in 1988 with the lushly produced 16 Lovers Lane, a perfect marriage between McLellan’s pop smarts and Forster’s stately songcraft. An unexpected second act to their story began in 2000 when the pair reformed the band and released the stunningly assured and instantly familiar-sounding The Friends of Rachel Worth. Their songs, so apparently sparse and simple on first listen, continued to be among the most charming and enduring anyone ever committed to vinyl.

Always critical darlings and lionised by fellow musicians, The Go-Betweens nevertheless seemed rank outsiders when it was announced a poll would be undertaken to choose a band to name Brisbane’s Hale Street Link after. But impeccable taste prevailed and so the newest addition to the city map became the mellifluous-sounding Go-Betweens Bridge. In the lead-up to a concert to celebrate this unique and richly deserved tribute, FasterLouder caught up with Robert Forster.

So, the Go-Betweens Bridge is quite an unusual tribute to a band. How did you react when you heard about it?
I reacted very well! It was a surprise. When you think of all the things that can happen to you as a rock band, having a bridge named after you is not one of them. It would be a surprise to anyone, it would be a surprise to someone who’s had a lot happen in their life. It’d be a surprise to Paul Macartney, it’d be a surprise to Prince. It’s quite a large thing and it’s unexpected. But I feel good about it.

Was it hard to play gigs in Brisbane when you were starting out?
Not really, in Brisbane itself it was quite easy. When we started it was around the time that punk and new wave hit Brisbane. There was a lot of energy. You played at people’s houses; there wasn’t that whole rock venue thing. In Brisbane now, there are six, seven, eight venues that are running continually, taking out ads in the street press. Back then though, street press didn’t exist. But you played pubs and swimming pools and colleges or universities. So we played quite a lot. What was hard was playing outside our town, like to fly to Sydney cost $500. There were no networks or connections, no JJJ, so playing outside of Brisbane was very hard.

Was it ever tough with the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime and 4ZZZ being shut down?
It was. You had to sort of be jumping around and be keeping an eye on your back, but an aim of us as a band, whether Bjelke-Petersen was there or not, was to get out of Brisbane. If we were in Sydney, we still would have wanted to have got over to London and played in Europe and America. That was still a goal for the band, no matter where we would have been.

If you were starting out as a young band in Brisbane today, would you have the same dreams of London and New York?
Oh, God yeah. The aim was always to try to be international and when the band started. Grant and I knew you can sustain a career of doing Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, but only for a couple of years. Then it would just drive you nuts. It would be like if you were an American band and you could just play San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and Salt Lake City and you can never play anywhere else. You just need something more.

Apart from the logistics of finding gigs, would you say that travel was important to the band in terms of finding inspiration?
I guess so, yeah, just in terms of developing lyric and melody writing and seeing bands, that all feeds inside itself, it feeds together.

A song like German Farmhouse seems pretty directly autobiographical about your travels. Do you think all your songs have at least some autobiographical element?
I do. There’s some songs with characters, or outside situations that are a little more abstract. I think you’ve got to do that too, that’s part of it as well. But normally I write about things that are around me, that I can see.

Is a song like He Lives My Life about as abstract as you get, or is that based on a real situation as well?
No, that’s a real life situation too, that’s very direct as well. Actually all those songs, most of them are fairly much in front of me. But even if you’re just writing about what’s in front of you, there’s a fair amount of flexibility with that. It doesn’t have to be ‘Today, I got up and went down the shops and bought some milk’ you know, you can bring in friends and imagined lives. It’s quite a rich area to write about it, really.

Do your friends tend to recognise themselves when they turn up in songs?
They do, and I don’t set out to write a whole put-down of people, so normally people that are not myself that are in my songs get a fairly generous treatment and they’re normally quite happy about it.

A lot of musicians say that choosing favourites amongst their work is impossible, like having a favourite child. Do you have favourites amongst your back catalogue?
Oh yeah definitely. I’m not making the same album over and over again so I have favourites and things I wish I hadn’t done and I’ve made mistakes. I don’t see them all the same.

For me, it’s always been Liberty Belle and The Black Diamond Express. It was the first Go-Betweens record I ever bought and it’s still my favourite. How highly do you rate that one?
Oh, highly, that’s a magnificent record! No, that’s definitely a high point and it’s a great place to start getting into the music that Go-Betweens or myself have made, it’s a great record.

It is a record that feels quite out of time…
It is personal, and besides the songs, which I think are really strong, that record was made in 1985 and I don’t think there’s many other albums made like that in 1985. It’s bass, drums and guitar, recorded quite naturally and beautifully. There’s vibraphone, organ, acoustic guitar, a lot of singing. These weren’t things that were done so much then. That’s not a collection of instruments and an approach that was at all fashionable in 1985. I think that’s one of the reasons, besides the songs, why the record has lasted and sounds as fresh as it does now.

You’ve moved into music criticism recently, with your work for The Monthly. I think it’s always hard to gauge how lasting a record is going to be when you get it to review, do you find that aspect of it difficult?
That’s true, but I just try to write about how a record hits me. Normally, records that I’ve really liked have stood the test of time. I still think the first Vampire Weekend album is really good and sounds really good. I am a Bird Now by Antony and the Johnsons still sounds fantastic. I think there are records that come out and knock everyone out for a year and then you listen to them six months later and think ‘Hmm, that’s not going to age well’ or ‘that doesn’t feel as good as it did then’. I think the records that I’ve reviewed and really like have a sense that they’re going to last. I definitely feel that way about those two albums.

It’s noticeable that a lot of the electronica which was praised to the heavens in the mid ‘90s nobody really plays any more. Do you think it’s the more melodic stuff which stands the test of time better?
I do, I do and someone like Sarah Blasko you can throw in as well, her latest album. It’s the same as when we were talking about Liberty Belle… which I put up with these albums as well. Just talking from personal experience, and also little bit as a critic, I think all these people went to make a record and were just totally consumed with what they had to say and were following something that was inside them. They weren’t looking continually over their shoulders to try and fit their record into what was going on at that particular moment. I think all these people are aware of what’s happening but are also very driven to get their songs over. You start to not be looking around so much, but you’re following your vision and I think that’s what makes these records sound fresh.

Kurt Cobain apparently said something like when they were working on Nevermind, they weren’t trying to make history, just a second record. Do you think it’s a mistake to actually set out to make a timeless record?
Yes, because I think a lot of timeless records basically come about by accident. To go further back, something like Astral Weeks by Van Morrison or Tonight’s The Night by Neil Young or even the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, a lot of these timeless records are made by artists at a point in their careers when they’ve made a lot more commercial records, or at least tried to, and for some reason they’re in some sort of fucked up situation or things have taken a turn for a worse around them and they just make a record almost out of these circumstances. I think that can often make a great record, the chemistry of the moment. They’ve just taken their eyes off the top 40 and got the songs they want the way they want to record them and it’s just… happened.

The Van Morrison and Neil Young records you mentioned were both recorded really quickly, have you ever worked like that?
Depends what you mean by really quickly. In comparison with U2 or The Flaming Lips or someone, I guess so. The Friends of Rachel Worth’ was recorded in 3 weeks, that’s pretty quick. Liberty Belle… you’re talking about four weeks. An album of mine that I like a great deal called Danger in the Past was recorded and mixed in 12 days. Going in and doing something like Astral Weeks or Blood on the Tracks, these are albums recorded in 3 days, so I think you can do that, but I haven’t ever gone in and made a live in the studio album. It may happen one day, but not at the moment.

Do you find being a critic is pushing you to listen to things you wouldn’t normally listen to?
Well, I get sent a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have got. Mainly it’s a lot more new artists, so I get to hear a lot more new music than I would normally, so I find myself doing that, which is really good.

In your book The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll one of the rules you come up with is that ‘Great bands look alike’. Do you think it’s because they have a unity of purpose or because great bands recognise that how they look is a hugely important part of who they are as a group?
That’s a really good question and a good point. I think what you said is true and also I think what happens with bands is that you spend so much time with each other that you start to look the same. Especially with successful bands you’re in the practice room together, on the aeroplane, on the bus, so you can’t help it. It’s almost like human behaviour, a psychologist could explain this. If you put four people in a house or on an island together they’d start to morph into the same person in a way. Bands that start to spend a lot of time travelling alone together, you’re in the clothes stores together, your hair all starts to look alike. I think it’s impossible to fight.

It’s not one of your rules, but you often hear the idea that rock is a young person’s game, made by and for young people. Do you that’s becoming less true now?
Well, I think it was a young person’s game in 1954, and in 1964. But now, I find it interesting, the breadth of who’s making good music is a lot wider now. And that’s good and bad. There’s part of me that would wish all the good music was being made by unbelievably talented 25 year olds, but it’s not. And that’s fine, that era is now gone.

In one of your stories, you chose ten bands you’d have loved to have been in. Are there any contemporary bands you look at and think ‘Yeah, I could slot in there’?
Oh yeah, I’d love to be in Vampire Weekend. Around the first and second albums, I’d love to have been in Franz Ferdinand. I’d love to be in Glasgow, look as good as those boys, strut around writing great songs with the world at my feet. Fantastic! So there’s two bands I’d love to be in. You know, I’d like to be in a hippy west coast band, do you know Vetiver? I’d love to be in one of those hippy, strummy, San Francisco share house, eating muesli kind of bands. Long hair, bare feet, listening to ‘70s Neil Young, growing some organic veges in the garden, i’d love it!

I can see you in Fleet Foxes…
Fleet Foxes! Oh, they’re a great band. I can definitely imagine being in Fleet Foxes and there’s part of me that likes the New York boys and the Glasgow boys as well. Any of those really, there’s three.

Lately, you’ve been producing John Steele Singers, who are also part of the Bridge concert. What’s that been like? Are you a hands-on kind of producer?
I am, but they’re a band that it’s very hard to be hands-on with. They have their own sound, they’re very determined with what they do. I produced another band called Halfway and I was a lot more into the arrangements and stuff like that with them. But John Steele Singers, apart from the enjoyment of working with them, what I really enjoyed was what I was just talking to you about, it was great to be around six guys in their mid twenties. You just pick up things they’re doing and things they talk about, the music they like. It was a lovely way of reconnecting with that world and just being a part of it.

Thanks for talking to us today…
Daniel, it was an absolute pleasure. Thanks for the questions. And keep listening to Liberty Belle…!

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Notes: The Go-Betweens are my favourite Australian band ever and this is definitely one of my favourite interviews. I initially thought of not including Forster’s final comments at the end because it seemed a bit indulgent, but I’m glad I left it in there because it shows what a gentleman he is. Not many interviewees think to thank the writer for coming up with the questions.

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