An Interview with Robert Forster - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Robert Forster

[MUSICIAN, THE GO-BETWEENS]
“WE BROKE UP AT THE EXACT RIGHT MOMENT.”
The Go-Betweens’ look:
Jeans and school shoes
“Slightly collegiate”
Full-collared, cuffed shirts (a bit groovy)
No tie
by Carola Dibbell
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Robert Forster

[MUSICIAN, THE GO-BETWEENS]
“WE BROKE UP AT THE EXACT RIGHT MOMENT.”
The Go-Betweens’ look:
Jeans and school shoes
“Slightly collegiate”
Full-collared, cuffed shirts (a bit groovy)
No tie
by Carola Dibbell
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Robert Forster

Carola Dibbell
17 Snaps

For twenty-eight years, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens maintained one of the most fruitful and long-lived partnerships in pop-music history. Their collaboration began when they met at the University of Queensland in 1977 and continued until McLennan died suddenly of a heart attack on May 6, 2006. Amid disbanding and re-forming, the Go-Betweens released six studio albums in the ’80s and three more in the ’00s, several of them masterful and the rest at least solid. Which are which is a debate still thrashed out by a passionate cult of fans that includes R.E.M., who headlined the grueling 1989 megatour that finished off the band’s first phase; Sleater-Kinney, who lit a fire under their 2000 comeback album, The Friends of Rachel Worth; and Jonathan Lethem, who declined to review said comeback, on the ground that it couldn’t possibly equal the early work with which he’d bonded. Oceans Apart (2005), their best-selling and final album, won them their first Australian Grammy. 

We don’t hang out much with musicians, but with the Go-Betweens this proved difficult. For instance, we have all of two friends in the British music business, and both signed the Go-Betweens. So when their devoted U.S. publicist invited us to a pre–Oceans Apart dinner with Grant and Robert, we couldn’t resist. Robert discussed band lore. Grant talked novels and charmed our nineteen-year-old daughter, a fan since she was six. 

Barely a year later Grant was dead, and Robert didn’t return to the States until early 2008, to promote The Evangelist, his first solo album in twelve years. There was another dinner, and this time we proposed dessert at our East Village apartment, which developed into a three-hour record-sampling bull session. Amy Rigby, Tom T. Hall, Lil Wayne, Todd Snider—Forster was a voracious and alert listener. He also tossed back half a crate of clementines.

Forster returned to our dining room seven months later for the lunchtime conversation excerpted below. The perfect guest, he brought four bottles of Pellegrino and former Go-Betweens bassist Robert Vickers, who returned to his day job forty-five minutes into the conversation. It was September 15, the day after Lehman Brothers went under. So we launched a time-tied discussion of the end of the world and segued into the news from Germany, where Forster’s sixty-five-year-old mother-in-law had turned suddenly and gravely ill. The interview proper began with the Go-Betweens’ beginnings. It continued until Forster had to leave for a sound-check at Joe’s Pub three hours later.

—Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

I. CLARITY AND A BOTTOM END

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Where were you, Robert,
when you met the Go-Betweens?
ROBERT VICKERS: I met them in Brisbane because
we all lived in Brisbane.
CAROLA DIBBELL: Why did this music scene start up
in Brisbane?
ROBERT FORSTER: In a way it’s like Akron, Ohio—
cities in the middle of nowhere.
RC: Isolated.
RF: No one made records.

RV: It was like the beginning of the world.

RF: There were no people from the ‘60s hanging around, there were no managers floating around, there were no record labels . . .

CD: So what was the first gig that you played?

RV: There were no gigs. There was nowhere to play. So you’d have to rent a hall. Like, the Blind Citizens would have this hall. And you would go to them and say, “We’re gonna have a dance!” And it was like $50 or something.

RF: There were about four bands on. And Grant and I were there. Grant had been playing bass for about six weeks. I had been teaching him. We were rehearsing in his bedroom with like one amp, this far apart, just going through the songs. And so, we went to the show, it was probably the first punk show we’d ever been to. I said to Grant, we should get up and play two songs. We’d never played in public. So I asked the person that was running it, and she says, “You can get up after the next band and do two songs.” Grant and I just went up with borrowed gear and a drummer from a band called Ronnie Ribbit and the Toadettes.  The first song that we did was “Lee Remick.”  We’re standing there. 400 people. Huge, wide stage. And I just turn to the drummer and said, “Let’s make this fast.”

And I counted in, and we go 1-2-3. And it was fantastic. Then we did a second song–that’s very brave–called “8 Pictures,” which is on our first album, a bizarre, long song.  We walk offstage, and this is the incredible thing: we met Robert. I can remember meeting Robert, his band, and about 80 people.

RV: We were like, “This is fantastic!  Really, just shocking.” You’re just sitting there in this hall and you hear “Lee Remick,” and you know this song is going to be a classic.

RF:  That was when I could feel it. I could feel it. It was almost a coming out thing.

CD: How were you dressed?

RF: I must say, Grant and I had a look pretty much from the start. We didn’t go for punk in any English affectation. No chains, obviously, anything like that. No leather. You could call it slightly collegiate.

RV: There is also in Australia, particularly in Brisbane, a heavy surf influence. It’s a very casual kind of look. It involved jeans and school shoes.

CD: What are school shoes?

RF: Black shoes.

RV:  Because everyone was wearing sneakers.

RF:  Jeans, and full collared, cuffed shirts. Because it was the seventies they were a bit groovy, like work shirts.

RV: Like a bank teller would have worn, but not tucked in.

CD: And maybe a tie?

RF: No tie.

CD: You didn’t do ties.

RF and RV: No.

RV: It was too hot.

RF: It was too hot.

RV: It was just incredibly hot. It was intensely hot, and you just didn’t do it. But it was a good look.

[Vickers leaves]

RC: Let’s pick up where we were talking off tape, about ‘50s music you listened to.

RF: I loved the nakedness, the simplicity, the freshness of the Sun Sessions – Elvis with Scotty Moore and Bill Black.

RC: When did you discover that?

RF: ’76, 77. Someone else who I loved is Buddy Holly.

RC: Well, I would assume. After all, he looked like David Byrne before. . .

RF: Yeah, that’s true. He’s also used a three-piece a lot. The idea of the Go-Betweens at the start was three people. Talking Heads is a three-piece. Elvis is a three-piece. What I like of the ‘50s, which goes into the Go-Betweens, is the freshness and the innocence. You can’t place it in any tracks, but it is something I’ve always loved.

RC: What about Chuck Berry?

RF: Chuck Berry would be a third one.  Amazing lyricist.

RC: The thing that is missing in your music – and that for instance turns out not to be missing at all in David Byrne’s music–unlikely though it seems at the very beginning–is groove. You don’t seem to have any real interest in groove.

RF: That comes from an Australian affliction– lack of exposure to black music. It’s complete. I knew people who had big record collections, and you’d go over there and it’d be like Italian pressings of the second Vanilla Fudge album. You didn’t go to anyone’s house who would play you James Brown or would be into reggae. The only black music that really came through was blues and Motown hits.

RC: How do you feel about it now?

RF: It’s a regret.

RC: Are you ever tempted to dig back?

RF: I’ve done some. The first black performer that ever really got me – this is probably going to sound weak – is Prince.

RC: There’s nothing weak about Prince.

RF: A funky band who I liked, who I think had a great rhythm section, was Creedence. I thought those records had a clarity and a bottom end.

RC: But you chose another path. Lindy becomes the permanent drummer around  1980. She has experience as a drummer, but what’s her philosophy as a drummer?

RF: She was strongly influenced by Gang of Four, Wire, the Slits, all of these sort of breaking down…

RC: Gang of Four had some funk to it.

RF: Very much a deconstruction of funk. This was a time when Grant and I were listening to Television and Talking Heads and Magazine. The ‘60s references started to fall away ‘cause Grant and I were interested in adventure. We were interested in post-punk. So her drumming coincided with a change in our songwriting where the songwriting deconstructs, meets the drumming deconstructs, meets a typical post-punk deconstructed first album.

CD: What would be some examples of it?

RF: Every song off Send Me a Lullaby, which is a record more of its time then a lot of the things that followed. That’s a 1981 album. But we had to move on.

RC: There’s another factor, too, isn’t there? You’re growing up. Instead of being this congeries of influences, you begin to understand what you’re making of them.

RF: Exactly. You start to find a voice. And that coincides with her joining the band.

RC: What happens with the bass?

RF: See, Grant is playing the bass for the first album. He’s an extremely melodic person. His bass playing is very melodic. But then he starts to do post-punk bass playing, which is higher in the neck, a lot more idiosyncratic. Less ‘60s, more ‘70s.

RC: It’s also far more staccato and percussive.

RF: It is, it is. And that goes with Lindy. But he’s decided to become a songwriter. So he’s playing guitar as he’s writing his first songs.

RC: Then the trio idea is outgrown. You have these model trios that you loved, but you decide you need something else. Even though maybe it’s a little corny, you need a bass player. You finally settle on Vickers.

RF: Vickers is here in New York. We send him a tape of Before Hollywood because he’s a fan. He hears through the grapevine that we’re looking for a bass player. And so he wrote us a letter over to London, “You’ve made an amazing album, and I hear that you are looking for a bass player. I’d like to do it.”

RC: And it’s when Vickers joins the band that you flower, because it frees Grant up in some way

RF: We become instantly like a classic rock band set up. Two guitars, bass and drums. It’s a big change. You can feel it.

RC: Here’s the other thing. Drummers are like the joke instrumentalists of rock and roll. Drummers can move from one band to an entirely different band, and they’re completely happy. It doesn’t make any goddamn difference to them what the content of the music is as long as they can provide the beat. Lindy’s not like that. She’s a much stronger presence psychologically. And also more ambitious as a player.

RF: Yeah, yeah, she is. But at the same time, Vickers just happens to be more of a traditional bass player. Grant in a way had been playing lead bass. Now he could put all that energy into guitar.

II. THE OUTSIDER SENSIBILITY

RC: Okay, we’re up to 1982. The way I would describe what happens is that instead of having a groove, especially after Amanda joins, there is a play of tensions, a lot of internal dynamics in what sounds like rhythmically straightforward singer-songwriterly music. And that segues into the question of gender relations, sexual relationships and gender roles. The history is, you and Lindy have a relationship that lasts five years. It’s a very contentious but strong and powerful relationship. You break up painfully in 1985 but continue to be in the band.

RF: Yes.

RC: And after this happens, The Go-Betweenes decide to become a quintet.  Amanda Brown is a violinist but plays other instruments as well. Probably the most technically accomplished musician in the band. And she and Grant begin a relationship, which is also contentious and powerful. So what you have is one broken up couple who are continuing to work together at what psychological cost—

RF: I think in a lot of relationships like this, you actually get along better after the breakup. Normally when you break up with someone you leave them. And this was very much, you gotta wake up the next morning and pack the bags on the bus. You can’t walk away. So there’s that history between you, still banging around. But the volatility of the band calmed down. Lindy and I, almost unspokenly, when Amanda and Grant started up, both of us were like, Good luck. Like, you’re taking it on.

RC: Did the two women bond with each other?

RF: Oh, very closely. Very, very closely.

RC: You and Grant had a remarkably durable and intimate friendship. Like, frankly, few I know of. And was that interfered with when you were with Lindy?

RF: Definitely yes.

RC: Because she competed with Grant for your attention and didn’t really like Grant either—it is said.

RF: When Robert Vickers joins us—

RC: It wasn’t a triangle.

RF: And that made things instantly easier. It also helped because he’s very personable. He’s a diplomat.

RC: Bass players tend to be.

RF: Grant and I always knew it would be a relationship that would last. And also, I know this is a rubbish thing to say, we’d seen Bryan Ferry and Eno split, we’d seen John Cale and Lou Reed, and we always thought both bands were lessened.

RC: Although you were never an explicitly ideological or political band, there is a level of what I can only call feminist consciousness. Was that something you were aware of as such? Was that ever explicit? Because Lindy was a very staunch feminist, almost a politico. Was this a goal you felt was embodied by the band?

RF: Perfect question I must say. Grant and I, when we met Lindy, were classic twenty-one, twenty-two-year-old boys, unworldly, sensitive, I guess to the outside world slightly effeminate, although we probably didn’t even know what that meant. So we weren’t molded into any sort of macho culture.

RC: Your first two songs: “Lee Remick,” “Karen.” Both about women, and even in the case of “Lee Remick,” you’re not singing about a hottie. You’re singing about a substantial figure who happens to be beautiful.

RF: My mom was a very strong female.

CD: Let’s just add, you knew that it was kinda cool and different that you had written this. You really had those values but it was also, you know, nobody else is doing it.

RF: Exactly right. When I’m writing “Karen,” I know that no one else is doing this. And I know that it’s instantly, almost to my surprise, a voice. Let me add, along with the feminist influence, there’s also gay writing, like Christopher Isherwood, Robin Maugham, Francis King. Although I was heterosexual, all these books reinforced the outsider sensibility. I’m also reading Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. I mean, I start to wear a dress on stage.

RC: You’re on the road at least half the time from maybe ’83 to ’89, climaxing in the famous/infamous R.E.M. tour, after which you break up. Do you have anything to say about the band life that ten thousand other musicians wouldn’t also say?

RF: I’ll only say that I thought we broke up at the exact right moment.  We were exhausted, and I’m very, very happy that we stopped then.  It was a decision Grant and I always agreed with. Whenever we saw each other, through the ’90s, right until the day he died, we never had one regret about it.

RC: So you spent thirteen years of your life with this guy, then how much of the next fifteen years do you spend living in the same place? Any time?

RF:  My wife and I and our children moved back at the end of 2001.

RC: You were married in 1991, in Germany.  Did Grant come to the wedding?

RF: No.

RC: Why?

RF: This is a very good question. I found this very disappointing. Those were enormously hard years for Grant.

RC: How would you describe your relationship with Grant?

RF: The only time of estrangement was right at the end of ’89. Grant and I were going to go on as a duo. We had an album title picked out, Freechart, and we had a lot of songs—it was a very productive period. We were going to make a record that reacted against—not reacted, but it was going to be an acoustic . . .

RC: The anti-16 Lovers Lane.

RF: Yeah, a little bit like that. Then I went back to Germany, and I found out that Grant wanted to make a solo album. But I’d seen what state he was in. I knew he was fighting to get Amanda back. And I was talking to him on the phone a month or two after that, and I’m completely happy with the way things went.

RC: So you have a friendly relationship, you occasionally collaborate, you tour together every couple of years, and you write a film script together in Brisbane in the mid ‘90s. And you’re both making solo albums, Grant at a somewhat faster clip. How do you feel about Grant’s records?

RF: I like Horsebreaker Star. Grant was in a situation where—well, he’d written “Streets of Your Town,” he’d written “Right Here,” and he was perceived as the pop songwriter. So he was signed to a much bigger record company in Sydney who thought that he could maybe become a star.

RC: Wings.

RF: Yeah. So, the production of his first two albums, I have difficulty with them. I’ve heard those songs in demo fashion, on acoustic guitar, and I preferred those versions.

RC: In addition, you settled down, whereas Grant never really had that impulse.

RF: No. Right up to when he passed away, Grant lived a life very similar to when I first met him. He lived a student lifestyle basically right up until the end.

III. KEVIN COSTNER

RC: In 1999/2000 you reunited, and you made a whole bunch of strong records, which isn’t how it usually works. But that tension is gone. It seems to me there is an aura of almost placidity. Does the word placid ring a bell?  Maybe just calm.

RF: Let’s say calm. We could’ve ended up in LA, with a big producer. But we go to Portland and we have Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney. We start from there. Portland is important, it’s foggy, it’s north. The Friends of Rachel Worth is our first ever record made here, in America. So these decisions aren’t calm decisions. There is a sense of adventure. But I can take your point that that tension is probably not there.

RC: Janet Weiss can be an incredibly dynamic drummer—that isn’t what she does with you. She’s a Go-Between. She’s less dynamic than Lindy ever was. Do you think it reflects your own relative stability? We all know that marriages aren’t really stable in the way that people on the outside think that they are. But they are relatively stable.

RF: That album goes back to the very nature of the band. There’s a freshness, a way that we present ourselves that’s still unique. There are just periods where you’re in a different mood. And then you look back in ten years and often the period you thought was transitional ends up being better than the time you thought you were on fire. There’s a calmness to it, certainly at a personal level in my life. But Grant’s still living much the way he lived in the ‘80s.  He’s still the great songwriter who’s always on the edge–he’s in a sort of shared house, with no car.

RC: He couldn’t drive, right?

RF: No. Grant had no driver’ s license. No wallet.

RC: No wallet?

RF: No wallet.

RC: No credit cards?

RF: No credit cards.  All the time, I put my credit card down. Everyone was totally amazed he got a mobile phone. No computer, obviously. Never owned one in his life.

RC:  He probably smoked too, huh?

RF: Yeah, yeah.   That’s the way that he is. And also, he’s so staunch in it. He’s not a waverer, you know? I never knew Grant to go, “I’ve really got to stop smoking,” and then he stops for two weeks and then goes back to it. There’s none of that.  There’s no resolve at all to make a change.

RC: You live the life of a bohemian, too, of course. You get by financially being a Go-Between and an ex-Go-Between. Having had a somewhat more substantial bohemian moment, can you live off it for the rest of your life?

RF: Not really. That is the one bump there. It’s still year to year, six months to six months.

RC: Over the past few years you’ve helped make ends meet by writing criticism for an Australia-wide periodical called The Monthly.

RF: Which I’ll keep doing. And I’ve got people coming at me to write books. I’d like to start writing something memoir-based, which is where I’ll have to start.

RC: Are you going to break even on this tour?

RF: Hopeful.

RC: But just barely. How old are you? 51? You’re a little too old to still be breaking even on tours.

RF: In Australia generally, you’re probably playing to a thousand people a night and then you start to make money. But the financial side of it, you need a hit record, or someone monstrous to cover one of your songs, or a song in a film.

RC: Do you have someone out there flogging the studios?

RF: Yeah, yeah, yeah, we have people doing that. It can happen in a whole variety of ways. Like, Kevin Costner was a huge fan of Nick Lowe. He’d gotten Nick Lowe’s songs on the Bodyguard album, and Nick Lowe made a lot of money, and it was only because Kevin Costner was a fan. Maybe Ringo could do “Lee Remick.”

RC: You’ve talked about how much you liked the solo albums of the ’90s. Do you think that The Evangelist is as good? Even better?

RF: Much too early to say.

RC: To me, it’s a remarkably strong and durable record. A record that holds up as well as the Go-Betweens, which I would not say about your other solo albums. But when you were starting, you could write ten songs in a day. Now ten songs in a year is doing really well. How do you conceive that portion of your future as an artist?

RF: I’m extremely excited about it. I might make an album in three or four years, or five years. There won’t be one in two years, I know that. But I’m very happy to have The Evangelist as my last album for as long as possible. People will think well of me.             

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