As one-half of The Go-Betweens’ songwriting nucleus, Robert Forster was responsible for some of the most brilliant pop music to emerge from the land down under. But to simply describe what he and partner Grant McLennan created as “pop,” doesn’t do it justice, as the term suggests something disposable or ephemeral. While their music was catchy and frequently sparkling and bright, it was also literate and smart, full of the influence and spirit of the records, books, and art they had devoured as young men.
The Go-Betweens existed in various line-ups from 1977 to 1989, putting out half a dozen remarkable records in the process. When the band split, Forster and McLennan both pursued solo careers, with the former releasing his solo debut, Danger in the Past in 1990. (McLennan’s debut would come the following year.) However, the two never fell out of touch and they reformed The Go-Betweens in 2000, long before the reunion craze of the last decade. That second chapter proved just as fruitful, producing another three albums that largely picked up where they had left off a decade earlier.
Sadly, McLennan died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2006, and Forster returned to life as a solo artist, releasing his fifth record, The Evangelist, in 2008. He also began a second career as a music journalist with Australian magazine The Monthly, and that writing was subsequently collected in a book, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll.
After seven years, Forster has finally released his sixth album, Songs to Play (Tapete Records). Like previous records, he favors a low key, folk-tinged approach that puts the emphasis on his lyrical prowess. That focus reveals songs that are at turns witty and at others poignant.
Fortunately, the release of the album provided the opportunity to get Forster on the phone, and he kindly answered my questions concerning the past, present, and one of the rules of rock and roll.
You’ve lived in other places, but now you’re back in Brisbane. What has drawn you back there?
What initially drew me back—and it was a big decision because I had my wife and two young children to consider—was the continuation of The Go-Betweens. The band had just started again and we had recorded an album in Portland, Oregon. Grant and I wanted to keep on recording and working together, and we really needed to be in the same place. We weren’t songwriters who’d send songs by computer. The band had always operated out of close proximity, being in the same town. I just think bands should do that. Even now, when I see a band where one member’s in one country and another is in another country, and another’s in a third one, I feel like that’s a disadvantage as opposed to those three people being where they can drop in on each other. So we decided to come back at the end of 2001, and we’ve been here since. Grant passed away in 2006, and by then our children’s schooling and other things had taken precedence. We’ve probably been here longer than we thought we’d be. We’ll see what happens. Our children are coming to the end of school, so we’ll see what happens in the future.
In the Go-Betweens anthology that came out not too long ago, you described yourself as a young man of few dreams. Does it surprise you now that you’ve been making music for nearly 40 years?
It does! But that bit about few dreams was just that my outlook wasn’t that far along. I hadn’t ever left Brisbane, I was just writing my first songs… I almost couldn’t afford to dream too much. The bigger dream came through meeting Grant and the first steps of the band. That’s when things started to move and horizons opened up. I’m surprised and not surprised that I’m still writing songs. But I’m happy that I’m doing other things and what takes up my time involves other things aside from songwriting. That’s the realization of some dreams as well.
And I saw that you got an honorary doctorate recently. You never got your degree when you and Grant were in school, right?
No, I didn’t and that gave it special meaning. And it was from the same university, the University of Queensland, where Grant got his arts degree. I entered that university in 1975 and got the honorary degree in 2015—it means a lot to me. I’m very proud.
You were talking about doing other things. Were you referring to the music journalism you’ve been doing?
I take it you don’t believe it’s “dancing about architecture,” as it’s been put.
Yeah, that’s a silly quote. It means that there can be no discourse or reflection on music. We’re not in 1955 anymore, when Elvis has just put out his first record and Chuck Berry’s just taking off, and it’s all so fresh and new that we can’t write theses about it. That time’s gone! And also, does that mean you can’t write about jazz? Does that mean you can’t write about film or books? That would be a world of no reflection, where we all have to hold it in. There’s 10,000 words I could say straight away about Marquee Moon or 50,000 words about Sleater-Kinney, but what if there’s a ban on me saying it or putting it to paper? We’d just be walking around frustrated that we can’t talk about how much we love music. It would be mad.
Taking up doing that, has that caused you to think about your own music differently?
No, it’s the opposite. Everything I’ve thought about songwriting and making music, I’ve put into my pieces. My feelings about song orders on albums, the influence of record producers, the influence of who plays what and the number of songwriters in a band—those things I’ve gained through my experience, I’ve put into my reviews. So far as the writing affecting my songwriting, I don’t think it has. You could say my ears have been open to other music, but then they always have been.
Given Grant’s passing, I imagine putting together the anthology was kind of a bittersweet process. Was most of that material culled from your own personal collection?
Some of it was, but I have very little stuff that I’ve kept. I probably keep things now more than I did before. Back then, I was living like there were no tomorrows. I wasn’t the sort of person who was thinking about an archive back then. I was just try to get from point A to B and write the follow-up to “Lee Remick.” That’s how I lived till my mid-30s. I moved around a lot, I didn’t have much money… I could live in a room with a suitcase, a guitar, some books, and a piece of paper and a cafe around the corner and a laundromat somewhere nearby. I could live like that. I’m interested in creating. I’m not someone who collects things. It’s just not in my nature. But I’m doing it more now. I’ve been doing a trick that Andy Warhol used to do. He’d have a cardboard box and anything that came into his life—invitations, bits of paper, whatever—he’d put into that box and at the end of the month, he’d close that box, put it into storage, and get a new box. I’ve got a plastic container that I’ve been putting stuff in.
But I read somewhere that you were possibly working on a memoir.
Yes, this is true. I’ve been working on it for a number of years, and I’m still refining it.
How far along would you say you are?
I am just about to submit a second draft. I did a first draft about a year ago, and I’ve sort of reworked it all. The amazing thing is I haven’t yet read it from start to finish. I haven’t gotten it to the point where I just read what I have because I’ll start adding to it or correcting it. I feel like I don’t know exactly what I have, but I think it’s getting better.
To talk more about songwriting, I know you did a few songs that Grant wrote for The Evangelist. Were the other songs on that record intended to be Go-Betweens songs?
When Grant passed away, he had songs—he mainly had choruses—and I chose three songs of his (he had more). I had three songs—“Pandanus,” “Did She Ever Take You,” and “A Place to Hide Away”—so the other four songs were written after he died, though one of them, “Don’t Touch Anything,” I had written in 1997 and had always wanted to record.
Are you continuously writing songs or are you one of those people who sit down and make a record?
No, I’ve never understood those people. That has always baffled me. You read about those people who needed to make a record so they went to the beach or found a room in an office and wrote 15 songs in two months—that completely and utterly befuddles me. People make good records that way, but I could never do that. I’m someone that tries to write all the time, and I write maybe two good songs—or two songs that I like—per year. For the new album, Songs to Play, I wrote most of the songs from early 2008, almost right after The Evangelist, through 2010 to about the beginning of 2011. I had a spurt of about three years where I wrote 12 songs and I thought I had the album written. I was planning to record it around 2012, but then things like the anthology came along and that took longer than expected. And I was working on the book and as a music journalist. So for about two or three years, I wasn’t really a practicing songwriter. I wrote one good song in 2012, “Learn to Burn,” which starts the album. But I didn’t write for a couple years because I thought I had written enough and I had other things to do.
Do you write differently when you know it’s for a solo album than when it was for The Go-Betweens?
No, it’s all the same. It was the same for Grant. I wonder if it’s like that for other people. Would all those songs on Imagine have become Beatles songs? Would everything on Band on the Run have become Lennon-McCartney? You have to assume so. You’re a practicing songwriter…
I’ve had people who do both solo records and band records tell me that they know innately when something is for the band and when something is for a solo record.
Okay, that makes sense. I can fully understand that. With my first album, Danger in the Past, I can’t imagine The Go-Betweens doing them. I can see that.
Did you and Grant work very collaboratively? It sounds like it, with you moving back to Australia.
We’d write separately and then before every Go-Betweens album—and this could take months and months and months—we’d meet up (I’d drive over to his place invariably) and sit and play our new songs. Then we’d learn them together and talk about them. I might come up with a guitar riff or I’d start singing on the chorus. We’d play them over and over for months, and also new songs would come along. Occasionally, I’d write lyrics for Grant’s songs. He was a great melody writer and I could write lyrics all day, every day, but I can’t write a tune all the time. He’d have a tune and I would come up with a lyric, especially towards the end of the band. On Oceans Apart, I wrote most of the lyric to “Finding You,” and with Bright Yellow Bright Orange, “Too Much of One Thing” is my lyric and his music.
Generally, the benefit of doing it was—and this dates all the way back to Before Hollywood and goes all the way through—Grant and I always knew the album before we’d go into the practice room with the band. It was like we knew where it was going. So we’d be in the practice room, and I could walk over to Lindy (Morrison) and tell her how to play one of Grant’s songs, and Grant could be with Robert (Vickers) and Amanda (Brown) and tell them how one of my songs goes. Grant and I knew what was going on, what the album was, and what the songs were.
It sounds like you and Grant remained friendly after the split…
Did you ever give each other feedback about your solo albums?
Not much. We were a little bit touchy about that. Grant and I weren’t the most verbal of people to each other. Maybe it’s a male thing. Even in the band, we didn’t give each other much feedback. I now wish we did. With the time we put into it, we knew that there was something special and something unique, but we didn’t talk much about it.
Yeah, I think that’s typical of men in their 20s and 30s.
You are exactly right. That seems to be the way that it is, and we fell into it.
I watched the video preview for the new record and it sounds like you were batting around a lot of ideas, whether it be song titles, an album title, or this, that, or the other thing. One thing that was stressed, though, was recording it on analog equipment. Was that important to you?
The album title was a line out of “Songwriters on the Run.” It’s a song that my wife (Karin Bäumler) and I sing together. I’m a song title and album title fanatic. I’m always thinking and wondering about them. I was sitting on the bed, close to when the album was done, singing that song, and I sang that line, “They had their songs to play,” and I thought there it is. I liked the simplicity of it.
So far as analog goes, I really wanted to do that. The Evangelist and the last Go-Betweens album, Oceans Apart, were both digital, and it came out of doing those two albums. I wanted a warmer, gentler sound. I think analog suits singer-songwriter music. If you are doing, an ’80s synth thing or hip-hop, you are probably better off doing digital because of the editing capabilities. But if you’re doing a band-orientated, singer-songwriter thing like I do, I think analog lends itself to it quite well. I wasn’t trying to time travel back to 1975, but I didn’t want the recording process to be where you play in the rooms and then everyone groups around a screen to look at a graph. It’s amazing how that screen becomes the focus. More so than a television in a house, it becomes this thing that everyone groups around, and I just wanted to play and then stare at a wall or eat a sandwich or whatever and listen to the playback.
You mentioned “Songwriters on the Run” and I wondered if you pictured you and Grant as those characters.
Yeah, a little bit, more after I wrote it. That was a lovely thing. It also reminds me of Guy Clarke and Townes Van Zandt. I sort of see ’70s denim singer-songwriters, like Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson…
Like Pancho and Lefty.
Exactly! I can see the movie poster. I have a thought in the back of my mind that I need to take it somewhere. If ever there’s a song that I can see as a film, it’s that one. And yeah, there’s a bit of Grant and I in there as well.
Another song that sticks out to me is “I Love Myself and I Always Have.” That’s a very bold statement to be singing. Was that done as a self-affirmation?
It was. It’s a song title that came out of a situation. You can’t think of a song title like that, at least I can’t. It came out of a situation that would take a long time to explain, but something had happened where someone turned to my wife and I and said, “You must think a lot of yourself. You must think very highly of yourself.” She was joking, but I turned it into “I Love Myself and I Always Have.” it’s probably one of the most serious songs on the album. Before the album was made, I played the very odd occasional shows over the last few years, and I’ve played it once or twice. Because the song title is the first two lines, people laugh. It’s a bit wry, but it’s also true and there’s a seriousness to it. It’s truthful, and self-affirmation is very close to what it is.
Nevertheless, being the second to last song on the record, is it the weakest song on the album?
It’s not, and I was aware of this. “Turn on the Rain” was going to be one of the later songs on the album. It’s song eight and “Disaster in Motion” is ten, and I wanted a surprise late in the album. With “Turn on the Rain,” people would think it’s starting to winding down, and I wanted that riff to come in late and shake things up at song nine. The second to last song isn’t supposed to be like that. A couple guys who played on the record wanted the song earlier, but I wanted it deep in the record. I was aware of this rule from The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, but I wanted that surprise.
The only other thing to ask is what’s next?
You’re the only person who’s asked that. Being seven years since the last one, I’m really excited about playing live. It’s not like my last album was two years ago and I spent a year on the road. I’m actually keen to tour. I’m touring with the band in Australia in November, and I’m playing by myself or maybe with my wife in Europe before Christmas. That’s all I’ve got, but I’d like to play more. I’d like to play in America, and I’m playing with an acoustic guitar so I’m in a position to be able to do that. I can move and play places like the USA, where it”s expensive to play with a band. We’ll see how the record is received, and I have a guitar and can travel.
Do you feel like you’ll have another record in you sooner than later?
I’ve got two songs left over that will definitely make the next record. They’re good songs, and I’ve written a couple songs since. I don’t think it’s going to be seven years, but I’m not the most prolific of songwriters. If I have the material, though, I will go back in the studio.