Talking Oceans Apart: An Interview with Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens


By David Weigel

The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster and Grant McLennan played together through the ‘80s, broke for solo careers in the ‘90s, and have toured the world three times since their 2000 reunion. But only in the last year have the band’s concerts started coming to CD. During their 2005 tour, the band sold a two-disc recording of a triumphant English concert called Live In London. And this past January, Yep Roc released a two-disc electric/acoustic set titled That Striped Sunlight Sound. Recorded over two nights in Brisbane, Australia, the compilation includes a CD of an electric, full-band show and a DVD that couples that gig with a conversational acoustic set by Forster and McLennan. (Imagine VH1’s “Storytellers” with east Australia brogues.)

Why all the deluxe treatment? It might be because after decades of releasing respected, imitated, and under-the-radar records, the Go-Betweens are finally collecting their laurels. Last year’s Oceans Apart netted the Australia Recording Industry Association’s ARIA award for best Adult Contemporary Album and is nominated for the Australian Music Prize. Stateside, the band is the subject of an eponymous new biography by rock journalist David Nichols and all eight of their previous studio albums are back in print.

Grant McLennan and Robert Forster equally split the singing and songwriting duties on their albums—five songs each. Forster spoke to PopMatters over the phone from his home in Brisbane.

First off, congratulations on winning the ARIA.
Oh, thank you.

How are you received in Australia these days? Are these awards reflecting some new mainstream success?
There’s a lot of affection, which is not new … there’s always been an audience for what we do, but it hasn’t been the same in the more mainstream, upper echelons of music. To an extent that’s changed over the last year. In Australia we’ve been with EMI, which is great in terms of what they can do, promotion and the rest. But it’s not just about being signed to a big corporate label. Right from the director on down, who is a huge fan, it’s a music label. That’s made a difference.

What about success on the charts?
None, really. The album debuted at 30 or 40. The singles—nowhere. We’ve never got a lot of radio play. The charts are like the American charts, a lot of big FM stations who don’t play us, and never have. They’ll play 50 Cent, Mariah Carey, “world” music and the big American acts, that sort of thing.

When you play live, you’ve been selling a recording of your 2004 concert at the Barbican in London. Why did you choose the Brisbane shows, and not the London show, for this major label release?
In terms of the DVD, we wanted to have that section where we were talking about the songs. The significance of the Barbican concert didn’t come to me at the time. But it certainly registered, because the day after the Barbican show we started recording “Here Comes a City”.

You and Grant both have a substantial catalogue of ‘80s songs, solo songs, and songs from the last three albums. How do you go about assembling a setlist for a show?
The thing is to paint a portrait of the band. The scene changes things a little. In America, there can be a temptation to play more because we don’t tour there very much. So we’ll play some songs they don’t usually hear. If you look at Germany, where we’re on tour more, we concentrate on the recent records that have done quite well. But the thought is to put up a sort of three-dimensional thing, a portrait of where we’ve come from, how it’s resolving itself right now.

Your lineup changed constantly in the ‘80s—by the end, you had a multi-instrumentalist [Amanda Brown] who was playing violin and oboe parts. Now the band is you and Grant with a bassist and a drummer. How does the menu of instruments you’ve got influence what you write, and what you play live?
They don’t really influence what we write. But Adele [Pickvance], our bassist, has just bought a mandolin. And in the last couple months we’ve been using the mandolin a lot. There’s one song Grant has where the mandolin just clicked beautifully. It sounds really good; I can see her playing more songs with the mandolin. Every year Grant and I play an acoustic set in Sydney, and I’ve been playing more harmonica. I’ve got a copy of the new Beth Orton, and the way that sounds, that’s been an influence. I’m thinking of taking Glenn [Thompson] off drums, because he can play keyboard, and we could break that out in the live show. I like the idea of it being just four people on tour—five is more expensive, costs more for hotels, you know?

When do you break out these other instruments? When you’re bored, when you’re experimenting?
Boredom is about 10%. Innovation’s part of it. And luck. Sometimes you’ll pick up the instrument and want to try something out, and it works. In terms of boredom, we can do acoustic, bass and drums, that kind of works, but I think we can do more quieter. Without the drums. Another record I have is the new Neil Diamond, 12 Songs. He got together with Rick Rubin to produce it and it sounds big, there’s a great sound, and no drums. Glenn can play other stuff. So there’d be the four of us and our usual instruments and we’d throw the keyboard into the van.

What goes over the best? The experiments, the new songs, the old songs?
If we’re not playing… 16 Lovers Lane, I can sense, is our biggest impact record in America. You do those songs and do them electric, and people will hear that and go, “OK, I get this.” If you do just acoustic guitars and bongos, people go, “OK, this is slow, I get this.” When you switch up one to the other, you’re in London and there’s hundreds of people in front of you, you can tell when you need to play something that will play all the way to the back of the room. “OK, they do have more rocking stuff.”

How long does it take to write a new song?
It all takes the same amount of time. Once I get a melody there’s a process to go through—I’m just writing a song now, but before that I hadn’t written anything in over a year. If I like the lyric, I write it down over a week or two. If I’m playing it round and round, the chord sequence, I’ll get a feel for it. And sometimes I’ll play it for few days and the melody is not holding up. There’s a song I’m working on now that I’ve been working on for three weeks, and everything still holds up. If the melody is still good after that long, that’s good.

You’re in a kind of unique position because when you and Grant ended the band, the labels assembled a few versions of greatest hits albums. “Here are the 12 best” or “Here are the 16 best Go-Betweens songs.” What songs have you written since the reunion that you feel are some of your best?
Let’s see. “Surfing Magazines”, “Spirit”, “He Lives My Life”, “When She Sang About Angels” … actually, the whole 5 off [The Friends of] Rachel Worth. Of the rest, “Too Much of One Thing”, “Make Your Day”, “Here Comes a City”, and “Darlinghurst Nights.”

What about Grant’s songs? “Finding You”, “Boundary Rider”, “Mrs. Morgan”—I’ve been trying to talk him into playing that. “Magic in Here”. Grant’s got the strongest batch of songs… he’s on fire. I think in the last year Grant’s written the strongest batch of songs he ever has.

When you play your older songs live, with the new band, or maybe just with Grant, do you find anything new in them? Are there any that really come alive when you play them now?
“Part Company,” with just guitar, bass and drums, sounds better than it did on Spring Hill Fair [1984]. I think the songs from Tallulah [1987] sound better stripped down, and the new version of that has some of those versions in bonus tracks. That happens a lot in songs from the ‘80s. Although everyone’s gone digital now, we’re using our digital things to sound organic. In the ‘80s, the gear was organic, but it sounded digital. Recording’s not just success after success—there’s blind alleys. The sounds of the last three records have been more organic, and I’ve been very happy with them.

You talked about the influence the new Beth Orton and Neil Diamond albums were having on your songwriting. What else are you listening to these days?
The Arctic Monkeys. Have you heard them?

I’ve heard a lot about them.
But you haven’t heard the album? They’re good! Good! They’re 19, 20, or something, and really good.

Who else?
Franz Ferdinand, love them. I’m really looking forward to the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which I think is coming out this year. I like a couple of tracks off the new Cat Power album.

And what else inspires you and your own writing?
It’s all books. I just finished J. R. Ackerley, My Father and Myself, which was very good. I always try and reach as much as I can, really. Reading, the visual side, that’s it. Location and visuals are very, very big. Walking in New York, or looking through old photos of beatniks or people running through the streets in the ‘60s.

Where are you going to record next?
We might go back to London, but you never can tell. It would be the first time that we’ve ever recorded in the same place twice in a row. Nine albums, this would be the tenth, but we’ve never done that. Eventually we have to make an L.A. one and a Spain album.

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