Between the Stripes of That Sunlight Sound: An Interview with the Go-Betweens
With the first intensely exhaustive box set of their career released, Robert Forster reflects on a first-time bass player, a film critic, and himself helped change the very face of rock music.
The Go-Betweens were a classic cult outfit. What started as a experimental hobby between two young Australian men in the late '70s soon gave way to a working band with a nose for adventure. Bands like The Saints ruled the roost, so punk rock was the name of the game. But musically fertile cities and a tendency to be ignored by the outside world meant that Australian bands could twist punk's DNA to whatever their liking.
For The Go-Betweens, that meant mixing The Velvet Underground with The Monkees while rubbing elbows with the likes of Aztec Camera, Josef K., and Orange Juice in Scotland. Over time, the band hung their edge and their hooks in equal balance and the songwriting team of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan became unstoppable. Every song they wrote burst with potential, commercial or otherwise. They found a reliable drummer in Lindy Morrison and recruited Robert Vickers to play bass by the time they made their third album. From members of the music press to the label honchos, everyone seemed to just love The Go-Betweens.
Yet these songs never charted. From 1983 to 1988, their profile grew as radio and MTV would proudly broadcast their singles and snag an interview with the band when they could. Still, big league success eluded them. "Streets of Your Town" from 16 Lovers Lane was the great hit song that wasn't and the band came apart shortly after that. Forster and McLennan spent the '90s cultivating solo careers to great effect but then regrouped in 2000 as The Go-Betweens once again. The duo enjoyed three critically-acclaimed albums before McLennan tragically died of a heart attack in his sleep in 2006. And just like that, the book was closed on the band forever.
But that doesn't mean that fans both old and new can't enjoy a good and somewhat overdue pillaging of the past. Robert Forster, with Domino records, have put together the box set G Stands for Go-Betweens: Volume 1 1978-1984 and it shows that the band did not just arrive on the scene as they did on their first album Send Me A Lullaby. In addition to the band's first three albums on remastered vinyl, there's an additional record of the band's first five singles including "Lee Remick", the ode to '50s/'60s American film star (and a replicated poster advertising the single).
There are four CDs of demos and live recordings from this six-year period and a heftly booklet with liner notes written by Forster in the third person. Inside you can read the story of how Forster and McLennan met and how McLennan, who didn't even know how to play an instrument, originally wanted to go into the world of film directing and/or criticism. Forster talked him into forming a group and it was just the two of them for a while. They went through numerous drummers before finding Lindy Morrison and then thing started to happen. The small independent label Postcard bounced them to Rough Trade, Rough Trade bounced them to Sire and the band enjoyed tenures in various cities in Australia, England, and Scotland. There are photos galore and more first-hand witnesses to the band's can-do climb throw guest essays into the ring. Between the four pieces of plastic and the four blobs of wax, you're looking at close to 6 hours of Go-Betweens music. Keep in mind this is just Volume 1.
PopMatters chatted with Robert Forster as he generously turned back the clock to a time when Grant McLennan was writing reviews of Woody Allen films, when Melbourne was considered the most beneficial city for working musicians and why mixed-gender ensembles was a hip thing to aspire towards. Forster walks us through the band's ever-shifting identity on their first album Send Me A Lullaby, the confident capture of a classic on Before Hollywood, and the big budget headaches of Spring Hill Fair. He gives a little insight into the giveaway offer for the first customers to purchase G Stands for Go-Betweens; a book from McLennan's personal library. And in addition to many questions on the past, he gives us a glimpse of his own musical future as he prepares to turn a new page ...
Take me back to the time when you and Grant McLennan first started playing together. Where there any goals for the band back then?
We were having a tremendous amount of fun, so that was a goal. Grant had never played a musical instrument before he started in The Go-Betweens. I showed him notes on the bass and a very basic theory of music, that these bass notes had to correspond with my guitar chords. So his concept of being in a band, and he was 19 about to turn 20 when this happened, Grant had no rock 'n' roll apprenticeship. Grant's concept of the band was really something like The Monkees, which was a TV show he very much liked. His enthusiasm for the show and the records is something that I picked up. Really, the first two years or 18 months of the band was pretty much like a Monkees-type experience. We just sort of hung out in the house, trying to write really great songs and have adventures. There was sort of a sense of unreality about it. So the idea that we made a record, "Lee Remick" and "Karen" and we had only done two shows, we didn't have a drummer, Grant had been playing bass for only four months; it was just that sort of "Well, let's make a record!" That's what you do. So it was like we were living in a TV show.
At one point, the two of you picked up and headed for London. At that point, was fun still a part of the daily life? Because it sounds like it's hard to uproot yourself and then try to adapt to a new musical environment.
Yep. That's where the fun hit reality. We somehow just thought that we'd walk around Soho with a couple of acoustic guitars in the middle of London and someone would just come up and go "You guys just look impossibly groovy. Here's a flat, here's a five album deal with Warner Brothers and we love your songs." Of course it didn't [happen]. We had no contacts. We arrived in London with no contacts to the music business. That's when we realized "Where are we taking this dream? Where are we taking this?" We realized we were more serious about it than we thought, that we'd come over to London to try and further the group. That was a change.
It was probably an especially big change for Grant McLennan because, at age 19 or 20, he probably had a very different idea of what his life was going to be.
You're exactly right. Grant's life was going to be as a film director or as a film reviewer or something to do with the film world. He was just a complete enthusiast for cinema. I sort of caught him, when teaching him the bass, he had a year off. He had just done university. He was too young to go to film school by a year. He was like "We'll do a pop group for a year." It sort of derailed him. Still, in 1980, there was still the idea that we could go back to film because he completely got me into film then. He worked in a cinema and was writing reviews for magazines and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of film. But you're right, it was going off on this other strain, this other train. It would have been a surprise.
I read his review of Annie Hall that was included in the box set booklet. I really liked it. Not only did I like his review but I liked that it was included because it gives an extra angle to him.
And that was the Grant that I met. That's the Grant that I knew, who was writing. He was a huge Woody Allen fan and a huge Robert Altman fan. He very much liked a variety of cinema, but [there was also] an American wave of cinema that he liked very much. He got me into it as well.
You guys made some strong friendships in Scotland too in the early days. Can you talk about that a little bit?
That's when the fun comes back again because we had a couple of very down months in London and then we got approached by [the label] Postcard who heard our first single. It was a big coincidence, I think it's explained in the book where we knew a woman that worked at the Rough Trade shop and [Scottish band] Orange Juice came in with their first single. We went to the shop to see her and she knew where we were staying in a hotel. She sent David [McClymont] and Edwyn [Collins] from Orange Juice and Alan Horne who ran the label over to our hotel. So we went to Glasgow and that was fun again. That almost corresponded to the way things were in Brisbane. It was a whole different world, the way people spoke and the humor, everything was different. But it was a very positive experience and we got to see Postcard in its early days when it was alive and funny and great music was being made.
You guys planted yourselves in various cities and countries. Is there a particular city that was more economically musician-friendly than the rest?
Melbourne. Melbourne has always been a music town. Probably more than any other Australian city, although Sydney was bigger. There's a lot of venues, a lot of places to play and there's a rock music structure of inner management in venues and magazines. Brisbane was maybe a fraction of that and Melbourne was a big city with a very vibrant music scene. There were accommodations and practice rooms and shows that paid money, it was supportive in that way. A lot more than Sydney. Sydney was a tougher town and didn't have as much infrastructure and Brisbane just lagged behind. Melbourne was definitely the easiest place to sort of get by and play at that time.
It took you guys quite a while to find Lindy Morrison.
That's true. We were looking for drummers, always. And we wanted a female drummer. There wasn't many around so it took us a while.
Now if I understand this correctly, you wanted a female drummer because there was a mixed-gender aesthetic to the types of art that you and Grant were drawn to?
What were some examples? What other male/female combinations were you looking towards?
Two come to mind. I don't know if you know of an American TV show called The Mod Squad. That had two men and a woman. Peter, Paul & Mary, the folk group. They were two that we liked a great deal, just the look of it. Instead of five guys, something to me like Peter, Paul & Mary looked more interesting in a way than the Rolling Stones. The Mod Squad looked more interesting than Led Zeppelin. It just had an aesthetic about it.
For your first full-length album Send Me A Lullaby, I get the impression that it's still sort of a question mark in your past. For example, in the liner notes for [Go-Betweens compilation] Bellavista Terrace, you wrote: "The only advice I can give is don't buy the first album, Send Me A Lullaby without at least owning at least three others. It'll make no sense otherwise." What's your relationship with that record?
Well, it's improved. It's improved over the last while since that wild statement on Bellavista Terrace. It caught us in a particular moment. It's true to that moment. We had a romantic idea about debut albums and that [record] wasn't it. Although it was true to the moment and there are some good songs and there's a very wild, post-punkish style to it which I've come to appreciate a lot more. I've come to like it more. We were moving at a million miles an hour. It was a period of experimentation and a time of growth. We were throwing songs out and trying things. So it's not a normal first album where you've got songs that you've written three or four years ago and you've been sitting on them and have slowly been building up these 10 or 12 songs, like the Strokes first album. They put out one single, or a three-track EP and then they made that first album. They had those songs for two years, fine tuning them and then BANG. Where we were recording songs that were virtually written over the last couple of months. We had been going since 1978, we were just sort of trying to reach something with our songwriting. We were in a period of flux, and that's what that album captures.
If you had delayed the recording of your first album by a few weeks, it probably would have ended up sounding different.
It might not have sounded different, but there would have been different songs on it, almost. It probably would have sounded pretty much the same but the songs would have been different. Better or worse, I have no idea. We came out of that knowing that we had to make an incredible second album, if only just for ourselves. And that's what we did.
On Before Hollywood, you guys worked with John Brand. What was it like trying to get on his good side, artistically speaking?
It was pretty easy. John was the first producer we ever worked with, really. Everyone else had been an engineer. So it was a learning experience for us and he had come out of the English system. He'd worked on XTC records and Magazine records and a lot of acts that were on Virgin records. So he had that meticulous English approach where everything was like a mosaic with everything sounding really great, just putting together a pop production. It wasn't out of hand. It wasn't like he was trying to turn us into the Human League or something. He understood guitars, bass and drums very well and on Before Hollywood, he was hungry. He was an engineer. On the album that he made in the same studio a couple of weeks before that was Aztec Camera's first album High Land, Hard Rain. So he knew the studio and he had just worked with Aztec Camera, who were also on Rough Trade. We were the next band. We could just tell with John that he took the songs apart. It wasn't just "Oh, I'll sit up here in the corner and press the record button" and we'd just go. It wasn't that at all.
In hindsight, everyone loves Before Hollywood, me included. In the thick of it, did any of you look at each other and say "We're sitting on something truly great"?
Yeah, we knew. We knew while we were making it and we knew it when we heard it back in the studio for the first time. We were aware of it. We could see, immediately, the reaction of people around us before the album even came out. People were very, very happy with the album, like the record company and friends who would come around. It impressed people and we knew it was really, really good.
And it was after this that The Go-Betweens became a quartet again when you hired Rob Vickers for bass. Was guitar something that Grant noodled his way into after learning the bass?
I showed him the chords but really that's about it. I showed him how to play bar chords and open chords. He just ran with it. That was really the big miracle moment for the band. Grant was musical from the start. He could have not had it in him and I think that would have curtailed the band. But he was like a born musician that never knew it. He moved on to an acoustic guitar towards the end of the first year of the band. He had been playing guitar on our records. He did quite a bit of guitar on Send Me A Lullaby and he played a lot of guitar on Before Hollywood besides playing bass. He was totally ready to move over. I was more of a strummer kind of guitar player. And Grant, playing bass, had all the notes down. So his guitar playing was a lot more note-y than mine, or riffy party from his bass playing years.
So that didn't change the working dynamic between you and him?
No. Only onstage, really, when he was standing there with a guitar and we were playing guitar together on stage. It was very smooth. He had wanted to do it for a while. He had done a lot of guitar on Before Hollywood and to do the album justice, to stay as a three piece and play the album -- there's a lot of keyboard on it and you can hear double guitar, it's two different people playing guitar -- the idea of just me [playing guitar], it wouldn't have represented the album well. He wanted to move on to guitar, definitely.
The making of third album Spring Hill Fair, you sort of describe a confusing environment that the band found themselves in.
I'm glad that the "confusing environment" comes through. We had left Rough Trade, Rough Trade had dropped us and then we signed with Sire. So we had a big budget and we wanted to work with John again and John took us down to Miraval, a studio his manager had in the south of France. There was a lot more budget than Before Hollywood and admittedly Sire was a bigger record company than Rough Trade and Grant had written "Bachelor Kisses" which sounded like a hit single. So it was all sort of a different world. We didn't really realize all of this and it didn't really all come together until we were down in Miraval, in the middle of southern France, miles away from anyone or anywhere else. John's attitude toward the record -- we thought we'd just set up and play in the studio in a similar way [to Before Hollywood] -- John wanted to take it a lot slower and had all these issues with the drums. It wasn't as pleasant an experience as Before Hollywood.
Despite all that, you made a fine album.
I'm happy with the album. But that was the experience there, at that moment.
This box set is going to have four CDs worth of early live and demo recordings. Did you ever take the time to listen to those over the years?
It was the first time I had heard them in a while. Certain bits, certain songs, especially the very early stuff I knew. Certain b-sides I've played, so I had gone back to those recordings. But some of them, no. Some of them were new to me as well.
What does it bring back for you when you hear those?
Listening to volume three, the live '82 album which was a reel-to-reel tape of playing a show that was recorded professionally , caught [us] almost exactly between Send Me A Lullaby and Before Hollywood, eight months after one and eight months before the other, I was just amazed at how fantastic we sounded. For a three piece, we were very well-rehearsed, which we always were. There's just a fire to what we were doing. It totally amazed me how aggressive and exact and frenetic we were and how preserved it is. It's a really nice combination of material. We're playing the best of the album tracks, we're playing some new tracks, we're playing one or two older tracks, we're playing "I Need Two Heads" off our Poastcard single, it's a really nicely collection of songs. We had just spent about five months in Melbourne, we were coming to the end of our Melbourne time. So it would have been in that city that I was describing before. That was a real revelation to me, just good we sound.
I particularly liked all the rough recordings of "Hammer the Hammer".
That comes across as very punchy. That's in the set too, so the single is there and "By Chance" is there. The single that we did between Send Me A Lullaby and Before Hollywood, we were happy with the band again with that recording. We liked Send Me A Lullaby, but "Hammer the Hammer" and "By Chance", we were very, very happy with that.
You wrote the liner notes for the box set in the third person. Is that a style that you prefer?
No. We were wondering who was going to write the liner notes and how we were going to do the rarities CDs. How are we going to weave all of this together? How are we going to make it cohesive and make it interesting? Who are we going to get to do that and who are we going to get to write the liner notes? I had a breakthrough in my thinking where I just thought "I'll write the notes and I'll program the CD as I write it. And from my insight I'll weave the programming of the CDs into the story of the band."
So you're reading and in brackets it'll say "[CD 1 Track 10]" and I'm describing that demo session. I could program what was going to be on the rarities CDs based upon the notes, so it worked together. And when I sat down to write the notes, I also had the idea of writing it using a pseudonym. I thought of the name Stella Givens, so the notes were going to be by her. It was a made-up name. Immediately I started writing and it was great because I was writing 'Forster/McClennan' and I was Stella Givens. I wrote for a week or two thinking that this name would be in the book and everything. But after a week or two I realized that people would see through the ruse immediately. I was putting forth information that only I'd know.
I had been just trying to protect this thing, this fantasy and the whole thing would be derailed with me following this up. It would just be silly. But I liked the angle that it gave me. So basically I put my own name to it but I kept that third person distance that I got from starting them by writing them with another name.
At once point, you wrote that one song in particular was "the best song that Robert Forster had written by the time."
I know, it allowed me to do things and be a little bit playful with it. But also with the sleeve notes I wanted them to have little agenda as possible. I wanted them to be like sleeve notes which are fairly factual and historical and a little bit dry: I wanted that. I didn't want it to be "This is Robert Forster's take on it all" with an opinion and an agenda. That third person allowed me to keep that as well.
There's a unique offer for people who are purchasing this box set and this is to get a book from Grant's library. What kinds of things can these customers expect?
There's a lot of film books from the '70s. There's a lot of poetry. Grant read The New York Times Book Review. There's a lot of first editions, fiction (he liked American fiction, actually) so there's a lot of hip authors all the way through the '80s, '90s and '00s. It's that combination; contemporary fiction, poetry, film books, show business books. But it's fairly highbrow, in a way, for a rock musician. Whenever he would move it was a huge thing because he had to take all these books. Boxes and boxes and boxes of them. At one point, I think there were thirty-one big boxes of books.
It's truly sad that we had to let him go before his time. But on a lighter note, I wanted to ask about what you are going to be doing in the near future. [Forster's most recent solo album] The Evangelist came out the same year my six-year-old was born.
I can give you the news: I start recording my next album tomorrow. There was a van here at the house last night putting equipment in and I'm recording at a studio about half-an-hour away up in the mountains. We've been rehearsing for the last couple of weeks and we're ready to go tomorrow.
Who will be playing on it? Anybody who was affiliated with you before or on the final three Go-Betweens releases?
No. There's two guys from a band called the John Steel Singers. They've gone over and done CMJ over in New York and they're signed to a label in the UK called Full Time Hobby. They've done two albums and the two guys from that band or sort of multi-instrumentalists; bass, keyboards and guitar. The drummer is a fellow that I toured with back when he was very young, back when I was touring for The Evangelist. And playing violin and singing and doing some other things is my wife Karin Bäumler. That's the five of us, the core group that'll be heading up the mountain tomorrow at 11:00. In about 24 hours we'll start recording.
Can you give any hints or clues about what's to come?
We're going to do 12 songs. Sound-wise and the nature of the material, it's quite different. Quite different, I think, from The Evangelist which had its own mood. This one is different. I see this as the start of the next stage, let me put it that way. I think The Evangelist sort of falls in with the last three Go-Betweens albums and that was sort of a period. This to me is the first album of what I'm going to do in the future, so it's the start of a chapter. We're recording all analog, that's something I can say. Two-inch tape, a disc, there's no computers in the studio. And it's not that I'm trying to prove some sort of digital/analog debate, to take part in that, I just prefer to be sitting in the studio and not be looking at a computer screen. I just want to have that pure experience and I like the way it sounds for my music. I'm just enormously excited. It feels like my first album because seven years is such a long time. I find it enormously exciting to be recording again.