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An Interview with Robert Forster

Robert Forster and Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens had a remarkable partnership that lasted for twenty-eight years, ever since they met at the University of Queensland in 1977.

Sadly, McLennan passed away in 2006, but the band was able to produce nine albums throughout their career, while gaining a passionate cult following that included R.E.M., Sleater-Kinney, and novelist Jonathan Lethem. Their best-selling and final album, Oceans Apart (2005), won the Go-Betweens their first Australian Grammy.

It was very difficult to not socialize with the members of the Go-Betweens, since we only had two acquaintances in the music industry that were signed to the band.

Therefore, when the devoted publicist offered us a chance to meet Grant and Robert at a pre-Oceans Apart gathering, we couldn’t decline. Robert spoke about the group’s history, while Grant discussed books and endeared our 19-year-old daughter, who had been a fan since she was 6.

Grant had passed away by the next year and Robert would not be back in the US until around the beginning of 2008 to promote his first record in twelve years, _The Evangelist.

After a dinner, we asked Robert to our East Village apartment for dessert and it ended up being a three-hour session of sharing music samples. Artists from Amy Rigby to Lil Wayne were played and Forster was a very attentive and eager listener. He also ate his way through half a crate of clementines._

Seven months on, Forster was back in our dining room for a mid-day chat, bringing with him four bottles of Pellegrino and Robert Vickers, former bassist of the Go-Betweens.

Very shortly into the conversation, Vickers left for his day job. It was the day after Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, so the conversation naturally shifted to the end of the world, then to Germany where Forster’s mother-in-law had suddenly become gravely ill.

The discussion began with the start of the Go-Betweens and continued until Forster had to be at Joe’s Pub for sound-check, three hours later.

Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell are two renowned names in the music industry. They are credited with bringing a fresh perspective to the genre and a new way of looking at music. Their influence on the music scene has been undeniable and they have become an integral part of many people’s music-listening experience.

I. UNDERSTANDING AND A LOW RANGE

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Where were you when you encountered the Go-Betweens?

ROBERT VICKERS: We all lived in Brisbane at the time, so that’s where I met them.

CAROLA DIBBELL: What caused this music scene to come about in Brisbane?

ROBERT FORSTER: In a way, it was like Akron, Ohio–places out of the way, isolated.

RC: Secluded.

RF: There were no recordings being made.

It felt as if everything was just starting.

RF: There weren’t any people from the ’60s, no managers, and no record labels in sight.

CD: What was your initial performance like?

RV: There was no venue to perform at, so it was necessary to rent a space. The Blind Citizens provided a hall that could be used for such purposes. Renting the space cost around $50.

RF and Grant attended a gig with about four bands playing. As Grant had only been playing bass for six weeks and they had been rehearsing in his bedroom with one amp, they had never before played in public. RF asked the person running the show if they could get up and play two songs, to which they agreed.

They borrowed gear and a drummer from Ronnie Ribbit and the Toadettes and launched into their first song, “Lee Remick”. Despite the huge wide stage and 400 people present, RF simply told the drummer to “make this fast”!

I began counting, and we got to 1-2-3, and it was amazing. Then we decided to try something daring and perform “8 Pictures,” which comes from our first album. It was a strange and lengthy song. When we were done, the most remarkable thing happened: we were introduced to Robert and his band, along with 80 other people.

We both were astonished; it was incredible! Just being in the room and hearing “Lee Remick” was enough to know that this song would become a timeless classic.

At that moment, I experienced an awakening. It was like a breakthrough.

CD: What kind of clothes were you wearing?

RF stated that he and Grant had an affinity to each other right away. They weren’t aiming to pursue a punk style, in any style reminiscent of England. No chains or any leather clothing were worn. It was in a way, collegiate.

In Brisbane, Australia, there is a prominent surf culture which is reflected in the fashion. This is a laidback and relaxed style that includes jeans and school shoes.

What type of footwear is generally worn in a school setting?

Shoes in the hue of black.

The reason why all people were wearing sneakers was because they were all dressed similarly.

RF: Jeans and shirts with collars and cuffs were the fashion of the seventies. The shirts had a more “groovy” feel, like work shirts.

Similar to a bank teller’s attire, but not tucked in.

CD: How about a tie?

No need for a tie to be worn.

CD: You didn’t include ties in your ensemble.

Neither Radio Frequency (RF) nor Radio Velocity (RV) can be accepted as a response to the current situation.

The temperature was uncomfortable due to the heat.

RF noted that the temperature was uncomfortably high.

RV was describing the heat as being so intense that it was impossible to do anything. Despite this, he still thought it looked great.

Vickers departs.

RC: Continuing our discussion, let’s talk about the ’50s music that you would often listen to.

I found the bareness, the uncomplicatedness, and the newness of the Sun Sessions – Elvis with Scotty Moore and Bill Black incredibly enjoyable.

RC: At what point did you arrive at that realization?

I had an admiration for those from the ’76 and ’77 era, one of the people that I enjoyed was Buddy Holly.

RC: My guess is that he was similar to David Byrne in the past.

I agree. A lot of his work has been composed for a trio. The Go-Betweens started off as a three-piece, the same goes for Talking Heads and Elvis. What is so amazing about 1950s music, which resonates in the Go-Betweens, is its innocence and newness. You can’t really categorize it, but it’s something that I have always been drawn to.

Question: Could we talk about Chuck Berry?

Chuck Berry was an incredible songwriter, and he would be the third one to come to mind.

RC: You don’t appear to be passionate about groove, which is something that is not absent from David Byrne’s music even though it might not seem that way at first.

RF opined that Australians had a lack of access to black music. He related that he knew people with big record collections, which usually included Italian pressings of the second Vanilla Fudge album, but no one would have been likely to have James Brown or reggae. The only forms of black music that they were exposed to were blues and Motown hits.

RC: What is your current opinion on this subject?

I deeply regret it.

Do you ever feel the urge to revisit the past?

RF: I have experienced some black performers. The initial one that had an impact on me, which may sound a bit insignificant, was Prince.

Prince is anything but feeble.

I really enjoyed Creedence’s sound and their dynamic rhythm section. To me, the clarity and bottom end on their recordings was great.

RC: Nevertheless, you decided to take a different direction. Lindy became the long-term drummer around 1980. She has experience in the instrument, but what was her mindset while playing?

RF spoke of the considerable impact that Gang of Four, Wire, and the Slits had on her, with all of them having a notable role in breaking down boundaries.

The band Gang of Four had a strong funk influence in their music.

At the time Grant and I were taking in the sounds of Television, Talking Heads, and Magazine, we were inspired to deconstruct funk. We were drifting away from ’60s references, desiring to explore post-punk. This resulted in a melding of our songwriting, drumming, and a post-punk style that was in our first album.

CD: Could you provide me with a few illustrations of it?

RF remarked that Send Me a Lullaby was a reflection of its era more so than much of the music that followed; the record was released in 1981, but they had to move ahead.

RC suggested that there is another element to consider: the process of maturing. As we grow, we start to comprehend more clearly the impact of the influences that have shaped us.

RF pointed out that as she began to find her own identity, she started to become a part of the band.

RC: What is the result with the bass?

RF observed that Grant is playing the bass for the debut record, and he is known for being very musically-inclined. His bass lines are very melodious but he is currently transitioning to a post-punk style of playing which is higher up on the neck and more unique than the typical ’60s bass lines. He is instead exploring the ’70s sound.

RC: The style is far more sharp and punctuated.

RF commented that it goes with Lindy’s decision to take up songwriting, and he is currently learning to play guitar in order to write his first tunes.

RC concluded that the trio structure was no longer adequate. Although fond of the original trio model, something else was needed. Despite the potential for corniness, he decided to add a bass player and Vickers was chosen for the role.

Vickers, a fan of Before Hollywood, had heard that we were searching for a bass player, so he sent us a letter all the way from New York to London expressing his interest in the position. He wrote that the album we had made was amazing and that he wanted to be the bassist.

RC: It’s when Vickers joins that your music really takes off, as this gives Grant more opportunity to express himself.

RF: It’s an instantaneous transformation into a classic rock band with two guitars, bass, and drums. You can sense the difference right away.

RC commented that drummers often occupy a joke-like status within rock and roll. They can adjust to playing in any band and are content as long as they are able to provide a beat. Lindy, however, is a different story. Not only is she a powerful presence psychically, but she is also more ambitious musically.

RF noted that Vickers was a more classic bassist, whereas Grant was playing lead bass. He now had the opportunity to use all that power in playing guitar.

II. AN EXTERNAL PERSPECTIVE

The idea of an “outsider sensibility” is often used to refer to an outlook that is informed by a perspective that is external to the situation. This can be beneficial when trying to gain insight into a situation and develop a unique solution.

RC: Alright, so we’re currently in 1982. To explain what’s going on, instead of a groove, particularly after Amanda joins, there’s a lot of tension and inner dynamics in what appears to be melodically basic singer-songwriter music. That ties into queries about gender relations, sexual relationships, and gender roles. You and Lindy had a five-year-long relationship that was very tumultuous, yet intense and robust. Sadly, you both broke up in 1985, yet stayed in the band.

RF affirmed in the affirmative.

RC: After this event, The Go-Betweenes decided to form a quintet. Amanda Brown, a violinist, is likely the most musically talented of the group and she and Grant commence a complex and tumultuous relationship. As a result, there is a broken couple that still works together, and this comes with a psychological cost.

RF mentioned that often times, after a break-up, the relationship between two people improves. He noted that in this particular case, the two people could not simply walk away from one another, as they had to wake up the next morning and travel together. Consequently, this created a certain tension between them. Nonetheless, this tension eventually reduced, and RF and Lindy, without any words, wished Amanda and Grant the best of luck with their new endeavor.

Was there a connection between the two women?

RF stated that the two were tightly connected. He went on to emphasize the level of closeness.

RC: You and Grant had a close and long-lasting relationship. It was one of the most remarkable I have ever seen. Was their bond affected when you were with Lindy?

Definitely, the answer is affirmative.

It is rumored that she was jealous of the attention you were giving to Grant and had no fondness for him either.

We will be joined by Robert Vickers soon.

RC asserted that it was not a triangle.

RF found that the situation improved instantly because the person in question was very communicative and had diplomatic skills.

Bassists generally are known for being.

Grant and I were aware from the beginning that our relationship would endure. Although it might not sound great, we had watched Bryan Ferry and Eno separate as well as John Cale and Lou Reed, and we concluded that both groups were weakened by the separation.

RC: Even though the band never consciously expressed any kind of ideology or politics, there is a certain awareness of feminism that is evident. Were you consciously aware of this? Was it ever made explicit? Lindy was very passionate about the feminist movement – was this something the band aimed to embody?

RF remarked that when he and Grant encountered Lindy, they were typical young men in their early twenties, naive and keenly conscious of the perceptions of others. Moreover, they had not been conditioned to any type of masculine culture.

RC: Your first couple tunes: “Lee Remick,” and “Karen.” Both of them are about women, and with the song “Lee Remick,” you are not crooning about a cute person. You are singing a tribute to a meaningful woman who is also attractive.

My mom was a very powerful woman.

CD remarked that it was innovative and different that the individual had crafted this, while also noting that it was something that no one else was attempting to do. Additionally, it was evident that the person had a clear set of values.

When I’m writing “Karen”, I’m confident that it is a totally unique voice and that no one else is doing the same thing. Additionally, the feminist influence has been supplemented by the works of gay writers like Christopher Isherwood, Robin Maugham and Francis King. Even though I’m heterosexual, I’ve been greatly affected by their works. Also, I’ve been reading Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, which has led me to experiment with wearing dresses on stage.

During the period of 1983 to 1989, you were travelling more than half the time as part of R.E.M., culminating in the well-known – albeit somewhat notorious – tour. Do you have any remarks about the life of a musician that would be different from the comments of 10,000 other performers?

RF commented that they were both content with how their relationship ended, feeling they had reached the ideal point to go their separate ways. They never had any qualms about the decision, regardless of how many times they saw each other over the years, up until Grant’s death.

RC: After spending thirteen years of your life with this person, how much of the next fifteen years did you spend living in the same location? Did you spend any considerable amount of time?

At the close of 2001, my family and I relocated to our former home.

RC: In 1991, you tied the knot in Germany. Was Grant present at the ceremony?

A definitive answer of “no” was given.

What could be the cause of this?

RF: This is an excellent query. I was greatly disheartened by this. The duration was incredibly tough for Grant.

RC: What would you say is the nature of your connection with Grant?

In late 1989, Grant and I had plans to continue our work together as a duo, having titled our forthcoming album Freechart and having composed a good number of songs. Our vision for the record was to create something acoustic that would stand out from the rest.

Reception of the controversial Lovers Lane has been met with much opposition.

RF recounted that after his time in the U.S., he heard that Grant was looking to pursue a solo project. He had seen his state of mind while he was there and was aware of his struggles to win back Amanda. In a conversation with him over the phone some time later, he was pleased with the outcome of the situation.

RC: Do you two have a close bond? You collaborate on occasions, tour together occasionally, and teamed up to create a film script in Brisbane during the mid ’90s. Moreover, Grant is producing solo albums at a quicker rate. How do you feel about his works?

RF mentioned his fondness for Horsebreaker Star, noting that Grant was viewed as a pop songwriter and was thus signed to a much larger Sydney-based record label who thought he had the potential to become a superstar.

An aircraft requires wings for flight.

RF: I have difficulty with the production of his first two albums. When I heard his songs in demo format, done on acoustic guitar, I favored those versions.

RC: On the other hand, you chose to settle, whereas Grant never felt the drive to do so.

Up until the time of his death, Grant’s way of living was basically the same as it had been when I initially encountered him. He maintained a student-like lifestyle until his last days.

NUMBER 3: KEVIN COSTNER

In 1999/2000 the group got back together and created a plethora of great records, which generally doesn’t happen. But that tension has dissipated. There is a feeling of serenity in the air. Does the word “placid” resonate with you? Perhaps tranquility would be a better word.

RF commented that if they had been more impulsive, they might have gone to LA and worked with a big producer. However, they chose to go to Portland and work with Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney. This city is significant to them since the first record they released in America was The Friends of Rachel Worth, and it was recorded there. Although the decisions weren’t exactly made calmly, RF acknowledged that there was an element of excitement and adventure involved. He was willing to accept the thought that this tension might not be present.

RC: Janet Weiss can be a very prolific drummer–that’s not her role in your group. Instead, she acts as an intermediary. She is less dynamic than Lindy ever was. Do you feel this reflects upon your own steadiness? Everyone is aware that marriages are not as solid as outsiders perceive them to be. However, they do maintain some level of equilibrium.

RF commented that the latest album draws back to the original essence of the band, presenting them in a way that is distinct from others. He went on to remark that sometimes the moments that were not seen as the most productive can be regarded as the best in hindsight. He then added that at a personal level, he is more tranquil, though Grant still leads a lifestyle similar to what he did in the 1980s, residing in a shared house with no car.

RC: Was he not able to drive?

RF mentioned that Grant did not possess a driver’s license or a wallet.

Question: Do you have your wallet?

No purse or billfold.

RC: Are there no credit cards available?

RF: No credit cards at all. I would always hand my credit card over, and everyone was astonished that he had a cell phone. Obviously, he didn’t have a personal computer; he had never owned one in his lifetime.

RC asked if it was likely that the person had smoked too.

Grant never changes his mind when it comes to smoking; he never wavers from his decision and never attempts to quit for a short time and then start again. There is no resolve within him to make any changes in his habits.

RC inquired if, after having experienced a more established bohemian lifestyle, one could maintain it as a living, financialy supported through Go-Between and ex-Go-Between work.

RF mentioned that the situation is still not ideal, as the agreement is only valid for a six-month period.

In recent years, you have been contributing to the well-being of your family by producing written reviews for the nationally distributed magazine, The Monthly.

Continuing on with my writing, I’m encountering people who are asking me to write books. I think memoir-style writing is a great place to start, so I’m likely going to begin there.

RC: Do you think you will make the same amount of money as you spent on this tour?

The sentiment expressed is one of hope.

RC: But just enough to make it. How old are you? 51? You’re a little too advanced in age to still be making your expenses on tours.

In Australia, performing for an audience of a thousand people is fairly typical and it’s a way to make money. However, to really make it financially, it’s necessary to have a chart-topper, a well-known artist cover one of your songs, or have a song featured in a film.

Does anyone promote the studios externally?

RF commented that there are people who make this kind of thing happen. It’s done in numerous ways. As an example, Kevin Costner was a big admirer of Nick Lowe and he was able to get his songs on the Bodyguard album. This ultimately made Nick Lowe a lot of money, all due to Costner’s enthusiasm. Additionally, maybe Ringo could do “Lee Remick”.

RC: Regarding the solo albums from the ’90s that you’ve discussed, do you believe The Evangelist is as great, or even superior?

It is too soon to predict the outcome.

RC: I consider the Go-Betweens to have an especially enduring sound. That being said, I can’t make the same comment about your other individual projects. You used to be able to compose ten tunes in a single day; nowadays, knocking out ten in a year would be a significant accomplishment. How do you envision yourself as an artist going into the future?

RF is really looking forward to the future and is pondering the possibility of creating an album in three or four, or even five years. He is certain that there won’t be a new album in two years, but he is content to have The Evangelist be his last album for a long time. He is confident that people will think positively of him.

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