The original transcript of The Guardian Robert Forster interview
It was a privilege to interview Robert. He’s a real gent.
I’ve included a handful of notes I made at the start, some of which made it into the final Guardian article, albeit in expertly edited form.
We start off discussing the sound of cicadas, the fact his wife can hear him down the phone from Germany. He’s tall, dapper – a true gent. Not wearing anything showy but nothing dowdy either. Considerate, convivial, ready to be enlightened. Listens well. Speech mannerisms like my neighbour. At several points, my second oldest son Daniel interrupts the interview to kiss me, and Robert always remarks “what a lovely child”. His manner is one of continual faint surprise.
There’s a lot of mentions of rain in Go-Betweens songs. Living here in The Gap, surrounded by the green and infuriating bird song – Robert lives a few streets away – you can understand why. During the spring, water teems down the streets after a rainfall, creating rivulets and flurries: sometimes it threatens further. Days upon nights are spent on decks waiting for electrical storms to hit and fill up the skies for hours with their magical lightshows. The humidity becomes overwhelming, the sense there’s no escape from here.
Broken relationships, fragile grasping. I loved The Go-Betweens early on – 1981 (check), their first Rough Trade album – precisely because their songs often felt so awkward, unfinished. No edges rounded off, despite the fact this was clear pop music in the style of Reed and Verlaine and Richman and Byrne. Middle-aged concerns trapped in young bodies. Iconoclastic, inasmuch as their songs and image seemed to run contrary to so much of the macho swaggering rock music was about. The very definition of awkward pop. And they never followed conventional routes.
I’m looking down the track-listing to G Stands For Go-Betweens Volume One , the sumptuous new 112-track collection of Go-Betweens albums, singles, rarities and live tracks, documenting the period between 1978 and 1984, and I’m hard pressed to find even a single cover version.
10 Rules of Rock (Robert’s book): Rock criticism is for those of us who can’t write great songs. Robert can and does. So why does he do it? (question from Facebook)
“Because I’ve always had ideas about music. I think musicians generally do a lot of theorising about music. I think they talk about it a lot at least: favourite records and why they like this and why they like that. I think there’s a lot of talk that goes on. I think people think that musicians just walk up to a practice space, play the song, don’t talk, and when they go to a pub they talk about anything except music. I think there’s a lot of chatter. There’s a lot of thinking. And I’ve been no different to anyone else. It’s just I got the opportunity to put that down on paper, and I surprised myself that I could do it. I’ve tried to write other things, and I don’t think that was successful.
“Also, I’ve never had an antagonistic attitude towards music journalists or music journalism in general that’s still around but I think it was a lot stronger in the 70s and 80s – that rock journalists were waaaay over there and didn’t understand anything and were idiots. There was a lot of vindictiveness towards them. And there was us musicians in this camp over here. That’s false as well, because there’s a lot of cross-traffic. A lot of music journalists have a big interest in pop culture and musicians. But a lot of my friends had that attitude.
So, when the opportunity came, I had to think whether I wanted to do this, but because there wasn’t this antagonism to it, I could do it.”
In the music industry, it’s rare to find anyone who’s been around for a while who hasn’t taken on more than one role – or many roles.
“Yes. And also with the downturn of music sales a lot of people, especially over the age of 35 or 40 who are still in the music business, diversify. That’s happened. You can’t just do one thing anymore. Maybe if you’re Tom Petty you can, but not many people beyond that.”
So, you started writing about music because The Monthly asked you to write something about Grant [McLennan] – is that right?
“No, no. The magazine was starting, and the first editor, a fellow called Christian Ryan, approached me out of the blue about a magazine that didn’t exist. I wasn’t part of the Melbourne publishing world. I didn’t know who Murray Schwarz was. I didn’t know anyone. So I was like, ‘You want me to be a music critic for a magazine that doesn’t exist?” But I could tell there was a profile about it, because he was talking about what he wanted it to do. So I said I’d try and diversify. We had an agreement that if he didn’t like what I wrote he’d tell me, and he wouldn’t run it, and no one would ever know and they’d get someone else, someone more established. I was a gamble. I enjoyed it and I could see I could do it, and he liked it.”
How do you prepare for an article?
“I listen to the music. I do a bit of hunting around online. Normally I pick things I know about so I know where to go and I’ve got a bit of an angle on it. I couldn’t do a job like Alex Petridis or Bernard Zuel where I’ve got to make sense of the new Madonna record, I’ve got to make sense of the new Drake record. I can’t do that, I’m not that type of person. That is a rock journalist working for a newspaper. I’ve got too much other stuff to do, and that’s not my way of thinking. I did write a piece on Delta Goodrem early on, and that surprised people. I liked the song Born To Try even though it was synthetic pop. But I met her when The Go-Betweens were recording Bright Yellow Bright Orange in 2003 in the studio at Sing Sing. I didn’t know who she was. She was doing a recording session and we were recording, and we’d meet up in the room in the middle – and we’d play ping pong and she’s sit there at the piano and sing. I thought she was great, like Carole King or someone.”
So there was a personal connection… You feel it’s necessary to have a personal connection when you write about music?
“That helped then. Normally I don’t stray too far from things I like. There’s enough stuff coming out to keep it interesting.”
Do you still do that programme with Double J?
“I did it for one month. That was a guest spot. It was great fun, I got better at it. I really like interviewing people, having people in there. Again I did things I know, so I don’t know how long I could have gone for. I was on for two hours, and you eat up a lot of songs in two hours. Ideally if someone gave me a half-hour radio show, 20 minutes I’d be talking where other people would do half-an-hour or 28 minutes of music.”
Do you listen to Richard Fidler?
“I do. He’s great. I love that, 11-12 on the local radio. He’s fantastic. He lives in The Gap. He was in the Doug Antony Allstars, who were this comedy… I never saw them much. He’s a lovely guy.”
Iconoclastic (DAA)… people refer to you as an iconoclast. Are you aware of that?
“No. In what way?”
Well, my first thought is that they’re probably misusing the word…
“I know. I’m still struggling for a definition. I don’t know if it’s my personal manner or what I do, or if it’s a mixture. You don’t know. As much as I can, I go my own way but the road is paved with poverty. That’s what it means as well. Maybe they go hand in hand?”
I tell an irrelevant anecdote about seeing Dexys at Harvest a few years back, trying to make point about iconoclasm. But it does occur to me that Robert’s certainly written enough catchy and commercial songs to be living comfortably. Instead, Robert wants to know how they were on stage. I tell him that I love the vulnerability at the heart of Dexys – perhaps unconsciously echoing some of the reasons why I love Robert’s own work. And Nirvana. Often that’s what I look for in rock music. Past a certain point, anyone can write great songs and rock out. Very few manage to capture that vulnerability without being all wimpy or sappy (a reason I don’t like Nick Drake or the more avowedly ‘sensitive’ singer-songwriters but do like Go-Betweens). I tell him about watching Lorde perform on YouTube with the remnants of Nirvana at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013: she exhibiting an understanding of Nirvana the way few have since Kurt died.
“Really?” asks Robert fascinated. “I’ll have to watch that.”
Yes, it was Lorde performing All Apologies.
“Really?” the singer repeats. “Wow. That’s my favourite Nirvana song …and you sense that Grohl and the other guy… Novoselic… sense that?”
Oh yes. I think so.
“I’ll watch that. I’ll watch that.”
OK. I will touch on your 10 Rules of Rock. I like this first one: “Never follow an artist who describes his or her work as dark.” Can you expand on that? (I saw you give a talk with John Willsteed at QUT in Brisbane a few years back when you mentioned living in Brisbane in the 70s, listening to The Velvet Underground and Television.)
“That comes from reading interviews. As soon as you say your work is dark you’re giving it away. There’s a sort of self-consciousness about it. It should be implied. You’d struggle to find a quote from Nick Cave where he says his work is dark. He just takes it on board. It’s implied. And it’s in the work itself.”
The Velvet Underground?
“I don’t think Lou Reed would, if you could get a word out of Lou Reed – which is great because especially the first two albums, he is. I don’t think Nico would describe herself as dark.”
Does it come down to a simple truth, something I’ve always singularly failed to understand, that you should let other people talk about you, not yourself?
“Yes. That is a very good point. I once saw an interview with Suzanne Vega that stuck in my mind. She was talking about one of her songs, an early one from the first album, and she just completely broke it apart… and you could just sort of see that before the end she realised she’d gone miles too far. I find it pretentious also when people say they can’t talk about their songs. I can blab for hours about my songs, and I’m happy to – but there’s a way of doing it. And it was just like, she’d taken some of the magic away from it, and she knew it.”
I tell him my favourite Don Henley quote.
“Right. That’s great.”
It’s a question regarding music that continues to fascinate me: what is more important – the intention or the interpretation? Clearly, it also applies to literature, art, every day conversation… anything you want. In terms of racism or sexism, most often the interpretation is far more important than the intention. And obviously, if you know something of the artist’s intention, that will affect your interpretation.
“Yeah. I never actually thought of that. That’s good. I can’t expand on that.”
At QUT, we have class discussions of Cattle And Cane through the focus of Sonic Narrative – and how old interviews I discovered with Grant, which revealed the inspiration behind the (autobiographical) song, how he would travel through fields of cattle and corn on his way home to his parents’ farm in northern Queensland, actually increased my enjoyment of it, didn’t detract or distract. But maybe that was because you and Grant talk about the songs, but not too much.
“Yes, yes. That’s something we do. Grant wrote that song, and I think it took him a little bit by surprise. There’s no real song where you can go, ‘he’s building up to that’. It just suddenly came. I know that he got suddenly so affected by his own life, his own upbringing it came as a surprise – me and Lindy were like ‘Whoa!’. I think it just sort of popped out.”
OK, back to the Facebook questions. Do you use your bridge (the Go Between Bridge) ever?
“I do, very occasionally. I’ve got to pay for it like everybody else.”
So you don’t get a free pass?
“No, unfortunately. I should have thought of that. The Go-Betweens Bridge is part of a toll system that goes with the M7 airport link, and so we use that to get to the airport, which is fantastic. I go across it occasionally. I took a musician called Sushil Dade – he works for BBC Scotland now, he’s diversified. He’d been over to the Pacific Islands, recording ceremonies – and he and a woman came to our house for one day. He brought up the bridge so I thought, OK. I hadn’t driven across it in years. So for him, that was a thrill. So I go out occasionally, but only if there are people are in the car.”
Does it mean anything to you when you go across it?
“It does. It’s a very strange experience. And when I see the signs… but I forget about it. It’s almost something that is so outside what the band did, it’s such an extraordinary other thing, that it doesn’t come into your mind. But a lot of people, if you meet people outside your tight musical circle. They go, ‘The Go Between Bridge’. Ah yeah, OK. It’s very, very odd. It’s not on the accomplishment list. It’s way over the side, something else. It’s great though. I was very happy when it happened, but it’s a strange thing.”
From Facebook again. How does it feel when you have people coming up to you and being fan-boys or fan-girls?
“Good. It depends on how people do it. It doesn’t happen too much where I am, and I’m always surprised because you’re not in that reality. It’s different if I’m at a show, I realise it can happen there so I can turn that button on, but normally I forget who I am.”
Do you feel disconnected from it, or is it a separate reality?
“A separate reality. It can build up. Because I haven’t done much over the last years and years, the other reality sets in and you sort of lose it. If you got back, and start touring, and you’re in London three days to do press and then in Munich for two days to do press, and then you’re doing a gig in Stockholm, and you’re on a roll… and you’re in the touring mode, then it’s present all the time and it takes time to fade away. Which is why you can be surprised when someone comes up and says ‘You wrote that’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, right’. And I don’t think well-known singers or actors or musicians are as self-possessed as people think. Does Jeff Coons the artist think 24 hours a day, ‘I’m Jeff Coons’? Is that pounding around his brain all the time?”
You wrote an article for The Monthly recently around Australia’s six rock stars. You didn’t include yourself. Is that because of… that thing where you don’t include yourself because it’s up to someone else?
“No, no. Sometimes I do include myself. I didn’t see myself in there and it would have distracted from the article. It would have been a whole other thing to manoeuvre… even if I’d wanted to do it. The piece was focusing on the qualities you need to be a rock star.”
You’re not a particularly cynical person, are you…?
“I can be.”
Institutions, or individuals?
“Both. I am quite a cynical person.”
OK. But when it comes to your writing?
“No. Probably a better side of me comes out. Less cynical, a little more wide-eyed. I think you need to be…”
I wish I’d asked the question I was going to ask earlier, cos then it would have made me seem really smart. I was going to ask, do you need a certain amount of naivety when it comes to writing about music?
“Yes, I think you do. I think the fan in me kicks in. I’m devoting my time here, I’m learning about something, I am enthusiastic about this… and I want to communicate that.”
It does seem to me the critics that people remember, that people talk about, are the fans – the ones who don’t follow the templates laid down for them by editors and magazines, because they can’t, not really – but they are often the ones that struggle to find work. You won’t get taught to write in that style. But from Lester Bangs onwards… and the reason is obvious. You’re reading about music because you’re a fan. Why else would you be reading about it? You could draw a parallel here with bands, and the way certain bands will alter their sound to attain play on certain radio stations or TV.
“I think that’s completely true. A writer I liked a lot in the 70s was Nick Kent and Nick Kent was probably the worst writer… not the worst writer… but compared to Ian McDonald or Charles Shaar Murray or Ian Penman, but Nick Kent was obviously a fan of the New York Dolls, he was a fan of The Velvet Underground, he was a fan of Dylan, he was a fan of Jonathan Richman, he was a fan of The Only Ones… and that came across. He almost tripped himself and created this sort of character, but it was all ‘You’ve got to listen to this. I love this.’ I bought records he recommended.”
Daniel comes out, kisses me several times.
“What a lovely boy.”
You listed several artists you clearly align yourself with.
“Yeah yeah yeah, and that came through his taste. Nick Kent was all handwritten and last minute. He was on a rock star trip himself and drugs played their role probably but there’s still that fan boy thing in him, evangelising. I can remember Nick Kent’s famous review of Marquee Moon and if you’re reading him for two years before that, which I was. I was 17, 18 and then that record dropped. It was almost like he’d been building up to that record, and you could tell that that record hit every one of his taste buds. Punk rock was turning at that moment into a cliché, and he was like ‘this is the record that is both crowning punk rock and leading the way away from it’.”
Someone else on Facebook commented that she loves the columns you write on obscure Australian 60s artists. Will there be a book at some point in the future?
“No. If I had three lifetimes I would consider it because I find – especially in Australia – the kudos that should be accorded.”
There’s not the pride in Australian culture, is there? It’s something that’s infuriated me for years, even before I moved here. And there’s so much great stuff around – and I think it comes down to the fact there was never really anyone around to document all the great stuff happening in Australia. And because no one documented it people think it didn’t exist.
“So you think it’s the lack of people documenting? I agree with you entirely. Also, the thing I see… with magazines like Mojo and Uncut, they re-tell the story. You can be a fairly obscure group in the UK, but your story will be told. It’s part of the whole thing. It’s in the newsagents month after month. It goes round and round and round and people read that and it becomes part of a fabric. Here, it doesn’t exist. You talk to musicians, they know. You talk to Tex Perkins, or… a whole load of people, they know what happened in Australia in the 70s and 60s and the obscure psychedelic groups. What happens is, in the newsagents – an obscure concept – they cannot walk in there and read about contemporary Australian music. Where’s the eight pages on Sharpies? Where’s the eight pages on Daddy Cool? Where’s the six pages on Chain? Where’s the big feature on Wendy Saddington? It’s not there. There’s not the culture history chunking along to do that. There’s a whole crowd out there of 50-75 year-olds who would eat it up, the history of Australian rock’n’roll, if it was packaged right. I find it totally infuriating, I agree with you.”
Punk rock. How many times are we going to hear these bands were the best bands ever? Great bands some of them sure – but there are so many other bands, so many other cultures, so many other countries. And how big was punk rock really? Riot Grrrl didn’t even really exist… it was tiny… but it’s been documented so many times since, it’s massive now.
“You’re right. There’s a hundred metres of books about punk rock. I think you’re exactly right.”
Are you still following the shaving routine you detailed in The Monthly a couple of years back?
“The what? I don’t remember that.”
How did you come up with the riff to Ask on Before Hollywood?
“I don’t know. I was just playing it on guitar one day, it was a lucky break.”
You’ve said in the past that you spend ages and ages working on songs. How long does it take you to write an album’s worth of songs?
“Three or four years.”
Wow. Do you work on it every day?
“I did. I’m making an album at the moment and I haven’t been a practising songwriter the way I was since 2011. When I am writing songs, it is what I do five days a week, or grabbing moments – it is virtually a full-time thing that can take two or three years. But I don’t know how that’s going to go on because I don’t sell as many records. That side of it has fallen away. I don’t know how many more records I can make where I just devote two or three years to songwriting.”
Why does it take that long?
“It’s been that way since the early 80s. I think it’s because I’m not particularly musical. I’m not a musician’s musician. I came in on punk rock and so I’m not someone who has a traditional round of musicality. It blurts out. I get one or two songs a year, and I wrote it [the new album?] mainly musically all in one go. I’m not someone who can craft. It comes in one thing. I have to be very patient. Someone like Paul Weller or McCartney can craft songs. It just blurts out.”
Do you work by editing?
“I do. But I couldn’t really write a soul album. It’s got to be very personal, it’s got to be very close. There’s craft and shaping and stuff in it, but… I wish it was a lot more consistent. I know when I’m onto something, and it happens once or twice a year, and I feel it. There will be a tune in my head and I’ll go, ‘Yeah that’s it’ and I’ll go and write a lyric. I’ll be writing other stuff that will just fall away and after a couple of weeks I’ll be like, ‘That’s a B-side’. There’s a thing within me that’s developed over time so I know when I’m really hitting something.”
Daniel comes out again.
“He’s a lovely child.”
He’s a terror as well. Ok. Let’s talk about the box set. Who came up with the idea of giving a book away from Grant’s personal library?
“Me. It’s a mixture. It’s very much him, it’s a very good portrait of him – so there are a lot film books, a lot of novels, poetry, a small rock section, fiction. Grant’s son had inherited the books and had been thinking about what to do with them. He went down a number of roads, and it just coincided that the anthology was coming through. I didn’t know if Domino would go for it. I didn’t know if Grant’s son would go for it. I just thought it would be lovely if they went around the world. They’d end up in the hands of the fans, people who liked his music. It seemed like an interesting solution.”
I assume this anthology has been quite a long time in the works…
How does it feel putting something like this together? Does it feel you’re going through the ghosts of the past?
“It is,” he replies slowly. “It is the ghosts of the past. There’s a fair amount of just doing physical things – finding photos, putting photos on the page with a graphic designer. It is, but it’s something I’m happy to go through. I think if The Go-Betweens still existed in some form and I was touring all the time… but it’s a part of my life that’s just there and so it doesn’t overwhelm me.”
I’m sure you miss The Go-Betweens.
Other people in situations sort of similar to yours might consider reforming the band…
“That’s not really ever occurred to me. I can’t imagine the name The Go-Betweens being on a marquee, and being on stage under that name without Grant – because it was like that every time, and it was like that every time. Until Lindy joined in the middle of 1980, there were two-and-a-half years where we were a two-piece basically, and we started as a two-piece. There was six months where we didn’t even rehearse with a drummer: once, to record our first single. Other times, it was just him and me, in a house in Toowong, in his bedroom, two mics, two amps, bass and guitar and that was it. So when people go, ‘Can you imagine that band without Grant?’ I find that really hard. To do that now, considering that background… so being on stage without him in a band called The Go-Betweens, I can’t imagine.”
It seems quite the fashion for Australian singer-songwriters to release an album of cover versions at some point in their career. Have you ever considered that?
I was thinking that perhaps the reason you don’t is because of your roots in Brisbane: how, in ’78 and ‘79 there were two types of bands, cover bands and those who played original material. And the latter were very much in the minority.
“No, no, no. I don’t think of that. I’ve got enough to do already.”
What have been some of your favourite rediscoveries on that box set?
“Two come to mind. First of all, there’s an album on it called The First Five Singles. The A-sides are on one side and the B-sides are the other – and I’ve never listened to them concurrently like that before. That was an amazing experience. And the amazing thing is, the five singles were released over five years one a year. So it’s 1978 and Lee Remick, and then in three seconds, it’s 1979 and bang, you’re on Postcard and I Need Two Heads… and all the B-sides, which are good as well, bang bang bang. It compressed five years in a way I’d never heard. To me, it’s a great standalone record. It was a revelation to me. I’d never heard them stacked up like that.
“Another thing, there was a demo tape found, a session we did for our first album here in Brisbane. I’d forgotten about that session. And there are two songs of Grant’s on it, really great, one of them I’d completely forgotten. I never thought that could happen, that there would be a Go-Betweens song I would forget – and it’s not a sketch, it’s completely worked out.”
Go-Betweens songs are surprisingly difficult to cover, as I once discovered to my cost. It’s probably because Robert’s not conventionally musical. There haven’t been that many covers of Go-Betweens songs, aside from the Jimmy Little one…
“That’s it. They are cut from an unusual cloth. Good or bad, that’s the way they are. I think some of our songs could be covered. I wish they were because I think they could be – and by a range of artists. I would love to hear Keith Urban do Spring Rain. I would love to hear Elton John do He Lives My Life from Friends Of Rachel Worth. Elton would do a great version. But they never get access to the songs. Ed Sheeran could do Bachelor Kisses. That would be an interesting album.”
Photography: Justin Edwards