Thursday, March 16, 2006

Interview with Robert Forster, Go-Between, Cult Hero, Former Postcard Records Recording Artiste


A couple of years ago, when he was playing to a small crowd in a New York club, Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens made an observation. If things had gone slightly differently, he said, the band could have been playing Madison Square Garden. There was a laugh when he said this, because it has always been in the nature of the Go-Betweens to be critically feted and commercially ignored. Then, as the laughter died down, he added that, actually, he preferred things the way they were.
Well, it certainly has been an odd career, in which the Go-Betweens have contrived to be continually out of synch with the world.They were born in Brisbane in 1978 when punk was in full sway, and chose instead to try to re-create a version of 1960s’ New York. Their first record in Britain was on the legendary - and commercially marginal - Glasgow label, Postcard. A long-term deal with the legendary - and commercially doomed - American label Beserkley fell through when the label collapsed. They made great records for the legendary - but commercially chaotic - label Rough Trade. And, having established a reputation for splintered, literate music, they signed to a major label, which tried to change them into something less interesting by teaming them with wool-eared producers.
Throughout this, without every seriously troubling the charts, the two songwriters in the group, Forster and Grant McLennan, wrote some of the best songs of the last 30 years. They were brilliant, yet somehow it didn’t seem to matter.
The Go-Betweens split in 1990 and Forster and McLennan enjoyed solo careers, doing no damage to their reputations, or significantly increasing their audiences. Occasionally, they played together. They tentatively resumed business in 1997 and toured the world in 1999. Wherever they went, they were greeted as lost heroes. Encouraged, they made a great pop record, The Friends of Rachel Worth (good reviews, slightly larger audience). Now, 25 years since they started, they’ve made another one, Bright Yellow Bright Orange. Listening to it is both exhilarating and reassuring. The Go-Betweens haven’t changed what they do, but the world has caught up with them.
By now, of course, the history of the group is garlanded in myths. Alan Horne of Postcard claimed that he discovered them when browsing through the singles in the Rough Trade shop. He was among the Gs, looking for Vic Godard. When reminded of this, Forster notes that Horne is "an inventive person in terms of his memories. I’m happy he was in the Rough Trade shop, but I’m pretty sure he was there with Edwyn [Collins of Orange Juice] and Edwyn steered him away from Vic Godard towards the Go-Betweens".
Horne styled himself as a pop art Svengali in the mould of Andy Warhol or Malcolm McLaren. "They were both myth-makers. And that’s the way he was. I remember there was an article done on us while we were in Glasgow, for the afternoon paper. All of us were on Alan’s front steps in order to have a photograph taken. I was standing there with Orange Juice, and him, and a few other people. The photographer was just about to take the photo and Alan, from nowhere, whipped out a tambourine and put it right in front of his face, exactly like Warhol on the cover of the first Velvet Underground album. It was amazing, I had never seen that tambourine before, and there it was, bang in front of his face."
An interest in Warhol was shared by Forster and McLennan. As drama students in Queensland, they had tried, with limited success, to mimic the Factory in Brisbane. "We were besotted with New York," Forster says. "Everything that came out of New York: Bob Dylan in 1965-66, the Velvet Underground, the Actors’ Studio with [Marlon] Brando and James Dean, Jackson Pollock. Anything that was New Yorky we were fans of, and then Television and the Talking Heads galvanised it all."
Frustrated by the limitations of their homeland, they moved to Britain, but only really began to feel at home when they came to Glasgow in the spring of 1980. "We had spent the previous three months in London, which was totally dismal and dispiriting. We hadn’t really met anyone, we had no contacts in the music business. And then to be in Glasgow with all that fervour ... "
Musically, he says, it was "a very strong period. Every couple of years I go back and listen to the first four Orange Juice singles. They are just amazing. It’s totally undervalued as well. Whenever anyone’s writing any sort of rock history, these four records, in terms of their influence, their impact, their beauty, and their brilliance, are never really recorded".
There are strong parallels between the early Orange Juice 45s and those of the Go-Betweens. OJ were trying to be Al Green but lacked the skill. Instead, using pure enthusiasm, they made a noise which was accidentally fantastic. The same can be said of the Go-Betweens, whose early records are full of weird angles and wiry tension. "We were just trying to make people love us as much as we loved the things that were an inspiration to us," says Forster. "We could only dream that someone felt the same way about us that we felt about Television or Bob Dylan. When technical expertise is lacking, but you’ve still got the ambition and the drive, and just the wish, something else comes up."
When people compare the Go-Betweens to the Beatles, McLennan is McCartney and Forster is Lennon. In reality, the comparison only works if the Beatles had been led by Bob Dylan (McLennan) and Lou Reed (Forster). Forster’s vocal style - a kind of half-spoken intonation, owes much to Reed, as does the narrative style of his lyrics.
"The voice I was born with," he says. "I’m trying to get across, in a straightforward conversational style, what goes on. I think it’s close to real life. People talk that way and they get impressions that way. I don’t think people necessarily think or talk Top 40 lyrics. To me they sound artificial."
Far from regretting the years spent apart from McLennan, Forster says his solo career taught him how to make records. He learned from his producers, most notably Mick Harvey (of the Bad Seeds) and Edwyn Collins. " Often it was what they didn’t do that made an impression on me. Edwyn has built his own studio and has total control, and is doing it the way he wants to do it, and he has the strength of his convictions to go: ‘I’m going to learn engineering, I’m going to build my own studio.’ It takes an enormous amount of willpower and a true maverick spirit to do that.
"Warm Nights is the album I did with him and I was the first act that came into his studio. I had flown all the way from Australia, and I walked in on the first day to see The Producer, and he’s down on his hands and knees with a soldering iron, soldering the back of the desk. I thought: that’s great. Not there with the chair and the piece of paper going through the arrangements, but down on the floor with the soldering iron. Fantastic."
If Forster is philosophical about the past, he remains optimistic about the future.
"I feel good about this record. The Go-Betweens is not a conventional rock career, and it’s hard to make any predictions. I don’t like to make any sort of predictions about where we’re going to end up." Madison Square Garden? "There’s still a chance of that, you know. I rule nothing out."

Alastair McKay
Friday, 21st February 2003
The Scotsman