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Robert Forster - Interview

  by Dixie Ernill

published: 4 / 10 / 2011

Robert Forster - Interview


Robert Forster from the Go-Betweens talks to Dixie Ernill about his debut book and collection of music writing ‘The 10 Rules of Rock ‘n’ Roll’, and his relationship with his late bandmate and songwriting partner, Grant McLennan

For a wide-eyed seventeen year old music loving kid from a tiny Lancashire village fifteen miles outside Manchester it was almost unthinkable that I found myself in the legendary Hacienda nightclub one cold midweek night in either late 1988 or early 1989. I don’t remember the date, but the two things I clearly remember is that the DJ played five or six Smiths’ tracks and I heard for the first time ‘Streets of Your Town’ by the Go-Betweens. I’m not going to embellish the truth and say that I instantly went out and bought up the Go-Betweens’ entire back catalogue, but I did buy the single and a previous single, ‘Right Here’. Oddly, despite finding both singles delightfully charming and very much in keeping with my musical tastes, I didn’t buy any albums at the time and the band split up soon afterwards. Everything changed in the new Millennium as the Go-Betweens came back into my focus after the band reformed to release a trio of excellent LPs. Sadly, barely a year after arguably their finest album ‘Oceans Apart’ had been released, Grant McLennan, one of the groups two principle singer-songwriters, died suddenly in 2006 at his home in Australia. In the years that have followed I have regularly treated myself to albums from the band’s impressive nine album back catalogue and, having all but completed my Go-Betweens’ collection, I have branched out to the solo work of McLennan and the other main protagonist in the group, Robert Forster. For the unenlightened, the Go-Betweens were an alternative rock band formed in Brisbane, Australia in the late 1970s when Forster and McLennan met at Queensland University .They were responsible for some truly wonderful songs. Since the untimely demise of the Go-Betweens, Robert Forster has reconvened his solo career, performing a number of gigs and releasing the excellent ‘The Evangelist’ LP in 2008. He has also become a celebrated music critic writing mainly for Australian magazine ‘The Monthly’. His debut book, ‘The 10 Rules of Rock ‘n’ Roll’, was released in the UK recently following its Australian release in 2009. The book is a collection of Forster’s music writing, together with a short story and two beautifully insightful pieces about Grant McLennan. It is an engaging read that not only highlights Forster’s vast musical knowledge and attention to detail, but his immense talent at writing in such a way that draws the reader in irrespective of the subject matter. So, despite the early morning phone call to Brisbane, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to chat with Robert Forster when the chance arose..... What wide-eyed 40 year old music loving kid would? PB: I have read the book and it is a very engaging read. I really enjoyed it, and over the last two weeks I have been digging out all my old records by the likes of Glen Campbell, the Saints, Franz Ferdinand and have been playing them for the first time in ages, purely on the strength of what you have written about them. RF: Well, that’s fantastic. That’s all that you can ask for is that the book has that effect. PB: The reviews you do are often a lot longer than what you get in the ‘NME’ and in other music magazines. It gives you a more in depth insight into the artist rather than “Here’s an album and here’s what five or six of the songs sound like. Buy it or don’t buy it.” RF: Sure, I’m really lucky that I have the space that I can do that, and I guess that part of the reasons that attracted me to start to write for the magazine was that I had that space. I think if I had to just write a hundred words or two hundred words I might not have been able to do the job for so long. It might not have been as attractive to me at the start. PB: Like you said, it gives you a bit of space in terms of no restriction, so you don’t have to focus solely on the actual record itself and you can write a bit more about the artist’s past, which is certainly more interesting from a reader’s point of view. RF: That’s what I am trying to do. Exactly. PB: Your first foray into writing was for a Manchester magazine ‘Debris’ back in the 1980s. I am actually from Manchester and I vaguely remember the magazine because a few flexi discs came out on it years ago RF: Oh, right. PB: I presume having read the article it is a complete tongue in cheek sort of article as it is written about hair care. RF: Well, that magazine, ‘Debris’, was edited and put together by Dave Haslam PB: ...the DJ? RF: He was a DJ and he still is a DJ. He was a DJ at the Hacienda. He’s also written one or two books about Manchester music and the Manchester music scene, and he was someone that I met in the 1980s. In the mid 80s I met him in Manchester and he had started up ‘Debris’. He invited me to write for the magazine and I wrote the article about hair care. So my writing career started with a Manchester fanzine, which was a fantastic place to start. PB: Yeah, certainly it is a great place to start. Manchester is as good a place as any. RF: Yes, it is wonderful PB: In the book there is a short story towards the end entitled ‘The Coronation of Normie Rowe’. Is that any area that you want to go into? RF: Yeah, perhaps at some stage in the future I would like to do that. That piece that I wrote there was something of a surprise. It surprised me that I could do it and pull it off. I hadn’t really thought about it – I tried it before but I had never been able to do anything I liked and I am happy to have written that piece. I may try to write more in that way. I haven’t got the time as I am doing other things at the moment, but I might return to that later. PB: The one thing about it when I was reading that stuck out was the fact that it mentioned London in the 60s and was told from the point of view of a character who had been part of the music scene there, I kind of believed it was a real piece about a real person that I had never heard of..... That proves the strength of the writing, I think. RF: Well thank you, thank you very much. It was just put together by bits and pieces of knowledge that I have and just being able to put myself in a make believe situation. I guess that is what fiction is all about. I really enjoyed writing it because you don’t have any borders in a way. You can just go where you want to go with fiction. It is something that I really am thinking about doing more of it. PB: There are two chapters in the book that mention the Go-Betweens and are about Grant. Is there a possibility of you writing the story of the Go-Betweens or is that something you would shy away from? RF: No I don’t shy away from it. It is something that I am actually working on at the moment. When I said I am not working on fiction at the moment, that is because I am trying to write something about Grant an the Go-Betweens. PB: In 2008 you brought out your last solo record, ‘The Evangelist’ which featured some of Grant’s songs. How difficult was it to use some of Grant’s unreleased work in view of what happened and because of his death? RF: It was easy in one way, because making music is something that you do automatically and... you’re playing guitar and there is an easiness to it, and it is almost as if all of the heavy thinking and what goes with it almost comes later, or comes before. When you are actually playing one of his songs you are so lost in that moment because there is so much to do like playing the chords and singing that it almost escapes you. But then on the other hand you realise the depth of it, the sense that these are songs that he wrote or are parts of songs he wrote and worked on and you realise how poignant a thing that it is. And so it is a little bit two ways. There is almost the mechanical side of it and more the sort of thinking side of it, the reflective side of it, and they sort of go together. PB: One of my favourite bands is the Brilliant Corners. I don’t know if you remember them from the 80s. They were a jingle jangle pop band that were around in the mid 80s and the singer in that band , Davey Woodward, has often said that the Go-Betweens along with the Velvet Underground were huge influences on him. Is that quite pleasing to learn that you have had an influence on other bands? RF: It is, it is... I’m almost always surprised that is the case. I remember them being a well respected and liked band, and so that’s a fantastic thing. Also when you think we are a band that came from Australia and people can pick up the music far away, that is a wonderful thing too. PB: I think the reasoning behind it is the Go-Betweens released records on Postcard (1980’s Scottish record label-DE), I think that Davey was into a lot of the Postcard bands, and tried the Go-Betweens out and that’s where that came from. Music can sometimes cross oceans and that’s the wonderful thing about it. RF: It is. PB: I also saw ‘Allo Darlin’ who you write about in ‘The 10 Rules of Rock ‘n’ Roll’,play in Manchester a few months back andI was talking to the singer, Elizabeth Morris, because they played a song that they have not yet released called ‘Tallulah’ that mentions about driving around and listening to an old Go-Betweens album on cassette. I was asking her about it, and she said it was one of the high points of their career when you had reviewed their debut album ,and she almost found that when doing the second album that they had to do something that Robert Forster would enjoy and review well. So that was one of their motivations for their second album. RF: And how did their show go? PB: It was superb. I was expecting it to be half full, but it was absolutely rammed. RF: Really! PB: They have been making waves over here in Britain in the last few six months or so. RF: Good, great. So word is starting to get out about them a bit? PB: Yes. They have played in Manchester about two or three times in the past and the first couple of times were very low key and very small shows. The venue they recently played at, a venue called The Night and Day Cafe, the capacity is about 3 to 400 and it was pretty much sold out so, so they are starting to do well. RF: They’re a great band, really, really good songs and they play really well. They’re a band that really, really caught my ear. They have got a nice mixture... the instrumentation I enjoy very, very much. And what is great is she is from Queensland, the same state that I am. PB: Just a couple of last questions now... RF: Sure. PB: In terms of the Go-Betweens, if you sort of spoke to someone who had never heard of them before, and you had to pick three songs that would be representative of the Go-Betweens, I know this is a difficult question, but just off the top of your head, which songs would you dig out? RF: Well, one of them would have to be ‘Cattle and Cane’. Another would be a song off the last album, ‘Oceans Apart‘, called ‘Darlinghurst Nights. and maybe something big and popular like ‘Streets of Your Town’ off ‘Sixteen Lovers Lane’. PB: ‘Streets of Your Town’ is probably the first Go-Betweens song that I had heard, when I got dragged along to the Hacienda probably in early 1989 I think, and that song was played two or three times on the night. Presumably Dave Haslam was DJing at the time and maybe that was the reason it was played so many times. RF: ‘Streets of Your Town’ was played at the Hacienda. Wow! That’s good. PB: Final question. What is in the pipeline? Will you be playing some more gigs or putting out an album as well as doing the Go-Betweens book? RF: I have got no gigs planned, but I am writing songs and hoping to, if I can, to record an album next year. I would very much like to do that and I am working on the Go-Betweens book and I am very, very busy. I am still writing for ‘The Monthly’ and there is a lot of stuff to do all over the place for that. I have never been busier in my life in terms of how much work there is to do and how much work I am doing. But in terms of the record I would imagine I would be recording some time towards the second half of next year. PB: Thanks very much for your time Robert. RF: It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for the questions and thank you for the information about ‘Allo Darlin’. That was good to hear.

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Robert Forster - Interview

Robert Forster - Interview

Robert Forster - Interview

Robert Forster - Interview

Visitor Comments:-
487 Posted By: Wally, Canada on 27 Oct 2011
Robert is a real music fan and an amazing musician. I remember picking up a tribute to the Go-Betweens a few years ago and it was amazing and showed the power and timelessness of their songs. "Streets Of Your Town" is such an amazing song (and The Cherry Orchard do a great cover also). I look forward to reading his book on Grant and the band.

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