CAN’T STOP THE MUSIC
The spirit of Grant McLennan and the Go- Betweens lives on in Robert Forster’s new solo album The Evangelist , the singer and songwriter tells Iain Shedden ‘ Grant and I had a grand plan, which was half- joked about: the three- act career’
THERE’S a touch of theatricality in Robert Forster’s manner. He likes a sharp suit which, combined with his natural flamboyance and easy eloquence, draws attention to his every word, just as any good actor would be able to do from the stage or screen.
Forster is not an actor, of course, but a musician. Thirty- one years ago he and his friend Grant McLennan formed the Go- Betweens, one of Australia’s most revered rock ’ n’ roll exports. As recently as two years ago that partnership was at its peak, as the Brisbane band’s noughties renaissance brought it greater commercial success than in its first phase during the 1980s.
Tragically, May 6, 2006, is when the GoBetweens ended, when McLennan, 48, died of a heart attack, just as he was about to host a party at his home. Suddenly the partnership that had forged internationally acclaimed albums such as Spring Hill Fair ( 1984), 16 Lovers Lane ( 1988) and the ARIA award- winning last album Oceans Apart ( 2005) was over.
That tragedy still surrounds Forster. The 50- year- old singer lost not only his closest friend but also a collaborator with whom he had planned a long and successful future. That sentiment is summed up in lyrics to one of the songs from Forster’s new solo album, The Evangelist . The track, Demon Days , was the last he and McLennan wrote together. Sparks to be sung in places so bright but something’s not right something’s gone wrong. Somewhat prophetically, the last two lines were McLennnan’s. ‘‘ Grant and I had a grand plan, which was half joked about: the three- act career,’’ Forster says. ‘‘ Six albums in the ’ 80s, then we were going to do a bunch of albums starting in 2000, finishing when we were about 60 and then coming back when we were 70 and making one album that would be our masterpiece. Coming back as old men with the greatest album we ever made.’’
As he sips coffee in his Sydney hotel, Forster can afford a little laugh at that unattainable achievement. But the humour makes way for serious contemplation as he explains the adjustments and considerations he had to make to move on from the Go- Betweens and rekindle a solo career that has been on the backburner since his previous album, Warm Nights , released in 1996.
‘‘ I thought we were deep in the second run ( of the three- act career) and in the vague madness of that plan, maybe when I was 65 I’d do another solo album,’’ he says. ‘‘ But whenever the GoBetweens were going, Grant and I never thought about solo albums. It was total concentration on the band.’’
The band that was in place from 2002 included drummer and multi- instrumentalist Glenn Thompson and bassist Adele Pickvance. Forster had no hesitation in asking both of them to play on The Evangelist , and eventually decided to record it in the London studio where Oceans Apart was made and with the same producer, Mark Wallis, who also worked on 16 Lovers Lane .
After 18 months of grieving, Forster believed it was better to continue as the Go- Betweens would have done. He says, however, that one impulse towards making his first album since McLennan’s death was to ‘‘ run away, to get a shed at the back of Broken Hill, or go to the beach and get a Portastudio and make a howl of a record away from everything’’.
‘‘ I decided to go back to the scene of the last album, where we had recorded with Grant and Mark, and in every way it was the right decision,’’ he goes on.
‘‘ I think if I’d recorded at the back of Broken Hill I’d have been thinking about Grant the whole time. Whereas — and this only occurred to me while we were actually there — everyone enjoyed being back in the same place. It was totally bizarre and everyone was happy that, after what had happened with Grant, we were all back together again.’’
That empathy and warmth comes across on the album, as does McLennan’s presence. Alongside Demon Days , two other songs, Let Your Light In Babe and It Ain’t Easy , are Forster- McLennan compositions.
While the recording of the album aided the healing process, Forster believes the real test will come when he goes out on the road for the first time without his great foil.
Much of the Go- Betweens’ beauty stemmed from the contrasting songwriting and personalities of its two protagonists. They rarely wrote together. Forster’s songs flit from angst to whimsy, whereas McLennan’s approach was more introspective.
On stage, Forster’s awkward dandy played up to McLennan’s more earthy humour and romanticism. ‘‘ I think I’m going to confront him a lot more when I go out and play live,’’ Forster says. ‘‘ That’s going to be the most cathartic thing I’ve done.’’ FORSTER met McLennan when they were students at the University of Queensland in the mid- 1970s and their combined interest in film, literature and in particular American punk music inspired them to form a band.
By late 1979 the Go- Betweens had moved to Britain and garnered positive reviews for their first two albums, Send Me a Lullaby ( 1982) and Before Hollywood ( 1983). The latter featured McLennan’s Cattle and Cane , a song long considered to be an Australian classic.
Four more albums followed during the ’ 80s, but by the end of it, despite being hailed by critics, the Go- Betweens’ subtle guitar pop remained commercially unsuccessful. Tension between the two songwriters and their respective partners in the band, drummer Lindy Morrison and violinist Amanda Brown, also took its toll. By Christmas 1989, the GoBetweens had split up. Forster looks back on that
period of songwriting with a sense of pride and achievement. He hasn’t changed much as a writer or a performer, he says.
‘‘ Lyrically I’ve probably got a little bit leaner and more pointed. I’m not as showy as I used to be or as unnecessarily flamboyant. But if you’re 26 or 27 in London and on the street you’ll do anything to get noticed.’’
It was towards the end of the Go- Betweens’ first period that Forster says he found his voice, which would serve him well, creatively at least, during the next decade.
During the ’ 90s Forster and McLennan pursued solo careers. Forster released four albums: Danger in the Past ( 1990), Calling From a Country Phone ( 1993), a covers album called I Had a New York Girlfriend ( 1994) and Warm Nights ( 1996). Again, none of them bankrolled a mansion with a guitar- shaped swimming pool, but they maintained Forster’s presence on the Australian and European circuit.
For most of this period Forster was based in Germany. He moved back to Brisbane with his German wife, Karin Baeumier, and their two children in 2001, after he and McLennan had set the Go- Betweens Mk II in motion with their comeback album, The Friends of Rachel Worth ( 2000).
The trials of being in a marriage with families spread across two continents forms the basis of the title track on Forster’s new album. The Evangelist , for the most part, is a love song. The title has no great significance, he says. It simply reflects his way of working.
‘‘ I have a book, like a diary, where I put down poems, ideas . . . come back from the beach and write a couple of lines. I collect song titles. I’ll write two or three a month. I had that one that hit me months before and then I wrote a melody and then a lyric.
‘‘ But it has no bigger meaning, really. It’s a love song about a man moving from one side of the world to the other side. At the bottom of it there’s a certain amount of guilt attached to bringing your partner, who is from a different country and culture, to where you live and work. My wife and I meet a lot of people who are in that situation. There are always people left behind and it’s a messy business.’’
His diary wasn’t the only book he consulted before proceeding with his new album. Forster and McLennan had been working on songs for a new Go- Betweens album just before McLennan’s death. ‘‘ I’d go over to his place and he played some songs he had. One of them was Demon Days . Then we met probably six times over February, March, April before he died. Him and I playing songs.
‘‘ By the end of it the two of us were playing about eight new songs together. We were that far into it. Six were his, two were mine. That’s why when he died I knew all the songs.
‘‘ Then after he died, in a very bizarre turn of events, I got his lyric book. I asked his family. All his worldly goods were going to be shipped to central Queensland.
‘‘ I knew I was going to record and I wanted to see what he had, so his family generously let me see the book. Grant tended to write the lyrics just before we did demos or went into the studio. Before that he would just do that kind of singersongwriter mumble, you know, scat singing. There wasn’t much in the lyric book.’’
The latter part of Forster’s career hasn’t been just about music. In 2005 he began writing a regular column in Australian magazine The Monthly, mostly, but not entirely, on musicrelated topics. His well- crafted essays in the magazine were rewarded in 2006 when he received the Pascall Prize for Critical Writing and with it a cheque for $ 15,000. Does this mean he has literary ambitions? Is there an unfinished novel sitting in his bottom drawer?
‘‘ There has never been a novel in the bottom drawer,’’ he says. ‘‘ That’s what I’m going to do next year.’’ Actually, what he plans to do is write, but it may not be a novel. ‘‘ I can only call it stories,’’ he says. ‘‘ And there’s a fair chance that they are going to be fairly close to me. I don’t think it’s going to be: ‘ It’s 1864 as we pulled into the goldfields.’ ’’
He admits that he has entertained the idea of writing a novel since he was 21, ‘‘ and there have been little starts, times when I’ve gone two or three days in my diary writing 1500 words. But it never leapt off the page to me. And I knew that to do it I’d have to stop music. If you’re going to be a novelist, that’s a whole other job. I knew I’d have to stop music and go somewhere and write absolute garbage for six months or so and then I just might get a beginning. You can’t write a novel on the run in rock ’ n’ roll.’’
* * * BEFORE he retreats to write in his newly built shed out the back of his house in Brisbane, Forster has his album to promote, here and overseas. He will tour Australia in August, with Pickvance and a new drummer. Thompson will step out front with guitar and keyboards.
Although he is not as committed to life on the road as he once was, Forster still enjoys the live experience. ‘‘ I’d like to perform for years without recording,’’ he says. ‘‘ That’s not to say I’d want to spend 10 months in a row on the road. My career would have to be going gangbusters for me to do that. You know, I’d have to be doing three nights at Carnegie Hall at the end of it to do it.’’ And if he’s not absolutely sure about being a writer, neither is he convinced about his credentials as a musician. ‘‘ But I’ve always thought of that as an advantage,’’ he says. ‘‘ There are thousands of people who are incredibly musical, and I’m not besmirching them, but they can’t write a song, or they can’t go sideways, whereas I can.
‘‘ I come from the punk, post- punk era when the angle you had on things was important, rather than who could play the best version of Johnny B. Goode in town. I keep that attitude.
‘‘ I don’t parade it around that I’m not Tommy Emmanuel. I think it’s good that I’m not, that I’m not this fantastically rhythmical person. That’s my angle.’’
He’s probably not the only one who’s glad about him not being Emmanuel. McLennan, you feel, would have been delighted.
‘‘ He’ll be there in spirit,’’ Forster says of his friend and the upcoming tour. ‘‘ I’m looking forward to it. It will be quite raw. I just know some of the songs now are going to have a whole different meaning. They will have another subtext. That will be a hurdle, but I think it has the chance to be fantastic.’’
The Evangelist is released by EMI on April 26. To watch video of the Robert Forster interview, go to www. theaustralian. com. au.
Still raw: From far left, Robert Forster; the Go- Betweens in the late 1980s; Forster and Grant McLennan in 2005