Robert Forster: Part 1
In the first of a three-part interview with Robert Forster – spanning his years in The Go-Betweens, his solo career and his new life as a producer and rock critic – ANDREW MCMILLEN chats to the Brisbane icon about his early years in The Gap, the Bjelke-Peterson regime and meeting longtime collaborator Grant McLennan.
A group called The Go-Betweens emerged from Brisbane in the late 1970s. One half of its songwriting core was an arts student at the University Of Queensland named Robert Forster. With a head full of ambition, a desire for glamour and a hard-earned talent for writing pop songs, Forster would – alongside his best friend, Grant McLennan – eventually lead the band to cultivate a significant, yet disparate following across the world. While there was a decade-long gap in the band’s history during the 1990s, when both songwriters pursued solo careers, critical applause was loudest following the release of what would become The Go-Betweens? ninth and final album, 2005?s Oceans Apart. A year later, McLennan passed away in his sleep, aged 48. Forster knew immediately that the band’s career was over.
Since The Go-Betweens? demise, Forster has occupied himself with an ongoing solo career – 2008?s The Evangelist*, his first solo effort in 12 years, was widely noted as among his best work – and an unexpected entrance into music journalism via an invite from *The Monthly*. That regular album review column led to the publication of his first book *[The Ten Rules Of Rock And Roll](/articles/3811382) (2009, Black Inc Publications), a collection of his best reviews, and some additional prose, both fiction and non-fiction.
On a rainy morning in May, I meet with Forster at a bakery nearby his home in The Gap, a suburb to the west of Brisbane. He had been briefed by his manager that I intended to discuss his career at length for this piece, and he more than played his part, proving an amicable conversationalist and answering my many questions thoughtfully and at length. Midway through our conversation, he pauses the interview and asks about the reliability of my digital voice recorder, as he’s looking to purchase one for future journalistic endeavours.
As we talk, I come to realise that – although he denies as much during our interview – Forster’s exaggerated, livewire stage manner is very near to the off-stage persona he presents. Both sides of the man are informed by a relentless undercurrent of dry humour, deeply rooted in a sense of irony. He often responds in triplets – ?Yeah yeah yeah?, or ?No no no? – before confirming or clarifying my research. We speak for more than 90 minutes at the bakery, before he realises he’s late for a meeting. Three days later, Forster again slips into interview mode over the telephone with the ease of a man who has spent the majority of his adult life in the public eye.
The Bjelke-Peterson Years
I was looking up videos of you on YouTube last night, and I came across an interview with Andrew Denton from 1988 on the ABC show Blah Blah Blah. I’d like to start with the same question he asked you: how did you find growing up in Brisbane?
Good. I don’t think you really know what city you’re in, and I don’t think it plays too big a role on you until you’re about 17 or 18. School takes up such a large amount of time: it’s not as if you’re 12 years old, you’re out in the clubs and you’re sussing the city out. It’s mostly schooling, and weekends playing sport or visiting family. You’re in a tunnel until you’re about 17, and then suddenly you sort of come out. That’s what it was like for me. When I was 17 or 18, it was like, ?Oh my God, I’m in Brisbane.? That was the first time I ever totally realised it.
So up until 17 or 18, it was really nice. Green, sunny, easy. I realised I wasn’t in Paris. I wasn’t in Mexico City. I wasn’t in a country town. I realised I was in a city, but my take on the city was nothing greater than if I’d been in Sydney or Melbourne. It all functioned fine.
Did you show an interest in music during your early years?
That depends on how you translate interest in music.
Playing, or listening?
Yeah, both. The radio caught my ear, AM radio. This is obviously in the ?60s before FM radio or youth networks. I’ve got an AM radio ear. Music came into my life through listening gradually to the radio and starting to get my first records, and then learning guitar when I was around 15.
How did you come across your main influences, like Velvet Underground, Dylan and Talking Heads?
It came mainly through the music press. I didn’t have an older brother or older sister handing me down records. My parents were not particularly interested in music: my dad wasn’t a jazz player, or my mom a folk singer or anything like that. Self-discovery is what it was, and so I just started to read the music press. In 1974 when I was 17, or 1975 when I was 18, I wasn’t in a group of people who were listening to the same things as myself. I had to find these other people.
But there were popular people, like Bowie, T-Rex, Roxy Music. I saw Roxy Music play Brisbane in 1973 or 1974. I went and saw Lou Reed play here in 1975 when I was 18 and there was like 3-4,000 people there at Festival Hall. This is what was interesting. There were 3-4,000 people in Brisbane in 1975 who’d go and see Lou Reed, but where were these people during the day? I could never connect with them. I could never see them – even though I was at university, going to UQ [The University of Queensland] – I didn’t know where they were. Everyone was dispersed in the suburbs, or in little scenes that I couldn’t crack into. Maybe they were older people.
What led you to attend university in the first place? Was it parental pressure?
Parental expectations, which are a different thing. I was really buying time. I knew in my heart of hearts that I didn’t want to work a nine-to-five. I knew that from a very young age. I was scared of being trapped in a job; if I got a job, then I might get a serious girlfriend, and at 19 or 20, it could be all over.
I was doing an arts degree, which is what I did, which is what Grant was doing, which is where I met Grant McLennan. An arts degree at that stage was almost like attending school, and so people in my family would sort of say to me (elderly aunts and uncles), ?What are you doing??. I’d say, ?I’m going to university?, and it shut everyone up. No one would come back to that. No one in my family really went to university anyway, so it was like, ?Oh right. OK.? But I was mostly going there to read books and to meet people. That’s what I was doing. I went to university with no idea of a career in mind.
You didn’t stay on campus, did you?
No, I was living out at The Gap [in inner-west Brisbane] with my family. I didn’t really move out of home until I was 21, and I moved into a share house with Grant and some other university friends of his that I knew, in Toowong.
Did you take any kind of interest in the political movements that were on campus?
I did, but I wasn’t a political person. There was a lot of it at university. It’s very hard to imagine going to that university in the mid-?70s, looking through the lens of now. It was a revolutionary time; it was like an American campus. It was like Berkeley in the late ?60s or something, very heated politically. People were walking around in fatigues; there was a very strong Marxist/Leninist/socialist, a huge anarchist movement out there and very much entrenched in academia. So you could actually have lecturers who were very full-on left wing, and it was that blurring of what the lecturers looked like and what the students looked like. They looked quite similar in a way. It was a very sort of – not hippie? and so I was in that atmosphere, but I wasn’t an intensely political person.
But I hated [Queensland Premier, Joh] Bjelke-Petersen. There was a wide perception at university that [the government] was corrupt. It was known. But I didn’t go down a political road. I just wasn’t comfortable with it and it wasn’t my thing, but I was in a very politicised atmosphere, and I despised the government as much as anyone else.
?We wanted to get out and do things, but Bjelke-Petersen was always in the back of our minds. The fact that there was no support at home made the push to go elsewhere always stronger.?
Looking back on stuff that’s written about the Brisbane scene at that time, it kind of feels as though The Saints and The Go-Betweens are pitched in a way as though you fled Brisbane to escape an oppressive government that was critical of creative ventures. How much truth is in that?
I don’t think it was so much the politics; a lot of people left. It wasn’t the political atmosphere. Living in a political atmosphere’s fine, but unfortunately, what the politicised atmosphere of Bjelke-Petersen was that things cultural, be that rock & roll, photography, design, film, whatever, was completely not encouraged. It was left alone. There was no funding or infrastructure for anyone to do anything artistic. It was actually discouraged. So a lot of people who I knew left, mainly because they were photographers, or actors or whatever, just wanting to go somewhere where they could work and be in a system where there was functioning theatres, functioning art galleries. That just wasn’t here.
You’d go down to Sydney or Melbourne, it would just be a complete and utter shock. I’m just talking about rock scenes and stuff like that. I think it was a difficult atmosphere to get away from, but also, there were no opportunities here. For The Saints, opportunity came through putting out ?(I’m) Stranded?, and that instantly got them out of town.
Ultimately, The Saints didn’t leave Brisbane because of Bjelke-Petersen. The Saints left Brisbane because they got a contract with EMI. The Go-Betweens, we just wanted to get out because no one here was going to fund us to do an album. We could do singles here, but we wanted to play London; we wanted to try and play in New York. We wanted to go to Paris and play. We wanted to get out and do things, but Bjelke-Petersen was always in the back of our minds. The fact that there was no support at home made the push to go elsewhere always stronger.
In your book, you described your first movements toward making music with Grant as a ?decision to pool your resources and ambitions and go for something greater than yourselves?. What inspired you to start writing songs in the first place?
I just thought I could do it. I knew I had something to say. You start with playing other peoples? songs and starting to get ideas, to see how it’s done. You think, ?Well, I can do this too.? This is something when you’re 18, 19, 20 and you think ?I can say something.? I’m jotting down little poems or song titles in my books while I’m at university. Strands started to come together.
A breakthrough, really, in writing songs was I couldn’t see – I was in suburbia at 19 or 20 years old, and I couldn’t see what I had to say that could compete with Bowie or Dylan, or Bob Marley. How was I going to compete with these people, or [The Kinks?] Ray Davies? How was I going to do that when they lived these fabulously exotic lives, from London or New York, or whatever. How does that compare to The Gap?
A breakthrough was listening to Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, and to an extent, Lou Reed. A little bit of what you were talking about before, like David Byrne from Talking Heads, who showed that you didn’t have to write about this exotic, ?60s subject matter. You could write about the street, your family. You could write about the fact that you haven’t lived an exciting life. You could write about the everyday, which people in the ?60s weren’t really doing. People in the ?60s were writing about a fantastic world, an exploding world. Bowie was writing ?Ziggy Stardust?? and that sort of stuff, and so when I made the realisation that I didn’t have to write ?Ziggy Stardust?, I didn’t have to write ?Blowin? In The Wind?. That was a big jump to make when you’re 19, that I could write about ?Karen?, which was all about being in a library at the University Of Queensland. When I made that jump – and it was through Jonathan Richman, it was through David Byrne – that was a big jump. That’s when I started to write songs.
Your song [from Oceans Apart] ?Born To A Family? describes growing up among ?honest workers?. Was there tension in your family when it became clear that you were going to pursue music as a career?
Bafflement, because there’s no musician in the family. In a way it was good, because my parents then, the difficult years were 18, 19, 20, when my parents had certain expectations of me and I knew that I wouldn’t meet them. They sort of invested in my education and they sort of rightfully had an idea of what they expected of me.
A gap opens up between the expectations of the parents, and the direction you’re feeling you might be going in. Actually arriving in music and putting out the first Go-Betweens single was actually probably even relieving for my parents because they’d seen I’d actually reached something. It was the years before that when I was 18, 19, 20, those three years were enormously difficult, because I knew I had a calling but I hadn’t found it yet. To try to explain to your parents at that age, ?I’ve got a calling?, they just look at you like you’re about to run off to Africa and become a missionary. It’s very difficult when you’re at that age, between 17-25, to articulate what you want to do. It’s even hard to articulate to yourself, but to actually try and talk to your parents is very difficult, and it leads to big misunderstandings and huge tension – which is what it did for me.
?Born To A Family? describes such a ?calling?. Do you remember if there was a particular moment where you realised your heart was set on music and you were going to give it your best try?
There’s two answers to that. The first one was I really realised, when I was around 20 and I wrote ?Karen? and ?Lee Remick?, I knew they were really good songs. Right at the start of The Go-Betweens, I had written both those songs, and Grant said yes, he was going to learn the bass, and that’s when I gave it my all. That’s when I knew.
But even earlier than that, I always knew that I was going to do something from a very early age. I’d even say six or seven. I knew that I was going to do something, but I had no idea and that was part of the tension all the way through, from when I was about six until I reached 20, because I knew that I didn’t want to work a nine-to-five job. I knew I wanted to be an actor, or write a book. I knew that I had something that I had to say.
Once you’d made your mind up, did you go about setting goals at any stage? Was there a time limit on success? Was it ever a matter of saying, ?If we don’t crack it in 12 months??
No, no, no. It was following the adventure, really. We wanted to do those things that bands at that time were doing. We wanted to make an album. We wanted to make great singles. We wanted to do those big interviews, to be on the cover of the NME*, American *Rolling Stone, to be picked up at the airport in a limousine and have the manager sit beside us and go, ?OK, you’re #3 in Holland this week, you’re #2 in France, you’re on the front cover of this, Bowie wants to meet you.? All that sort of stuff.
We had all those dreams, but Grant and I also – I think it was more a working partnership. Grant had a great interest in film, so in a way Grant and I could’ve gone into film quite easily. The great thing about being in a pop band in Brisbane in 1978 was you could make a single, and you could be on stage. There would be people clapping and you were caught up in the excitement of that, when at age 20, who’s going to give you money to finance a film? You don’t really get that until you’re 30. Film was always a possibility for Grant and I, so it was almost like, ?Let’s do the band. Let’s see where that goes?, and we could’ve turned a corner and gone into film, but the band kept on throwing up things. Sometimes we’d go backwards, but a full momentum came when we were making albums, which was around the age of 25, touring Europe and making albums. There was always the thought of diversions – we could go off there, or we could go off there – but things kept happening.
You were attracted to the idea of glamour. Did it work out that way for you?
No, not really. But it didn’t really matter. There was always a glamour in what the band did, even if it was just the glamour in our own minds. We could sustain ourselves. Grant and I were dreamers, and so reality was one thing, and what we were thinking of doing with our songs, and what we got out of books and magazines, and that whole fuel that went into what we believed in was often enough to sustain us. You must remember we came out of Brisbane in the late ?70s. You had to be able to dream, to get out of Brisbane and try and take something on.
You sent copies of ?Lee Remick? to record labels around the world. Was this on a whim, or was that kind of self-promotion an example of how serious you were about it?
We were pretty serious. We were trying to make that jump that The Saints had done: don’t even go to Sydney or Melbourne, and just go from Brisbane to New York, or Brisbane to London. We sent it to odd people. We sent it to Roger McGuinn from The Byrds; I have no idea if he ever got it. We sent one to Lenny Kaye, who was in the Patti Smith group. We sent some to individuals, just on the hope that they’d hear it. But we also sent them to the NME, record companies, Stiff Records, all these record labels. We were serious.
The US label Beserkley offered you an eight-album deal, which is absurd to consider in 2010. What do you recall about receiving that offer?
We were very excited because Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers were on the label; a band that Grant and I held in very high regard. But we were incredibly na’ve. We were 21 years old, and someone puts that in front of our nose. Of course, it was every dream we’d ever wanted, and it just didn’t happen. It just fell down.
As you rightfully say, there’s a lot more interaction between overseas record companies; the whole thing’s a lot more fluid now, with the internet, obviously. Then, it was like a letter coming from another world, that was trying to invite you back over to their world. It was very exotic and very? you succumb to it. But then it didn’t happen.
It must have been validating too, to know that your art was appreciated.
Exactly, it was very validating. I forgot about that, that’s true.
In November 1979, you and Grant left Australia with a plan to shop your songs from label to label, by playing the songs to them. It turned out well enough in the end, when [Glasgow-based indie label] Postcard became interested. What else do you remember from that time? Did you get a lot of rejections?
We had this dream in Brisbane in 1978-79, but we’d been very incubated here. So we went over to London, we were in completely over our heads. We knew one person in London that could help us. I think we were just overwhelmed. The great thing is that we were going out to see shows. This is also a time in early 1980 – we were over there for six months – when popular overseas indie rock bands would only come to Australia once every six months. It is in no way comparable to what things are now. It’s completely different.
The bands that would come to Australia [at the time] would be more like The Eagles, or something. For a cutting edge, young band from America or Australia to head to the UK and tour was very difficult. But it was good for Grant and I, because we were seeing the Gang of Four, The Cure, Scritti Politti, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Fall, The Cramps, in rooms up to about a thousand people. That was incredible, that we were seeing the cream of the UK music scene up close. That was educational. Although we weren’t getting anywhere in the music business, we were seeing a lot of music, and that was good.
And those experiences strengthened your resolve to reach that level, I suppose.
Exactly. And also it meant that when the people who were involved with Postcard and [Scottish post-punk band] Orange Juice came down to London, to put out their first single, they walked were into the Rough Trade shop, saw our single on the wall, and asked the woman behind the counter – who was our one contact in London – about The Go-Betweens. She could say, ?They’re in London?, and so this connection happened which wouldn’t have happened. It would have been a tragedy if we’d already gone, and she would have just gone, ?Well, they’re back in Brisbane?, and Edwyn [Collins, Orange Juice] and Allen [Horne, Postcard Records founder] would have gone, ?OK, then we’ll go onto something else.? It was just that one moment, that we happened to be there. It was worth it. That was a touch of luck in our career, a big touch of luck.
Returning to that Denton interview, you mentioned that ?The Go-Betweens were always going to be a band of both sexes.? Why was that important to you?
Because it’s real life. Life is men and women, and to me every great work of art that I liked, every book that I liked, every film that I liked had men and women in it. So why shouldn’t I have men and women in the band? It’s like to me, if you’re starting up a theatre company and you just go, ?I just want men in my place to work with my actors?, or if you’re a filmmaker and you go, ?I only want to have men working on my films.? I always wanted the mix, the whole colour; I wanted what was on stage to reflect back to the audience. It’s men and women in the audience, it’s men and women in life, it’s men and women in my songs, so why shouldn’t it be the same on stage? That’s why. It’s life, to me.
You stated in the book that you and Grant developed two rules for the band, which were to equally share the amount of songs on each album between yourselves, and to never do anything without the others? permission. These rules seem to keep coming up in your life, like in the book title [The Ten Rules Of Rock And Roll]. Are you a righteous man?
No, I’m not. I think it might have more to do with musical endeavour. In that same section of the book, I wrote that Grant called me the strategist, and he was very much the dreamer. I think that’s always been a part of me. I am a strategist. I think that way, but at the same, you could say: look where it’s got me. [Laughs] It’s not like I’ve sold eight million albums and I’ve got 15 gold records on my wall. I’m not a strategist in that way. I think everyone does this. You sort of think conceptually. I think everyone does this, but to varying degrees.
I think also in terms of Grant and I going, ?OK, we’ll have equal songs on every album, and we’re not going to do anything without each other’s saying, ?Yes, I think that’s reasonable.?? I don’t think this is some sort of weird thing that we were putting on the band. I think they’re quite reasonable working arrangements, really.
Following the disbanding of The Go-Betweens after touring [1988 album] 16 Lovers Lane, you had your respective solo careers. Then you were invited to work with Grant again at the behest of a French music magazine’s 10th anniversary party. Was that all it took for you two to start writing together again, just a good enough offer to come along and bring you back together?
No, what happened was in around 1999, a record company in the UK, Beggars Banquet, put out a Go-Betweens ?best of? called Bellavista Terrace. I was living in Germany at the time, and my manager – who was Grant’s manager as well – said, ?What are you going to do?? And I said, ?Why don’t Grant and I just go around the world, and spend six weeks playing songs. We’ll be in Berlin one day, and Paris the next, just him and I in a club. Let’s go around the world in six weeks.?
I hadn’t put out an album in four years, so I had some new songs. Grant had some songs and we just sort of put two of them into the set. That felt really good and then Grant asked me – it was actually in Melbourne – if I’d like to start the band again. In a way, because I’d asked him to join the band back in 1978, I liked that that he was asking me. I liked that symmetry, and I just thought, ?OK, this could be interesting. We’re 10 years older, with 10 years? break, let’s see how we can come back and do this.? Grant and I had stayed friends for 10 years. It wasn’t like we had three lawyers in the room; it was an easy thing. We suddenly met up again. ?I’ve got some songs, I can see you’ve got some songs, let’s do it.?
I spoke to Adele [Pickvance, bassist in late-era Go-Betweens and Forster’s current band] before this interview and she wondered if The Monthly or a similar publication had approached you with the opportunity to start writing about music in the period between The Go-Betweens disbanding in the 1990s, would you have considered taking that job?
Oh, yeah – I say in the introduction of the book that a German magazine called Spex asked me to write a review on a Bob Dylan record that came out in 1990 and I just wrote it straight away and enjoyed it. Yeah, I’d have said ?yes?, but no one offered. That was the thing. No one did. I was writing a lot of fiction stuff in my diary, starts of stories that go nowhere, and it never occurred to me that maybe I had a talent or ability to write non-fiction. It had never occurred to me. The opportunity came, and I found that I could do it. It was really as simple as that. Because I hadn’t thought of it in the ?90s. I wasn’t pitching stuff at people.
I want to read you a quote from [Wikipedia](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Go-Betweens) about The Go-Betweens, just to see what you make of it. ?Each songwriter developed a distinctive but complementary style: Forster’s songs were angular and angst-ridden, making much use of irony and unusual lyrical imagery, while McLennan’s were generally softer and more sensitive, his lyrics often based on character study and reported speech.?
I think that’s reasonable for Wikipedia. There’s a sense of truth in that. It’s not on the nail, but that’s OK.
Irony and angst-ridden, would they be two adjectives you’d use to describe your style of songwriting?
There’s been some angst at certain moments. It’s a rough sketch. That’s OK, I mostly agree with it.
That’s always been a big part of the appeal of The Go-Betweens, I feel, that you had two distinct songwriters who wrote literally half of each album. And it’s to your credit that you maintained that style throughout the band’s entire career.
Thank you. It is. It reminds me a bit about what we were talking about earlier, about men and women in the band, and my thinking of how ?that’s life?. I think also this idea comes over a bit to what Grant and I were doing as well, by having two voices. To me, life and reality always involves other voices, with different points of view that come crashing into your life all the time. I think this was what was interesting about The Go-Betweens having two songwriters – especially when you saw the band live, but it comes through songs on the record as well. It’s me going, ?OK, that’s my point of view?, and then Grant going, ?Yeah, but?? And then me going, ?That’s a bit sweet. I’m going to come in over here, and come in with some of my irony and angst.? And then Grant would sort of go, ?Well, I’m going to come in with something melancholic and earnest.?
While we’re talking about these comparisons, don’t forget that Grant and I were working side-by-side, so we always had an eye on each other. It was very much – besides the conversation and information, like Grant going, ?OK, this is the way I see things?, and me going, ?That’s the way I see things.? It was also his style and the way he’d do something. So I’d be trying to counter-balance that, in a way.
I don’t want to overplay this, because I wasn’t in his house when he was writing the songs and he wasn’t in my house, and we wouldn’t see each other for a while, so we were writing separately. But I’d sort of know where Grant was going to be coming from, so we sort of tried to offset each other, a little bit.
Speaking of balancing, how did you go about deciding where on the albums each of your songs would sit?
It’s just based on the feel of the tracks. Working out running orders was quite easy. It’d just be the way the album flowed. It’s almost then once they record it, they’re not Robert and Grant’s songs. They’re Go-Betweens songs. We’d work so much on these songs. I played guitar all over Grant’s; Grant played guitar all over mine. We’d practice them with the band. By that time, they were Go-Betweens songs, and it’s just a matter of working out the best running order.
?Don’t Talk About The Songs?
Outside of your storytelling and performance on stages, I notice you’ve developed quite a knack for storytelling about songs before you play them. Two that come to mind are ?Darlinghurst Nights? and ?When She Sang About Angels?. I want to know how you began developing that style. You do seem quite nervous when you tell those stories, but I think you’re putting it on.
No, I am quite nervous, but I enjoy it. I think someone like Bob Dylan is very responsible for this, and I think he’s a huge influence on this. It’s a little bit like, ?Don’t talk about the songs. They’re sacred and you don’t want to give any information away.? And I think you can talk too much about songs, but I find it fascinating myself, finding out where they come from.
There’s almost a story behind every song, and there’s this ancient creed of songwriters, that you should never give those stories away. And admittedly you can’t go on stage and talk for 10 minutes about every song. It would bore people, five minute talk, three minute song? It’s too much. But I find there’s a lot of interesting things behind songs that I know an audience would find interesting, and so I just sort of think – why shouldn’t I say this stuff about songs? Also, when an audience is there listening, they get fleeting things about what a song is, but it can help with the understanding as long as it’s not overdone. I think there is a big myth in some way: ?Don’t talk. Play them, and keep the mystery,? which is great – but I do think it’s overdone.
You do tend to go into quite minute detail, such as the day on which a song was written.
I like that. I think it’s good information. I like to know that. When someone goes to me, ?I wrote this song in 2002?, I’ll go, ?When in 2002?? And then it can go on to how were you feeling, where were you sitting, what did you have for breakfast that day – Well, that’s probably going too far, but going, ?When in 2002??, or often when they’re talking about songs, ?Yeah, but what do you mean exactly?? Be more specific. You can, you’ve got the microphone, you’re on stage, we’re sitting here, you can tell us a bit more information. I’m happy to do that.
?I knew that I didn’t want to work a nine-to-five job. I knew I wanted to be an actor, or write a book. I knew that I had something that I had to say.?
Your delivery in those kind of between-song bits shows that you have a pretty strong grasp on comedic timing. Your style is quite dry and ironic, and yet a lot of people seem to get that.
They do, yeah. I think it’s because it’s also unexpected. The other thing is I often find – especially with my songs – is that it touches on the subject matter. The everyday is so strange and you can almost sort of say what actually happened, and then it starts to sound just incredible and fantastic, but if you just stick to the everyday, it somehow compounds it all. A lot of my songs are on very straightforward, around the house, overheard connections, and then you start to tell people. Even when I’m telling myself, ?This sounds incredible, but it’s actually real.? And I think that when you’re trying to talk between songs – and trying to be fantastic and weave huge, big things – if you just start from the everyday, dry details, it starts to build up a ?this can’t be, but it’s true? dimension of what you’re doing.
I’ve seen you play live, probably eight or 10 times by now. And I’m always struck by how confident and self-assured you seem on stage. I’m supposing that behind that facade, there’s years of anxiety and self doubt.
There is. I’ve pretty much lost nervousness about five years ago. As recently as that. A bizarre thing that helps me is the career as a writer. I can go on stage and think, ?Well, if I fail, I can always write.? [Laughs]
You have a fallback option.
Yeah, I know that sounds bizarre, but it helps me so much. Also, I start to realise what I’ve done. I say to myself backstage, ?You’ve written 30 or 40 really great songs. You’ve already done it. That’s incredible, and you’ve got a book out now.? I’m always talking to myself in the mirror backstage: ?Robert, you’ve written a book, you’ve written 30 or 40 very good songs, important songs. You can go out there.? I find that I’m quite calm. I don’t know – it’s come from the last five to eight years. That’s what I feel now.
Having written that amount of great songs, and having published a book, is this your definition of ?making it??
No, I’ve still got miles to go. I’ve got so much to do, you wouldn’t believe it. There’s still a lot to do. It’s good. The pace is accelerating. I’m now working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life. And I’ve got avenues now. I can take what I want to do. I feel a sense of opportunity, and I feel a sense that I’m still finding myself. I’ve still got a lot to do. When I said I’ve written 30 or 40 songs, I’m on the mountain – I didn’t like myself saying that. I’m not [on the mountain]. There’s still a long way to go.
[PART TWO](/icons/3966843): Forster on rock star moments, cover songs and what it’s like to be on the other side of the mixing desk.
[PART THREE](/icons/3974240): The Go Between bridge, family and a ride in Forster’s old Volvo.