Robert Forster: Part 2
In the next installment of a three-part interview with Robert Forster, ANDREW MCMILLEN talks to the Go-Betweens legend about rock star auras, music criticism and making Lou Reed sound like Pavarotti. Part one [here](/icons/3960955).
I was listening to an [interview](http://www.wordmagazine.co.uk/forster) you did with David Hepworth from The Word, where he was going through the rules in your book. You were discussing the rule about how ?being a rock star is a 24-hour a day job?, and how being in the music industry means you have to have a certain kind of mentality: to be always ?on?, and able to get up on stage in half-an-hour. How long did that state of mental preparedness take to cultivate in you?
It took me quite a while. Not until my late 20s. I think it’s the notion of being a rock star. I didn’t go into this with David Hepworth at any great length, but I think there’s rock stars who are real rock stars. And I think there are people who are probably doing really quite well, but who really aren’t rock stars in their bones. It’s a certain confidence, a certain swagger. To have confidence and swagger of a rock star, people immediately think Michael Hutchence or Bono, but I think the lead singer of Grizzly Bear [Edward Droste] could have that, where the guys in Animal Collective mightn’t have it. It doesn’t mean that you’re in leather trousers playing in front of 10,000 people. It’s a certain arrogance, confidence and this, ?OK, in half-an -hour I can walk out of here, I can get in a car and I can play for 10,000 people.?
I think the lead singer in Arcade Fire [Win Butler] has obviously got that. But in other people, I sense insecurity. I sense that they haven’t got that, and having one and not having the other is no big deal. It’s not that person’s better than the other. It’s just the way that they are.
In that conversation with David, you also spoke about how rock stars have an aura of being confident, and having that swagger. Do you think you have an aura?
I’ve got it.
Do you remember the particular moment when you actually thought ?Hang on, I’ve got it??
It came to me more around when we made Liberty Belle* [*and the Black Diamond Express], around 1985-86. That’s a great album. I’d written ?Spring Rain?, I’d written ?Head Full of Steam?, and I’d written some really other good songs on that record. The band was on fire. That was when I was around 27 or 28. I think that’s a very important age in rock’n?roll. It still is. 27 and 28 is a time where if you haven’t got some sort of bigger personality, if you haven’t got some sort of aura about you by that time, and you’re in a rock band, then you’re not going to get much further. At that age, you’ve gotta have it. You’ve got to have this sort of? things are shining around you, that’s just going to push you on. Otherwise I think you start to fall down. That’s when I sense that it came, around then.
That was less than 10 years after you started playing.
Yeah. Because I was in an indie rock band, I think it almost came later. If you look at photos of The Stones in 1962-63, there’s no rock star about them. They’re bug-eyed, but then in 1964-65, The Stones are fully-fledged rock stars, and it’s because they’d been to America three times, they’ve been on a hundred TV shows, they’ve probably cut 50 tracks between 1962 and 1965. They’re touring constantly. They’ve got girls pulling them apart. They’re in the media everywhere. It’s very accelerated, so you go from being 21 and not a rock star, to 24 and a rock star. In 1980s indie rock land, all of that happened a lot slower to bands like The Go-Betweens, so we didn’t really hit it until we were 27 or 28, when it became: tour, record, photo session, media, blah, blah, blah.
At that point, do you think then it’s not so much about what’s going on in your head as about what other people are feeding back to you?
Yeah, it’s two things going on at the same time. It’s what’s going on in your head, how you feel, and then it’s coming from the perception of other people. And you can actually see it as well, which helps you. But at the same time the gears of the music business – even if you’re not on Sony worldwide, if you’re on any record company – they start to prioritise you. You’re suddenly being invited to the good rock festival in Sweden, and you’re not playing at some shitty club in Guttenberg. These little things start to happen where you start to see the steps in a career and you realise that you can do it. The other thing is people are expecting you to do it.
On expectations, what are your thoughts on the expectations the public has of Robert Forster in 2010? Where do you think you fit in?
I’m hoping that there’s going to be a change of perception over the next couple of years. The book is just starting to go overseas. I’m going to make another record in another couple of years. I think it’s going to be really good. I think I’ve still got a ways to go. I think I’m someone in my early 50s who is basically on fire, who has got something to say, and can say it. There are other people of similar age like that, around the world, but not many. I’m probably one of the least known.
So I still think that I can make some ground in terms of that, but at the same time, I’m both thinking of that, and I’m not thinking of that. I’m still sitting down to write songs, I’m sitting down to write non-fiction and I’m writing stuff outside of what I’m writing for The Monthly. I wish to write something else, and I’m starting on that. At the moment, I’m just caught up in my work, and that’s another thing that I’ve always done. I’ve always believed if you do good work, the career and the perceptions, in a way, will take care of themselves.
You’ve got to do the work. Otherwise you’re just building something on a house of cards. You’re going to fall over. You can be high for a couple of years and if you haven’t got any content, it’s just going to come tumbling down. So I’m just working and whatever comes, comes. I’ll push and I’ll turn up, but I think it’s a very exciting time.
To change the topic almost entirely, your public image these days is pretty consistent: the black suit and white shirt, and exclusively clean-shaven. How much attention have you paid to image in the past and how’s that changed to now?
It goes in and out a little bit. There are times I’ve seen images of myself, what I’m wearing, and I just go, ?Oh my god.? I think it’s important as a performer and someone that’s going to appear in the media but it’s also important in my life, the way I present myself, which is not to say I go shopping in three-piece suits and a cane. Image and fashion and music have always gone together. I’ve always liked it, and I’ve always liked music and fashion when they come together, which is why I like Mod. I like ?50s rock and roll. I like psychedelia. I like the post-punk look. I like the way Franz Ferdinand look. I like the way Vampire Weekend look. It’s not three-piece suits and fedoras and shiny shoes, but I sense something. I like that. I always like those eras when a look and a musical movement come together.
I was going back over your [conversation](http://andrewmcmillen.com/2009/11/25/a-conversation-between-robert-forster-and-john-willsteed/) with [former Go-Betweens member] John Willsteed at [Brisbane bookshop] Avid Reader last night. You said that, ?I think people project fantasies onto bands and songs, and they always have.? Are you aware of any fantasies that were projected onto The Go-Betweens, or onto you as a solo performer?
I think people probably think that I’m a bit more flighty than I am. I’m quite practical. I think that’s probably the main one.
Which fits into what you were saying earlier, that how you’re perceived as a dreamer, but you’re actually more a strategist.
Yeah, and I think people know that I’m to an extent suburban. They know that’s where I come from. But I think that there’s a time when that’s been probably obscured by myself.
In that John Willsteed conversation, you said you that have a romantic view of rock’n?roll, but you also have a sense of cynicism. Do you know when those two crucial elements of your personality started to form?
An early age, very early. I think they’re two very good attributes to have, romanticism and cynicism. I think they sit really well together. Romanticism allows you to dream, expand, see things that might not be there, to see things that are there that not many people see. That’s romanticism. Cynicism, as long as it’s not overdone. I see beautiful cynicism, the work of Billy Wilder; a sort of warm world-weariness, a willingness to question things, that a lot of people take at face value. You put that beside the romantic, and it’s a lovely combination I think.
You said you think those two traits influenced your writing. What did you mean by that? They do seem to be contradictory traits, not complementary.
No, but I see them very much together. I think people who are often quite cynical, I find are very open-hearted and warm, and willing to take flights of fantasy. I find these two things sit well together. They’ve always been strong parts of what I see that I am. I think there is a perception that if you’re romantic then you can be quite wishy-washy. I think the opposite. I think you can be romantic and really on-the-ball. You can be cynical, but you can have a heart of gold. These things go together quite well.
Don’t Meet Your Heroes
Did you know that the American band Yo La Tengo covered your song ?Dive for Your Memory? when there were in Brisbane earlier this year?
Yes, somebody told me that, which is lovely. Beautiful. Did they do a good version of it?
Yeah, and they’ve been doing it around the world. I saw a (http://www.youtube.com/watch’v=H7dzPBJeMfo) of them doing it in Madrid as well.
Oh, that’s great.
Do you remember the first time one of your songs was covered?
Good question. Gee. The honest answer will be no. I don’t remember what it would be. It wouldn’t have been for quite a while, because our songs – you can cover our early songs, ?Lee Remick?, ?Karen?, ?People Say?, ?The Sound Of Rain? – all those early pop songs that I wrote around ?70-?79, they can be done. But then we went through a period where we were seriously deconstructive, from about 1980 to 1984. You’d need a degree in musicology and about 10 years of solid jazz listening to be able to play anything that we wrote during those years. You’d need Anthony Braxton and years in a music college to understand what were doing [musically] at that time.
Which is quite a progression from when you first began, where you barely knew how to play your instruments. You’re true examples of self-taught musicians making it up as you go along.
What do you feel when you hear or see a song of yours covered?
My first reaction is always to pay attention to what they’re doing. You think, ?Oh, they’ve got that sort of feel to it. The singer is accentuating a phrase, or a word, that I never did.? Normally you put up with the mechanics of actually listening to it, sort of deconstructing what you’re hearing. Often it’s not immediate pride or immediate despair; it’s actually listening to what they’re doing to your song. Most songwriters are curious. So that’s probably my first reaction. The second one is normally just happiness. I take it as a massive compliment, and I find it a very pleasing experience.
I’m interested to know what you made of [Write Your Adventures Down](http://www.messandnoise.com/releases/5673), The Go-Betweens tribute album. Did you spend much time going over that?
No. That came out on Sony. That was done by the musicians who were involved with the [Go-Betweens] tribute night [held at The Tivoli in Brisbane in November 2006]. I thought it could have been a little bit more – they could have taken a few more liberties with what we did.
It was too faithful?
Perhaps. I love what Sarah Blasko does. But, as you know, [I’m a fan](http://www.messandnoise.com/articles/3811382).
You’ve [covered](http://www.youtube.com/watch’v=P5OymFarOs8) the Talking Heads song ?Psycho Killer?. Do you have any rules about meeting your musical heroes?
Yes, and they’re strong ones. Mine is ?never do?. I’ve walked away from several opportunities. I prefer to often have these people in my mind, in a romantic way, and the way that I have them, and really I’ve got enough information about them through their work to need anything more. I know that sounds cold, but I prefer to have people with me in my head.
An ?admire from a distance? kind of thing?
Yeah, admiring them from a distance. But, I’ve actually met David Byrne and he – how can I phrase this in a good way – he asked to see me when he was performing in Brisbane last time. I went along, had a 15-minute conversation with him and it was lovely, and it was really a wonderful experience. It was great. I complimented him on his guitar playing. David Byrne is a very, very underrated guitar player, and I told him so. He appreciated it. It’s true, David Byrne is an amazing guitarist and he doesn’t get anywhere near enough attention for it.
?I like the way Franz Ferdinand look. I like the way Vampire Weekend look. It’s not three-piece suits and fedoras and shiny shoes, but I sense something.?
Because he asked to see you, he was aware of your work, I take it?
Yeah. Which, to me, was an enormous compliment because back in 1977, ?78, ?79, there were two models coming to me out of New York. One was David Byrne, and one was a fellow by the name of Tom Verlaine, who was in Television. One day I’d want to be David Byrne, and the next day I’d want to be Tom Verlaine. It just used to rotate. I loved them both. They’re two very, very different views on rock history. Verlaine’s the romantic; his music is more connected with the ?60s with people like Dylan, and The Byrds, and Love and, mid-?60s Stones. He was more connected with a romantic view of rock history, although Verlaine is quite chilly as a person, his work was quite romantic in terms of rock’n?roll.
Byrne – from my perception in the late 1970s when I was listening to his albums – was always very much ?new?. Byrne was a lot more clipped and fractured, and he stepped out of the Rhode Island School of Design, which was not the normal breeding ground for rock’n?roll. David Byrne had obviously not spent 10 years with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, playing Chuck Barry. Byrne was ?new?.
Verlaine was new, but I could see his roots more, whereas Byrne was more contemporary. And both of them were coming to me. Either one of them, for me all these years later to meet David Byrne was amazing. Because when I was 19, 20 – always – but especially in those early years, until I was in my mid-20s, he was enormous over what I did. He was very influential.
You saw David Byrne’s show at the Convention Centre last year?
Yeah. You know about this?
I was there, in February last year. It remained my favourite show of that year, more or less. It was incredible.
And talking about [Byrne’s] guitar playing, he was the only guitarist on stage. There was a bass player, and dancers. It was a great show. It was also great to go backstage and talk to him because it was such a fantastic performance, and so you actually want to go backstage. You actually want to walk up those stairs and shake his hand, like an audience member and go, ?Gee, thanks for a great show!?, and walk out.
You’re no stranger to covering the work of others. You did your solo cover album, [1995?s I Had A New York Girlfriend] and you did the Velvet Underground cover night at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art. I like it when bands and musicians aren’t afraid to show their influences on their sleeve, and try to do them justice. How do you decide when to cover someone?
I’ve actually just covered four songs. The book [The 10 Rules Of Rock And Roll] is coming out in the UK, and they’re doing a deluxe edition. I’ve actually just recorded these songs two or three weeks ago. They asked me to record four songs from the artists I wrote about, and it’s going to be in a 10? vinyl at the back of the book with the UK release in July. The four songs that I chose were songs that when I hear them: A) I love the song; B) I can sense that I can do it, I can sing it; and C) I can see a ?way in?, that I can see how I can get into it. I just intrinsically feel that I can do that.
It’s very difficult because I’ve got a very limited vocal range. A normal vocal range of any singer is about two-and-a-half octaves. I’ve got two-and-a half notes. It is very limited. I make Lou Reed sound like Pavarotti. It’s true! I’ve got a very limited vocal range so I can only sing stuff where there’s not too much variation in the melody. The melody has to stay pretty flat, and so these that I most naturally lean to. These are conditions around what I can do. Some I love. Some I feel I can sing. And I can see a way into it musically, and that means I can do it.
Do you want to list those songs that you’re covering?
OK. The four I did was: ?I’ll Spend My Life with You? by The Monkees, a beautiful song, not one of their best-known, an ?album song? from Headquarters* ; The Saints? song ?The Prisoner?, which is off *Prehistoric Sounds ; a song of Grant’s called ?Just A King In Mirrors?, which is a b-side from 1983; and the last one is ?Walcott? by Vampire Weekend. All four of them turned out really well.
Like holding ?Lee Remick?
Returning to your writing for The Monthly, Bernard Zuel asked what it felt like to hold that first piece of serious journalism in your hands. You said ?It was like holding ?Lee Remick? for the first time.? Did you feel it was like a turning point in your life, when you realised you could do two things?
Yeah, it was. It was sudden, too, because I was asked to write. You struggle at home over a couple of weeks and you write it. You send it off. There’s a whole other life going on, and amazingly around this time was just when the last Go-Betweens album was in gear, doing promotions for [2005 release] Oceans Apart*. [The article] went away, and suddenly you’re living all the frantic details of life around you, and just putting out an album at the same time, and then suddenly through the mail comes the first thing. It’s something that’d been very private; no one knew that I was writing for *The Monthly.
And suddenly it explodes out, and you get the first edition. And it was thrilling*. Just seeing it in print was just *extraordinary and I almost couldn’t conceive of where it was going to lead to, but obviously I was happy because I’d been trying for about 20 years, with diaries and – to write something, and suddenly I could see that I could do this, and there it was.
So it wasn’t just someone phoning up in January, and you agree to do it, and then it’s in print in May. This was a lot longer story. This has been going back. This goes back to when I was at the University of Queensland. I did journalism. It goes all the way back to there, it goes back to when I was in school, where I’d write funny English essays that they really liked. I’d get good grades for that. It goes right back into that as well, right back from school, university, all those years writing in my diary, and then it comes to The Monthly, at the age of 47. A very long road. So there was validation, and as [an] opportunity – incredible.
You mentioned it was thrilling. Has that thrill dulled in the years you’ve been doing it?
No. I always rip the cover off; don’t bother looking at anyone else. Just go to me, and – yeah. [Laughs]
Do you ever view writing as a chore?
It can be. It quickly goes away, because I just realise what a privileged position this is, but there are times when you walk towards the computer, or you walk towards the writing thing and it’s like you don’t want to do it, but you have to. It makes the good days sweeter. Again, I only have to step back an inch to see where I am and the position that I’ve gotten and the access, the platform that I’ve got, then I just go ?This is incredible.?
Are you a procrastinator?
A little bit. I am, not to an amazing degree, but I am a bit of a procrastinator, yeah. But I think when I’m procrastinating, I’m also thinking. I think it’s bad that you’re procrastinating and you’re not thinking. But if you procrastinate and things are churning in your mind a bit, when you sit down, all that thought does help.
You also mentioned to Bernard Zuel that you feel your writing voice is occasionally ?a bit too personal, a bit too idiosyncratic?. Was that modesty or honesty?
Honesty. I sometimes think I don’t want to be too quirky. I think there are quite a few writers who just riff on voice. It’s ?uber-quirky?. It’s trying too hard to be ?zippy?, and I think that could become shallow and it looks like you’re furiously treading water, balls up in the air – just to be entertaining. A lot of this falls down to when I see people with regular columns in newspapers. The weekly thing. And it can come across as too flippant, too thin. I want to combine that sort of angle and freshness, but I also want it to have certain periods where there is information being given and people can pick stuff up from it and it’s not just a comedy festival. There is content there.
You’re wary of becoming complacent in your writing.
I am. A lot of thought goes into what I decide to review, and where it is. A lot of luck, as well. Someone will recommend something to me, or I’ll see something. It’s all quite random. Scary, actually.
I was at that Queensland Art Gallery [show](http://www.messandnoise.com/events/2001689) in September last year, where you played with Adele and Karin. Besides that Velvet Underground cover night, have there been many performances that you’ve done with your wife?
Oh, good question. She was in a band called Baby You Know, who were a German band – my wife’s German – and she was one of five members in the band. I produced their second album in 1991, or 1992. We’ve been playing music on and off at home for many years. And in around 1997, before we had children, it was about a year there where we were living in Germany, where we actually played gigs together. Then the children came, The Go-Betweens came again, with Grant, Adele [Pickvance] and Glenn [Thompson], and amazingly we’re now playing a lot more music, in terms of these shows, but also new songs that I’m working on. She’s singing on a couple and she’s playing a violin on a couple, and I think – this is only a prediction – but I think she will be more involved in whatever comes in the near future.
It must be reassuring to have a partner that you can relate to on that level, as a musician, and an artist.
It is, it’s wonderful, and Karin’s taste and artistic eye is very strong. She’s a fairly quiet person, which I find means I listen to her even more. When someone’s in your face, it sort of pushes you off. And also, it’s really nice to have new songs. I’ve often done this in the past, and she’ll play violin and sing, and it just fills the songs out and immediately gives me ideas. And it’s lovely that it’s in a domestic situation. I’m very lucky, in terms of that.
At that Art Gallery gig you mentioned you’d be recording the next album in November, in Stockholm. Was that a joke, or were you serious?
Half joke, half serious. I don’t know where the next album is going to be going from. It’s quite open at the moment. The Stockholm option would be great, but it would be expensive. Whether I could get the money up for the Stockholm angle, I don’t know. Whether it’s actually right, I don’t know. But it’s something I think about.
?I’ve Got A Story??
At that show you played a new song for the encore, ?I’m Gonna Tell It?. What can you tell me about that song?
?I’m Gonna Tell It? is one of about eight new songs I’ve got. I wrote it just at the end of when The Evangelist* was being made. I wrote it about August/September 2007. It’s probably the oldest song that’s going to be on the record. It might start the record. It’s a lot about, ?This is my story?. Right in the background is the idea that I was about to do a lot of interviews, this was going to be my first album after the death of Grant. And it was like I almost had this idea of people trying to take the story away from me. Obviously, the album *The Evangelist is very much – I see it a lot more now, than I did then – it’s a lot more tied up around the time of Grant’s passing. There’s a certain mood on the album. And it was almost like, ?I don’t want this story taken away from me. I’m gonna tell it.? But then it branches out.
The first two lines of the song are: ?I’ve got a story and I’ll tell it to someone, full of the things that have happened to me, love?. And you mightn’t need all that background about all the stuff that I’ve told you, but to me that’s a great way of starting an album. It’s like, ?Bang!? They’re two lines that could start every album. ?I’ve got a story and I’ll tell it to someone.? That can start every album that’s ever been made.
It’s genius, Robert. Why didn’t you think of this earlier?
I know! [Laughs] So I wanted to play it. It’s a song Karin and I are playing at home, so we were like, ?Hey, let’s just play it.?
It was great. I look forward to hearing it again.
It’s a song that we keep playing. I love it.
I want to turn to your production work briefly. You mentioned you worked with Karin’s band. You’ve also produced forthcoming albums for Halfway and The John Steel Singers recently. How did you come across these ventures?
Both of them approached me. I wasn’t thinking of doing production work. I know both bands. I really like both bands. They’re in Brisbane. And I was like, ?OK?. With both bands, I said, ?I want to hear the songs you’ve got and if I can help you, I will. If I can’t, I’ll tell you.? It’s like when we were talking about covering songs: if I can see a way in, if I can see what I can do, then I’ll tell you what I think. I sort of knew The John Steel Singers. I’d heard their first few EPs, and it was the same with Halfway. I’d heard their first record. Both bands I really liked, and it was just a coincidence that both of them approached me around the same time to work with them.
Do you enjoy being on the other side of the mixing desk for a change?
I did, actually. I could never be a full-time record producer. I’m not someone who finds that the studio is my home. I enjoy being in there, but I enjoy getting out and going back to life. It’s a very insular life in the studio, for the engineers, and people who work in studios. It’s like going into an underground tunnel and you can hardly ever come out, like it’s a world down there. It’s like Lord of the Rings* or *The Hobbit, where you sort of go down and you’re there, and you work weird hours. Your diet changes. You’re in this night-time world, and it just goes on for years. It’s lovely and a lot of people do it, but I like to come in and out of it. What I really liked was it’s good for my own music as well, which I tell both bands, ?This is good.? I enjoy being around other musicians, being in the practice room, having new songs being played to you. It’s almost like being a part of the band, and I found it very inspirational.
Both bands are different. What’s great about being around The John Steel Singers is that it’s great to spend weeks around six guys in their 20s: going into their world and seeing the way they live, the way they talk, what they listen to, how they work with computers, what they’re like in the practice room, just what they talk about. It’s great. I like that.
It’s the same with Halfway. Halfway are guys in their late 30s. Again, really nice to go to that world, just see the way Halfway works. Both are big bands. Halfway have eight people. The Steel Singers have six, so that was probably one of the more difficult things, being able to deal with big groups of people. These are not compact, three- or four-piece bands, but it worked out great.
And in the end, were you able to contribute? Did you build upon their ideas?
I think so. I think I’m stronger at song selection and conception of the album. Like, ?Maybe you need a couple of more songs.? ?That’s good, this is good, now let’s?? The conception of the album, like an album is a whole thing. But they’re two very different bands. What I had to do with Halfway is very different from what I was doing with JSS. They’re two very different scenes and band dynamics.
Your decision to cover [The John Steel Singers song] ?Strawberry Wine? at that Art Gallery show was a lovely surprise. How did that come about?
Thank you. I love that song. My wife and I were playing it at home. The amazing thing with that song is that lyrically, we sort of took it – I don’t know if it came across so much in the night – but it almost works as a sort of ?60s, Johnny Cash/June Carter Cash thing. Taking a thing that is 2008, triple j, grungy rock’n?roll pop song and you can just take a song out and go, ?Well, this actually fits two people sitting with acoustic guitars.? – That was lovely. That song, if you could just extract it from one thing and just do it in a whole different way. It just worked! I really like it and I plan to keep on doing it, when Karin and I perform.
[PART ONE](/icons/3960955): Forster on his years in The Gap, the Bjelke-Peterson regime and meeting longtime collaborator Grant McLennan.
[PART THREE](/icons/3974240): The Go Between bridge, family and a ride in Forster’s old Volvo.