M+N Icons

Robert Forster: Part 3

In the final part of our ?Icons? special on Robert Forster, ANDREW MCMILLEN goes for a ride with The Go-Betweens legend, discusses family life and finds out what he likes to do in his spare time.


Robert Forster looks at his watch and jumps up. “I’ve got to go,” he says. He’s late for a meeting with Paul Piticco, Powderfinger’s manager (who is also director of Dew Process, and manager of Splendour In The Grass). While he pays for our bottled water and his coffee, I ask whether we can complete the interview at a later date. On the back of three stapled sheets of questions, he writes his name and home phone number. Outside, it’s still raining. He asks where I’m going, and since I’m on the way, he offers me a lift. We walk toward his old Volvo with its Wilderness Society and ?No Dam? bumper stickers. So this is what one of Australia’s greatest songwriters drives.

In the car, I bring up the subject of Powderfinger, and how the latest issue of Rolling Stone* features a story about their decision to disband. Robert agrees with their decision, but admits he wasn’t much of a Powderfinger fan anyway. He was never a “hard rock kind of guy”, opting to avoid Zeppelin, Sabbath and Deep Purple in the ?70s. He admires how Powderfinger have carried themselves over the years. While a bit too macho for his tastes, he likes how their egos never really got out of hand. He’s curious when I mention that the decision to break up wasn’t unanimous, and presses me for the different members’ takes on it all. Turns out that he much preferred Bernard Fanning’s solo album, *Tea & Sympathy, to anything Powderfinger ever did.

Upon arriving at my destination in Paddington 10 minutes later, he bids me farewell, and continues along Caxton Street before turning left onto Petrie Terrace. Three days later, on May 7, I call his home phone. He answers after one ring.

The other day, I was about to ask you what the [Go Between Bridge](/news/3762535) means to you.
[Pauses] Recognition from the city fathers. It’s a physical structure that I can see, with our name on it, and I’m very pleased. It’s heart-warming. It’s a bit surreal. There’s certain things you think about that might come your way when you start a band, and having a bridge named after you is not one of them. But I find it pleasing. It’s wonderful that it’s obviously going to be there for a long time and it carries our name.

Does it come back to that sense of validation that we spoke about, being recognised for your contribution to the Brisbane music scene?
It is a sense of validation. The unbelievable aspect for me is that the very first rehearsals that Grant and I did, when I used to drive over to his place and he lived in Toowong. And you could almost stand on the verandah of where their old Queenslander used to be – it doesn’t exist anymore – and virtually see the place where this bridge is going to be. It’s that sort of proximity that’s unbelievable – [It’s] just unbelievable that it’s so close to where the band started. But it’s a validation, yeah.

We walk toward his old Volvo with its Wilderness Society and ?No Dam? bumper stickers. So this is what one of Australia’s greatest songwriters drives.

I watched a [news report](http://www.youtube.com/watch’v=PDy6DYU2hnM) where you said the story of the band involved two sides of the river, as you and Grant spent some time in West End, although you were studying in St Lucia.
It did. Grant lived over there at the end too, towards the end of his life. He lived in Highgate Hill. One of our first drummers, Tim Mustapha, who plays on the People Say record, he lived in West End. There used to be shows on there, at a hall right in the heart of West End, on Boundary Street. We played there. So there are connections there.

Last question about the bridge: What do you make of the improper punctuation, how there’s no hyphen or ?s? at the end? It’s just ?Go Between?, not ?Go-Betweens?.
I think it’s something that’s been nutted out in City Hall. It’s OK I think I can’t expect a bridge to be called, ?The Go-Betweens Are A Great Brisbane Band And They Made Nine Albums Bridge?. I can’t take it all in. So I’m happy with that. People sort of know that it’s coming with some sort of recognition from City Hall, that this is what they had in mind when they came up with the name. So I think it’s something that they’ve also got to twist into. Someone who’s driving down Coronation Drive and is in the wrong lane and suddenly has to go, ?Jesus Christ, we have to get over to the Go-Between Bridge!? Do you know what I mean? So I have to say if someone’s going yell it to someone else, they’ll have to do it very quickly and probably ?Go Between Bridge? comes out of the mouth really well.

Yes, true. Do you know if there’s going to be a plaque on one of the sides of the bridge?
Yeah, there is.

Which will allow future generations to discover for themselves why it’s named the Go Between Bridge.
Precisely. That’s very important to me, so I’m glad it’ll have a plaque.

Moving on, I saw a 2008 interview on Undercover where you discussed the possibility of releasing footage that you own of the last ever Go-Betweens performance at the Sydney Festival. Has there been any progress on that front?
No. It’s not the right moment. The whole course of this film is a recording of Grant and I. It’s a very good show. A bit of a breakthrough show, which is strange to say considering it was our last public performance, but it was just Grant and I, and bizarrely enough, there’s quite a lot of talking on stage. The show, which was in January 2006, was called ?The Story of The Go-Betweens?, and so it was just Grant and I with acoustic guitars. Glenn Thompson comes out and plays a song or two on drums, and it’s got quite a lot of talking in it. It’s sort of a summation of our career. The fact that this was our last ever show is quite amazing. But no, at the moment no. I’m in the middle of other things, but I’ll come to that.

At the time, when you mentioned it in that interview, you hadn’t watched the footage yet. Have you since?
No. And it’s not because I find it too painful. There’d be great poignancy in it, and great feeling, but it’s not that I find it unbearable to look at it; it’s just that I just haven’t got around to it, and I know that I will in time.


On that note, did you do anything special yesterday? [May 6, 2010, the fourth anniversary of Grant McLennan’s death]
I wrote a new song. It was a breakthrough day. I wrote the song, which was the first thing I’ve written since about November last year. I’ve written a song again, after six months, which was great. Somehow, that’s about the average it’s been for the last 30 years. I can’t quicken that process, no matter how hard I try. It doesn’t have a title yet, but I know the music is good and I sort of play it every now and then and I go back to the guitar and I think, ?Yes, this is good?. So that was great to write a song, since it was a very special day with Grant’s passing. And a song came on that day, amazingly enough.

Excellent. Everything I’ve asked you so far is related to your music career. This might strike you as an odd question, but what do you do outside of music? Surely you must like to get away from it all, if only occasionally?
I do. To get away from music I have my family, and instantly, you’re dealing with something that’s right there, that pulls you away from music. I can remember there were many years – I didn’t become a father until I was 40 – there was a time in my 20s when I was very much more like a bachelor lifestyle. But I’m just as passionate about it now. I think I’m just as good, but trying to get away from it was harder because you’re just by yourself and you’re in a room or hotel or living in a room, or some place and there was a guitar and books. It was very insular.

Now, I just have to step out of the work space that I have at the back of the house and I’m in the family. Immediately, it’s like a river. You just walk out and suddenly … you’re taken away. And I love reading, doing a bit of cooking. I find enough things to ?switch off?. I know a lot of musicians who have one great big passion. They might go hiking, and they do it a lot. Or they might do charity work, or it might be something massive, that almost acts like a balance. I don’t have that. I don’t really feel that I need that. I have the family and other things I do that satisfy me.

You mentioned cooking. Is there a Robert Forster signature dish?
There is. I have a bit of a risotto, I might make it once in a while, but my children are not big risotto eaters. I make a very nice walnut and date loaf that I quite like. I don’t like things that are super sweet, and I like to have something with coffee and tea, so I make these date loaf-type things. I like ?health foody? cakes and stuff, with cinnamon and nuts, and walnuts, dates, figs, and I like that sort of stuff, as opposed to cream and toppings and all that stuff.

Oh, and I make a pesto which I made a couple of times we were in the studio with John Steel Singers and if you ever talk to The John Steel Singers and you’re doing an interview with them, bring up Forster’s pesto. Maybe even as the first question. It will probably throw them. Just bring up the pesto question, and see the look on their faces.

Thanks for the tip. I mentioned the other day that I spoke to Adele [Pickvance] before our conversation. She’s known you for quite some time, obviously. She feels that this is the busiest time of your career, which is something that we touched on the other day. She wondered if it’s even possible to imagine what else would you be doing if you weren’t doing music and your writing.
What else would I be doing? I don’t know. I think if I did anything outside of this, then I’d start to think about doing some of the things like travel, which is something that I’d love to do. I’d love to walk around. I’d love to do a lot more walking. I’d love to walk around south island of New Zealand. I’d like to walk the hills of Spain. There are places I haven’t visited that I’d love to visit, Marrakesh or Fes, in Morocco. I’d love to take a world cruise. I’d love to go around the world on a boat. These things I’d like to get to; they cost money though, and I’ve got children, so that’s difficult at the moment. I don’t know if that answers Adele’s question, but if I wasn’t writing for The Monthly*, I’d try to write a book. At the moment I’m writing songs for an album, and I’m doing shows. That’s why when she says I say, ?I’m busy?, it’s true, but if I stopped all this – If somebody said to me, ?You’re not allowed to write songs, you’re not allowed to write for *The Monthly, you’ve got to stop work on your next book. You’ve got to do something else.? I’d just start on a film idea that I’ve got in my head. But I just can’t get to it.

Adele also recounted something she felt when she first got to know you, which is that you would tend to cross the road when you saw some rough-looking youths walking towards you.
[Laughs]

She wondered whether you still do that – or are you more fearless now?
[Laughs] A little bit more fearless. See, I was protecting Adele. She doesn’t know this. Do you know what I mean? It’s gentlemanly behaviour. It’s cavalier. This is the sort of behaviour Jack White from The White Stripes would understand. This is gentlemanly behaviour, and I was protecting her, because she’s a girl from Manchester and she sometimes finds Brisbane a bit rough, and so I was just keeping an eye out for her.

Oh, I see.
She misread that situation, but it’s OK. [Laughs]

This is the last question I have prepared for you, Robert. It’s also from an interview from the M+N ?Icons? series, which Ed Kuepper was [interviewed](/icons/3470326) for. He made the comment that, ?The people who survive the longest in the music industry are either just outright stubborn, or they have very good business advice.? Which category do you fall into?
The stubborn side, I guess, but it’s not because I stay writing songs or in the music business through stubbornness. It’s through – I really enjoy writing songs. I love music. I have a total enthusiasm for it and that’s what keeps me [going], but I think Ed actually would feel exactly the same way. He’s got that love for music and enthusiasm. It’s probably even greater than mine. But if I had to lean to it, that’s the one I’d go for. But I’d always follow Ed Kuepper.

You’d always follow Ed Kuepper?
Oh yeah. Ed knows. Ed was there at the start. When The Saints put out ?(I’m) Stranded? and they were living out of Oxley in Brisbane, on the south side, and they financed themselves when they did ?(I’m) Stranded? and they jumped straight from Oxley to being in London on EMI records, with a worldwide deal. That was noticed in Brisbane by everybody. There was the picture, the root, the path right in front of you. The Saints did it. They were a huge inspiration. That was incredible. They were trailblazers.

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[PART ONE](/icons/3960955): Forster on his years in The Gap, the Bjelke-Peterson regime and meeting longtime collaborator Grant McLennan.


[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.