ight now Grant’s got his strongest batch of songs ever,” Robert Forster confessed with excitement regarding his partner Grant McLennan’s fecundity. It’s a fecundity all the more impressive considering that Forster and McLennan, singers, songwriters, and guitarists for the Australian band the Go-Betweens, have just capped a remarkable year. Their latest album Oceans Apart—a return to the baroque pop of their ‘80s heyday—is not just the best album they’ve released since reuniting five years ago, but one of their very best, period.
Stylus interviewed Forster, on the occasion of the release of That Striped Sunlight Sound, a DVD package consisting of a concert filmed last August as well as a full audio disc of performances.
Why release a DVD of these performances? What makes them worth preserving?
Robert Forster: I can’t think of a better opportunity to film us doing what we do. It also gave us a chance to evaluate ourselves. Plus, it was filmed in our hometown, Brisbane. There was a great vibe. Then you add the fact that we got to watch ourselves. I mean, I’ve never seen myself on camera. Never!
Odd. Judging by your antics in your older videos you’re certainly not camera-shy.
RF: No, but I get self-conscious once I know I’m being filmed. I act stiffer than I usually am. Eventually I loosened up and we had a lot of fun.
The two albums you released before Oceans Apart (The Friends of Rachel Worth and Bright Yellow Bright Orange) both had wonderful songwriting from both you and Grant, some of your best ever; yet, no offense, the production didn’t seem to do the songs or the band any justice. This was especially noticeable on BYBO, on which you can hear the formation of a band identity again. What motivated you to reunite with Mark Wallis [producer of Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane]?
RF: It was a necessary step. We had to do something sonically different. The sound of The Friends of Rachel Worth was very important at the time; it was very organic, in some sense a reaction to our last album [1988’s 16 Lovers Lane]. Bright Yellow Bright Orange was our Australian album. I listened to it again last week and I thought, the songs are good, but there’s not enough going on.
With Oceans Apart we thought, “Let’s just take baby steps. Let’s not rush things.” We also wanted it to be a very London album. London’s very concentrated. We’ve lived there before, loved the studios. And them Mark Wallis’ name came up. Mark’s got an extensive CV: U2, Travis, all kinds of stuff. You can describe a sound and he gets it. He plays to his strengths; he’s particularly good at recording electric guitars. Many times when me and Grant were playing our songs to each other we’d go, “Mark’s gonna love this.”
What do [bassist] Adele Pickvance and [drummer] Glenn Thompson bring to the band?
RF: Adele is an amazing bass player. She plays very melodic bass. Good singer; her voice can wrap nicely around Grant’s and mine. Glenn has keyboard and guitar skills we’re looking to integrate. It’s a really good atmosphere within the band now. These guys are younger than us, but are strong individuals.
How has your songwriting changed?
RF: Not much. The process is still the same. I get in my car and drive over to Grant’s. We have our guitars and I’ve set up a little keyboard. We play each other our songs. I also read a lot: I’m mad about non-fiction, memoirs, novels. It all filters in.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve become more comfortable writing autobiographical material—an area which used to be Grant’s specialty.
RF: No, that’s true. I’ve had to live a little. That said, I still can’t see myself ever writing about my childhood.
What about “Born to a Family” [from Oceans Apart]? That sounds like something Grant would have recorded in 1983. It seems to suggest that your relationship is more symbiotic than you realize: you’ve traded subject matter, so to speak.
RF: Yeah. You’re absolutely right. I never thought about that. It certainly sounds like one of his older songs, like “Cattle and Cane.”
Speaking of which, why do you and Grant work so well together? Has it ever been a case of “too much of one thing”?
RF: Thankfully, no. Our relationship’s changing all the time. We’re still discovering its magnitude. Any successful relationship requires a lot of give and take. If the spotlight’s on your partner instead of you, you learn to accept it. We’ve seen famous bands where they’re all friends break up, and it’s sad. We’re passed that point, though. We’re concerned with the greater good. Certainly in the ‘80s, when we faced a lot of commercial pressure—to write hit singles and so forth—it’s a bad situation for two songwriters, and was not good for our friendship. But the peak is still there, and we’re looking for new ones.
The cliché hurled most often at the Go-Betweens is “critically adored but unappreciated.” How true is it? Obviously your profile is higher now that any comparable point in your career.
RF: True to an extent. I meet people in social situations who want to write songs and are perhaps better musicians than us and they have second jobs. It goes from that to guys as big as U2 or R.E.M. We haven’t been on major labels and thus haven’t been exposed to the mechanics and those kinds of pressures. Don’t get me wrong: we’ve had tough months. But the last year’s been a turn-around.
When can we expect a new Go-Betweens album?
RF: We’re going to take a full year off: we want to breathe and contemplate a bit, take some time to write, to demo. Then we’ll start recording early next year. Remember, we’ve put out three albums fairly quickly, so to shoot for 2007 as a release date is not that long a time.
What’s on Robert Forster’s iPod right now?
RF: I don’t own an iPod, but I’m listening to a lot of stuff. The new Beth Orton—have you heard it? It’s really, really really good. So is the Neil Diamond album—great stuff. The new Franz Ferdinand is pretty good; I prefer the first one. The Arctic Monkeys have a real good singer, writes interesting lyrics. You’re from Florida, right? Here’s one you might know: Jimmy Buffett.
Hey! He’s not my thing but he writes great melodies.
RF: Doesn’t he? It’s really good stuff! If I hear a cover band performing “Margaritaville,” I’m in heaven.