Looking back with The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster

Robert Forster talks to DOUG WALLEN about life in The Go-Betweens, his new record and what its like to watch his son play music.

The Go-Betweens have been pretty well covered, haven’t they? In the past decade alone there’s been a megawatt triple J tribute, a two-disc Best Of and even a bridge named after the iconic Brisbane indie pop band, whose co-founding singer/songwriter Grant McLennan died suddenly in 2006.

So what more is there add to the conversation? Plenty, as it turns out. This month brings an epic retrospective box set that spans four vinyl LPs, four CDs and a 112-page book. And it’s just the first of a planned three-part anthology. Curated by the band’s other co-founding singer/songwriter, Robert Forster, G Stands For Go-Betweens – Volume One focuses on an era from 1978 through 1984 and the first three studio albums: Send Me a Lullaby (1982), Before Hollywood (1983) and Spring Hill Fair (1984). Casual fans of The Go-Betweens’ mannerly, understated later work might be surprised by the many scrappy rarities gathered from the band’s early days. There are songs that veer closer to prickly post-punk and homespun garage rock than to the jangling guitar-pop that has influenced successive generations of Aussie musicians.

In an unguarded interview, Forster discusses the box set at length as well as revealing the progress on his first solo album since 2008’s The Evangelist. He also opens up about the band’s nomadic years abroad, growing up in a suburban household fixated on sport, and his own 16-year-old son’s fledgling band.

The first volume of these box sets spans 1978 to 1984. How many volumes do you have planned, and how will each one be proportioned?

I’d love to say 15, but I will say three. I think they fall fairly natural: Volume 2 will be from ‘84 until ‘89, and then Volume 3 I’d imagine will cover 2000-2006. That’s the way it feels at the moment.

Are those eras of the band that you can see independently of compiling this?

Oh, that’s a good question. They fall that way, in a strange way, because the first three albums were financed by three different labels. The next three albums were on Beggars Banquet, and the last three albums were separated by time, in a way. So even without trying to think too hard, they fall into these categories that way.

It’s like a three-act structure.

A three-act play. You’re exactly right.

I imagine you have complex feelings about each album, but how would you compare these first three albums to the others?

Well, Send Me a Lullaby is a beginning. The second one Before Hollywood is … thinks about it a masterpiece [laughs]. The first one’s good. We could have made a first album back in 1979, which would have been vastly different to the album we made in 1981. The 1981 one catches a moment. The second one is lessons learnt and a better group of songs, although the first one has a certain energy. Number 3, Spring Hill Fair, is another one I’m very happy with, but it’s probably a stepping stone to the next three.

This is my theory on them. Other people disagree with me wildly and I have to be careful what I say. But that’s how they appear to me.

How much of an archivist are you naturally? How much did you hold on to?

Not much. Especially in the ‘80s, I was very crash-and-burn. I didn’t know what happened yesterday. Also, I was moving around a lot. You just threw your life into a suitcase and went onto the next city. So there wasn’t much collected. Some things [were], especially at the beginning, but once the band started to move from city and city and tour and do all of those things, not much. I was always here-and-now. In my mind I was aware of past times – I’m an archivist of the mind. I remember stuff and I’m very obsessed with that, but the physical things I’m not good at it. I’m too sloppy, I’m too restless. I’m not a collector.

It sounds quite nomadic, the way the band was for a while.

It was. We were very nomadic. And besides the nomadic nature of touring, there was a Melbourne period of six months, a Glasgow period of a few months. And we spent a lot of time in Sydney. We were moving around London too, because accommodation was hard to get in the early ‘80s and we had no money, so we were in squats and cheap hotels. It was that sort of lifestyle. You had a guitar and a suitcase, and really that was about it. You couldn’t put down roots much beyond that

“I remember stuff and I’m very obsessed with that, but the physical things I’m not good at it”

So where did a lot of the stuff for the box set come from?

We got bits and pieces just here and there. One piece of luck we got: a guy called Paul O’Brien took an amazing set of photographs – about 400, I think it is – of the Brisbane punk scene between 1978 and ‘81. Nobody really knew about it for years, until he gave his stuff to the State Library. Through a friend I found out about it. I saw at least six really good photos of The Go-Betweens that I never knew existed. Including one of the first show we ever did, when we [only] did two songs. So that’s a big photo in the book.

I didn’t want the book to be lots of little photos. I find that frustrating. You get a booklet and the photos are the size of a postage stamp. So we just went with really good photos and had them at a ridiculous size [laughs]. People can really luxuriate in it. So we didn’t need a thousand things – we just needed 30 or 40 really good things.

With a vinyl box set, you can do everything larger to match that scale.

Yeah, and that’s what I wanted. The box is big and you can dive into it. You need two hands to hold it and you don’t need a magnifying glass. That’s what I wanted.

Were there certain logistical challenges of pulling this together?

There were. A lot of the book was done through London, and fortunately four times in 2013 I did one-off shows in Europe. It meant that I could go over, play, and then sit with the graphic designer. We’d have a week each time. Programming pages and getting a feel of the book, going through other people’s books and looking at things we liked in them – it was quite a complicated process. The internet really came to the fore. For projects like this it’s a godsend. But it probably took about a year longer than I thought to get it out.

Can you remember some of the other books you looked at?

There was a John Fahey box set Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You and we really liked that. It was large print and they weren’t trying to cram too much in. They were going for quality. A punk book we looked at too, just the way they layered the articles. There was also one of reggae sleeves from the late ‘60s and ‘70s we were looking at.

Does this close the book on documenting the band?

Yes. That’s the way I see it. That’s why I’m putting so much time into it and wanting it to include as much as it can. They’re like treasure boxes. To me it’s like, there’s the documentation, there’s the sleeve notes that tell the story of the band, there’s all the records in vinyl. Lots of other recordings [too]. There it is. That’s the band. This feels like it.

Have you had any time to work on writing songs yourself?

I’m recording my first album in seven years. I’m enormously excited about that. We’re recording in Brisbane with local musicians. I almost made an album in 2010/11, but things like the anthology derailed that. So I picked up those same people that were in Brisbane three or four years ago and now we’re doing it. Scott [Bromiley] and Luke [McDonald] from The John Steel Singers are doing bass and keyboards, and Karin Bí¤umler [Forster’s wife], who’s doing violin and singing, and a guy called Matt [Harrison], who toured with me in 2008. That’s it. Mainly it’s the five of us in a studio near Brisbane. It’s all analogue and it sounds pretty wild.

How so?

It’s just very different from my last two albums, which were done in London with a producer. It’s very performance-based and very fresh, I think. We’re in a house making music, is about the best I can describe it. With analogue gear, about half an hour from my house. On a mountain.

Is it right that your son [Louis] has a band?

Yes, he has a band that’s just started up in Brisbane. That’s true. They’re called The Goon Sax. S-A-X.

Is it interesting to see that unfolding?

It is. Especially in my hometown. It probably would have felt different if this had been happening in Berlin or London or Sydney. It gives it that extra dimension. But he’s a very committed and good songwriter. He’s only 16. He has a very good take on what he wants to do. It feels very natural: that’s the main thing. [When] he’s got a show, I might drive the equipment over and watch him on occasion. I thought it’d be very confronting or strange or disorientating, but it’s not. He’s making music, he’s playing songs – it feels very natural.

Did you grow up in a very musical household yourself?

No, I didn’t. Neither of my parents played an instrument. My grandparents were a little more musical, but how I came from a suburban environment into music and how it grabbed me was a surprise to everyone. I came out of a very suburban, sport-orientated family, which I felt comfortable with. I played sport through all that too, but this other side just grew and grew in me – and bloomed when I was about 18. But no, you wouldn’t have guessed me coming out of the family I came out of.

G Stands For Go-Betweens – Volume One is out now through Domino and EMI Music Australia.