Rock ‘n’ Roll Gentleman: An Interview with Robert Forster
The former and forever Go-Between on love, illness and the healing power of music
Perseverance is Robert Forster’s specialty – here’s a man who decided that pop stardom was his destiny years before he’d tasted a hint of it.
In a city of unlikely, guitar-wielding aspirants (Brisbane, Australia, ‘78), he anointed as his co-star the unlikeliest: reticent film student Grant McLennan, who’d never played an instrument in his life. Relocating to London without so much as a connection, rescheduling the year they’d become famous as it continued to elude them, they built a genius canon on the barest resources, evolving from guileless Monkees imitations to chaotic post-punk conundrums to impossibly poetic indie-pop. After the starving group lost their label and management support in late ’85, they concluded that giving up would be foolish, ending up with the majestic Liberty Belle LP.
After a dramatic breakup and ten-year drought, Forster and McLennan decided they were the Go-Betweens again in 2000, adding three more brilliant albums to their catalog. When McLennan’s untimely death six years later put punctuation to their dream, Forster combined his friend’s leftover fragments with his own, and added another.
Since that wonderful record, The Evangelist, appeared in 2008, Forster has cut another three albums, and he tours when time, money and personal (or global) health permit. Recent years kept him indoors, but as the pandemic clouds parted, a greater test of his endurance remained on the horizon.
Increasingly featured in his recent music is Karin Bäumler, his longtime partner, whom he married in 1990, having fallen in love in fragments while touring her native Germany. But her presence on the latest project, The Candle and the Flame, carries a heavier significance: the album was cut in the wake of her startling ovarian cancer diagnosis. In warm nights playing music after draining days, along with a musical brain trust comprised of their children Louis (leader of the recently-defunct band the Goon Sax) and Loretta, plus Forster’s bassist cohort Adele Pickvance, a gestating project took shape around a new purpose. Working on these songs vitalized Karin through chemotherapy.
And the organic, raw, familial effect of recordings they’d made from these impromptu jam sessions compelled new thoughts about how to transform their private efforts into something more public – if no less meaningful, or intimate.
Though we’ve not met in person, I know Forster firsthand as the most gracious man in the world. Ten years ago, he offered this writer, a compulsive blogger and one of the band’s biggest fans, the best gift: a job writing for their beautiful box sets on Domino Records, the third of which is now in development.
In the height of the 1980s, there was something almost forbiddingly wily about Forster. But the dapper, bookish, grounded current edition is far closer to his true self. He still finds modest moments of lunacy – check out the “Tender Years” video, in which he has entirely too much fun preparing lunch – but mostly he’s a rare breed, a rock ‘n’ roll gentleman.
The following conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for flow and clarity.
I just watched the “Tender Years” video, which was a delight – and a delight to film, I imagine as well.
What was good about it is that there was no camera operator in the room. It’s in our kitchen, just down the hall here. So I wasn’t playing to someone else. The camera’s on a tripod; I’d hit start with the music, with the computer on the fridge. And I’d do the whole five-and-a-half minute thing, and we could stop it and look at it, which was a really great way [to do it]… critique it, and get another take.
Roughly how many takes do you think it took?
We did five. Basically, what I was doing was too busy, and I was going too fast. Karin came in on the third take, and said “look, slow it right down, and be more in groove with the song, listen to the music”. And then we did one more, and then we just got it. [That’s] why she got the choreography credit.
I was going to ask. I’d imagined she was shouting directions at you, like an old silent film.
[laughs] Almost. It was just great luck that I managed to string everything together. There are a lot of split-second decisions that I can see that probably don’t come across to someone who’s watching it.
It’s quite fluid. It’s a joy to watch. With your wife Karin, do you ever think of how prophetic it was… you were one letter off, with the song you wrote in 1978 [“Karen”, the Go-Betweens’ first B-side].
It is, and the thing is, I also got to meet Lee Remick [subject of that single’s A-side]. I was a 20-year-old writing those two songs, and both of them in a very broad sense have come true. Karin and I were just talking about it the other night, actually. It’s extraordinary to me to write a song like that, and over ten years later to start our relationship – someone who’s not living around the corner, but in Bavaria.
VIDEO: Robert Forster “Tender Years”
For a relationship that’s so endured, it’s also interesting, the way you detail it in Grant & I, that your courtship had such a slow start – these little meetings, with long waiting periods in between.
As I think I say in Grant & I, there’s something 19th century about it. It’s like one of those novels where you see each other across a market, or something, and then you don’t see each other for six months, and then you come back into the little town, and you bump into each other in front of the church.
And you still had to rely on written correspondence, even in the late 1980s.
Yes, that’s true.
[Karin] is quite central to this record, and you’ve worked with her in a musical capacity for going back a long time. You produced a record by her band Baby You Know in 1992, Clear Water, on which she sings one of the great lost Forster songs, “I Love You Still”. What’s it like, working with her as a musician?
It’s really easy. I think the comfort of working with her, in a way, it goes back to when I started working with Grant – in that he was not a musician, he was a friend. And when I made that jump in my head all those years ago to abandon working with musicians, and to start to work with people I’m close to – I think I’ve kept that, in a way, ever since. I don’t run to getting pros and session players. I like working in a domestic sense, with people that I like.
People with whom you have a shorthand.
Exactly. And not only musically, but even talking about cultural things spilling into the music. You talk about the same books, and whatever. That’s always been important to me, and we do that as well.
I’ve always been drawn to the Go-Betweens, as are many people I think, because of the relationships in the band. I don’t mean the whole inflated Fleetwood Mac thing, but the fact that you and Grant had such a deep connection and love for each other. It’s interesting, this idea of being in a relationship in your 20s that’s primarily creative, and gravitating into this more romantic partnership as you move into your 30s, but that’s also musical. Why has it worked so very well with Karin?
I think Karin’s got a punk sensibility. Her violin playing is quite raw. And she’s very much for spontaneous music making, quite rough and ready. So she really drove this record. Our method of playing songs live in the studio was completely in sync with how she likes to hear and play music. We’ve [also] played a lot in private through the years. Twice we’ve made demos for records, just her and I, where the albums didn’t happen. And so it’s bubbled under. And then children arrive, and suddenly the violin goes away, and the Go-Betweens come back… It’s sort of been this winding river. Then suddenly, with these last two albums, it’s starting to spill over. So it’s a long time coming, in a way.
You’ve got me thinking how, through the ‘80s and ‘90s when your involvement in the industry was deeper, there wasn’t really this perception that people could have a pop music career past 50. But people have been gradually discovering how there’s a market for music from any age of performer.
That’s true. [And] I wish I had known that, back in the early ‘90s – that I didn’t have to panic. That I could still write songs in my fifties and sixties and that there’d still be interest in what I do, not just albums like Liberty Belle or 16 Lovers Lane. So that really opened up for me. The pressure was off. [But] back in my twenties, I wasn’t interested in “do great art and die young”. I didn’t buy into the clichés of rock ‘n’ roll. Well, I bought into some of them, but not that it was all youth. Rock ‘n’ roll didn’t have an age restriction – I felt that distinctly. So the idea of someone doing this into [this age] would have been real to me.
I’m interested in how you feel your songwriting has evolved. As a listener and fan, I always sort of drew a line between Warm Nights and Rachel Worth. I feel like the songs you’ve written since then are a bit simpler musically and more direct lyrically, with a sort of autumnal, openhearted quality.
After Warm Nights, I really do think it changed. When I went to Regensburg in ’97 – I didn’t have a record deal for the first time in my life, and I was going to this beautiful city embedded in the German countryside. I really just wanted to write ten great songs. There’d been moment when I was in the studio doing Warm Nights, waiting to do a take, and I played the riff to “German Farmhouse”. And I just thought, “wow”. I thought that was a good start; it felt like a new beginning. So I think all those songs like “Spirit” and “Surfing Magazines”, all those songs I wrote in Regensburg, were something beyond what I’d written in the first half of the decade.
Moving on to The Candle and the Flame – this is a real lost art, the nine-song album. The record modest enough to end one song early, and now you’ve put out two in a row. What was the thought process going from the initial tape of songs you made with your family, to the album we hear now, which is still quite raw and even a bit informal? How did you decide what was needed sonically?
We did [the] ten-song – I don’t even call it a demo; I call it a document – before Karin had to have a medical procedure done in October. Adele was there playing bass, Louis was playing guitar, and Karin was playing xylophone and singing. It was the four of us, just sitting there. And there was no thought of making an album – we made this ten-song document for only us to have. So then Karin went into the hospital, and that went well, and we were listening all the time to this document. And two of the songs – “I Don’t Do Drugs, I Do Time” and “It’s Only Poison” – sounded complete to us, without us knowing.
If you listen to “It’s Only Poison”, I just start. And you hear Louis, playing lead guitar, feeling his way in. We just sort of fall into it. And then “I Don’t Do Drugs, I Do Time”, there’s a 40-second thing at the end where Adele and I are just having fun with it together. That would never be on a normal record. You’d cut it, you’d work out a little arrangement. But we heard this song organically growing, and this other one organically ending. And we thought, well, we can’t book rehearsal rooms, we’ve just got snatched days in the studio. Let’s do it like that. And that was the sonic template; we burst it all out from there.
There were some choices. A song like “Tender Years”, I couldn’t imagine how we could do that. So I just went over to Scott [Bromiley] and Luke [McDonald], who played on the last album, and went, “let’s build something.” And [they] played me this demo that just blew my mind. I just went, “fuck”. And “She’s a Fighter” we just decided to keep the four of us, since it was written after the diagnosis. So there were conceptual ideas as well – “let’s have only the family on that”. But everything goes back to the first thing. The overdubs were difficult; some of them didn’t work in that live, sitting around [setting].
We must talk about your son Louis, whose records with the Goon Sax I’ve been listening to. The DNA is conspicuous, as has been pointed out – they did sound a great deal like the early Go-Betweens in spots, and in some ways he even shares Grant’s sort of searching style of lead guitar.
He’s definitely a guitar player. Some of his playing on the record, I find just stunning. Like the solo that he plays halfway through “It’s Only Poison” – he’s far more of a musician than I am, and he can jump over to bass and do all that sort of stuff I can’t do. But a lot of that comes from Karin’s side. There’s no one playing music in my family, whereas her family has the free-jazz playing uncle, and zither players and piano players. Karin’s brother plays guitar and sings. So Louis has got both streams coming in. Which means you can see things that are from me, but there’s always other unknown stuff from the other side, and all the stuff that Louis has piled on from intense listening as well. But I think my songs are – and I’ve searched for this – always helped by working with a good guitar player.
So what has it been like, having a son now who’s sort of a fringe pop star, just like his dad?
Well – he’s gone very much his own way, with the Goon Sax. The thing with him, also, is that it started when he was 15 or 16. The Goon Sax just took off, much to their surprise. It was like being shot out of a cannon. Between [the ages of] 15 and 24, through their breakup last year, it was an all-consuming rush. So he had an identity very quickly, and he wanted to hold onto that. But then, the circumstances of this album, as dire and overwhelming as they were – it was one of the great miracles that he’s on it, that we start making music together. We move from playing guitar together, which him and I have done in the house, to making that document which wasn’t going to go public, and suddenly we’re in the studio.
I really enjoyed playing with him. I can play him a song and he can do something really compatible with it that’s unexpected. I can feel this new energy and blood coming into it. He surprises me, which is great.
Oh, as a listener as well. His work on the record is amazing. And you hear all this active thinking in the playing, with all the musicians. Can I ask about your daughter Loretta, who plays guitar on it as well?
She’s been playing guitar since she was a teenager. But she’s not a songwriter. Louis wanted to write songs at 8, [he had a] laser-like focus. Loretta listens to a lot of music, and she can sing really well. But at the moment, it’s almost like she’d have to fall into it. It might happen, it might not – I really can’t tell.
Sure. But there’s not necessarily the threat of her rebelling by becoming an accountant or anything.
No, no, no. She goes to see bands and [proudly] she’s in the subculture.
Well, that’s the place to be. So – what aspect of having made an album that so involves your family feels, perhaps, vulnerable for you? Are you putting yourself out there in a way you’re not used to?
We’ve had to use strategies. After the record came out, there were two options. Either I don’t do any press, and we just put it out in a paper bag, or we’re going to engage in [some] sense. After much discussion with Karin and our children, we decided that we’d make a statement, which is what we put out in October. So it was just, “this is what’s happened”, so that we control the narrative at the start. A set of facts would go out, an explanation of how the record came to be, that came from the source. Also, it just meant that for every interview I did, I wouldn’t have to tell the interviewer, “well, Karin’s had cancer.” [But] there is a certain vulnerability. It’s very much a decision-by-decision thing.
Obviously, illness is accidental; is tragic and not definitive. So I understand the aversion to letting that be wrangled into a narrative. But there’s also something innately uplifting and potentially quite useful for people about the story of how this record was made. And it compels attention to the lyrics, many of which pertain directly to your relationship with Karin.
That’s the way Karin sees it. That’s a real purpose of this record that she’d hotwired into it – she really wanted it to be uplifting, positive; that someone going through chemo could make an album. That the record didn’t sound doom-laden, with banks of strings coming in and all that sort of stuff. Just the sound of the record, we wanted to have a vibrancy that we’d heard on those first two songs. Just a very natural, crystal-clear bounce that we’d wanted. And the interviews that we’ve done have that message. That was something that she really was insistent on. That the record not be sad, not be this crying thing.
Her quote in your post (“when we play music is the only time I forget I have cancer”) is word-perfect.
I know. That’s what the whole thing was about. The days we spent having these really heavy discussions, and then at night we could just [unwind together]. And it’s that magic of music. You start to play a song, your mind just goes, you’re so in the moment, and even something as overwhelming as a diagnosis like this just flees. So you just want to keep playing song after song, so this experience can be extended.
Exactly. Music is therapeutic, it’s medicinal, and this album has an energy that reflects what you’re saying. Your records in general are getting livelier and more kinetic – punkier.
And Karin brings that in. We wanted the spirit of what she was feeling to be embedded in the sound.
Going back to age – you’re a sort of perpetually youthful figure. I wonder if there are some things about getting older that have struck or stuck with you, having done it a bit.
I think for everyone it’s different. For me, I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin. I’m also happy that I’ve stuck to my own course, in a way. At times, it’s made it financially hard. But where I am in my middle sixties, I feel that what I’ve done is being more appreciated. At the moment, also, I’m at a stage where I can physically do everything that I could do in my thirties and twenties. I’m about to go out on tour in March, and I can do that. I can fly, I’m still physically capable of doing all of those things.
And I’m probably a little more measured. I don’t get upset about things as much. There’s a little bit more of being able to just accept things like bad news – and the heat has gone out of certain arguments. I find it a really good time of life, I find being in my middle sixties fantastic. It’s great.
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