FEW MUSICIANS HAVE PRODUCED work as consistently strong, across more than four decades, as Robert Forster. And he’s managed to do it without becoming either renowned or ridiculous. Despite a dedicated cult among fans and a strong following among musicians, including Belle and Sebastian and Sleater-Kinney, he still, in his 60s, dwells in a strange netherworld between indie-rock legend and general anonymity. Unlike a lot of people in this predicament, his music is crafted and accessible — fitting into a pop tradition as close to the Byrds and mid-period Beatles as to the Velvet Underground.
Best known for co-founding The Go-Betweens, the literate and bittersweet band sometimes called an Aussie R.E.M., Forster led the group with songwriting partner and college friend Grant McLennan starting in 1977. Following the group’s split, after six records of bittersweet guitar pop, including songs such as “Love Goes On,” “Spring Rain,” and “Streets of Your Town,” Forster produced a series of solo records, beginning with 1990’s Danger in the Past. Reunited in 2000, the Go-Betweens released a triumphant record, The Friends of Rachel Worth, with members of Sleater-Kinney playing backup, and two other LPs before McLennan succumbed to a sudden heart attack in 2006. Forster then resumed his solo career, while pursuing a sideline writing music criticism. His excellent memoir of the band, Grant & I, came out in 2016.
Forster’s latest LP, Inferno, includes well-sketched songs like “No Fame” and “Remain” (with its refrain “I did my good work, while knowing it wasn’t my time”). Lyrics aside, Forster is no sad-sack but rather a witty literary songwriter and gently ironic live performer, as he demonstrated at a show at Los Angeles’s Echoplex in November.
Forster, who spent March through mid-December on a solo acoustic tour of Europe and Australia, corresponded with LARB from the road.
SCOTT TIMBERG: One of the first Go-Betweens songs, “Karen,” was written about a university librarian, I think. Is it fair to say that you and Grant were pretty enthusiastic readers — as well as lovers of film and rock music — when you formed the band?
ROBERT FORSTER: Yes, all these things were in our lives, being university students, so we put them into the band. We didn’t pretend to be what we were not. We thought it important to bring these influences and ideas into our music and band image. It also had an immediate, almost overlooked side effect — we were instantly like no one else.
What literary passions did the two of you bring to the early days of the group? Did you find new favorites or influences as the group went on?
The group’s main outside influence — by which I mean non-musical — was film. Grant was a passionate cineaste. He helped program the University of Queensland’s cinema when he was 18 years old. His room was full of books on the history of film. He read Film Comment and turned me onto it, too. Obviously, the late-’50s French New Wave cinema influenced us significantly — the raw nature of the filmmaking, like punk rock, and the way the people dressed in these films — endlessly cool.
How important were Australian literature and Aussie writers to you in the early days? My sense is Grant had some homegrown favorites, perhaps including novelist Tim Winton. Perhaps you did too?
Not much. Johnno by the Brisbane writer David Malouf was an important book for me. I read it in school, and Malouf had been a former student at the school. So that was interesting — someone from my school had written an important and good book set in the city. Brisbane was subject matter. That idea went in. As for my reading then and now, I favor English and American literature — I like to read about places and people I don’t know. Also, Australian books tend to be a little too earnest and sincere. I need twists.
Some songwriters learn to handle language, imagery, storytelling, and so on from novels, stories, and poems. Is that the case for you?
Yes. Every songwriter has to read. It’s the only way to learn. Your own life, particularly your teenage years, will last as subject matter in songs for a while. Until you are in your late 20s perhaps. And then you need to say and know more, and have new ways to say it — that comes from reading.
Are there books and authors you directly reference in Go-Betweens or solo songs?
Many, although I am a random reader. By that I mean I don’t often “do” authors — read everything they wrote. I don’t have shelves filled with the complete works of many authors. Writers I like include Christopher Isherwood, Barbara Pym, Raymond Chandler. Jane Austen. For a while I was very much into the poetry of Anne Sexton. I adore the poetry of Sharon Olds. The poet Gary Snyder. My taste tends to the readable, what is entertaining. I am not so much interested in “technical innovation” or anything “difficult” or what is “hard to get into.”
The whole LP Danger in the Past feels very literary to me — “Baby Stones,” the title track — and not just because the cover photograph is (I think) based on a shot of James Joyce. Were you consciously or unconsciously drawing from novelists or other kinds of writers there?
This record was the time of Sexton and Plath and the poet who wrote “Diving into the Wreck,” whom I have forgotten at this moment [Adrienne Rich]. It’s all fireworks writing. Intense and curt and powerful.
Your music criticism — some of which is collected in The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll — is excellent, but it doesn’t remind me of any of the familiar rock-crit reference points. Did you have any models among music writers when you started out with it? What were you aiming for?
Good question. I wanted to write from my experiences, as a songwriter and a performer. I wanted to bring that angle in, without it being overbearing or preachy. I thought it was something I had — I could read album credits and see the making of the album. I watched the track listings of albums and could guess at the choices the artist had made. I let my work as a musician drift into my analysis. So, perhaps this made my writing feel and read different from other music critics. I leaned toward what I knew.
Did you have a model or touchstones for your memoir Grant & I? This is an unusual hybrid — a story of a band’s ups and downs and then rebirth, a first-person look at the narrator’s development, and a very soulful sketch of a friend and collaborator. I wonder what other works inspired you here.
Oh my god, what was the model? I am primarily a nonfiction reader. Christopher Isherwood’s memoir Christopher and His Kind has always been important. John Richardson’s biographical series on Pablo Picasso is something I admired. The weave of the art and friendships and cities and movement of lives and the soaking of influences in an artist’s life and how that plays into their work has always fascinated me. Richard Ellmann’s lives of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde I found and find remarkable. How did they flow in Grant & I? I don’t exactly know, only this — this is how important I took the task of writing my memoir. Also, as an inside, tales of mad rock ’n’ roll adventures on the road and drugs and pranks that roadies pulled and how to humiliate people from record companies and more drugs and how bad food is on the road are boring and dated.
You’ve got a very fine new album, Inferno, with an opening song indebted to Yeats. Are there other direct (or indirect) literary influences on the record? I especially like the songs “No Fame” and “Remain,” which remind me of some of my favorite musicians and writers.
Not in ways I could put names to songs. My reading funnily enough has slackened as I have written more. After writing prose for five hours a day for a week, I find that I don’t turn to reading nearly as much as when I didn’t write. I am working on a novel at the moment, hoping to finish it in the next months. And then enjoy a reading binge. To lose myself again. And inspire myself again to write more songs and more prose.
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.