An Australian Gentleman – Robert Forster Interview
marzo 10, 2016
A continuación sigue la entrevista íntegra que tuve la suerte de hacerle a Robert Forster el pasado septiembre, parte de la cual publicó la Revista Don. La he redactado y transcrito en inglés para mayor fidelidad.
25th September 2015, Café Bar Delic, Plaza de la Paja, Madrid. It’s a sunny morning and Robert Forster sits at a table with the record company guy. He’s finishing breakfast and looks happy. When we arrive he stands up to reveal an unexpectedly towering figure. The square is full of teenagers on their school break. As we walk to get some pictures taken, he nicely takes control and chooses the right spot for the photograph. Some minutes later we’re back at the table and start talking.
How’s the ‘Songs To Play’ promo tour going?
Great, today is the last day and it couldn’t have been in a better place. This to me is perfect. I was saying, on my next promotional tour to Europe for my next album I’m gonna come here and everyone has to come here. I mean, people from Glasgow, Berlin… and I sit here, in this square, same spot, and people come here.
Songs To Play has a handcrafted feel to it… analog studio, no time pressures. All these factors really make a difference while recording an album, don’t they? Songs To play seems to prove it.
They all made a difference. The two that you mention were the main ones: recording on analog was very important, because I think it suits my music… and the ‘no time pressure’ was as important. I’d always recorded albums where -with the Go-Betweens as well- where you just had a particular time. And to be able to record half an hour away from your house, where you can come back, listen, and then come back and fix things, helped the album a lot.
Not fix things in a ProTools kind of way…
No, no, you had to re-record. No screens in the studio. And also, a big part of it -which I’d forgotten about- was that there was no computer mixing. So it was Jamie, who was the engineer, and Luke and Scott from the John Steele Singers, six hands on the desk! And so things would go by and they would go… ‘mmm, yeah…no… let’s try again…’ , so the mixing was as much a performance as the recording. And I just wanted that approach. I didn’t want things to just come in on the screen. I might do it in the future, but I wanted for everyone to just be in the room -in the recording room and in the console studio room- experiencing music through the air, not through a screen.
In the fantastic promotional video prior to the record release there was a hilarious list of working titles for the album… were these serious? ‘Warm Nights 2’ struck me immediately, it sounded genius. Because The Evangelist was a great great album, but to me it had this air of unfinished business because of the Grant McLennan songs…
‘Unfinished business’, great phrase, great phrase…
…so I was really curious to see if this time you would really reconnect with where you left things in 1996 with Warm Nights…is there such a connection?
In both the songs were written in Brisbane… there’s a little bit of a link. Perhaps, yeah.
After so many records and songs written by all the artists in the history of pop and rock -and in your case after all the songs you’ve already written- one would say that the permutations of chords and melody should have run out by now…
And yet there always seems to be space for another song. how is this possible?
I know… I can’t explain it! I think it’s because the music stays the same, you know: music theory, how many notes there are in the scale always stays the same, the only thing that changes is what people bring to it, you know, everybody is different. If you give a guitar to five people who can play guitar and you say ‘play G, C and D’ they’ll all play it differently, you know? And maybe that’s a start of why songs then become different. From just the way people are different, the way they play guitar is different, the chords they know, obviously… but it amazes me too, I always think it’s magic.
Would you say that musically this is your most adventurous record? I mean, there’s bossa nova, trumpets and a certain air of Bryan MacLean on A Poet Walks… Really different textures. For the artist himself it’s sometimes difficult to see these references, maybe?
No, no, I saw that. That’s one of the things I did see. I Many things I don’t see, but I saw that. And then many come from Scott and Luke, and both are multi-instrumentalists and I’d never really worked with multi-instrumentalists. Even someone like -from Danger In The Past- Mick Harvey focused on piano and bass… well, Mick can play the trumpet. I feel as if Scott and Luke… it was like having two Mick Harveys, so they could do more, and I said to them ‘bring it all into the songs’. When they came over to my house, the first time, I didn’t just say ‘oh, just play bass, just play guitar’, I said ‘bring everything, all your ideas. I’ve got the songs, just come in with what you do’, and that’s what they did. And then we got onto the album, which is why there’s this variety of sounds. And it worked.
The drumbeat on Turn on the Rain doesn’t sound like the umpteenth tribute to Be My Baby, it actually fits the song and its atmosphere like a glove…
The album has a strange combination because it’s not hi-tech. It’s obviously not ProTools, but also it’s not like we’re in some fabulous studio. The studio is quite basic, but then we put a lot of detail into these basic things, and I like that combination. I don’t think I’d ever done that combination before. And also the budget was the smallest recording budget I’d ever had, which was great, because it meant there was no pressure, and I could go into this analog studio and bring all these details. A strange combination, it’s all very basic but very detailed as well.
I’ve read like 9 o 10 reviews of the album so far and all of them are enthusiastic, if not completely raving.
I’ve read some. I must tell you, it’s an amazing feeling because of all the albums I’ve ever made this one I didn’t know how it would go, what people would make of it. I honestly had no idea. I’m really overwhelmed, because part of it is I hadn’t put out an album for seven years, so I don’t know in a way what’s going to come… and there was new musicians on the album. And there was analog, first album to be recorded in the studio. So I didn’t know if it was going to sound any good! Then we made it and my wife and I and the other musicians we were so away from the world, and so much time had gone by, I had no idea what people would make of it. And it’s just been amazing, the response has just been incredible.
How do you process that, after decades of consistently good reviews? Does it say anything to you? Do you even read them? Maybe you don’t pay much attention…
Oh no, no, no! When I get good reviews I jump up in the air and I punch the air. Getting 9 out of 10 from you in Jenesaispop, if you weren’t here I’d be running around!
I think most artists don’t do that, do they? They say ‘I never read the reviews!’. Maybe they do secretly?
OF COURSE they do! They’re lying to you. They read and memorize every word. But as I said, I just had no idea cause it’s such a different record… when I was doing Warm Nights and I was in Edwyn Collins’ studio, and I’m in London, I sort of knew it was going to sound a certain way. But this was in Brisbane, in a studio on a mountain, analog, the gear had just arrived… so I had no idea! So it really was, after we’d made the album, we were sitting at home and going ‘what are people going to make of this?’ We knew it was good, but we didn’t know if the rest of the world would see it was good as well.
The lyrics of Disaster In Motion are maybe the most cryptic on the album…
Your English is very good by the way! You’ve got a vocabulary that’s quite wide.
Oh thanks! [initiates a digression about English as a foreign language]… What “disaster” is it about, exactly? Or are you just describing a feeling of menace?
I can tell you the background of that song. I was living in a small German village, my wife is German. And we were living in this village near her house, and there might be 200 people in this village, 300 people. In 2008. We were living in this house for a while, and it has a small little village feel… I wanted to be cryptic. It’s not a depressing song, but it’s just sort of… that’s where I was, so I wrote a “small village song”.
It reminded me of Bachelor Kisses because of the first chords…
I know! One or two people said this… I’d completely missed that.
And to me also a bit of Danger In the Past, that ominous feel…
Yeah yeah, it is, you’re exactly right! That’s a song that could have been on ‘Danger In The Past’.
I think Robert Palmer would have made an ace cover version of Learn To Burn…
Oooohhh… (smiles enthusiastically)
Because it’s got this beat…
Oooh… he would kill it! Wow, that’s a genius idea!
Or maybe Bryan Ferry should do it.
Again, you got exactly the right person. But Robert Palmer would be the one. Oooh! With that classic 80s production, you know, go for completely ch-pow…! (imitates the sound of an eighties drum sound) “Time’s a signal -pow!- and you wait for changes…” .
And maybe that video with the models.
Yeah, bring them back! Bring the same women back at 50! It would be fantastic.
Maybe YOU should do that video. If you ever do a video of that song…
Maybe that’s what I should do. This is a GREAT idea… this is a great idea. OK… I might do an 80s film clip. ‘Learn To Burn’ with the Robert Palmer women… All right, I’ll look at that.
Songwriters on the run, apart from being one of the best song titles in years, is so beautiful, and fragile. To me it sounds like it opens a whole new seam, a type of song you could excel at. Melancholic but sweet. Almost like a Grant McLennan song.
I agree with you. I think it’s the best melody on the album, and it’s a melody I was very proud of. When I wrote that it had a classic feel to it, more than anything on the record, in terms of melody.
And your wife’s voice on the song.
That was her idea! I was looking for things that were new on the record, so when she suggested that it was great. There are so many songs I like where there are two people singing through. And I’d never sung a song all the way through with a woman. So again it was ‘this is new, and it works’. There was a lot of things where we went ‘that’s a new idea, let’s put it on. Let’s try it’. And you’re right, it’s a melody that Grant could have written, it has that beauty.
In another part of the promotional video there’s a lady who says that you spent a long time compiling The Go-Betweens box set…. and she said “it drove him crazy”… is that true? Certainly it is an awesome piece of work, incredible documentation, it’s amazing. And your text about the band’s history is magnificent too. Did it really drive you crazy? Is that true?
It is real. That’s why the album took seven years, it was supposed to take five… and we were working on this, and getting it right. It came out on Domino Records, and they thought it was just going to take two years, they thought it was going to come out quicker. We were just trying to get it exactly right. The book was the most interesting and exciting part of it. It put this together with Matt Cooper, who is the art design person for Domino, he works out of London, in Shoreditch. And the albums I knew already, THIS was the exciting thing for me. And also I love books, and I was writing a lot of the sleeve notes… this was a big thing for me. Sitting with Matt with the computer, and talking about what type of paper, and the layout… we’d move that photo there, that text in there… that was a very interesting and exciting thing for me to do.
What about the next box? Is it ready yet?
God, no! But what’s good is, now we have the model. And this was the main thing: you know, Matt is also a person who is very much into detail. So for example we were getting the box, and we were ‘we have this box’, kind of like a pizza box, and then there’s this other one… choosing stuff. We were looking at types of paper…
How many of your very own 10 Rules of Rock n Roll have you broken in this record?
But maybe number 9? (‘great bands don’t have artists making solo albums’)
Not really. It means ‘when you’re in a band’. You see, when the Go-Betweens were going there were no solo albums. Because when you’re in a band you want every good idea you’ve got to go into the band. As soon as I see bands and they start making solo albums, I go ‘ok, it’s not the end of the band, but their next album won’t be as good’. You take some of your ideas over there, you take some of your songs over there… When The Beatles were together there were no solo records. Even a band like U2, and I admire them: no solo albums. There are no Bono solo albums, there are no Edge solo albums. These guys, every good idea they have goes into U2. I admire that.
Do you keep a copy of the now extremely expensive first Go-Betweens singles?
For many years I didn’t, but then recently my mother gave me a copy of ‘Lee Remick’ that belonged to my grandmother, and she also gave me two copies of ‘People Say’.
Lee Remick, one copy available on the website Discogs, price 1,492.79€ .People say, one copy, 688€…how do you feel?
Well, I think it’s great. And when we did the box set, I didn’t want do facsimiles of these first two singles. I wanted only 500 to exist. And there are only 500 of Lee Remick and 750 I think of People Say. I just want them to be what they are, I didn’t want us to make copies of that. In the next album there will be more copies of 16 Lovers Lane, Liberty Belle and Talullah, that’s fine, the albums can keep on coming. But I’m happy that’s what it is.
I’ve read you saying that the songs on ‘Song To Play’ are mostly from 2007 or 08 till 2010/11…. are you working on any new songs? It’s been 4 years since then! You must have new songs…
I do. What happened is I wrote a lot between 2007 and 2010. I wrote nine or ten really good songs, and then I thought I had the album written. And then I started working on the box set but everyone was telling me that I couldn’t put out my solo album since that came out. So I sort of stopped songwriting. And then I wrote one other song, in 2012, which is really good. When we recorded the album we recorded 12 songs, so we left two off. Those two will be on my next album, because I love these songs, one of them would have been one of my two or three favourite songs of ‘Songs To Play’ but we didn’t get it right. And also, vinyl… you only get 38 minutes here. I wrote ‘Learn To Burn’ before the album as well. When I was in the studio, because you have a guitar in your hand, I wrote two songs. So I now have theoretically four songs for my next album. Which makes me feel good it’s like a good start. Also, when I’m touring I have a guitar all the time, in soundchecks, things like that…so I’ll be songwriting a bit on the road. When my next time will come out I have no idea, but there’s a start.
What’s Adele Pickvance up to?
She’s in Sydney, she’s writing her own songs at the moment… she’s well.
Your Prince cover version on Australian television. How was that?
It was good… it was a lot of lyrics to remember. So if you look at my performance I’m trying to remember the lyrics, I’ve got this look on my face. It’s good… when I saw it on TV it came across better than I thought.
The line ‘please don’t twitter, let me imagine you’ has been celebrated by many reviewers and fans. But….you seem pretty confident and happy in your new position of social media-savvy artist on Facebook.
Yeah, I am VERY 2015! I’m totally up with modern technology. I don’t have a phone, but I’ve got a computer… it’s there! (points at his bag). Tell people, tell them I’ve got a computer. (laughs)
I’ll stop for petrol and I’ll stop for Dylan’… Have you actually met him? Or any of your idols?
No. I sort of have a rule: “never meet your idols”.
I’m happy so far, meeting you.
Oh, thank you… I’m an exception! (laughs) I have the vision of people through the work they’ve done and I’m happy with that. And honestly… there’s a few times I’ve said no, and I think that… you know, for those people that’s ok, they don’t need to meet me.
Parenthood and being a pop star: how difficult is it?
Easy! Easy! I feel very comfortable with that. I never saw myself as “as soon as you become successful you become this character, and then you try and completely remove from daily life, and you become this shielded thing, and you become caricature of yourself…” it was not something that I wanted to do. Not that I perhaps had the chance to do it, because I never sold enough records, but I never wanted to become Robert Smith, where I had to keep on dying my hair black, I had to keep putting the white makeup on, I had keep putting red lipstick on…I didn’t want to keep doing that. I’ll get older and that’ll be a natural thing. I come from a fairly happy family, so family life is important to me, and they coexist quite well. And also I don’t live in an area where I’m recognised all the time. I forget most of the time that I have any type of reputation anyway, and I feel very comfortable in the family.
What is your live show going to be like?
When I play here in January it will be acoustic. In Germany I may play with my wife, we usually come over for Christmas and New Year, and so the whole family is coming over, so in Germany it’s the family on the road. The Australian tour will be with a band.
I think your back catalogue has amazing songs that people seem to have forgotten. Like for instance ‘Surfing Magazines’. What a melody, what a song!
I know. I know…
Totally underrated in your catalogue of songs…
Totally. It’s a song I play in every show. Every show.
Do you? That’s great, because in my town there’s a bar, a small bar which is really charming, and I dj there like once a month. And I play ‘Surfing Magazines’ every time I dj. And you know what? The song has developed its own sort of fan club… people who over the months have been asking ‘what’s that song?’ and that now celebrate it and cheer whenever it starts playing.
I love that song, and I love the idea that in Pamplona that song’s being played. Listen, can you do me a favour? keep doing that.
Of course I will.
So when I’m in Brisbane… Saturday night, Friday night, once a month, I’ll know that ‘Surfing Magazines’ is playing far away, in a Pamplona bar. That means a lot to me.
The interview ends here, but Robert is keen on speaking a bit more and he asks about my city, my job; then we chat briefly about my son and parenthood. After signing a couple of records (“it’s never embarrassing”) he orders a lime and pineapple smoothie and I’m back to real life. Go to Revista Don to see the photos of that day and the interview in Spanish.