I went along tonight to a free event at Queensland State Library where I saw Robert Forster in conversation with Andrew Stafford. The pair were talking about the legacy of Grant McLennan. McLennan died in 2006 and he and Forster were the creative heart of one of Brisbane’s finest gift to music: The Go-Betweens. Interviewer Stafford’s book “Pig City: from the Saints to Savage Garden” is a musically history of Brisbane, the city Forster and McLennan called home either side of a long stint in exile.
Stafford began by asking was their early move to London done for creative reasons. Forster said it was because they could finally see the bands they were reading about in the 1970s. They saw the Cure at the Marquee, Scritti Politti, The Fall, Gang of Four, Bauhaus and Simple Minds. They saw the Pretenders the week “Brass in Pocket” reached number one. Forster called it a crash course in musical education. “Interesting bands would only come to Brisbane every four months or so, but in London we were seeing bands three or four times a week,” he said. “It would have taken us five years to do in Brisbane”.
Stafford said it was almost a cliché now that bands no longer had to leave Brisbane to be successful. Forster disagreed and said not enough young Australian bands head overseas. “I could think of several bands who could do with six months in Berlin, Thailand or South America” he said, with more than a passing nod to Nick Cave’s Sao Paolo period.
Stafford then asked about Forster’s return to Brisbane in 1992 after eleven years away and whether he thought of it as a transitional phase of the city. Forster said he arrived back with no set of preconceptions. He met up with the members of local band Custard and its alter ego COW (Country or Western). Both bands were the brainchild of James McCormack. Forster said their music was like the Go-Betweens’ late 70s material and meeting McCormack was like “running into a younger version of myself”. But, he said, they made music together on Forster’s Calling From A Country Phone album in 1994 despite the fact “I was 34 and they were all 22 or 24”.
Stafford then asked Forster about the newest album The Evangelist, his first solo recording in 12 years and which was recorded in London. Forster said he wanted it to sound different. He wanted “big, clean sounds” with “piano, voices, acoustic guitar, no drums”. Forster said it was a return to the familiar London environment he worked in during the 80s. “London has always been good to me,” he said. “I had good recording times there”.
The album includes three songs written by McLennan. Forster said he first heard the songs in February 2006; three months before McLennan died. After they played the songs they were talking about Audrey Riley, a British cellist the pair met in London in the 1980s. Her career took off after she did the strings for their fourth album “Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express”. Forster invited her to do the strings on the new album on McLennan’s song “Demon Days”.
Stafford asked how difficult was the album to record in the studio where he did so much work with his former partner. Forster admitted he was worried by that, “but there were no scary moments, I mean pianos never suddenly started playing!” But it was difficult to get over the death of his professional partner of 30 years. “Part of it felt “like madness, but I’m glad we did it,” he said. “I thought it was going to get all ‘stoopy’, but it didn’t. Process takes over”. That musical process helped Forster get over his loss and record the album, entitled “The Evangelist”.
Stafford asked him to name his five favourite McLennan songs. Forster named seven: The Wrong Road, Cattle and Cane, Bye Bye Pride, Magic in Here, Finding You, Quiet Heart and The Clock. This creativity befits a man whose death was mourned in NSW’s parliament. Forster said McLennan had the gift of finding a new melody for basic chords. He remembers going around to McLennan’s house in New Farm where he played Forster the new tune he wrote “Finding You”. It had “great verse, great chorus, and an incredible middle eight,” said Forster, “ I thought: fuck! He nailed it!”
Stafford asked why three of McLennan’s last six songs did not make it to the new album. Forster said he “didn’t get” those songs. “Grant is a different singer to me”, he said. To do his songs justice Forster had to sing in McLennan’s key but these three songs didn’t work. He said he might give two of them away to other performers. One is quite rocky,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone, but I might give that one to Powderfinger!”
Forster said the album had to be true to his partner but there was always a contrast between them. He admitted McLennan could be “tetchy” and hard to work with at times. Telephone conversations would be terse and he could be cruel and cold. “At times you had to reintroduce yourself to him, talk about bands or movies you’d seen, the cricket, anything to get him going again,” he said. McLennan was moody, but “there was truth in that moodiness”.
Forster has brought back bassist Adele Pickvance and drummer Glenn Thompson from the Go Between’s final line-up for the new album. He said both were great friends and he couldn’t imagine making music without them. Adele lives in the Brisbane suburb of Paddington and Forster said she is his first port of call with the songs for the new album. “We’ll meet at ten, have a coffee, talk silly Brisbane rock gossip and then play music,” he said. “Adele played bass and mandolin as I played these new songs”. Forster described the songwriting process as “real music therapy” after Grant died. He will be showcasing songs from the new album (as well as singing McLennan’s own “Finding You”) on his national tour next month. Forster plays the Powerhouse in his home town Friday 15 August.
Forster / McLennan "Bye Bye Pride"