Perfect Sound Forever


Robert Christgau & Carola Dibbell
(February 2011)

In September of 2008, we conducted a three-hour interview with Robert Forster, who led the Brisbane-based Go-Betweens with Grant McLennan from 1978 until McLennan's death in May, 2005, and was touring in support of his still-current album, which has the strangely coincidental title The Evangelist--strange because the interview was supposed to run in the music issue of The Believer in June, 2009. Due to our own negligence we didn't get around to editing until nearly that time. So instead it ran in 2010. We initially cut it to 7000 words, but in the end The Believer had room for perhaps 5000. We could have published it online in longer form, but decided in consultation with his U.S. label rep—Forster is sometimes slow about answering emails, and this was one of those times—that he was the kind of old-fashioned guy who'd rather be in the print version. So it ended up not only without the long discussion of Robert's prize-winning new vocation in critical prose at the end, which had already bytten the dust, but without the briefer exchanges about Robert's family background and the band's rhythmic practices that precede it here.


RF: Both of us had been to private schools.

RC: How did you get to go to private school?

RF: My parents scrimped and saved. Grant was a different story.

RC: Right, his father was a doctor and a landowner too, right?

CD: And what did your parents do?

RF: My father was what's called a fitter and turner, he worked in factories. My mother was originally a phys ed. teacher.

RC: So she had a little education.

RF: She did. More than my father. She then went over to raising us as children. Then when I was around eight or nine went back to the workforce to keep the income going, because we were already enrolled in private school.

RC: Do you have siblings that they also did this with?

RF: Yeah.

RC: So they really wanted their children to do better.

RF: Exactly.

RC: And your choice of the bohemian path then becomes difficult.

RF: Yes, it led to years of, not estrangement…

RC: I know. I went through the same thing.

RF: It was something that was unknown to them. I went through very difficult years between the ages of seventeen and twenty, before the band. And the band was no great solution, but the band looked fantastic compared to what I was doing before, which was failing at university. And so, at least I could say I was doing something. But you know, it's . . . they're fine with it. But up until recently my father, and Grant's mother I know, was very much when are you going to get a job.


CD: You were very conscious about what you did with rhythm. One thing you would do was to make a joke about what the expectations were, about the rhythm--where you should be. And then you would not be there.

RF: Absolutely.

CD: You were even doing something like that with that whoa-whoa business, speaking of ‘50s influences. Because the song is about a librarian and literature--

RC: The reference here, folks, is to "Karen," an early song in tribute to a librarian—a composite of many librarians Robert knew—with great lines like "She gives me Hemingway!" But later on Robert Vickers provided extra room rhythmically on bass. He was the complement, right?

RF: He's sticking on the beat. Lindy has a very mathematical approach to drum playing. It's very much broken-down beats and counting beats and counting bars. It was intuitive, but it was also very very in the mind.

RC: Were you aware of those things as songwriters?

RF: I'll tell you a story. John Brand, who produced Before Hollywood, was supposed to be the "real" producer we had never really worked with. He had done XTC, Aztec Camera, and he was amazed. "Do you realize that everything you're doing is in fours? The song constructions are all classical, the middle eights, everything." You couldn't hear this because the music was quite strange. But Grant, myself, and Lindy knew all this stuff. We did have classical underpinnings.

RC: By that you mean classic punk?

RF: Yeah. It was like the middle eight, intro here, the two verses, there's another, there's an outro, then we bring back the middle eight.. And it's all in eighths, and fourths, and sixteenths, and it's all classic punk stuff. But it didn't sound like it, because we were experimenting with rhythms. And because my guitar parts were quite skittish. Rhythm and lead guitar mixed. Our singing might not have been traditional. We didn't have a baritone rock star up front.

RC: How would you describe your level of technique on the guitar at that time? You weren't soloists, really.

RF: No. This plays into our hands as well, you see. The advantage is a sense of invention, a sense of not knowing the clichés. I'm not gonna write a straight rock and roll song, you know what I mean? This is very hard to explain. I think I'm a natural performer, a natural rock and roll performer. When we perform now, a lot of it has a spontaneity that I like, a looseness, which I think comes from a certain feeling I have for the music. But at the same time I am aware of the clichés of performance as well.

CD: And you want us to hear that somehow?

RF: I see myself as a combination of both.


RC: Tell me about writing criticism, not—as I'm all too aware—an especially remunerative occupation. The Monthly, your regular outlet, is that Australia-wide?

RF: Yes.

RC: How do you find writing critical prose as opposed to writing songs? Does it come easily?

RF: It does, and it surprises me, that discovery of being able to write paragraphs, because I've been trying to write starts of stories, starts of novels, for years…

RC: So you've tried to write fiction and not succeeded?

RF: I fell on my ass, as you'd say here. I was actually trying something for years that I couldn't do, like trying to write dialogue and I would have all these strategies. I think of it like a building, and it fell down. I'd never thought of writing non-fiction, and suddenly someone approaches me and from the very first time, the Antony and the Johnsons album, I could see that I was doing something that I could never do before, which was write paragraphs.

RC: And you don't agonize over transitions? Do you think hard about your language?

RF: Oh yes, of course.

RC: So here. From your Joe Boyd review: "He graduated in early '64 and in any other decade would have gone in a cozy professional niche for life, but this is the sixties, so his first job is tour-managing Muddy Waters." Period. New graf. "This is where the fun begins." Can you remember how hard it was for you to come up with that apparently artless transition?

RF: No. [All laugh].

RC: Here is another example: "Over the next few years, with these jobs in place, Boyd meets a fantastic array of eccentrics and the soon-to-be-famous." Now, although as an editor I would certainly print that sentence, as a writer I would never write "fantastic array" because it's a bit of a cliché. Do you have second thoughts about that? It's a question of tone, strategy. I don't want to get in the way, if you have a flow going, forget I ever asked you these questions. But you read very easily and it reads as if you write very easily. Many people who read that way don't write easily at all.

RF: Yeah, I think what helped, the Boyd book played into my strengths. That territory was something that I knew. I let my enthusiasms come over. My actual style and my tone just comes naturally. "Fantastic array," but I'm writing for a fairly broad audience, and perhaps just I'm hitting on something [snapping vigorously] and then sometimes, not every metaphor can be—well, sometimes, you know, it's like the Stones. They're going to be solid and you know what they are—"fantastic array"—and then you can go to something…

RC: I would say that there's not a whole lot of metaphor in this writing.

RF: No, you're right.

RC: You go for a clarity, and this has a lot to do, if I understand you correctly, with your sense of who you're writing for. That if you're writing for a more specialized, esoteric audience you might labor harder and perhaps not read as well.

RF: [Laughs] Yeah, no, no, you're exactly right.

RC: Nelson George, the greatest journalist of African-American music, who has since gone on to bigger things, like producing films and working for BET, once told me—he grew up in the projects in Brooklyn—that he never wanted to write a sentence that somebody who read nothing but The Daily News couldn't understand. And he had that quality of clarity. I don't. You do. And it's rather different from the aesthetic of your songwriting.

RF: I think they're separate, and it surprises me. All this is so new to me. But, in terms of directness, an example came to me. I went down to Melbourne recently and the people who put out The Monthly, who also have a publishing arm, they gave me The Best Australian Short Stories of 2007. I sort of half-read a lot of the stories and, to me, it was all difficult beginnings. It was almost like challenging you to get in.

RC: I think that's a no-no myself.

RF: And then I picked up the Sydney Morning Herald when I was flying back on the plane. There was a story on a fashion designer and her daughter, and the journalist did two paragraphs, sort of as an intro, and I realized that intro was better than the whole of the short story book. It was just information. You know, like: mother, daughter, fashion, Sydney, what they're doing. The other people who are writing in The Monthly have academic backgrounds, and so I'm aware there's a semi-professionalism to what I do, but it's the way that I want to write. I give a description of the book, but with flavor.

RC: You're a big, big reader

RF: Yes.

RC: And you read mostly fiction?

RF: Non-fiction. And so it doesn't surprise me that I'm writing non-fictiion . . .

RC: Do you read a lot of criticism?

RF: No . . .

RC: You read Dave Hickey's Air Guitar, at my suggestion the last time we met.

RF: I love that book. I LOVE that book.

RC: There is somebody who really reads easily.

RF: He does.

RC: But who writes these incredibly sparkling sentences, these extraordinary epigrams, and believe me, my understanding is he sweats blood. It may look easy, but it really isn't easy at all.

CD: And the other book that Bob has been using in his courses is The Disappointment Artist, by Jonathan Lethem. He's a novelist and very musically hip. It's a collection of essays which are memoir-like criticism.

RC: He's a big Go-Betweens fan.

RF: He is talking about books and records?

RC: And films. There's one about John Ford's The Searchers. There's one about Edward Dahlberg, the title piece. These are extraordinary essays. Do you know who Dahlberg is? American bohemian nihilist, really big among the Beats, a very pessimistic guy. He ended up teaching in Kansas City and he taught Lethem's aunt there and was horrible to her. And even though he thought she couldn't write at all, she became a rather successful writer of children's books in her late forties. And he compares the oeuvres of these two people whose lives touched each other. It's amazing.

RC: The Disappointment Artist, next to Air Guitar, is my favorite recent book of criticism.

RF: Oh, Hickey knocked me sideways. Las Vegas. Liberace.

RC: We just saw him in Las Vegas. I edited him in the ‘70s.

RF: Tell me about Hickey.

CD: He won the MacArthur Fellowship, you know.

RC: He says he's got two collections that should be out by the end of 2009, but I got the sense that he wasn't sure. I mean it's been a long time since that book was published. He's not quick. He was fired from his job in the art department at University of Nevada Las Vegas two weeks before he got his MacArthur. And he went back to the art department and they said, No, we don't want you. So he went to the English department and they said, Yes, we'll give you a job, Mr. Las Vegas Resident Who Just Won a MacArthur. Yeah, OK, you can teach here. So he teaches writing and English.

RF: And the Nelson George book?

RC: The Death of Rhythm and Blues is his famous history of black music. It's 22 old now, but Hip Hop America is a good, solid Daily News reader's introduction to hip hop. Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop is deeper. A lot of it is about the Bronx and all that stuff. Then there's Ned Sublette, Cuba and Its Music. Not only the best book about Cuban music in English, the best book about Cuban music period, and the best book about Cuba ever written in English. It ends in 1953.

RF: It ends in 1953!

RC: That's right. It's an unfuckingbelievable book.

RF: I don't know how I'm going to carry it all on the plane.

RC: [laughs] Well, Amazon delivers.

See more about Robert Forster at his website

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