THERE’S MORE THAN ONE STORY inside every diagnosis, inside every family, and every album.
While Robert Forster’s The Candle And The Flame is, at least when heard in retrospect, suffused with the sombre notes of life with cancer, (for Forster’s wife, the psychologist and musician Karin Baumler), and everything changing around, it also has the deepening pleasures of a family coalescing in new ways. Not to mention the humour.
In the film clip for Tender Years, Robert Forster lip syncs in the kitchen while preparing a breakfast, before breaking out into a superb/hilarious air guitar solo. His hero, Tom Verlaine, could never have pulled that off (well, yes, ok, his hero Tom Verlaine would never have thought to try it either).
“That clip is a slight exaggeration, a slightly blown-up version of what I can do and what I do in the kitchen in the morning,” he says laughing. “Air guitar … I don’t even have to have music on. I can do air guitar to Neil Young’s Like A Hurricane [he sings the solo, with full twang] while I’m standing there. I can even do the sound effects.
“The funny thing about that was that Louis, my son, plays the riff, and I had reservations [about the air guitar], but he’s okay with it. I mean, I’m not doing it to Steve Vai.”
The mention of Louis, whose day job is in Brisbane’s angular pop band, The Goon Sax, brings us back to the involvement of the family in this project. The first single, the lyrically sparse She’s A Fighter (which Forster discussed in the first part of this interview) was made by Forster, Karin, Louis and their daughter, Loretta, reflected in the starkly simple filmclip where the four of them begin arranged in a circle performing.
As said earlier in this conversation, in the early stages of Karin’s diagnosis and treatment, music was a distraction, an alternative focus, and a comfort.
“With Louis it started when he was about to go over the UK to do a tour with The Goon Sax and move there for a few months. The diagnosis came just before he left and he made the decision to stay, for at least six months, until Christmas,” says Forster. “That didn’t really mean anything in terms of the record, at the start, but it meant that as soon as Karin and I started to play we could see he could join us, and that was great for him that he was part of musicmaking with us.”
And music-making, the family love as much as the family business, was all it was at first. No one was planning anything, least of all Forster who has not written a full song since the news broke.
“We didn’t even know we were making a record until October; we were just playing at home,” he says. “Then we made this seven-hour session where we made it as a document because Karin was about to have her medical procedure. So [Louis] was here and started to come over. We had done a little bit of guitar playing before, so that was not new, but he was suddenly playing with us when he’d come over for a meal and we’d get the guitars out and go into this land of music that took the hospital visits and the medication and left it all behind.
“Instead of just hanging around and seeing how his mother was going, we were doing something and he was doing something. It was like, busy hands, and this is something I’ve learnt through this record, though I’ve always known it, just what music can do, and with friendships and long-lasting friendships as well as the broader culture. I hope I’m doing good things, that’s all I can say. I hope I’m remaining sane and doing things that make sense.”
Their daughter, Loretta, is not a professional musician but she is hardly free of the family obsession.
“She came when we were recording the album and played guitar on She’s A Fighter and sang on one or two songs. Probably the bigger involvement with her was being in the video, playing what she played on She’s A Fighter, and that was just an extraordinary moment when we made that video.
“With who played what on the album, it was like casting [a film], and with She’s A Fighter we decided, because it was the one song that I’d written the lyric after Karin’s diagnosis, that we would keep it to the four of us. No one else would play on that song,” explains Forster. “So when the video came it was just the four of us, and we could feel the power of it, we could feel the uniqueness of it when we were doing it, even with the cameras been set up around us and the four of us sitting on those chairs as they got the lights together.
“It felt like we never thought this would happen. We had never planned anything like this. But extraordinary circumstances lead to extraordinary things, and you’ve got to go with it, not be afraid. And that’s what we did.”
That feeling, of unity of purpose and shared love, as much as just doing what had to be done, permeates the record.
“The family aspect of it was unintended, and friendship as well: getting Adele [Pickvance, Brisbane musician and songwriter, bassplayer in the second incarnation of The Go-Betweens], I hadn’t played with Adele for ten years or something and she was part of the food group, friends of ours who were bringing food virtually every day. I just said to her one day, could you bring over your bass and an amp, and she walked in, sat down on a chair and started playing with Louis, Karin and I. And that was before we knew we were making a record.
“That’s the roots of it all, and I’m just glad that we made the record, that we did it, because it seems extraordinary to us now that amidst the chemo and hospital and days and weeks where Karin couldn’t get out of bed, that we made this record. It’s really, really lovely now, because we are on higher ground [health and prospects-wise], to know that we did that.”
The Candle And The Flame is out now. Robert Forster will be touring in May. See here for details.
YEARS BOTH TENDER AND BEAUTIFUL: read part one of this interview here
THE PAST ISN’T DANGEROUS, IT HASN’T EVEN PASSED: read part two of this interview here