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THE DREAMER AND THE STRATEGIST: THE LAST GO-BETWEENS INTERVIEW BRINGS WIND BACK WEDNESDAY TO BRISBANE, AND PARIS AND NEW YORK AND LONDON AND …

May 7, 2019

In this week, 13 years ago, Grant McLennan died. Suddenly, shockingly. It brought an end to a band he’d formed with Robert Forster in 1978, but more importantly permanently severed a partnership which had survived penury, rivalry, a decade apart, and a reunion which flourished as if reborn.

 

In this interview, conducted a few months prior to his death, as McLennan and Forster relived the past for an arts festival and prepared to create the future for themselves, the two men talked meetings, discoveries and renewal.

In a pair of pristine RM Williams moleskins and a neatly pressed striped shirt Robert Forster strides across what could be some science fiction set: not necessarily post-apocalyptic, more post-Logan's Run.

 

Brightly lit by a mid-morning sun already baking, this collection of blank-faced high-rise apartments and empty shopfronts, across a traffic-filled road from Moore Park's greenery, sits atop eerily empty streets filled with parked/abandoned cars.

 

This new suburbs-in-one-go is by humans but without any sign of humans, save for us, and is not inviting, nor relaxed and most certainly not Brisbane, home of Forster and his partner in the Go-Betweens, Grant McLennan.

 

Untroubled by these thoughts behind his oversized sunglasses, the long form of Forster ("the Big Man" to McLennan) purposefully walks on, eventually taking us to an inhabited corner of the estate and a coffee shop which has already served him breakfast this morning. Soon McLennan joins us, dressed, in typical contrast to his dandy of a partner, in long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans.

 

In a few hours the 48-year-old pair and younger bandmates Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thomson will perform songs which range in age from one year to 27 years old to an audience principally made up of teenagers enjoying their first outdoor music festival.

 

The Go-Betweens will be arch and amusing, play relatively softly in a sea of amped up guitars and ask "why do people who read Dostoevsky always look like Dostoevsky?", instead of "hey Sydney, you ready to rock?". And rather than being howled down, they will go down a treat.

 

It's an incongruity, but hardly the first or last in the story of the Go-Betweens. After all, this is a band begun in 1978, during the peak of the brutally buffoonish Bjelke Petersen regime and in the immediate aftermath of punk, by two straight but provocatively campy Queensland University arts students infatuated with Bob Dylan, Francois Truffaut, Paris Match, the Monkees, the Village Voice and New York's mid '70s music scene.

A band who took their slightly fractured melodies and oddly shaped rhythms - the latter courtesy of the brilliantly idiosyncratic drumming of Lindy Morrison - applied them to lyrics of unabashed sensitivity and droll humour, and then quietly sold them to the British and American underground alongside more rambunctious contemporaries such as Nick Cave's wild Birthday Party and Ed Kuepper's free jazz-inspired Laughing Clowns.

 

A band whose influence can still be felt and heard in the alternative pop realm, from Ben Lee and Melbourne's arthouse pranksters Architecture In Helsinki, to Robbie Williams new songwriting partner Stephen Duffy and the hottest unsigned band in the USA at the moment, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

 

And not least a band whose song about growing up in country Queensland, McLennan's Cattle And Cane ("I recall a schoolboy coming home/through fields of cane/to a house of tin and timber/and in the sky/a rain of falling cinders") was voted one of the 30 best Australian songs of all time by their songwriting peers in 2001.

 

If that is not enough incongruity, consider the most recent and telling example. At the moment another of their contemporaries, INXS - who also formed in 1978, in Sydney, and went on to bestride the world (and several famous actresses and models) while selling some 20 million albums of much more accessible and understandable funked up rock - are offering almost a parody of themselves after finding a new singer via a television talent quest.

 

Meanwhile, the Go-Betweens, a band who never seriously troubled the middle, let alone the upper reaches of the charts ("The only people we appealed to were a fistful of wanky journalists and some university students," a somewhat embittered Lindy Morrison said in 1993) and whose closest brush with celebrity shagging was the unrequited love in the 1979 single, Lee Remick, have been asked to tell their story in song and reminiscences as part of the Sydney Festival.

 

The show is called Danger In the Past. Incongruously (of course), the name comes from the title track of Forster's first solo album, released at the beginning of the 10 years he and McLennan spent apart before reforming the Go-Betweens in 1999. But it is a name with particular resonance for the band resettled in Brisbane after nearly two decades living in Sydney, London and Regensberg, Bavaria.

 

In Brisbane the past is everywhere.

As Forster explains on a recent DVD, when he first heard McLennan play Cattle And Cane in a draughty English flat in 1982 he thought with admiration and envy: "he's done it, dug up the past" and from then on the past was not another country but fertile fields for both men. Even last year's widely praised Oceans Apart, their tenth album, features a song called Darlinghurst Nights which begins with Forster opening an old notebook only to have images of "gut rot spaghetti … and always the traffic, always the lights" take over.

 

"It's certainly unusual for any kind of pop band, especially when we were 21, 22, 23, to be looking at things like that," says McLennan of the song which he considers a breakthrough for his nascent songwriting. "I think with Cattle And Cane it was more home sickness. Living on a cattle station and then finding yourself in London and finding yourself in a milieu ….

 

 “We hadn't really lived outside Brisbane. We had spent a few months in Melbourne before we left and we had briefly been there [in London] in 1979 but it was kind of like a big world and I think in some way I was little desperate to hang on to that core thing. That hasn't really left me I don't think."

 

That need freed him to tap into the core of not just his memory but his life.

 

"It did," McLennan says. "[Blocking out the past] was like armour in a way and now you could always dip into that well."

While McLennan says that the past is important lyrically but not musically or emotionally, it's different for Forster, whom McLennan affectionately calls "The Strategist".

 

"I rake over everything," Forster laughs. "I think a lot about the past most of the time. Not necessarily to learn from past mistakes either. I find it a very good area just to roam about in with your mind. Cities set me off, people set me off. I find it's always pretty much with me.

 

“But the one thing I try and do, and this touches on what Grant said, even when I try to work it up it's not with bitterness."

 

Not surprisingly then it is Forster who remembers most clearly how this partnership began. Was it a Mick Jagger and Keith Richard thing of seeing someone on the railway station holding a stack of cool records, I wonder?

 

"It was, it was, exactly a Keith and Mick moment," Forster says. "I have a very distinct memory of Grant on the steps of the Avalon Theatre, Queensland University. Grant and I knew each other before this, a little bit, and I saw Grant standing there with either Ian Hunter's first solo album or Ry Cooder's Paradise And Lunch, maybe a film magazine. And I thought, that's interesting, there's someone carrying records I can relate to.

 

“[One time Go-Betweens bassplayer] Robert Vickers has made this point that people in the '70s in Brisbane carried records around as a little sign [to each other]. And that was a moment, a moment that sticks in my mind. You see, people at Queensland University doing arts degrees were mainly trained to become teachers and Grant was the only other person I knew who, like me, didn't really have a plan. He was a bit of a drifter like me."

If these drifters did drift apart for a decade, releasing several solo albums each, they drifted back together in 1999 for some acoustic shows as a duo, which became a year later the first of what are now three "reunion" albums. And of course a permanent return to Brisbane.

 

"I think proximity is very important," says Forster. "Any creative partnership can work at a distance, at times, but only at times. That is a major reason why I moved back because that intensity has to be there. You can't put out a half-arsed Go-Betweens record; we'd never live it down.

 

“It's not a mystical thing with the Brisbane water; it's not the angle of the sunlight at three o'clock in the afternoon. It's just a practical working town. Grant and I like to romanticise it but theoretically we could be in Pittsburgh. It's proximity, it's a town that is not coming at us too much and yeah, we can plug into all that university days, childhood sort of stuff."

 

McLennan adds: "We can romanticise it and say could live in apartments in New York or a warehouse in Lisbon but when it comes down to is we're a village band as opposed to a big urban band, a Melbourne or Sydney band.”

 

“On one level there are so many more people and more streets, there is a more chaotic kind of neurotic energy [in a big city] and the Go-Betweens was a band about walking around the corner and calling in on a friend who is an artist or something,” he goes on. “Sometimes it's so small that it is absolutely intolerably boring but then the next day the sun comes out or a storm comes up in the afternoon and it's wonderful again. There is less ego there."

 

McLennan smiles, turning to Forster: "I don't think there's much neuroses in our music. Some people say the Big Man is psychotic but I know him and he's not. "

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