The Go-Betweens
By Andrew Parks

Like couples, most artists reach a point where the choice is clear: it’s either time for space or driving one another to homicide. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan of The Go-Betweens took more than a break in the Nineties. They took the whole decade. The saccharine-rock duo earned a fervent following Stateside during the sex, coke and synth era of the Eighties. After churning out six records for Beggars Banquet, the pair split and worked on solo projects until 2000, when they reunited for the triumphant The Friends of Rachel Worth. Forster and McLennan finished their second post-Reagan full-length earlier this year, the sweet and wry Bright Yellow, Bright Orange. Rather than a disjointed continuation of their back catalogue, it’s an affirming sign of maturation. If there can be such a thing, The Go-Betweens have created a record that sounds a lot like respectable adult contemporary music. Harmonies float over gentle guitar strumming like a log floating down a river on a clear day. Melodies meld into clean hooks and a restful rhythm section. It’s all organic, warm and inviting. McLennan phoned in from his picturesque promenade in Briston, Australia back in February, while I knocked the snow off my shoes in Syracuse.

Hey man, how are you doing?
You have to talk up a bit mate.

Can you hear me now?
Yeah, but you are very soft.

How about now?
As long as you can hear me.

Alright then. How’s the weather in Briston?
It’s summer, very humid. Where I live is on the river looking over the city, so it’s beautiful.

Well, that’s nice. We just got a foot of snow here, my car got stuck and I almost didn’t make it home in time to do this interview.
Oh, okay. Yeah [surprised in tone], I know. I saw it on the news last night; you had record snow falls and everything.

So, your own record is coming out tomorrow, right?
I believe so.

Since you had some success with The Friends of Rachel Worth in 2000, are you still feeling pressure to live up to the success you enjoyed in the Eighties?
No, not at all really. Robert and I spent most of our summer last year working on all the new songs, thinking about what studio to go into. We knew we wanted to record in Australia again, so it just worked out fantastically well. It was a breeze. Everything felt right. So, here’s hoping (it does well).

How is recording between the two of you different now than it was in the beginning?
It’s still as fast as it always was. I like to think we trust ourselves, so we know what works and doesn’t. Also, it’s an absolute buzz working with (bassist) Adele [Pickvance] and (drummer) Glenn [Thompson]. They sing and play other instruments, so we didn’t have to do everything ourselves. It’s great to know that when you have a lot of touring ahead.

You said you like to work quickly. Did you write a lot of material in a short amount of time then?
Yeah, it depended. Sometimes you go through hot periods. I definitely think the songs we did for Bright Yellow, Bright Orange are some of the best stuff Robert and I have done. We also did a couple of different things on this record. I wrote the music and he wrote the words for it, so it was very Rolling Stones.

Did you find it hard sticking to songwriting and letting Robert write all the lyrics?
No, not at all. I think in some ways the band taking a sabbatical in the Nineties helped us because it meant we didn’t bore too many people. It also meant we could do different things, experiment a bit and work with different people. Since we started working together in 2000, it felt great.

Are you as happy with your solo work as you are with The Go-Betweens’ records?
Well, you know, happiness can be found in a lot of areas. I think creatively things are as good as they’ve been at the best of times. This is a very exciting period for us because we have lots of work to do. Personally, happiness is a bit like the tide, isn’t it?

Yeah, it comes and goes. But is that what led you to reunite, that you were frustrated with where your solo career was going?
No, not at all. It was just a happy circumstance. Our former label, Beggars Banquet, was putting out a Best Of for us, so we were doing interviews for that and playing some acoustic shows. Out of that, we started doing some new songs. Those songs fit in with our other work. So, it just seemed like, why not?

So it just came out of the Best Of record?
Yeah. It wasn’t like Robert rang me from his chateau in the Caribbean. It was an organic, natural thing.

What did you miss most about working with him?
His sense of humor, his clothes, his magazines. He buys a lot of magazines and I missed reading them. It’s also easy to get that rhythm we had back, and playing with Adele and Glen has cemented our ideas. It’s just fucking great.

You said you like to read magazines. Do you like to read the British music press, despite how hype driven it is?
Yeah, I like to read the music press if it’s well written about other bands. I am not so interested in looking at interviews I’ve done.

Do you prefer the British to American music press?
Not really. It depends on the magazine. Britain is a smaller country, so pop music is central to the culture there. There’s a turnover rate, always something happening and being reported. With any country, there are good journalists and bad journalists.

How about in Australia?
We’ve been handled pretty well.

Are you still hometown heroes there, or do people say, ‘Oh there’s old Grant again, making another record. Can’t he just pack it in?’
Actually, we just played a festival with Spoon and Marianne Faithful and we were called “contemporary Australian icons.”

How does it feel being labeled an icon?
I don’t know if I am an icon sort of a guy. But a lot of people there certainly went ape shit, so it felt good.

Are you afraid of being looked at as another VH1 casualty?
I know what you mean, but a lot of those bands were shit in the first place. We take what we do very seriously. If we thought in any way that the music we’ve been doing since 2000 would fuck with what we’ve already done, if it wasn’t as good or exciting to us, we wouldn’t have released it. We are also lucky our fans really care about our music.

Do you find yourself playing more of the new material, since there is such a gap between the two phases of your career?
That’s always a tough one. Robert and I went and saw Bob Dylan last week. He only did a couple songs off Love and Theft. When we played last weekend, eleven out of the nineteen songs we did were post-2000. People weren’t screaming out for Lee Remick all the time.

That has to be reassuring, that your fans aren’t just looking to hear the old hits.
Yeah, it is. What is really great is the band is playing well.

Did you see Dylan play in New Zealand?
No, we saw him in Briston, actually.

Was Ani Difranco opening?
She was.

Did you like her?
I’ve seen her play before. We had rehearsal, so we didn’t get to see her play this time. But sometimes, I find her music to be a little too one-note for me. I really admire the way she puts out a lot of records herself though.

The new record is rather concerned with memory. Were you reading a lot of philosophy during the sessions?
I am not too sure about Robert, but a lot of the songs I’ve written have been influenced by writers I like. I am very interested in memory and how it can be like a museum. It’s a great capacity humans have. I wish I could contemporize things for the people in the world who are war-minded at the moment. If they just took a step back and logged into their memory banks, things would be different.

What are your views on the ongoing war then?
Well, my view is like a lot of people. I don’t think countries can go into sovereign states without a United Nations mandate. There’s no mandate at the moment and there’s no sufficient evidence (of weapons in Iraq). I think everyone can agree that Hussein has been particularly cruel to ethnic minorities in his country and his neighbors. But I don’t think that allows people to go in and change the regime. The terrorist threat is something the whole world should be concerned about. And most countries are, whether they are a democracy or whatever. I think war is the final recourse and it never really works.

Do you feel most of Europe doesn’t support America now?
I think it’s unfortunate that people see this as just an American issue. A lot of people from other countries were killed on September 11th and in the Bali bombings. I see them as attacks on humanity, on tolerance. It’s a medieval view of the world. The West has moved on from that. If countries want to participate in the modern world, regardless of the many things the West should be ashamed of, at least they are allowed legal representation, an education. I could go on.

I would love you to. But we do need to talk about your music as well. Did you enjoy working with Sleater-Kinney in 2000?
They certainly share some of your worldviews. It was fantastic. They came and saw us play in San Fransisco the year before. We really like Dig Me Out. They liked some of our stuff. They are great women. It was a great experience.

Any chance of you touring with them in the United States?
I don’t know. We haven’t thought about it, but it would be great since we got along well. That would be cool. During the recording of Rachel Worth in 2000, we talked about doing a Belle & Sebastian/Go-Betweens/Sleater-Kinney “Rolling Thunder” kind of tour across the world. But it’s a bit difficult to organize Scotland, America and Australia.

You must love Bob Dylan, since you keep referencing him. What’s your favorite Dylan record?
At the moment, it’s Bringing It All Home.

Have you heard the live Rolling Thunder album that came out earlier this year?
Yes, I got it on bootleg quite a few years ago. It’s great. He was certainly on fire during that period.

You also like the Velvet Underground a lot, don’t you? Writers cross-reference your music with theirs quite a bit.
Well, it would be sacrilege to say I don’t. I don’t know how Lou Reed would take that [laughing]. I think the Velvets were a great band. I must admit I am not a fan of White Light, White Heat. I really like the first album. I liked it when the Velvets had a bit more pop in them.

After all the criticism of our country, can we expect you back in the United States anytime soon?
It depends on how the record does. We’ve played America lots of times. But as you know, it’s a huge country and sometimes it can feel like you are just bashing your head against the wall there. There are plans to do some dates in your summer, but it depends on whether people want to see us.

I wouldn’t expect you to leave your house by the water when the weather here is stormy.
Yeah, well, we need the record to percolate a bit since it just came out.

Do you feel any more motivated as a musician right now, due to the situation around the world?
Of course I am. Any responsible, intelligent person can see the situation is fucking scary. Something has to be done. A fair amount of this problem comes down to the Palestinian question. America’s support of Israel is to the detriment of many Palestinians and it has to be looked at. There needs to be some new dialogue and new players in this. It’s the same old warmongers.

Your music isn’t very political, though. I would say you’re more inclined to bring listeners up than bring them down.
I don’t sit down and say I am going to write a song about what it’s like in Baghdad at the moment. Maybe I should. But I’ve never been to Baghdad. I don’t have any friends in Baghdad. So I would feel phony doing it. But if the whole world – well, that would be a bit greedy. But if a lot of people just listened to Bright Yellow, Bright Orange, they would feel a lot better.

Allmusic.com calls you “perhaps the quintessential cult band of the Eighties.” Should we change “perhaps” to “is”?
No, I’ll take perhaps.

What do you think about Eighties music?
I must admit, most of it sucked. I find it quite humorous that there are bands now that think The Flock of Seagulls were good. But they are entitled to their opinion.

Do you have any guilty pleasures of your own from the Eighties?
No, guilty pleasures pre-suppose you shouldn’t like something because of who you are. I never feel guilty about my pleasure.

When you have toured here in the United States, have you ever thought, “man, they do everything ass-backwards here?”
No, I think Americans and Australians do a lot of things similarly. We have a lot of the same cultural reference points, we speak the same language, we’ve all grown up with rock n’ roll and we have that Anglo-Saxon connection. I do have to say, though, that for a while you were letting the team down with REO Speedwagon and those Limp Bizkit-y types of bands.

I think that’s over already.
May it rest in peace.

Sorry that you’ve had to struggle to hear me.
It’s not your fault. You should have a chat with AT&T because I have done a lot of these before and you are very distant.

So this is the worst interview you’ve done this week then?
No, it’s just the first.

Guess I have no competition then.
Yes, you don’t have any competition. You stay out of that snow now.

 

 

 


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