A Conversation With Robert Forster

News travels fast in the digital age, but back in the middle 1970s it took months for a British or American rock magazine to sail halfway around the globe to Brisbane, Australia. Every word or song that made that trip was precious to teenagers Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. Nourished by dreams of rock ‘n’ roll, poetry and art films, they willed themselves to become singer/songwriters and in 1977 founded the Go-Betweens.

Starting with 1978 single “Lee Remick” b/w “Karen” (a pair of Forster-penned songs that praised a movie crush and a librarian, respectively), the Go-Betweens navigated the mercurial vagaries of a music business that valued video flash over sharp writing skills and recorded a half-dozen brilliant albums. Exhausted and riven by the same internal tensions that sparked some of its best songs, the band split after 1988’s perfect-pop 16 Lovers Lane failed to break through, and Forster and McLennan commenced solo careers. But even when they were recording records that differentiated their respective aesthetics from the Go-Betweens’, the songwriters never fell out of touch. A second go-around in the early 2000s yielded four more excellent albums before McLennan died of a heart attack in 2006. 

Since McLennan’s passing, Forster has spent his time writing for Australian periodicals, assisting in the compilation of a boxed set covering the first six years of the Go-Betweens’ career, writing songs and the memoir Grant & I: Inside And Outside The Go-Betweens. The new Inferno (Tapete) is Forster’s seventh solo album since 1990. To record it, he left Brisbane, where he and wife Karin Bäumler have raised two children, and spent several weeks in Berlin during one of its steamiest months on record. Its songs set elegantly told personal stories—some autobiographical, others overheard—to lean, timeless music. 

You took up writing about music. Where is your writing published nowadays?
I don’t write music criticism anymore. I used to write regularly for an  Australian publication called The Monthly, but I stopped in 2013.

What music, either old or new, has moved you in recent months?
I haven’t listened to much music over the last years. Most of my time goes to writing prose or songwriting. So I tend to hear a song here or there. Recently I have been listening to “Letter To Hermione” from David Bowie—a beautiful acoustic song from the late ’60s. Maybe his first great song. And just yesterday I heard “All Things Must Pass” by George Harrison—a hole in my musical education. Both great late-’60s songs.

Your son Louis is in the band Goon Sax. Is there any advice that you have given him as he moves into the family business that you would like to also share with MAGNET’s readers?
I give him little advice. A piece of advice I give to every band is: Don’t say yes to every show you get offered. You attract attention when give the odd no. People are used and comfortable with a constant line of yeses.

Your wife has performed and recorded with you. Does your daughter also play, and is there a possibility of a family band down the road?
I like the idea of family bands. They should happen more often. But I don’t think it will happen with us. Our children must make their own way for a good while.

A boxed set of the Go-Betweens 1978-1984 was compiled and released a few years back. Will there be additional sets covering the rest of the ’90s and the 2000s?
Yes there will be a second volume The Go-Betweens Anthology. I am expecting it to come out towards the end of this year. It shall cover the years from 1985 to 1989.

When you first recorded in Berlin circa 1990, you were starting something new. What was the objective in returning to Berlin to record Inferno
The reason I recorded Inferno in Berlin has much to do with the producer and engineer of the album, Victor Van Vugt (Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Beth Orton). He lives there, and he has a studio there. That was why we recorded the record there.

Last summer was a scorcher in Europe. How inferno-like were your living and recording circumstances in Berlin, and was your usual life in Brisbane sufficient preparation?
Berlin last May and June when I was there recording Inferno was tropical Berlin. I was travelling on the underground railway to the studio—the U-Bahn—and it was very, very hot down there. Inferno-like on the way to record an album called Inferno. The irony when taking the journey each day to the studio was not lost on me.

In your book you describe being charmed by Bowie’s “Starman” in your youth, and “Inferno” sounds more Ziggy-like than anything else that I remember you recording. How did this come about, and what took you so long?
I don’t know why it sounds so Ziggy-like. It was a coming together of instruments and sounds in the studio, and suddenly there it was. I am amazed I haven’t done more glam-rock type stuff in the past, as it was a major part of my world as a teenager. Expect more.

What tour plans do you have to support Inferno? Might the USA be on the itinerary?
I will be touring parts of Europe and then Australia, and at the moment the USA is being scouted for me to play. I haven’t been there for 11 years, and I wish to return and play. We are trying to get there.

—Bill Meyer

A Conversation With Meat Puppets

Now is as good a time as any for an official Meat Puppets reunion. Brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood are back with founding drummer Derrick Bostrom for the first time since 1995’s No Joke!, the Arizona-bred trio’s impolite London Records send-off. And given Cris’ epic struggles with addiction, we could easily be talking post-mortem tribute right now. But this tale of excess has a relatively happy ending, beginning with his eventual recovery in the late 2000s and continuing with his reconciliation with big brother Curt.

And then there’s the new Dusty Notes (Megaforce). It’s the band’s first studio release in six years, and it was worth the wait. Curt has simplified his songwriting, cleaned up his vocals and eased up on the guitar histrionics. That’s opened up space for virtuoso keyboardist Ron Stabinsky and Curt’s guitarist son Elmo, who brings a more conventional rock grounding to his dad’s intricate Billy-Gibbons-by-way-of-Jerry-Garcia overlays. 

With just a couple months to go before their first U.S. tour in 20 years, Curt and Bostrom explain the band’s recent bout of productivity.

Dusty Notes is easily the Meat Puppets’ most keyboard-heavy album. Ron Stabinsky’s contributions are huge.
Curt: Ron had been coming to our shows for years. I didn’t even know he was a musician until he handed me a CD. We got together and played a little in Austin when he was in town with one of his bands. From there, I came up with a few easy little tunes we could play. That came out real nice, and it gave me some direction as to what I wanted to do with this album. And this is also the first album that Elmo is on.
Bostrom: Elmo’s shit is my favorite part of the record. It just kills. His parts are more classic rock, where Curt’s got that weird spaciness.
Curt: The first four songs are all Elmo on lead guitar. He can play a lot of different stuff—more than I can. You don’t hear me doing a lead on this album until the actual “Dusty Notes” song.
Bostrom: Curt kept the songwriting simple to give us a maximum amount of space. The whole process was so organic. I added my parts in pretty much one day. We recorded it in Phoenix with Cris’ friend Jeremy (Parker). Jeremy has helped out Cris a lot. The fact that he could talk his big brother into recording the album with his buddy, and having it come out as good as it did, is so cool.
Curt: There really wasn’t a lot of planning. It was kind of accidental—very fluid.

There’s a certain warmth and mellowness to this album.
Curt: Yeah, there’s not a lot of overt rock ’n’ roll. One of the big things is that we tracked acoustic guitars first. I also did that with Snow, my solo record with Pete Anderson. For this one, Elmo and I just laid down nice solid acoustics on everything. Drums got tracked to that, and then keyboards.
Bostrom: These songs do head to more of an Americana place—they sound a little bit more classic. Some of it sounds like gospel; some of it sounds like Stephen Foster; some it sounds like Tom Petty or Fleetwood Mac. But it’s still Meat Puppety.

Curt, your vocals are surprisingly clear—almost pristine.
Curt:
It was the right microphone for me—but I can’t remember what it was. The warmth of the vocals is really apparent. I generally didn’t sing with a whole lot of overt emotion. I mostly wanted to hurt people’s feelings—even if it was screaming nonsense. I never intended to sing. With my first few bands before the Meat Puppets, I was only the guitar player. Then there was just the three of us, and we thought about having a lead singer—but we decided, “Nah, that’s annoying.”
Bostrom: Curt used to like to come up with a bunch of words, and then if it got a little too close to home, he’d change them so they were nonsensical. He didn’t really do that this time. To fuck with people, I’ve been telling them that these new lyrics hold the key to understanding all of his old lyrics.
Curt: Once I started doing solo shows in the early 2000s, I began to see how much weight the words had. I realized that people like to hear them, though I never really thought about it until then. 

When the original lineup first disbanded in 1996, where did that leave you, Derrick?
Bostrom: I was never a huge fan of the whole rock shtick. It’s really easy when you’re sitting in the back of a van as the drummer in another guy’s band. I learned a lot about myself. I got a good opportunity to grow up, get married and get a job—I do IT for all the Whole Foods stores in Phoenix. Once we got a bunch of cats, I put the drums away. I never wanted to play with anybody else.

So what brought you back?
Bostrom: This whole thing with the Arizona Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. They’d wanted to induct us for a few years, and finally one of our heavy-hitter local promoters got on the phone with Curt, and we played the ceremony. I stayed in touch, but they already had a drummer (Shandon Sahm). Last April, I got I call from Curt saying [Sahm] had decided to move to Europe. He’d already recorded his tracks for the album, but Curt sent me the roughs and gave me the opportunity to compose new parts.

In going back through your ’80s work, I always seem to latch onto 1989’s Monsters. It has two of my favorite Meat Puppets tunes: “Light” and “Touchdown King.”
Curt: That was the last SST album. Atlantic made us a really good offer for it once it was done, and I wanted to give it to them. It was recorded for super-cheap, and they liked it. That led to the rift between us and SST.

And then, of course, you follow that up with your first major-label release (1991’s Forbidden Places), produced by—of all people—longtime Dwight Yoakam collaborator Pete Anderson.
Curt:
Pete knew who we were because he and Dwight had opened for us a number of years before. We learned so much from him, and that learning rubbed off when we made (1994’s) Too High To Die. He’s very methodical, and we’d never had a real producer. We’d never spent more than like eight grand on a record. (1984’s) Meat Puppets II was done in four days; (1985’s) Up On The Sun was literally 36 hours straight of recording and mixing. Once we played—if we played it right—it was done. 

I was a grad student at Arizona State University when I first saw you guys 30 years ago. If I recall correctly, Cris was wearing a kilt, and he taped his face to the mike stand for most of the show. My girlfriend was terrified. I was both horrified and fascinated by the whole display.
Curt:
Yeah, that wouldn’t have been too strange. I lot of the stuff we did was the result of the boredom we experienced between soundcheck and having to go onstage. We’d sit around and draw on ourselves, or whatever. There was very little you could do back then that was going to help or hurt your career in that scene. It was what it was—and it wasn’t really going anywhere.
Bostrom: If we couldn’t chase the audience out, we weren’t doing something right. We’ve never been about going onstage and doing what we know we can do. It’s always been about putting ourselves in the position to allow the X factor to occur—and that’s exactly why I returned. In this day and age, it just seems so fucking obvious that America has gone in a crazy direction. From all sides, people need to get a lot less comfortable with their assumptions. There are worse things in the world than having people not know what they think, because usually what they think is wrong to begin with.

—Hobart Rowland 

And Now For Something Completely Different: U.K. Comedian And Podcaster Andy Zaltzman Hits The U.S.

Andy Zaltzman might be a new face to comedy audiences in the U.S. But his verbal dexterity and his literary connections run deep within the U.K. comedy, radio and podcast scenes: as a stand-up taking part, annually, in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as a radio performer on self-created British programs such as Political Animal and The Department and through podcasts such as the wildly popular The Bugle. Those last three shows were written and performed in tandem with his old friend John Oliver, who eventually left the U.K. to find American fame courtesy of The Daily Show and his own Last Week Tonight. Zaltzman continued on in the U.K. and became renowned for his love and use of puns—he is the king of “pun run” riffing—and his caustic look at politics and sports. MAGNET caught up with Zaltzman in London preparing for his trip to America, with dates starting tonight at Laugh Boston in, well, Boston.

Twenty years since your start, are you as excited to twist the language as zealously as you did in 1999, or are you wearied by the turn of political events, often so bizarre it may be rough to lampoon?
Both. I still love my “job,” and it is always a challenge to find fresh approaches, twists and angles for comedy. And the news, the capricious idiot that it is, never ceases chundering out a generous deluge of events. That said, the world is so ridiculous that comedy can now sometimes be found in presenting a less absurd version of reality.

Not as if you were doing anything fringe-like such as speaking through a whale bone or hanging from a tree limb while doing a monologue, but, how do you feel your work has changed in terms of its presentation, its drama—its sense of theater—since the start? 
I’ve become increasingly interested in performance over the years. I only really thought about material in my early years on the comedy circuit in the U.K. I think much more about how to convey material, how to engage and surprise audiences with more than just the words I’ve written.

What does one get, as a comic, from a father who is a sculptor? I ask since both you and your sister are comics and podcasters?
The idea that getting a proper job is not the only way to conduct an adult life.

I have interviewed a lot of podcast hosts, some of whom do comedy—Greg Proops comes to mind—who keep their stand-up work and podcast work separate. Does one influence the other? Can you pull each apart enough so to create individual monologues? 
They definitely influence each other; The Bugle podcast is, largely, a written comedy show, so it’s an expression of my comedic ideas in the same way that my stand-up is, and I will touch on the same, or similar, topics in both. I often develop material I’ve written for The Bugle into a longer, less specifically topical, stand-up routine. Most of my stand-up audience comes from The Bugle.

I understand that you chose to remain in the U.K.’s Brexit vote and once told The Guardian, “I voted to remain and I feel European as much as I feel British. The whole tone of the leave campaign was negative and xenophobic, and a lot of the remain campaign was just selfish.” Now the Conservatives are grousing over the no-deal after May’s defeat. So, where do you stand now?
The entire story has shown British politics and democracy in a very bad light—there has been too much short-termism and self-interest, and a deep confusion over what we want and expect from our democratic system. Brexit has been an object lesson in how not to do democracy, from all sides. There is no happy way out of it now, and everyone is fighting to see their preferred least-rubbish solution put into action. Democracy is in a delicate, borderline-dysfunctional state around the world, I think. We are all going to have to raise our game.

Whether you miss working with John Oliver is one thing. What do you think of his humor now that he is mostly Americanized? I do believe that his HBO show does its best at global outreach, perhaps more so than other comic news shows, while his recent stand-up was more U.S. focused.
I do miss working with John—we’d written and performed together for almost 15 years, and always had a good rapport and complementary ideas. That said, I’ve also really enjoyed the rebooted Bugle, working with different comedians from around the world. His show is doing journalistic satire supremely well, and his outsider perspective as a Brit in America gives him a strong, independent comedic voice.

Your use of American partners at The Bugle, co-hosts Hari Kondabolu and Wyatt Cenac: Why them, and their U.S perspective?
When I restarted The Bugle, I wanted to use a range of cohosts from around the world, and they were two comedians I liked and admired.

What was the first pun you ever heard that pricked up your ears?
My father was a significant punfluence on me in my formative years.

You are not alone in your love of the pun. I know you have been asked this before, surely, but, why is it so rich, and how do you believe that you have made it your own form considering how tried-and-true it has become, and how often it is made awkward?
There is something timelessly joyous and pointless about comedic wordplay. Puns were prominent in Ancient Greek comedy, and I imagine they’ll be prominent 2,500 years from now as well, assuming the dinosaurs haven’t retaken the world by then. I’d never really used puns in stand-up, but the endless comedic acreage of a weekly podcast brought out my dormant punstincts. I tend to go for the ludicrously convoluted set-up when indulging in pun-type material, much of the comedy—or, most appropriately, intended comedy—comes from creating absurd scenarios and images, with the promise/threat of a word-play payoff at the end.

I am not asking to give me your entire U.S. set, but, do you have an idea of what you have planned for the States?
It will be mostly topical, so it depends what is in the news. It will be, essentially, an episode of The Bugle, with some added visuals, and Alice Fraser, a regular cohost and brilliant comedic mind, live on screen via the internet. Assuming the internet works.

—A.D. Amorosi

A Conversation With Bob Mould

The last time I saw Bob Mould, he was as fit as he’s ever been—almost unrecognizably so. It was 2002, and he was set to release Modulate, a curious stab at attaching electronica and various technological gimmicks to his blustery fusion of post-punk and power pop. To celebrate his return to recording after a four-year hiatus, Mould hosted a warehouse party in Atlanta for friends and press folks, where a talkative Mould did a short set highlighting the new material.

I wanted to like Modulate—as did most critics. Looking back, though, it may turn out to be to the lone misstep in a 30-year post-Hüsker Dü career marked by its consistent excellence. Suffice to say, the new Sunshine Rock (Merge) is no Modulate. In fact, it may be the crown jewel atop a trio of late-career triumphs that began with 2012’s Silver Age. Mould has not slunk quietly and insignificantly into his elder years—and Sunshine Rock may be his most emphatic statement since Sugar’s debut. It’s a near-perfect balance of Hüsker-esque rawness and driving pop hooks, with the occasional string arrangement lending unexpected emotional resonance.

We caught up with Mould in San Francisco, where he was prepping for his latest tour with bandmates Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster.

Sunshine Rock marks 30 years of solo work for you.
I should’ve noticed that. [Laughs] Workbook was released in the spring of ’89, so … yeah. 

Hard to believe, but the last time we talked was 17 years ago, when you were about the release Modulate. How are you feeling about this one?
I think this album is pretty great, though it was odd for me to take so much time to write. I’d been going at such a fast clip. The time between Silver Age, (2014’s) Beauty & Ruin and (2016’s) Patch The Sky was a few years. But a key thing that makes this thing exciting is the vocal approach. If you go back to the Sugar records, the vocals are meticulously stacked, for the most part. With Sunshine Rock, I didn’t work out a lot of the vocal arrangements ahead of recording. I knew the basic melodies and phrasing, but I didn’t belabor the vocal approach whatsoever. So it’s a lot more immediate sounding. I don’t think I sang any of these songs more than dozen times on the floor. I just said, “It’s in there somewhere—we’ll find it.”

Wasn’t the Shocking Blue cover “Send Me Postcard” a single-take vocal?
Yeah, that was the first thing I actually sang for the record, and it was one take top to bottom. So when you talk about energy, I think that adds a lot, because there’s a lack of measure to the voice. It’s rougher—more the way I sing live. It’s new to my records since, gosh, probably (1990’s) Black Sheets Of Rain.

There’s also the 18-piece string orchestra.

They were completely mapped out on sheet music and sent over to Prague. It’s an interesting point/counterpoint. My vocals are loose, and the string arrangements are concise. On “Sunshine Rock” and “The Final Years,” you can hear the Al De Lory influence from all those Glen Campbell records. It’s my tribute to strings in ’60s pop music, I guess.

Interesting how your late-career resurgence came right after your 2011 autobiography, See A Little Light.
Everything started moving forward in a big way after those three years of looking back. I wanted to be able to put this marker in place to say, “This is where I’ve arrived after all these things.” I’ve never been one to look back a lot, so the book was a bit of a trying experience. But it sent up a bit of a flare to people that, aside from the music, there was a good story there—my family history, Hüsker Dü, my sexuality and accepting that, getting into electronic music and explaining to people why that was important to me. I don’t think people really understood that (last one) until I clarified it. 

I had a chance to talk to Grant Hart about his 2013 solo album, The Argument. It was the longest phone interview I’ve ever had. He just talked and talked and talked. How has his passing affected you?
As we get older, we encounter loss with more frequency. I’ve lost my parents—both to cancer. Getting word of what Grant was up against was tough to hear. And, of course, we had a long history. So much of that time with Hüsker Dü was a great time, even if the end was a little sideways. When everybody walked away from it—and I feel I can safely speak for Grant on this—we knew it was time to move forward with our own things. We’d had a lot of communication leading up to the 2017 box set. Everybody was communicating; everybody was working toward a common goal. And I think if you look at the box set, it turned out pretty great. It’s a nice document of that innocent phase when absolutely no one was looking—as opposed to when the whole world is looking and you get really self-aware and self-conscious about your work.

And then there’s your latest power trio. On the last tour, there was a guy in front of the stage who’d brought along his young daughter to the show. She had earplugs, of course … I wish I’d remembered mine.

[Laughs] Jason and I have worked together on-and-off in various capacities since I produced his band, Verbow, back in the ’90s. When the stars aligned and we started working together in late ’08—when Jon jumped on board to save a tour—it was like somebody opened a window and let the sunshine and fresh air in. We’re all roughly within 10 years of each other in age, and we have a lot of similar records in our collections—and I’m sure some of those are my records, too. It doesn’t take a lot of explaining when I bring in a song and I say, “Hey, it goes like this.” They’re like, “Yeah, it turns like that other one you wrote 20 years ago.” They know the language, and we share an aesthetic about pop music. I think you hear it in these last four records.

—Hobart Rowland

A Conversation With Guster’s Ryan Miller

The last time we checked in with Guster for a MAGNET cover story four years ago, the quartet was dipping its toes into Evermotion’s temperate electro-pop seas with help from the late Richard Swift. For the new Look Alive (Nettwerk), they sought the guidance of seasoned Brit Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker, Imogen Heap) in their efforts to further distance themselves from their organic folk-pop roots. Look Alive’s iridescent sheen and languid atmospherics will no doubt continue to irk fans who lamented Evermotion’s techno leanings. But eight albums and 24 years into its evolution, Guster has earned the benefit of the doubt for embracing change. And Look Alive certainly has its moments.

MAGNET spoke with Guster’s Ryan Miller, who explained the band’s tactics and how they’ll translate to the stage on its current tour.

So you’re calling from the nation’s capital?
My friend, Dean Phillips from Minnesota, has been elected to Congress, and I’m here visiting. While I was sitting in his office, the president was giving his thing [about the three-week reprieve from the government shutdown]. It was crazy.

The way I see it, you could’ve done one of two things after Evermotion. You could’ve reverted back to what everybody expects of Guster, or you could’ve moved even further in the electro/techno direction of the last album. It appears you’ve done the latter. 
I feel like this one is more of a move to middle than the Richard Swift album was. It’s less abrasive, even though it’s a very different sound for us. It’s not a wacky record—it’s just a wacky record for us.

Are you bracing yourselves for the reaction you might get from some fans?
At this point, I think the hardcore fans are along for the ride. Of course, some of them are going to be like, “This isn’t what I prefer, but I respect it.” So, yeah, I guess we’re bracing ourselves a little bit. But we never really know how far we’ve gone until six months or a year later. Like, “This is everyone’s fully formed opinion of the record, and this is where it succeeded and this is where it failed.”

So what were your takeaways from Evermotion?
The spirit of that thing really changed the way we make records—in terms of freeing us up to be freaky and not overthink certain things. What Evermotion did for Look Alive was give us a wall to push up against. We really wanted Look Alive to sound like an audiophile record. Maybe we didn’t think that from the beginning, but it seems like we ended up there.

What was it like working with Leo Abrahams?
Amazing. We just locked in with him. Part of the reason this band continues to grow has to do with our choice of collaborators. This is the first record in a long time where we can’t wait to get back into the studio with the same producer again. There’s not a single accident on this album. It’s all so purposeful.

How did you hook up with him?
I know Regina Spektor. We share this other producer in David Kahne, from (2010’s) Easy Wonderful, and it really didn’t go that well. Several years ago, I asked her if she’d ever worked with a producer she loved unequivocally, and she mentioned Leo. So I put him on a list, gave it to our manager and forgot about it. Then his name came up again, and we got on the phone with him. He said this one thing that made me light up: “All your albums are quite warm and vintagey sounding, and I’m interested in cold, icy sounds.” We wanted to have a very contemporary-sounding record. We wanted to sound like James Blake, not Paul McCartney.

What’s a good example of that on the album.
“Look Alive” started as a piano song, and we gave it to Leo and told him, “We know that we don’t want it to be this.” He took it home and worked on it for like two days. When he presented it to us, it was very divisive. Some of us thought it was the best thing that ever happened to the band, and some of us were like, “I can’t get with this. It’s so depressing.” It took us a few minutes to get our heads around it collectively.

So the songs went through some serious evolution in the studio.
Yeah, almost everything—except for “Hard Times,” which we wrote in the studio. We went to the National Music Centre in Canada, which is essentially a keyboard museum. A lot of the textures we’re playing with on the album we found in the vaults there.

“Hello Mister Sun” is a keeper.
Yeah, it was like, “Can we really have a chorus that goes, ‘Hello, Mister Sun/You can make a rainbow?’” But that’s kind of where we’re at in our lives and our career. I mean, why did I sing in an English accent (on “Overexcited”)? Because it’s kind of funny and it helped me get into character. And why do we have a super-dark song like “Mind Kontrol” on the same album as “Don’t Go,” which sounds like an ABBA song. At some point, I think we just have to own all this stuff. 

What does that mean for the live show?
It’s a huge reboot, but it’s been working. We had to redo our entire rig so I could put a sampler up front. Brian (Rosenworcel) has all these drum triggers, and we’re bringing in horns in some cases. It’s been a massive, massive undertaking, and it’s still going on. We want to do right by all this stuff. Getting the song across is really the only important thing.

—Hobart Rowland