The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster: Memoir

In the 1980s, the Go-Betweens were every bit as brilliant as R.E.M. or the Smiths, making smart, jangly pop music that never found as wide an audience as it deserved. Led by singers/songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, the Australian band broke up at the end of the decade, only to stage a vibrant comeback in 1999. But just as the duo began writing its 10th album in May 2006, McLennan died of a heart attack. Forster recalls the serendipity that put the Go-Betweens together again.

In early 1999, the Go-Betweens’ record company decided to put out a best-of album called Bellavista Terrace. Before the record’s release, my manager phoned me at my home in Germany and asked what we could do to help publicize it. I suggested a whistle-stop world tour by myself and Grant. The idea was to hit small clubs in major cities around the world, doing interviews by day and playing acoustic shows by night. My other suggestion was that Grant and I do it under our own names—no “Go-Betweens” on the marquee. This was to take pressure off us and allow Grant and I to play what we wanted, even if that meant playing Go-Betweens songs all night. Also, with our solo careers still going, we weren’t thinking about the Go-Betweens. We approached this tour as solo artists and friends.

The tour started in Sydney, and the first night was a disaster. Sydney was a key town in the band’s life; it was where we’d recorded our last album, 16 Lovers Lane, in 1988, and it was where the band broke up the following year. So everyone was there to see us, and we weren’t all that good. We were stiff, busy relearning how to move and relate to each other onstage, and we weren’t all that convincing. But we quickly got better. By the fifth show of the Australian leg of the tour, we were tight and happy and had a fantastic set of songs, two of which were new: one from me called “He Lives My Life,” one from Grant called “Magic In Here.”

In Melbourne, something unusual happened. After soundcheck, Grant asked to come to my room because he wanted to talk about something. We were staying at a lovely Novotel hotel down by the beach at St. Kilda. I was in room 508 with a view of the sea. Grant came in and with little hesitation said we should restart the Go-Betweens. I looked at him half-stunned and half expecting it. I said we should, too. I was caught up in how good we were sounding, plus in the back of my mind was the fact that I had asked him to join me in the band back in ’77 and here he was asking me to join the band in ’99. There was symmetry to it. So we agreed but kept this information to ourselves.

This gave the tour an added twist knowing we were going to restart the group. It also meant that we began to scout locations to record. The next stop was Europe, and both Grant and I started having surreptitious conversations on the benefits of each city we passed through as a possible location to make the Go-Betweens’ “comeback” album. London didn’t feel right, nor did Paris or Dublin or Berlin. We were looking for something—a feeling—that we couldn’t really verbalize. The U.S., which was the third big leg of the world tour, offered up the last hope of finding somewhere. By this time, Grant and I had resigned ourselves to the fact that maybe we weren’t going to find the dream place to record. But then we hit Seattle.

As most musicians will tell you, one of the great displeasures of their touring lives is the interview at soundcheck. It’s even more groan-inducing when the publicist you’ve employed hasn’t told you one has been scheduled. So when the hapless interviewer approaches the musician as he/she relaxes at the venue with wistful thoughts of the gig or a far-off loved one with the news it’s interview time, total enthusiasm from the musician may not be forthcoming.

I found myself sitting down in a booth at the back of the Crocodile Cafe opposite a person named Larry Crane from a magazine called Tape Op. I had heard of neither. By the third question, this person had my attention. He wasn’t asking normal rock-interview questions about motivation, song themes or career paths. He wasn’t trying to dig into my soul. He was talking about the records I had made. The sounds of the records. The decisions behind the sounds. He was gently probing my technical knowledge of recording, which I found beguiling and interesting. In a natural and unforced way, he indicated that he owned a studio called Jackpot! and that it was situated in Portland, Ore. Then he told me he’d recorded Sleater-Kinney, and I became even more interested.

I must insert some background here: I had been living in Regensburg, Germany, for the previous three years. It’s a beautiful small city on the Danube River in Bavaria, a fairy castle land far off from the world. One thing that had glanced this remote kingdom and come to my attention had been Sleater-Kinney. I loved their third album, Dig Me Out. It was to my mind the best rock-pop record I had heard in 10 years. It was invigorating, tuneful, aggressive in new ways and had a poetic force that somehow rang bells in my head. So when Larry said he’d recorded or even knew Sleater-Kinney, I got excited. I thanked Larry for the interview and walked into the soundcheck with a few ideas buzzing in my head.

The next day, we were at the airport waiting to fly to San Francisco for that night’s show at the Great American Music Hall. There was a young woman at the departure gate who was looking at me. She came over and said she’d seen us play the previous night, that she worked for a record company called Kill Rock Stars and that her name was Jessica. She had a drink in hand. I asked her what it was. She described a whiskey-and-soda concoction that she said she only drank because she’d read somewhere that Richard Hell drank it. I immediately thought this was the first person I’d ever met from an American record company who was on my wavelength. I asked her what she was doing at the airport. She said she was flying to San Francisco to pick up Sleater-Kinney, who were coming back from a Japanese tour. While I took in this information and coincidence, she added that they were all planning to come to our show tonight. I was gobsmacked. Things were spinning and colliding almost too fast.

Grant and I had managed to keep the news that we were going to restart the Go-Betweens primarily to ourselves, but word was starting to leak out. We needed to say something. That night, I made an announcement from the stage that we were going to make a new Go-Betweens record together.

When we came offstage, one of the first people into the dressing room was Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss, who immediately offered to play drums on the record. I nearly fell off my chair. I couldn’t believe it. It was too perfect. I’d stared at the Dig Me Out back-cover photo in Regensburg for so long, trying to work out the dynamics of her band and where these women came from, and here they were in the dressing room amidst a gang of people excited about what the Go-Betweens had done and could still do. Sleater-Kinney singers/guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker talked about Larry Crane and recommended Jackpot!, piecing together as they did the basic fragments of the whole scene in my mind.

And that’s how the seventh Go-betweens album, The Friends Of Rachel Worth, came to be. In early 2000, we flew to Portland and entered Jackpot! to record. It came out of the clouds in a way. A wintry world, at the very start of the millennium, far, far away from anywhere we’d ever recorded before. That was the way it had to be.