Described recently by UK magazine ‘Uncut’ as the “greatest living Australian” amid the release of his new solo album ‘Inferno’, the irrepressible Robert Forster tells Steve Bell that he’s surprised to still be writing songs at all.
Robert Forster’s newly-minted seventh solo album Inferno brings things almost full circle when it comes to the fertile career he’s forged outside his initial work with celebrated outfit The Go-Betweens, the band he co-founded in Brisbane in the late-‘70s.
When The Go-Betweens’ first incarnation ran its course in 1989 after six revered albums Forster retired to Bavaria to lick his wounds alongside future-wife Karin Bäumler, so when time came for his inevitable debut solo statement it made sense to conduct those recording sessions close by in Berlin.
He enlisted as producer fellow Aussie Mick Harvey – whose then-current band Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds were at that staged based in the German capital and by all accounts running amok – and banged out the ensuing Danger In The Past in a quick 12-day burst, pulling together a band comprising random Band Seeds and assisted in the studio by another Australian ex-pat, young engineer Victor Van Vugt.
Now, not quite three decades later, Forster has returned to Berlin to reunite with Van Vugt – these days an in-demand producer with his own studio in the German capital – and again put together a new band for the occasion, once more bashing it out quickly with Bäumler at his side offering violin and backing vocals (just as she’d done first time around).
The two recordings are linked across the years by Forster’s unique brand of literate rock’n’roll, although this time the singer seems far more comfortable alone in the spotlight, without the comforting presence of his The Go-Betweens compatriot Grant McLennan by his side. Inferno is a concise and focussed batch of songs, one which the man himself – often seemingly his own hardest taskmaster – is rightly and genuinely satisfied with.
“I must admit I’ve been really happy with it and we’ve been listening to it a lot since it was done: it’s really been a record where I’ve been listening to it a lot at home,” he tells. “It was fairly quickly recorded as well – we did all of the recording, everything, in two weeks in Berlin and then Victor mixed it over a number of weeks – so it all went by very quickly, which meant that you were discovering the record after you’ve done it.
“It wasn’t one of those ones – not that I’ve ever done this – where you take three or four months to make a record, and then you don’t want to hear it for another three or four years. It’s not like that – it was all very fresh and very quick. I’m really happy with the record.”
Inferno may have been recorded in Berlin but the songs have their genesis in Brisbane, where they were stockpiled in the years following his previous effort Songs To Play (2015).
“A few of them were started when I’d been travelling, but they were all essentially done here [in Brisbane],” the singer continues. “Which is one of the reasons that I also wanted to travel away from Brisbane to make the record, because I was very, very happy with my last album that I did here in Brisbane – I recorded it up at Mt Nebo with Jamie Trevaskis and I was enormously happy with that – but I’d written all of those songs here and I’d written [2016 autobiography] Grant & I here, and I just felt that I wanted to do something outside of Brisbane. I just wanted to take it out of the city, which is what I did.
“[Choosing Berlin] was purely because of Victor. He’s been there at his studio for about four years, before that he was in New York for about 15 years or something, and I hadn’t seen him for a long time. We’d sort of stayed vaguely in contact, and then a German edition of my book came out and I was in Berlin at a launch for it in a bookshop and Victor turned up! So it was lovely to see him, and that was the start of it all really.”
A lot of water may have passed under the bridge since Forster and Van Vugt last worked together, but their chemistry had remained intact.
“Twenty-eight years seems an astonishing time – it’s almost Biblical, or how long some Civil War goes on in Africa or Europe or somewhere – just some sort of huge big space of time,” Forster smiles. “But we just sort of picked it up really quickly, history wasn’t pressing down on us or anything like that. There wasn’t really time and we both felt really good with what we were doing… it just felt like it was Victor and I, sure, but with a whole new world around us. And we liked that world that we had around us, so it just flew in the studio really nicely.”
As is Forster’s wont, during the creative phase he wasn’t writing with a specific album or construct in mind, rather just seeing where the individual songs would take him.
“That’s generally the way that I go,” he admits. “I don’t write quickly enough in a way – I’m grabbing, I’m not one of those songwriters who goes ‘I’ve got an album coming up, I’m going to go away somewhere for two months and write 20 songs’. I don’t know how people do that – some people do it and are good, but I couldn’t do that. Those songs tend to have a real sort of ‘one batch’ type of feeling to them, where I write one or two or perhaps three songs a year, and I’ve done that since the early-‘80s.
“So I can’t really get on top of it all and go, ‘This is where I’m going’ and ‘I’m listening to this record so I’ve got this feeling I’m after’ – I’m writing over years. But the songs are all fairly consistent with each other: I’m working in a particular field, I know that.
“I’m surprised I’m still writing songs: I just thought with my limited guitar technique and my limited musical knowledge that I might have written myself out at 40 or 45, so the fact that melodies and songs still come is now a real pleasure. Because I enjoy songwriting, although it’s hard work it’s rewarding.
“And you get to go to Berlin and record them and all those wonderful things – it’s not like I’m writing songs and they’re not being recorded and just going onto a shelf or something – it’s very satisfying that if I do write something good then it gets recorded. I have to work hard at it, but ultimately they just appear – it’s still something of a mystery to me.”
Some songwriters strenuously attest that their craft gets easier with time and experience, while others claim it gets incrementally harder as their catalogue grows and they struggle to not repeat themselves, but Forster puts his consistency down to having other creative outlets such as his burgeoning career as a music critic and author.
“I think one thing that’s helped me is that with my prose writing – when I was writing for The Monthly and when I was working on Grant & I, which covered some of the same time as these songs – it was good that songwriting wasn’t the main thing that I did anymore,” he explains. “Songwriting was the thing that I did from 1977 through to about 2005 when I started with The Monthly – that’s what I did, and I’d wake up and I’d work on songs from nine o’clock in the morning and then I’d go back to it at night – that’s when I was living or dying by just getting songs.
“But since 2005 when I’m writing during the day the pressure’s gone off, which I think is a really good thing. Now I write after I’ve written prose, so songwriting’s got this nice niche – this nice place in my life – and I’ve been able to relax with it more.
“And if I don’t make an album for five years then that’s the way that it is – I’m not trying to be on a circuit where I’ve got to have a record every two or three years. It’s good, it’s good. I mean financially it’s hard, but songwriting has a nice place in my life and I think that helps. I think that keeps it going.”
In terms of Inferno, the album’s nine songs constitute the bulk of Forster’s completed songwriting over the last handful of years.
“I’ve always just got the bare minimum of songs for an album,” he tells. “I did leave one song off the album – we did record ten but that one just didn’t fit. It was always on the edge all the way through, I thought it might work but it didn’t. We recorded it well, but it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t sit with the other songs.”
That initial doubt was telling, given that the eventual songs constituting Inferno hang together exceptionally well.
“They do, they do, I’m amazed,” Forster marvels. “That’s so important to me, the sequencing, to me it’s like making a film or writing a book. You want everything to flow – this happens and this happens then that happens and that happens – you don’t want to unintentionally jumble up the narrative. So I’m really happy with it.”
Obviously the band who played on Inferno also had a big say in the eventual product: aside from Bäumler the only member from the Songs To Play sessions who made the trip to Berlin was multi-instrumentalist Scott Bromiley (of The John Steel Singers fame), with the rest roped together from the cream of Berlin’s rich music scene.
“Earl Havin, the drummer, was a recommendation from Victor,” Forster continues. “Earl is an American who lives in Berlin, he’s about 50 and is a very well known session drummer, besides being a member of The Tindersticks and a member of The The.
“So he does sessions in LA and London and Berlin or wherever, but Victor had worked with him and said, ‘He’s a very good drummer and very quick, I work with him quite a bit and I really like him and I think he’d work with you’. And I just went, (whispers), ‘Okay, I’ll take your recommendation’.
“Which was scary, because he just turned up on the first day – he only had four days in his schedule to do it – having heard nothing. Then I was just playing him songs and he’d get it in one go – he’d sit with his head down and listen to it – and then we’d go in and we’d play it with all the stops, it was an astounding thing to see.
“And then with Michael [Muhlhaus] the keyboard player, I’d done a show in Berlin about five years ago at a festival and a friend of mine had put a band together of Berlin people for me, and Michael was the keyboard player and I really loved his playing.
“I definitely wanted more piano on this album, then Earl’s the drummer and he’s got a great CV and Victor really recommends him, and I’ve got Scott who can play bass and guitar and Karin can do violin and sing, and there’s the record! And it worked out just really incredibly well.”
The fact that so much musical versatility exists amongst that small group of players allowed Forster to subtly experiment stylistically, something he relished.
“We go through all the styles and that’s what was great about it,” he revels. “Especially Earl, he could go from something rocky like Inferno (Brisbane In Summer) to playing the bongos on Life Has Turned A Page to doing something a little bit quasi-soul-y on The Morning and I’ll Look After You to doing sort of soft-rock type stuff on One Bird In The Sky – he could just do it all, and he was really confident in moving between styles. It didn’t feel like he trying sounds for the first time, it was all very natural with him.”
Occasional rocky moments aside, much of Inferno is notable for its deft use of space and restraint, a trait Forster ascribes to his whole oeuvre and not just this latest effort.
“I think that’s something not just that comes out in this record but something I always want,” he states. “That’s the sort of music that I like – I would even call it minimal, but I like strong bones to music, and for a song to do it’s work and for a vocal to do it’s work I think that’s the magic combination for me.
“I’ve never been one really for orchestral pop or really proggy with a million overdubs, that’s never been my thing and that was never The Go-Betweens’ thing either. I like that space, where there’s just enough elements and you can hear everything and it really sits together: that’s what I like to do.”
Another aspect elevating Inferno above the pack is Forster’s consummate vocal performance, undoubtedly one of the best singing displays from across his long and storied career.
“That’s another reason that I picked Victor,” he offers humbly. “A few things carried over from Danger In The Past really, and one of them was that I had a really strong memory of him being really good with vocals, and getting a good vocal performance out of the singer. I was really ready to go for it and just sing – it’s hard for me to say, but I think it’s as good a set of vocal performances as I’ve ever given on any record I’ve ever done.
“I was really ready for it and Victor just caught it, and because there’s not a thousand overdubs there’s room for the singer. And I really felt that I had something to say, and that I was ready to push myself as a vocalist, and Victor caught it all.”
The album’s lead single – the aforementioned surrealist rocker Inferno (Brisbane In Summer) – has the most unique vibe of the songs on the album, which Forster attributes to a string of happy accidents.
“That was one of the first ones I wrote, and then it goes to the back if your mind because you’ve got it written,” he remembers. “I always knew it was a good rock song and I wrote it really quickly because the lyric I already had and I knew what I was talking about.
“Then when we were rehearsing it here in the house before we went to Berlin there was a keyboard here and I said to Scott and Karin, ‘I hear this incessant keyboard line through it’ and just sort of played it, and everyone went, ‘Oh yeah, okay I get it’.
“And on that song Scott Bromiley’s guitar playing was just magnificent. We just sat down and he started putting all those parts together, we just sort of had this ‘70s feel about it and as soon as we put the piano down – we got Michael and he played that, it all just happened right before our eyes – and then Earl’s got this thumping beat that he takes off the piano and suddenly it’s just got this throb.
“And Scott’s guitar lines that he had from Brisbane, he was thinking of like a Phil Manzanera from Roxy [Music] and I was talking about Paul McCartney lead guitar from the early-‘70s, like on Junior’s Farm [by Wings] and all that, he was playing a lot of simple, melodic rocky guitar like McCartney can do. And just thinking of those things – which I usually don’t do, ‘a bit of that and a bit of that’ – sort of worked into this song and it just flew, it was a lot of fun.
“And the lawnmower in the sound-effects was just perfect: when I was in the studio my vocal had this Bryan Ferry thing which just came out of me, and I was thinking how the great thing about Roxy’s stuff – especially in the ‘70s – they had sound effects on all of their songs. They were very cheeky and very funny and things would come in and out of the mix very quickly, very humorous.
“I was trying to think of something that would work like that and I thought of mowing the lawn, and Scott just had a synthesiser in his hand and made that sound and we just collapsed on the floor! We were just laughing hysterically when Victor recorded that, like three silly boys – Victor would play it back and three of us would be back laughing again.
“It all happened in about five minutes – from the idea to having it down – but we knew we had to keep it on, it’s very, very funny. I’ve never laughed so hard in the studio, it was a beautiful, beautiful thing.”
Another cornerstone of the album is beautifully rambling narrative Life Has Turned A Page, which Forster reveals is about a real life couple.
“I met that person up at Wattala, some friends introduced me to him,” he tells. “We went and visited him and he sells surfboards too – I had a whole thing about surfboards but it didn’t work out in the song – and at that time he was in his early- or mid-60s and selling surfboards from his garage on eBay.
“But he just had this classic story to tell how he started off in Noosa in the early-‘70s with his girlfriend and the Kombi and the surfboards and they were going to go and see the world and they got about 40 minutes down the road and stayed there for the rest of their lives.
“It was just this story that I found completely fascinating – that flip in the story – and I wrote that lyric out as a poem in my book, it was called Life Has Turned A Page. It was just so inspiring – he was so inspiring – and then about three months after I met him my family were up at Peregian on a holiday and I started to write the music, and I had my lyric book there and it fitted perfectly – somehow I wrote that music and it just sat completely with that lyric, a perfect match. That was just a very lucky happening and I had this song, which has always been a big favourite of mine.”
Now the stage of the album cycle has arrived where Forster has to once more turn his attention to adapting the songs from Inferno to the live realm, something he says he can’t wait to sink his teeth into (which is fortunate because a gruelling tour schedule awaits).
“They are going to sound grand, I can’t wait! I can’t wait,” he enthuses. “Life Has Turned A Page is going to be great with bongo, nylon-string acoustic guitar and xylophone – if you can get into that late night on the beach around the fire mood, if you hit that sweet spot, it will be beautiful live.
“I’m really looking forward to these tours because the first two are the biggest full-band electric tours I’ve done since The Go-Betweens stopped, so I’m really looking forward to that: April and May in Europe with a band that’s Scott, Karin and myself plus a Swedish rhythm section, and then the biggest tour I’ve done here [in Australia] which will be with a band in July.
“So I’m really looking forward to performing and just taking all of this on the road with the songs from Songs To Play and a couple of songs from [2008 solo comeback] The Evangelist – I’ve got a lot of songs to choose from, I’m very fortunate. There’s a lot of songs – I have about 50 to choose from now and that I’d love to do, but we’ll just swap them around.
“Touring is big, and something that I really want to be good at this time around, and I’ve got the players.”
Forster’s solo career used to be considered an adjunct to his work with The Go-Betweens, but after seven albums it’s now a canon of great depth and substance in its own right: is he proud of the music he’s managed to accrue under his own name over the years?
“Look I am, I really am,” he admits. “The ‘90s albums apart, having done The Evangelist and Songs To Play this is sort of crowning it – it feels like I’ve done three really good records that I’m really, really happy with. I could almost tour just on those three albums – I could put together an amazing set taking my favourites, 18 or 20 songs, from those three albums.
“Now people are talking about reissuing the old solo albums on vinyl, which is something I want because I want to tour more over the next year, so I’m hoping to take my back catalogue out on the road and play and have those solo albums there.
“But it is, it is something of its own, and you can’t imagine how satisfying that is. Because everyone knows and holds The Go-Betweens in a certain amount of regard, and it’s good that I’m happy and I can sense the quality of what I’m doing as a solo artist: that’s a good feeling.”