Robert Forster Balances Past and Present With New Album Inferno

Music Features Robert Forster
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Robert Forster Balances Past and Present With New Album <i>Inferno</i>

The arrival last week of a new album from Robert Forster was, on its own, a source of excitement among pop fans of the world. But Inferno, the seventh solo effort from the 61-year-old Australian singer-songwriter, also comes with a small measure of relief, putting to bed any concerns that he was going to get swept away by the waves of nostalgia he has spent the last four years surfing.

Since the release of his previous full-length Songs To Play, Forster has been busy keeping alight the flame of The Go-Betweens, the post-punk-born group he co-founded with lifelong creative partner Grant McLennan. In 2015, he produced the first volume of a hopefully ongoing series of anthologies compiling the band’s work, and two years later, helped tell the group’s story in the documentary film Right Here. His most moving work of this stretch was Grant & I, the poignant memoir he wrote about his friendship and working relationship with McLennan.

But just as all those projects developed, Forster started to slowly put together a new batch of original songs in the hours after working on his book and on his various assignments as a journalist and pop critic. As he told Paste when we spoke to him recently from his home in Brisbane, creating new music was his way of unwinding after worrying over his writing work, which lends Inferno its unhurried, pastoral qualities and a lyrical bent that takes an honest look at his place in the world (“I know what it’s like to be ignored forgotten/When yours is the name that doesn’t come up too often,” he sings on “Remain”) and pulling from the experiences of close friends. Working again with producer Victor Van Vogt in Berlin, the music follows suit, marked by Forster’s sturdy acoustic guitar and a backing band that cuts a straight, firm line through every song.

The first thing I noticed when listening to Inferno was the sound of your voice and how much it has changed over the years. I know that’s normal for any artist but hearing a song like “Life Has Turned A Page,” you allowed little imperfections in your voice to stay in the recording. What does it mean to hear yourself and hear how it has changed and embracing that?

I’m really happy with my singing on this album. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with Victor Van Vugt, who produced the albums. He’s very good with vocals. That’s one of the reasons I gave it consideration. It’s funny you picked out that song because that’s the one song on the record that’s the guide vocal. All the rest we put down basic tracks and overdubbed a bit and then I went in and did the vocal. But with that one, the acoustic guitar and the vocal were recorded together and there was something about it, a feel that I could never get again. Same with the vocal. It had something. I tried to do another a couple of days later. That’s all live in the studio with the bongos and the bass going down at the same time. I can hear it. I can hear that sense of real time performance with it.

I’m comfortable with my voice changing. I was never someone, like, Roger Daltrey or Robert Plant. I was never a bellower or someone that tried to take up a lot of space that I would have to try and maintain as I got older. My voice was quite unusual from the start. So I’m happy with its development. It’s changed but I’m comfortable with it.

Is “Life Has Turned A Page” recounting certain aspects of your life and your family’s life with your son having his own career as a member of The Goon Sax?

No, it’s completely someone else’s life. I have some friends who live on the beach near Brisbane and they had a connection with a man whose son got involved with the music scene down in Brisbane. And this man I was talking to knew me through the song “Surfing Magazines.” He knew I’d written this song and so some of his friends put me up to meet him. He just told me this story which is basically what I detail in the song. It’s quite striking. I wrote a poem after that meeting, which I rarely do. I wrote a couple of verses down and I thought it would be a good basis for a song.

Knowing there’s that personal connection makes sense though as it feels like all of your songs have some kind of tether to your life.

Yeah, I’m not someone who writes big character epics. I’m not someone who invents stories or invents the people that are in my songs. I just don’t have a lot of imagination or my mind doesn’t work like that. I have to see it right in front of me and they have to be quite real and rough and alive and right in front of my eyes. The hook of that song, and maybe this appeals to my sensibility or humor, was the idea of this man and his girlfriend doing the hippie thing of throwing everything in the Combi and going off to see the world. This couple got about 40 minutes away from where they started, and the woman found out she was pregnant and he found that he could work in this town. And basically they spent the rest of their life there and raised four children. I just found that very interesting that you set off on something like that with everything open and you drive down the highway and 40 minutes later, you’re in this life.

It’s surprising to hear you say that you don’t feel you have enough imagination to write characters or fictional scenarios because reading your work over the years and knowing your interest in literature and film, I always thought you would do well writing a fiction book or a screenplay. Is that something you have considered doing?

That’s what I’m doing now! Screenplay ideas have come to me in the past and I’ll jot down notes and whatever. But it probably came down to confidence. I just didn’t see it as a possibility with where I was at that particular time. I’ve been trying to write fiction since ‘90s but as I got into it, I could see it wasn’t working. But I started one about two years ago. I had just done Grant & I and I thought, “I’ll try again. I want to have another go at that.” I’m working on a story now. I’ve done about six months on it. I don’t know if it will be good enough to publish. I’m at about 40-45 thousand words on a big story that’s probably 60,000-words total. I’m writing it for my own pleasure. I’ll write it out and tidy it up and see if I like it enough to give to someone to consider publishing it. I can’t spend too much time on it because I just can’t afford it financially to spend three or four years on the story.

I wanted to ask about your songwriting output, which has slowed over the past decade or so. Some of that is down to your work as a journalist and critic and writing your memoir. But I’m curious if songs are slower to come to you these days or do you write and discard a lot of material on the way to a set of songs for an album?

To tell you the truth, it’s been about the same since the early ‘80s. I write one to, if I’m lucky, three songs a year no matter what I do. And believe me, I’ve tried every trick in the book to try and up that and write more but it’s just the way that it is and I have accepted it. That was happening all the way through the ‘80s with the Go-Betweens records. I never have songs left over. I’m not one of those people. I’m not an inherently musical person. I come from punk and post-punk where imagination and ideas outran your musical capabilities, which I think is a good thing because it means new angles are coming into music. When I was in my forties, I thought I might write myself out with my limited abilities so the fact that I’m still doing it at 61 pleases and amazes me.

What has been interesting when I started to work on musical journalism in about 2005 and started to work on Grant & I, I thought, “Oh this is going to slow the songs even further.” The strange thing was: it didn’t. It took the pressure off me. I’d write in the morning from nine until one and then I’d pick up the guitar when I was in a relaxing mood in the afternoon or evening. The songs kept on coming but it just felt more relaxed.

I can hear that relaxed quality to this album.

It is. Again, I just write for my own pleasure. I’m really happy with the standard of the songs. I look for something original. I’m looking for a melody that’s new. I don’t lean on genre. I try to cut something that’s fresh to myself, melodically and lyrically. So that means the songs come a little bit slower.

What was behind the decision to record in Berlin again, which you did in 1990 for your first solo album Danger In The Past? Was that simply to work with Victor Van Vugt again?

Yeah. He owns a studio there. He’s been there about four years. He lived in New York in the late ‘90s through 2012 or 2014. Then he moved to Berlin with his family and opened a studio there. I met him there in 2017, promoting the German edition of Grant & I. I hadn’t seen him since 2002. We’d always stayed in contact, but he just walked back into my life.

It brings it around full circle to that first solo record, too.

When I think about it, there’s a 28 year gap, which sounds like an enormous amount of time. A lot of things have happened in my life in that time. But we have a very good working relationship. He’s a very easy person to work with. He’s very enthusiastic and very up. He’s very good at what he does. It was effortless.

You have been doing some production work for some bands in Australia. Are you a very hands on producer helping these musicians shape the songs or do you just work on the overall sound of an album?

I concentrate on the songs, which is my strong point. I’m not really a “That needs a 6db EQ” and I’m not twirling knobs on the board. I don’t know anything about that. To me, it’s working on the songs with the songwriters and working with the band in the practice room. So when we go into the studio, bang, all the songs are arranged. We need 35 or 40 minutes of Grade A material and the band needs to know it. I like to rehearse a lot. I don’t like surprises in the studio.

Working on the other side of the glass and working with these other musicians, have you seen ways in which it has affected your own songwriting?

I do. Especially this one band I’ve worked with The John Steel Singers. I saw the way they worked and that was quite new for me. They would be in the practice room and playing ideas from their phone. Which sounds very obvious. And I really like talking music in a casual way and they all like a lot of artists that I don’t particularly like or that I’ve never been involved with. They were enthusiastic about people like Todd Rundgren and Electric Light Orchestra, which are bands that I lived with in real time back in the ‘70s. They were not artists that I owned albums by. That was interesting to hear them talk about those records and play stuff from them and you can sort of hear where they’re pulling from parts of musical history that you’re not aware of or even considered. And being around people working with keyboards and guitars in ways that are quite different from the way I work. How much of it went into what I did, I don’t know, but I found it very, very interesting.

Between the memoir you wrote about your time in the band and the documentary that you worked on about The Go-Betweens, you’ve spent a lot of time looking at the past. Does it feel good to finally be thinking more about the present and the future?

I can do both. I’m very much concentrating on what I’m doing in the present just by writing songs. Even though Grant & I dealt with the past…I know this is going to sound strange but I was writing it in the present. I never felt like I was involved in some sort of nostalgia. It all felt legitimate what I was doing going back into my childhood and meeting Grant and all the stuff with the Go-Betweens. It feels like a good balance. I don’t feel at all caught off track by the past. If I was doing the anthology and writing Grant & I and fronting a band now called The Go-Betweens and playing some circuit, playing all old songs, then I would feel trapped in the past.

I think the reason I can approach it and have some distance and enjoy it is because it is in the past. It’s not nibbling at my future all the time. I’m very proud of what the band did. Enormously proud. I can go there but my main focus is what I’m doing now. When I do show, it’s always very much involved in what I’m doing in the present and the future.

At the same time, you have concerts coming up to support Inferno this spring and summer where there’s probably an expectation for you to play older songs. How do you go about putting a setlist together for a show, balancing out your duties to your current material with an audience that wants to hear Go-Betweens songs?

I was just doing a setlist for the tour last night. I started to jot songs down and started to face this problem. Well, it’s not really a problem because there’s so much that I’d like to play. But, I’m aware of that and you’ve just got to get the balance right. You can think that you’re satisfying one group of people but another one will go, “I have an attachment to Danger In The Past or The Evangelist.” You don’t want to second guess yourself too much. I enjoy playing what I want to play. I think you have to keep going forward. But at the same time, when I was writing that list last night of about 22 songs there was, I don’t know, eight Go-Betweens songs. I’m aware that’s part of who I am. I don’t want to snip off part of my past.

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