Robert Forster – The sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday
It could be the sun coming through blinds as you play a record (so it’s sun on the music). It could be the sun coming through as you practice in the loungeroom of a large Brisbane house of a certain era…It’s sunshine imposing on inside darkness.
— Robert Forster, from his notes to the Go-Betweens’ 2006 album That Striped Sunlight Sound, explaining the inspiration for the term, to which the band dedicated its first single, “Lee Remick”, in 1978.
Even the spiffiest 21st-century satellite connection can’t transmit weather over the phone. But you had to guess from Robert Forster’s upbeat mood that the morning sun was, indeed, shining in Brisbane. You know Brisbane: third largest city in Australia, perched on the east coast in the great state of Queensland, mean March temperature of 82 degrees — and, in no small measure thanks to Forster’s influence, a Billboard selection last year as one of the world’s top five music hot spots.
Forster was speaking from out back, behind his house, in a shed he just began using as a writing studio and place to conduct bits of business, free from the daily clutter of the house he shares with his German wife Karin and their two young children. “It was long overdue,” said the co-founder of the Go-Betweens, Australia’s greatest gift to world culture since…well…has there ever been anything greater, music-wise, from Down Under?
With his second career as an award-winning pop columnist for The Monthly, a smart new Melbourne-based magazine, in full flower, Forster has a greater need than ever for personal creative space. The main reason the sun was shining so brightly for him, though, is that after a shock to his system that left him wondering whether he would make any more records, he has enthusiastically resumed his first career. On April 29, Yep Roc released The Evangelist, his first solo album in a dozen years.
Two years ago, Grant McLennan, his longtime friend and gifted partner in the Go-Betweens, died in his sleep of a massive heart attack. He was 48. McLennan, who played the sometimes dreamy, sometimes fiery pop romantic to Forster’s more level-tempered bohemian rocker, was “on a roll, really buzzing” as an artist, said Forster. He had written a bunch of stellar songs for the Go-Betweens, who were coming off their most commercially successful effort, Oceans Apart. It won them their first-ever ARIA, the Australian Grammy. What it didn’t win for McLennan, whose sunny tunes failed to sufficiently impose on his inside darkness, was peace of mind.
“Album 10 was going to be something special,” Forster wrote in his Monthly column after McLennan’s death. “Yet he wasn’t happy. He was proud of the band’s recent success, and his private life, after a long bumpy ride, was settled; in general, he was the most contented and up I’d seen him in a long time. But deep down, there remained a trouble, a missing piece that he was always trying to find and that he never did. Family, a loving girlfriend, a circle of friends: All could count for so much, and it was a hell of a lot, but it could never cover over a particular hurt.”
Forster’s own hurt over McLennan’s passing drove him into seclusion. But anyone who understood the bottomless passion for pop that he and McLennan shared — nearly 30 years into their career, coming up with a great chord progression or opening riff could still thrill them — knew Forster’s retreat from music would prove only temporary.
The impetus to record The Evangelist came from three songs left behind by McLennan, including “Demon Days”, whose half-finished lyrics were completed by Forster: “The half whispered hopes/The dreams that we smoked/Puffed up and ran/As only dreams can/Dreamt by the young/Sparks to be sung/In places so bright/But something’s not right/Something’s gone wrong.”
With its hushed vocal and tingling celeste interludes, “Demon Days” is one of the most haunting songs in recent memory. But even as The Evangelist is grounded in a deep sense of loss, it projects a powerful uplift, tapping into the positive energy that drove Forster and McLennan as artists, individually and together. The presence of the other surviving Go-Betweens, bassist Adele Pickvance and drummer Glenn Thompson, and the producers of Oceans Apart, Mark Wallis and David Ruffy, enhances that feeling.
“‘Demon Days’ is an amazing song,” said Forster. “There’s pain in it, yes, but also this sense of glory, in being able to continue this amazing thing. For me to be able to present a song like that the way I wanted was the other side of a doubled-edged sword. That carried me through a lot of the album, and a lot of the work I’ve done in the last two years.”
Forster and McLennan formed the Go-Betweens in 1978 while attending Queensland University. They met in the drama department. McLennan was an aspiring filmmaker and out-of-his-time renaissance man in the making (at the time of his death, he didn’t own a computer, drive a car or have any credit cards). The first version of the band was a trio with Forster on guitar, McLennan on bass and Lindy Morrison on drums. As they developed their idiosyncratic art-pop identity over the course of six albums, they doubled their guitar sound, with McLennan switching over, and added instrumental voices, notably violinist and oboist Amanda Brown (with whom McLennan became involved romantically).
“We wanted to write adventurous pop music,” said Forster. “Enough of that 4/4 bang. We were interested in pushing things, pushing the outer structure, having fun with it.”