04.05.2019

Robert Foster reflects on his decades spent making music

Words by Augustus Welby

Robert Forster’s been involved in music on a professional level for so long, he’d be forgiven for feeling a bit exhausted. 

The Brisbane songwriter began releasing music with The Go-Betweens in 1978 and has since amassed nine band LPs and seven as a solo artist. From 2005 – 2013, Forster contributed music journalism to The Monthly and in 2016 published the book Grant & I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens.

“Writing has become a focus over the last few years,” Forster says. “Which is really great that’s it just not always music.”

Forster’s lyrics have always displayed a literary flourish, so the move into prose feels logical. He’s still intimately attached to his new album, Inferno, mind you. Released in early March, it follows Songs to Play, which wasn’t just one of the best records of 2015 but one of Forster’s strongest to date.

Forster is aware of the significance of his back catalogue, which includes such canonical releases as The Go-Betweens’ Before Hollywood (1983) and 16 Lovers Lane (1988). He’s driven to expand it only when he finds something genuine to impart.

“You don’t make them and then forget them. So I do [compare the albums to each other],” he says. “I used to do it perhaps a bit more intensely with The Go-Betweens because I could put out records faster because there was two songwriters working on them. But I’m still very much aware of quality control and comparisons. You tend to bounce off your last album a little bit. I did that this time.”

Inferno came together in mid-2018 in Berlin where Forster travelled to work with producer Victor Van Vugt. The pair assembled a cracking ensemble including guitarist/bass player Scott Bromiley, drummer Earl Havin, keyboardist Michael Muhlhaus and Forster’s wife Karin Bäumler on violin and backing vocals.

“Technical ability has never been a great thing with me. I like to get on with people and that they can play well is basically all I need,” Forster says. “People like Scott, Earl and Michael are musician-musicians, but all of them have got a song sense. That’s what I need – I need someone who obviously can play really well and come up with good original ideas, but who’s song-orientated.”

The songs on Inferno are multi-faceted yet direct. Long time fans will know better than to expect any prog rock excursions.

“I’ve never been one for 120 overdubs and I’m not a technical person,” Forster says. “I’m not like Kevin Parker or Paul Weller or someone from Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective – someone who wants to spend four months in the studio at least and has their hand on the desk tweaking things. That’s what they do, that’s what they specialise in, but it’s not my way.”

Forster’s been releasing music for 40 years and has gained a detailed understanding of his strengths and limitations. He hasn’t lost the ability to surprise himself, however.

“I thought I’d write myself out by 40, 45 maybe, because I’m not a muso-muso. I can’t strut over to the piano and start to play Beatles songs, which a lot of people can do. I came from punk and particularly post punk, which prized commitment and ideas over old-fashioned virtuosity. That, as a musician, I’m still standing up and I’m still writing songs that I like is a real pleasure for me. That it’s gone on so long is a thing of wonder to me.”

In terms of the feelings that surface upon the release of a new album, not much has changed for Forster since he started out in the late-’70s.

“Obviously there’s a feeling you get when you record your first single. In those days, that was a hard thing to do – independent, living in Brisbane, having no idea how to do it. All of those first things you can never repeat, but the overall feeling is very similar.

“When the single ‘Inferno (Brisbane in Summer)’ got its first plays, that got me enormously excited – what are people going to make of this record? What are the reviews going to be like?”

Robert Forster hits The Espy on Saturday July 27. Inferno is out now via Tapete Records.