In the sunshine of Brisbane, Robert Forster has been holding back the darkness. Towards the end of the pandemic, the singer-songwriter, best known as one-half of the great lost indie band The Go-Betweens, watched as his wife of 30 years was diagnosed with cancer. Then, in May 2022, his friend Cathal Coughlan, the Irish musician, died. He sighs. When life comes at you, it comes at you hard.
“Cathal was an inspiration and a great, powerful performer,” says Forster in the same thoughtful cadences that are the defining quality of the 65-year-old’s singing voice. “He was a very powerful person to have fronting a band. There are no two ways about it: he was very talented.”
Forster says it’s an honour to speak to The Irish Times as he prepares to return to Dublin for a show at the Button Factory tomorrow. This isn’t guff: when he and his late Go-Betweens foil, Grant McLennan, were at Queensland University in the late 1970s, they were fuelled by an obsession with Irish literature.
Forster and McLennan had been struck by the confidence with which James Joyce and others wrote about Dublin. They had made it the centre of their world. If they could do that with a rainy city on the edge of Europe, what was to stop The Go-Betweens from similarly embracing obscure, provincial Brisbane as their muse? All the inspiration they needed was, they realised, right there on their doorstep.
“When I went to university it was like every other writer was Irish,” says Forster, whose Dublin concert will feature material from his raw and heartfelt new solo record, The Candle and the Flame. “Obviously Dublin is not as isolated as Brisbane. But the fact you could build an artistic vision out of the city you lived in was absolutely fascinating. There were things that you intensely liked about your city – you felt romantically connected. And then there were the things you really disliked. And you’re going to put it all into one thing.”
[ Cathal Coughlan: Singer and songwriter never stopped exploring musical frontiers ]
He had heard Coughlan was unwell – and was then shocked to learn the seriousness of the diagnosis. (Coughlan died at 61, after a long illness.) The Go-Betweens had become close to Coughlan’s first group, Microdisney, in London in the 1980s. They were each outsiders in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, and each signed to Rough Trade. “We knew them very well. They were on the same scene as we were,” says Forster. “We had neighbouring practice rooms in Camden. We socialised a lot.”
Strangers in the stranger land of the Britain of the 1980s, they bonded over a shared sense of having their backs against the wall, he says. “There was that thing that we were virtually on the street. We didn’t have much money. We were trying to get somewhere with our careers. Which was exactly the same with a lot of Irish people we would meet in certain parts of north London. Scrounging, trying to do their art, their work.”
Brisbane and Cork, where Coughlan was born, are on opposite sides of the world. In a sense, though, Microdisney and The Go-Betweens were coming from the same place. Both had gone to London with dreams of breaking into the music business, only for the door to be slammed in their faces again and again. And both were critically acclaimed without ever managing to sell many records – for example, although it was heralded as an instant classic, The Go-Betweens’ 1988 “hit”, Streets of Your Town, stiffed at No 82 in the UK charts.
“One of the things that was similar with the bands is that, with Microdisney, there was a bitterness and a fight,” says Forster. “There was this ‘Why aren’t we more famous than we are?’ spirit. We had it. They definitely had it. It was that thing of walking around London with only just a few pence. You think you’re doing great things. You career is not moving as quickly as you’d like it to be.”
The struggle against impossible odds that defined The Go-Betweens is likewise a feature of The Candle and the Flame. In mid-2021 Forster and his German-born wife, Karin Bäumler, were looking forward to the end of the pandemic. Then, out of the blue, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. He channelled his shock into the single She’s a Fighter, which was about his wife and her determination to keep pushing on. In the video, Forster, Karin and their two adult children – both also musicians – sit around the family table, playing with quiet defiance.
“The song was very, very frantic,” says Forster. “I hadn’t written anything like that, ever – something as fast and clipped. I was watching her prepare herself to go into chemotherapy and the whole big unknown that was before her. The line ‘She’s a fighter’ came to me. I knew it would slot in. In an ultracondensed way, I caught that moment.”
The Candle and the Flame has received a rapturous response. “Beautifully present in the moment,” wrote Mojo. “As fresh as morning air through open kitchen windows,” wrote Pitchfork.
It wasn’t a total shock. Grant lived, you have to say, a reckless life. He wasn’t a quiet boy— Forster on McLenna's death aged 48
Such praise is unlikely to turn Forster’s head. He’s heard it before. In the 1980s The Go-Betweens were widely understood to be one of the best bands on the planet, combining aching melody and heartbroken lyrics. In Australia they were regarded as a cross between The Saw Doctors and The Beatles: local heroes and peerless pop poets rolled into one. The authorities went so far as to name a bridge in Brisbane for the group.
The Beatles parallels were cited beyond Australia, too, with Forster and McLennan heralded as the Lennon and McCartney of 1980s jangle-pop. The comparison was apt – if not entirely correct. It would be perhaps more accurate to say The Go-Betweens were The Beatles if The Beatles had two George Harrisons. The NME called their second album, Before Hollywood, a masterpiece. Their 1988 swan song, 16 Lovers Lane, was praised by Rolling Stone for its “depth of emotion and a height of intellect rarely found in pop”.
As Microdisney also discovered, of course, a band cannot survive on critical acclaim alone, and in 1989, after several brushes with success, The Go-Betweens – a quintet in their 1980s incarnation – drifted apart. There was a happy coda, though: in 2000 Forster and McLennan re-formed as a duo and released another three Go-Betweens LPs. But tragedy struck when McLennan died, in 2006, at the age of 48. It was obviously a terrible turn of events – though not a surprise to those who knew him: he had struggled through heroin addiction and alcoholism for decades.
“It wasn’t a total shock,” says Forster. “Grant lived, you have to say, a reckless life. He wasn’t a quiet boy. He wasn’t someone who was living on health food and jogging every day and had never smoked a cigarette or taken a drink. Grant had lived a very full rock’n’roll life, you could say. It wasn’t a total shock. At the same time, when someone passes away at 48, that’s something you’ve got to comprehend.”
Forster unpacked his relationship with McLennan in his 2016 memoir, Grant and I: Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens. Writing the book helped to clarify his feelings about his late friend and to work through his grief.
“It took me a couple of years,” he says. “Soon after he passed away I made an album called The Evangelist, which is completely shrouded with Grant. It was sort of like the record we were going to make. And then I didn’t make another for seven years. By then I was back on my feet. It took time.”
Forster still lives the life of the wandering musician. When we speak he has just arrived in London for his European tour, and, amid the rain and grey, he is very much aware he is no longer in Brisbane (where March temperatures are averaging 30 degrees). He does sometimes wonder what his life would look like had The Go-Betweens become monstrously successful in the 1980s. Things would certainly be different. Would he be happier? He’s not sure. “Obviously I would like to have more financial security,” he says. “That would have been a good thing. But I can keep on going forward.”
Without a catalogue of hits to service, he remains free to carve his own path. “I feel quite light. I can cut and make new work knowing there’s not this mountain behind me that everyone knows. It gives me a certain amount of freedom. Ultimately it means I’m still hungry. I’m not some bloated guy in a compound in Los Angeles, staggering around in a bathrobe wondering what the next thing to do is. I’m not that person. And, believe me, that’s a good thing.”
The Candle and the Flame is released by Tapete Records. Robert Forster plays the Button Factory, Dublin, tomorrow