Where many rock bands fail, Silversun Pickups succeed: through effective use of space, volume, melody and harmony, this Los Angeles quartet conjures unique emotions within the listener that make the timeworn combination of guitars, bass, drums and vocals seem fresh.
The dream pop and shoegaze elements of their sound are most notable in Brian Aubert’s swirling vocals and the waves of distorted guitars that appear in each of these 11 tracks, yet Chris Guanlao’s drumming deserves special mention.
Coming up with original and compelling rock drumbeats is equally as hard as the task that lyricists face in search of themes and melodies, yet both Guanlao and Aubert come up trumps on Neck of the Woods.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Silversun Pickups, though, is that the quality of their output is improving as they age. This album, their third, follows a good 2006 debut in Carnavas and a stronger follow-up in 2009′s Swoon.
This is remarkable when you consider how many rock bands sprint out of the blocks with a remarkable debut and watch their credibility and fan base wane with each subsequent release.
Not these four: they’re versatile enough to do high-BPM, hard-edged tracks such as ‘Mean Spirits’, right after an elegant slow-burner such as ‘Here We Are (Chancer)’, and clever enough to lace both performance styles with drama and a sense of urgency.
It’s quite a talent that they exhibit. Credit songwriting and production, the latter courtesy of U2 and R.E.M. associate Jacknife Lee, in equal parts.
These 10 sparsely adorned songs represent a significant shift for Perth-based songwriter Joe McKee, who fronted the West Australian quartet Snowman for eight years until their amicable split in 2011.
Snowman were among the darkest, scariest acts to lurk at the fringes of Australian indie rock: though they crisscrossed the nation dozens of times, garnered occasional Triple J airplay and toured as part of the biggest festivals, their gloomy, confronting style ensured many chose to overlook their three (excellent) albums.
Burning Boy, McKee’s solo debut, is a much gentler affair. His deep voice, surprisingly, is front and centre: McKee favoured higher-pitched shrieks and yells on most Snowman tracks. It’s a nice change.
Stylistically, Burning Boy bears similarities to Adalita Srsen’s debut album, Adalita, released last year: Srsen, too, chose to step away from the noise and bluster of her rock band Magic Dirt, and the result was a beautiful collection of songs that featured little more than voice and six-string. Here, McKee opts to linger over syllables in that hypnotising baritone, while finger-picked guitar and atmospheric string arrangements drift in and out of focus.
These are delicate songs of introspection, marked by occasional bursts of energy: bass, drums and an electric guitar interject toward the end of ‘An Open Mine’, while pulsing standout ‘A Double Life’ could well be a Snowman b-side.
McKee’s noted fondness for looped vocal motifs appear in ‘Golden Guilt’; his command of clever wordplay is best exemplified in album opener ‘Lunar Sea’ (“Am I sinking deeper / Down into the lunacy?”). An absorbing and accomplished debut.
What we now take for granted once existed only on the fringes of popular music.
Australian hip-hop has enjoyed a healthy ascent in the past two decades, and a Sydney crew named Def Wish Cast was instrumental in establishing the art form locally with its 1993 debut album, Knights of the Underground Table.
Almost 20 years later it returns with third LP Evolution Machine. A lot has changed within the genre: hip-hop acts now jostle with rock and pop bands for festival headline slots.
The stakes are higher; tastes more discerning. Evolution Machine is a good album, but given the popularity of this sound nowadays it’s much tougher to impress the listener. Def Wish Cast — comprising three MCs in Die C, Sereck and Def Wish, plus DJ Murda One — has enlisted a wide range of producers, but the result is an uneven mix.
Evolution Machine comprises 11 tracks (plus two short interstitials) and almost as many producers, including acclaimed names such as Plutonic Lab, Katalyst and M-Phazes. The Resin Dogs-produced first single ‘Dun Proppa’ is pure fire; so too ‘I Can’t Believe It’, a loving ode to the genre built on the album’s best beat.
The three MCs exhibit strong wordplay and distinctive voices, particularly Def Wish, whose rapid-fire lyricism is a consistent highlight.
There’s a wealth of ideas here, and many of them work, but the lack of cohesion gives the impression that these tracks were assembled in disparate home studios. Though the hip-hop crown has been usurped by younger peers, Evolution Machine is a fine addition to Def Wish Cast’s too-short discography.
Too often, young Australian rappers fall into the same lyrical pitfall: with little life experience to speak of, they instead take the dubious advice of “write what you know” too literally by couching their artistry in recording alcohol and drug-fuelled tales ad nauseam.
On his second album, Brisbane MC Rainman – real name Ray Bourne – treads a fine line between making those mistakes and breaking new narrative ground.
‘Big Night’ is a by-the-numbers take on the aforementioned hedonistic tropes; ‘The Valley’ is centred on the Queensland capital’s nightclub district (“A happy home that you might find violence in/ You might find your future wife in the Night Owl line”).
Yet, to his credit, Rainman uses ironic distance and sober observation in the latter track rather than glamorising the suburb and its characters.
It’s a refreshing change and a sign of Bourne’s maturity. His vocal delivery is eerily similar to that of his one-time mentor Urthboy, of Sydney band the Herd. As with that MC, Rainman’s calm, measured tones work well in both chorus and verse.
The beats on Bigger Pictures‘ 15 tracks are uniformly excellent: credits are split between seven producers, including the MC himself.
Bourne is superlative when writing about weightier matters: on penultimate track ‘Too Much’ he snipes at his generation’s indifference to the ills of mass media (“They keep it simple so that we can remember/ A little grab that sounds like an ad/ But don’t get apathetic, motherf . . ker, get mad”); in ‘The Bigger Picture’, his introspective narrative ends an impressive album on a high note.
The second LP from this seven-piece exhibits folk pop with none of the over-earnestness you might associate with the genre. Each of the 11 tracks clocks in at under four minutes, and all are neatly contained musical ideas adorned with brass, flute and chanted band vocals, the latter of which adds a real sense of fun. The Melbourne-based septet have found a fine balance between beautiful instrumentation – fingerpicked guitar, graceful piano runs – and raucous theatrics. Neither element is overbearing, and the result is a well-rounded set of songs informed by irony, humour and – as the title hints – an undercurrent of mortality. Just ask the morose, overweight Batman on the cover.
Key tracks: “Let’s Do What The Catholics Do”, “Polluted Sea”
Australian Idle Sony
Whitlams frontman fails to excite in solo mode
The Whitlams singer/pianist steps out for his first solo album and delivers a collection of middling pop tunes with nary a memorable hook between them. Freedman has displayed a knack for clever wordplay in the past, but there’s a dearth of evidence here: his gags and puns invariably fail to hit the mark, album title included. Most songs exhibit an overproduced sheen, which acts as a repellent. It’s only when Freedman allows some tenderness to shine through that we’re reminded of the talents that made him a household name. These comparatively subdued moments allow Freedman’s band to shine, too. Such songs are in the minority though. A thoroughly disappointing solo debut.
Key tracks: “Back When We Were Beautiful”, “In The Current”
This is a conversation between Robert Forster, co-founder of Australian pop band The Go-Betweens, and John Willsteed, formerly of The Go-Betweens. It took place in Brisbane’s Avid Reader bookstore on November 9, 2009 to promote Forster’s first book, The 10 Rules Of Rock And Roll, which is a collection of his music writing for The Monthly magazine between 2005 and 2009.
John: Hello there, I’m John Willsteed. Robert would like to do a song. [Forster plays 'Pandanus' from his 2008 album 'The Evangelist'; audio embedded below]
I met Robert a little over 30 years ago. This is the first time we’ve been on the stage, I think, in 22 years. It’s not a stage. It’s a book shop. It’s very interesting. I think it’s intriguing that there is music; I like music in a book shop like this; it’s fantastic. It’s the meeting of these two things, music and writing, that we’re here for, because we’re talking about the release of Robert’s book. Why don’t you tell us what these 10 rules are?
Robert: Alright, the 10 rules of rock and roll, which is the first section of the book and what the book is obviously named after, I’ll tell you them now.
Never follow an artist who describes his or her work as dark.
The second to last song on every album is the weakest.
Great bands tend to look alike.
Being a rock star is a 24-hour a day job.
The band with the most tattoos has the worst songs.
No band does anything new on stage after the first 20 minutes.
The guitarist who changes guitars on stage after every third number is showing you his guitar collection.
Every great artist hides behind their manager.
Great bands do not have members making solo albums.
The three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression.
That’s the ten rules.
I think they’re contentious rules.
You can take umbrage with any you wish to do.
Rock and roll needs rules, and I’m glad that you’ve finally laid them down.
I like the idea of the two things coming together because rock and roll, theoretically, it’s supposed to have no rules. That’s what it is founded on, to an extent, or the myth is that it has no rules. Obviously, the point of the rules and the point of the book being named that is to bring these two things that normally don’t go together, rules and rock and roll, together.
Is it true that in writing about music, which is what you now do, that’s not saying you don’t continue to make music; you obviously do, but in writing about music, do you apply rules? Are they similar?
Yeah, one of them is I try not to put myself too much in each piece, or go to ‘I’, which is a great, great temptation. I pull myself out, because sometimes I have connections. In one of the pieces in the book, which is on Delta Goodrem, I review her last album Delta, and it’s her third album. I reviewed the album. I did that about two years.
What I don’t put in the article is that when The Go-Betweens were doing their second to last album, Bright Yellow, Bright Orange in 2004 in Melbourne in studio, she was in the studio. I didn’t know who she was because I’d lived over in Germany for a number of years.
You didn’t know who she was?
No. I’d lived over in Germany for a number of years, and she’d sort of come through Neighbours and things like that. I think she’d had one or two hits at this stage. It was a studio complex and we were in the main studio and she was in a room mixing a single with an engineer. When we were taking breaks from recording, we’d been out playing ping pong and she was sitting over on the piano. There was an old upright, a bit out of tune, and she’d sit and sing; not in any sort of flashy way, but a really nice way. She could play piano. She had a really good voice. It sounded really good.
I only found out who she was later, but she would sit there and play, not try and impress, just because she felt like she could do it for hours. I only discovered who she was at that moment and I only heard her records later, but a couple of years later when I came to hear her record and it seemed like an odd choice to review a Delta Goodrem album, I remembered that I’d had that experience. I didn’t put it into the review because I didn’t think it was needed. One rule is when to put myself in and out of the reviews.
I suppose an earlier rule, in a sense, then, is what to choose to review. How do you get to a point of choosing what you want to write about?
Perversely enough, it seems to be the ones that I think I know something about, or that I have personal experience with. A band like Franz Ferdinand, who I really liked, like right from the first album. They’re a Glasgow band. The Go-Betweens, in the very early ‘80s, were on a label called Postcard in Glasgow. We were around Glaswegian musicians like Orange Juice, Josef K, Aztec Camera; we knew these people.
And so when Franz Ferdinand, these sort of four Glaswegian arty, hipsters came along in 2005 with the great first album, I loved the album and I would have loved it if I hadn’t have known that they were from Glasgow, but the fact that they were just brought it a little bit closer. When I was thinking of an album to review, I reviewed their second one. I put that in a review and there is a paragraph about Glasgow. It’s just from personal experience. That is part of the thing; that I have a connection, that I think I know something about the record, or the concert, helps.
It doesn’t explain Delta Goodrem [pictured left] yet, though.
I always end up talking a lot about Delta.
We can let it go.
No, I’ll add to what I was saying. My niece had some of her records in the time between I’d seen her in the studio. She’d become a big star so I was aware of her and I actually quite liked a single of hers called “Born to Fly”, which I think is on her first or second album. If I had to choose ten great Australian songs over the last decade, I’d put Delta Goodrem’s “Born To Fly” in there. It’s a great MOR, big ballad. It’s a fantastic song, which she co-wrote, to her credit.
It seems like there would be a danger in reviewing when there was no connection, and that would be the point where there would be a danger of bringing yourself into what you’re writing, or purely being about the technicalities of what you’re listening to if there is no connection. I would imagine the connections go way back with you into your past. That’s the reason why you choose Nana Mouskouri, to not only to see but to write about, and Glen Campbell, to listen to and write about. Is that a fair thing?
It is, but at the same time, my ear and my eye goes to new things as well. Even something like Vampire Weekend, who I really like and I reviewed their debut album, and Vampire Weekend are 22 years old. I hear Talking Heads. It’s a New York band and I’ve loved New York bands since the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Velvet Underground, or New York Dolls, or Television. Vampire Weekend, although they’re 22 year olds and doing something really fresh, they go back. There is a myth about a New York band so that sort of plays in as well. I do try and have a sense of adventure in what I choose. I do try and not be predictable, which again plays to Delta, I guess.
I came across Robert’s writings by just subscribing to The Monthly when it started, just because it was a great magazine. It not only had good cultural reviews, but it had good political stuff in it. I was really pleased; there are some choices that I was really pleased with the way you wrote. It was very familiar to me, for some reason. Maybe there is a familiarity that comes from you as a lyric writer, and you as a critic. There is something in your language which resonates between those things.
There is a lot of me in what I write. I have a romantic view of rock and roll. I also have a sense of cynicism, perhaps. I know those two things don’t normally go together, but that helps me with my writing.
I think they’re very common bedfellows, romanticism, and cynicism.
I think people are passionate. I think people project fantasies onto bands and fantasies onto songs, and they always have. I think a lot of – and I’m not trying to do a critique of critics – but I think sometimes it can be quite dry. I think my feelings towards music are quite passionate, and I think people have records and songs that are all about a place, a time, and I think people are quite perceptive about music in terms of the structure of songs or choruses, or people just have a great knowledge about music and I think often reviewers don’t acknowledge that. I think also that there is a huge fantasy level. I think people do think about what it would have been like. When they hear a Velvet Underground record, they throw themselves into it in some bizarre way, or they hear a U2 record or whatever. I think people place themselves in those records.
When music arrives, there’s something about context. There is something about what you feel when you hear something. There are historical points that I can follow back in time. This music comes from these places. Do you think it’s your role to point some of that stuff out, as a critic?
I can’t help myself. Without sort of having a tone in what I’m write as though I’m lecturing, but when I hear a record, it does set off a sense of associations. Normally, even if I don’t put them down on paper, I follow those associations to see where they’re going to take me.
The beautiful associations, they kind of put music in a history of songwriting and music-making. I suppose it becomes more like the folk music that it is, rather than the pop music that it seems to be.
I am fantastic.
That was brilliant, John.
I’ve been bullshitting at the university now for a number of years.
It’s being taped by the way. You can try it in your lectures.
I found a typo on page 249, would you like me to –
Tell me later.
I wrote here, “There are things with which I concur.” Nash Chambers did a great job on that album [Rattlin' Bones, by Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson]. I’m really glad that you point things out like that sometimes, that people who were listening to something might not necessarily think in that way, and they might not necessarily look to a producer and think this person is intrinsic to this process. The reason I love listening to this thing is it’s not just about the song or the singer, but it’s about the way things sound, as well.
I think with Nash Chambers, who is Kasey Chambers’ brother and he’s a record producer in Australia, where I think there is a lack of great record producers. When I hear one and I think he does good work, it’s like fairly country/alternative country field, but he makes really good records as a producer. When something like that happens, I like to mention it and he’s just done the new Angie Hart album, the former Frente singer, so he’s sort moving more now into pop, in a way. People are starting to see that can produce records, because his records are so well put together in a country context, that they could work in a pop context.
[More “things with which I concur”] The Monkees are up there with the Velvets and the Beach Boys. Rick Rubin could be that caretaker at the caravan park. I think he probably is the caretaker at the caravan park.
I have an observation. I’m full of observations. I’m really pleased that you wrote specifically about a song and specifically about “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” which I really love. It reminds me that you have a song called “Clouds” that I played guitar on. We both played guitars together. That song was in my mind as always being about the same sort of rhythm as what is in “Have You Seen the Rain”. I just really love the fact that you can pick a little thing like that and say this thing here is embedded, this rhythm can move from song to song, and generation to generation. Would you like to play another song?
I will. I just want to say something about Creedence Clearwater Revival. There is a bit in the book, one page, where I wrote I was asked by The Sunday Times in London to write about a song. I wrote about “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Creedence, to me, have always been a touchstone for what I’ve done, as you pointed out, because to me they’ve always been a little bit like a Brisbane band.
There is something about their rhythm and hearing Creedence in Brisbane; Creedence sounds different in Brisbane than it does in Sydney or Melbourne. Driving around in the car in Brisbane and hearing Creedence, to me they sound like a local band. I think it’s just that rhythm, the easiness of the music, the realness, the funkiness of it just… they always sound like they come from, like Toombul, or Nundah, to me.
What’s wrong with that?
Nothing, it’s a compliment! I sort of see them down by the canal there.
On the way to the airport, hanging out under the railway line. It’s a good point. Creedence are at home in Brisbane. Are there other bands that are at home in Brisbane, do you think?
Not so much as Creedence. A famous band – my other theory is that Brisbane reminds me a lot, now, of LA in the ‘60s; the climate and the layout of the city. Especially when I’m at The Gap, where we live, I half-expect to go down to the shopping center and see The Byrds.
Not that Hitchcock sort of thing.
No! There’s actually a photo in the latest edition of Mojo that has just come out. There is this big photo, double-page photo of Brian Wilson in 1965 or 1966. I pointed it out to Karin, my wife, last night. He’s got a baseball bat and he’s on a concrete front drive, and behind it is just a really dry hill. There are these funky sort of ‘60s low-set houses and cars on the street, and you would swear it was on the back streets of Brookfield, or The Gap. It’s amazing. I’ve often thought The Gap is like L.A. in 1965, and then I see Topanga Canyon and the whole thing. This is the fantasy we live out there!
You’ve gotta have something!
I know, and I saw this photo and it was like: evidence, there it is. Anyway, I’ll play a song. [Forster plays 'He Lives My Life' from The Go-Betweens' 2000 album, The Friends Of Rachel Worth. It's embedded below, but note this is not his performance from the bookstore.]
I love Fiona’s shop [Avid Reader] and always have. You talked before about how there are connections between writing songs and writing words. My memory of you is that you were always a letter writer, as well. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I just have an abiding memory of you writing letters home at a time when there was no email, and phone calls were expensive when we were traveling. Is there a progression? Do you feel that writing in this way isn’t something you would have done 20 years ago, but at this point in your life this is the right time for this? If so, is there a place with writing where you’re heading? Is this part of your journey now?
Very good question.
I’m happy to do reviewing at my age. I think I’d have been unbearable if I’d have had this power and this access when I was 28. I think I would have been unbearable and I would have shot myself in the foot and I would have been going all over the place. I’m pretty happy that it’s come. I started reviewing when I was 48. It’s actually a good time for me to be doing this.
It was a leap. I keep a diary and I keep books that last about a year and a half, filled with everything, like poems, what I did that day. I don’t write in it every day, but it’s a real mish mash that I keep, that I have these books. There are a lot of starts over the years, like a fantasy, it was a novel – or short story. I’d read it the next day and put it away. There are all those starts, and in a way, when I started to write for The Monthly it was great because it was nonfiction.
I found I could write these paragraphs for these reviews. Right from the first review, when I sat down and wrote the very first review on Antony and the Johnsons album, I found that I could write paragraphs and live with them the next day, and keep on writing, and then live with what I wrote the next day, which is something I could never do with anything else I ever wrote in terms of fiction and short stories.
So there is a real freedom in that, then?
There is, and amazingly enough, I’ve always been – I was blind to it, but I’ve always been a non-fiction reader. Whenever I come to a book shop, it’s biography, history; I’ll read anything. Some of my favorite books are just off-beat; Sammy Davis Jr.’s first autobiography, Gloria Swanson’s autobiography, Swanson on Swanson. This sort of stuff, I’ll read. I lent you a book on Willem de Kooning, which you gave back to me…
I didn’t read it.
You looked at the pictures.
I didn’t even look at the pictures. It was a door stop.
You sat on it maybe as a cushion? [laughs] I’ll read a really thick book on Willem de Kooning, that’s got really good reviews. I’ll read that, and I have a passing interest in his art, but I love the story and things will come out to me that will be a lot like de Kooning, one of the great 20th Century artists; he didn’t have his first solo show until he was 45. I found that amazing. I found that enriching, and a great fact to know. I’ve always been a biography reader so it’s really no surprise that I enjoy dealing in facts with a little bit of imagination as opposed to, you know, “Cecilia Page lived down at Redcliffe Pier and had 15 children…”. I don’t just leap off into a story. It seems beyond me.
The biography thing, one thing I particularly like in the book is the Normie Rowe piece, which is one of two pieces of fiction in the book. The other piece of fiction is quite light, and almost a little folly, or something. I feel like the Normie Rowe thing I really quite substantial in some ways, yet at the same time, it’s almost a mock-autobiography or something. Is that something that you think you would pursue more?
I do, I can imagine writing an ‘I’ – first person biography – that you would think would be my life, but would be entirely someone else’s life. I like playing with that idea. I’ve got another one that is similar to “The Coronation of Normie Rowe”, which is in the book, called “Art World”, which places me as an artist in New York. And I know Robert Hughes, and I’m painting people up on the Upper West Side, and I have nothing to do with the downtown art scene. I started [writing] this, and it has nothing to do with my life, but I do all of this and I’m hanging out with people, and they’re real names, so that it feels real and that it’s historically correct, but the whole thing is a pretense. And I like that.
I like that too. I’d read that, unlike that Willem de Kooning book! That’s great. There was something else I was thinking. It’s a bit like a song, in a way.
It is. With my songwriting, it stays quite close to what I do. I don’t have any songs like ‘Eleanor Rigby‘. There isn’t anything like that in anything other than my back catalogue. There is nothing. I have to be careful with this because I’m scared that I’m just throwing my life at people all the time, so I try and disguise it and play with a little bit so it’s not just one long 30-year confessional. I try to play with it. I don’t really do leaps off into characters.
One of the pieces that was in The Monthly, reasonably recently, was a review of the two David McComb books. Would you like to talk about him, and those for a minute? That was a beautiful piece. I really liked that.
David McComb from The Triffids[pictured right]. Amazingly enough, they were one band that Grant and I, in the late ‘70s, we didn’t feel like there was any other band in Australia that was really close. We read about in Ram Magazine or something – this is 1979 or 1980 – about this band over in Perth who were into The Velvet Underground and Dylan, and also Talking Heads and Television, and Grant and I went “okay!” This is years before we met them. We had a feeling about the band before we starting playing shows with them.
We played a lot of shows in Australia with The Triffids when they lived in Sydney in the early ‘80s. I wasn’t really all that close to David. I played tennis with his brother Robert, and that’s a strange way. I guess it’s history now, but you play tennis with Robert McComb, the brother, and I was a lot closer to him than I was to David, although David was the other songwriter in a band like myself.
Yeah, not particularly easy to know, either. He was a little aloof.
Yeah, he was, but I liked David a great deal. There’s a book about David McComb called Vagabond Holes, and I write a remembrance of it. It’s based on three songs. I once ran into David on the streets of Darlinghurst in 1983, ’84. The Triffids had just put out a record, I think it was an EP, and it had a song called “Red Pony” on it, which I loved. When I ran into David, it was very early in Darlinghurst Streets. I’ll play “Darlinghurst Nights” next.
I ran into David on the street at about 8:00 in the morning and I said to him how much I liked “Red Pony”, if he’d show it to me on guitar. I was at a house about two days later and he knocked on the door and he had a guitar. He played me the song and it was a beautiful moment that he just remembered, and he came around, and he found out where I was, and he played me this song.
There was a drunken party about three years later in London. It was a drunken party and I was drunk, and I went up to David and they’d just put out ‘Born Sandy Devotional‘ and I said, “I really love ‘Wide Open Road’. Would you play it to me sometime? He said, “Now!”. We walked into a bedroom, this crazy ‘Australians in London’ party, and he just sat on the bed and I sort of crouched down and he played me ‘Wide Open Road’ on a guitar. Then it was like, “Okay, we can go back to the party.” I was just watching his hands. I can’t play it now, but it was these big strummy chords.
And the third song is in 1995 or 1996 I was playing down in the Continental Café, which is a venue down in Melbourne. He was DJing that night and I was playing acoustically by myself. I knew David was DJing on that night, and just before I went on he played this song called “Mississippi” which is off an album and he and I both loved. It’s by John Phillips from the Mamas & The Papas, who put out a great solo album called “Wolf King of L.A.”, which he wrote a biography many years later which he devoted half a page to this record. It’s a fantastic solo record. I love the record and so does David. We used to talk about it. He played a song from it just before I went on stage, which was a really lovely “hello”.
That night, after the end of that show, ’95-’96, I was staying at a hotel in town and he and his girlfriend drove me into town because I was going to get a taxi and he and his girlfriend said, “No, we’ll drive you into town.” We went into the city and I got out of the car to say goodbye and said I’d take my bags, thanks for driving me into town. I walked around the back of the car, and I got my guitar – this guitar, actually – and my bag out, and David was standing there. I said, “Thank you for dropping me off, thanks for DJing, thanks for playing ‘Mississippi’” and he got in the car, and that was the last time I ever saw him. He died about three years later, but he was great.
John: Maybe I should open it up a bit and invite questions. I’ve talked enough. Would anybody like to ask Robert a question?
Audience: My name is Jenny Watson, and I did the album art for [The Go-Betweens album] ‘Send Me A Lullaby’ [pictured left]. Robert, I want to ask a question about when you walked into my flat and saw those small canvas paintings, and I’d only had five exhibitions and you said, “You’re doing our next album cover”. Are you usually that decisive in your business dealings? Because you were more decisive than any top-notch art dealer, I can tell you!
Thank you, Jenny. I try and follow my instincts. That has got me into trouble at times.
John: Are you impetuous?
Not impetuous, but it’s like the idea of Brisbane is LA 1965, 1966; how far do you take that?
John: All the way, baby!
Oh well, it can get you into trouble and you can find that you’re trying to do something that the rest of the world doesn’t understand, which could be difficult. No, I try and – also the other thing is when I see great work before me, I always hope that I recognise it. I did on that circumstance, and I try and do that whenever I can.
John: It’s a big thing, isn’t it, Jenny, having some of your work put on somebody’s album cover and spread around the world.
Jenny: It was fantastic. It was in a book called ‘The Best 500 Record Covers in Rock and Roll’. Thanks for the publicity!
John: Anybody else have a comment, statement, or a question?
Audience: I’m really interested in the fact that the writing in this book is so beautiful. Just if you pick it up and read the first essay, you’ll realise that you’re in the hands of a master writer here. Stuart Glover, who is head of creating writing at the University of Queensland, said exactly the same thing. I wonder when you said that you will read any non-fiction; do you have non-fiction work that you won’t read? Do you have a filter where you say the writing has to be of great quality, or is it just the subject for you?
No, there has to be quality with it. A great biography writer is someone like Richard Elman, who wrote a very good book on Oscar Wilde, and James Joyce. He’s one of the masters. John Richardson, at the moment, is writing a great biography. It’s his third volume on the life of Picasso. They’re fantastic books. There has to be a certain standard to keep me there, but I think it can also go – and something that I’ve always been interested in, is going-high brow and low-brow. It’s not indiscriminate taste, but I see value broadly, but there is a limit. I do have an autobiography of Shaun Cassidy, which I bought at an art shop, which I refuse to read. This was published in the mid ‘70s. I don’t touch it.
What about the Dylan book? That’s an interesting autobiography, isn’t it?
‘Chronicles‘? Yeah, I leapt on that, and that is a great book. In a rough way, I template if and when I write something that’s biographical about myself; that would be a book that I would always have in mind. I think Dylan’s done an astounding job on that book.
There is something surprising about it, in that style.
Would you like to be that unpredictable, I suppose, or it’s not impetuous.
No, I think if I did write – I wouldn’t write my autobiography, I don’t think, but if I wrote something biographical I think I would have to, in a way, break the mold or play with the form the same way I have done with The Monthly, the same way I have with that song I just played, “Darlinghurst Nights”, which doesn’t really conform to many rules as a song. It’s melodic and has a sense of poetry and information giving about it, which are all important to me, but if I did write something like that, then I would like to certainly play with the form. It’s not going to start, “It was a blue day in Brisbane in the 29th of June, 1957 when Robert Forster came into the world.” I can’t do that.
I’d buy that. Do you ever feel like you have nothing to say? Sometimes, do you ever feel, “I have nothing to say”?
No, unfortunately I don’t find myself in that position.
John: That was very quick. [laughs] Anybody else out there have a question?
Audience: On ‘Darlinghurst Nights’, I want to thank you, because that’s such an evocative song. Thank you for playing it. As a long-term resident of Darlinghurst in those years, I saw the Go-Betweens play their first show there in 1980, at the Paris Theatre, where Grant played with his back to the audience most of the night.
Really? See, this was the first show that the Go-Betweens ever played in Sydney at the Paris Theatre in 1980. The Paris Theatre has now been demolished. The bill for this night was The Go-Betweens on first, the Laughing Clowns on second, and The Birthday Party on third. It was a great bill. We’d actually headed down by train – Lindy [Morrison], Grant [McLennan], myself – and we went to the back of the Paris Theatre. We didn’t know anyone and we sat in the stalls in the darkness and watched the Birthday Party and the Laughing Clowns[half of the band pictured right] sound check.
We were completely spooked. We just wanted to crawl out of that theatre and get back on the train and come back to Brisbane. We stayed and played, but I did a signing yesterday in Newtown and I met someone else – the first time, in almost 30 years, I met someone that was at that show. That’s the first time in 30 years, and now you’re the second. That’s amazing.
John: I’m surprised you remembered.
Was there a question? I’m sorry, I’ve just taken off.
Audience: I’m glad to hear that. I’ve just wondered if you’d been to Darlinghurst in recent years, and what it evokes today when you go there?
I have been. It’s quite different because in the early ‘80s, the roads coming up on the hill, like Taylor Square, a street going down to Williams Street. Crown Street had one-way traffic that was like a blitz going through all hours of the day. There is a lot more traffic, life, and noise in Darlinghurst. I’ve been there 5 years ago and it was very quiet. Is it better or worse? I don’t know, but it was the early ‘80s when we were there. It was very active, and there were a lot of people that I knew living around that area.
Audience:Two weeks ago I walked from Central up through to Taylor Square, through all these old streets and lanes that I used to walk through. It’s very quiet now. It’s quite dull, really.
It is. There used to be “No-Names”, the restaurant, but it used to be the place outside The Cross in Sydney where you could get a coffee. Reggio…?
They used to sell very, very strong coffee there that would keep you up for about three days. A lot of people create a lot of work on this; it was high-octane coffee. It was like one or two cups of this stuff and you’d honestly be chain smoking ten cigarettes and you’d be up for about three days.
John: Babbling in Italian.
Ed Kuepper used to drink a lot of those! A lot of Laughing Clowns material was written on this coffee that Ed was drinking down there.
John:I gave up alcohol and drugs at one point, and the thing that I survived on for the next few years was ‘duplos’, like double, short, blacks from Darlinghurst. I didn’t mean to say that thing about the, you know, with the ‘D’… Has anybody else got any questions they might like to ask?
We’ll make this the last question.
Audience:It’s kind of two questions. Is there something you won’t review, and also how did you make the selection for what when into this book?
There are things I won’t review. I was very wary of Australian artists for the first two or three years when I was reviewing for The Monthly. I was almost scared. If you look at the reviews that I did in The Monthly for the first couple of years, a lot of it is overseas. It’s almost like I was careful and as I said before, I didn’t want to come in with this ‘boots ‘n’ all’ attitude.
I feel a lot more comfortable with it now, like this year I wrote a big review on Paul Kelly’s double CD about his career, which I would have never done the first two years. I wouldn’t have had the confidence. It was quite natural. I saw the record in Rockinghorse, on the wall, and I went, “I can do that,” which I wouldn’t have been able to do before. There are certain areas I don’t go within Australian music because I know the people and I don’t really want to go there. What’s the second part of the question?
Audience:How did you make the decision for what when into the book?
Some of the things I left out were the reviews I wrote in the first year. I re-read them and I think I started settling into a rhythm about eight months in, where I thought I was writing well. I started to keep them. There is not much from the first eight months. I dropped quite a few things. I think also, at that stage, when I started writing for The Monthly in April 2005, The Go-Betweens were just putting out ‘Oceans Apart‘ which would be the last album. The Franz Ferdinand piece, I remember I wrote a lot of it in a hotel in Madrid, a day off. I had to send it back to Melbourne.
I dropped the Bill Callahan one, which is all over the place. It’s about a Smog album. Right now, it takes me two weeks to write them. I don’t know how I did this, but I wrote the complete Smog review in a hotel in Canberra, and we were playing that night. I wrote the whole thing; woke up, knew I had to do it, spent the whole day in a motor inn, in Canberra in my pajamas, and just had people delivering coffee. I knew I had to be at the sound check at 4:30pm. I got out of bed around 9am. I listened to the record quite a few times and I just wrote the whole day.
I think William Holden could play you in a movie!
There’d have to be a couple of whiskey bottles then, I think. But no, I left that out [of the book]. To me, when I read it again, it read like it was written in pajamas on a lot of coffee, in a Canberra motor inn, in one day. I just thought “no, that can’t go in”. I think after the first 8 months, I think I’m a lot more consistent. There are a couple of pieces that I left out after, where I just failed.
The other thing that I have to admit is I started this at 48. I wrote a piece on Lucinda Williams’ ‘West’ album about two years ago. I just didn’t get it. It was messy when I handed it in, and I just failed. That happened one other time as well. I’m not a journalist that’s had 15 years experience, done university, worked at The Courier-Mail, worked at Sydney Morning Herald, done stuff overseas. I’m not that journalist. I’m still failing. I’m still messy, and I still miss what I’m trying to get at, every now and again.
You’re getting better.
I am getting better, but it’s still scary. Month by month.
Thank you very much, Robert Forster.
Thank you. Thank you for coming along. I appreciate it. John Wilsteed, everyone!
Fiona: Robert, Avid Reader would really like to thank you because you had a sell-out session last week, and because of the sell-out you agreed to a second session. You’ve had 200 people in Avid Reader listen to you, which has never happened in the history of Avid before. Thank you so much for your generosity.
Thank you for coming along!
More on Avid Reader at their website; more on Robert Forster at his.