Current Issue #488

Robert Forster on Inferno, geography and the merits of Instagram

Robert Forster on Inferno, geography and the merits of Instagram

The Go-Betweens songwriter returns to Adelaide with a punchy new album and a deep appreciation for the privilege of reaching legacy artist status.

“Oh my god it’s changed; I’ve gone from The Go-Betweens playing at strip clubs to playing at the Adelaide Festival,” Forster says of his history with Adelaide, which ranges from mid-80s shows at The Tivoli to performing in Eric Mingus’ 2015 jazz reinvention of The Who’s Tommy. “Being there for the Tommy production I was there for about a week or 10 days, and I got to know more of the city – and a little bit better, because it’s always been in and out.”

It has, however, been some years since Forster toured a new album to South Australia. With the release of March’s Inferno Forster finds himself with a record that sounds quite of the moment, thanks in part to the influence of The Go-Betweens on a wave of younger Australian artists.

“I’m not someone who really goes into a whole variety of styles; the biggest changes between my records are often who I’m doing them with, where I’m doing them,” Forster says of Inferno. “The songs and my musical world remain fairly consistent, I think. It’s more the position I put myself in, and this time I wanted to go to Berlin. I wanted to take the songs out of Brisbane and have a richer, bigger sound.”

The Go-Betweens sit alongside more colourful attractions at The Tivoli Hotel (Photo: Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources)

Forster can take the songs out of Brisbane, but life on Australia’s east coast continues to make its presence felt on tracks like Inferno (Brisbane In Summer), or the Byron Bay and Noosa-referencing Life Turns A Page. “I wrote all the songs here; I don’t think consciously about trying to put place into my work, it just happens naturally which I think is the best way.”

Just as The Go-Betweens’ chapter-closing classic 16 Lovers Lane bore the clear influence of late-80s Sydney, Forster’s writing continues to exhibit an evocative, almost subconscious knack for place setting. “To me, making an album is similar to being a filmmaker,” he says. “I’m going to go out to the desert, or go to that city because it gives me something. To me I think every city would put up a different type of album for me in a subtle way – location is very important.

“Often the most obvious things to overlook is your present situation; it would be easy for me to be writing about you know, Route 66 in America or a bay in Jamaica when I want to make a water or road reference. You can reach for the rock lexicon and suddenly you’re in Tallahassee or something. You just have to be aware that no, I can do all of that and it’s right here in my backyard, and it has far more meaning to me. And far more meaning to people listening to it, if you’re writing about things that are real in your life. As an artist you can forget that.”

This, Forster reckons, goes some way to explaining how a band as distinctively Australian as The Go-Betweens managed to resonate deeply with audiences overseas. “People in Australia miss that,” he says. “When I’m in Europe this is what people talk about, journalists, reviewers or just talking to people after the shows. This is what resonates for them, this is what they find fascinating.”

With an insightful memoir published in 2016’s Grant & I, followed by Kriv Stenders’ Go-Betweens documentary Right Here in 2017, Forster now finds himself enjoying the life of a legacy artist. While many artists’ social media presences show a degree of artifice or separation, Forster’s combines poignant reflections from four decades in the music industry with the distinctive, disarming style of a dad on Facebook. His periodic posts are long, matter-of-fact dispatches that detail the challenges, validations (“Thank you to the 443 people who came last night,” he wrote in July) and excitement of life as an artist in the mid-afternoon of their career.

“I like it! I’m about to probably post in the next couple of days?” he says of being online. “I really enjoy it, and I see it as a way for people to see the thinking process of why I do things and where I’m going and how I’m feeling about the shows and touring. I find that interesting, and I read everything that’s written to me. It makes people understand certain decisions that I’ve made, and I find it… really good.

“It’s been suggested to me that I go on Instagram… I don’t know, that almost seems like… what do you think?”

I point to a recent post of Forster kneeling by John Keats’ grave in Rome, accompanied by the caption “I am reluctant to post photographs of myself anywhere”.  A photo-sharing platform, perhaps, might not be the medium for him.


“See that’s what I think – it’s a slippery slope and before you know it, you’re photographing your breakfast. It feels good at the moment. I enjoy talking to people who come to show – like every artist I’m selling records at shows, and what people say to you and the feedback you get after they’ve seen you play is amazing.”

In a recent post marking his 62nd birthday, Forster shared the observation that people have started to tell him to “keep on doing what you do” after shows. “It’s amazing; it’s almost been a new development since I did Songs To Play,” he says. “This four-year gap has tipped me into a new position – it was said in Stockholm, then Munich, then Manchester and Brisbane and Melbourne. It’s almost like a confirmation to me of what I’m doing, and what I’ve got to do.

“I find it very… it’s just a lovely thing that people say. I just tell them that that’s what I’m going to do – and a part of me is just punching the air when they say it. It’s good advice!”

Robert Forster
The Gov
Wednesday 25 September

Header image:
Bleddyn Butcher

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