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Wednesday, June 18, 2003

The Go-Betweens, take two


Special to The Japan Times

In pop music, what usually works the best is the thing that sounds as if it took the least effort. Twenty-five years after Grant McLennan and Robert Forster joined forces in Brisbane, Australia, and called themselves The Go-Betweens, and three years into a reunion gambit that follows a decade working solo, the pair seems very comfortable with the reduced expectations of a second-act career (not that the product itself is in any way reduced).

News photo
Robert Forster (foreground) and Grant McLennan of The Go-Betweens

One has to think really hard to come up with the name of an artist who can lay claim to eight albums of original material with nary a dud among them. The secret of The Go-Betweens, in fact, may not be reduced expectations, but rather not living up to expectations at all. In "Too Much of One Thing" from the Go-Betweens' latest album, "Bright Yellow Bright Orange," Forster puts it this way: "You might think you see purpose, when what you're seeing is a band."

A band is exactly what the crowd at Shibuya Club Quattro on June 9 heard, though what they came to see was The Go-Betweens' long-overdue concert debut in Japan. Befitting a group that was once considered the ultimate cult band of the '80s, the audience was relatively small but very intense, mouthing the words to all the songs and bringing the quartet back for three sets of encores. For its part, the band was remarkably relaxed, like they were playing for friends in their living room. As spectacle, it provided the perfect opportunity to study the two partners in contrast: McLennan (compact, effusive, abstract) vs. Forster (tall, laconic, dry).

The next morning, the contrasts are even more apparent as the two sit in a Shibuya coffee shop with Takaaki Kato, a young Japanese man who, practically by himself, has released "Bright Yellow Bright Orange" in Japan. He says he's loved The Go-Betweens since 1986, so the band's two-city Japan tour, which he set up, can be seen as the culmination of a life's work (so far).

Such are the rewards of fandom, but at the moment he's busy helping Forster communicate with the waitress. His longish graying hair impeccably tousled, Forster is being very polite and patient. McLennan, his shaved head practically encased in a pair of enormous sunglasses, has already ordered a plate of ice cream. He says he was in the middle of a dream when he was awoken a half hour earlier in his hotel room.

"I was talking to Bob Dylan," he says. "He was little. I actually had to bend down, like talking to a child. And he had a hood over his head." Forster may or may not be listening to this. "Did you know that Bob Dylan's girlfriend was Japanese?" McLennan asks his partner. No answer, which seems to indicate that none was expected.

McLennan's tone is irreverent, but affectionate. In other words, he sounds like a fan, which is what the two men started out as: fans of movie stars, of Bowie and Television, of good literature. Stimulation was almost exclusively late '60s, early '70s AM radio, influences that can be heard in the classic structures of their songs. But their environment did not encourage creativity, and they knew it. They recorded their debut album in Brisbane in 1981 with drummer Lindy Morrison and, encouraged by favorable notices from overseas, packed up and moved to England.

"At the time we moved to London [in 1982] no one in Australia was willing to give us the money to make an album," says Forster. "Rough Trade in England offered us that opportunity. And it was romantic, in a way, but it's something that bands only do when they're either very young or very wealthy."

"At the time Australia was very square," adds McLennan. "It was difficult for bands to get noticed. We were young and mobile. We didn't have any baggage. That, of course, changes over time, but it's something we had to do. Otherwise, we wouldn't have amounted to anything."

The Go-Betweens became the ultimate expat band. Of their eight albums, only three were recorded in Australia: the two records that bookend the first phase of their career, which ended in 1990, and "Bright Yellow Bright Orange," which their Japanese record company, at least, is promoting as The Go-Betweens' comeback album. McLennan returned permanently to Australia in 1994, but Forster didn't move back until 2001, when he and his family settled in Brisbane.

This wanderlust does not necessarily explain their ability to remain fresh as songwriters, but it is rather indicative of a sensibility that makes freshness second nature. They've heard this before, and seem to understand where they stand in relation to other songwriters who are often accused of playing the same three songs. "You're not talking about Lou Reed, are you?" McLennan says mischievously as he finishes his ice cream.

"I think it's easy for songwriters to exhaust themselves," observes Forster. "Think of somebody like John Sebastian of The Lovin' Spoonful. He wrote 15 amazing songs from 1965 to 1968, and then he just stopped."

McLennan theorizes that The Go-Betweens' famous lack of financial success has actually been a central factor in their artistic vitality. "We've never been in a position where we sold 10 million albums and were then forced to sell 10 million more. If you're constantly excited by new things, which both of us are, there's always new melodies, new ideas. I've seen too many people fall into the Van Morrison mode: Van picks up the sax whenever he needs to be different."

"I think 'fresh' is a good word for what Grant and I do," says Forster. "We consciously try to put ourselves in situations where we aren't in danger of becoming stale. We're now working with younger musicians [Adele Pickvance on bass and Glenn Thompson on drums] who don't just stand there and say, 'Whatever you want to do, we'll play.' We'd never, for example, fall into that roots trap, covering Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. That's Ryan Adams."

"We don't want to make a blues album or a jazz album or a country album," says McLennan, elaborating. "That sort of stylistic thing doesn't interest us."

It's pointed out that Forster once recorded a solo album in a country vein. "Well, I was actually living in the country at the time," he says, in a mock defensive tone. "In Germany."

Does that mean working together guarantees freshness? While they share credit for all The Go-Betweens songs, each writes his own. McLennan's have always been the picks-to-click, the love songs that sounded like surefire singles; while Forster's were the arty rock ditties about prosaic activities and literary figures. And yet a shared fondness for the rhythm of a strummed acoustic guitar, discordant single-line guitar solos, and choruses that jackknife in peculiar and irresistible ways gives them a distinctive sound that isn't as apparent in their solo work.

"There is a level of collaboration," Forster says. "But it's not like a two-people-at-the-piano type of thing. Actually, there is one song on the new album where Grant's written the music and I've written the lyric." That song, appropriately enough, is "Too Much of One Thing," which is also the only song in their repertoire on which they share the lead vocals equally.

"We do edit each other a little bit," says McLennan, "There's always suggestions, especially in terms of arrangements, but I don't think I've ever said, 'That's a bad song.' "

"But, actually, in 'Too Much,' you told me that I should lose one of the verses," Forster says. "So you could say he edited that."

"That's just because I didn't want to sing for seven minutes," McLennan says.

"Come to think of it, somebody should edit Bob Dylan," Forster says. "Occasionally."



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